Monday, March 30, 2015

Sleep is everything.

I loved Harold. It was reassuring to read about another child who had trouble sleeping. 

Sleep is everything.

If you google "benefits of sleep" as I just did, you will gather 192,000,000 results in a second. The stories I find most hilarious always have a headline like "Scientists Discover Surprising Benefits from Sleep." They're surprised? Funny - at least to me.

A lack of sleep will make you psychotic. Go long enough without sleep and you will die. It's that crucial to survival. Is it surprising to find out there are benefits to sleep?

Good, regular sleep makes you healthier, smarter, sexier, more alert. It improves immunity, helps stave off every kind of illness, physical and mental. While sleeping, humans integrate the adventures of their waking lives, work through problems at the deepest levels, engage in physical repairs that can not take place while we're awake and active. In dreams as well as that deep, almost coma-like sleep, I believe healing takes place that goes well beyond medicine. Well rested people behave appropriately, make smarter decisions, express themselves more clearly, feel energetic but also calm, are happier and more satisfied than those who don't sleep well or enough.

We humans need our sleep and yet some of us, sometimes, struggle with it. As a kid I remember not wanting to go to bed. Being awake was so much more interesting. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person who has pushed herself well into a second and third wind on occasion, so as not to miss anything fun. I'm not against it every now and then. It can become a habit, though.

"Stress" keeps people from sleeping, of course. I put the word in quotes since I'm never sure what that means exactly. Falling asleep requires a certain level of trust, a sense of safety at least for the moment. It requires a surrender. For chronically anxious people, it's hard to feel safe enough to let go like that.

It's popular at the moment to blame electronic devices for keeping us from nights of solid sleep. Before the age of the iPhone, we blamed electricity, tv, caffeine, sugar and overwork for insomnia. I'm sure there have always existed many theories to explain the phenomenon, even though it's common everywhere on earth and is mentioned in very early texts. How long have people been counting sheep, hoping for sleep? How many thousands of years ago did we figure out that chewing a particular bark or drinking a tea would help us sleep? You tell me. There are bedtime stories galore, bedtime rituals. People pray just before sleep, as if turning over the struggles of the day to the greater wisdom. We know we have to sleep, and yet we struggle against it.

In my society, exhaustion is seen as heroic, a badge of honor. It means we're tough - I guess! When people talk about sleep as if it were a luxury, I feel sad. Basic self care, including regular, lengthy, good sleep, is disregarded in our society, placed in the category of pampering, thought of as unnecessary, indulgent. What they do to medical students is bizarre. A hazing.

For those who want to sleep, there are insomnia remedies out there in abundance, ranging from visualizations to evening rituals to the many pills you can swallow. I believe some of these remedies work for some people and more power to them! If it works, do it - sleep is everything!

For those who don't want to sleep, there are dozens of ways to take caffeine. I'm sure there are at least as many pharmaceutical stimulants as there are sleeping pills. Oh the way we jerk our bodies around. It's so unfair.

Here's a link to a well written page on sleep, via Harvard Medical School.

May you place good sleep at the very top of your list of priorities, make it #1, no matter what doesn't get accomplished while you're resting. I wish you sweet dreams, deep sleep. May you awaken well rested and refreshed.  May it be so.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Dregs of Winter

This is supposed to be a post brimming with great ideas about how to get through the final weeks of winter without spiraling down into a deep depression. You know the post it should be - perky and encouraging, with a long list of things that Really Cure Winter Blahs. However, what this will mostly be is me bitching about the dull, cold, dreary days we must endure until spring begins to make itself known.

During the final weeks of winter, it feels like spring will never happen, but it will, it always does. I trust that even though it's hard to believe with snow falling and temps in the 20s F. In the meantime, while we wait for spring, what doesn't kill us makes us stronger? Builds character? I hate building character! I have plenty of that.

See? I'm whining.

People buy lights with a certain spectrum of light. Some report that it helps with SAD, (which is, in my opinion, not a disorder - it's a sign of being a normal, soulful mammal who longs for a little warmth and color after several months of drear). I know a lot of people for whom these lights have no noticeable benefits.

