07 Dec The Big Picture
(Originally published as an eight part series for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)
Readers familiar with my articles might have been surprised by my recent article on trigger points, since it dealt strictly with a physical disorder, rather than the broader psychological and spiritual topics I often write about. But in this series, I will propose that rarely, if ever, does an issue occur strictly on the physical level. Neither are issues confined strictly to the mental or emotional levels. Trigger points – and all other health issues – are a product of the interaction of many variables on many levels. We stand to benefit greatly from learning how to perceive the interaction between gross and subtle. In this series, we’ll explore the inseparable connection of mind and body (and beyond), and we’ll discuss what it means to see the “big picture.”
You hear terms like “mind-body,” and “body-mind connection,” all the time in the alternative healing world. The reason it’s so emphasized is probably because it differs from the predominant medical framework, which tends to view humans as two separate entities – a mind and a body.
Moreover, there is a prevailing tendency in mainstream medicine to even isolate the various parts and systems of the body. If one part can be adequately treated with a particular drug, the drug’s detrimental impact on other parts is often considered a non-issue. Especially if this impact can be addressed with additional drugs. Thus, it’s common to hear drug commercials in which half the ad consists of the narrator reading off the list of possible side effects.
There are certain situations in which mainstream medicine recognizes the interaction of mind and body, such as the common occurrence of depression in tandem with chronic pain. But even here, the depression is usually treated with drugs to alter brain chemistry, while little consideration is given to the possibility that the depression and the pain may have a common origin.
These are examples of reductionistic thinking: seeing the person as merely the sum of many loosely-related parts. Reductionism has its place, and sometimes reductionistic medical practitioners achieve good results. When they don’t, though, it’s often because of a failure to see the big picture. Any time the same treatment is administered to every person with a particular problem (e.g., acid blockers for heartburn, sedatives for insomnia), there is sure to be a practitioner who is missing the big picture. I believe this is a major reason for Americans’ migration to alternative medicine. People like to be treated as whole, integrated beings, and they’re smart enough to know when their doctor is only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
In contrast, several older medical systems (such as Chinese medicine and Ayurveda) treat the many facets of mind, body, and environment as a whole, integrated unit. These systems of medicine also see the potential for any imbalance to be expressed simultaneously on a physical, mental, and emotional level. This is not to say that these forms of medicine are better than conventional biomedicine, just that they lend themselves to a more holistic form of application.
We’ll examine what exactly constitutes “holistic,” but first, let’s address “alternative.” While so many folks are flocking to alternative medicine, it may or may not give them what they want, partly because “alternative medicine” is such a vague term. And “complementary medicine” is no better. Alternative medicine could mean any form of medicine other than conventional biomedicine: acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, shamanism, hydrotherapy, massage, faith healing, etc. It’s about as specific as dividing the world into Germans and Non-Germans. Apart from a desire to help people, there is probably not a single thing that all these fields have in common. So, it’s hard to make an accurate or meaningful statement about “alternative medicine.” Each of these disciplines deserves to be understood and evaluated individually.
If we’re looking for a term that meaningfully distinguishes between different approaches to medicine, “holistic” is a little better. Holistic medicine, also known as wholistic medicine (as in “whole”), is medicine founded on the philosophy of holism. Holism, from the Greek word holos, meaning all, entire, or total, is the philosophy that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That is, in order to really understand something, we have to consider the entire thing, not just its component pieces. Holistic medicine, therefore, evaluates all facets of a person and their environment in order to arrive at a diagnosis, and, rather than simply curbing symptoms, it aims to bring the whole person into balance.
The determination of whether a particular medical practice is holistic is not a clear cut matter. If we think of it as a spectrum, with reductionism at one end and holism at the other, each practitioner, in each patient interaction, varies in how holistic their approach is.
Natural medicine is not necessarily holistic. It can definitely be practiced in a reductive way (such as prescribing ginseng for fatigue without discerning the origin of the fatigue). And biomedicine (conventional medicine) is not necessarily reductive. I have had the honor of knowing some very wise, holistically-oriented medical doctors.
Now that we’ve touched on reductionism and holism, I hope you’re beginning to see why perspective is one of the most important qualities in medicine. In the next part, we’ll look at how we start seeing the big picture, and we’ll also discover just how big the big picture is.
In the first part of this series, I introduced the idea of reductive versus holistic thinking about health. In a nutshell, a holistic approach is one that assesses a person as a whole, integrated unit. It also sees a person as being integrated with their environment. Therefore, no condition may be holistically evaluated without considering its context – the whole person and the world they live in.
The reductive approach is to assess signs and symptoms in an isolated way, without regard for the person they belong to and the environment that person lives in. There is a failure to appreciate the tremendous range of human variation and the significance of age, heredity, mental and emotional makeup, nutrition, weather, occupation, location, family, exercise, and other factors.
Of course, in certain cases – fingers cut off when reaching under a running lawnmower, for instance – we can safely be reductionistic about the cause. But there’s no reason for reductionistic thinking in the treatment. Surgery is a given, but it would be shortsighted (“small picture” thinking) to assume that recovery proceeds along the same course for everyone. Do you think you would recover better while lying alone in a hospital room, watching television and eating processed food, or while enjoying frequent visits from friends and family, and eating nutritious, home-cooked meals?
Now, let’s see just how big the big picture can be. We’ll begin with the straightforward environmental factors. The environment is very much a forgotten influence on our lives. For most of human history we have been intimately connected to the land, the weather, and the cosmos. We were perceptive of the ways these vast entities affected us. Then two things happened. One, we developed the ability to live mostly in climate controlled buildings and cars – to effectively turn the outside world into mere scenery. Two, empowered with science, we dismissed most of our long-held beliefs about the role of nature as naive or superstitious.
Luckily, there has been a recent trend toward revisiting the wisdom we abandoned in the twentieth century. We’re seeing that maybe our grandparents knew something of real value. More people are standing by the validity of their own firsthand experience, despite a lack of scientific proof. And, finally, more scientists and doctors now support the role of the environment (and many other factors) on our health.
Nearly everyone is familiar with the irritating or even harmful impact of common airborne particles and waste gases. These include smoke, pollen, dust, carbon monoxide, ozone, industrial chemicals, pesticides, radon, and others. But most people think of air pollution as an outdoor issue, when the reality is that the insides of many homes are exponentially worse than outdoors.
