Full text of physician David Reilly’s talk: Human Healing Unlocked: transforming suffering into wellbeing at TEDxFindhornSalon conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
David Reilly – Physician
I want to talk about human healing and the puzzle of unlocking it.
And it’s a puzzle, I hope, to encourage you to become involved in and to wonder about, because it is very relevant for us collectively, but it is also very relevant for you individually. In private times of your life, it will prove critical.
What do I mean by the healing, human healing? If you cut yourself and it heals. And if you break your heart, it tries to do the same; that is remarkable.
If you just stand back and think what that is, I don’t know what it is by the way. I don’t know what life is, and I don’t really know what healing is. What one patient said to me once, after we had a chat about stuff like this, he said, “I don’t know what healing is, doctor, but I am really into it.” Right?
And that would sum me up, I think, because it is a mystery we may never understand; it is a characteristic of life itself. And we don’t know what life is.
But, you know, a gardener may not know how a plant grows but it doesn’t stop them becoming a master of helping that growth. And that is the inquiry I would like to invite you into, to reflect on as we sit together, tonight.
Beginning to wonder, what unlocks that natural ability in people?
Now, I will throw out some clues as best I can, as we go along. And the first clue I would like to do is just a simple action. I wonder what is in that simple act. Life responds to nurture, and the simplest of action can produce a transformative change if that action is something to release a strength, which is already inherent, already present.
And so, the power for healing is there within our bones, and our blood, our body, and our spirit, and our life, waiting.
But what are the actions that support it and could help it? And what does a plant do that has been neglected of water and it is given sun? Does it say, “So, you think you will come along, look after me now then?” it responds, with no story, no past, no resentment. It responds. It is forgiveness itself.
And as it does, all it wants to do is bring through the repair, and the healing, and the well-being, and the creativity, and the joy that characterizes life itself.
We don’t make these things. They make us. It is life that brings that gift. When I use the word ‘life,’ I don’t mean your life situation; we have all got one of them. And of course, if it is going well at the moment, it is going to be dipping; and if it is going low at the moment, it is going to be improving. It is, that is the way that when I say life, I mean your heart beating; what beats your heart.
Speaking of clues and talking about plants, I would ask you to think, for a moment, of your own lack of well-being, or distress, or suffering and difficulty. And bearing that in mind, and answer this silly question: If you were a plant, what shape are you in? Just you might want to close your eyes for a second, but maybe just let an image appear.
Okay, so, have you got an image? How they’re looking, I wonder. Could they be looking better? Drop your hand if it could be looking better. Yeah, right. This is a shared situation. I wonder what it needs. I wonder what it needs, the plant of your own life. And I wonder how you are doing in supplying its needs. That is if there is a mirror I would like to hold up to you, that it would be that tonight.
So often, sadly, we are denying the plant’s basic needs, which denies it the opportunity to genuinely flourish. So, the use of the imagination, as we have just done, to see ourselves from the outside can be one of the unlocking dimensions of healing actually, to see ourselves as other seers, rather than the locked-in state.
And that image, you might allow it to reappear on and off as I am chatting with you.
And then, the third clue I would like to give you is, my first image I would like to use. This is it. It is quite good, yeah? It might be a bit of focus. What is it? Is it a blank? Is it a picture of darkness? What do you see in it, I wonder? If this was the darkness that is part of your own life and you were looking into it, I wonder what you would see and how you see it? Do you see it as an abyss with the hopelessness that that brings?
And maybe, you would like to just like feel that feeling that you will have felt in the face of suffering and darkness. Okay. Maybe, if we change the image a bit, what if it is a canvas? Maybe it is even a canvas, waiting for the light of dawn. As you do that, can you feel a slight shift in your physiology or your feelings or how you might tackle the difficulty of the darkness?
But there is an image I see in it that, for me, is even more effective. I see a seed lying behind this and within this. And the nature of a seed is that it waits, and it waits for the conditions. And when they are supplied, it begins to germinate. Do you know that there were some seeds found in the Siberian permafrost in the last few years, that actually were 30,000 years old? And the researchers described, and it is the actual phrase they use, ‘Planting it with love and care.’
