Hello, my name is Conan Milner and this is Words of Wellness. A show where we explore the many dimensions of health, from mind, to body, to spirit.
Mention the word health care and most people think of the symbols of the conventional health care system: things like doctors, hospitals and prescription drugs.
But health care is much more than the mechanizations of modern medicine. Innovations in pharmaceutical technology, vaccination programs, and surgical technique have certainly changed the look and strategy of health care in the modern age. But consider that most of what protects and improves our health, such as the undeniable virtues of diet and exercise, has held strong since antiquity.
For many, the idea that health isn't found in a pill bottle can be a hard pill to swallow. It's because we've been conditioned to believe that only modern medicine, measured by randomized controlled trials and covered by insurance, is legitimate and effective, while everything else consists of outdated notions masquerading as medicine.
And yet for decades, more and more people have been turning toward alternative and even ancient forms of medicine to address their health issues. They gravitate towards things like acupuncture, yoga, herbs, and other treatment options, some of which have been utilized for thousands of years, even though they're often ignored or even ridiculed by the mainstream.
Dr. Muehsam, thanks for joining me today. I wonder if you can start off by talking to me about how you came to explore an unconventional approach to healing. I read that you attended the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, but you decided you didn't want to practice conventional Western medicine. How come?
Dr. Patricia Muehsam: Conan, thank you for having me.
So, yes, how I came to do what I do today. I went to medical school really as a means to an end, I was interested in exploring non-western approaches to health and well being way before medical school. And I was interested in becoming a bridge and a conduit for people through my medical education and through the the credibility that an MD could offer me to expose people to new ways of understanding health and well being and new ways of experiencing health and well being.
I had several formative experiences early on in my life, prior to my medical training, that were fuel for that journey. One of them was an experience I had in my college years, I started having psychic or out of body experiences. They were experiences that were profound and prolonged. I'd had glimpses of these types of experiences earlier on in my childhood, but never long enough to make sense of them. And these experiences were quite incredible. They led me to appreciate that there was a reality greater than our cognition and our five senses that couldn't be explained by our thinking brains are perceived by our five senses. But the world around me didn't understand what I was going through, and I didn't understand that the world around me didn't get it. So I was summarily defined to be crazy. with some sort of psychiatric disorder. Then I experienced the realms of psychiatry and pharmaceuticals, claiming that my experiences were not real and were evidence of a crazy person. I bore witness to how psychiatry dealt with mind and consciousness and those kinds of experiences.
It’s a longer story than I'll go into here. I describe it in the introduction of my book. Before that, when I was in my early teens, my father had a catastrophic stroke at the relatively young age of 49. And that stroke left him hemiplegic and a phasic. What that means is he was partially paralyzed on one side of his body. He had difficulty speaking and finding the words he wanted to say. He was basically told that he was going to be a vegetable for the rest of his life, and that there was no chance of recovery.
The conventional belief is that the brain doesn't regenerate; it's permanently damaged. But over the years, my father actually did improve. He was a very open minded person way beyond his conventional training--he was a physician as well. He went for acupuncture, and had other types of alternative therapies, and he improved. But he never got his speech or his mobility back to normal during those years.
But he certainly defied the conventional belief that he was going to be a vegetable and that the brain doesn't regenerate.
When I was in my fourth year of medical school) I met a remarkable person, what you might consider an eccentric genius. He was a practitioner and a physician scientist who combined qigong with kinesiology and was achieving remarkable, seemingly miraculous cures for people who had neurologic and other disorders.
My father went to see this person and started to undergo his treatment. And within days, my father's speech returned to normal.
Those experiences led me to believe that there is a greater reality beyond cognition and our five senses, and a greater reality that transcends how our brains experience space and time. I came, not just believe, but to know that what Western medicine held true, was actually incorrect. In terms of disease, prognoses, and the potential for healing, I came to understand that healing beyond the bounds of that conventional medical paradigm was absolutely possible. Today, some years later, we're coming to find that this is so. The non-Western, global healing traditions certainly support these notions. But we also have modern science that has come to support the notion that there is the possibility for healing beyond the bounds of the conventional biomedical model.