The indoor culprits that get the most attention are dust, animal hair and dander, and mites. Besides the usual sneezing, nose running, eye itchiness, and asthma, they can cause a more insidious symptoms such as lethargy, mental fog, itchy skin, and a puffy face. So, even if you don’t have obvious allergies, it’s still worth doing some basic maintenance, such as dusting, cleaning air ducts, replacing your furnace filter, and using mite-proof pillows or getting a new pillow every couple years. About ten percent of the weight of a two year old pillow can be dead mites and mite feces. A mattress is said to double in weight over ten years for the same reason. Plus, mites are worst in moist climates, like Portland. Another indoor irritant people don’t often consider is cockroaches. About ten percent of people are sensitive to roaches and their debris, and respond with skin rashes, allergies and asthma. Even if they’re not in your home, chances are they’re in the restaurants you eat at and the factories where your food is processed. And they’re most certainly in processed crops from tropical areas, such as chocolate and coffee.
While the organic irritants above sure cause some problems, it’s the synthetic ones that need more of our attention. These come from petroleum-based furnishings such as mattresses, carpets, and couches; construction and decorating materials such as paints, stains, sawdust, drywall dust; air fresheners, candles, and incense; cleaning agents; cosmetic products such as hair spray and nail polish; office chemicals such copy toner, rubber cement, and the ozone that copiers emit; flame retardant, which is applied to all sorts of appliances; other miscellaneous household chemicals, such as insect repellent, adhesives, solvents (paint thinner, stripper, goof off), flea treatments, and more.
I believe most people aren’t aware of what happens to these chemicals as they disperse through the air. For instance, many air fresheners are composed of a gel substance or liquid that gradually disappears over a month or two. Where does it go? When we stain a piece of furniture, we smell the solvents very strongly for the first day or two, and then the smell dissipates. Where does it go? When we burn a candle, it starts out big and ends up small. Where does it go? The short answer to these questions is: nowhere. These chemicals generally stay in our house.
When we smell these chemicals, it’s because minuscule airborne molecules of them are floating around and we’re actively drawing them into our lungs. As the smell dissipates, it’s because these chemicals are finding things to stick to. Thus, they’re no longer airborne, but they’re still here. Often, they stick to dust, which can still be readily inhaled and eaten. Kids and pets are especially at risk since they are low to the ground where most of the dust settles. They are also the most likely members of the family to roll around on the floor and eat things directly off it. Plus, they have the smallest bodies in the house, so they’re most affected by these toxins. You would never eat air freshener because it’s poison. But when it “disappears” from the dispenser into the air, you and your family end up consuming it. Choose your products wisely.
People who don’t have asthma or chemical sensitivities may not think much about these irritants and toxins, but years of exposure significantly raises our risk of dying from a lung-related illness. Long term exposure to organic solvents is proven to cause permanent damage to the nervous system, including the brain. And there is growing evidence that many of these chemicals act as “endocrine disruptors” – that is, they have some effect on hormone receptors in our bodies and can thus upset the balance of very delicate systems. Some scientists believe this is a factor in our high rates of obesity and early puberty.
The key with toxins is our total accumulated exposure from all sources. Most people open a window or go outside when using spray paint, because it’s so obviously toxic. But the cumulative impact of inhaling what’s emitted from our foam mattress, our carpet, our candles, and our scented detergents may actually pose a more significant hazard. Likewise, drinking a martini while spraying the lawn with weed killer poses a similar hazard, because the alcohol and the herbicide place a combined burden on the liver.
We have just scratched the surface here, but we’re beginning to broaden our view of what can affect human health. The next time you or a friend are feeling unwell, consider the role environmental factors may be playing. Meanwhile, it’s easy to cut down on household chemical exposure. Vinegar, baking soda, lemon (or any cold-pressed citrus oil), and enzyme-based cleaners can take care of most cleaning needs. But to treat the obstinate blotches and smudges that do not show signs of leaving, use Maid2Match bond cleaners. Open the doors and windows and turn on fans when using toxic chemicals – or, better yet, go outside. Every home should have a good respirator that blocks dust and organic solvents. You can find one for about thirty dollars at a hardware store, and if you do any kind of deep cleaning or home improvement, there will definitely come a time to use it. It’s also a good idea to wear a cheap, basic dust mask when dusting if you’re sensitive or have used any chemicals in the house. Finally, treat yourself to some lovely new houseplants – they are great at removing chemicals from the air and they make the house more pretty.
In the first two parts of this series, I discussed the value of a broad perspective on health, and we started to look at some of the ways our environment affects us. There’s a lot to say about the role of the environment in our health, so this time we’ll explore a few more of the major factors.
First let’s talk about our furry houseguest, mold. Though awareness of mold seems to have improved in recent years, many people still don’t consider it as a culprit in illness. It’s frequently hidden, and some molds release poisonous substances called endotoxins that can insidiously degrade our health. Long term exposure to mold can cause respiratory issues, sinus infections, fatigue, muscle aches, headaches, unclear thinking, and other problems. Also, a study released last year showed that people living in moldy conditions have a higher than normal incidence of depression. If you live in a damp home, you may need to get a dehumidifier, extend your gutter downspouts away from the house, improve your windows, etc. These efforts will be worth your while.
Another effect of cold and rainy weather, even without mold, is to aggravate aches, pains, and fatigue. The word “rheumatism” was once widely used to mean chronic achy pain of the muscles and joints that is worsened by damp weather. Early in U.S. history, hot and dry regions, such as Arizona, developed a reputation as the place for those with rheumatism to go to be healed. But in recent decades, more scientific explanations for health problems have displaced traditional wisdom.
Luckily, doctors such as Robert Jamison at Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Pain Management Center are now doing research to support what we’ve known for so long. He noticed that his pain clinic filled up on cold, damp days. This prompted him and his colleagues to distribute questionnaires to hundreds of people with chronic pain. Nearly all of them reported worsening with cold, damp weather – often just before the weather change occurred. Jamison concluded that changes in barometric pressure are the main link between weather and pain. “Low pressure,” he says, “is generally associated with cold, wet weather and an increase in pain. Clear, dry conditions signal high pressure and a decrease in pain.”
If you feel achy, creaky, or heavy in cold, damp weather, try using a dry sauna on a regular basis. If you benefit from it, you may consider building your own small sauna. Kits are available and they’re fairly affordable. Eating warm, cooked foods in the winter can also help.
It’s important to consider that someone living in a cold, damp, and/or moldy house may have other reasons to be lethargic, achy, or depressed. One may be a lack of sunlight. Although humans don’t photosynthesize, regular sun exposure helps us thrive. Recently, a poll of over one million Americans was analyzed along with other quality of life data in order to rank the fifty states based on how happy their residents are. Not surprisingly, eight of the top ten states were in the south, where it tends to be warm and sunny.
