Thursday, December 30, 2010

Of Love and Medicine

I recently had cause to spend some time in the emergency ward of a small public hospital. Such spaces are mercifully beyond the usual experience for most of us but can occasionally and unexpectedly irrupt into our lives, projecting us into a foreign world where the full force of technological medicine is on hand to deal with human pain and the effects of trauma. On entering such places, one necessarily abandons all autonomy. One is no longer free to make choices as one's situation is effectively taken charge of by those who minister in these difficult environments.

The emergency ward of public hospitals is a unique manifestation in the historic mission of medicine. The only parallel that comes to mind are the war fields that have bloodied the memory of every nation, places where military doctors and their attendants have perennially attended the shocking injuries suffered by combatants. In such situations, decisiveness and experience count far more than do theory and reflection.

Yet even the war fields of history are categorically different to the modern emergency ward. They may share the same sense of urgency, the chaotic atmosphere and the range of traumas that are dealt with in emergency wards, but very little else. The modern emergency ward is a dedicated space peopled by highly skilled and knowledgeable individuals who have immediate access to the powerful technologies of medical science that enable rapid diagnoses to be made and radical interventions to be implemented. Yet beyond the extraordinary equipment and the bewildering array of drugs that are on hand, such places are staffed and administered by human beings. And once the flow of blood is staunched and the immediate crisis resolved or mitigated, it is the human side of the experience that will resonate the longest. We may remember the procedures administered, but we are more likely to carry a deeper memory of the individuals who administered them. There is much that can be done to soften the edges of difficult experiences.

Many who find themselves admitted to an emergency ward will be in a state of fear or distress. On the morning I was admitted, I could clearly hear the cries of two young infants, one of whom had a broken arm, the other suffering inconsolable internal pain. Their sobs and wailing filled the ward. In a cubicle nearby, an older woman, pale and alone, lay silent in her bed. Further down the corridor, there was much movement around a younger woman who was in obvious abdominal pain.

The morning was continuously punctuated by the steady ringing of alarm bells from automated heart and breathing monitors, my own among them. And through it all, there was a slow and steady arrival of new patients on ambulance trolleys and from the waiting room. There were some moments of relative quiet, but the overall atmosphere was one of constant movement with occasional ripples of chaos.

Within this complex mix of attention, emotion and movement, there were some things that were clearly evident. Foremost was the presence and skill of the nursing staff. Even while fulfilling such duties as inserting catheters, drawing blood and keeping a watchful eye on electronic monitors and intravenous drips attached to many of the patients, most took the time to talk, to smile, and to lift the mood in whatever way they could. I asked about their own experiences of working in such places. I soon learned that after the immediate danger to the patient was resolved, much of the work became routine. That is the nature of biomedicine. There are standard methods that are universally applied once a diagnosis is established. There are standard procedures for the treatment of acute asthma, acute diabetic hypoglycaemia, myocardial infarct, simple and compound fractures and so on. The technical side of things is tightly controlled, and formal procedures are strictly followed. But once the acute danger has passed, the patient is still left with the experience itself, the emotional reverberations, the fears, the uncertainties. And these are the domains where technical skill is of only limited usefulness.

Bridging the Distance

Another thing that soon became evident was the fact that some within the casualty ward were quite comfortable getting in close to patients - both physically and metaphorically - while others preferred the impersonality of distance. The latter was clearly the case with the medical officer who was in charge of the unit on that particular shift. He spent most of the time hovering around a computer monitor in the central base station. The station was located about 20 meters away from my own cubicle, and there were several times when we had direct eye contact.

I had an unobstructed view of what happened there and was fascinated by what I saw and heard. The doctor in charge loudly discussed the situation of the various patients - myself among them - weighing up different possible interventions with the junior physicians who had taken the history and performed the testing procedures. He did not appear to actually leave his post in order to meet with or talk to the patients whose situation he was discussing. I found myself somewhat discomforted by the impersonality of his style, where he referred to patients as a nameless "he" or "she" despite the fact that most were within visual and probably aural range. It was not that he was too busy to examine or meet with patients directly. There were many times when he engaged in small talk with fellow staff, and occasions where he took the time to fetch a can of Coke from the dispensing machine.