Conan Milner: I want to get into your psychic experiences later, because this is a fascinating part of the book to me. But first, I want you to address the prevailing notion in modern science that the mind and body are separate entities. For example, if we go to a conventional doctor, he's only really concerned about what physical symptoms and signs your body is exhibiting. What do the tests say? What about your blood work? What does the CT scan reveal? But when it comes to thoughts and feelings, he’s generally not interested.
One of the intriguing statements that you make in your book is that good health has little to do with the body. You say that thoughts and feelings are what actually create our reality. How is this possible? And how do you incorporate the manifestations of the mind into treatment?
Dr. Patricia Muehsam: Indeed, Western medicine and conventional Western science does not accommodate the notion that mind and body are connected. We have specialists for the physical body and we have a specialist for the mind or the psyche, traditionally a psychiatrist or sometimes a psychologist.
But in fact, these beliefs and understandings are incorrect. Mind and body are ineffably linked. Every thought and feeling we have is affecting our physical body. It's even a little contrived to say that every thought and feeling is affecting our body because mind and body are one. And as you know, this is an essential tenet of non-Western global healing traditions.
Chinese medicine understands this, and Ayurvedic medicine understands this. And there is a burgeoning field of science that is coming to support these notions. It is a robust field of good science by good academic scientists and researchers, some of whom are physicians involved in this mind body realm. But the research doesn't trickle down into my profession and we don't read the literature of the disciplines beyond our own.
So how do we use this? And how is it that good health has little to do with the physical body and everything to do with the mind?
Every thought and feeling is affecting our body instantaneously. So the body really follows our thoughts, intentions, and feelings that we're experiencing in the mind. The way we capitalize on and utilize this is to be able to understand the nature of our minds, and then to use tools and practices to find a path to peace. And it's from that place of peace, of equanimity, of calm, that we generate the physiologic state that's required for the body to heal and be well.
So we can start with the mind, but sometimes it's hard to start with the mind. So sometimes we can start with the body as well. There are mind-body healing practices that we can utilize on a very physical level, that can help to harmonize the mind and body to experience a place of peace. And it's from that place of peace of mind that healing happens. If we're not in a place of equanimity of peace, mentally, the body will be in a state of stress and health will not be maintained or achieved.
Conan Milner: Let’s get to know this state of peace a little bit deeper, because this is a big theme in your book. You talk repeatedly about the need for peace and how it helps in healing. Meditators, of course, understand this, but for someone who is unfamiliar with this concept, it can sometimes sound a little corny. You say peace is the primary ingredient in healing. How so?
Dr. Patricia Muehsam: Well, let me offer a little bit of the science of it all. When we meditate, or when we practice belly breathing, for example, when we experience any practices that create calm in the mind, these practices toggle on what's called the parasympathetic nervous system. This is a system that we need to have turned on for rest and rejuvenation to occur, and for repair and healing. We need that parasympathetic nervous system turned on to be able to digest our food and to sleep.
If we need to get ready for sleep but the mind is not calm, our sympathetic nervous system is turned on. That system allows us to be alert, active, and vigilant. Sometimes we need to be alert, active and vigilant. I'm a New York City resident. When I walk my dog along the streets of New York, I need to be alert to other dogs that my dog may not get along with. I have to be alert to the taxi cabs or red light if I'm crossing the street. That’s when we need that sympathetic nervous system turned on. But if that sympathetic nervous system is turned on all the time, which it may often be for many of us when we don’t mean it to be turned on, it creates a state of stress physiologically in in the body.
It does the opposite of what the parasympathetic nervous system does. It increases heart rate and breathing rate. It turns on the stress chemicals in the body, so we can be alert, active, and vigilant, and it inhibits rest, repair, rejuvenation, and healing, it inhibits digestion and sleep, because we can't be digesting or sleeping if we need to be alert, active and vigilant. This is the scientific explanation for why a calm and peaceful mind is necessary for the body to experience optimal health, and for the body to get well if it's not well.
