Friday, February 4, 2011

Analysis #4 - The "Heal" in "Heal(th)"

Cross-cultural studies have shown that the term "healing" can have very different meanings and manifestations in various social and cultural settings. Despite dominance of Western biomedicine, research on traditional forms of healing may reveal the possibility of alternative or ethnomedical methods of healing. For those accustomed to Western knowledge and notions of scientific thought, religious healing appears to be a rather far-fetched concept. The idea of fusing bits of science here and there with what seems to be magical, mystical, or supernatural illusions sounds impractical and inaccurate based on Western standards of medicine. But perhaps hastily overlooking the power that these ethnomedical approaches may hold could be a narrow-minded mistake on our part as they may prove to be just as valuable in various healing processes.

Above is an image from an online blog ( The image is a pyramid depicting the various components of a faith-based healing model. Unlike a biomedical healing model, which would mainly emphasize the need for accurate diagnoses and medical attention, this faith-based healing model incorporates all the different aspects of an individual's life. This is not to say that Western healing processes do not find nutrition, exercise, attitude, support, and meaning and purpose significant in healing patients; the point here is that traditional approaches to healing place a much heavier emphasis on the latter components of healing rather than the purely medical component that is more commonly seen in Western biomedicine. Navajo religious healing is one example of a traditional approach that focuses on the role of diagnosis in a "patient-centered therapeutic process" which "[imbues] narrative with healing power" (Howard & Milne, 544). The above image depicts a medical component of the healing process, which the Navajo exhibits through their emphasis on the fact that the success of a healing ceremony ultimately “is predicated on an accurate diagnosis” (Howard & Milne, 546). Properly diagnosing patients is a medical act in itself since without it, there would be no objective basis on which to determine the most appropriate method of treatment and healing.

Unlike Western medicine, Navajo religious healing processes “collapse the dichotomy between natural and supernatural, as they include physiological, psychological, cultural, social, and spiritual factors” (Howard & Milne, 546). The removal of this dichotomy, along with a loose correlation between symptom and cause, “distinguishes Navajo ethnomedicine from Western medical healing therapies” (Howard & Milne, 546). Western medicine would not approve of the incorporation of the supernatural or spiritual being into medical discourse. However, as Joseph S. Alter asks in his piece on modern medical yoga, “where is the proof that prana flows through the sushumna; where is the evidence that yogis can live forever by stopping their breath and the flow of their semen? Conversely, where is the proof that they cannot? It is the power of these unanswerable questions that makes yoga powerful” (Alter, 141). Alter’s quote is applicable in this context since it addresses the Western medicine’s refusal to consider non-medical traditional forms of medicine. Just like we don’t have any proof to answer Alter’s questions, we also do not know for sure whether or not religious healing processes truly work. The fact that we cannot objectively state with hard evidence that religious healing is invalid may make it all the more possible. 

It is not uncommon in any patient-physician/sufferer-healer relationship to witness varying levels of physician/diagnostician confidence. Despite potential allegations of incompetence, “Navajo people do not abandon the use of diagnosticians, since etiological complexity and the necessity of choosing the right ceremonial course of action make them indispensable to the therapeutic process” (Howard & Milne, 548). The Navajo place much importance on attitude, support, and meaning/purpose. The attitude of an individual (willingness to share private information that may assist during the healing process or genuine sincerity of forgiveness during a Native American Church meeting) may determine whether or not the individual will truly be cured. Both healers and patients emphasize the need to “allow every individual the opportunity to better understand the nature of his own problems, a process that is seen as central to healing efficacy” (Howard & Milne, 551). Through the help of the diagnostician, a patient would be able to see the meaning and purpose behind their assigned healing process. The purpose could mean seeking forgiveness for previous misbehavior (required by the NAC) or coming to one’s one sense of the causes of their maladies through narration.

Even within Navajo religious healing, many differences differentiate the healing processes of the NAC from those of the Traditional Navajo religion. Despite these differences, however, the various “views of cause and treatment can be negotiated to find a common ground, creating an innovative syncretic form” (Howard & Milne, 559). Perhaps this is something we could apply in Western notions of medicine. Rather than forcefully separating ourselves from the more traditional methods of healing, it might be helpful to try and “[bridge] the differences between the two healing systems by incorporating important elements in each” (Howard & Milne, 560). Unlike Western medicine, the Navajo healing processes emphasize the importance of narration and the “effective potential of language itself” (Milne, 564). According to the Navajos, “narration of illness experience is the process by which thought and speech are used to bring the body back to a state of health” (Howard & Milne, 564-565). The focus on helping the patient discover his/her own cause(s) of illness demonstrates the importance that Navajo healing processes place on the individual’s understanding of meaning and purpose as well as the other components involved in accurately diagnosing and treating an ill individual.

Works Cited:

Alter, Joseph S. 2005. “Modern Medical Yoga: Struggling with a History of Magic, Alchemy, and Sex”. Asian Medicine 1(1): 119-146.

Howard, Wilson and Milne, Derek. 2000. “Rethinking the Role of Diagnosis in Navajo
Religious Healing”. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 14(4): 543-570.

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