During the early afternoon, my attention was drawn to a middle-aged woman, very affable in appearance and manner, who hovered around the base station, occasionally disappearing into a cubicle and reappearing shortly after. She was wearing a vest with the word "Volunteer" conspicuously printed in day-glo letters across the front of it. I reflected at the time on how that clearly marked her out as "other" among the many who were ministering to the various needs of the patients. I thought at the time that this labelling was probably for the benefit of the medical staff, yet reflected that a more subtle sign or indicator would be no less effective as a marker, but would allow her to move more anonymously as a caring human presence in an environment where human caring was so desperately needed.

Another aspect of the experience that remains vivid was that once patients were no longer in a state of crisis, they were generally left alone unless they were fortunate enough to have family members or personal friends with them. This is clearly part of the peculiar dynamic of the emergency ward, where all medical skill and expertise is directed towards the needs of those in acute distress. Yet this experience brought to mind those patients whose conditions were relatively stable, but who needed hospitalisation for whatever reason. I recalled the times when I had visited my father during his final illness, and the apparent desolation of many who spend their days and nights in hospital wards.

Seeing the woman with the "Volunteer" label on her vest made me very aware of the immense reserves of good-will that lie hidden within the general community, of the capacity of many to serve as conduits of human caring and fellowship in difficult conditions and in difficult times. It also unexpectedly reminded me of an observation I had often made during my years of teaching natural medicine. And that is the fact that many who took on formal studies in natural medicine - at least in Australia from the late 1970s to the late 1990s - were nurses who had trained in hospital medicine, but who were moved to find ways of better meeting the deeper, the more human needs of individuals afflicted by sickness and suffering.

Other Ways

The creation of the first university-based program in natural medicine in Australia at Southern Cross University in Lismore in the early 1990s was largely driven by an heroic group of nurses who single-handedly deflected attempts by a hostile Australian Medical Association to have the course terminated before it had even begun. These women had experienced both the successes of and the failures of hospital medicine and directed their collective energies to softly enabling other ways of ministering to human sickness and suffering.

Those who enter the portals of scientific medicine are among the highest scoring candidates in the subject areas of physics, chemistry and mathematics in their university entrance exams. There are many who would argue that the attainment of mastery in such discipline areas is not necessarily the most important attribute for those who would serve within the healing professions. As Eric Cassell wrote in 1976, "One of the most important tools of medicine is the person of the physician himself. Medicine is concerned with the care of persons by persons, as simple as that."

Although there has been some small movement to incorporate more humanistic elements into medical education, it remains rigorously scientific in its orientation. American physician Rachel Naomi Remen commented in 1996: "In some ways a medical training is like a disease. It would be years before I would fully recover from mine." Mercifully, there are many practitioners of biomedicine who do survive their training and who quietly rediscover the perennial art of the physician as they work within their respective communities.

There remains much to be done to further the incorporation of those human qualities, which are at least as important as technical skill, into medical education and training. To repeat a comment by Fritjof Capra quoted in an earlier posting, "In medicine, intuition and subjective knowledge are used by every good physician, but this is not acknowledged in the medical literature, nor is it taught in our medical schools. On the contrary, the criteria for admission to most medical schools screen out those who have the greatest talents for practicing medicine intuitively."

Perhaps the final word on this has been offered by Rachel Naomi Remen in her Kitchen Table Wisdom. Stories that Heal: "For all its technological power, medicine is not a technological enterprise. The practice of medicine is a special kind of love."

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
December 2010

Thursday, November 25, 2010

On the Eve of Cancun

Every sphere of intellectual endeavour calls forth individuals who make it their task to assimilate, interpret and transmit an evolved understanding to those who may share their interests. This can happen at many levels. Some may choose to address groups of specialists through the pages of learned journals or through professional conferences. Others, such as the many dedicated teachers everywhere who daily pass on the light of learning to their charges, work less visibly. And there are certain projective individuals who will skillfully make use of the dominant media, whether print or electronic, to transmit their message as widely as they can. A few seem to be capable of spanning all levels, thereby making substantive contributions to the collective understanding of their times.