Some self medicate, and I'm not against it. The problem - I'm talking about liquor here - is that a little bit of self medication is great, but too much just makes you feel worse. It's tricky, during the dregs of winter, to discern the right dosage. It's so easy to go overboard when the wind is howling and the wind chills are in the single or minus digits.

Swallowing Vitamin D sounds like a good idea, but processed vitamins are hard to absorb and put stress on the liver and kidneys. I try to get out on every sunny day and let the sunlight fall on my face and any other body part I'm willing to expose. It depends on how cold it is. Even ten minutes of sunlight produces Vitamin D. The impact is noticeable. It doesn't solve the problem but it helps.

I have a friend who gets in a tanning booth for 5 or 10 minutes, a couple of times during the grayest days of winter. She's not looking for a tan. She swears she walks out of the booth feeling more cheerful, more hopeful. Five or 10 minutes once or twice during winter won't kill you. I think it's an inspired idea that would never have occurred to me since I'm violently opposed to tanning booths.

I drink teas that are metaphors for Brother Sun. Currently my favorite version is Rishi Ginger-Turmeric tea with honey and a few grains of cinnamon. I believe it cheers me up, reminds me of the splendid season that will surely come again ... some day! I cook warm, cheerful dinners, such as Mark Bittner's roast chicken with orange juice, honey and cumin. I burn candles by the dozen because they bring a contented, magical, cozy feeling into a room. I sit in the Botanic Conservatory breathing the soft air and taking in all the green.

No way will I watch a dark movie at this time of year. Actually I don't watch anything upsetting these days, but especially not at the end of February. I watch nice, bright, inspiring movies. I stick with music that encourages me. I look only at art that makes me smile.

I try, I really do.

If there existed a measurably effective remedy for the doldrums of winter, it would be out there and we would know about it. Sadly, there is no such thing. Still, we have to try. At least I do. Hence: tea, red wine, roast chicken, sweet jazz music. The time will pass and spring will arrive. I believe it even though it's hard to imagine.

I look forward to it.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Immunity: the Mighty Warrior

The onset of even a mild illness such as a cold or the flu is a crisis. The immune system springs into action, or more accurately described, goes into battle with the pathogen. The next thing you know, you've got a fever, head and chest congestion, a stomach ache, ear ache, headache, chills, shivering, sore throat, sneezing, and you're coughing so hard, you feel it might bring up a lung.

All these symptoms are caused by the immune system, not by the pathogen. Did you know that? It was a revelation to me. Up until I actually studied immune function, I always thought it was the virus that made me sick. I thought what my immune system did was bring relief from the symptoms, allowing me to sleep deeply and come back to myself. Nope. Healing is dynamic, healing is a battle, or at least a skirmish.

One of my teachers used to say that the first step in healing is to disorganize or disrupt the pattern of dis-ease. That makes perfect sense in the Reyaverse. After the virus is defeated, only then will the fierceness of immunity calm itself. It's only after the healing that we can breathe, eat and sleep again.

During the height of the battle, it's a terrible idea to go for a massage. I tell my clients this, and it's prominent in my policy practices (see tab above). But many clients show up for their appointments even when in the first crucial stages of illness, when their poor bodies are in shock, gathering the resources available, preparing for the fight ahead. I understand where my clients are coming from - they are suffering and looking for relief. On paper it sounds great but the truth is, it never helps. It always and inevitably makes them feel worse.

Pushing blood and lymph around in the midst of the battle does not enhance the process. All it does is put a strain on the body which is already in a state of distress. It's like trying to fight a war when all of a sudden a tsunami rolls through.

On the flip side of a cold or the flu, after the healing, 24 hours after the end of the fever at least, a massage is excellent. When you're on the mend, a massage can function like a crime scene clean-up crew. Lymph transports the detritus, the kidneys and liver process what they can and the rest of it leaves the body. Massage enhances this.