Sun plays a number of roles in our health. We all know excessive sun exposure can put us at risk of developing skin cancer, but sunlight has a profoundly uplifting effect on mood. This can be partly attributed to its ability to stimulate production of vitamin D in our skin, but it lifts our mood even if we stay in the shade. There’s a benefit to seeing bright light, which is why full spectrum lights often work even though they don’t stimulate vitamin D production. (Interestingly, I have encountered at least a dozen patients who feel bad on sunny days and good when it’s cloudy. One more reason not to be reductionistic in our assumptions about depression.) If you live in a place where there’s not much sun, taking extra vitamin D and using a full spectrum lamp can often make a big difference in our quality of life.
In addition to the specific benefits of sunlight, people’s lives tend to be different in warm places than cold ones. In sunny, warm weather, we’re more likely to go outside and revel in the beauty of nature. We get more exercise. And this puts us in contact with other people, who hopefully ask about our lives and share good tidings. One of the characteristics shared by nearly everyone who lives over one hundred is that they are engaged in their communities. They have a strong network of people who check in on them and expect to see them regularly. But by no means do we have to let the weather dictate how much we get out of the house or how strong our social ties are. Great technological advances have been made in cold and wet weather gear. Take advantage of it and get outdoors.
The last environmental factor I’ll discuss in this installment is electromagnetic radiation. It is a big and poorly understood can of worms. At the high-frequency end of the spectrum we have what is known as ionizing radiation – ultraviolet light, x-rays and gamma rays. These forms of radiation are well known for their ability to change atoms, damage cells, and cause cancer.
The lower frequencies, which give us visible light, infrared light, microwaves, and radio waves, have long been considered harmless except when we’re exposed to highly amplified sources (such as a large power transmitter or microwave oven). But there is growing recognition that even low frequency electromagnetic fields can influence our health. The extent of their impact seems to be determined by a combination of how sensitive we are, how old we are (children being more affected than adults), and how much electromagnetic radiation we’re exposed to.
The health effects of low frequency electromagnetic radiation are still mostly unknown, but there are some weak correlations with leukemia and cancer, degenerative diseases of the nervous system, miscarriage, insomnia, and mood disorders. In my practice, I’ve encountered quite a few individuals who report better sleep when they minimize the number of electronic devices in their bedroom and keep their cell phone far from the bed. I even know some folks who shut off any nonessential circuits on their circuit breaker before going to bed. They say the house feels more calm. Also, almost everyone feels better when we get out of town. There are plenty of reasons for this, perhaps one of which is that there’s little electromagnetic pollution in the country.
As for cell phones, like all cell phone users, I want them to be safe, but the research is conflicting. Cell phones emit low level microwave radiation. Microwave ovens work because microwaves jostle the atoms they encounter and this jostling generates heat. Any time we are exposed to influences that cause cell changes (such as hormones, toxins, and radiation), there is some potential that a cell change may be cancerous, and cell phone emissions may have the ability to do this.
Children are probably at highest risk, since their skulls are smaller, thinner, and less dense than adult skulls. Cell phone emissions penetrate much deeper into children’s heads than they do in adults. A Swedish study published in 2008 claimed that children who use cell phones have a fivefold increase in rates of brain cancer. Another study found increased rates of salivary gland tumors in those who hold a cell phone against one side of their face for several hours a day. On the other hand, the jostling effect of cell phone microwaves also appears to prevent the development of Alzheimer’s disease – at least in mice. Alzheimer’s is thought to be caused by fibrous plaques in the brain, and cell phone radiation seems to disrupt their formation.
In any case, it seems prudent to hold your cell phone away from your head, use it in speaker phone mode, or use a hands-free device. Choosing a cell phone with a low radiation rating (the Specific Absorption Rate [SAR]) may also be prudent. SAR ratings for different phones can be easily found on the web; just google “sar rating.” Manufacturers are quick to insist that these ratings – as far as we know – don’t mean anything.
Despite the grim nature of some of my reporting, it’s not my intention to stoke paranoia. I simply want to give you my best assessment of the available information in order to broaden your perspective of the big picture of health. And given how big this picture is, any one of the environmental factors I’ve discussed should be understood in the context of everything else. That is, if you’re a generally healthy person, you probably won’t be affected by electromagnetic radiation in any measurable way.
Nonetheless, it may be worthwhile to assess your total exposure to electromagnetic fields. Consider your proximity to power stations, high voltage lines and cell phone towers, the number of electronic devices in your home and office, and how much time you spend on a cell phone or in front of a computer. Turn off any non-essential devices – if nothing else, you’ll save money on electricity. If you have trouble sleeping, try staying off the computer, television, and cell phone for an hour before bed, and ditch the electric blanket. Keep plenty of plants in your house as natural air cleaners. Make a regular habit of spending time in nature, away from power lines and cell phones.
In the next part in this series we’ll take a look at seasonal factors and their correlations with emotions and energy. Until then, I bid you a peaceful relationship with your surroundings.
In the first article in this series, I discussed why I believe the ability to broaden our perspective – to see the “big picture” – is important. Not only is it one of the most valuable qualities for a healthcare practitioner to culitvate, it also makes all the difference in how we view and manage our own challenges.
In parts two and three, I discussed some of the many environmental factors that impact our mental, emotional, and physical health. These include things like air pollution (both outdoor and indoor), plastics, mold, weather, ambient electromagnetic radiation and cell phone radiation.
This time we’ll explore how humans are connected to nature and some of the ways we respond to the seasons. The seasons tend to affect all living things similarly, so whenever we’re trying to understand the prevailing dynamic in our lives, it’s worth considering what’s going on outside. Chinese medicine ascribes certain characteristics to each season – an emotion, a direction of movement, a sound, and other qualities. It emphasizes that Nature must be included in any holistic assessment of the factors that influence our lives, and it teaches that tuning in to the natural world can be a valuable tool for achieving peace and balance.
These seasonal correspondences originated through careful observations of nature made by early Daoists. These observations began at a time when humans saw their lives as entirely integrated with nature. Yes, once upon a time, we belonged to the world. Our experiences always had a context in nature. We were tuned into the order around us.
Nowadays, it easy to have an indoor life, almost completely disconnected from the outside world. When we’re cut off from nature, we lose touch with something vital: a common wisdom, a connection that deeply informs who and what we are. Author Richard Louv has come up with a name for this modern condition – Nature-Deficit Disorder – and in his book, Last Child in the Woods, he makes the case that kids (and everyone) need regular contact with nature in order to be healthy. When we lose touch with nature, we become “out of sync” with cues that once regulated our routines and kept us in a harmonious balance with our surroundings.