One such individual is Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki who has spent much of his life projecting his formed ideas through many theaters using a range of media. His far-reaching and enduring influence continues, even as he enters his eighth decade. Although recently retired from academic life, Suzuki remains relentless in his quest to identify and disseminate what he understands to be core ecological principles by which humanity can live during a time when many former certainties begin to progressively collapse.

Ironically, while Suzuki continues to spread his message, the present Canadian government remains obstinately obstructive in its refusal to reform or abandon environmentally destructive practices. The saying uttered so long ago, "a prophet is not without honour except in his own country" still holds true.

In a snap vote taken without notice and without debate on 16th November 2010, the Canadian senate defeated Bill C-311, the Climate Change Accountability Act, a modest piece of legislation developed over the past 5 years which aimed for a 25% reduction in Canadian greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and an 80% reduction by 2050. One cannot accuse the Canadian government of inconsistency. This is a perfectly timed statement aimed at delivering an unequivocal message to the UN Climate Change Conference Summit which will begin in Cancun, Mexico on November 29.

Canada has for some years been widely perceived as engaging in a systematic sabotage of climate change negotiations. Even while campaigning for office in 2006, Stephen Harper had made it clear that he would terminate Canada's commitment to the Kyoto Protocol which had been signed in 1998. One of Harper's first acts upon election was to withdraw Canada's financial support for developing countries seeking to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Soon after, environment minister John Baird brazenly described Canada's Kyoto commitment as a "risky, reckless scheme."

These actions and rhetoric are largely driven by the Harper Government's commitment to the exploitation of the immense reserves of tar sands that are held in Canada, particularly in Alberta. Canada exports over one million barrels of oil derived from tar sands to the United States every day.

The extraction process is both energy intensive and resource intensive and requires two to three times as much energy as that required for refining crude oil. It consumes three barrels of water and lays waste two tons of earth for each barrel of oil produced. The tar sands project, which has been pursued in Canada since 1967, has been extremely damaging to the environment, contaminating both groundwaters and local river systems. It has already caused significant health problems, including an increased incidence of cancers and immune disorders, in communities living downstream from the mining operations.

Processing Facility, Athabasca River, Alberta
Tar sands operations in Canada result in the production of 400 million gallons of toxic sludge daily, most of which is stored in numerous tailings dams. Polycyclic aromatic compounds are beginning to appear not only in nearby river systems, but in winter snow gathered 50 kilometers away from the mining operations.

The Alberta tar sands project has already claimed an area the size of England and has been described as the largest industrial source of carbon emissions in the world. In addition to the production of toxic sludge, an estimated 40 million tons of greenhouse gases are spewed forth into the atmosphere every year as a result of these operations. Little wonder that those who support such activities on "economic grounds" do whatever they can to destroy such pieces of legislation as the recently emasculated Climate Change Accountability Act.

Aside from the lobbying and disinformation campaigns of the mining and energy industries, Obama's unilateral demands, China's recalcitrance and Canada's obstructionism did much to effectively torpedo the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009. At the conclusion of the inconclusive and largely inconsequential climate talks last year, former UN Climate Chief Evo de Boer quipped: "Everything will be sorted out in Mexico next year." In a video interview with George Monbiot in December 2008, de Boer had presciently stated: "Copenhagen, for me, is a very clear deadline that I think we need to meet, and I'm afraid that if we don't . . . one deadline after the other will not be met, and we sort of become the little orchestra on the Titanic." A perfectly apt metaphor for the sad denouement of Copenhagen.

Unlike the Copenhagen Climate Summit which helped to mobilise the hopes and expectations of millions of people throughout the world in the preceding weeks and months, there has been an empty silence surrounding the coming Cancun talks. One has to look really hard to find any mention of it in the dominant media. Perhaps there has been a growing realisation that the governments of the world are incapable of mobilising the will to alter the patterns of production and consumption that have brought us to the present impasse. Canada continues to plunder its bituminous reserves regardless of the environmental cost. And Australia continues to export 250 million tons of coal and 10,000 tons of uranium oxide to whoever will pay for it.

