Dr John Porter is a Western trained allopathic practitioner who works and studies in international public health and for many years has been drawn towards the ancient health traditions in India and China. He asks, “Why is it that the West is unable to see the importance and depth of these extraordinary traditions with their ancient teachings and healings?”
Dr Porter was in Poonthottam Ayurvedasram in Pallakad in Kerala, recently. In a conversation with the Center for Soft Power, Dr Porter describes his journey in understanding and following Ayurvedic principles of health and well-being.
Dr Porter: “The art and science of medicine has always been important to me. How the practitioner links these parts of himself to his work and how he uses his skills to provide the most appropriate treatments for his patients, is both an art and a skill and ultimately rests in the integrity of the healer. For many years I have been working with a Chinese practitioner who has kept me well and more recently with Ayurveda practitioners who are providing me with new insights into health and well-being. Because Ayurveda is about ‘the knowledge of life’ it does not attach its main focus to ‘disease’, unlike allopathic medicine. Allopaths are constantly looking for problems and looking for things in individuals that might harbour illness. The Ayurveda practitioner and the Traditional Chinese practitioner in contrast is looking for the best in people and encouraging them to be balanced and therefore to be healthy.
Swasthya – ‘being rooted within’ is a wonderful Sanskrit word that describes health and one which I use frequently with students to try and encourage them to look inside themselves for an understanding of ‘health’. For the past two years I have been working with Indian colleagues on the concept of the 4th tier of the Health Service which is about ‘Population Self Reliance’ in health. The problem that the work force in India and other parts of the world now faces with the corporatisation of health and the increasing power of the pharmaceutical industry is that individuals have lost/forgotten the ancient traditions around food, exercise, community, relationship and nature that provide us with our support and nourishment. We no longer understand anything about our bodies and how they stay balanced if we give them the opportunity. The ‘old wives’ tales of old, have always provided people with the background knowledge for how to remain well. Most of this requires nutritious food, reasonable activity of the body, family and relationship. It rarely requires medications for any imbalances. Now, medications are the first port of call for people. Fear drives individuals towards unnecessary medications that increasingly control our lives.
Marketing of pharmaceuticals encourages people to follow the new developments in drugs, like sleeping tablets, and encourages each of us to take the ‘newest and the best tablet’ with no understanding of how potentially toxic these medications are and how we ourselves are able to balance our problems with some help from freely available knowledge and also from practitioners that are more interested in ‘healing’ than in ‘drugs’. Don’t use these drugs unless it is absolutely necessary.”
You mentioned that India is the soul of the world. In what way?
From the first time I came to India in 1994, I knew that this extraordinary country held the soul of the world. She holds it in her essence. She is ancient and contains so many different traditions, so many local traditions and so much knowledge of life and health. Her traditions remain, although they are under threat, but I believe that in the earth of the continent and in the fire, the water, the air and the ether that manifests here, there is the knowledge to transform and to re-balance the current world which is under severe strain and needs some direction and leadership particularly in the area of ecology and human balance with nature. I read Thomas Berry, the American Catholic monk of the Passionist order for encouragement on this issue, and he talks about the need to find ‘a new story of the universe’ one which helps each individual to understand why they are here in this world, in its staggering beauty and how we can give meaning to our lives through maintaining this and to help it to grow and to flourish. This is about the communication between humans and nature. What is that conversation about, what is our relationship going to be and how is it going to manifest? The soul of India holds a key in this process but it needs to start to look after its forests and its trees, its wildlife and its rivers and streams. It needs to show that all these parts of nature are parts of us human beings.
What is the quality in a doctor that you value the most? Do you find it in Ayurvedic doctors?
Integrity is the value that is most important to me in a physician. I want to know that he or she is struggling with inside themselves and with their conscience to find the most appropriate way forward for me, their patient. This is to do with balancing the art and science of medicine and it is a skill (and a value) that has been lost in the allopathic medical system and is sadly also now disappearing in the Ayurveda system as well.
What has brought you to Ayurveda? How is it different from tropical medicine which you practice?
Ayurveda is not about disease and that is one of the reasons that for me it is very important. It is about ‘life’ and the ‘knowledge of life’. The ancient system has so much to teach current allopathic physicians like me about ‘health’ and ‘wellbeing’. This information and knowledge has been available for thousands of years but we are currently too arrogant to listen and to remember. I believe that we have little humility and ability to listen deeply to these ancient texts and ancient wisdom. Ayurveda has already discovered so much through scientific process but our current arrogant mono-perspective in ‘science’ and the ‘scientific paradigm’ has left us at a loss. Sometimes I wonder if it is simply because I or we (ie the medical profession) are too frightened of this ancient knowledge and that we are concerned that it may have some truth within it! In which case, what are we doing with our scientific paradigm. What are we missing and what are we not giving to our patients?
