After seven years of researching my book Sacred Medicine, I’m spending the month of December in Thailand as the last pilgrimage of my nearly decade long exploration of the intersection of consciousness, science, and healing. I still have more time here, but so far, Thailand has been less fruitful to my education than other pilgrimages, given that modernization and globalization have taken a strong hold here, with very few indigenous Thai healers surviving the transition into modern life. When I ask Thai people to share their views about healing, they are very pragmatic. “If your body hurts, get Thai massage. If your heart hurts or your soul sick, go to temple and talk to monk. If your body breaks, go see doctor so they put you back together.”
The Cartesian split of body from spirit/mind has infected Thailand too, and such ailments are largely treated separately. This morning, my Thai driver was hit by a car when she was on her motorbike, and when injured, she did not call a Hmong shaman from one of the hill tribes, nor did she visit a temple to talk to a monk about her brush with death or whatever karma might have predisposed her to being hit by a car. As most Americans would do, she made a STAT visit to the hospital where she received emergency medical attention for acute wounds. Most of the healers I met in Thailand were expatriated North Americans or Europeans. The people of the hill tribes, where indigenous medicine was once primary, largely exploited now as destinations for tourists who pose for selfies with villagers, such as the Karen tribes with their mutilated long-necked necklace women or the Hmong with their colorful handmade costumes. Perhaps indigenous healing still takes place among these villages, but if so, I couldn’t manage to get close to it with the Thai people who tried to help me. Most of the Thai people didn’t seem to understand why I would want anything but a Western-style doctor if my body were to ever get sick. Nevertheless, I did learn a thing or two during my month in this beautiful Asian country.
Thai Medicine & Spirituality
What I did learn was that frequent Thai massages have left my body feeling enlivened and helped some of my own psycho-spiritual-somatic traumas move through and leave my body, leaving me feeling physically looser and emotionally freer than I’ve felt in a long time. I also learned that it’s good preventive medicine to engage in daily temple visits and early morning alms with the monks, which included feeding breakfast to the Buddhist monks, who then chant over you and offer you blessings for the day. I felt grateful to have the chance to sit in meditation in the back of the temples when the monks did their morning chanting, allowing me to start my days with a different kind of spiritual medicine than my usual solitary meditation or yoga practice, one that made me feel part of something larger than myself, something community-oriented rather than individualized “self care.” The health benefits of meditation are unquestionable and entirely scientific at this point, and meditation is a huge part of Thai life and the Buddhist religion in general, so this is certainly an enormous part of Thai mind-body-spirit medicine. Like many of the Sacred Medicines I have studied, this aspect of Thai medicine is built into the culture, so it’s not something you do because you’re sick. It’s something you just do, and this serves to reduce stress responses, offer the nervous system more capacity to deal in a healthy way with life’s inevitable traumas, and make the body’s system more susceptible to self-healing and resilient to disease. Because meditation quite literally rewires the brain, which changes the body at the cellular level, meditation is good medicine, whether you practice it for religious reasons or secular ones. My month in Thailand included a lot of meditation, not because I carved time out of my busy everyday life to prioritize it but because it’s literally part of any study of Sacred Medicine in this country. Quieting the mind—whether you do it in the temples, in the many National Parks I visited, during Thai massage, or in the backs of the red trucks that cart you around town—should be part of any healing journey, whether you’re in recovery from illness, injury, or trauma. Although various forms of meditation are part of my daily routine, I found it easier than normal to meditate when entrained by a field of monks who have devoted their 10,000 hours to developing what Dawson Church calls ”bliss brain.” In their presence, you can feel the entrainment of your brain waves into theirs if you’re sensitive to such things. Thai monks are everywhere in Thailand. With over 300,000 monks, many of which are boy children and young men who spend several years as monks before becoming householders, almost in the same way that Mormon children devote two years to their missionary work or Israeli boys devote time to the military, you see monks dressed in the beautiful traditional saffron robes pretty much everywhere you go. Imagine if all of our boys spent time in childhood training as spiritual peace soldiers rather than war-makers! How different would our culture be? To become a monk, you have to join the monastery before you’re twenty, so many start as children, and only a fraction of those make it a lifelong practice. You can definitely feel the difference between the cell-phone carting boy monks who are antsy and restless during meditation and the ones who have put in their 10,000 hours. Even still, it’s precious to see these orange-clad children frolicking in Buddhist temples with the most joyous smiles on their faces! Just that was Sacred Medicine, the medicine of delight. I will cherish and hold dear in my heart the smiles of those children who warmed my heart and the beatific, almost impish grins of the older monks, who seemed to see right through me and somehow love me anyway. This gift of being seen and accepted just as you are was certainly balm for my wounded parts as well.
