Self-care and self-cultivation

Thuli Whitehouse, GP; BHMA trustee

Published in JHH13.2 – Nutrition and Lifestyle

Before starting medical school I suspected that not all the answers lay on the path I was embarking on, but that I needed to understand what we were doing before I could work out how to change it. These days, alongside my work as a GP, I am a trustee of the British Holistic Medical Association and I teach yoga – running retreats guiding people to reconnect. This article is modified from an essay I wrote as a student of medical anthropology and lays out the theoretical framework of why and how I believe change needs to happen. It is something we must both do as doctors and enable in our patients.

In Western civilisation the person has become an amalgamation of often contradictory facts, an entity divided up by specialists into sections (Dumit 1997). We live compartmentalised lives, each person adopting multiple identities to fit the multiple roles in the multiple sub-cultures we are part of (Mellor and Shilling 1997). This fragmented split off identity and loss of any sense of community may be at the heart of the problems now facing biomedicine and society. For medical science has become part of the problem in that it disconnects people from their bodies, breaking them down into parts, and objectifying illness through imaging and tests.

Somehow we as doctors have to combat this sense of disparity and body alienation and begin our own process of change. If, as the phenomenologists tell us, embodiment is the foundation of the self and that healing is a process of embodied change, then our task must be to begin re-embodying our patients and ourselves. Through a process of self-knowledge, self-care and self[1]cultivation we must come into the present moment, into our lived rather than our objectified bodies.

Medicine today and the Socratic imperative

The march of scientific progress continues with an ever-increasing complexity of medical technologies and an ever-expanding body of evidence based medicine. Despite its successes however, modern medicine is facing problems. Litigation rates are on the rise along with complaints about how the ‘human’ aspect has disappeared from medicine; there is poor compliance with treatment and health promotion advice as trust in doctors declines in an increasingly pressurised environment, where we have less and less time to spend with each patient for meaningful communication or to build a relationship. System specialisation might improve industrial efficiency but it compromises continuity of care; patients are ‘categorised according to body parts… ‘a cardiac patient’, ‘psychological problems’. (Whitehouse 2005).

In this climate the pursuit of self-care as an essential dimension of medicine might appear to be idealistic. Yet it could actually be the key to solving many of these challenges. Let’s explore.

In our society, as Foucault describes it, the quest for ‘truth’ is paramount. But ‘truth’ in our society (and perhaps particularly so in medicine) is something only science is allowed to decide. So medicine’s understanding of the causes and meaning of illness is seen only through the lens of rationality and reason. But, Foucault confronts us with the question:

‘…Why are we concerned with truth more so than with the self? And why do we care for ourselves only through the care for truth? I think we are touching on a question which is very fundamental and which is, I would say, the question of the Western world. What causes all Western culture to begin to turn around this obligation of truth…?’ (1984:15).

It seems we admit as human only those aspects of ourselves that can be reflected in physical laws or biochemical processes. In broad contrast, the classical Greek worldview was human-centred (Gregory 1984:17). The Socratic imperative was to be concerned with your self, i.e., to ground your self in liberty, through the mastery of self. Foucault describes the society of Ancient Greece as one where value was placed on a different kind of truth, the subjective truth. This kind of truth was discovered through care for self: through self-knowledge, self[1]reflection and self-improvement. These practices were seen as an expression of liberty, and as being the duty of a free man (Foucault 1984:20).

Defining ‘the self’

In contemporary society the notion of self-hood is problematic. Dumit argues that in forming our identities we have come to depend on scientific ‘facts’, which now play a key role in how we experience our selves, our bodies and others (Dumit 1997:860 87). We are in effect enslaved by faceless ‘expert opinions’ from ‘others’ (as opposed to self) to tell us who we are.

The way our society thinks of self is disembodied and fractured; our unquestioned assumption is of a split between mind and body, between spirit and matter and that science can understand the body as being like a machine (Scheper-Hughes and Lock 1987). All of this reinforces the sense of the body as being something ‘other’, as not-self. Nowhere is this more keenly felt than in the practice of modern medicine, for this is where humanity and science collide. So how are we to move beyond this deeply ingrained fractured and disembodied sense of self towards a more cohesive, holistic notion of identity?

Csordas tells us that we ought not to deal with ‘the self’ as if it were something substantial, because the self isn’t a thing. It can be understood better as an orientational process, as a way of being in the world that only exists and has any meaning in relation to the world (1994:5). The second radical shift in our story about the self comes from the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty (1962) who wrote that perception begins not with objective reality but with the perceiver. And thirdly, that we perceive the world, and our own ‘self’ through the body. This phenomenological perspective blurs the subject–object split and denies the mind–body division, because perception of the world and our own body is not an observation of objective reality, but rather a reflexive process of object-making. Actually if we pay attention to our experience in a mindful way we may recognise that these splits are illusory. As Csordas reminds us, ‘It is in the immediacy of lived experience that… [these] dualities are collapsed, but also out of which they are generated in the first place’ (1994:278). For Csordas, in perception and in practice the self is ‘grounded in embodiment’ (1994:10). If our self is never fully formed, but continually developing, then we escape from having to define ourselves objectively. But this is not a self that can be fixed in space or time or defined by ‘facts’.

