A Counter-Curriculum of Self Care

by David Kopacz, Mtwo young healthcare workers meditation during break to release work pressureD

Sometimes the things you most need to learn are not taught in school.

I first learned this when I was in high school. I kept reading about Carl Jung in interviews with the rock band, The Police, but Jung wasn’t even mentioned in my high school psychology class.  My friend gave me a copy of Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul from his parents’ bookshelf. The text was challenging, but I trained myself to read 10 pages a night before rewarding myself with a science fiction novel.

What drew me to Jung? It was all in the title of that book. I was interested in the soul, and neither Sunday school nor public education had taught me what I needed to know. Jung describes our plight as a suffering modern person who “has failed to read the meaning of his [or her] own existence,” (p. 226). For Jung, the doctor’s first patient was his or her own self.

During medical school, I realized I not only needed to continue following my “inner-curriculum”, but I also needed an antidote to the side effects of medical education. I was finding that as I immersed myself in the materialistic, biological reductionism of medical training, I was losing an important part of myself – my humanity.

Dehumanization occurs when the focus of health care is primarily on technical and economic interaction. I needed to find a way to re-humanize myself as a regular part of my learning. The poetry of Rilke and Ginsberg, the novels of Dostoyevsky and Maugham, and various books on meditation all became as important to me as my medical textbooks. I came to see the necessity of self-education – referring to both self-directed study, and the study of my own self.

As I look back now at Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul, it was a perfect book for a future physician. Jung sees healing as occurring through relationship and connection – not through objectification and professional distance. Soulful, human medicine starts with a soulful human clinician and the way of the soul is through self-education.

I have come to call this self-education a counter-curriculum. The counter-curriculum I suggest includes more than just reading books. It is a way of living and being designed to develop the whole person of the physician in order to treat the whole person of the patient. The model I use is a full mind-body-spirit curriculum, including nine interactive dimensions:

  • Body
  • Emotions
  • Mind
  • Heart
  • Creativity
  • Intuition
  • Spirit
  • Context
  • Time

To figure out whether I’m supporting and growing each of these dimensions within myself, I return to this list on a regular basis and ask questions like, “Do I need more opportunities for creativity in my life?” “Is my spiritually being nurtured?” “Maybe I need more exercise?”

To re-humanize medicine, we have no further to look than ourselves. Just as the sun gives off light from energetic processes occurring at its core, our humanity starts deep within our souls and radiates outward into the world. If our modern health care system is in search of a soul, then our focus must be within each of our own hearts – because that is where the compassion revolution will begin.

DKopacz-2011David Kopacz works as a psychiatrist at the Puget Sound VA, Seattle, in Primary Care Mental Health Integration and is an Acting Assistant Professor at University of Washington. His first book, Re-humanizing Medicine: A Holistic Framework for Transforming Your Self, Your Practice, and the Culture of Medicine, discusses the concepts of the counter-curriculum and the compassion revolution in medicine.