And do you know that some of those seeds germinated after the wait of 30,000 years. This is one of them, which then came to flower. And for some seeds, you need cold darkness. It is one of the prerequisites for the emergence of new life, and for the emergence of recovery, and the emergence of healing.
And actually, our suffering may be a gift in many ways. What do you need for that to be a possibility for you? Well, using my years of medical experience and looking around the audience, I would say, it is present in everybody because as far as I can see your heart is still beating, right? That is the main clinical sign, when it comes to working this way.
Life responds to nurture. Life responds to nurture. How are you doing with that?
Let us look at another young life form and ask ourselves, how they are doing? This is Karina, my daughter, at the age of four. How are we doing with our children? What is their future, I wonder? She and the other girls in Scotland have a 55% chance of significant psychological distress by the age of 15.
What do you make of that? Is that not outrageous? We are failing in some way. This is not successful nurture. And we know from the science that the more chronic stress, the more disease, and the earlier death.
Will she become one of those who develop diabetes? That is now 1 in 11 of humanity on this planet. It is at pandemic levels, measured in over 400 million people. It used to be called maturity onset; the name has been changed to type 2, I do not know if you know why, because it is happening earlier and earlier. It is now turning up in school children in Scotland, and some of our teenagers are coming to amputations in their twenties.
Last year, there was a preschool child with diabetes in Scotland; the type 2, which is related to lifestyle. Now, we are at 5% in the UK; at 5% that is using 10% of the NHS budget. Okay, now Doha, for example, Qatar, where I teach, it is at 17%. Can you see what is happening and will happen to the health care system and our budgets? We are in the depths of epidemics… epidemics which are not yielding to our current maps. We could go on, people in here, we have a one in three chance of a heart attack, one in three chance of a stroke, one in two chance of a cancer.
Is Karina going to end up in the same hole as we are in, that 40% of the people in this space, adults will have one long term condition? And if you have one, you are going to have more than one.
Can you see why the NHS is under the strain it is under? Someone described it this week, the health service is operating on a platform that is on fire. Can you see why the staff themselves are so under stress? And in fact, it becomes obvious, the staff are no healthier than the patients whom they are looking after.
So we go to them and say how might I flourish in the modern world? And they do not know. We are actually in this together. This hole, how to get out of it, began to concern me early, as a medical student, as the shock hit me that the technology and the drugs and the science I was learning, was not stopping the epidemics and would not stop them, and it will not stop them.
I don’t know if you have really confronted that yet. This image, I would offer, is an image of our suffering and the cry that we have of searching for a new way; we need a new way. And as I began to do that in my middle years of my career, I want to tell you about a patient I worked with, and called Andrea.
At that stage, I had set up an experimental clinic, where I would see people if the pain relief clinic had failed. So, I think you can understand the sort of people I would be sitting with. The toolkit was bust, and so were they in so many ways. And they became my teachers of the possible way out of the hole.
And Andrea, I met in 1984, and she was a young woman. Here is a picture of her, just two years before that when she was aged 19 and was marrying. And when she came to see me, she had an appointment card to remove her bladder. Her bladder had not worked since she was seven, at all. It would not let go, as she described it; it would simply fill up and erratically flood. Drugs were not helping, injections had failed, and intensive examination under X-rays of putting dye in the bladder to watch for it when it reflexively contracts; that is a biological reflex. They had to abandon the test because it would not contract.
So, they repeated it under general anesthetic, and it still would not contract. And this is an important clue here, I would like you to hang on to when later when we talk about precipitating healing responses or triggering healing responses.
So, she came to see me. we held the sort of meeting, I was beginning to try and become competent at, where she would feel safe, we would feel connected, there would be deep listening, there would be an honoring of the old story, but there would be an opening of hope of a new story.
And we have this consultation. She goes home that night, to the hotel in Glasgow rather, and she has a dream. And in this dream, she gets a memory; a memory that the age of seven, someone had been going around the streets, looking in the bathroom windows. And she was a very willful, intelligent, bright girl. And she came back to see me the next day and said, “That is it. That is the answer. I have the answer. This will fix this.”
I said, “Let us see.” So, off she went. and it is months later, she comes back a second time to sit with me and say, “No, nothing happened.”
