24. Doctors differ,
Stressful events and fearful thoughts put strain on the immune system, raising susceptibility to illness. Often, medical assistance is necessary to get through after a terrible time. At the same time, not only the body but the whole environment that contributed to the pain needs attention to prevent repetition and make healing easier. That’s partly why doctors diagnose and prescribe; to activate the body’s natural healing mechanisms, which are facilitated, and not caused by, medicine. Medical business, especially drug companies, invest massive sums of money into research to profit from saleable products, in contrast to behavioural advances that may receive less attention as protocols and programmes developed to improve systems immediately become imitable easily-teachable techniques that are far less commercially lucrative.
There are many conflicting interests at play around health. Iatrogenic disease, that caused by mistakes made by healthcare workers, is the third leading cause of death in the Western world. Look for practitioners who exemplify the maxim: first, do no harm. One second opinion at least is always critical; the patient’s own or that of whoever is genuinely representing them.
Users prepared to get involved in their own care may ironically meet resistance. Considering, however, that health is what happens every day doing and enjoying the usual activities without interventions, it makes sense to increase or resume these alongside accepting conventional treatments. Education, choice and support make a huge difference, and are worth pursuing despite any intimidation encountered. Building a sense of self-efficacy and hope has proven benefits, both qualitative and quantitative, on emotional and physical measures. Pioneers in the growing field of Behavioural and Functional medicine, after studies by Ader and Cohen in the 1970s, coined the term, psychimmunoneurology, which favours this person-centred holistic focus.
The body renews cells every day and frequently includes benign cancer cells which are readily suppressed by a strong constitution. It consists entirely of new matter every few years, while the DNA blueprint remains relatively constant. Those who help themselves by ensuring good food intake, regular exercise, sleep and other self-care steps including emotional and psychological balance with friendly social interactions, give themselves a better chance of recovering when life stresses compromise the immune system. Attention from an increasing range of sources is being drawn to the dangers of allopathic drugs, vis a vis the often slight positive change they bestow; see Peter Gotzsche, Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime.
It is not the doctor who has solutions for these factors, no matter what impression is given. There’s no room for lassitude in afflicted individuals. One of the most beautiful, uplifting and convincing purveyors of this warning is in fact a doctor, Bernie Siegel, especially in his world best-seller, Love, Medicine and Miracles. Even when survival rates of a condition are significant, many patients give up, whereas those who fight back tend to be cured, despite the odds. However, professionals capable of conveying the importance of behavioural change are crucial to getting life-threatened patients engaged on their own behalf. Any time is a good time to pull out the stops and love yourself back into physical and mental prosperity. And not just provisionally – health is maintained through constant tending of all the various precursors underlying it throughout the ordinary course of living. That practised reliance on the conditions for health is what best carries people through crises, that can double as opportunities to pick up good habits.
23. Mind over matter
How much the mind can influence the physical world has long fascinated people. Considering that most everyday items encountered had to be imagined before they were invented, it is only the extent of the impact that can be contested. A particularly crucial exhibition of the dynamic plays out in the well-known placebo effect, linking positive thinking about the curative values of medical treatments to their actual healing power. Given this fact, harnessing beliefs directly should also be possible and of immense promise.
Many beliefs are learned or passed on, often subconsciously, from others regarded as authorities. Others are generalisations based on how painful and pleasurable experiences in the past were interpreted. Believing in something means accepting it to be true, having a feeling certainty about it, even in the absence of proof. This mental bias (as identified so accurately by Daniel Kahneman and Tversky in their Nobel prize-winning work on psychological heuristics and biases ) attributes priority to it so that it’s judged worthy of attention. There is a continuum of attention that runs from total focus on internal reality to fixation on the opposite pole of external reality.
Most of the time, people move backwards and forwards along the continuum which connects the two extremes. In Buddhism, the Alaya – Vijnana, or store consciousness, contains the seeds of all thoughts, senses and desires, which will sprout or not depending on conditions they’re exposed to. Managing conditions to cultivate healthy ideations then, is where opportunity lies for the individual.
The Rules of the Mind are as follows:
- Every thought or idea causes a physical reaction.
- What the mind expects tends to happen.
- Imagination is far more powerful than reason.
- Conflicting ideas cannot be held simultaneously (without anxiety).
- An idea fixed in the subconscious remains forever, or until replaced. The longer the idea is held, the harder it is to change it.
