The Gerson Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine

Ayurvedic Lesson Learned from Verizon Wireless by Dr. Scott Gerson

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Nine out of ten[1] of the major causes of disease and premature death in the United States – heart disease (#1), cancer (#2), respiratory disease (#4), stroke (#5), Alzheimer’s disease (#6), diabetes (#7), suicide (#8), pneumonia (#9), kidney disease (#10) – are influenced by multiple health risk behaviors, including smoking, alcohol abuse, physical inactivity, mental illness, stress, and poor diet. Vegetarian diet, meditation, not smoking, low alcohol consumption, and exercise are known to be protective.

It may not surprise you that very few individuals meet the criteria for a healthy lifestyle. In the US, only 3% of adults meet all four of the very basic health behaviors considered to be a healthy lifestyle: (1) being a nonsmoker, (2) having a healthy weight, (3) being moderately physically active, and (4) eating 5 or more fruits and vegetables a day.[2]

As a front-lines, practicing Ayurvedic physician (vaidya) for several decades, lifestyle modification is the lynch pin of our entire approach. I normally see patients three to four times annually, sometimes less often. Given limited contact opportunities for health promotion, at each consultation we address multiple aspects of healthcare. The conventional Western approach for decades has been to address one, single unhealthy behavior at a time (e.g. smoking, weight loss, exercise). The theory is that its simply too difficult for people to take on more than one habit simultaneously. It was further believed that changing that one behavior would act as a positive “gateway” for positively changing other behaviors. Unfortunately, this has not proven to be the case. Targeting a single behavior for change will not necessarily translate into healthy changes in a second untargeted behavior.

In contrast, the Ayurvedic approach is holistic and aims from the beginning to simultaneously improve multiple physical and psychological behaviors relevant to an individual’s unique health condition and capacity. As Ayurvedic seers knew intuitively and modern physicians are just discovering, interventions targeted at single risk behaviors inevitably, even if effective, will be limited in their impact.

Physical Interventions

The Ayurvedic interventions for the physical body are easy enough to understand and include all the gentle rituals many of you already know about: performing self-oil massage, making dietary changes to address your doshic constitution or imbalance, diligently taking prescribed individualized herbal medicine formulas, annual or seasonal Panchakarma, etc.

It occurred to me a few years back as I sat with a somewhat skeptical gentleman trying to “sell” him on the virtues of smearing warm vishagarbha oil on his body, drinking a rather bitter daily gurmar tea, and curling his tongue as he performed sheetali pranayama, that I sounded like the Verizon representative I had just spoken with the day before. She was telling me the advantage of “bundling” services to maximize the cost-effectiveness and coordination of my system. I was saying essentially the same thing to my patient. By changing multiple behaviors at the same time, they would complement each other and, with very little additional effort (cost), this Ayurvedic “bundling” will have a greatly more far-reaching effect on his health. Happily, he saw the logic, agreed to the program, and incidentally did very well improving his health.

Mental Interventions

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The psychological part of an Ayurvedic consultation is primarily focused on an important mental faculty known as buddhi. This is an aspect of mind which is foreign and unrecognized by Western psychology or medicine. Buddhi has several recognizable functions. It is (a) our organ of reason by which we formulate conceptions, (b) discriminate, and (c) make judgements as to what is beneficial for us and what is not. In a healthy, completely balanced person the buddhi is accurate and correct in its judgement. However, most people, whether they realize it or not (generally not) have corrupted buddhis. Consider your own life how many times you’ve chosen something you were certain was beneficial, that turned out not to be. Of course many of our mistakes in life are growth opportunities, true. However, regarding health, mistakes in judgement can be devastating and painful. The successful patient will be able to make good decisions most of the time. Therefore, much of an Ayurvedic physician’s time during an encounter with a patient is spent in assessing the state of that individual’s buddhi.

What causes the natural discriminatory function of the buddhi to become impaired? The answer is the presence of saṃskāras, subconscious impressions or residues left by our past experiences, actions, and words. These impressions, which can come from past lives or develop in this lifetime, can produce both positive and negative behavioral traits. Saṃskāras affect your present actions, assumptions, personality (ahaṃkāra), mental clarity (buddhi), moral fiber and interactions with everyone and everything.

Based upon our past experiences and the impressions they leave, we instantaneously construct projections and assumptions that are sometimes completely mistaken regarding the reality of the present. Even a minor resemblance of the current situation to a past (subconscious) impression will cause the buddhi to conclude the present is identical to the past. This process of projecting the past onto the present is why we are out of touch with the present reality and thus often, with confidence, why we draw erroneous conclusions and make unwise decisions.

Although Ayurveda is often concerned with physically manifesting disease, it is also very much engaged in helping individuals develop mental clarity--because that is the key to modifying behavior. The traditional analogy which is often used is that of polishing a dirty mirror: when the mirror becomes clear it reflects the light and intelligence of the Absolute. Its important also for the vaidya to be constantly refining and purifying his own buddhi so that (s)he can always see the most beneficial course of action for his patients as well as granting the capacity to influence situations and uplift those under his/her care.

So you can now understand why the vaidya needs to gain insight into the buddhi of every patient. It also explains the meaning behind the famous Ayurvedic sloka in the Charaka Samhita:

jnānabuddhipradīpēna yō nāviśati tattvavit | āturasyāntarātmānaṁ na sa rōgāṁścikitsati ||

“When a physician who, even (yo) if well-versed in knowledge (tattvavit) of the disease (aturasya) and its treatment, does not try to enter (na vishati) into the innermost heart (antaratmanam) of the patient by virtue of the light (pradipena) of his radiant intellect (jnanabuddhi), he will not be able to treat the disease (na sa rogamscikitsati).” (CS,Vi 4/12)

The tools which are used in Ayurveda to purify buddhi have nothing to do with diet, herbs, or even Panchakarma. For this purpose we advise the practices of our sister science, yoga. These psychological interventions are done in concert with the physical recommendations. Many of the classical yoga practices, especially meditation, have as their primary purpose the dissolution and release of saṃskāras. The specifics of this is beyond the scope of this brief essay.

By the way, I ended up going with AT&T. They had a better “bundle.”

[1] Accidents is #3.

[2] Reeves MJ, Rafferty AP. Healthy lifestyle characteristics among adults in the United States, 2000. Arch Intern Med. 2005;165:854–857.