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Check out the Post-TED Interview
Before we talk about your work at Tai Sophia, I’d like to ask about your TED talk. How did you come to give that talk? Did you have any initial reservations?
Last year I was on an organizing committee for a Bioneers conference in Baltimore, and I spoke at that conference. One of the other organizers of the Bioneers event happened to be on the organizing committee for TEDx Mid-Atlantic, and she nominated me to speak at TED. I had no hesitation about doing it. TED is a vehicle for bringing our conceptual framework into the wider world — for bringing a new thinking to many issues our society faces. Society has been asking the wrong questions about a lot of those issues. I think it was Einstein who said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” He emphasized that we must raise new questions and look at old problems from a new angle. That’s what we must do in the healthcare arena. And that’s what we can do with our breakthrough conceptual framework. So, I had no hesitation in joining in the TED conversation. It was a wonderful opportunity.
For those who didn’t hear the TED talk, what are the “wrong” questions we ask in the American healthcare system?
Our system is focused almost entirely on “How do we cure it? How do we fix it?” We need to be asking what our symptoms can teach us about living well. That way, our symptoms become our friends. After the TED talk, I got a wonderful response from a woman who told me, “I’m an athlete, a champion swimmer, and I have asthma.” Then she said, “Thank you for saying that asthma is my friend. My asthma has taught me how to breathe.” If you’re just focused on fixing or subduing the symptoms, that’s a very different conversation than saying those early wheezes are reminding you to live well. Everyone has five or six small symptoms; and if they paid attention to those symptoms, they would live healthier lives. We’ve done studies that show you can treat people and their symptoms go away, but they’re not satisfied. So we began to explore what creates patient satisfaction. It turns out that the satisfied patients were those who said they now understand how they generate their symptoms.
You have a very diverse background, with several different degrees. How were you able to condense your life experiences and knowledge into a 20-minute talk?
I didn’t. I just picked out a key theme and stayed with it. The key theme was that every word we speak matters. So if I go into a 7-11 (this is probably one of the things you heard me say in the TED talk), and I growl and am nasty with the clerk, and then the clerk is nasty with next person, and then that person goes home and slaps his kid around — who slapped the child around? Where did that stream of upsets start?
A main point was that every single thing we do impacts everybody else. That’s one major thread that comes out of my [academic] studies. I’m very aware that in the modern West there’s a dominant school of thought, now spreading worldwide, that focuses on the individual, on me — on the view that I’m important and separate and have the right to do pretty much what I want. Other cultures haven’t emphasized that. They’ve said, “I am responsible for everybody around me in the way I speak, in my touching, in my ways of living; and I’m accountable to the whole of our society.” It’s themes such as this that have driven my work for 50 years.
I had an extraordinary mentor in Ivan Illich, a man the Times of London called one of the most influential persons of the 20th century. Ivan, who died five years ago, mentored me for 50 years as I honed my learning. Yes, I have degrees in theology and humanistic psychology and community studies, in acupuncture and philosophy — all that comes together in the themes I just mentioned, including the theme of our interconnection, a theme that’s now confirmed by modern physics. Modern physics will tell you that everything you do touches the molecules in everybody else. My actions, my thoughts, are contagious to the people around me, and I’m responsible for them.
So that was the basis of my TED talk. My talk wasn’t focused on theory; I was giving people very specific practices they can do today. For example, I started off with the practice of acknowledgment. I made sure people in the audience were acknowledged and asked them, “Do you get enough acknowledgment in life? Do you get enough listening — do people listen to you enough?” Most people don’t get enough listening or acknowledgment or warmth or hugs. Everybody’s starved for it. These are very practical applications and very easy to do. So the presentation focused on practices, not theory.
You studied traditional religion at St. Joseph’s Seminary, and your TED talk focused a lot on general spirituality. How did you make this move towards a more spiritual vs. dogmatic approach, and how does it reflect in your work at Tai Sophia?
From a very early age, because of a mentor like Ivan Illich, I was very aware of the spiritual quality of religion. And I realized that much of what we call religion focuses on a fixed belief system that teaches our way is right and other ways are wrong. Yet when we look deeply into these diverse religions, we discover a common bottom line: We are all one; and it’s our task to be respectful and honor life. I was in conversation last night with some physicians about the Qur’an, the Bible, and the Bhagavad Gita. You can read each of these sacred texts two ways: You can read them dogmatically where “mine is better than yours,” or you can read them as all echoing the same call from different cultures to large-minded humanity — being respectful of nature, learning from nature and learning from each other, and respecting each other’s world. These are bottom-line principles in our work at Tai Sophia.
You also talked about the issue of change. How does that show up in your work?
The Chinese definition of life is change. One of the ancient Chinese texts uses the metaphor of the rice pot: The point of life is to keep enough water in the pot, enough rice, and enough of a fire under it so that the lid goes up and down. “Keep the lid on the rice pot moving,” they say. Life is always changing. When I do public speaking, I get a good laugh (often a nervous laugh) when I ask the audience, “Have you noticed that every time you get it together, 10 minutes later life falls apart?” Life is a dance between birth and death, and our goal is to get from birth to death as peacefully as we can. We work with our patients on that goal. Life and nature are about constant change and adaptability.
The theme of this particular TED talk was storytelling. How does storytelling relate to what you do at Tai Sophia?
Here’s a question to ask yourself (and a question I’ll ask a patient): How does the story you’re telling make you feel, and is it true? Could you have a better story? In the TED talk I used the dramatic example of my father’s story of my mother’s death. Most people say, “Oh my God! Your mother died in childbirth when you were three? And you had to move out of the house, and got moved around among grandparents and uncles and aunts? How terrible! What a tragedy for a young boy!”
Well, my father never told me what happened in that way. He told it this way: “You’re a very privileged young boy. Most boys have their mother right here with them. Your mother,” he said (and he would point up to a star if were evening), “Your mother is at the right hand of God, so you are protected for life. You are a very special young boy.”
I could have grown up with either story — “You poor thing,” or “Wow, you’re a very special kid.” Which story would you rather live with? What’s true? I don’t know. What I do know is that I like that story. So I’ve lived my life thinking, “Wow, I’m privileged.”
Are your stories big enough to live in? You probably have stories about relatives and friends in your life. The question is, are those stories big enough to make you feel good? Or do they create pain? If they create pain, enjoy the pain or change the story.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your TED experience?
I think what’s needed now, and what we have to do, is to build a wellness workforce for America. We need a wellness taskforce that can bring what we’ve talked about to every grade-school teacher so that the next generation grows up knowing about their bodies and how to create wellness.
The wellness workforce is going to be one of the nation’s fastest growing areas — one of the few areas where there is job growth. It’s going to be a wealthy area because it’s the only corner of healthcare that can cut costs. People invest in wellness because of the amount of money they save with very simple interventions and practices such as the ones we’ve discussed.
So the implication of what we’ve talked about here is that the United States develop a wellness workforce — a workforce that brings wellness into our schools and our workplaces and everyday life, everywhere in our nation.
For more conversation with Bob Duggan about Tai Sophia, wellness and more, click here.
Photos courtesy of Christiana Aretta: http://www.flickr.com/photos/xiana-aretta/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, TEDTalks video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group. These local, self-organized events are branded TEDx, where x=independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized. TEDxMidAtlantic is operated under license from TED. The TEDxMidAtlantic media contact is Daniel Waldman at 443-326-3444 or email@example.com.
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