While Ignatian methods call us to imagine the events from Gethsemene to Golgotha, and Vajrayanist methods instruct us to imagine one's lama seated upon ever-more-elaborate lotus thrones, David Suzuki urges us to imagine a future based on community and long-term sustainability and not on economic determinism and technocratic manipulation. In a talk given at the Kitsilano High School auditorium in Vancouver on September 17th, 2010, Suzuki demonstrates that he has lost neither the passion nor the clarity that have been his hallmark for many decades. He urges us to imagine a future where we live work and play in the same neighbourhood, where buildings and roads capture and store the energy transmitted in sunlight, where town and city roofs capture water for fruit and vegetable gardens, where asthma rates plummet because the air is clean, where cancer rates decline because the air, water and soil no longer carry numerous toxins. He concludes: "We have to get to know each other because we're all in it together. I believe communities are going to be the unit of survival."

The most important thing to emerge from Copenhagen last year was an understanding that the only change we could realistically hope for in the short term was that which emanated from the sustained commitment of ecologically conscious individuals, groups and communities.

Suzuki's wide-ranging and energising lecture was recently broadcast on Radio Ecoshock and can be heard here.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
November 2010

Saturday, November 13, 2010

While the Hegemon Caves from Within

The results of the US mid-term elections reflect a return of cynicism and ennui among those who were moved by the visionary promises of Barack Obama as he campaigned for the presidency a short 2 years ago. In May 2008, when campaigning in North Carolina, he described the core message of his campaign in the following terms: "It's not enough just to replace the party in the White House. We've got to change our politics as well." Our collective memories are too short. Our expectations too easily side-stepped.

The past two years have shown that in US politics, it is still business as usual. The problem, of course, is that US business continues to affect us all.

While Obama, shadowed by 250 US business executives, was meeting with high dignitaries in India on his 10 day tour through Southeast Asia, his erstwhile opponent-become-Secretary-of-State Hillary Clinton, accompanied by her Defense Secretary Robert Gates, were meeting with Julia Gillard and her new coterie in Australia.

And while Obama was busily negotiating new arms deals which included securing a $3.5 billion contract for 10 Boeing C-17 cargo planes - the sixth biggest arms deal in US history - and lining up an additional $11 billion order for 126 combat fighter jets for the Indian air force, Clinton and Gates were meeting with Australian politicians and military planners in order to secure an increased US military presence in Australia.

It was therefore both politic and pragmatic that Obama was met by Jim McNerney, CEO of Boeing, and Jeffrey Imelt, CEO of General Electric, when Air Force One touched down on the Tarmac of Mumbai airport on 7th November. General Electric have recently contracted to supply 107 F414 engines for the new Tejas lightweight jet fighter presently being constructed in India. And for the past 2 years, GE-Hitachi have been jockeying for the construction of new nuclear power stations in India.

It would seem that the US presidency has more decidedly become an office to promote the sale of US arms in a world already ravaged by the effects of too many wars and too much deadly weaponry.

Good for Business
There is no shortage of irony. In a speech given at a joint sitting of both houses of Parliament in New Delhi on 8th November, Obama invoked the spirits of both Gandhi and Martin Luther King: "I've always found inspiration in the life of Ghandiji and his simple and profound lesson to be the change we seek in the world." He went on to say: "After making his pilgrimage to India half a century ago, Dr. King called Ghandi's philosophy of nonviolent resistance 'the only logical and moral approach' in the struggle for justice and progress."

Words have ever been cheap in the theatre of politics. The contradiction between the rhetoric and the action in his speech in New Delhi is as sharp as it was in his acceptance speech for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize at Oslo a year ago.

Despite the hopes and the promises that brought Obama to the US presidency, American pragmatism continues to rule. If the US does not sell its jets and its weapons to India, then the Russians or the Europeans will. The Indian military remains one of the largest importers of military hardware on the planet despite the fact that tens of millions of Indian men, women and children continue to live in deep poverty.

But the whole game plan has now changed. Many who were of the view that Barack Obama shared their insight into what was necessary during this time of escalating planetary difficulties have been left wondering what peculiar deception was at play.

Obama took office at a pivotal point in history. The Bush era had brought the theory and practice of political self-interest to a high pitch. The rich got richer, the already powerful got more power, the belligerent were given greater scope for the exercise of their belligerence. As independent journalist Robert Freeman has so astutely pointed out, nothing really changed when Obama entered the White House.