Conan Milner: So peace helps us tap into our restorative resources and fear or negative emotions foster the conditions for disease. Another thing that I got from reading your book is how peace allows us to tune into our deepest needs, and intuit our sense of direction and what we should be doing. This is the kind of guidance that tells us to rest, take a break, or stop eating after you’ve consumed a significant amount of pizza.
Dr. Patricia Muehsam: Indeed, peace of mind does allow us to find that place of connection to our inner wisdom or what we call our intuition. When we can connect to our intuition, when we are calm, clarity and solutions arise. And we can know what to do. Any action that we may need to take is inspired from that clarity and from those solutions. Rather than being fueled by fear, worry, or a sense of I have to do this, or that.
When we're in a state of emotion that's driven by fear or worry, we don't have clear thinking. We don't have access to our inner wisdom. When we don't have access to our intuition, we will be driven by that fear. And often, the outcome is an outcome that perpetuates fear.
Conan Milner: Let's move on to what you discuss in your book as the four primary medicines. These are food, lifestyle, relationships, and purpose. I think most people understand diet and lifestyle and how that can influence our health in a positive way. But these other two medicines that you talk about--relationships and purpose--that really grabbed my attention. Let's start with relationships. Why did you single this out? And how do relationships and a sense of community impact our health?
Dr. Patricia Muehsam: The third of the four primary medicines that I described in the book are community and relationships. So our connection to others--the network we have of support that nourishes us, supports us, and allows us to feel part of something greater than just ourselves. It allows us to feel connected and not in isolation.
There is a body of research supporting this notion as well. When we're connected to others. when we have meaningful connections to others that nurture and support us. these experiences support our health. well being, and healing.
There's a physician by the name of Dean Ornish who did some remarkable pioneering research many years ago--first on coronary artery disease and the effect of lifestyle changes and relationships and community had on individuals who were actually at a state in their disease process where they required medications or surgery. He took a cohort of these individuals, and had them get involved in groups, sharing, talking about feelings, and being part of a community. He also went into very specific diet changes, lifestyle changes, and certain forms of exercise, including yoga.
What he found was the most potent prescription for these individuals (who by the end of the study, were able to reverse or reduce the coronary artery disease without surgery or medication, some completely) was the community of sharing with other people, and to be able to talk about their feelings and feel that they weren't alone. They felt they were part of a larger whole. They saw that other individuals were going through similar or maybe different experiences, but they were able to share with one another. So that community of support is a very powerful healing tool.
Conan Milner: I like that you singled out this particular medicine, community and relationships. Because I don't really think we really see this as an influence on our health on a day to day basis. We know it feels good. We feel better when our relationships are solid, and we have a sense of community. But maybe because a doctor doesn't prescribe it, we don’t think of it as a substantial influence.
Dr. Patricia Muehsam: Yes, for sure, because we don't prescribe it. It's not medication that's written down on a prescription pad. But I will say what Just following up on what you mentioned, if we feel better and feel good in the support and community that we're having, in our connections to other people. That feel good state is a state that supports healing. Feeling good. Feeling peaceful, Feeling free of stress, That is a state that supports healing. And there is, indeed, considerable research that supports the notion that being able to express feelings, being able to talk about emotions with other people, being able to communicate, being able to accept emotions, whatever they are, can lead us to a feel good state, it can release stress from our minds and our bodies. And that experience is actually healing.
In fact, there is another important study I'll share with you that was done more recently on the notion of emotional acceptance of feelings to feel better. This study was done with women with breast cancer who were undergoing treatment. They were divided into two groups. One group was told to do everything they could to fight the disease like it was a bad thing. They had to get it out of their system and fight, fight, fight, fight, fight. It was to be something to not accept or acknowledge and any feelings of discomfort were to be avoided. They were to fight as hard as they could to rid themselves of this issue.
The other group was offered the opportunity to express all the feelings that were coming up around their diagnosis and their treatment, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable those feelings were, whether they were feeling anxious, or fearful or hopeless, are, are in despair or are angry, whatever the feelings were, they're given the opportunity to express those feelings.
