Spirituality and healing: UM physician turns focus to mind-body-medicine and spirituality link

By Jessica Connor

SPARTANBURG – John Simmons, M.D., will never forget the time he and a group of physicians were in a hospital room, crowded around a woman’s bed, talking over her head about what ailed her and how to proceed.

When it came time for him to voice his medical opinion, the lifelong United Methodist did something a little unorthodox. He sat down on her bed, reached out and took her hand (which had been restlessly fidgeting the whole time the doctors were there), and looked into her eyes.

“You have the busiest hands I’ve ever seen; can I hold them?” he asked the woman kindly. “How are you going to deal with this spiritually?”

A few days later as she was preparing to go home and begin her chemotherapy, she was thanking everyone for their care as medical staff made rounds. She then she stopped and pointed at Simmons.

“‘When he sat down on my bed and held my hands, that was when I knew I could deal with this,’” Simmons recalled her saying.

For a few minutes they talked, beginning a friendship that lasted three years until her death from ovarian cancer. It was a pivotal moment for Simmons, who today is a spirituality and healing expert focusing on patients as people, not numbers or studies.

These days, Simmons said, hospitals and doctors often forget about treating the people who are suffering and instead just treat the problem. But it’s not that simple, and so often, people can achieve greater mind-body healing – and deepen their walk as Christians – when they learn to reconcile their human experience and embrace touch and healing as central to existence.

“There is a quote from the book ‘The Christmas Box’ about how you can learn more about compassion from one act of kindness than listening to a thousand fiery sermons,” said Simmons, a member of Central United Methodist Church, Spartanburg. “All I did was sit down and hold her hands.”

But it made all the difference – for her, and for him.

Today, after a spiritual journey that included pursuing a Doctor of Ministry and extensive training in mind-body-medicine, Simmons specializes in spirituality and healing, leading workshops and retreats in the Carolinas for people in pain.

His ministry is as essential to him as it is to the people he helps.

“I need to be doing this,” Simmons said.

Persons, not diagnoses

Simmons had 20 years experience as a family practitioner and five years in hospital administration before he became a private health care consultant, simultaneously embarking on his spiritual journey.

“For my entire career I was left-brain,” Simmons explained. “I didn’t have a mid-life crisis, but I began feeling more and more that pills and procedures were not satisfying a public that is hurting. Patients are asking to be treated as persons, not as diagnoses.”

In the late 1990s he decided to study under Matthew Fox, an internationally acclaimed spiritual theologian who founded the University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, Calif. Encouraged by four women – his wife, two United Methodist deacons and a close family friend – Simmons pursued a doctorate of ministry, not as a path to ordination, but because he felt called to learn. He knew he was preparing for something, though exactly what, he didn’t yet know.

Then Simmons stumbled upon the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Boston. He attended workshops on spirituality and healing several years before he realized what he was meant to do. Subsequently, he has been certified as a Mind Body Skills Trainer by the Center for Mind Body Medicine in Washington, D.C.

Today, after years of training and study, he is passionate about helping people in pain understand the deep connection among mind, body and soul in their path to physical and spiritual health and healing.

Outreach in healing

Because of Simmons, Spartanburg Regional Healthcare now has a Center for Health and Healing, which integrates modern medicine with established practices from around the world through programs that focus on prevention, patient-empowerment and whole-person healing.

As an instructor there, Simmons teaches meditation-based mind-body skills to people with cancer, chronic pain, mild and moderate anxiety and depression, grief and more.

“When I use the word ‘meditation,’ people have an image of some Tibetan lama in the lotus pose saying ‘Om,’ but it’s so much more than that,” Simmons said, smiling, noting the workshops incorporate guided imagery, dancing, writing, drawing and more.

Much of the work participants do centers on the importance of forgiveness for healing, plus becoming much more aware of spiritual resources as they relate to healing.

In addition to the Center for Health and Healing, Simmons works with churches across the Southeast, at St. Francis Hospital in Greenville and at WaterRock Institute in Asheville (started by United Methodist elder the Rev. Heidi Campbell-Robinson, who is appointed to help her conference there with spiritual direction, marriage and family counseling, pastoral counseling, mentoring and more).

Simmons is also about to start a series at an infertility clinic to help couples trying to start a family.

From creation to creativity

Simmons’ retreats are divided into four sections, all designed to foster understanding and awareness of the mind-body connection. The first section is celebrating what he calls the “awesome, mystical, wonderful” gift of being human in creation.

“So many people are running on autopilot all day and forget about how they’re the most wonderful part of all creation and how that means something,” Simmons said.

The second section is about embracing people’s “dark night experiences.” Most people try to avoid, escape or resist the “low” times in life, Simmons said, but greater understanding of our souls comes when we can yield to those experiences and allow them to speak to us.

“This little ball of clay that we’ve lived on for 4 million years has always experienced hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes and volcanoes, yet those events have always been creative.” Simmons said. “We find God present in the darkness like no other place.”

Simmons encourages people to embrace the darkness and surrender to it rather than resisting it or running from it. In surrendering to the darkness, people find God there, and it is a powerful experience that brings forth deep spiritual growth. Persons may find in the darkness that they are being prepared for some new experience in the creation.

The thir
d section is developing creativity, from drawing and journaling to penning poetry. Simmons notes that people are inherently creative souls and were created to be co-creators with God. Embracing that side of ourselves is critical.

“Someone once said, ‘Beauty is an antidote for despair,’” Simmons said. “If so, we should develop our creativity. It is ours and is a way of re-creating ourselves when in need of healing and a journey to wholeness. It is also a way of joining with God in continuing the creation of this wonderful world and universe we live in.”

And the fourth section is about justice – in illness, in healing, in the world.

“Lots of people will ask, ‘Why me? What did I do?’ but it’s not a broad brush like that,” Simmons said.

Simmons believes the healing miracles of Jesus are as much about justice as they are about miracles or healing. All that Jesus healed were on the margin or were outcasts. Yet the miracles remind us of Jesus’ effort to be sure everyone had access to the Kingdom (and to the table and to health).

Understanding that sickness, disease, pain and suffering are a natural part of being human, Simmons raises awareness in workshop participants of the plight of people around the world who also suffer. That awareness typically brings great peace, as it creates a context for one to view her or his own illness.

‘A friendship with science’

Simmons hopes to spread the word about mind-body medicine and spirituality, and healing so all people can live life to the fullest and be the kind of true disciples Christ has called us to be.

“The very word healing has the same root as wholeness and those relate to something different than just cure or curing,” he said.

“As a physician, he couldn’t be satisfied with medicine that didn’t ask the tough questions about the whats and hows of healing,” United Methodist deacon and close friend Susan Anne Bennett said about Simmons. “As a spiritual person, he looks beyond simplistic and shallow answers as he explores his own faith journey. He moves comfortably between the sweat lodge and the cathedral, between the earth and the office. He is somewhat of a modern day shaman, in process.”

“So many people out there are hurting,” Simmons said. “I think it’s time for the church to embrace what science can tell us about the natural world and develop a friendship with science rather than a fear. The mind and the body and the spirit began during the Enlightenment to be treated as if they were separate from one another. It is time to put them back together.”

For more information about Simmons’ spirituality and healing ministry, email him at [email protected] or call 864-266-7164.

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