Updated: Feb 25, 2020
The word “traditional” is used a lot in the world of healthcare. Unfortunately is used in different ways to mean different things, creating a lot of confusion when clients and providers are using it differently.
Traditions are approaches to health and healing commonly used and understood in a specific community. So we may refer to “traditional Aborginal medicine” or “traditional obstetrical practices” or “traditional approaches to arthritis” and mean very different things depending on whose tradition we are discussing. So I try to never use this word. Instead I use specific descriptive terms. I advocate for natural birthing practices that seek to avoid the use of pharmaceuticals and surgery. I refer to Native American Herbal Medicine vs. German organized modern herbal medicine. I specify Ayurvedic nourishing foods vs. Chinese nourishing foods. These are all distinct traditions with distinct approaches and should not be lumped as “traditional medicine”.
Here in the United States we have our own traditions and approaches. We have our own stories and habits surrounding health and healing. It is important to acknowledge these and not become blind to them so we can question whether they are serving us and meeting our needs.
In the US, we largely rely on a scientific approach to medicine. We rely on a small number of experts to measure, correlate, research, quantify, and care for the sick. Standards of care are based on NIH guidelines and CDC statistics. We love the concentrated and purified forms of things because they are powerful and focused and controlled.
Control is the key word here. The practitioner is in control and the patient is being acted upon.
Overall, this approach is aimed at finding a specific, well defined problem and then providing a specific and well defined remedy to the problem. Scientific medicine excels at surgery, genetic anomaly, gross nutritional formulation, and overwhelming acutely life-threatening illness. Basically, if your appendix ruptures or your dog is hit by a car, you want scientific medicine and you want it now.
Scientific medicine is not especially successful for more chronic or degenerative conditions. At least not without complementary approaches added in. Arthritis is not fixed with a pill or a surgery for example. Post partum depression is not fixed by vitamin D supplementation.
Metaphor: The body is a machine that will break down over time and only I can fix it. Though it will never be perfect again once it breaks.
Heroic Traditions exist around the world in many forms. The also rely on a small number of experts, but these experts have specific skills or knowledge gleaned from other healers, not from scientific studies. Healing can only be accomplished by trusting this one expert and following instructions fully. The healer will restore the balance and if we do everything just right, we can maintain the balance with help.
Balance is the key here. Health is a tight rope we walk along. As long as we eat the right thing, do the right exercise, get the right health professional, we can be in perfect balance. Toxins can knock us off balance so we need to “detox” frequently. Anything can be a toxin, a food, a medication, a relationship, an activity.
Heroic Traditions excel at providing life-long practices and products to supplement or replace scientific care. Best for non-acute cases but some practices apply there as well.
Heroic Traditions do not empower people. They empower providers, who are the experts. Health is still reliant on outside sources. There is also an emphasis on perfection here. We get sick and die because we could not maintain perfection. This can easily feed into many unhealthy aspects of our society as a whole. If everything is seen as a toxin, we become more and more selective, creating a restrictive view of the world and a harsh dichotomy and judgement on “good and bad”.
Metaphor: The body must be in balance. Only the experts can help us balance the body. But we are imperfect so we can never maintain perfect health.
This approach is called the “Wise Woman” Tradition by Susun Weed. It is so different from what we are used to that it may take some time to wrap your head around. If you are intrigued and want better descriptions I recommend her book “Healing Traditions”.
Wisdom Traditions sees health as wholeness. Healing is accomplished through nourishment. We attempt to integrate aspects of ourselves and our world to become more whole. Nourishment includes food, plants, nature, relationships, medicines, body work, energy work, spiritual connection, community, etc.
As we go through life and experience illness, it is an opportunity for us to integrate something new into our selves, adding more to our wholeness. We are whole and complete beings at all times, with the ability to become more.
The body is whole. As we experience disease, we can nourish ourselves, to become more.
There is no shaming here. There is no failure. There is nothing “bad”. Even things that are often seen as bad, are present as a way to meet a need or disease. We can find safer and gentler and more nourishing ways to meet that disease. Sometimes those ways will involve experts. But in the beginning and the end, we are the experts on ourselves and we know what our wholeness will look like while they do not.
I always think of perilla mint. This plant is common and usually causes no problems. In fact it has some healthy properties. However, if cattle are in a small area or an area that they are not comfortable with, they can eat large quantities of this plant, resulting in toxicity. The plant is not evil. The cow is experiencing a “dis-ease” while not having adequate pasture access or by feeling fearful of exploring the larger pasture accessible. So to meet this “dis-ease” it stays in one place and eats what is easily available. We can help nourish this animal in a better way, not by burning the perilla mint or spraying roundup, but by providing a better pasture access.
While I utilize many techniques of scientific and heroic tradition practitioners, such as research and pharmaceuticals and body workers and energy medicine experts, I try to always approach my cases with the mindset of the Wise Woman. What can I do here to facilitate wholeness? How can I nourish this patient?