The outcome of the study was that women who were given the opportunity to express their feelings, to be aware of them, and then to accept them and express them, those women had improved health outcomes, less symptoms of sickness, and improved findings on various laboratory studies. The take home message was that communicating feelings was a path to well being and improved health.
It's by being with feelings, even difficult ones, we can feel better, and we're turning to what you mentioned about feeling better emotionally. This is a way to well-being. What we resist persists. By being present with that is a way to shift it. And it releases stress in the body. When we hold feelings in, we create stress in the body, and that stress facilitates or aggravates physical disease.
Conan Milner: I'm glad you brought that study, because I think it's important for people to see that there is evidence that challenges this very prevalent idea in cancer treatment, that we have to fight it. We’re all familiar with these warlike words around cancer: that it's a war, there's a battle. It’s very militant, aggressive terminology, and the study you mentioned demonstrates just the opposite.
Dr. Patricia Muehsam: Yes, that is so true. In in my profession, we tend to horriblize dying and death. And in that horriblizing, we create an environment of fear around illness. And as I explained earlier, fear can create stress in the body. And fear can aggravate illness. Fear can facilitate disease.
So, yes, we do create this environment that is hostile to the natural experiences of the human body, and to the natural experiences of life. Illness can be a part of our natural experience of being human as is dying and death. And because we horriblize these experiences, we create that environment of fear. We don't allow people to lean in, as we say, and just to be present with it. It’s by being present with what's coming up for us, that we can shift it. Not by resisting it, not by fearing it, not by fighting it.
Conan Milner: I want to get back to your last medicine: having a sense of purpose. You made me think of it while you were just talking just now. Anyone I've known who is struggling through an illness or other general challenges in life, those people who have a sense of purpose really thrive. It’s the people who are floundering, who have no direction, who just don't know who they are, even if they have seemingly every advantage, that just seem to whither.
Dr. Patricia Muehsam: Yes. I call purpose the fourth medicine. What makes our heart sing, what gives something to wake up for in the morning, and might even keep us up past our bed at bed times? it's our vital force. It’s what we live for, and it is literally a vital force that can keep us going and that facilitates health and well being.
I'll share a personal story. I had a friend named Alex who I write about in the book. He had a very hard early life. He was a Holocaust survivor from Poland. He escaped the Nazi’s but he couldn't accomplish his dream of being a sea captain.
Later in life, he became interested in parapsychology, and exploring the unseen world of phenomena that transcend what I described before: cognition, or thinking beyond our five senses. Alex became a parapsychology researcher, and this was his absolute passion. He was driven and, in fact, he and I collaborated together in some research endeavors and became very good very close friends.
Alex lived to be 112 years old. And he was pretty fit and healthy till nearly the very end where he just started to get sleepy, calm, and then peacefully left his body. But he was working till nearly the very end of his days. His passion, his purpose, was alive and well in him, and it gave him purpose to get up in the morning. And it kept him up past his bedtime.
That's an example of somebody who had a reason to live. Often we hear about people who may pass on after a partner has died, and they may have died of grief, or they may die because there's no longer a reason to live.
So yes, purpose is powerful medicine. And in my work, I help people understand the four primary medicines that you described: food, lifestyle, community, relationships, and purpose. And for someone who may not be connected, or be aware of their purpose or really know what their purpose is, they may be kind of drifting and aimless. I help them find a path to getting clear to discovering what that purpose may be, and to connect with that vital force that sustains them and loves them and keeps them going.
Conan Milner: I want to make a distinction between the kind of transformational medicine that you discuss, and the conventional model of health care that people are familiar with today. What you advocate for calls for self responsibility, but the conventional model really doesn’t. A doctor can assist in your well being. But ultimately, health is something we have to cultivate ourselves.
Dr. Patricia Muehsam: Yes, that is an essential element of my work and my teachings. And I discuss in the book that our absolute and ultimate healer does lie within. We may seek assistance from practitioners, Western or otherwise, but our ultimate director lies within us. In fact, the moment we give our power away to somebody else to make decisions for us, we can weaken that vital force, that ultimate doctor’s ability to guide us, to direct us.
