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The Natural Health Service with Satish Kumar

Peace and environmental change activist Satish Kumar believes Western medicine is about curing, while Eastern medicine is about caring. Karen Charlesworth from ACU magazine and the British Acupuncture Council talked with him about nature, medicine and integrating it all together.

Acu: What do you believe is the connection between nature and health?

SK: In a very simple sense, I believe that many of our health problems come from disconnection. I mean disconnection in its broadest possible sense – disconnection from nature, from other people, from your own spiritual and emotional self. All this is ground in which the roots of ill-health can flourish. It is the same with emotion. If you are angry, greedy, proud, if your ego is at the front of everything you do, then you are not balanced in yourself and you are really quite disconnected from yourself and also from other people. And this again is a cause of ill-health. You can isolate yourself very easily in the Western world – you can be just stuck in front of a computer or the TV or an iPad, and then you are in a virtual world, an unreal world. By being in nature – by being by a river or an ocean, or in a forest, or just walking on a hillside and watching clouds and animals around you – you are connected with a more real world, a world of things and physical reality, and that is a big thing that helps to keep you healthy.

Acu: Do you think cities are causes of ill-health, because there is less nature in a city?

SK: Absolutely. People live in air-conditioned, centrally heated houses, they go to work in air-conditioned, centrally heated houses, they sit in front of the TV eating, all in environments where nature is controlled and excluded. They have hardly any chance of being themselves, being in nature, reconnecting themselves to the earth: they are always doing rather than being, and always they are doing in this unnatural environment. It is very unhealthy!

Acu: What do you understand by the concept of health?

SK: My idea of health is about keeping healthy, not waiting until things go wrong to go to a doctor. I believe in what I call a Natural Health Service, where you keep your body active, you take simple exercise for the body and the spirit, you spend at least one hour every day in nature, and you eat healthy food that isn’t dead or dying. Our National Health Service in the UK has become a National Illness Service, because it only treats ill people. By the time you notice symptoms, it is too late – you are already out of balance, and if you go to your GP they will only treat the symptoms. In some countries, Eastern doctors get paid when the patients on their lists don’t get ill. But there is no understanding of the cause, no tackling the cause, in Western medicine. This is not healing. It is not an integrated view.

Acu: Two years ago, our government passed the Health and Social Care Act, and a big part of that focuses on public, preventative health. Is this a good thing, in your view?

SK: It is a more enlightened approach. I know the NHS is overburdened, you wait in queues to see doctors, and this is partly why they must try to keep people out of hospital. But whatever the reasons, it is also a good thing to encourage people to be more aware of the way they live, and how they treat their bodies, to focus on diet, exercise, lifestyle, relationships. It will have some effect to make us all healthier, and to make us think harder about how our choices about how we live, affect our health.

Acu: How is Eastern medicine connected to nature?

SK: Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, Western herbalism, they are all connected to nature, and they understand the illness in its context. It is a healthier form of medicine, partly because it takes in that background, and partly because it is focused on staying healthy, keeping well, maintaining your sense of spiritual and emotional and physical health, rather than on correcting illness after it has started. Yoga is very obviously connected to nature - it uses animal forms, and things like Tai C’hi are done outside, in nature – you can’t really do Tai C’hi inside, in a room, or not very effectively. Also, to see your food as your medicine is a very Eastern philosophy, also connected to nature because these things grow in nature. Cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, black pepper – all these things are very good for health, and they are part of Eastern medicine, they are not a pill in a box. Eating fresh food, that isn’t wrapped in plastic and kept in a fridge, or frozen, eating more vegetables and not as much meat, it is all part of connecting yourself to nature, and it is all part of a holistic medicine approach.

Acu: Is healing the planet and healing human beings related?

SK: Completely and totally related, absolutely. Humans are like the organs or the limbs of the planet. The planet is one body, Gaia, and trees are organs, as are animals, oceans and humans. And you cannot have a sick planet and healthy people. To have healthy people, you need healthy forests and rivers, air, soil – if the soil is full of poisons and chemicals and fertilisers, it is contaminated, and so are the plants and foods that grow in it. If a river is poisoned, so are the fish that swim in it. If air is polluted, the living things that breathe that air, that eat the food that grows in that soil, they are also poisoned. Healing the planet and healing the human, they are two sides of the same coin; we must work towards political and social and economic systems that are all focused on keeping our planet pure, clean, sacred. We must created legislation to stop people polluting water systems, putting animals in factory farms, using chemicals to control nature. Whatever we do to the planet, we do to ourselves.

