Omega: People often rely on external resources, like doctors and medical institutions, to navigate health decisions. You’ve written a lot about healing as an internal journey. What is the difference?
Saki: What medicine has accomplished in the last 75 years is pretty extraordinary. It’s done especially well with helping us live better with long-term illnesses, and it’s done well with heroic, life-saving measures like surgery and organ transplantation. Even cancer treatment has come a long way. In all the years I’ve spent in medicine, I would say it hasn’t lost its deepest intention, which is to relieve suffering.
But there’s an underbelly to everything, and medicine has one, too. Because the field has been so male-dominated, it has had a very paternalistic view of the world, and people have responded by thinking that someone else is going to take responsibility for their health. We think if we have a problem then "papa" medicine is going to fix us.
This paradigm is now breaking down. We now know that genes and genetics play an important role in our health, but they don’t tell the whole story. They don’t fully predict the outcome.
We know that our lifestyle and behaviors play a gigantic role. And we can each do something about these things in every moment of every day. We are currently navigating this shift to taking more responsibility for our own health and well-being.
Omega: Do you think this shift will supplant medicine in some way?
Saki: No, not at all. I don’t think it undermines medicine’s power and value—I think it amplifies it. People have enormous resources, capabilities, in-born genius, and luminosity. Because of that, they can learn to take better care of themselves physically, emotionally, and mentally. If you combine that with what good medicine can do for people, you have before you the possibility of a much more powerful therapeutic process.
Omega: What can we do to take more responsibility for our health?
Saki: First I’d like to say that it can seem like it isn’t happening, but it is. The changes aren’t wholesale yet, but in general they’re moving in the right direction and have been for years. For example, Americans are really beginning to get the message that exercise is essential throughout one’s life—from moving to stretching to weight-bearing to aerobic to walking—whatever it happens to be. It’s not a luxury.
We’re able to make changes in areas like diet and exercise because we’ve come to understand our habits of mind and we’ve developed modes of mind that have much more flexibility and dynamism than the usual narrative.
We are all essentially living in a story about ourselves: I have the story of Saki; you have the story of you. But it isn’t the real story; it’s just a story. Mindfulness can help us look at the real story of ourselves and bring that to bear in this domain we call Health, with a capital H.
Along with what our doctor can do for us, we can do something for ourselves. We can use practices like mindfulness to take the information we get from our doctors and add to it. We can do our own inner and outer research, wonder out loud with our physicians, and, most importantly, we can make our own choices and see what the outcomes are. We can rewrite our story.