If you are in the throes of a cold or the flu, the very best thing you can do is support your troops by staying in bed, drinking a lot of water and tea - no cold drinks. Eat simply, try to sleep as much as you can. I think watching old movies is medicinal. They take my mind off my symptoms.

When you're on the mend, then go for a brisk, revivifying massage, or for a session of restorative Reiki.

I'm doing a lot of Reiki sessions during this horrid flu season with people who are in a pattern of catching every cold. There are years when people are sick a lot, others when they're well all winter. When you notice you've been sick a lot, you might need something more than just rest and tea.

I can't explain what Reiki does in scientific terms. My personal sense of it is that it brings harmony to the body's basic rhythms: respiration, heartbeat, craniosacral and other, subtler rhythms. It furthers a harmonious syncopation among the many living rhythms. Please don't ask me how it works. I have no idea.

When fighting a battle, you want the troops to function harmoniously, you want team work. With all systems working together, you stand a much better chance of rising to the challenge of fighting off an invading pathogen. Reiki is gentle but is sometimes just the thing you need to move towards well being.

May you be well during this awful flu season. If you catch it, may you be compassionate to the mammal of your body, may you be aggressive about self care. May you be patient with yourself, understand that the symptoms expressing themselves are the cure for what ails you. May you be kind to yourself.

May you be well! Happy new year. Shalom.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Tail of the Secular Year

It's Christmas Eve. Happy Christmas!

Whether you've been stressed out, rushing around, trying to get everything done, or excited, happy as a clam, or relaxed about it, at some level - for most people - the arrival of Christmas is a relief.

I doubt the solstices were ever that big of a deal in places close to the equator, since there isn't a dramatic change in the length of days and nights, but the further away from the equator you get, the more profound it becomes to welcome back the daylight. It's certainly a big deal in the United States where we celebrate many different versions of the solstice rite. The Jewish solstice is Hanukkah, the Christian solstice is Christmas. Pagans celebrate the solar solstice and in the secular world, January 1 marks the solstice.

I believe we are hard-wired to enact sacred dramas to honor and celebrate the return of the light. It's a mid-brain activity which can not be rationally explained away. Light and warmth are necessary for survival. We sense the solstice at the deepest level of body and being.

The cards and gifts we give are offerings to Brother Sun, a way of showing him we wish for the return of longer days and more warmth. We give them to each other, mostly. It's also our custom to be generous at this time, to give to those in need. This, too, is a wonderful way to honor Brother Sun. Offerings are a part of almost every human ritual. It probably doesn't matter to whom we give, only that we're generous.

When the longest night finally arrives, however you mark it, at an instinctual level, it's a relief. Even the most blasé about the holidays can sense the change. The gifts are all wrapped, everything is in place. The sun is reborn and now we can celebrate its return. Our work is done. We can finally relax. Cheers!

After Christmas, in the U.S. we enter the odd tunnel between the old and new secular year. There are people who go to work, because they must or because they're required to. The office workers who go to work between Christmas and New Year's puzzle me. All offices should be closed. What can be accomplished? I mean really. There is a strange kind of non-energy between Christmas and New Year's. It's hard to be productive. I think maybe we should try not to be productive, to rest. Maybe.

The astrology of this Christmas is powerful. In the auspicious environment created by the movement of our extended family in the sky today and tomorrow, it would behoove you to visualize carefully how you'd like 2015 to unfold. Set in place the pattern for the months to come, in your mind and heart at least. How are you doing in body, mind and spirit? What do you need in the coming year for ensoulment, completion and wholeness?

Imagine only the best year for yourselves, ok? OK. And may it be so.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Medicine, sports, and superstition

Health and sickness are more a matter of luck - good and bad - than anything else. We have to try to figure out how to stay healthy, also how to heal when we're down and out. We are curious animals and we do not want to suffer.

Even though the healing arts have has been practiced for a hundred thousand years, still, what "works" - as we say - remains mysterious even to the most brilliant medical minds of all time. We're just guessing, prone to trends of the moment. We have to try! Looking back on some mainstream, accepted practices in the past can be alarming.

Blood letting.