Acu: What do you believe are the biggest barriers to acceptance of traditional medicine in the (Western) world today?

SK: I would say without a doubt, the single biggest obstacle to change is the Western mindset, the obsession we have with treating symptoms and not looking at causes. There is so little integration, so little wholeness, in the Western way of life that we all wait until we’re in pain or suffering symptoms, and then we think we’re unwell. But in fact the problem always started long before we notice symptoms.

We don’t think in terms of living a healthy life, we think in terms of curing illnesses. It is about isolating the symptom, just as individual people in Western culture can be very isolated; health is not just about having no symptoms. We’re very focused on curing cancer, but Western medicine never asks “why do we get cancer in the first place?” I believe Western medicine is curative, about isolating and curing the symptom, but Eastern forms of medicine, they are more about prevention than cure. I see it as caring versus curing. About staying healthy, not about waiting to get ill and then curing it.

Acu: What do you understand by the concept of integration, when it comes to health?

SK: When we integrate, we integrate our spiritual, mental, physical, and natural work – they are all one continuum. Within our one body, we have all we need – we have a mind to think, a heart to feel, hands to make, legs to walk, our bodies are holistic and complete systems. And the body is a microcosm of a macrocosm: it is a part of the entire continuum of living things. The word “nature” comes from “natal”, the root of which means “to be born” – so everything that is born is part of this continuum. The mistake we have made in Western culture is to think of ourselves as above, superior to, this continuum.

We try very hard in the Western world to control nature. We can’t do it. We can’t subjugate it or conquer it or bend it to our will, that idea is a very modern Western mindset. It starts from the thought that human beings are superior to nature. When we think that, it is an illusion, and it isolates us – it is a false idea because everything is connected. Western medicine is an attempt to control nature, to change the course of illness or the natural processes of our bodies; Eastern medicine does not try to control, does not position itself as controlling, but instead it works with the whole ofthe system that is there, balancing, caring for it, helping it to flourish and to prevent it becoming so unbalanced that it becomes ill.

Acu: As practitioners of acupuncture, what would you say our planet needs most from us?

SK: I think it is humility that our planet needs most from all of us, not just medical practitioners, but every human being on the planet. A sense of understanding that every living thing on our living planet has its own intrinsic value. As human beings, our attempt to dominate nature means that, for instance, we think trees are good because they are useful to us. But trees have their own intrinsic value, in their own terms, not just because of their use to us as human beings. We have acknowledged human rights, but we also need to understand the rights of nature, the rights of animals, the rights of plants. Everybody has the right to be as they are, and who they are. This is the idea of reverential ecology: all life, not only human life, even the life of an earthworm or a honeybee, the minutest of minute, has its right to be as it is. If anything diminishes, the whole system diminishes: evolution creates diversity, but as human beings we have created a situation in which our food diversity, our linguistic diversity, our ethnic diversity, they are all diminishing, and as we diminish those things, so we diminish our world. Nothing is expendable. We must care for the whole of who we are, both for ourselves as humans, and for our planet as the environment that nurtures us, so that every single one of us can flourish and enjoy good health in the widest possible sense.

Reprinted with kind permission of the British Acupuncture Council. Copyright shared between the British Acupuncture Council and Satish.

Meet the author

Satish Kumar, Visionary, teacher, pilgrim

Satish Kumar is a man of big ideas and much passion. A former monk, he has been an activist for peace and environmental change for over 50 years. At the age of nine, he joined the wandering Jains, and at 18 began to campaign for land reform in his native India. In his early 20s, he embarked on an 8,000 mile peace pilgrimage from India to America, via Moscow, London and Paris, delivering a packet of ‘peace tea’ to the leaders of the world’s four nuclear powers. In 1973, Satish settled in the UK, taking up the post of editor of Resurgence magazine, a post he has held ever since. He is a visiting fellow of Schumacher College, where he continues to teach workshops on holistic education, voluntary simplicity and reverential ecology. Acu asked him about health and medicine – and discovered that, for Satish, it’s all connected.

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