Mammon's rule was confirmed by Obama's selection of the unholy trinity of Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner and Ben Bernanke to run the country's finances. Under Clinton, Larry Summers had single-mindedly driven the deregulation of banks that enabled the rape of national economies around the globe. He was appointed Head of the National Economic Council. Under George W. Bush, Timothy Geithner had already funneled trillions of dollars of public moneys to his old buddies on Wall Street in the guise of "saving the system". He was appointed Secretary of the Treasury. And as Chairman of the Federal Reserve since 2006, Ben Bernanke had presided over a series of monstrous excesses that fattened the already rich and flayed the poor of what little skin they had left. Bernanke was re-appointed in his role by Obama.

And able economists like Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and David Korten continue to remain on the margins awaiting the inevitable.

Methane burning in the Arctic Circle
Most of Obama's choices have followed this pattern. Despite his promise to renew and to reform US politics, little has changed. According to Robert Freeman, US banks "are making the largest profits in their history and paying themselves the biggest bonuses on record." Meanwhile, both the Pentagon and the US armaments industry are as busy as ever. Oil and energy companies have demonstrated who is really calling the tune through their scuttling of the Copenhagen Climate Summit last year. Their activities continue unabated. While tar sands continue to be mined in Canada at enormous cost to the environment and enormous expenditure of energy, methane gas begins to pour out of the entire Siberian permafrost region and the Arctic seabed itself. The inexorable receding of immense continental glaciers bodes poorly for those populations dependent on the great river systems issuing from ancient glaciers for their drinking water and for the irrigation waters that enable food production.  

The 2008 financial crisis offered an opportunity to clean up the dirty practices that bankrupted literally millions of householders by recklessly enabling unserviceable mortgages and that emptied untold numbers of pension funds and retirement savings by exploiting newly created financial instruments such as derivatives.

The unconditional multi-billion bailout of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler at that time similarly squandered an opportunity to completely redesign transport systems and to transform an obsolete industrial infrastructure.

These opportunities came and went while politicians argued, bankers schemed, oil companies colluded and armaments manufacturers planned.

It would seem we are a refractory species. Not until the situation has become irremediably dire do we begin to take the necessary collective action we could have taken and should have taken long before to prevent widespread collapse and progressive dissolution.

Let us never lose sight of the potencies available to us in familial and community awareness and action during these times of political dereliction and moral abandonment.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., M.H.Sc.
November 2010

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Poetics of Medicine

One of the perceived deficiencies in the practice of reductionist medicine and in busy clinics generally is the small amount of time usually allocated to patients in any given consultation. A brief history will be taken, diagnostic tests may be organised, and a prescription may be supplied. The process is often over and done with in a few minutes.

Much medical diagnosis is dependent on technology - blood tests, X-rays, scans, fibre-optic examination, neurological and electrophysiological measurements and so forth. This work is usually performed by technicians and the reports are later presented to the doctor who will in turn discuss them with the patient. 

However, this has not always been the case, nor will it necessarily remain so in the near or distant future. These methods are peculiar to a scientific medicine developed in a technological civilisation which, as we are increasingly coming to realise, is beginning to strain on many fronts. So how were things done before so many machines were available?

Former surgeon and professor of medicine at Yale University, Richard Selzer tells a remarkable story of an encounter with Yeshi Dhonden, personal physician to the Dalai Lama. While visiting the US in the 1970s, Yeshi Dhonden was invited to demonstrate his method of diagnosis at a teaching hospital. Determined not to miss the opportunity, Richard Selzer joined the group of doctors who would observe Yeshi Dhonden in action. They would accompany the Tibetan doctor on his visit to a chronically ill patient in the hospital. The nature of her condition was withheld from both Yeshi Dhonden and the physicians who accompanied him.

The Tibetan doctor asked that a sample of her morning urine be made available. Before joining the hospital doctors on their morning round, Yeshi Dhonden had spent two hours in prayer and meditation. He was then brought to the room of a woman who was obviously unwell. He spent some time gently gazing at her. He then approached her, and leaning towards her, tenderly lifted one of her hands from the bed and cradled it between his own hands. Having found her pulse, Yeshi Dhonden then closed his eyes and remained in that position. He neither opened his eyes nor spoke a word.

