Updated: Mar 9, 2021
Mind-body medicine has been a popular topic in allopathy for many decades. During this time, it has gone from a fringe idea to a practice featured by many academic medical centers, including leading institutions like Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Stanford.
Research into mind-body medicine continues to grow. A recent search on PubMed for the term "mind-body medicine" yielded over 53,000 results. Surely with this much accumulated research over decades, we must have discovered key insights into how the mind influences the body, right?
Well, yes and no.
On one hand, we do know that practices such as meditation and yoga offer measurable benefits. On the other hand, we still haven't been able to clearly define the bridge that connects the mind with the body. We are still seeing the mindbody through the lens of dualism as a mind plus a body—not because it's a better understanding, but because it seems to be the popular view that medical researchers, professors, and doctors are implicitly taught.
The dualism of mind and body can be traced back four centuries to the French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes, who famously declared, "Cogito, ergo sum." (I think, therefore I am.) His declaration reflects his sense of the primacy of thought, even to the extent that thought ("I think") becomes the basis of discovering one's own existence or being ("therefore I am").
Descartes explained that the mind is immaterial and doesn't extend in space while the body is material and does extend in space. He apparently saw an invisible barrier between mind and body—one that seems to fit our everyday experience, yet doesn't explain how the mind and body influence each other. If mind and body are indeed fundamentally different, how does our will (mind) manage to move our legs (body)? How does a pin prick on our foot (body) cause us suffering (mind)? What is the nature of the bridge between the two?
Medicine put this question on the back burner over the last several centuries as Henry Gray gave us detailed insights into physical anatomy, Alexander Fleming gave us penicillin, and Michael DeBakey gave us coronary bypass procedures. Four-hundred years later, the question still hasn't been answered.
This is important to keep in mind (pun intended) when you read articles about mind-body medicine and hear about mind-body therapies. The phrase mind-body is certainly valid—I use it myself as a communication tool—but at some point we also have to pause and look into what exactly we mean by the mind. We must be able to define our terms if we wish to develop greater clarity.
One way to define mind is to see that mind is experience. Any distinct experience, whether we label it mental, physical, scientific, spiritual, or anything else, is the mind. From this perspective, even what we call the body can be appreciated as a mental experience, unrealized as such when the mind is in the First Mind configuration. From a Second Mind perspective, we can appreciate that the body is in the mind, not the other way around. The point isn't to engage in endless arguments about which view is right, but rather to see that these different views have implications for how we experience ourselves along the range of dividedness and connectedness, which in turn informs healing.
Where is the mind, then? While the First Mind is the mind that feels as though it is localized within the body/head, the Second Mind is the field of mind that represents itself as the very grid of space-time and perceived matter. With this understanding of mind, we can appreciate that "mind-body" medicine still has much latent potential waiting to be realized.