Mind Over Medicine
Moyers, 58, has spent a career looking for new answers to old questions. A onetime seminary student intent on becoming a Baptist minister, he was drawn to politics and in 1960 went to Washington, serving in the Kennedy Administration and as press secretary to Lyndon Johnson. In 1967 he became publisher of the Long Island (N.Y.) newspaper Newsday, then turned to television, where he has produced such award-winning PBS series as The World of Ideas and Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. Though approached last year by the Clinton and Perot campaigns about the vice presidency, Moyers graciously declined to be considered. He and his wife, Judith Davidson, 57, an educator, who was co-executive editor of the recent companion PBS series Healing and the Mind, live in New York City. Moyers spoke with senior writer Susan Reed.
How did you become interested in the field of mind-body medicine?
When my brother died of cancer in 1966 at age 39, my father began a grieving process that lasted almost 25 years. During that time he suffered from chronic, debilitating headaches that could not be cured. At one point, a doctor tried to tell him that his headaches were related to his grief, but he persisted in treating the pain as a medical problem, and the torment continued. After my father's death at 86, I thought about how he could have been helped.
Why has Western medicine resisted exploring this field?
We assume that illness is foreign to the body—an invasion, bacteria, a virus, an insult that comes as a result of an accident. We define the design of the body and act accordingly, as if we were repairing an automobile. What we don't deal with well is that to fix something that's wrong doesn't necessarily lead to a better quality life.
In the series we wanted to look at the connections between mind and body that serious researchers are studying. I'm grateful to modem medicine, don't get me wrong. It saved my grandchild's life when he had a herniated diaphragm. But modern medicine is driven by excess: too many drugs, too much surgery, too much money.
What did yon discover looking at traditional Chinese medicine?
It's based on a philosophy that the body is a reflection of the balanced flow of nature. If something goes amiss in our health, it's often the result of an obstruction to this energy flow, like the tributary of a river being dammed. They use techniques like acupuncture and massage to keep the energy flow in balance. And their approach is preventive; for hundreds of years, Chinese physicians were paid not for curing sick people, but for keeping people healthy. They also combine the best of the old and new. I was in a Beijing operating room where a young teacher was having a brain tumor removed. She was given less than half the sedative that would be used in this country, supplemented by acupuncture. I was looking into her skull. I could actually see the milky white material we call the brain, and we were able to talk to her during surgery.
How is Western medicine examining the mind-body connection?
We visited the University of Massachusetts Medical Center at Worcester, for example, where Dr. John Kabat-Zinn teaches patients with crippling pain to "scan" their bodies, moving consciously through the painful areas until they can "relax" into their discomfort. They learn yoga to change their physical posture, which can change attitudes and feelings toward their suffering. He teaches them not to fight chronic pain, but to control the body so it can live with pain more tolerably. More than 6,000 people have completed the clinic's program, and 72 percent reported moderate to significant improvement after one year.
We also visited Stanford psychiatrist David Spiegel, who studied 86 women with breast cancer and found that those who met once a week in group therapy—in addition to radiation, chemotherapy and drugs—reported less depression, anxiety and pain than those who did not. What startled him was the discovery that those who took part in psychotherapy had lived an average of 18 months longer than the group that didn't.
What have yon now learned that might hare helped your father?
Openly sharing his deepest grief with a trusted counselor could have made a difference to him. He would have understood that grief is a natural response to loss and might have found that a negative feeling, if acknowledged and honored, would have been healthy.