The woman was clearly comfortable, occasionally lifting her head to look at the robed doctor/monk feeling her pulse before relaxing back into her pillow. After about half an hour, Yeshi Dhonden opened his eyes, smiled gently at the woman, released her hand and stepped back from the bed. He then placed a small amount of her urine which had been earlier collected into a small wooden bowl and briskly whipped it into a froth with two small wooden sticks.

He raised the bowl to his nose and inhaled the odour carefully three times. He then placed the bowl on the nearby table, smiled once again and turned to leave the room. Not a word had been spoken. As he was about to depart, the woman lifted her head from the pillow and said in a serene yet strong voice, "Thank you doctor."

Speaking through an interpreter in the conference room, Yeshi Dhonden gave his diagnosis. Richard Selzer reports: "He speaks of winds coursing through the body of the woman, currents that break against barriers, eddying. These vortices are in her blood, he says. The last spendings of an imperfect heart. Between the chambers of the heart, long before she was born, a wind had come and blown open a deep gate that must never be opened. Through it charge the full waters of the river, as a mountain stream cascades in the springtime, battering, knocking loose the land, and flooding her breath. Thus he speaks, and now he is silent."

A professor in the group, impatient to know what all this could mean, asked the doctor who had arranged the visit for the formal diagnosis. The group was then told that the woman had suffered from a congenital heart defect present since birth. She had an intraventricular septal defect - a hole between the two lower chambers of the heart - and was in an advanced state of heart failure.

No scanner, no catheter, not even a stethoscope. Just a highly attentive presence, a refined palpatory sensitivity, a consciousness more familiar with metaphor than with measurement, and an empathic mind both sharpened and softened by decades of intense interior practice.

Three decades ago, Fritjof Capra wryly observed: "Ever since Galileo, Descartes and Newton our culture has been so obsessed with rational knowledge, objectivity and quantification, that we have become very insecure in dealing with human values and human experience. In medicine, intuition and subjective knowledge are used by every good physician, but this is not acknowledged in the professional literature, nor is it taught in our medical schools. On the contrary, the criteria for admission to most medical schools screen out those who have the greatest talents for practicing medicine intuitively."

We have the science. The task ahead is to recover the art of medicine.

Vincent Di Stefano D.O., N.D., M.H.Sc.
November 2010


1. On Ivan Illich and the Limits to Medicine
Reading Ivan Illich is not easy, though in a different way to reading Continental philosophers or quantum physicists. Illich's language is demanding and requires a certain suspension of judgement if one is to penetrate the systemic meaning behind his often challenging - if not vehement - rhetoric. But it is worth the effort.

On Ivan Illich and the Limits of Medicine offers a reflection on the life and work of Illich. The post also carries a link to a collation of selected excerpts from his Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health in PDF form.  

2. Of Love and Medicine

Although there has been some small movement to incorporate more humanistic elements into medical education, it remains rigorously scientific in its orientation. American physician Rachel Naomi Remen commented in 1996: "In some ways a medical training is like a disease. It would be years before I would fully recover from mine." Mercifully, there are many practitioners of biomedicine who do survive their training and who quietly rediscover the perennial art of the physician as they work within their respective communities.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Afghanistan: The Deepening Morass

Elizabeth Butler
"Remnants of an Army" 1879

While Australian politicians finally begin to debate Australia's military presence in Afghanistan, we continue to remain largely in the dark regarding what is actually going on. Most of the information provided through the media emanates from "embedded" journalists writing in the shadow of their military protectors, or from "official" statements that serve to project government and military policies.

One of the major contributions of the American intellectual tradition - and there is one - to understanding the nature of social reality and knowing and understanding the lived experience of social groups was the development of a powerful form of social research at the University of Chicago by the early sociologist Robert Park during the 1920s. Before joining the Sociology Department, Park had spent many years working as a journalist. Rather than introducing his students to grand theories of social structure, Park sent them out to live with, eat with, talk with those whose lives they wished to understand. This approach enabled them to develop of a truly grounded understanding of the life of their respondents. It also enabled the transmission of that understanding to whoever might be interested.

