In 1982, Peter Van Houten, a medical doctor and Ananda Village resident, started a rural clinic for an area totally lacking in medical services. Located two miles down the road from Ananda Village, the clinic, since its inception, has served not only Ananda members but also the entire surrounding area. Today the clinic is considered one of the best of its type in California, and has a reputation for being highly innovative.
Q: Peter, what is cooperative healing?
A: For me as a doctor and devotee, cooperative healing at the highest level is based on the understanding that taking care of our health is a cooperative process with God. As devotees, we sometimes have karmic tests that involve our physical or mental health, and how we work with those tests is an important aspect of our spiritual development. In making decisions about our health care, it’s important that we try to tune into God’s will for us, and that we cooperate with His will.
How we work with our health care practitioners should also be a cooperative process. One of the most challenging situations for me as a physician is trying to help someone who isn’t taking responsibility for his or her part in the healing process, who wants the physician to do all the work and provide the “quick fix.”
The people who get well the fastest are those who say, “I want to be well. Give me some suggestions on what I need to do and I’ll try to follow them to the best of my ability.” We make it a cooperative process — doctor and patient work together in the healing process.
Cooperative healing also includes cooperating with our bodies. If we’ve come into this life with knees that don’t work very well, we have to cooperate with our body’s physical limitations and not try to run a marathon. Swimming or walking might be a better choice. So, cooperating with who we are physically, mentally, and emotionally is an aspect of the cooperative healing process.
Q: How exactly does a person cooperate with God in the area of health?
A: It’s tempting when facing a serious health challenge that may require surgery or a potent form of medical treatment to decide that we simply want to focus on an alternative method of healing. But as devotees, we always need to keep in mind that God-realization is our highest priority, and that God may want us to work with our health challenge in a way that differs from our personal inclinations.
What I often say in such situations is, “How do you think you’ll feel about this treatment issue at the end of your life? What are you really going to care about?” A devotee, at the end of life, is going to be concerned about such things as, “Did I make my search for God my top priority? Did I deepen my relationship with God? Did I focus on serving others and serving God in others?” Having this kind of discussion helps people gain perspective on their current health crisis and treatment options, and to become more accepting of a treatment that’s in their long-term best interests.
Q: Do you have this kind of discussion only when there’s a serious diagnosis such as cancer or diabetes?
A: Sometimes it occurs in those contexts, but more commonly the issue arises when devotees feel that a recommended medication might interfere with their immune system or when they are already using a form of healing where taking pharmaceuticals is discouraged. Another common situation is when devotees first hear that they need to be on an antidepressant for six to nine months, and they’re not happy about it. Or perhaps someone has tried unsuccessfully to cure an infection with alternative therapies.
In all of these instances, I try to help them to see that success on the spiritual path is not dependent on avoiding allopathic medications in every circumstance. I encourage them to always keep as their highest priority that God’s in charge. Basically, I try to help them reach a point of understanding where they can say: “As a devotee I’m trying to find God, and I’m just going to have to get my ego out of the way and be practical.”
Sometimes I’ll say to them, “Remember, God invented this surgery,” or “God invented this medication. These things came from God and we need to see God in them.” Or, I might explain to someone, “Remember, when you take your penicillin tablets, you’re taking them because the infection’s not likely to go away otherwise. God is in that tablet.”
Q: Have there been times when your approach didn’t work?
A: Yes. One instance in particular stands out. It involved a devotee with a fairly serious health problem that was affecting not only him but his entire family because his symptoms were making him so miserable and irritable. But he was determined to rely solely on an alternative form of healing, which wasn’t working. There was no harm in his having tried it, but clearly it hadn’t worked. He was still very sick when he didn’t need to be.
Since the situation was having an impact on quite a few people, I decided to discuss it with Swami Kriyananda. Kriyananda thought about it for a minute and said, “You know, Peter, sometimes it’s better to take a pill than to be a pill.”
I sometimes quote Swami Kriyananda’s statement to patients and everybody laughs, but they all get the point. What it helps them to see is that, “I need to keep my priorities straight. My current health challenge is something I have to deal with, but I also need to maintain a good relationship with God, with my loved ones, and with those I’m serving. If I have to take a medication to keep those priorities paramount, well, fine.”
