“Life is not what it’s supposed to be. It’s what it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference.”
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how Western culture approaches mental and physical healthcare. As far as we’ve come in understanding the human body and human psyche, in many ways I think we’re still lagging behind compared to the way many ancient cultures worked with health.
Before I continue, I want to say that I have the utmost respect for medical professionals. Those I’ve known are very sincere about helping others. But the overall system itself and the training these professionals were given is centered around disease, not health. Even in its “health” initiatives, Western medicine still focuses on disease prevention or minimizing disease, not optimum health.
Compared to ancient cultures I’m familiar with, Western medicine is very reactive rather than proactive. It’s as if Western medicine only springs into action when a problem is identified. It looks for “symptoms” and “warning signs” and treats those things. Unless there is an apparent problem, it pays little attention to maintaining natural health.
In contrast, the ancients knew that symptoms were not the problem itself but simply a signal of some kind of mind-body-spirit imbalance. They worked with that imbalance and approached it holistically, working with all three no matter how the symptom presented itself. So, if someone had a digestive issue, ancient healers would still work with that person on the spiritual and mental/emotional levels for complete healing.
Ancient healers also taught people how to stay in balance as a part of normal living, not just as a response to disease. In the Hawaiian culture for example, people were taught that “being pono” in daily life was normal. Pono doesn’t translate easily into English but it means being in harmony and balance with the world around you and within yourself. It’s that feeling most Westerners only have on really good hair days.
But for ancient Hawaiians, being pono was normal. Being even slightly off-balance (like having a small conflict with a co-worker or feeling ashamed about something) was not normal and needed to be addressed. When they didn’t feel pono, they didn’t just assume that they got up on the wrong side of the bed and ignore the feeling. They stayed aware of even the slightest hint of imbalance.
Ancient Hawaiians paid special attention to messages from the unihipili, or what we call the unconscious mind. They knew that the unihipili had their best interests at heart and that it knows how to support physical and emotional health. So when the unihipili told them they needed to rest, they rested. When it brought up some uncomfortable issue from the past to be dealt with, they dealt with it either through ritual or practices like ho’oponopono.
In contrast, many Westerners treat the unconscious mind abusively. We ask it for more physical energy because we want to work twelve, even fifteen hours a day. We ignore our unihipili’s attempts to surface repressed pain for healing because we don’t want to deal with the discomfort. We thwart the survival instincts of our unconscious by placing ourselves in dangerous or unhealthy environments. And when the unconscious mind attempts to do its job by forcing us to sleep to repair the body, presenting painful issues for resolution, or activating our fear response to keep us from risky actions, often we go to doctors to help us medicate it away.
Another way the ancients were more proactive than Western mental and physical health practitioners are today is in anticipating and addressing life circumstances and events that naturally throw us off-balance.
For example, the ancient Hawaiians recognized the psychological traumas associated with war. When soldiers returned from battle, they were automatically sent to a series of healing centers. One center healed the body, one healed the emotions, another healed the mind, and yet another healed the spiritual body. Knowing that war is a traumatic event for anyone—whether they exhibit symptoms or not— the community de-programmed each warrior before asking him to assimilate back into his village. The Kahuna (healers and teachers) realized that asking soldiers to go home and plant crops after they’d just been sent off to kill people was a challenging transition – and not a transition someone could navigate on their own.
What do we do? When our service men and women come home from war, we wait until a returned soldier reports severe headaches or ringing in the ears to initiate any treatment. We offer them help after they start showing signs of PTSD. If they don’t have obvious symptoms, we send them out on their own to try to figure out how to process what they’ve been through. Some of them figure out how to “cope” and others end up on the street.
Even for veterans of war who show no obvious symptoms, isn’t it obvious that anyone who has gone through that kind of trauma would need some level of physical/emotional/spiritual support and rebalancing?
Think of all the other “natural traumas” we experience: childbirth, loss of a loved one, transitioning from being a child to an adult, dying. Ancient Hawaiians had rituals and practices designed to keep the individual (and those around them) pono during and after those events. They didn’t wait until someone exhibited signs of postpartum depression or severe anxiety or ulcers before taking action. They anticipated that such an event would throw a person off-balance in some form and addressed it before the imbalance became an issue.
In contrast, Western culture assumes that we will figure out a way to cope with those things. We tell each other and ourselves to “buck up” and “get over it and on with it.” This might be a good strategy in some cases, but as author Judith Guest wrote:
We may not be able to shift the focus of the entire medical community from disease to health. However, in our own lives, we have the ability to follow the example of the ancients by paying attention to what our bodies and unconscious minds have to say, being aware of and addressing any imbalance we feel, and by anticipating and addressing the normal life traumas we experience as they appear.
To your TOTAL empowerment!
Byline: Matthew B. James, MA, Ph.D., is President of The Empowerment Partnership. Author of several books, Dr. Matt has trained thousands of students to be totally empowered using Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), Huna, Mental Emotional Release® (MER®) therapy, and Empowerment Fit, a program that incorporates targeted mind/body/spirit practices to create optimal physical fitness and health. Download his free special report, Everything You’ll Ever Need to Know to Achieve Your Goals. To reach Dr. James, please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.