Action or Inaction: Stories about my practice in balance/integration of East and West healing
Sharon Montes, M.D.
In reflecting on this issue’s theme of action vs. non-action I am bemused by a contrast between eastern and western healing systems. Although taught meditation and Tai Chi as a teenager my professional path led me to medical school. Over the years the intention to integrate western and eastern philosophies has sometimes been a struggle and sometimes a dance of harmony and balance.
In my role as a physician trained in western medicine, the emphasis of service is in DOING something… writing a prescription, providing reassurance that the lingering cold doesn’t need treatment with antibiotics, ordering lab or radiology studies while the patient heals on their own. Many years ago I read a quote by Voltaire “The role of the physician is to entertain his patient while nature takes its course.” I suspect that my interest in herbal medicine; acupuncture and other modalities and philosophies not taught in medical school was in part based on wanting to have “more to do”, more alternatives to safely entertain the patient while nature was taking its course.
I completed my family practice residency training in a regional trauma center. After spending thousands of waking and semi-awake hours in emergency rooms and intensive care units, I gained an understanding and competence in what western medicine does well – use of technology, chemicals and procedures to facilitate the life force remaining attached to the physical body. I gained a language that allowed me to label and act. A vocabulary that provided a coherence of meaning to physical symptoms… reassuring both patients and me that there was an order to pain and dysfunction.
A medical system with a focus and strength at supporting humans in the evasion of death doesn’t do so well at maintaining health or reversing chronic disease. Immersed in technology and medications to prolong the appearance of death, I lost balance and perspective about the responsibility for and maintenance of health. I finished residency exhausted and out of touch with my own intuition.
Within days of completing residency I signed up for a community education class in acupressure. I was exposed to concepts of Qi, meridians, 5-elements. I had an image of a human being experiencing symptoms, standing at the center of two overlapping circles. While the “left brained” western medical system would ascribe symptoms to pathology at the cellular or tissue level, the “right brained” eastern system would describe symptoms as a manifestation of imbalance within the system. Regardless of which medical system is used to describe cause and remedy you have a human at the center of both stories.
I loved the circular holistic qualitative model of health presented in that first acupressure class. I engaged in a discussion with myself, ”Wow. This makes so much sense. If I had known this model existed seven years ago, I wouldn’t have gone to medical school!” And a prompt clear quiet response of “You were meant to go to medical school.” With time I came to see that the thousands of hours spent learning an objective, linear physical model of health were part of my personal path of balance.
Last year I worked in a community health center. In my first three days of practice at that clinic, I wrote more medication prescriptions than I had written in seven years of clinical practice at University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine. When I started my work at the clinic, I spent several weeks in tension. My inner monologue noisy and nagging, “Using these medicines is wrong! You write for medicine so they can continue to abuse their bodies with poor diet and alcohol! These medicines mess up the balance and physiology of the body! They treat symptoms not the underlying causes of illness! This whole medical model that puts drugs at the center of the encounter STINKS! You should be using your time and energy empowering people to make wise choices so they don’t need these medicines!”
With a month of fairly constant prayer throughout each day, a fierce peace settled in. This peace wasn’t one of compromise or hypocrisy. The idea occurred, “It doesn’t matter what I do. This is just the form of my service at this time and in this space. The practice is to continually the presence of the source of healing.” Amazing connections occurred when I stopped judging myself for prescribing medications, the patients for using them or a system that places medications and surgery at the center of the encounter. To accept what was. To be present for what it is, in the presence of a story. Love in action. So I wrote hundreds of prescriptions a week, each delivered with a silent prayer to “do no harm.”
That job ended at the end of December and life presented the opportunity to connect with income in another way. Starting the first week of February I will start work as an urgent care doctor. The idea of this new chapter has generated much stress. My first response to this opportunity was of fear and resistance. It has taken a good four weeks of conversation and story-telling to approach my first day of work with a bit of gratitude and enthusiasm.
The opportunity to support my family financially through working 12-14 hours a day and seeing 40-60 patients a day isn’t a thought that engenders joy. In preparation for this opportunity I am organizing the household –planning menus; stocking the freezer with soup; reviewing Advanced Cardiac Life Support and orthopedic material. My husband supported me engaging a personal trainer.(Who ME? Look who showed up. A woman, who happens to be 10 years older than me, teaches yoga and is encouraging me to look upon the opportunity to gain greater strength and stamina as fun. One of my training goals is to be able to swim well enough to swim with dolphins in the wild.)
As part of my preparation for my new employment as an urgent care physician I renewed my certification in advanced cardiac life support. The task was made a bit more challenging because I haven’t cared for someone in the throes of a heart attack for at least 15 years. As I was reviewing the meaning of different shaped squiggles on graph paper (aka ECG) and the different electrical stimulus and medications that can be given in response to different patterns of squiggles there was an inner voice that whispered “Why not just let them pass over? Let’s light a candle and say a prayer.” Nevertheless I was able to stay engaged and focused long enough to memorize the algorithms and pass the exams and mega code test station. Western medicine in action once again.
Talking with myself (and my husband who has also heard the conversation) – I would RATHER stay home, play with my daughter, drink herb tea and read instead of leaving the house to do urgent care. To me the dance between inaction and action is living both at the same moment; the balance… How do I carry that center of peace and silence with me into action? That place from within me that resonates clear peace in the presence of movement and noise?
When I was 13 years old my mother took me to a church that had psychic healers and channelers of spirits. I was given the message that I needed to practice balance. With the clarity and assurance of youth I quickly responded “Thank-you, but my balance beam routine in gymnastics was coming along just fine.” Decades later as I was immersed in study at the expense of other life activities; pulled between commitments between work and home; lacking balance between self-care and care of others and self … that message of the importance of practicing balance was given different meaning.
As I play with what could be labeled duality between action and non-action; western and eastern philosophies, I also see the duality within each of us as individuals; left brain right brain each assigned different functions, but each part of a whole. Our mind and consciousness don’t live in the brain; the whole manifests as yin and yang but is not that. A friend summed it up beautifully with the equation 1 + 1 = 3….
To the healers and teachers touched by these words….What does the unification of duality look like in your life? How is it showing up today? Wishing you joy in the dance J
Sharon – aka “The Dancing Doc”[Dr Sharon Montes practiced and taught family medicine in medical schools for 17 years. She is committed to integrating science and world wisdom in her professional and personal life. She served for 5 years as the Medical Director for the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine. She has practiced meditation for 34 years and is an active and enthusiastic member of the tribe committed to integrating ancient wisdom and modern technology with the goal of creating health care and educational systems that serve with greater joy and efficiency. You may contact The Dancing Doctor at firstname.lastname@example.org.