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Strange Millennial Brew

Strange Millennial Brew by Laura Chisholm, M.P.H.

In my darker moments, it has seemed that the impending turn of the millennium represents, for many, an excuse to hoard money and food, and a chance to party really hard.

For the past year, every time I heard the acronym “Y2K” I wanted to howl in disgust. The term smacks of a sort of techno-jargon the world would be better off without. And though I’d be the first to concede that e-mail is a mighty powerful invention, just what are we celebrating, anyway? From my somewhat out-of-the-mainstream perspective, the whole millennium thing has seemed a little confusing. For one thing, the dates are a little off. And I can’t help thinking that if we were commemorating the end of two thousand years since the birth of the Buddha, the party would be long over.

In my darker moments, it has seemed that the impending turn of the millennium represents, for many, an excuse to hoard money and food, and a chance to party really hard. But is this really all that’s going on? Could it be that underneath the hype and predictions of techno-apocalypse, something important is happening? I believe so. In my mind, the millennial shift marks a critical turning point, a dangerous yet beguiling move toward blending and merging of once-distinct cultures, traditions, and technologies. Now that’s something to celebrate—or is it?

Here in the Western world, things have been pretty left-brain ever since Descartes hit the scene. His philosophy’s emphasis on empirical evidence and logic taught us to only believe things we could prove scientifically, and led us to understand the world by breaking things down into the smallest possible pieces and putting them together again. Operating under this reductionistic system of thought, we learned to separate things into neat compartments, and we got down to the serious business of science.

But here at the cusp of the new millennium, things aren’t so simple. The once black-and-white elements of yin and yang are blending to gray. The goddess of merging has awakened; as she steps wild-haired out of her moon lodge, the tremors she causes are mashing the old opposites together into a strange millennial brew. Baby boomers are popping gingko and saw palmetto along with Viagra and Prozac. Women reign in board rooms, men cheer in birthing rooms, and grandmas are sporting new tattoos. This isn’t just another trend. This is a major upheaval.

As a result, wildly disparate elements have been coming together lately in all sorts of odd ways. For instance, while plodding my way along a Himalayan pilgrimage route a few years ago, I realized, much to my chagrin, that I was hardly ever more than a stone’s throw away from a Coke. So much for getting away from it all! I am, however, relieved to note that I’m not the only one who’s noticed the increased intermingling and interdependence of once-separate cultures and economies. The mixed blessings and curses that accompany this trend were portrayed vividly in July 1999’s issue of National Geographic.

One thing the National Geographic article failed to mention was a trend toward blending in the health field, where opposites are coming together to form new hybrids with enormous power for healing. Great urban hospitals, those classically sterile bastions of left-brain linear logic, are in the process of evolving into something rich and strange. First came a dribble of solitary heroic figures like Patch Adams, M.D., a pioneer who dared to dream that humor and medicine could mix. More recently, new arts-in-medicine programs are promising to inject creativity and color into the once-sunless world of mainstream health care. Programs at Boston and San Diego Children’s Hospitals, and the medical centers of Duke and the University of Florida enlist artists, musicians, actors and dancers to make art for and with patients. I’m delighted to report that evidence of this trend is to be found locally, too. OHSU’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital boasts a meditation room, a play garden with interactive sculptures, and artwork in each patient’s room.

High-tech and high-touch avenues to healing are merging online as well. The other day I ran across the American Cancer Society’s new interactive web site, www.cancersurvivorsnetwork.org, and found it an excellent example of how the world wide web is paradoxically using technology to humanize the world of health. Based on the obvious but untraditional premise that group support is vital to the healing process, this project is designed to build an international virtual community of cancer survivors, and brings previously isolated people together from all over the world. Participants can swap stories, access digitally recorded clips of survivors telling their own experiences, and learn about helpful new resources. For many geographically isolated people facing a deadly disease all alone, such services offer potential healing as they create virtual community.

It seems to me that the entire practice of medicine is evolving, integrating the once-disparate philosophies of East and West into a new practice of healing. The writings of many synthesis-minded practitioners—including Rachel Remen, Larry Dossey, Jeanne Achterberg, Mona Lisa Schulz, and Andrew Weil—have begun to weave many once-foreign holistic healing techniques into the fabric of Western science-based medicine. An excellent example of this trend is Carolyn Myss’ deft merging of the ancient Indian chakra system into an orderly charting of the basis for modern-day maladies in her book Anatomy of the Spirit.

I find it very heartening that holism isn’t considered truly wacky any more; although I never thought of myself as mainstream, it’s refreshing when trends move toward you of their own accord. With each passing month, more scientifically-trained health professionals wake up to the benefits of right-brain treatments like acupuncture, therapeutic touch, guided imagery, and intuition-inspired diagnosis. Not long ago, members of the Oregon Athletic Trainers Association became inspired by a talk given by a recent OCOM (Oregon College of Oriental Medicine) graduate who successfully blends athletic training skills with Chinese medical techniques like acupuncture and hot/cold diagnosis. More and more physical and occupational therapists, too, are also recognizing the benefits of holism and energy medicine, and are adding ancient diagnostic and treatment techniques into their rehabilitation repertoires.

Despite all of these benefits, I’ve begun to realize that this hybridization of old and new, of East and West, of high-tech with high-touch, has a major drawback: the potential loss of potency and meaning. Removed from their holistic contexts, healing technologies such as homeopathy and acupuncture risk losing much of their healing power. Holistic treatments are, after all, meant to be prescribed using a complex, individualized, intuitive system of diagnosis. High-touch/high tech web-based community building may be an exciting new trend, but it’s missing a key element: actual human contact. And this danger extends outside of the realm of healing, as well. With the advent of English as the world lingua franca and MTV as the world culture, many of the planet’s more obscure languages and cultures face extinction. In our race to blend old and new, East and West, we have accepted the risk of replacing high culture with a meaningless jumble and becoming a species obsessed with the irrelevant.

With so much change in the air, the question of what to leave intact has become even more important than how to adapt. I do believe that elegant technologies like acupuncture and homeopathy can retain their power in the hands of practitioners who understand and respect the complexity of the healing systems they belong to. Similarly, I feel that we can insure cultural survival by choosing our personal paths carefully, respectfully, and mindfully, and by savoring both the variety of innovation and the richness of the traditions that have carried us into the present. If we are to survive the millennial shift with hearts and souls intact, amidst the distraction and abundance of this age, we must strive to cultivate respect for the most meaningful aspects of our personal lives.

Knowing what sacrifices the future may bring, I am full of trepidation. But because I am also full of hope, I wish to ask a hopeful favor. How ever and whenever you choose to celebrate the turn of the millennium, please ask of yourself what you find most important, and act in some meaningful way to preserve it. I pledge to do the same, for there are many things I find more worthy of celebration than the latest techno-gadgetry. Although I’m glad to have e-mail, I don’t plan to celebrate it. I plan to take time to remember the precious details that have blended to make my existence unique. So here’s to you, harvest moon, souls of my loved ones, rich smell of spring earth, and long-echoing whale song! Many happy returns…

Laura Chisholm is a Portland-based freelance writer specializing in topics related to holistic health, alternative/complementary medicine, and women’s health. She welcomes your comments, constructive criticisms, and ideas about the challenge of the new millennium.

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