The Lost Art of Listening

“Pain is often a sign that something has to change.”   Mark Nepo

We are told that the intended purpose for progress in technology and science is to lead to an advancement in the human condition. This being the case, we should be evolving and growing into a ‘better’ and happier version of ourselves with a significant improvement in our quality of life.  Sadly, we are experiencing the very opposite of its intended purpose.

In the last two decades of so-called ‘progress’, we are less healthy, happy, and suffer from an unprecedented level of ‘soul-loss’.  We are more depressed and anxious than ever before and have experienced a greater loss of meaning than before technology was this advanced.

In addition, I have seen patient-centered care decline at an unprecedented rate since technological documentation and communication was introduced into the health care system.

During my medical training, a large amount of emphasis was placed on listening.  Yes, listening.

I found that listening to my patients not only connected me to them as people but also enabled an exchange between us.  This exchange was where we were able to collaboratively uncover the causes and solutions for their symptoms. Today, three decades later, a large majority of patients arrive with an unfortunate yet similar complaint – their physician either did not have time to listen to them or did not know how.  They were given a canned diagnosis and a canned prescription to treat a few symptoms and the remainder of their story was either mocked or dismissed. In short, they were not heard or witnessed. They left their appointment feeling pathologized and no better than when they arrived, with an additional label of a psychological disorder for ‘complaining’ about their symptoms.  

What a patient says about their condition can offer very important clues for a physician to arrive at an accurate diagnosis.  The art of listening can take a physician down the path of arriving at a more accurate diagnosis along with its root cause(s); very different than one that is quickly projected onto the patient.  A patient’s history, their story, opinion, experience, biology, and their biography all play into their unfolding experience of health or illness. Since most patients don’t see a physician until a symptom(s) manifests, it is critical for physicians to take the time to listen to what they are saying.  But, physicians today say, they don’t have the time to listen. Corporate Medicine does not provide more than a few minutes per patient as its profit margin depends on patient volume, not quality of care or treatment success.

If the medical system was graded on treatment success, it would get a big ‘F’.  Yet, we continue to access it as there is no large-scale alternative. We have to settle for being treated by an ‘F’ rated system that is also very costly.  Holistic medical practitioners listen, but many do not practice evidence-based medicine. Without the benefit of scientific evidence, patient safety is at risk.  So what is one to do?

In the spirit of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we can access Corporate Medicine for what it is good at treating – trauma, acute infections, and conditions requiring surgical intervention.  For chronic and lifestyle-related diseases, corporate medicine is ineffective. It has failed us for nearly two decades in healing midlife transitions, chronic pain, chronic illness, and symptoms of the mind and heart.  

Thirty years ago, when the art of listening was valued, I observed that my patients always felt better when I took the time to listen to them.  They felt heard, validated, witnessed, cared for, and supported. They still do today. Not only is medicine a science, it is an art, and a large portion of that art relies on the quality of how deeply the practitioner listens.  People ask me, how I able to take the time to listen to my patients? My answer is simple -I do not work for Corporate Medicine or serve their value system. When I did, I was asked to speed up my office visits and medicate or hospitalize. I was told that listening or healing was a ‘conflict of interest’ for Corporate Medicine.  I left and opened my own integrative medical practice. I was not willing to compromise patient care for profit margin.

I had to sacrifice the value our society assigns to materialism in favor of my core values.  This required significant personal risk. I also had to accept the risk of being abandoned by my colleagues to follow my soul.  In fact, I was. Over time, my life was filled with meaning and fulfillment and a medical practice dedicated to healing and high standard of care.  Serving the Feminine Principle requires sacrifice. In my opinion, it is a worthy sacrifice of materialism for meaning.

This brings me to my next point.  In order for us to change how we want to be treated, we must stop supporting an externally driven value system where money is a core value and humanity is tossed to the side.  It is not possible to serve both. The externally based value system that honors money above all else is based on patriarchal values of fear, power over, productivity, and fixing – not those that value process, receiving, healing, caring, nourishing, or listening.

Physicians enter medicine with a deep desire to heal, but the environment they are trained in conditions for them to adapt to a different set of values.  By the time their training is finished, most have replaced their vision for healing by the corporate value system that is normalized.

The corporate system is patriarchal.  Patriarchal values are more interested in product over process, fixing over healing, doing over being.  There is a rush to get to the finish line, to accomplish the goal, to get to the next patient. When your eye is on the goal, you miss the present moment.  The information about how to heal is present in that moment.

As we all struggle to work with a medical system that is moving at warp speed past its core values, we must pause and connect with the heart of our work.  The art of listening has been one of our core and primal offerings to each other since the beginning of time. It is the most powerful healing gift we can give to one other.  And maybe as we reclaim this for ourselves and our patients, in some small way, we can heal our broken vocation by restoring our craft with our humanity. Maybe then our patients will once again feel received and the sacred will find its way back into Medicine once again.

We must start here.  Small steps towards transformation by incorporating qualities of the Feminine Principle can heal our culture and its ailing corporate infrastructure.  As technology eclipses our humanity, we must reclaim the heart of why we are here together and begin to listen to what is deeply needed for our personal and collective healing.

 

©June 2018,  Kalpana (Rose) M. Kumar M.D., CEO and Medical Director, The Ommani Center for Integrative

Medicine, Pewaukee, WI. www.ommanicenter.com Author of – Becoming Real: Reclaiming Your Health in Midlife 2014, Medial Press.