A Modern Look at the Ancient Art of Healing

Avaton of Epidaurus - By Jean Housen (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

When we are ill we so often focus on what to do; a knife, a pill, a behavior change, your diet. Yet underlining any therapy is a process for its delivery that often produces more of an effect than the treatment itself. Let’s explore that process; the “how” of healing, and contrast it with the “what”. So often the “how” of healing involves spiritual engagement and activity.

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Avaton of Epidaurus – By Jean Housen (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Explore the Ancient City of Medicine

A visit to Epidaurus, the ancient city of medicine where the Hippocratic school of medicine was founded reveals how ancient Greeks believed healing happens:


  • Finding meaning of disease: At the center was the Oracle where the key diagnosis was made describing, in spiritual and astrological terms, the cause and prognosis of illness. It is there that the “meaning” of one’s illness was revealed, combining the spiritual and physical.


  • Supporting and strengthening health: Surrounding that were the “Hygeia school” areas where health was strengthened and supported. A garden for outdoor work and whole foods, a gymnasium for exercise, hot baths and massage for relaxation and a theater where the drama of social life was worked out. These core components – nature, diet, exercise, relaxation and social integration – formed the components that support optimal health and recovery even today.


  • Seeking treatment: Surrounding these were the treatment clinics that followed the “Asclepian school” areas. These treatments sought to either stimulate ones inherent healing powers (often through some harsh approach to cleansing or catharsis) or to eliminate the continuing cause of the disease, if it could be determined.


But they had no real science to find those causes or to know how to stimulate specific healing mechanisms. Today, we largely do. In the last 50 years there has been an explosion of knowledge on how we treat disease and facilitate healing.


How has our view of healing changed today?

The figures below show two ways to display these core components of human flourishing. Maslow had it largely right but we now know that these components are not hierarchical. They go from a central core of “purpose and meaning” (called “spiritual” in the left figure and “purpose” in the right figure). This central core of healing is derived from self-knowledge and faith (the modern “Oracle”). It is supported by the life context and behaviors that create health.

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The core components are:

  • good nutrition
  • a clean environment
  • movement and rest
  • psychological resilience/stress
  • social integration 

Remarkably, the basic philosophy of the ancient Hippocratic School still holds more than 2,000 years later, although the underlying causes and cures have changed. Basically, the health supporting components follow the same structure we can walk around even today at Epidaurus.


Stimulating Healing

When we are stuck in illness, healthy lifestyle is not enough. We need to stimulate and “prod” our healing mechanisms into action. However, unlike in ancient Greece, we now can be quite precise in that stimulation through what is called the adaptation response.

  • The adaptation response occurs when a person experiences or perceives a threat or attack on their body, mind or spirit. When this happens, the person responds by up regulating his or her defense and recovery mechanisms. These recovery mechanisms produce healing. Figure below shows the basic pattern of stimulus-response that underlies the health adaptation response.


A vaccine is a prime example of the adaptation response. So is exercise; fasting; a psychological stressor; a toxin, exposures to heat, cold, oxygen, needles, a personal insult or a physical trauma. This stimulus-adaptation response can be controlled to produce healing with chemical, energetic or physical exposures. These are the modern equivalents of the herbs and cathartics given out at Epidaurus.


And Cure?

So what about cure? Where does that come in? If meaningfulness, health support and healing stimulation are the three sides of Hygeia and produce 80% of the benefit, cure (Asclepius) becomes the final leg of our healing stool. Removal of the cause and treatment of the consequence are keys to complete health and a responsive health care system. These are where the anti-disease treatments of the modern era have excelled. This completes the last 20% of health creation.

So as we advance our knowledge in the areas of disease treatment, let us not forget the value of health creation that the Father of Modern medicine understood all those years ago.