- Established, emotionally induced symptoms tend to cause organic changes.
- Suggestions acted upon reduce the resistance to further suggestions.
- Conscious mind activity reduces the subconscious response.
These rules can be drawn on to challenge limiting beliefs which in turn dictate responses to situations; whether, for example, permission is given or denied to self to access capabilities. In support of this interaction, the case of Mr Wright and the drug Krebiozen is often cited. Obviously then, beliefs can often be either useful or damaging.
The exercise of shifting unhelpful beliefs can be done in steps.
1. Make a list of beliefs held about body, motivation, or anything of concern, that, even if they were once realistic and useful, currently engender powerless feelings.
2. Make another list of contrasting beliefs to do with optimism about abilities, which again is closer to the truth at different times.
3. Taking each belief point separately, ask:
a. What source did this belief come from, and was it valid?
b. How ridiculous or absurd is this belief?
c. If it’s not released, could it be preventing healthier choices being made?
d. By getting rid of it, what improvements are likely to be seen?
e. Are there alternatives, and if so, what are they? Which beliefs are more useful, who practices them, and where can they be acquired? In the case of sickness, an example would be of someone who has survived a diagnosis with low odds.
By repeating this exercise daily for about a week, stale rigidities in the mind are loosened, creating an openness to let new more enabling beliefs in. Why put off picking up the skill of having a mind composed, flexible, persistent and alert enough to detect ways to improve outcomes, no matter what the circumstances?
22. ‘If you can keep your head…’
‘…or not make dreams your master’, elsewhere continues the poem the caption’s taken from, If, by Rudyard Kipling.
Minds immersed in the prevailing cultural environment think in a particular way. History contains tremendously strong trends born from reports of survivors’ encounters with reality that still shape people. Hypotheses were invented all over the world as a result of speculation to try to come to terms with what was experienced and perceived. Originally these were often converted into myths and religions that both assured and frightened those who chose or were coerced to follow them. More recently, they’re translated as stories and theories as religion’s place is taken by culture.
Joseph Campbell’s work has shed most light on this area; his insights are shared in books and interviews like this. He researched and recorded guiding myths from far and wide, and commented on them in the context of how they apply to individual and modern lives. One of his conclusions was that these stories have no inherent meaning until those who hear them subscribe in full or in part. René Girard‘s extreme theories detects scapegoats compulsively sacrificed as necessary victims for society’s self-preservation.
Irish writer John Moriarty also wrote about enlightening the earth with its mythic and geological past, interweaving the varied stories of the human species. Moriarty’s concern is the modern dilemma of the human race: how it acts like a refugee from the living earth, not knowing how to connect healthily with it any more. The way back, he showed, is to find a way to assimilate the dislocated parts of ourselves and come home to our ecologically grounded common destiny.
Lucidly leaning on his wealth of learning and his keen observations, Moriarty retrieved outdated modes of comprehending the world and burnished them so that they take on a modern and urgent sensibility. Sylvia Plath’s life and poetry exemplifies the dilemma of struggling exhaustively to find meaning and make sense of multiple paradigms, to endure the conflicts they create. In Mediated, by Thomas de Zengotita, how the representation of information shapes its reception is vividly and convincingly explored, giving the impression that the media is largely responsible for the resultant hall of mirrors. The distortion of packaging of knowledge arguably extends to all areas e. g the self-help field, as analysed in Sham, and psychiatry, exposed in Crazy Like Us.
While the old ways and convictions that previously carried mass consciousness through existential terrors don’t work much any more, Moriarty expressed hope:
“Recovering our nerve, we might find it in us to stand to our full moral and spiritual height and this we will do when we acknowledge: that our transtorrentem destiny is upon us; that in us our planet can be an evolutionary success”.
The Buddhist concept of dukkha refers to hardships and turmoil encountered to some extent by everyone due to distorted assumptions and perceptions ingrained in the human condition. More is explained in dukkha impermanence and unsatisfactoriness . Because of it people tend to confuse impermanent, finite and dissatisfying phenomena as being permanent, infinite and satisfying. There is a constant stream of material in the environment reinforcing views right and wrong. Taking a deliberate step back to train in right view pays most people back in clarity and equanimity. Then it’s easier to stay balanced and unruffled in the face of any strong impressions or spin being peddled, no matter what happens.