At the time of this writing – spring – there is a distinct upward trajectory in the world around us. New growth is beginning. Shoots are pushing their way out of cold ground. In the same way, it’s natural for people to feel drawn to start new projects in spring. Sometimes, like young sprouts, we feel pushy, edgy, or restless, as if the energy that was pent up in the winter can’t be restrained anymore. Our libidos can be expected to rise a bit in spring, too, as this is the beginning of the fertility season.
Spring is associated with the liver and gallbladder, and it’s not usual to notice them getting cranky. We may experience symptoms such as bloating, indigestion, slightly elevated liver enzymes, or headaches. To tune ourselves to the environment, we can cleanse these organs by avoiding greasy foods, being moderate with alcohol consumption, and eating plenty of green vegetables – especially ones that are somewhat bitter. Chinese medicine says the gallbladder and liver do their best work from 11 PM to 3 AM, and we can ensure this by going to sleep by 11 o’clock. Finally, we can spend time outdoors feeling the sense of rebirth, hope, fresh plans, and directive growth that permeate our surroundings. It’s a good time to cultivate perspective and flexibility.
In summer, the Fire element dominates, and its main representative is the big fireball we call Sun. More fire means more activity, more heat, more joy (this season’s emotion) and more communion. As long as the sun doesn’t scorch everything, we see intense plant growth this time of year. Our yards may turn into jungles. Long days mean we naturally feel able to do more and be more active.
In the same way that a campfire or a fire in the fireplace is a natural gathering point, fire’s strong presence in summer encourages us to be more social and connect with others. Fire also fuels passion. We see this in the communing of so many bees with flowers and we hear it in the wild chorus of bird songs in the air. It’s therefore natural for our libidos to stay elevated through summer. More atmospheric fire means more metabolic energy for most people. Thus, in summer, it’s easier to lose weight and easier to digest a wide variety of foods, including raw seasonal produce. The emotion of summer is joy, so it makes sense that many people experience a nice lift in mood this time of year.
Summer is the closest we get to the sun and the peak of openness and activity. Our departure from this peak is autumn. In the fall, we lose hours of daylight, trees lose their leaves, our children leave home and return to school, and the sun retreats to a lower arc in the sky. With so much apparent loss, it’s natural for people to feel a sense of grief in fall. At the same time, when we let so much go, we are often left with a certain clean, crisp feeling. The world is reduced to its essentials, and this guides humans to do the same. We start to pare back our activity level, our attention naturally turns more inward, and we feel more contemplative. We may find ourselves re-experiencing other losses we’ve sustained. We can stay in sync with the environment by practicing a willingness to let go. If we view the departure from summer not as a loss, but merely a process of refinement, we can move through this period gracefully. After all, what is of greatest value during any of life’s “peaks” is the experience itself, and this can never be lost.
Fall’s descent brings us to the depths of winter, when days are darkest and activity is at a minimum. It is the season of rest, dormancy, and taking inventory. In winter, it is natural to feel less energy and a desire to sleep more. The sun is at its most distant, and our digestive fire dwindles a bit, so it’s a good time to eat mostly warm, cooked foods. It’s also natural to gain a little weight. These tendencies are paralleled by most of the wildlife around us (particularly in places that actually have “wintery” weather) – many animals hibernate and put on an extra layer of insulation. One of the main reasons to store up reserves and reduce our activity in winter is that there is a lack of available resources. For the animals out there, and until recently, for humans too, winter is the season when survival becomes a top priority. If you look out at a winter landscape, though beautiful, it may also seem bleak, as signs of life are hard to find and resources for survival are scant. This stillness is sometimes how we imagine death to be: quiet, cold, empty. So it’s understandable that winter’s emotion is fear, which we experience anytime we feel our survival is threatened, or even when we simply encounter real stillness. It’s part of what spurs so many of us to run relentlessly through life. We can harmonize ourselves with the energy of winter by reducing our ambitions, welcoming stillness, and accepting this season as an essential period for rest and quiet.
The Earth element governs the transition periods between seasons. Transitions call us to stay connected to what is stable, like earth itself, in order to remain centered and healthy through the change. Earth is all about cycles, always spinning from day to night and perpetually revolving around the sun. Yet within these cycles of change, earth is eminently predictable. Aside from occasional earthquakes and landslides, the earth is, by and large, very slow to change, especially in comparison to water, fire, or air. Earth is almost always exactly where we expect it to be – right under our feet, right under all our buildings and roads and everything else, predictably supporting us all. It teaches us that well establishing rhythms give our lives stability and make change easy. The transitions between seasons are when my office fills up with patients. If we’re not in balance, it’s a real struggle for the body to adapt to the change, and we may catch a cold, feel achy and tired, have digestive upset, or sleep poorly. The more grounded we are (with roughly the same sleeping, waking, and eating times each day), the less likely we are to be thrown off kilter when life throws us a curve ball.
I hope these brief sketches of the seasons have helped broaden your perspective of the myriad influences on the human condition. Next time I’ll focus on the mental and emotional planes, exploring how we influence others and ourselves. In the meantime, I encourage you to spend some time outdoors, as a willing student to Mother Nature.
In the past months, I have written about many, many factors that influence our health. If you’ve been keeping up with this series, you may have noticed that the list is almost neverending. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we should be constantly analyzing our health, or that a medical practitioner can only be holistic if he or she is able to account for every possible factor. My intention is to invite you to broaden your perspective about health and become more perceptive of how various influences affect you. I encourage you to consider that health is not merely the sum of the conditions inside our body, but an expression of our perpetual interaction with the living world around us, and the resonance of countless emotional, mental, and physical patterns within and without us.
Good health, as I see it, is not merely a lack of disease. It implies a certain kind of integrity, ease, and openness. By integrity, I mean a quality of physical, emotional, and mental stability that cannot easily be disturbed by internal or external forces. By ease, I mean a state of mental and physical relaxation that is with us even when we’re working hard. And by openness, I mean a tendency to accept, rather than resist, what life brings us, and also an inclination to expand: to be inspired, to create, to share, and to grow. Furthermore, when our soul is basically healthy, we tend to have a balanced outlook on life – our circumstances are viewed through a neutral “lens.” Rather than degrading what we’re presented with by adding negative interpretations, we see things as they are, at face value. And when our soul is vibrantly healthy, we see a world full of opportunities: opportunities to help, to enhance, to bring peace and love into our surroundings.
