I hope I am correct, but it seems to me that the “holistic” label is fading into the sunset. I never quite got what a holistic physician was doing that I wasn’t. Was I ignoring the fact that my patient came from a certain ethnic group and that his family had a particular set of religious beliefs? I may not have understood or agreed with those customs or beliefs. But I knew that I had better take them into account as I tried to find what was troubling the patient and help him search for a solution.
When the patient with frequent abdominal pains asked me for advice, did I fail to ask a social history because I didn’t think that the fact that her father had just lost his job or that her favorite grandmother was dying of cancer was important? Did I simply write prescriptions and avoid making recommendations about bedtimes, diet, exercise, and relaxation strategies? Did I stop my exam at the clavicles when the patient’s chief complaint was headache?
I’m sure that most physicians who marketed themselves as being holistic passionately believed that a good doctor must consider the whole patient. But what troubled me was the implication that the rest of us didn’t. I suspect that the fading popularity of the label reflects that patients began to realize that it was meaningless.
However, another buzzword has begun to flutter across the medical landscape. Every few days I open a magazine or journal in which someone is suggesting that I need to be more mindful. And they are more than willing to show me or sell me a technique for achieving mindfulness.
Is this just another packaging ploy, or should I begin paddling out to catch this new wave? The more I began to see mindfulness offered and promoted in a wider variety of settings, the more confused I became. So I did what anyone with a WiFi connection would do. I Googled “mindfulness” and discovered that I had good reason to feel confused.
It turns out that in some form or another mindfulness has been a practice in the Buddhist tradition with a history dating back hundreds of years. The first definition I found in Wikipedia read: “being aware moment-to-moment of one’s subjective conscious experience from a first-person perspective.” However, as I read further I discovered a reference to no fewer than 13 disparate definitions across a spectrum from attention and awareness on one end to retention and remindfulness on the other.
Some advocates feel that meditation should be used to prepare oneself to be mindful or that meditation is integral to mindfulness. Other folks don’t seem to see meditation as particularly necessary.
There is a growing body of literature reporting that something labeled mindfulness has helped patients and practitioners improve one or more aspects of wellness. Although the quality of these reports varies widely, it suggests along with the long Buddhist tradition that there is something out there called mindfulness worth investigating.
However, I wonder why it is becoming so widely ballyhooed. It seems to me that at its core, being mindful is simply just trying to do a better job of paying attention to the world around us and our fellow inhabitants. Is it simply the flip side of an attention deficiency? Or, is it an attempt to give a more exotic and mysterious Asian-influenced label to cognitive-behavioral therapy? Could it just be a less judgmental way of asking ourselves, “What were (are) you thinking?”
“Mindfulness” appears to have considerably more substance than “holistic,” but I fear that its indiscriminant use is going to damage its credibility. The overexposure has certainly triggered my skepticism.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.”