21. The moral pause
Ethics, character, behaviour, manners, laws, religion, rules, customs – these aspects of life fall into the class of morals. From time immemorial, lenses used to interpret particular actions have had a huge subjective and local origin. W. H. Auden’s poem, Law Like Love, captures this fluctuation very well. Flouting the morals of those wielding authority can be fatal unless the case is well prepared and supported. Sometimes, seeming to comply or moving away are better solutions, temporarily at least, to gather strength and access humanitarian aid.
However, most people would agree that some basic rules are essential to guide people in harmonious living, which depends on tolerance of a certain amount of restriction.Problems often arise when privileged people tend to short-change others into shouldering far more limitations by comparison. A wickedly ironic, real-life example is the classic book, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, officially authored by Philip Rieff whose divorce settlement with his wife, Susan Sontag, included an agreement for her to revoke signs of her co-authorship of it! Sadly, such dishonesty and deceit abound. Beware those wearing moral laurels! Test first.
Not that altruism isn’t to be found. Indeed, widespread evidence in human settlements of moral deeds has been uncovered dating from pre-historic times, suggesting mores pre-existed the establishment of religions. As language flourished, groups also diversified in the religious structures they drafted. The Biblical Ten Commandments are still cited in Christian-related religions. The already-mentioned quite thorough and practical Eightfold Path along with the Five Mindfulness Trainings of Buddhism, aspire to maximum harmlessness, again echoing The Tao of letting things and beings be in peace wherever possible.
If followed, the Five Mindfulness Trainings in particular promote healing, transformation, and happiness for individuals and for the world, especially when accompanying self-monitoring of all aspects of daily life and choices made.Philosophy has always laid as much claim to expertise about morality as religion did, but its emphasis is different. Those before and after Aristotle (he wrote, Great Ethics) were preoccupied with providing sound rationales for why virtue enhances both the private and public good. Philosophy also contemplates whether people are actually free to choose to do the right thing at all if everything that happens is pre-ordained.
Moral relativism, the intuitively-attractive idea that decisions depend on context, is criticised for meaning that anything goes, anarchy reigns, taken to extremes. A description of how admiration can swing to annoyance nicely conveys the problem of abandoning any stability of standards. However, given the absolute manner in which rules can be enforced, Spanish Inquisition-like, making allowances for circumstances and complexities has often been a liberating Godsend.
Many life-times could be, have been, spent studying arguments for and against doing one thing rather than another, and linked beliefs.There’s no point getting too bogged down in Kafka-esque militaristic legalities, beyond following the dictum to do in Rome as the Romans do, change it or go elsewhere. Nonetheless, undertaking an honest moral inventory from time to time, along the lines of Step 4 in Anonymous 12 Step programmes, has a cleansing and clarifying effect. Thinking about the principles that guide decisions can lead to surprising new perspectives, and very possibly indicate taking a different course for the better. Be good, and put up with no less from others.
20. Identity through past, present and future.
When trauma strikes, those afflicted are affected in different ways. Some can feel that their lives have been destroyed and develop chronic dependent conditions and other behaviours of resignation. Others may even have the good fortune to be strengthened in the aftermath, due to various factors such as available supports at the time, levels of resilience and stress-management skills, and obviously, the nature of the impact and all its consequences. Still others may experience themselves to be defined by what has happened and gain a new disturbing identity they can’t shake off. The excellent film, Fearless, explores how survivors of an aircrash work through their troubled emotions in the aftermath.
Yet efforts to accurately perceive the measure of self are common with or without a major antecedent. Despite centuries of philosophical speculations, from Plato through Freud to Gordon Allport, and abundant recent social science studies of identity and multi-disciplinary findings, experts remain divided about essential meanings, from an agreed definition to function, form, construction and stability. The extensive Wikipedia article on psychology of self shows just a sample of these. The perspective taken appears to reflect largely on where the enquirer is coming from.
The work by Ken Wilber to integrate theories about identity reaped his handy graphic (page 3 in this pdf article), with explanations, of the four quadrants of existence. Many people feel it is a useful and inclusive framework that does justice to all the different individual and collective aspects of ourselves, summarised as, intentional, behavioural, cultural and social.
