We were able to put into practice one of the most basic principles of healing, yet it’s one that so much of Western medicine has forgotten. Gurudev would always ask, “What’s the cause?” and “What’s the cause of that?” as opposed to literally or figurative bypassing the problem. The problem is that, if you don’t treat the underlying cause—almost any cause, in this case, heart disease—if you literally bypass it with surgery, or figuratively with angioplasty or drugs, without also treating the underlying causes, then the problem often recurs.
Bypass grafts may reocclude, other blockages continue to worsen, angioplasties often restenose, and a lifetime of medications often have significant side-effects, both known and unknown. He was never against the use of drugs or surgery, he was really about integrating the best of both worlds. Drugs and surgery may be lifesaving in a crisis, but we need to address the underlying causes as well.
In our studies, we used very expensive, high-tech state-of-the art measures to prove how powerful these very simple, low-tech, low-cost and ancient truths can be—both medically effective and cost effective. In some ways, this is a radical approach, because the world “radical” means “to get to the root of something.”
Coronary heart disease kills more people each year in the U.S. and now worldwide than any other condition. It is the single largest expenditure of health care dollars. Yet heart disease is almost completely preventable just by changing diet and lifestyle.
Even if you have heart disease, your body often has a remarkable capacity to begin healing itself if you give it a chance to do so. Our research showed that most people who already have coronary heart disease may reverse its progression—as well as diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and obesity—by making intensive changes in diet and lifestyle, without drugs or surgery. Recently, we published the first randomized controlled trial showing that these changes in diet and lifestyle may also stop or reverse the progression of prostate cancer.
These comprehensive lifestyle changes are based on the teachings of Swami Satchidananda: a low-fat, whole foods vegetarian diet, Yoga and meditation, moderate exercise, quitting smoking, and enhancing love and intimacy (including community, support groups, altruism, compassion, and forgiveness).
When we began conducting research in 1977, it was thought that once you had heart disease, it could only get worse. We showed that, instead of getting worse and worse, that people could often get better and better, and much more quickly than had once been thought possible. In most cases, they not only felt better; they were better in ways we could measure: the arteries were less clogged; the blood flow to the heart improved; the heart began to pump blood more normally.
We published our research findings in leading peer-reviewed journals such as the Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, American Journal of Cardiology, The New England Journal of Medicine, and elsewhere. Beginning in 1993, through the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute, we began training hospitals around the country in our program for reversing heart disease. Mutual of Omaha found that almost 80% of people who were eligible for bypass surgery or angioplasty were able to safely avoid it by making comprehensive lifestyle changes instead, saving almost $30,000 per patient in the first year. Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield of Pennsylvania found they cut their costs in half in the first year and by 20-30% in subsequent years. Now, even Medicare covers our program — the first time they have covered comprehensive lifestyle changes or lifestyle medicine.
We live in an increasingly polarized world, particularly in Washington D.C. It’s been gratifying that this approach has received so much bipartisan support across the political spectrum. Finding common ground and healing the divisions that separate us is a common theme of Swami Satchidananda’s teachings, especially the Light Of Truth Universal Shrine (LOTUS).
It’s been my experience that people who have mastered a subject often sound like those who don’t know much about it at all—they both speak with simplicity. Swami Satchidananda had such a deep understanding that he could reduce it down to the most profound, simple truths—simple without being simplistic, the essence of wisdom. He embodied that.
I remember once when we were giving a combined medical grand rounds and oncology grand rounds at the University of Charlottesville Medical School, and someone asked, “What’s the difference between illness and wellness?” Gurudev went up to the board, wrote the word, “Illness,” and circled the first letter, “I.” Then he wrote the word “Wellness,” and circled the first two letters, “We.”
When we ask, “How do we alleviate suffering?” we can talk about diet or we can talk about meditation and Yoga and all these things, but we’re all going to die eventually. So, the real question is not just how long we live, but also how well we live.
In my limited understanding, the message of the LOTUS is to ask, “What is the cause of suffering at the deepest levels?” and to show that the same light, the same essence, is at the heart of all the spiritual traditions. The essence of LOTUS is to see the common connections we share. The light that comes up the center of the LOTUS splits and illuminates the altars of each religion.
Gurudev often talked about developing a double-vision. On one level, we are different from each other. We are separate. You are you, and I am me. On another level, we are part of something larger than our separate selves. We are not just apart from each other, we are a part of each other. We can embrace and enjoy our differences when we can also see the common light that is illuminating in each of us, the light in the projector behind the film.
We ignore these spiritual truths at our peril. When the construction of the LOTUS began, most people didn’t foresee the rise of fundamentalism in all religions and the breakdown of the social networks that used to give people a sense of connection and community. Many people are concerned that if we continue on our current path, we may threaten our survival. Sometimes I feel like we’re in one of those bad episodes of “Star Trek” or “The Twilight Zone” where people go back in time and try to prevent something bad from happening. It seems as though we’re in that place now.
In short, the principles that were taught so eloquently by Sri Swami Satchidananda can enhance our survival—not only as individuals, but also as a planet. In each moment we have a choice—we can focus only on our differences, which leads to fear, anger, hatred, suffering and darkness, or on the light that illuminates each of us, which leads to love, forgiveness, joy and light. The word “Yoga” means “to yoke, to bring together, to unite.” This is the heart of healing.
About the Author
Dean Ornish, MD is founder and president of the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute and Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Ornish received his medical training in internal medicine from the Baylor College of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and the Massachusetts General Hospital. He received a BA in humanities summa cum laude from the University of Texas in Austin, where he gave the baccalaureate address. For more than 32 years, Ornish has directed clinical research demonstrating, for the first time, that comprehensive lifestyle changes may begin to reverse even severe coronary heart disease, without drugs or surgery. He directed the first randomized, controlled trial demonstrating that comprehensive lifestyle changes may stop or reverse the progression of early-stage prostate cancer. His research showed that comprehensive lifestyle changes affect gene expression, “turning on” disease-preventing genes and “turning off” genes that promote cancer and heart disease. In collaboration with Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, he also showed that these lifestyle changes can lengthen telomeres, the ends of chromosomes that control how long we live. He is the author of six best-selling books, including New York Times’ bestsellers Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease; Eat More, Weigh Less; Love & Survival; and his most recent book, The Spectrum.