Since I have spent a long time listing things that influence our experience of life, I think it’s important that we take a look at how this influence occurs. This means first establishing a philosophical foundation. In Chinese philosophy, the whole universe is composed of something called Qi (Chi). There is no perfect one-word definition for Qi in English, but “energy” is probably the closest we’ll get. Thus, Qi is the basic matrix of the world. Qi can have varying qualities and densities. The more dense Qi is, the more physically palpable it is. For instance, a rock is Qi in a densely packed state. Air is Qi in a very diffuse state. There is also a certain density to the Qi of a living organism. And, generally speaking, the Qi of a living thing has a stronger “charge” than the Qi of a non-living thing. (There’s much more to be said about Qi, but we’ll save this for a later discussion.)
As it happens, in recent decades, quantum physicists have arrived at essentially the same understanding. That is, everything is composed of energy. First we thought atoms were the smallest common denominator of matter. Then we found that atoms are made up of even tinier subatomic particles. Then we peered into these “particles” and found that it’s not really accurate to call them particles at all, because they are really just energy in a constant state of vibration. According to supersymmetric string theory (“string theory” for short), infinitesimal “strings” of energy vibrate at varying frequencies, which determines what kinds of properties they have. Different configurations of energy give us oxygen and iron, dogs and airplanes.
While science and Qi-based arts have historically been at odds, we’re at an exciting point in time when these fields are finding common ground. It’s difficult to use scientific terms and Qi in the same sentence without doing a disservice to either philosophy, but we need to start somewhere.
Qi Gong (“chi gung”) is the ancient art of perceiving, cultivating, and manipulating Qi. It means “Qi Practice” or “Qi Work,” and it’s an integral foundation to martial arts and acupuncture. Practicing Qi Gong is like playing with the fabric of the universe. When we hone our perception, it becomes easier to discern differences in qualities of Qi. The Qi of a piece of fruit feels obviously different from the Qi of a candy bar. It’s hard to quantify this, but, as with the string theory explanation, it can be understood as a difference of vibration. So, let’s talk more about vibration.
Vibration, or more precisely oscillation, means repetitive variation (usually around a central point of equilibrium). Oscillation gives us music. Different frequencies of oscillation cause guitar strings, the head of a drum and the shaft of a flute to produce a variety of notes and timbres. Oscillation also gives us color. The visible color spectrum is simply the way our eyes perceive different frequencies of oscillating light waves. When light waves oscillate more slowly, they appear closer to the red end of the spectrum; when they oscillate faster, they appear closer to the violet end of the spectrum. Radio and television waves, AC electricity, x-rays, cell phone transmissions, and microwaves are all oscillations of energy.
In humans, brain waves represent the oscillation of electrical activity in the brain. Different frequencies of oscillation correspond to different levels of awareness and arousal. One frequency may correspond to a state of anxious panic, and another to a state of blissful peace.
Finally, Earth itself is a massively oscillating system. The tides of our oceans have a twelve hour oscillation pattern. Our planet oscillates (spins) at a rate of once per twenty-four hours, setting the pace for the biological oscillation we call circadian rhythm. It is part of a larger oscillation around the sun, along with all the other planets, moons, rings, asteroids, and comets. Meanwhile, the Sun oscillates around the center of the Milky Way galaxy at about 220 kilometers per second.
So, the universe is humming a trillion notes at once. And all the oscillating systems affect each other through resonance. Resonance is the phenomenon by which the vibration of one object is conducted to another. In a cello, it’s what causes the vibration of a bowed string to be transmitted through the whole body of the instrument, amplifying and enriching the sound. Resonance can make a glass shatter when someone sings just the right pitch. We can even think of the senses of smell, hearing, and sight to work through resonance. When we encounter smells, each smell causes our neurons to oscillate at a particular frequency which the brain then interprets. When we look at an object, this instigates a vibration in a group of nerve cells in the visual center the brain that is synchronous with the object we are seeing. And when we hear, sound waves in the air cause resonance in our ear drum which is converted to electrical energy and transmitted through the auditory nerve to the brain.
Resonance is an important mechanism in how we influence and are influenced by our surroundings. Qi that vibrates at a certain frequency tends to induce the same frequency of vibration in the Qi around it. Resonance can be conducted from a gross level to a subtle level, and vice versa. When we speak, the gross vibration of our vocal cords induces a subtle, invisible vibration in the air, which then induces a gross vibration in a physical object, like a wine glass or an ear drum. Through resonance, we affect the world, the world affects us, and we affect ourselves. Next time, I will elaborate on this conceptual foundation to explain the role of resonance in health and disease, and how we can positively intervene in the process.
In the past five installments in this series I have discussed the impressively broad range of factors that impact human health – or, more accurately, human experience. We can be affected by anything and everything. Opening our perception to the breadth of the world’s influence stokes our fascination with life. It keeps us engaged and connected. It helps us understand why our life is the way the it is, and how to bring about change.
Last time, I introduced a foundational concept on how we influence and are influenced by our surroundings: resonance. It is the phenomenon that causes sound to be conducted through solid objects. And in a broader sense, it’s one way that energy spreads. It allows a certain feeling or quality can be transmitted within and between individuals.
The old saying “You are what you eat” might be more accurately stated as “You are what you experience,” because it’s really the entirety of our experience, everything we encounter – not just our food choices – that shapes our lives. Our experience includes all we consume, all that happens to us, and all that we think and feel. In every moment, we have an opportunity to shape our life through how we guide our experience. We have some choice in the kinds of thoughts and emotions we cultivate, what we do to our bodies, the environment we live in, the people we invite into our lives, and the media we consume.
There is a qualitative difference between the Qi (“chee” – life energy) of broccoli and the Qi of a piece of candy. To me, the Qi of a living thing (or a recently living thing) is palpable, whereas I find it hard to feel the Qi of a highly processed food like candy. In order to develop sensitivity to the vitality in food, all you really need to do is eat a clean, pure diet in a relaxed and present way for a while. This sensitivity can also be greatly enhanced by the practice of Qi Gong or other meditative arts. As one might expect, foods with livelier Qi tend to have the effect of enlivening our own Qi, and foods that are more energetically “dead” tend to diminish our vitality. Many things that are technically edible (like Coca Cola) don’t actually feel like food on an energetic level, because they degrade life more than they sustain it.
Similar qualitative variations are detectible in all other facets of life, and we can develop our ability to perceive these, too. For instance, if we bring our awareness to the influence of various media, it becomes clear that a large portion of newspapers articles, movies, radio shows, and television programs have a degrading influence on our consciousness (and, therefore, on our entire being). According to a study by the UCLA Center for Communications Policy, sixty-one percent of television programs contain some violence. Violence is a rare thing in most people’s lives, yet we habitually expose ourselves to it through our media. Most adults have seen thousands of murders on TV – by choice!