My Thailand trip also anchored a commonality I’ve experienced in almost every country I visited as part of my Sacred Medicine journey—the practice of making offerings as part of sacred reciprocity. Because there is no “God” in Buddhism in the Judeo-Christian or Muslim form, and because Buddhists don’t worship gods and goddesses like the Hindus or nature spirits like the animists, offerings in Thailand often take the form of practical offerings, like feeding the monks breakfast as a way to earn spiritual merit points or offering money to the temples for their upkeep. But because, like Bali, Thailand was never colonized, settling Buddhist foreigners did not force their religion on the indigenous animists of native Thailand the way Christians did with the Native Americans or South Americans. Instead, animism and Buddhism blended together to create a unique spiritual tradition that retains elements of both. In this way, Thailand is adorned with trees wrapped in colorful fabrics and displaying colorful ribbons from their branches because these “spirit trees” are believed to be sacred and alive, alongside sculptures of Buddha which are worshipped, not in the same way that other religions workshop deities, but as the historical father of Buddhism who achieved the enlightenment many Thai people seek through their meditations and prayers. While some Thai offerings are quite pragmatic, others are more decorative in ways that resemble Balinese or Indian offerings. Marigolds are woven together into necklaces that are placed on Buddhist altars, and lotus flowers are bound with incense sticks and other flowers and held in your hands until they are strewn on the altars as a way to show your devotion as you walk three times in a clockwise fashion around the conical stupas that sit in the center of most Thai temples. I’ll write more about offering practices and sacred reciprocity in my next blog, but suffice it to say that this one practice consistently shows up in every religion, in every healing tradition except conventional medicine, and in pretty much every Sacred Medicine interview I’ve had with masters of healing. Given how ubiquitous it is and how far back this practice dates historically, it’s worth considering as part of your own self-healing practice, so I’ll devote a whole blog to it (and a whole chapter in my Sacred Medicine book). So stay tuned and make sure you’re on my mailing list if you want to make sure you don’t miss it. (Sign up here.)
The Future Of Medicine
While most of the Thai people I met have gone the way of Americans in their split of body treatments and mind/spirit treatments, a hospital in the Central Valley of California offers us a model of what the future of medicine may look like. As reported in this New York Times article, Hmong shamans have been integrated into the hospital system in California’s Central Valley, where a community of Hmong immigrants has sprouted. Rather than fighting the Hmong when they want a shaman involved in their medical care, doctors have opted to collaborate in a culturally sensitive way, joining forces rather than competing. I see this as the future of medicine—where modern medicine is not abandoned in favor of returning to indigenous medicine traditions and discarding all that we’ve learned about life-saving acute trauma care, antibiotics, surgical intervention, cancer treatment, organ transplant, dialysis, cardiac resuscitation, emergency life support, and other death-preventing interventions. Instead, I see doctors getting educated in mind-body techniques, energy medicine, shamanism, faith healing, biofield technologies, and psycho-spiritual trauma healing as medicine for the body so they can collaborate with experts in these effective tools for prevention and treatment of illness, injury, and trauma. I don’t expect doctors to master these Sacred Medicine interventions. To obtain mastery with impeccable ethics requires as much training, experience, discernment, education, spiritual and intellectual discipline, and clinical practice as becoming a master doctor. But I do believe the doctors of the future will need to know when to refer out and how to have healthy respect—even awe—for those with mastery in Sacred Medicine treatment options doctors are not trained to master in medical education. This is part of our mission in the Whole Health Medicine Institute, the consciousness and healing training program I founded for doctors, other health care providers, and now laypeople who are interested in deepening their education, broadening their scope of knowledge, and improving their proficiency in radical remission-inducing mind-body, energy healing, shamanic, trauma healing, and other Sacred Medicine modalities which can be used effectively as adjunctive therapy for people in recovery from illness, injury, or trauma. We’ll be enrolling for the 2020 class of the Whole Health Medicine Institute soon, and this is the first year we’ll be offering both an online-only version of this training, as well as opening it to those who do not hold professional degrees. So if this is right up you’re alley, we’ll be opening enrollment soon. Again, make sure you’re on my mailing list if you don’t want to miss our once a year open enrollment! I’ve learned so much about mind-body medicine through my research for Mind Over Medicine, and now I’ve learned ever so much more in my study of Sacred Medicine, which will be published by Sounds True Fall 2021, but I’m trying to give the students in the Whole Health Medicine Institute priority education to bring them up to date on everything we should have learned in medical training—but don’t. I’m also trying to give those of you in my blog community previews since the book is still so far out. I’ll be writing more about what I’m learning in the months to come, so stay with me. I’m doing all I can to make this wisdom mainstream and integrate it with everything I learned and respect from my conventional medical training as a doctor. I hope it helps! Let me know if it does in the comments below.
Love from the sacred temples of Thailand,
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