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First do No Harm

The arts as a healing power continue to move into the mainstream of modern life, whether its Shakespeare in prisons, guitars at the bedside of children, singing with Alzheimer patients, or harp playing in hospice care.

But how does it work ? When we experience art, what happens to us?

The Greeks believed that the soul as well as the body sometimes got sick and needed mending. How it worked was a mystery to them, as it is to us. Thinking about it occupied them for centuries.


Although some of their medical  practices would shock us -it was over two thousand years ago- some of their ideas have a clear, contemporary ring.

When family medicine or the local Dr. was not enough, much like medieval pilgrims or modern people going to specialized clinics, ancient Greeks journeyed to healing shrines dedicated to Asclepius, the god of healing. There they received treatment according to the latest technologies of the day.

At the heart of one such shrine in the mountains of mainland Greece, lay the ancient theatre of Epidaurus, the most perfectly preserved open air theatre in the world. On summer nights you can still attend performances of ancient drama under the stars  at the theatre, just like the ancients did, twenty four hundred years ago.



But why is there a theatre embedded in a shrine dedicated to the god of healing ? What purpose did it serve ? What’s the connection? Was it more like TV in a hospital room or a clown showing up on a ward of recovering children- a mere distraction or a mild sedative?- or intensive therapy - powerful and potentiality life altering?

If we couple the medical interest in the arts, the  holistic movement, and the idea of integrative medicine, we might be a little closer to the Greek way of thinking.

Greek Drama was a multimedia show: music, dance, poetry, costumes and atmosphere worked together to create a riveting and transformative experience. If you believed you were worshipping one of the gods, it was even more powerful.

A primary goal was catharsis- a purging or release of strong, uncomfortable feelings.

Stimulated by the deepest levels of art, what happens to a person after such a powerful cathartic release, how do our bodies and minds react and change?

Maybe this drama in a healing shrine not only brought clarity and understanding and the  release of strong emotions, but also strength, harmony, and healing. It is common knowledge  that certain kinds of music can  help alleviate anxiety and depression with a corresponding physiological reaction.

Studies show house plants grow or wilt, when exposed to certain kinds of music. Are we any different?

Imagine healer and healed alike, swept up and transformed by the spectacle of ancient drama -the total absorption of their minds and bodies raised to a soaring level of intensity, the power and magic of the ritual performance unleashing spiritual energies, transforming minds, souls and even bodies, to stimulate the mysterious  healing process.

Hippocrates, author of the Hippocratic Oath in 400 BCE, says “everyone has a Dr. with in them. We just have to help it in its work.”







Like Drama and music in the ancient world, do the arts have a part to play in 21st century medicine ? Evidence is growing that they do or at least they should.

If all they do is help a person past the crisis point- another Hippocrates idea- when either the illness begins to triumph, or the natural healing properties take over and the patient begins to recover- then they have done a lot.

Hippocrates had a few other ideas worth remembering.

The Hippocratic oath- still taken in medical schools today-  as well as it’s modern updates, also stresses protecting patient privacy and communication not only between Dr. and patient but between diverse health care professionals.

He believed the body had to be treated as a whole and not just as a collection of parts and that the natural healing process of rest, a good diet, fresh air and cleanliness were the essentials of healing and medicine. ”Walking is man’s best medicine” he tells us, and “Let food be our medicine.”

His emphasis on natural healing properties, reasonable understanding, observation, and the absence of blame, lay the first foundations of medical thinking we still rely on and combine in a simple way the best of evidence based  medical science and medicine as an intuitive art. Finally, his most famous saying, although directed at Drs. and healers, is a great guide, no matter what your life’s path. First do no harm.

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