By Dr. Geo Poland
(The following paper was presented at the Seminar on Vipassana Meditation held at Dhammagiri in December of 1986. Geo and Cathy Poland are assistant teachers to S. N. Goenka.)
Two thousand years ago, the Romans accepted the reality of mind over matter, and mind over disease. For them, mind and body were not separate parts of the human organism, existing in isolation from each other. In modern times, as a by-product of the scientific understanding of disease, most physicians have come to believe that the mind has no role to play in the treatment of disease but that, rather, all curing of disease can be mediated through chemicals. Paradoxically, however, these same doctors admit that the majority of the patients they treat suffer from some psychosomatic disease. But if psyche can cause illness, can it not also play a significant role in healing as well?
Up until very recently, there has been no evidence of a link between mind and body to account for such a role. But now, the circle may be closing. Several scientific studies have shown how the immune system can be influenced by the mental state of the patient, and thus affect the course of his/ her disease.
One study concerned men who had recently experienced the death of a spouse. The study found that their immune systems' responses were significantly lowered, thus representing an increased risk for certain diseases. Another study done in Chicago found that those individuals who scored highest on a psychological test measuring depression, had approximately double the risk of dying of cancer. Further studies in both animals and humans suggest that stress can cause a drop in the immune system, and that one’s ability to cope with stress may determine how one’s health is affected.
It is easily accepted that if one can find a way to reduce the stress in life, many psychological illnesses may be eliminated. In my own experience as a family doctor, I have seen many cases of patients suffering from psychological problems manifesting as insomnia, anxiety, depression, etc., who were relieved of these symptoms through the practice of Ānāpāna and Vipassanā meditation. As they became better able to cope with the stress of daily life by maintaining a balanced and equanimous mind, their symptoms disappeared. Because the cause of the stress is psychological and the treatment affects the mind, this effect is understandable. Of great interest to me was the following example of one of my patients who suffered from a chronic physical condition. His problem disappeared after beginning the practice ofVipassanā meditation.
The patient, a young civil engineer from Vietnam, came to me complaining of chronic sinusitis. He had great difficulty breathing due to blocked sinuses, and this affected his sleep and his work. He explained that he had undergone numerous operations to try to cure his condition, but to no avail. Each time the problem returned, as bad as before. Trying to discover the cause of this condition, I asked what he had found made the problem worse. (I was looking for some allergic cause which we might try to eliminate.) To my surprise, he replied that he found the condition always got worse when he was exposed to stress at work or at home. From my own experience, I know that Vipassanāmeditation is a very effective way of eliminating stress, and so I strongly recommended that he consider taking a ten-day course of training. He became very interested and registered for an upcoming course in Montreal to be given by Goenkaji. In the meantime, we tried various medications to help control his symptoms.
He completed the ten-day course and returned to his daily routine, meditating regularly. Six months after this first course, his surgeon was astonished to find that his disease had receded significantly in spite of his giving up all medications. One year later, he was declared 90% cured—for no apparent reason, from the surgeon’s point of view. The patient, however, is convinced that Vipassanā was the cure of his illness. I consider it quite reasonable to assume that through the practice of Vipassanā, he was better able to cope with stress, thus enhancing his immune system response, which in turn played a significant role in resolving his physical illness
Of course, the effects of practicing Vipassanā are much more profound than simply curing physical disease; this is just a by-product of the mental purification which takes place. I shall certainly continue to encourage my patients who are so inclined, to participate in courses ofVipassanā, as this technique helps enable them to experience the effect of mind over matter, as well as the peace and well-being which accompany mental purification.
(Courtesy: International Vipassana Newsletter June 1988 issue)