One Side of Health Care

Tucson's David Russell wants to open minds--but is too close-minded himself

David N. Russell, a teacher and practitioner of integrative medicine and spiritual psychology, writes that the sciences are more than just bodies of objectively assembled knowledge.

At their core, he says, they're really philosophical systems or art forms reflecting the feelings, insights and worldview of their cultural matrix. Russell tells us that the ways people experience life influence how facts are interpreted, and, therefore, the scientific traditions of different cultures will always vary, like the facets of a stone.

Russell, who maintains practices in Tucson and Denmark, says that different perspectives don't necessarily translate into greater or lesser degrees of advancement, but he declares that in the case of Western science, advances have sometimes taken inauspicious directions.

Since the Enlightenment, he writes, the West has become increasingly dominated by machines, and our conception of the cosmos has shifted accordingly.

"We tend to view the universe as a complex machine and ourselves as mechanics fixing and repairing the faults, failings and breakdowns of life," he says.

Western medicine, he says, has likewise been shaped by the age of mechanization, and the result is a reductionist view of the body. Russell contends that science fails to see the body as a holistic living system with innate healing powers, but rather as a collection of parts, loosely connected to the environment and each other. As a result, conventional medicine takes an almost adversarial stance towards the body, vastly overusing drugs and surgery in the treatment of illness.

Russell's new book, Healthy Solutions: A Guide to Simple Healing and Healthy Wisdom, written with Tucson author Lynn Wiese Sneyd, attempts to widen our horizons about the body and health. Drawing on a number of ancient medical traditions including Chinese and Ayurvedic, Russell asserts that illness generally stems from ignorance of nature's laws, and that good health naturally occurs when we cooperate with nature.

Of course, the holistic, natural approach to wellness (generally accompanied by an oversimplified, somewhat condescending view of conventional medicine) is the main theme of most alternative health care books, and Russell's work represents no major paradigm shift. It is, however, an accessibly written introduction to holistic medicine, assimilating a wide range of viewpoints into a comprehensive healing philosophy.

This book is primarily composed of a large compendium of herbal, dietary and reflexology therapies, but at its heart is a series of teachings on the nature of the body and how it fits into the bigger scheme of life.

Our bodies, Russell affirms, are complex webs of interconnected processes that sometimes work in paradoxical ways. For example, Russell tells us, most illness is an integral part of the healing process, a sign that the body is functioning properly.

Symptoms--the "language of the body"--appear when the immune system is counteracting the effects of stress, environmental toxins and lifestyle imbalances, such as poor diet and overwork. (Russell believes that microbes don't cause disease, but help the immune system clean and stabilize the body.) Illness, he asserts, is actually an important part of our growth, helping us change self-destructive behavior patterns.

Even death, he says, is not the enemy of life, but rather another way in which life renews itself.

Many ideas in this book do have an intuitive appeal, and its emphasis on natural, minimally invasive forms of therapy are worth exploring. (Who can argue that doctors don't perform many unnecessary operations and prescribe far too many pills?) However, the book's greatest shortcoming, as with alternative medicine in general, is its lack of critical self-evaluation.

Intuition and tradition are important sources of knowledge, but they can take us only so far. At some point, scientific testing--which Russell devalues as being limited to the range of its instruments--is required to help separate viable knowledge from illusion. Conventional medicine, in recent years, has taken a heightened interest in alternative forms of healing, but tests, while promising, are largely inconclusive. Holistic medicine certainly has the potential to transform health care, making it more open-minded and humane. But, for medicine to be truly integrative, it needs to combine the treasures of tradition with the wisdom of empirical science.

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