The tradition of immersion as a way of knowledge continues to be realised in the work of independent journalists who are prepared to sacrifice their own security and safety in order to report on how life is lived in war zones and in places riven by conflict.

Investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill and independent film-maker Rick Rowley have recently returned from an "unembedded" journey through Afghanistan where they met with and spoke with numerous individuals about the current "surge" in military activities in Afghanistan. The story they tell is unlikely ever to appear in the pages of the Murdoch press or in the dominant media channels. They confirm and affirm the message transmitted by other independent journalists such as Robert Fisk and Nir Rosen, and Afghani political activists such as Malalai Joya.

According to Scahill and Rowley, the present wave of targeted killings and night raids carried out by special operations forces in Afghanistan appears to be spawning a new generation of radical militants and fueling - rather than quelling - popular support for the Taliban. In a lively discussion with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales, Scahill and Rowley confirm that only minute elements of the actual reality in Afghanistan are presented to Western audiences and that the little that does get reported projects a false perspective of what is actually going on. Scahill describe the government of Hamid Karzai as "corrupt to the bone" and in a recent article published in The Nation, reports that despite the troop surge and the intensified drone attacks and night raids, the insurgency appears to be spreading from rural areas to small provinces and district centers.

Billions of dollars continue to be poured into the black hole of Afghanistan both in military operations and the siphoning away of money allocated for civilian projects that never see the light of day. And yet there is no change in strategy short of injecting more troops, more military hardware, and more operations. Peace cannot be won by violence and destruction. And peace cannot prevail until the voices of wisdom, restraint and diplomacy begin to be heard over the clamour for more military hardware and troops.

Vincent Di Stefano
October 2010

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Freedom to Choose

In Australia, individuals generally enjoy great freedoms in the matter of self-medication. This has not, however, been achieved without a certain vigilance and, on occasion, vigorous political action. There were a number of attempts made during the 1980s and 1990s to limit the availability of over-the-counter vitamins and health supplements. Strong public reaction to proposed changes in legislation resulted in a backing-down of those forces intent on controlling public access to these forms of self-medication.

There are similar battles currently being waged on the European front. In May this year, Theo Chalmers from Edge Media brought together two health activists in the UK in order to discuss present developments. Chalmers, an obviously sympathetic interviewer, chairs a two hour discussion held in May 2010 with Dounne Alexander, founder of Joining Hands in Health, and Robert Verkerk of the Alliance for Natural Health group.

Dounne Alexander gives an account of the difficulties she experienced in her attempts to produce and market a herbal product in the UK. According to her account, the product appears to have a rasayana-type restorative and regenerative action and a possible anti-tumour effect. Confronted by high levels of bureaucratic and administrative obstruction, and realising that powerful forces were operating behind the scenes, she started Joining Hands in Health as a public lobby group.

Robert Verkerk is an agricultural ecologist with a special interest in sustainable health care systems based on naturalistic rather than biomedical approaches. Verkerk is a highly informed and articulate presence who brings intelligence and discernment to the discussion. His discussion touches on matters such as vaccination programs, genetic modification of agricultural crops, the nature of natural medicines and his present contentions with the US Food and Drug Administration.

The discussion between Theo Chalmers, Douanne Alexander and Robert Verkerk has been conveniently broken up into 14 consecutive episodes which can be easily watched or listened to over a few days for those who may be interested in such matters. It is available here.  

Thanks to Buzz Robertson for this lead.

First Steps

As a reluctant latecomer to cyberspace, I enter the blogosphere with some trepidation and to paraphrase Van Morrison, with no teacher, no guru and no method. Learning by doing has ever been the way. The intention behind Integral Reflections is to project a synthesis of the themes that find expression in the various pages of The Healing Project.

These include the will to healing at personal, social, spiritual and environmental levels, the valuing and explication of textual sources of knowledge from which intellectual and spiritual nourishment can be drawn, the maintenance of a watching brief on the currents that course through these days of escalating tensions and collapsing certainties, and the exploration of poetic consciousness as a transmitter of the deeper dimensions of human experience.

That's the idea anyway. Hopefully this blog will enable a more leisurely, less formal and more interactive engagement than has been possible so far through The Healing Project website.