So, I have been looking at non-drug methods of trying to help people, and one of them was hypno-analysis. And I said, “Can we do some hypnosis together?”
She said, “No, I do not do that.” And I hit the wall and I slid down.
The realization that I had been trapped with a particular tool at that time, she pushed me off my map. And in the moment, I said, “Okay, do you have a daydream?”
She said, “All the time.”
I said, “Oh, just daydream.”
So, we daydreamed together, and the past was visited and emotions were expressed. Words of safety were offered, a different way of looking at things was offered. And after that, she got worse, much worse. That lasted for 12 hours and then she healed completely. The thing went back to normal and has remained normal since.
And I phoned Andrea yesterday and we spoke for the first time since 1986, and she sent me these photographs. And she has remained well since that point. She has also been trying to get pregnant and she was told that she would never hold a pregnancy because of the weight and pressure of the bladder. And then she reminded me that almost immediately after her work together, she got pregnant.
And then, I was the first person she phoned, and not her husband. But I think I am not supposed to tell him that. She was one of my teachers. And the years that that followed on from there, I had to begin to retrain myself.
What I realized is, I had been trained to see people’s brokenness, from the science of the 400 years. And to look, to become like an apprentice to Descartes watchmaker, look for the broken part and trying to fix it; very honorable, a wonderful map of the world that I saw yield such life-saving benefit in acute care, that I still use, I am trained as a consultant physician.
But in this context, with people like Andrea and others, it just did not work. And I found, I had to undergo a shift. I am looking into that darkness. And I began to see people’s strengths. So, this was really quite fundamental to me. If I had been a watchmaker and I became a gardener, a human gardener, and I would ask questions like, you have got to watch the timing of this, how come you are not dead? Right? It is quite a powerful question. And listened and listened to the answer.
And over the years, hundreds and then going into thousands of occasions, becoming amazed by the capacity of people to begin to recover. Can you imagine if I had given Andrea, after our meetings, a prescription? What the follow-up conversation would have been about? What a fantastic medicine, how quickly did it act, how will we get you a repeat? She and I would have been completely robbed of this inquiry; how do you unlock human healing? What is it? What can it do? What can it not do?
And indeed, I would like to issue a news flash at this point, because there is a risk and a shadow of speaking of human healing and capacity. The news flash would be, ‘it is normal to suffer. It is normal to get sick and aged. It is normal to die.’ Yes, I am not suggesting that a study of human healing will somehow get us out of that situation, but as Andrea shows, we have much more potential, I think, than we realize; and it is a universal potential.
Here is a piece of science about it. From the new research techniques at the turn of the century, it is why I am showing this piece, people given antidepressants and benefiting from them, feeling better, and questionnaires improved, put in the brain scanner, and showing improvement on the left prefrontal cortex above the eye. Great. But so do the people who respond to placebo… feel better, questionnaires showing improvement, and the brain scan changing.
There has been a treasure hidden here all along. What is this? You know, can you see that you could spend a lifetime wondering about this and examining this? What do you think, by the way, happened when they were told they were on placebo? Collapsed. And what did you have to do? Go on to a real medicine. Doctor, my story’s broken. Can you help me fix it? Yeah.
Wisdom traditions of course, also hold much knowledge of this. But imagine if it is a culture and as individuals, we really got intrigued by this. And could stories from Andrea and many many people like her that I have worked with, could it scale up? Can, as a colleague of Phil Hanlon said, from public health when he heard one of these stories, he asked me, “How can we take this and scale it to the level of a nation?” Isn’t that a delicious question? I have no idea, okay?
But I am thinking about it and maybe you could join me thinking about it. But what I was able to do, attending my part of the garden, was to ask, “Could this be scaled into groups?” And the answer is, yes.
So, taking groups of 20 at a time about, I have taken about two and a half thousand people through these group programs, where they have this conversation, and they address their self-care and the condition of the plant, and hear the science and wonder, what they might do? Significant improvements we saw, this is some of the science of it, in psychological well-being; tracked over nine months, and we saw this pattern. A rise and sustained rise in psychological well-being, with no shift during the baseline period.
And we also saw similar tremendous improvements in coping fatigue and main complaint.