A common rationale people give for reading, listening to and repeating tragic stories is the necessity of staying informed. In actuality, there is very little utility in keeping up with misfortune and deadly events. If our consumption of violent media is not purposeful, it is destructive. It is like eating a rich dessert (though much less satisfying): if we choose to consume it, we should stop the moment we have had enough. Much of the gratuitous violence in media is passed off as art. Who am I to say what is and isn’t art? I just know that it’s toxic. When we begin to perceive the qualitative differences in the things we invite into our lives, it becomes easier to make choices that support us.
Not only do external energies cause resonance within us, our own bodies influence our thoughts and emotions, and our thoughts and emotions influence our bodies. Physical structures like muscle and bone are at the gross end of the spectrum, and thoughts are at the subtle, intangible end of the spectrum. Emotions and sensations are somewhere in between, as our experience of them is kind of physical (we sometimes call them “feelings,”), yet they are invisible and frequently difficult to grasp.
If we have a persistent thought, such as, I’m messing up my life, this can be understood as producing a particular tone at a subtle (nonphysical) level. If we think this thought quite frequently, we resonate at the same tone or waveform over and over. Eventually, this resonance will tend to affect Qi at a more gross level. This could be experienced as an emotion – perhaps an enduring feeling of shame. If this emotional tone persists or has a relatively loud “volume” (it’s felt strongly), it is likely to resonate beyond the emotional plane to yet a grosser level. Then it becomes a physical pattern. At this point, we may experience I’m messing up my life as tight muscles, an ulcer, or a headache. Through this mechanism, in a very literal way, our anger can equal our shoulder pain.
The same progression can proceed from the physical to the nonphysical. For example, making ourselves smile, laugh, or dance (physical expressions) can engender positive emotions and thoughts. Also, just as energy resonates through us, so does stagnation have a way of spreading through us. Stagnant Qi on any level tends to clog our flow on all levels. If we have a very sedentary life, this causes physical stagnation, or congestion of Qi, at a gross level. Eventually this will impede Qi flow at a more subtle level. Thus, physical stagnation often leads to mental and emotional stagnation in the form of depression or mental dullness. Another common example of the progression of stagnation is when we have a physical health problem, it often develops into a persistent mental and emotional response (for example, It’s not fair and anger). For this reason, I always tell my depressed patients to do some physical movement to indirectly mobilize the mind. An unfortunate aspect of this mechanism is that mental or emotional stagnation can make us feel physically lethargic and uninspired to move.
In reality, the progression of resonance and stagnation is not so linear. A pattern may originate on any level and spread to any other level, and it’s often instantaneous. We could hear some bad news and within seconds our heart stops. We could smell a flower, feel joyful, and immediately be without pain.
The patterns (recurrent thoughts, emotions, and ways we use our body) that persist the most tend to be destabilizing or guide us away from a state of balance. There are two main reasons for this. First, in an imbalanced state, we are more likely to make unclear choices that further undermine our stability. Second, we resist the patterns that feel bad, and, rather than hastening their resolution, this strengthens our relationship with them.
On the other hand, some tones resonate through us in a way that promotes balance, or is uplifting and healing. These can come from experiences such as love, admiration, achievement, connecting with community or a higher power, and practices such as yoga, singing, deep breathing, and exchanging compassionate touch. In the same way that destabilizing factors tend to cause a cascade of imbalance, these healing factors can give us an experience that is so powerfully inspiring, we want to do whatever we can to stay in this zone. Indeed, it is our birthright. As a healthcare practitioner, this is the kind of experience I want most for my patients.
Until next time, I encourage you to be sensitive, to listen and feel for the qualitative differences between various foods, activities, thoughts, people. Think about what your soul wants for you, watch the choices you make, and see where they take you.
In the last article in this series, I discussed how resonance is one way of explaining how we are influenced by our environment, how we influence each other, and how patterns spread within our body-emotions-mind-soul. Our ability to “broadcast” our Qi (that is, to cause resonance beyond our own body) is stronger at the emotional level than the mental level. This is why, even if we don’t know what someone is thinking, we can often discern what we’re feeling. It’s the way animals can “smell” our fear. When we have especially strong feelings, they are inadvertently projected, and they spread across a wide spectrum. Thus, strong emotions rapidly induce a flood of thoughts and are expressed through the body in a palpable way, which is often detectable through our body language and voice changes.
Even without seeing a person’s body language or hearing their voice, we can sometimes still pick up on their feelings through the resonance of Qi at a subtle level. Major cultural tides can cause whole communities or nations to resonate together with a certain feeling. After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, for instance, I felt a current of grief and fear throughout the country, even among people who didn’t watch the news. Sometimes the emotion around us is so strong, it’s like a wave of electromagnetic radiation that we simply cannot resist.
This phenomenon is also common when we live with someone who is depressed, angry, or harboring another strong emotion. Many well-meaning people attempt to empower others to change their mood by telling them, “No one can make you feel [angry, guilty, persecuted, etc.].” While it is certainly true that we have the ability to step back from our emotions and choose our response, we must also remember that everyone is affected by their environment. This is a natural consequence of our being resonant instruments that are sensitive to the oscillations around us.
Some people feel constantly inundated by others’ emotions. I have often heard patients say they can’t help “taking on other people’s stuff.” Whatever the degree of our inability to manage emotional pollution, there are a few important steps that can be taken to achieve clarity. The first is a practice of internal inquiry, in which we identify the emotions and thoughts we’re grappling with. There are many options for inquiring, managing and releasing these patterns, including cognitive and behavioral therapies, Emotional Freedom Technique, Byron Katie’s Work, body-centered approaches, and more.
The second step is to have a regular practice of cultivating mental stillness (meditation is ideal for this). And the third is to build Qi. Building Qi helps us be more centered and stable, and less prone to being affected by people’s emotions and other external stimuli. Qigong is the only practice that focuses explicitly on building Qi, but all basic measures of health maintenance, such as a healthy diet, relaxation, and sufficient sleep, are beneficial. Physical exercise is particularly important. We are more prone to be overridden by others’ emotions – and our own – if we are depleted or out of shape, and we are more resilient when we’re in good physical shape.
Occasionally, we have difficulty separating ourselves from other people’s feelings not because we are depleted, but because our choices differ significantly from those in our community. It’s as if we’re in an orchestra, trying to play a different tune than those around us. It feels discordant to everyone involved. To some extent (possibly a great extent), the feelings of scrutiny and persecution we feel when we know we’re doing something different from the norm may be self-generated. I believe nearly everyone has a deep, unconscious agreement with ourselves that we will not defy the will of our community. Thus, the impact of any disapproving emotions we perceive from our peers is amplified by the feeling that we’re breaking an agreement.
