A Bhutanese Journey

By Mary-Joan Gerson, Ph.D.

In October 2010, Drs. Charles and Mary-Joan Gerson visited Bhutan, the last surviving Buddhist Himalayan kingdom. Our experience there underlined our belief in mind-body connections. We were struck by the cultural emphasis on meditation, not that either of us would every think of nor recommend the Bhutanese most dedicated form—three years, three months, three weeks, three days—in interpersonal isolation! However, many Bhutanese attempt to make meditation a regular part of their daily life. Indeed we visited a public school in the morning and witnessed the entire elementary school student body engaging in a ten minute silent practice.

We visited a traditional medical specialist who reported that IBS is not at all prevalent and we did wonder whether there might be a link between a practice of meditation, a belief in karma (or fixed destiny) and the absence of functional GI illness. This is a reflection of our own research on the cultural specificity of symptom expression, which we have shown to vary depending on geographic location. However, we did not scientifically investigate whether other functional illnesses are common in Bhutan. We were struck by the Bhutanese mandated cooperation between Western and traditional healers; this is a matter of national legislation, and the main hospitals all have a traditional and Western wing for treatment. Patients have the option of either, or combining both, something that we applaud.

At the Mind-Body Digestive Center, one of the many approaches we recommend to our IBS patients is meditation, as a method to help control the anxiety that may be associated with urgency or pain, and to reduce the intense focus on physical symptoms.