When we are not connected to that inner healer or that doctor that is us, we again, we can weaken our ability to, to to get well and to stay well. Western medicine tends to be a little bit. I don't want to use the word patriarchal, but it's coming to mind. Not just patriarchal, but kind of dictatorial. You go to the doctor, and the doctor tells you what to do. And for some people that may be very, very helpful. But ultimately, we are giving our power away, unless we're completely aligned with what that doctor is suggesting, and that suggestion is in alignment with our own inner wisdom, our own inner guidance.
Conan Milner: I want to make it clear to listeners that you do not reject Western medicine. You say that if people are sick, they still need to go see the doctor and this kind of thing. It’s just that you say the individual has an active role in how their health care manifests. That's the That's the lesson I got.
Dr. Patricia Muehsam: Yes, absolutely. That's an important point that you made. I do not reject Western medicine. In fact, I've been a patient many times over in my life. And I described some of those times in my book. And there is definitely a place for Western medicine. Western medicine has made fabulous advancements in many, many fields. Western medicine sometimes is absolutely necessary. Sometimes we need to suppress or mitigate symptoms, and Western medicine does that very, very well.
So indeed, there is a place for Western medicine. I also say that it does not make so much of a difference what medicine you choose, whether it's Western medicine, alternative medicine or a combination of both. But it’s about how you approach that choice.
Conan Milner: I want to end our discussion by talking about the more spiritual aspects of the things you discuss. You mentioned at the beginning of your psychic experiences when you were young. And there was also the story about your father, who recovered from his stroke through a combination of qigong, and natural remedies. He saw that he was getting better, but then he stepped away from it. And it made me think how a lot of us have a resistance to anything that isn't modern science based medicine.
Can you talk about why you think there's that kind of resistance? And what can be done to help people embrace these notions? I think that all of us have a sense that there is something bigger that we're connected to.
Dr. Patricia Muehsam: Thank you, Conan. Yeah, that's a very good question. First, I need to say, there is a resistance to what appears to be non-science based practices, when in fact, there is a tremendous body of research, peer reviewed, published in academically excellent journals supporting many of these non western modalities. And the problem with it, and I alluded this to earlier, is that those research studies don't get read by physicians. Those research studies don't trickle down into the mainstream media. So the public is not aware of those. The public are consumers of the information that the Western medical media communicate to us. So the Western medical community and the mainstream media are not communicating this research to the general public, so we don't know about it.
One path is really doing your own due diligence to explore the research that’s available. It's just not available to your doctor and available to the general mainstream media. But there's this body of research that is available if you look for it. So to be open to that notion that anything can be studied, no matter how woo woo it sounds. There's an incredible body of research in parapsychology and mind/matter phenomena that's being done by physicists and engineers with degrees and professorships at universities like Princeton, and Stanford.
So this research exists, but we don't have access to it. Within the arena of my profession, it's pretty closed. We're not open to exploring the disciplines of other traditions, and the science of other disciplines beyond our own. So I just ask people to suspend their disbelief and keep an open mind.
And then finally, the most powerful proof is not science or research, but personal experience. So I encourage people who may not have experienced any of these practices that may fall under that guise of non-Western or alternative, to perhaps explore one or more and see what your personal experience is. It's personal experience that changes us. Not cognitive thinking, not understanding, but personal experience. And in fact, it was personal experience that led one of my professors when I was a medical student in medical school to open his lab to me to do all the research I wanted to do with qigong practices and healing. I brought healers into the lab and had them interact with an enzyme system in a test tube some feet away from them. And [the professor] had a personal experience. He actually felt something when he had an interaction with a qigong practitioner. He had a personal experience, and his personal experience changed his mind.
Conan Milner: Seeing is believing
Dr. Patricia Muehsam: Yeah, absolutely.
Conan Milner: Thank you so much, Dr. Muehsam. I really appreciate you opening this door for people to these often misunderstood, but very credible alternatives to healing.
Dr. Patricia Muehsam: Oh, you're welcome Conan, thank you so much for having me. It's really a pleasure to be able to chat about these ideas with you and to be able to put them out there for people to hear.
Conan Milner: And to everyone else, stay well.