Self-care and cultivation

Orthodox medicine has been widely criticised for its ‘biomedical’ perspective: for having lost touch with the social, psychological and emotional aspects of disease. Engel’s biopsychosocial model (1977) aims to combat this problem and create a more cohesive and functional health system by integrating the psychosocial elements of illness. Engel also places great importance on the relationship between doctor and patient in effective treatment. He saw the role of doctor as that of educator, a role largely missing from many medical encounters and which, when it does appear, is often didactic and paternalistic. Engel’s educator role on the other hand is rather like that of the philosopher Foucault describes in Ancient Greece, ‘who cares for the care of others’ (1984:7), because ‘in order to really care for self… one needs a guide, a counsellor, a friend’ (Foucault, 1984:7). But this guide’s task is to direct without dominating.

By listening to a patient’s story, addressing psycho – social aspects of illness and making treatment decisions collaboratively we would radically improve relationships between doctors and patients. This in turn would reduce litigation, complaints, mistrust and reduce biomedicine’s ever-present risk of turning the patient into a dehumanised object. But it clearly isn’t enough simply to inform patients of health risks and advise beneficial lifestyle changes, since this approach has done so little for public health. What then might our philosophical exploration of selfhood tell us about how to promote self-care?

If the self is not fixed and objective, but an ongoing process, it is therefore open to the sorts of change and Self-care and self-cultivation: the necessary foundation to heal SELF-CARE 32 © Journal of holistic healthcare ● Volume 13 Issue 2 Summer/Autumn 2016 healing that Csordas1994 has redefined as involving ‘subtle modulations and transformation of self’ (Csordas 1994:71). But in order to be effective, the participant(s) has to be existentially engaged in the process of change at the level of self in the present moment – as body, mind and soul. The challenge then, as I see it, is to heal the body, the self and the social side of a person by working in and through the body (Thomasma 1984:46). As a doctor, my task is to facilitate this through empowerment not coercion: to enable self-care by encouraging self-knowledge, by engaging a person’s inner resources and involving them in all decisions. Somehow these changes must be embodied, owned, and incorporated into a person’s life, not as moments but as processes to be nurtured and maintained. What’s needed is a shift from hitting targets to paying attention to the journey.

Non-western approaches to self-care

Although the trajectory of western medicine from Hippocrates to modern day biomedicine has moved steadily away from this kind of approach, it has existed for millennia in the medical and philosophical systems of other cultures.

Our conception of medicine as a remedial discipline is not universal (Alter 1999). For instance in Ayurveda, self[1]care IS medicine. Ayurveda prescribes changes beyond western medicine’s ‘don’t smoke, eat well, exercise’ by providing a detailed framework within which to achieve defined aims. It also supports the patient in becoming more responsible for their own health and in playing an active role on the healing journey rather than simply receiving treatment.

In the west, hospitals, doctors, medical treatments and procedures hold negative associations for most people and medical knowledge is something that’s ‘best left to the experts’. So health is not something people think about on a day-to-day basis. Most people, as Blaxter (1990) found, only really consider health when they have lost it. But as I wrote in my 2005 article for the student BMJ:

Ayurveda is not just for the sick; it is a system for staying well that becomes part of the patient’s lifestyle. The basic concepts can be easily understood and applied by anyone. It encourages patients towards physical and mental self-knowledge.’

 Whitehouse 2005

The Ayurvedic perspective, rather than being reactive and primarily concerned with disease, is proactive and concerned with overall fitness. Instead of seeing the body as naturally healthy and prone to illness, Ayurveda sees the body as naturally imperfect and therefore that health needs continual cultivation. This view challenges our definition of medicine as the science of returning the body to objective normality by restoring what is missing or fixing what has gone wrong. In its place it conceives of going beyond wellness to a state of hyper-wellness (Alter 1999).

Compared to orthodox medicine, this kind of approach is not preventative ‘but rather… vigorous self[1]development’ (Alter 1999:S51). Perhaps this is where the focus of public health messages has gone wrong? In general, expecting the prospect of possible, negative, future events to dissuade people from certain behaviours isn’t effective. Nor does this often encourage a healthier way of life. But by shifting the focus from the future self to the present self and by using the positive language of proactive medicine rather than that of negative reactive medicine, we may develop an approach that is truly conducive to change. Since these life changes would be acknowledged as slow but steady, there is no instruction to ‘do this now’ (eg stop smoking). The emphasis is not on paying attention when something is dramatically wrong, but rather on listening to the body and tuning into its needs and its rhythms.

This message is also loud and clear in Yogic teachings about inner rather than outer ‘scientific exploration’. This would open up for medicine a new form of empiricism where having closed our eyes we may connect to our physical being. In our modern mind-driven culture we have become completely divorced from truly inhabiting our bodies, feeling sensations and listening to what they tell us. Once we have found physical stillness and presence within movement we may begin to connect to that silent space beyond. From here we may be guided by a deeper connection to ourselves and to the present moment, where all answers have to begin.


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