The Mind-Body Link

A Discussion With Chopra Center's Dr. David Simon

By Loolwa Khazzoom

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2010.

Journalist Loolwa Khazzoom traveled recently to San Diego to speak with David Simon, MD—co-founder, CEO, and medical director of the Chopra Center for Wellbeing—about the concepts in his book, Free to Love, Free to Heal (Chopra Center Press, 2009). In it, Simon addresses the connection between emotions and physical health. In this conversation, Simon shares his thoughts about how individuals can utilize the power of the mind-body connection to empower themselves and transform our health-care system.

Loolwa Khazzoom: In my own healing journey, I have discovered that the cause or diagnosis of a condition is almost irrelevant. The bottom line is that I need to make sure every aspect of my life is as healthy as possible. I ask myself if I am part of a supportive community, if I am eating properly and exercising enough, if I am sleeping well and enjoying my work. I look at every component of my life. If I am maximizing the health and wellness potential, then that’s pretty much all that I can do.

For some people that may be enough; for others, it may not. Some people may need surgery, if a condition has progressed to a certain place. Still, I see it as game of mix-and-match: here are the many possible causes of illness; here are the many solutions. I see it as an “It Takes a Village” approach to health and wellness.

David Simon: I think there is timing and finesse. Good healing requires the appropriate intervention, in the right power, at the right time.

Unfortunately, once you get beyond the level of molecules, most physicians these days are in no-man’s land. They don’t feel competent looking at the emotional, psychological, or spiritual components of illness. I think that has been a detriment to our health care as a whole. More and more, people are taking mind-body matters into their own hands, because they recognize that these holistic pieces are critical components to their health and wellness.

LK: I appreciate that in your book you said that even if people do discover there are emotional roots of illness, it does not mean that the illness is their fault. You advise them to stay away from the place of blame.

DS: Having been a physician for approaching 40 years now, I just think humility should be the dominating mindset. We don’t understand most of what’s going on, and no matter how healthy and balanced we seem to be, at some point, none of us gets out of here alive. We’re all going to experience that progressive dysfunction that comes through the natural aging process.

I think we just have to have that deep, underlying humility. When you think that you know so clearly what is wrong with someone else, it’s probably time to stop worrying about that other person and look at yourself. I love this quote by Vaclav Havel: “Keep the company of those who seek the truth. Run from those who have found it.” When someone knows exactly what is wrong with you and what you need to do to fix yourself, that’s the time to find another friend.

LK: I see an interdependent relationship between a person with a health condition and that person’s health-care practitioners, family, friends, community, and larger society. Within that interdependent relationship, there’s the personal piece of, what can I do for myself to maximize my health and wellness?

Then there’s the piece for the people who are not ill. As I know from different periods throughout my healing journey, those of us with health conditions can end up so tapped out, so exhausted, from just trying to survive. Often, those around us will say, “Well you should do X, Y, and Z.” But I think those who are not ill instead need to say, “What can I do to support you?”

For health-care practitioners, the questions can be about how they can be more loving. When I have had health-care practitioners who genuinely cared about me, their very care in and of itself was healing. I knew they were playing on my team, and that knowledge was like an injection of energy and strength.

DS: Compassion is a very powerful force. Most people, however, are so involved in their own day-to-day stuff that it’s difficult for them to look out and see that other people are struggling. We wish other people could automatically figure things out and give us what we need, without our having to ask. “If you really loved me, you’d know what I need,” that kind of thing. But most people are consumed by their own issues, too filled up with their own stuff to think about what someone else needs.

So if someone has a chronic illness, I recommend that person takes the time to inform people in their lives what exactly would help them. Lay it out explicitly: “These are the things that would really help me get through my day a little easier.” Maybe it’s just a phone call or a text message. Maybe it’s being brought dinner once a week. Perhaps it’s getting help finding referrals to good physicians. Sometimes it’s, “Send me a book that you’ve read or a video that you think I’d find enjoyable.”

LK: On the health-care front, where do you feel the conversation needs to go between doctors and patients, between health-care providers and consumers, among health-care providers within their own circle, and among health-care consumers within their own circle?

DS: One of the reasons doctors tend to get arrogant about having the authority to make decisions for other people is that in our early training as medical students, a lot of the patients that we see are not capable of making their own choices. They are coming in unconscious, with major injuries, or in the midst of requiring major surgeries. So doctors learn really early on that we make decisions for people who have no ability to make their own choices. I think that mindset begins to extend into the realm of working with people who are fully capable of making their own choices.

Physicians have to realize the value of forming partnerships with their patients. I love thinking of my patients as my partners. First of all, it doesn’t put all of the responsibility on me to cure people. It puts me in the role of teacher-educator. I think this partnership is what ultimately leads to much greater success in healing. Even in the very process of helping the person to realize that, to some degree, their own choices have an influence on the outcome, we already begin the healing journey.

The best voice to transform health care is that of people who have gone through their own personal journey of healing, who can speak from experience and teach others, saying, “These are the steps that can heal our health-care system,” which right now is really a disease care system.

The change has to happen on multiple levels—personal, political, and social. On the personal level, I think every one of us knows what we can do for ourselves to be healthier: we know we should eat healthier, exercise regularly, manage our stress levels better, and get to bed earlier. We know we should stop using so many alcohol, drugs, and tobacco products. We should get along better with each other.

On the political and social level, I believe it’s all about collective consciousness. Those we called leaders are really followers. I think we have to get to the place where the people who make policy are inundated with the experiences of people who, on their own, have discovered that an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. When we are supported in taking better care of ourselves, we will reduce our need for invasive, intrusive medical care down the road.