A highly-esteemed book by William James on the teachings of Sri Ramana, Happiness And The Art Of Being, available in full online, ends with this advice:
“These concluding words, eṅgē-y-irundālum irukkalām, imply that in whatever place or circumstances we may be placed in our life, it is always possible for us just to be. If we always keep our mind subsided in our true and natural state of self-conscious being, no external circumstances can prevent us from remaining thus. Therefore, since we have no duty or responsibility other than just to be in our own self-conscious and blissful being, and since there is no higher happiness than simply to be thus, summā irukkalām – let us just be.”
Other nice meditations on just being include E.F. Schumacher’s, A Guide For The Perplexed, and Rebecca Solnit’s, A Field Guide To Getting Lost . They parallel the revered Buddhist qualities of signlessness, emptiness and aimlessness that can lead to enlightened wakefulness and liberation from suffering. Once these are attained, there is no need to hurry anywhere any more.
Bearing in mind how easy it is to stumble over semantics when getting to grips with such ineffable topics, spiritual traditions do tend to share the mostly insider joke that in the ultimate realm, ego identity is the primary hindrance to bliss consciousness. Once again, Thich Nhat Hanh articulates this view of the underlying reality of no-self in this video talk with introduction. Because the self changes so much even under ordinary pleasant conditions, clinging to too rigid a self-image stultifies the life force. There is self, its imputation, necessary to operate in the world, and under analysis, there is an absence of self, due to the inter-being of things, as the message to love your neighbour as yourself implies. Regardless of the ideology, both self and other in their precious impermanence are to be dignified with respect and care, so that love spreads.
19. Between destiny and chance
“We cannot truly plan, because we do not understand the future – but this is not necessarily bad news. We could plan while bearing in mind such limitations. It just takes guts.”
This quote is taken from one of Nassim N. Taleb’s quartet of brilliant books, including Fooled by Randomness. Taleb, a foremost expert on the role and risks of chance in life, maintains that nothing is certain, that too much knowledge, wrongly applied, is as dangerous as too little. A very astute review of quite a different but equally esteemed book written by a Jewish pastor after the death of his child in the late 1970s confirms that there are no pat answers for even those of faith, that it is just the way of the world for bad things to sometimes happen for no useful reasons. Harold Kusher concludes, in,When Bad Things Happen to Good People, that the only thing to be done to redeem the good is to heal from and transform the pain into improvements.
While negative emotions serve survival as warnings, positive ones function from a basis of security and reach out in reciprocity and creativity to undo hurts. Renowned authority on depression, Martin Seligman adds that ready gratitude, appreciation, forgiveness and trust build contentment, and that people obtain greatest satisfaction from using their signature strengths. Sustaining wholesome pleasures got from absorption in creative activities, comparable to a zen-like timeless state, was famously termed ‘flow’ by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi and encouraged wherever possible. Nevertheless, ignoring the past, which lives on in memories and mental formations, or not considering the future, which requires executive functioning to envision and plan ahead, makes the present, without sensible balance, a fool’s paradise. The fatalistic outlook often associated with the ancient idea of karma, or individual wrongdoing, is something Buddha taught was only one of five powerful forces impacting on current conditions.
The regimens of education may dragoon graduates into aggressive corner-cutting careers, loading the brunt on the life course with chronic costly health conditions. Broken work patterns, the desire and need to be mobile, privacy-seeking and other extended choices, however, contend amongst modern pressures to disrupt the functioning of a relaxed caring social environment. What’s more, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV keeps changing criteria for traumatic events in favour of medicalisation of experiences. A post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis no longer requires direct exposure to what’s generally defined as an extreme stressor to qualify. Not only will anything found personally very distressing do, but exposure can be merely second-hand, such as hearing about the event from a friend or seeing it on television, absurdly lumping carpet stains with gang torture.
When education and play is self-chosen and self-directed from an alert non-stressed state of mind that is open to non-literal imaginative thought, values mean more than ends. Rational economic reinforcers don’t work well any more, and rules emanate from the players’ own minds; rules that, through self-restraint and self-determination, are being turned into desires. Creative types tend to retain these capacities into adulthood, or learn them, and earn a living that way. They’re likely to demote winning for the sake of it by all-inclusively negotiating conflict and problems for the fun of keeping the game going, like the infinite games James Carse advocates in his mystical much-referenced book, Finite And Infinite Games. Playing the game of life as an infinite rather than a finite endeavour also conveys the gist of a lighter, less tightly-grasping disposition. A philosophy of accepting that there will be rocky times, preparing for whatever comes by daily centring and grounding, and making the most of what’s going well, is worth considering.