Now, what I would like you to notice is, this was 20 hours at the beginning of that year, and yet you are seeing a growing sustained change. This is what we are after. And we also saw objective changes in fasting insulin levels, which are a marker for the diabetes.
In fact, we saw that after the year, one in two people with this raised level of insulin had sustained reduction, and one in four, and it was no longer pre-diabetic. Like, you just pause for a second and think of the implications of that for public health. The answer and a power lying in individuals’ hands, to begin to transform their own health and their own life, when we move from the fix-it map to a map of releasing capacity.
Okay, so the question arises, how did they do it? How is that done? And the answer is, improve your self-care. That is rather straightforward statement, isn’t it? But why is it so hard for us? Why is it so hard? Let us see, so how did they improve their self-care?
Well, they shifted their map. Our habits written into our minds; here is a nerve cell, cut through, and you can see the wraps around of the insulation. This is a pathway of thought. Inner maps are embodied. We do what we do, for reasons, but they are often subconscious; they are habit patterns picked up from family and culture, and experiences.
Have you ever followed a satnav to the wrong place? Okay. And you know that pool where it tells you to go right, and you know it is not right, and yet, just, you know how difficult it is to go against it. Maps are extremely clever, but they have no intelligence. And if we find ourselves in a hole, individually or collectively, we should ask, what maps have I been following?
And if you change the map, the journey changes. Even without willpower, which is overrated; and without information, which is overrated. How many books have you got on your shelves? How many gyms have you joined? The exercise equipments in the garage, whatever it is, resolutions that fade away, do you know, why? Because you are up against a map. You are up against mechanism. Do not take yourself so personally. Right? Begin to understand how the mind is working.
Okay, so how did they change their map? Right? What do you think? They activated self-compassion. How did they do that? They certainly did it, as this image shows. Again, you see that same pattern; see the sustained rise over the nine months of self-compassion.
Now, forget about the word ‘self’ in an egoic sense. Okay. I am talking about a compassion towards your life; that beats your heart. And can you understand the difference for that? And what this compassion activates is self-sustaining self-care.
How did they do that? Right. How do you activate yourself compassion, and make that sustain itself? What do you think? You have to find a reason, a sustaining motivation, a deeper purpose that will then unlock the nurturing instinct. You have a nurturing instinct. It is already built in, you do not need to learn about it.
But how do you activate it towards your own life? This is tough. I spoke of the darkness; here is two maps of darkness. Two journeys of care flow from it. You can see the suffering as the enemy, and what do you then do? You attack it. Is that working for you when you attack your suffering? Because if it is, you stick with it. Okay.
Or what if your distress and suffering is a plant with dripping leaves? What reflex do you feel rising in yourself? A friend in need is what your life is. And if you began to view it the way that you do a friend in need and shifted from the enemy and attack, remarkable things happen. Can we go back to that image of the plant that you formed at the beginning? And I was beginning to ask you, what does it need? Maybe you would like to return to that plant now, and just ask it, what is it needing?
And tell me, who is the gardener? Whose plant is it? Yeah. Give yourself a self-gardening score out of 10. Yeah. Pop your hand if it could be better. Yeah.
Well, here is the secret. See if you improve that, something will happen; some change will begin. But you are going to have to do, how could I put it? Do you know something, most people would not treat a dog the way they treat themselves. Is that not true? You would be horrified to see someone feed their pet the junk food and the junk liquid that you take, to deprive it of sleep, to deprive it of movement, and of peace, and of play. You would be quite horrified, if someone treated a child that way.
What about that voice in your head? And I know you have one. What does it say to you? But how about we make it a dog here and we say it to the dog, you know, look at you. You know, I am ashamed of you; you are a failure; you are a mess; you are too fat; you are too thin; all you want is food, day in day out. Give me a break.
How is the dog reacting? Thinking, I am living with an idiot. Right? Yeah. People, if you could open your heart to your life, and show it the respect and care that you would show another that you loved and cared for, then you will find that shift over time that will sustain.
And I would like to just finish by saying, I got a little letter in 2008 from a first-year medical student, who said and asked me, could she come and learn with me, and to act in a more healing way? And she went on to say, by the way she said, “My mum is Andrea and I am the result of that pregnancy, and because of it, I want to become a doctor and try and help other people.”
Okay. Thank you.