Medicine & Compassion
New Book to be released on May 12th, 2015!
Dr. Shlim: My father was a doctor, and I grew up thinking that I would be a doctor. I always wanted to help people who were ill or injured. I went to college in 1967 and got caught up in protest and anti-technology thinking, and almost gave up my goal of becoming a doctor. I majored in English literature. I dropped out of medical school after one quarter, but went back a year later and finished. Still uncertain of what kind of career I wanted, I only did one year of internship, then went into general practice in northern California. From there, I took my first trip to Nepal to work as a volunteer doctor at a high altitude rescue post near the base of Mt. Everest. This work in the mountains with the Sherpas and mountain climbers helped me discover why I became a doctor, and led me to move to Nepal a few years later.
(PC) How did the Sherpas help you discover why you became a doctor?
Dr. Shlim: When I was an emergency room physician I often dealt with severe life-and-death situations. However, we were expected to be able to handle these, and the fact that we took care of a particular person and saved his or her life was really a matter of how we filled out the schedule each month. In other words, I just happened to be working a given night, and any of the other emergency room doctors presumably would have saved the person’s life if I hadn’t been scheduled that night. When I finally got up into the remote mountains of the Himalayas, I found that one person can really make a difference, and with no one else to consult, you had to make difficult decisions by yourself. When things worked out well for the patients, you felt as if you had really been able to contribute. So, it wasn’t specifically the Sherpas who helped me, but the fact that I could offer medical care in a remote, underserved area, and really make a difference.
(PC) Why did you become a Buddhist?
Dr. Shlim: I was raised in a Jewish family, and appreciated Jewish values of caring for others and preserving the culture. However, Judaism didn’t provide me any clear answers of why we are here, and what the main purpose of life is, or how to become more peaceful. I discovered yoga during a difficult period in my 20’s, and this gave me the first glimpse of how relaxing the mind could help one gain control over one’s emotions. However, after pursuing yoga for several years, I discovered that there was no apparent end point in yoga—what is enlightenment in hatha yoga? After visiting Nepal three times to work as a volunteer at the aid post mentioned above, I moved there in 1983 to work in a Western medical clinic that took care of all the foreigners in Nepal. A year later, I offered to help a Tibetan monastery with their medical care.
The monastery was headed by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, and we became friends in a rather casual way—sharing tea or lunch before or after the clinic that I ran at the monastery once a week. As I began to attend some of his teachings, and ask for personal advice, I found that what he was saying made practical sense in the problems I was dealing with in my life, and I began to get more motivated to learn to meditate, get more teachings, and even started to do some short retreats. Eventually I realized that Tibetan Buddhism offered a genuine insight into reality and consciousness, and the relationship between the two. Buddhism offers the viewpoint that compassion and wisdom are inherent within our consciousness (called “mind” in Buddhist philosophy), and that these qualities can be cultivated and expanded to a great degree. When I began to get more serious about Buddhist practice, I was able to experience that this was true, and that this had a positive effect on my medical practice. The understanding of Buddhist philosophy and the effect it had on taking better care of patients led to the Medicine and Compassion Project, of which the book, Medicine and Compassion, is the start.
So in answer to the question of why I became a Buddhist, I don’t feel I ever made a decision to become a Buddhist, per se. I met a Buddhist teacher, became friends with him, developed trust, and found that it was leading me in the way I had always hoped to be led. No decision was really necessary. I’m still comfortable referring to myself as Jewish, but if asked if I’m Buddhist, I will easily say, “yes.”
(PC) Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche is listed as the co-author of your book, Medicine & Compassion. Obviously, he was a driving force in getting this important work into print. What’s his connection with Tibetan medicine – is he also a doctor? Secondly, the question that really intrigues me is how your book, which clearly explains the ancient ways of compassionate, patient care, is being received by Western physicians and caregivers.
Dr. Shlim: Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche is more than the co-author of the book—his teachings make up the entire book apart from my introduction. Therefore, this is really Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche’s heartfelt advice to Western medical practitioners. His teachings had helped me become a better, more compassionate doctor. I asked him to teach to Western health practitioners, and he took the time to do so.
Although the focus was on medicine and compassion, and there is much practical advice on taking care of difficult patients and situations in the book, Tibetan Buddhist philosophy already has the cultivation of compassion as its central focus. So, the breakthrough of this book was to tailor Tibetan Buddhist philosophy for a specific Western audience that could benefit from learning more about the possibilities of training in compassion. In fact, the two seminars that Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche taught to doctors represent the first time that Tibetan Buddhist teachings were directed toward an audience of Western health professionals.
Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche is a reincarnate lama in the Tibetan tradition, which means that he is considered the reincarnation of a specific head of a monastery in Tibet. He was forced into exile with his family in 1958, when he was 8 years old. He completed his monastic training in Sikkim, and later established his monastery in Katmandu, Nepal. Although all students of Tibetan Buddhism end up learning about Tibetan medicine, he is not specifically trained in Tibetan medicine. His apparent insight into the suffering of patients, and the key role that a physician can play in easing that suffering is based on his subtle and profound knowledge of compassion and wisdom in general. People who are suffering, or dying, often come to him for comfort and advice.
The book, Medicine & Compassion, is enthusiastically received wherever I have had the chance to talk about it. I just gave the first Grand Rounds talk at the University of California at San Diego that was devoted to compassion. I received very nice feedback from the audience, with good questions, and I got a note from the Director of the Emergency Department that quoted one of his residents as saying, “Work has been very emotionally draining in recent weeks and this talk helped to reinforce why I chose medicine and how privileged I am to practice.”
(PC) Do you see, as author, Dr. Larry Dossey suggests in his book, “Reinventing Medicine,” the eventual merging of Eastern and Western medicine?
Dr. Shlim: My book is about the benefit of more emphasis on compassion in medicine, and the possibilities of training to expand one’s capacity for compassion. As such, it is not directly about a new approach to medicine. However, the practice of medicine exists to relieve suffering in others. If one’s primary focus were the relief of suffering, one might be more open to whatever method is able to achieve this goal. In this way, we may be able to be more open to incorporating other forms of healing into our practice. The Tibetans are very open-minded in this way. They will use whichever form of medicine is most effective, whether it is Western or Tibetan.
(PC) Finally, what type of advice do you have for the readers regarding improving the mind-body connection, which seems so important in healing?
Dr. Shlim: I’m personally interested in the interface between fixing what’s fixable and accepting what’s not. When we first get sick, our main desire is to get better. This positive energy has been shown to be effective at helping to fight off disease and heal more quickly. That’s why it’s important for practitioners to encourage their patients, and let them know that they will try whatever it takes to make them better. However, because of the fact of impermanence, not all illness can always be cured. Our lives, after all, are finite. So, along with developing a positive mental attitude towards solving problems, we need to work on accepting the things over which we don’t have control. At a certain point, having peace of mind is more important than continuing to struggle against insurmountable odds, even if that struggle would seem to be heroic. Developing peace of mind is also a key ingredient in staying healthy, so it is not as if the effort will only pay off when it comes time to die!
I’d like to thank you for your time, Dr. Shlim. I also wish you and your book great success. It’s clear to me that the ideas you’ve presented are vital to the future of health care. I’m going to recommend Medicine & Compassion to my doctors at the VA, my readers, and those who ask me for help in healing.