Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The C-Word: Mind Games

once i was doing some energy work on my dad because the arthritis was acting up in his knees, i could feel the heat and activity in his joints in the palm of my hands so i asked him what he was experiencing.

he said, "i think i am imagining that i feel something." i've told this story a million times because it made me laugh.

my dad is a scientist and bases his opinions on physical evidence. i explained that from a purely quantitative scientific perspective, the reason one "feels" anything is because nerve receptors fire in the brain saying that there is pain or pleasure or cold or heat or anything in-between. so the reality is that anything one "perceives" is created in the brain. so when one takes a "pain-killer," it doesn't mean that the issue (the inflamed joint, stitches, spinal subluxations) are resolved, it just means that those nerve endings are numbed or quieted down. and one "imagines" that there is no pain.

what does pain mean?

there is a theory amongst health practitioners that all illness starts in the mind, or maybe in the metaphorical heart, if that is the seat of all emotions. the idea is that an emotional or psychological state is so unbalancing or upsetting that it gradually starts affecting the body. in chinese medicine, there are esoteric explanations of illness along with the physical ones - lung issues come from unresolved grief or may cause a sense of sadness, liver issues come from anger or an irritated liver may cause an irritable spirit, lower back pain from frustrated creativity, knee pain from fear, breast health from a woman's relationships or sense of herself as a sexual being. obviously, this is very general.

the simplest example of the idea is tension headaches, TMJ or neck and shoulder pain. while there may be a structural issue, it begins with feeling anxious or stressed and then clenching one's muscles.

to understand further, think about a dog or cat when they feel threatened. involuntarily, they raise the skin and fur on the backs of their necks. do that for a long time and the muscles get tired and pass the information on to the nerves - as an ache.

thus many energy healers say, "the issues are in the tissues." while some people's worries settle in their scalps, others may be in their stomachs or spines. in oprah magazine's april 2014 issue, the article, "The Migraine in My Butt,"  by juno demelo, is about a woman who resolved the painful muscle deep in her glutes using meditation and soul searching for the issues behind it. exploring the nonphysical side of her pain began with a book called The Mindbody Prescription: Healing the Body, Healing the Pain by a doctor who used to be the director of outpatient services at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation. dr. sarno's theories draw deeply from freudian psychology and the idea that rage starts in early childhood, perhaps even in infancy, and can take over your life.

so that's all very well to say.

unfortunately, what i've noticed is that when someone with a chronic or systemic condition gets the suggestion that there might be a psychological or emotional aspect to it, they tend to get angry and offended: "can you believe it? the doctor said it was all in my mind!"

when a friend of mine who has an inexplicable, debilitating issue was told a hypnotist might help her, she was so insulted that she decided her doctor was an idiot.

here's the thing:

the idea that an illness may be affected by your mind doesn't mean it's not real.

it doesn't mean your illness doesn't exist or isn't wrecking havoc through your body or your life. it is not reductive, patronizing or dismissive. it doesn't mean the pain isn't keeping you up at night or making it impossible to do what you need to.

when an allopathic or western medicine doctor suggests mind-body or energy therapies, it usually means that they don't understand how to resolve your symptoms. that may be for a multitude of reasons, they may be checking the wrong parts of your body, they have missed a symptom or it may be something else. it also doesn't mean that there isn't also a real external cause.

almost everyone in healing has repeated the story of dr. west and his cancer patient, mr. wright from the 1957 paper by psychologist, dr bruno klopfer, "psychological variables in human cancer."

mr. wright had an advanced cancer called lymphosarcoma. all treatments had failed, and he wasn't expected to last a week. but mr. wright desperately wanted to live, and he heard about a promising new drug called krebiozen that was being offered in clinical trials. 

he begged dr. west to treat him with the drug, but the trial was limited to people who had at least three months to live. despite that, mr. wright was convinced that the drug would be his miracle cure.

eventually, dr. west managed to obtain the drug and injected his patient with krebiozen on a friday. dr. west assumed the man wouldn't last the weekend.

to his complete surprise, when dr. west returned on monday, his patient was up and around. dr. klopfer said, "'the tumor masses had melted like snowballs on a hot stove" and were half their original size. ten days later, mr. wright left the hospital, seemingly cancer-free.

then scientific literature reported that krebiozen wasn't effective.  mr. wright, who trusted what he read, became depressed, and the cancer returned.

so, dr. west decided to try something. he told mr. wright that the initial drug had deteriorated during shipping, but that he had a new supply of highly concentrated, ultra-pure krebiozen, guaranteed to work.

dr. west then injected mr. wright with distilled water. the tumors melted again, the fluid in his chest disappeared. mr. wright made a full recovery for another two months.

unfortunately, the american medical association then announced that krebiozen had proved utterly worthless.

upon hearing this, mr. wright lost all faith in his cure. his cancer returned and he died two days later.

so despite his recovery and relapse - his cancer was very real. the difference with cancer (and a lot of other systemic or chronic illnesses) is that the doctors often can't figure out the cause in order to eradicate it.