This is a common pattern in someone who is changing religions, making their sexual orientation public, or choosing an unconventional lifestyle. In such cases I remember the words of Paramahamsa Yogananda, who wrote of the “true yogi” that is like butter on water. When we start out on our own path, perhaps uncertain, undisciplined, or unfirm in our convictions, we are like cream in the ocean of our community. We are easily diluted and dispersed in the water. At this stage, we are prone to be affected by others’ opinions or swayed to capitulate to the status quo. But over time, as we become stronger, wiser, and more stable in our principles, the cream that we are is churned and churned, until it becomes butter. Eventually, we can stand for what we believe amidst legions that disagree, and, like a clump of butter in the sea, we hold our form and are not diluted.
Even if you don’t see yourself as an outsider, if you are interested in evolving, you will inevitably find yourself wanting to support those who are steeped in conflict or negativity, yet you will no longer want to jump into the drama with them. All around us are people voluntarily adopting others’ pain in an effort to be supportive. We may believe it shows compassion or sympathy if we feel bad when others feel bad. But this doesn’t serve them or us. To suffer on another’s behalf offers them nothing of value. It compromises our ability to truly support or empower a loved one if we are down there in it with them. We become an accomplice in their story. Unfortunately, this is so socially accepted that our loved ones may actually feel unsupported if we don’t seem somewhat wounded by the hardship they’re going through.
Here is an opportunity to take advantage of the phenomenon of Qi resonance. If you want to support someone who is suffering without jumping into their misery with them, and without overtly invalidating their story, you can try letting go of your resistance to their conundrum. As you hear their story or sit with them as they suffer, if you open your perception, listening and feeling with your whole being, you can feel their resistance to their situation, and you can feel your own resistance to their situation. On a physical level, this can often be recognized as a feeling of tension somewhere in your body. As you invite all the stimuli within and around you to be felt and heard – a ticking clock, the sound of your breathing and your friend’s breathing, a siren wailing in the distance, the taste in your mouth, the air on your skin, the gurgling in your stomach, the smell in the air, everything your friend is experiencing – nothing is excluded, and your resistance drops away.
Feel, accept, and release. As you sit with your friend, see if you can perceive with your whole self the way they sound, the way they feel, the way they smell, taste and look. Relax every cell of your body, be completely willing to feel it all. If you experience tightness or discomfort anywhere, welcome it, breathe into it, and let it go. Notice how you feel in the presence of their problem. Your job is not to absorb their energy, but rather to be with it, to be okay with it. Grasp nothing, question nothing, and push nothing away. Whenever discomfort or resistance arises, soften yourself, allow it, breathe into it, and let it go. Try not to be attached to getting any particular result from the other person. See if you can be okay with any outcome. As you neutralize your own experience of your friend’s energy, the friend will experience a shift. You will tell them, without saying a word, I accept everything you are going through, and everything about you. You can accept it too. I have let go of your suffering. You can let go of it too.
The other party doesn’t need to know anything about this process. While they may want you to simply join them in speaking disparagingly about their life, you can give them something much more valuable: acceptance of the whole them. Not just their problem, but their relationship to their problem, their unwillingness or inability to let it go, their judgment about themselves for having this problem, their weakness, their desire to inflict their pain on others, their beauty, and all else.
I offer this exercise in relation to another person, because others’ patterns are less deeply entrenched in us than our own patterns are. My hope is that with practice and bravery, you (and we all) will practice this directly with yourself. Sometimes it helps to imagine yourself as the “other person,” hearing this person’s story, feeling this person’s non-acceptance, offering them unconditional love and patience, and helping them to loosen the knot by letting it go. But the beautiful part about this process is that whenever we practice it, with another or with ourselves, we experience healing, because you and I are one.
Nearly a year ago, I started this series on seeing the big picture of human health. In the first article, I introduced the concept of reductionistic thinking, which can afflict practitioners in all medical fields (not just mainstream medicine) – much to the detriment of their patients. By reductionistic thinking, I mean ignoring the vast sea of influences, both internal and external, that affect our health. Instead, the reductionistic thinker tends to see all disease as originating on the same level. While I am hopeful that medical practitioners will broaden their perspectives, of greater interest to me is that lay people become big picture thinkers regarding their health.
In subsequent installments we explored many of the variables that contribute to our wellbeing. These include factors such as our genetics, diet, psycho-emotional makeup, social structure, spiritual life, exercise, sleep, work, toxin and radiation exposure, air and water quality, etc. Although it is worthwhile to consider them all, it is not always practical or possible for us to regulate each of these factors. (Moreover, keeping the psycho-emotional level in balance relies partly on being light and at ease – which is hard to do if we’re obsessive about our health.) It is important, therefore, to see these many factors as pieces of a pie. Much of the time, a problem in one area can be minimized if we are healthy in other areas. For instance, if we have a poor diet for a while, but we continue to exercise, drink enough water, and have a positive mental outlook, we may barely stray from balance.
It’s easy to fall into reductionistic thinking when we see the significance of a particular piece of the pie. When we witness the profound impact diet can have, we may start to blame dietary issues for all health problems. Likewise, when we see the virtues of a certain therapy – such as antibiotics – we may be tempted to use them all the time.
In this final installment in this series, we will look at some approaches for positively influencing the psychological piece of the pie. We will also see how these approaches can morph into reductionistic thinking.
Affirmations are carefully chosen statements we make to ourselves, silently or aloud, to positively influence the mind/body. While the concept has been around for a long time, many people first became familiar with affirmations through Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live, a character obsessed with self-help programs. As we saw in the humor of these skits, some see affirmations as the quintessence of New Age impotence, and others, like Al Franken’s character, feel they are the solution to all of humanity’s problems. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in the middle.
Just consider how your inner experience might be impacted if you could replace half of your redundant, critical, or fearful thoughts with affirmative ones. Even if we could merely let go of the thoughts that aren’t truthful, we would have a vastly different life. Affirmations are a useful step in this direction.
While it appears that the intention behind an affirmation is what gives it its power, affirmations seem to vary in their effectiveness depending on the particular wording that is used. As a basic rule, affirmations work well when we choose wording that is harmonious to us. Then the affirmation penetrates the mind effectively and grows like a seed.
When an affirmation does not work, I believe it is usually due to one of three reasons. The first is that the affirmation isn’t held in the mind long enough. Thus, it gets diluted in a sea of thoughts and doesn’t have the persistence to shift our consciousness in a lasting way. The second reason is that we may lack the mental power (Qi) to shift a situation by thought alone. Remember that the mind is just one piece of the pie. The third reason is that mind may refuse to accept the statement. Sometimes there is a certain cognitive dissonance that occurs when we use an affirmation statement that feels untrue. If a person with only five dollars uses the affirmation, “I have a tremendous abundance of money.” The mind may argue, “But I only have five dollars!”