One of the most important areas where allopathic practice is lacking is in knowledge of the body. We have some idea of the body ‘as a machine’ but we have little idea and no knowledge of the subtleties of how the body is overseen and directed by soul and spirit and these remarkable energies that are well known in the Yoga tradition and in Ayurveda as well as in local health traditions. These traditions have an understanding of the integrity of the body and the balance between body, heart, mind, soul and spirit. A perspective this is distinctly lacking in allopathic medicine.
Ayurveda pays a lot of attention to diet. Other medical systems don't deal with diet and nutrition. In your view should Ayurveda supplement other systems?
I believe that all allopathic practitioners should learn the basic principles of Ayurveda before they begin to understand and be trained in the biomedical approach to disease. This would help students studying allopathy to understand that there is already ancient wisdom in Ayurveda that informs individuals about life and the way to lead a healthy existence. Diet is an essential part of this process and the traditions, particularly in the Middle and Far East make this apparent through their recipes, their nutrition and their understanding of balancing the body systems and understanding how the body systems need to balance with the environmental systems. When the seasons change for example, there is a general understanding that diet and the food contained within it, will also change. It needs to change in order to help the individual balance their life through the winter or through the summer. Nature provides us with insights all the time about what it is appropriate to eat at a particular time of the year. After all, the food that grows at that time of the year is obviously the food that needs to be eaten to balance life, the immune system and to keep the individual healthy. Our current technological age has transformed this process by giving us strawberries in winter and sprouts in the summer, leading to a loss of understanding and knowledge in the population about the best way to balance their life and their health. Time is no longer seen as a phenomenon that happens ‘inside ourselves’ it is seen as something that is produced and controlled from ‘outside ourselves’ leading to a technological manipulation of the perspectives on the balances of the earth and its rhythms. The stresses that this causes the body lead to disease and a lack of body integrity. Ayurveda has much to teach us about this phenomenon and how we can learn to balance ourselves and to lead a healthy life through a strong relationship and understanding of nature.
How many years have you been coming to India? What are your impressions of India?
I have been coming to India for more than 25 years. I was born in Trinidad and was brought up alongside many different ethnic groups, including Asian, Black and Chinese, so Indian traditions have always been part of my life and my soul. When I first came to India in 1994 and arrived in Mumbai, the smells, the heat and its essence reminded me of my homeland. But something that was different was the peace that prevailed in me when I arrived in Kerala. I would walk along to road near my hotel wondering why I felt so peaceful and tranquil when I did not know where I was! This feeling, this essence used to be an important part of my visits here, but this essence has gradually disappeared. I can find it again sometimes, particularly in rural indigenous communities or in communities that are deeply connected to nature, the forest and to plants. So it is still here for me, but the towns and cities have become more like those in the West, which for me does not have the same essence of soul and spirit.
Which Indian herbs do you like?
I am interested in all the herbs and am trying to find out more about them. In the Ayurveda perspective, I tend towards a pitta vata imbalance. I am a strongly pitta person with lots of fire but I lack the fluidity and grounding of water so look to the herbs to help me with this. As a pitta person I need to eat sweet, bitter and astringent food and the herbs that encourage that process. For example, I now take turmeric and ginger in the mornings at breakfast. I also work with coriander and cumin and am slowly learning more about other herbs like parsley, mint and fenugreek,
What about the entire Ayurveda system of oil massages? How does that work for you?
Ayurveda has taught me so much about the body and about my body. I only have one body and I need to look after it. It is very precious, something that is very precious that has given to me for this lifetime. ‘The body does not lie’ so says Gabrielle Roth one of my teachers and over time I have realised that this statement is true, that the body does hold everything and does teach me everything if I am prepared to listen, to practice and to enjoy. Ayurveda massage has been an important way for me to access my body and to learn from it. It tells me when it is balanced and when it is not. It tells me when it is feeling alright and when it is not and it tells me that it is always there for me when I need it. It is with me when I go to sleep and it there with me when I wake up. Isn’t that amazing!
The Abhyanga massage with oils provided a wonderful mode of healing. The nutrition in the oils and the skill of the therapist provide me with a healing opportunity if I am prepared to take it and to work with it. It is not always easy, in fact it is usually not easy. All is change, when there is pain, when there is confusion, I can come back to my body for information and for knowledge as to ‘how to take the next step’ and ‘how to look for the true move that will bring me back to balance and to wholeness’.