so think about it this way, if your mind and body are in balance, you can be exposed to bacteria or carcinogens and never develop any illness. that's why (as i've said before), someone can say, "my grandmother smoked 5 packs a day and lived on lard and sugar and died at 105."

that's also why someone who is physically addicted to cigarettes can be cured of their addiction using hypnosis. it doesn't mean there isn't a physical addiction, it just means that the mind is more powerful than you think (no pun intended). lissa rankin's book, mind over medicine gives even more examples.

for instance, a diabetic with a dissociative identity disorder whose other identity was not diabetic. other people with dissociative identity disorder often have one identity who needs corrective glasses and one with perfect vision.

following that logic, there is another - even more controversial -  theory that i believe.

major illnesses (and major catastrophes) show up to heal your life.

there's an entire school of thought around this, including "an uncomfortable" book by another german doctor, rudiger dahlke.

the idea is that quite often people dealing with chronic illnesses or pain have internal issues that they haven't had the time or space to resolve. when a crisis comes it forces you to re-think.

it's almost a cliche that people who have cancer - or another brush with mortality - become much more sensitive to the simple pleasures of life. certainly, being faced with death, puts the prosaic into perspective.

in my own personal experience, i've found that taking the time to be grateful for things, even horrid, painful, life-damaging things, opens me up in a new way.

if you are not well, or in a difficult situation, you might find this idea disgustingly pollyanna, so i apologize in advance. but i ask that you just entertain the thought. follow it through.

usually, after i swim laps, i take a long shower (terribly drying for the skin, i know) and find myself pondering my latest disaster and wondering what i have gained from it. i keep asking myself over and over again what benefit i enjoyed from being sick, being broke, being broken-hearted or whatever loss or awful humiliation it is that time.

usually, while i am drying off, i say to God or Universal Intelligence, "thank you thank you thank you for letting me be here. thank you for letting the water pipes break, because now i know that i need to remember to pay attention more to every day things. i need to look after them." or maybe "thank you for the water pipes breaking because it is forcing me to fix the floors and i never would have done it."

(apologies again for the pedestrian example, because that makes it seem easy.)

perhaps it is an illusion of control, that events are not totally random, especially events inside my body. and perhaps it is way of letting my mind open to healing. because somehow, when i manage to reach the place of REALLY feeling grateful, everything starts shifting.

it does take me some time to get there, depending on how bad the situation is. i try to be grateful and instead i am mad. i tell myself there is a benefit and then i get mad at myself and say how stupid! what could possibly be good about this? i have to keep searching for the gratitude and keep exhaling the anger but eventually, it comes.

it sometimes takes days. or weeks.

it is hard work.

and it doesn't mean you don't have to do the work of physically changing your habits, your diet, your responses.

there was a painful story in the new york times magazine about a woman called anna lyndsey who is burned by even the slightest exposure to light. her skin has become so photosensitive that she cannot even open the curtains during the day. while living in permanent darkness, she's written a memoir about it. at one point in the article, she warns against the "lure of the reiki healer."

"lyndsey writes of wanting, when the healer suggests that there is always some hidden benefit to being ill, to smash in the woman’s face."

but the end of the article suggests something different:

"she describes the rainbow of colors she sees in the house depending on the weather outside, the various stages of dusk, the subtle differences between the light at sunrise and sunset. 'i went for a walk at dawn on christmas day, which was the first time I’d managed to do that for years,' she said. 'It was absolutely deserted, and the sky was this lovely peachy, bluey gray, very tasteful, and there were all these magpies flying round the houses.' It’s the kind of thing most of us see without seeing, a scene so ordinary it barely registers. sky, magpies, houses: nothing of note. for lyndsey, rare and beautiful — art."

i don't mean to be reductive or dismissive. i can't imagine that experience. and it's possible that lyndsey's beautiful walk was not a reward and, obviously, the physical reality of her illness is so much more than a metaphor.

that said, what makes sense to me and my experience of illness or catastrophe is that if you can understand what benefit you might gain from it, you can what address the need that is not being satisfied and perhaps help your mind heal your body.

i had a similar conversation with the shrinks at memorial sloan kettering. i explained why i no longer needed to have cancer. the shrink was taken aback. "at memorial sloan kettering, we don't believe cancer is a punishment from God!" he exclaimed.

dahlke explains it better in the article:

“the problem is that people confuse responsibility and guilt,” says dahlke over skype. “when I argue that someone is responsible for his illness, i’m not saying that that disease is his fault. the disease provides an ability to respond, however. we have to get to know what that disease means in our lives, what it wants to tell us. a disease presents a task, and when we perform the task, we heal the body.”

if all life is experience created by perception and belief - and both of those things are created in the mind - couldn't changing the mind change the body?

we might even be able to create a new gene.

in my experience, approaching anything or anyone with love, understanding and acceptance always works better than anger, aggression or tension.

anyway, just a thought.

maybe you want to invite it in for a little while.

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