My preference is to choose wording the mind will find less objectionable, such as phrasing the affirmation as an invitation: “I allow myself to have a tremendous abundance of money,” or “I welcome vibrant health into my life.” We can also direct our focus on removing the obstacles to achieving the goal, such as, “I choose to let go of any attachment to remaining poor.”
Of these approaches, I prefer the first orientation, where the focus is on the goal, rather than the obstacles. The least effective “affirmations” tend to be statements about fighting the things we don’t like (usually about ourselves), such as, “I will not succumb to weakness and temptation.” The mind works with images and ideas, and the object of our statement is what counts. Thus, a person wanting to be rid of their panic attacks may think, “I will not have a panic attack. I’m stronger than my fear. Go away, panic attack.” Sometimes this works, but the object that is repeatedly evoked is panic attack. The neural pathways associated with this idea are activated each time the idea is brought up, despite the fact that we are saying we don’t want it. If we instead used affirmations centered around words such as peace, security, and tranquility, our consciousness would be drawn in a different direction.
Another approach to try when affirmations don’t work, particularly when an affirmation statement feels untrue, is to word the affirmation as a “You” statement instead of an “I” statement. For instance, if “I am a happy and upbeat person” sounds unbelievable, try “You are a happy and upbeat person.” Even though it sounds like we’re saying it to someone else, our subconscious still “hears” it, and it may be easier to digest.
Whereas our thoughts so often disturb our internal peace, affirmations are an example of how we can use thought to positively affect our experience. Beyond changing how we feel, it is also possible by altering our thinking to affect other parts of our life. This idea has been promoted mostly by followers of the New Thought (or Mental Science) movement, which began in the 1800s and was shaped by many visionary spiritual teachers. Among its principles is the Law of Attraction, which states essentially that if we identify a goal, focus on the feeling of having already obtained this goal, and are open to receiving this goal, it will occur.
One champion of this philosophy was Neville Goddard (1905-1972), known simply as Neville. Neville taught that the process of consciously manifesting the life one desires is a matter of learning to pray effectively. Specifically, he focused on what he called the Universal Law of Reversibility, which states that all transformations are bidirectional. Therefore, if the attainment of a goal produces a certain feeling in us (e.g., joy or relief), if we cultivate the feeling of having already attained our goal, this will produce the goal itself.
I believe there is genuine value to this method, whether or not one believes in Neville’s law. While awaiting the attainment of a goal, we are much better off eliciting excitement or an expectant sense of gratitude than focusing on lack or a sense of not being where we want to be with respect to our goal. Such an attitude, regardless of whether it causes the goal to happen, is likely to keep us open to opportunities to advance our progress toward the goal; it is likely to make us approachable to others who may be of assistance to us; it is likely to bolster our morale, so our focus does not falter; and it is likely to keep us conscious of the reason for the goal.
Now for the reductionistic twist. While it is clear that our thoughts have a certain power to influence our lives, many confused people have used this fact to support the idea that our lives are created entirely from our thoughts. Besides being just plain untrue, this philosophy has two major drawbacks, as I see it.
First is the potential to get sidetracked. If we believe we attract money, love, and success solely through the power of our thoughts, we may avoid taking very basic and necessary steps toward attaining these things. I have seen people put all their eggs in the “thoughts create reality” basket. When they don’t manifest what they desire, they believe it’s because their thoughts aren’t focused enough or because other self-defeating thoughts are winning out – and not because they simply aren’t working hard enough or because of possibilities that are out of our control. If we attribute everything to our thoughts we are also likely to avoid dealing directly with issues that are rooted in other pieces of the pie (e.g., environment, diet, work, sleep, etc.).
This leads us to the second, uglier drawback of this form of reductionism. If it’s true that our thoughts create reality, then not only should good thoughts create good things, but bad thoughts must create bad things. If our thoughts are the cause of everything, this makes us the source of all that isn’t right – not just in our own lives, but all that is bad in the world. It is a recipe for guilt and paranoia.
Louise Hay, a well known author on the subject of affirmations and unfortunately an adherent of the thought-as-the-sole-cause-of-reality philosophy, has written books with lists of diseases and the thoughts that cause them. Even a condition such as AIDS (which might result from an accidental transfusion with infected blood) is explained as originating from guilt and low self esteem. It’s more reductive than most biomedicine is.
While I believe Hay means well, I have seen this philosophy become more of a curse than a tool for empowerment. Asked in a New York Times interview if she considers victims of genocide, such as the Jews who died in the Holocaust, to blame for their own deaths, she said yes, though graciously added, “I probably wouldn’t say it to them.” To this, I would ask, what is the affirmation for getting out of a concentration camp?
I bring this up primarily because many of my patients have told me they believe that their faulty or masochistic thinking is the reason they have health problems. They often state wistfully that they’re insightful enough to know that this is their own fault, but that they haven’t yet gotten the “lesson” or figured out a way to change their thinking. They want me to agree with them, but instead I try to liberate them from this poison.
Ken Wilber gives a good example of how destructive this philosophy can be in his book Grace and Grit. In it, he chronicles his late wife’s struggle with breast cancer. In the midst of all their pain and grief, they are dumfounded when their well-meaning New Age friends ask, “Why do you think you gave yourself cancer?”
Just consider the many, many times you have thought long and intensely about something and it didn’t happen. If this philosophy were true, worried parents would unwittingly cause their children to die horrible deaths. People with phobias would inevitably end up the victim of whatever they fear (there would be many more cases of people being attacked by mobs of spiders and snakes). Teenage boys would be having lots of sex with supermodels. Throngs of people would win the lottery. And hypochondriacs would live extremely short lives. Meanwhile, how should we believe that without so much as a single conscious thought of raping, tyrannizing, or enslaving, we are directly responsible for the existence of these things in the world?
If we find ourselves in a situation we don’t like – sickness, poverty, an unhealthy relationship – we would do well to examine our thinking. We can challenge ourselves to change our perspective. We can uncover our resistance to the situation and let it go. We can inquire within and see if we are reluctant to move on because of some hidden benefit to remaining in this situation. We can see if there is a lesson to be learned. These opportunities for growth are available to us even without pointing our finger at ourselves. It makes sense to work on our mental health and to exploit the mind’s ability to affect our life. In certain cases, it could mean the difference between life and death. But this is no reason to ignore all the other pieces of the pie.
Now, dear readers, I encourage you to apply the same broad perspective to every facet of your health and life. See the big picture in all the small things. A broad perspective is inevitably unifying, so keep your eyes wide open.