Q: In your medical practice you work with both devotees and non-devotees. Do you find it more challenging to work with devotees?
A: I actually find it easier to work with devotees in general because they’re very interested in being well and are usually very cooperative. For example, if I recommend walking briskly twenty minutes twice a day to someone who is not getting enough exercise, perhaps one out of five people is willing to do that. The number of devotees who cooperate with that kind of advice is much higher.
Devotees usually want to be able to function at a high level so that they can meditate and serve; most of them do all the important common sense things that help a person maintain good health — eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep. It’s surprising the number of people who ignore these common sense practices.
At the same time, it’s not at all surprising that devotees will seek out subtler ways of working with their health care. Now that we’re well into Dwapara Yuga, devotees especially are much more oriented to working with energy and thought, and not just with the physical body. But if these alternative methods don’t work, most devotees are grateful to know that standard medicine is available as a back up that often will work when subtler means don’t.
Q: Do devotees ever suggest to you new or different allopathic ways of treating their health problems?
A: Yes. An important aspect of being cooperative with my patients is to always keep in mind that they often have very good intuition and insight into what’s happening with their own bodies. Rather than just looking at a laboratory test or going by what I’ve learned from their physical exam, it’s important for me to listen to their suggestions.
If people have been meditating on their current health challenge, or really thinking about it, I take their suggestions more seriously because God may be speaking to them through their intuition. When we do a laboratory test based on that kind of suggestion, it often turns out that they were right, and it would have been detrimental to their healing had I not listened. Such experiences keep me humble and remind me not to get so caught up in my professional viewpoint that I dismiss their intuitive insight simply because it’s not clothed in proper medical terminology.
Q: Do you have this kind of experience often?
A: Yes, in fact. Listening to patients’ suggestions is an important aspect of cooperative healing. But a lot of physicians refuse to do that. They say, “If you want my care, you have to do it my way.”
Q: So, for both practitioner and patient, cooperative healing requires humility and receptivity, important spiritual attitudes.
A: Yes, for patients and practitioners, the challenge is not to have a lot of ego invested in a particular point of view. Often I find that I have to encourage devotees not to view their health problems as a stigma or as a spiritual failure —unless, let’s say, they’ve been meditating for twenty years and are still smoking cigarettes. But that’s the minority. The vast majority of health challenges come from inherited predispositions or are just one of the many common ailments that occur as people age.
I’ve always appreciated something Swami Kriyananda said: “Remember nobody gets out of this life alive.” We all have to die someday, and it will be some type of ailment or illness that triggers that process. The best approach for devotees is to avoid self-judgment and to work with their heath problems very practically. Illness isn’t a sign that we’re fundamentally flawed and don’t deserve to be devotees. In fact, for devotees, having significant health challenges is one way of burning up karma.
I might add, however, that devotees as a group are healthier than the mainstream. Their immune systems seem to be stronger, and they tend to recover from illnesses and surgeries more quickly than average. I’ve also found that I can prescribe lower dosages of medication to get excellent effects, especially with anti-depressants. This has been my experience in working with literally hundreds and hundreds of devotees over thirty years.
Q: Swami Kriyananda writes that the highest kind of healing is to stimulate a person to be his or her own healer. Is that the goal of cooperative healing?
A: Yes. For practitioners, rather than seeing ourselves as doing “something” to someone, it’s better to see ourselves more as facilitators or coaches. We may be able to offer diagnostic procedures and medications, but in the end we’re simply trying to help people attain their highest potential physically, mentally, and spiritually.
I’ve often tried to imagine myself a hundred years in the future, sitting around with healing practitioners from other traditions and saying, “Can you believe that we used to give people medications —and vaccinations? And the acupuncturist answers, “I know, but can you believe that we used to stick people with needles? I can’t believe it, but we really didn’t know any better then.”
I find that it’s good to keep this perspective lest any of us think we have a corner on the truth as health care practitioners. Probably in a hundred years, much of what we’re now doing in health care will be laughable.