Religion & Beliefs

Urban Zen: Searching for Dr. Feelgood

The first panel I attend at the Urban Zen initiative is called “The Path: Doctors, Embracing a New Way of thinking.” Its goal is to encourage doctors of Western medicine to consider alternative modalities—such as yoga, Chinese medicine, and holistic … Read More

By / May 22, 2007

The first panel I attend at the Urban Zen initiative is called “The Path: Doctors, Embracing a New Way of thinking.” Its goal is to encourage doctors of Western medicine to consider alternative modalities—such as yoga, Chinese medicine, and holistic nutrition—when crafting treatment plans for their patients. Donna Karan opens the session by welcoming the audience. When she speaks of her late husband Stephan, who inspired her alternative medicine crusade, I am surprised by my own tears. It’s hard not to get emotional—the film that follows her welcome speech features a series of still images of Stephan, and then a gut-wrenching clip of him on a ski trip. In the clip he has longish gray hair and a charismatic smile. He speaks directly to the camera before taking off down the mountain, cheerfully yelling, “Hasta luego!” But, of course, we don’t. See him later. Instead, we see a panel of world-renowned experts on health and spirituality, a gallery full of photos being auctioned off to benefit wellness programs, a pop-up “retail experience,” also to benefit Urban Zen. Karan has created an impressive spectacle to honor her late husband—and hopefully a dynamic initiative to help heal the sick. In the film, Karan says, “The idea that I had an idea and I didn’t do everything there was to be done… I couldn’t get up in the morning. It’s just who I am.” Everyone in the audience looks over to her at this moment, commending her with a head-nod or wistful smile or a thumbs-up. A beautiful cancer survivor and friend of Karan’s salutes her in the film, “What an amazing miracle that you created for me.” (The miracle she is referring to is—presumably—the Urban Zen initiative.) It’s all very Oprah. All forces at the Urban Zen initiative are conspiring to make Donna Karan feel good about herself, but they can’t give her the one thing she really wants: to bring her husband back. And this breaks my heart. It also makes me feel like a total bitch for having anything critical to say about her or her project. But the panel discussion that follows her intro is somehow unsatisfying. Yes, there are ten extremely accomplished people onstage trying to solve our country’s healthcare problem. Well, sort of. They all agree that few sick people are getting the care they need, and that multiple healing modalities are better than one. They all use anecdotes of Easternish wisdom to prove their points, saying things like, “Our fears need to be our teachers,” and “Just be there in that calm space.” They want to “bring the healing back to the healers,” they all have “the best job in the world.” But while they are masters of mutual congratulation, they offer few concrete solutions to offer better medical care to more people. One doctor asserts that in order to change how doctors think, we have to encourage their process of personal transition from mechanic fixing a problem, to whole person treating whole people. But how do you teach someone to care more? “Medical schools need to become schools of wisdom,” says a doctor who manages an integrative medicine program at a top hospital, “I want my physicians to be part of the dance of life.” There’s no question that doctors who act like human beings make better company than those who act like automatons. But are they really better doctors? Who can know?