LATELY, IT SEEMS AS IF YOU CAN'T TURN ON THE TELEVISION, go to a bookstore or pick up a newspaper or magazine without running into something about "the mind-body connection." It hardly seems possible that the fact of our mental world and physiology being intertwined could be news haven't we known this since that first nervous stomachache before the spelling bee back in elementary school? We all know that high blood pressure and migraines can be caused by stress. We've heard the stories about how important the power of positive thinking can be in recovering from illness and, conversely, the way people can slip away once they give up the will to live. Yet, far from being received as a report of the self-evident, the recent rash of attention to the power of integrating mind and body has generated a response more on the order of a mass religious movement.
As good adherents to Cartesian tradition ("I think, therefore I am"), if you ask most Westerners where in the body they reside, they will point to their heads. But as the 20th century comes to a close, some in the medical and therapy professions are proclaiming that the traditional belief in the mind-body duality needs to be replaced by a new philosophy of mind-body unity. They insist that far from being merely a semantic change, this new understanding will transform everything from our own ideas about mental illness, to the way we treat physical disease, to how we experience the process of aging itself.
There's a large segment of society that is primed for this new vision of healthiness. As the Baby Boomers start to gray and this huge consumer market contemplates its ever-nearing mortality, the 35-to-60 age group is more interested than ever before in therapies, products and workshops that offer the promise of renewed vigor, an extended life span and a calmer, more centered state of mind. The Boomer who most epitomizes the new Zeitgeist is Indian physician Deepak Chopra. His books Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, Quantum Healing and The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success have topped the best-seller lists; his videotaped lectures were one of PBS's largest drawing telethon events. Chopra's message is that our bodies contain miraculous powers, programmed into our very cells, that can heal illnesses, reverse the aging process and significantly increase our longevity. He writes, "First, we have to throw out the relics and residues of outworn ideas we must be willing to be perfectly healthy forever. . . . Our way of looking at ourselves makes us what we are." Chopra's spellbinding presence and his medical credentials seem to lend credibility to his incredible ideas, which weave together facts from quantum physics and medical research, leavened with Western poetry and Eastern spirituality. Just by using the great powers of the mind, we can defeat the inevitable decline of old age, he insists. It's like gripping science fiction, inviting us to dream of outrageous possibilities, piling together bits and pieces of empirical facts until we say, "Well, maybe it can happen!"
There is another side to the mind-body movement that is not about promises of living longer, but is derived from consumer interest in alternatives to biomedicine. Fed up with being treated by their physicians as malfunctioning body parts, tired of the routinely dehumanizing experience of Western medicine the awkward paper gowns of the examination room, the impersonal, warehouse atmosphere of hospitals, the assembly-line approach of too many medical specialists more and more people are turning to acupuncture, homeopathy, therapeutic massage, biofeedback, hypnosis, chiropractic and other alternative therapies that treat them as whole people, not broken-down machines. In 1990, Americans made 450 million visits to alternative therapists, spending more than $13.7 billion, according to a 1993 New England Journal of Medicine survey. They paid $10.3 billion out of their own pockets for these services. In 1992, the National Institutes of Health established the Office of Alternative Medicine to create a research agenda for alternative medicine, a significant legitimation of the mind-body paradigm by the scientific community. …