Doesn't it make you wonder what medical procedures we are currently
 using that will seem as ghastly in a hundred years? I wonder.

There are treatments and medicines that work much of the time, though there is no medicine that works well for everyone in every situation. The placebo is certainly effective, not only in the form of the sugar pill, but also in surgery. I read about a massive study in which they were able to determine that if the pill was green, people felt calmer, if it was red they felt energized, blue helped people sleep through the night. We are so suggestible!

However, even a placebo doesn't always cure us. The mind is powerful, but not all powerful. We are much more than chemistry sets that only need balanced numbers in order to work optimally. We are complicated beings.

Because healing is so mysterious, medicine is an extremely superstitious art. I'm talking about every kind of medicine.

Remedies for the common cold abound. The reason there are so many is because there is no cure. I think the body takes on a visiting virus every now and then, to flex its muscles, to become stronger and better organized, to cleanse the body of detritus. There is no cure. It's a systemic detox in the Reyaverse at least. It's not the virus's fault. We take it on every now and then.

Once ill, you can hamper some of the symptoms, you can rest and eat chicken soup, you can power through it - everyone has their own approach - but you can not avoid it. It has to run its course.

Still, everyone has a remedy they swear by. You HAVE to eat raw garlic mixed in honey, or you must have this soup or that juice. At the first sign you must take zinc, or the homeopathic stuff. If you guzzle Nyquil and sleep 10 hours, you will wake up well. Etc. Could go on and on, right?

I have my own ritualized behavior for contending with a cold, of course! Don't you?

I'm thinking about this because of the World Series. Watching a tiny part of the first game, it came to me that professional team sports are sacred dramas that enact the immune system when it's fighting off a virus or bacteria. That's why sports team loyalty is so powerful and addictive, and always has been, ever since the first stadium was constructed. The Colosseum is an early one but it might not be the oldest.

In sports, just as in medicine, the superstitions abound, among the players but also powerfully among the fans. They have to drink the right beer or wear a certain color or watch from a specific place. It's intense, and unlike other kinds of ritualized behavior, sports superstitions are welcomed in my society. It's interesting.

Winter is right around the corner in the American midatlantic. That means flu season. May you somehow avoid colds or the flu this winter. May it be so. If you should catch something, remember you are playing in the World Series and must be at the top of your form. Just the way athletes pray right before they play, pray for the victory of your immunity over the invading horde. Send in your best players, whether that's a hot bath, a hot toddy, or a jigger of Nyquil. Follow all your own best advice. May you prevail! May it be so.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Spacious Life

What is patience? In the Reyaverse there is no such thing. There is impatience, oh my yes. Impatience is a form of anxiety brought on by rushing.

In my opinion, the antidote to impatience is spaciousness. I learned this by doing massage. During the first years of my practice, on days when I had a lot of clients, I often found myself thinking ahead, while in a session, to how many more clients I was scheduled to see that day. Doing massage is a vigorous workout. On days when I was a little off or tired or whatever, sometimes I became anxious. The urge was to push through the day of work, get it over as fast as possible. I would find myself speeding up. Clients feels impatience immediately; often they too become impatient. It does not make for a satisfying experience. I've received many a massage from chronically impatient therapists. Impatience has no place in a massage session.

I learned to identify the urge to rush after which I tried to mindfully, purposefully slow down. The moment I decide not to hurry, there's plenty of time/space. The hour seems longer than when I'm anxious. Impatience disappears, and everything works a lot better.

I've applied this valuable lesson to the rest of my life whenever possible, to my great benefit. I don't generally race down the street like most Washingtonians. I stroll, amble. This allows me to look around, to notice where I am. This is how I am able to take my pictures. I do walk fast sometimes. It's exhilarating. But too much fast walking makes me impatient. I don't want to stop for the traffic lights, people in front of me annoy me. I start dodging in and out of people, to keep up my impatient inertia. Silly, I know.

If you google "learn patience" you will come across a selection of absurd articles, like this one from Psychology Today, about practicing patience. She suggests that we learn patience in the most trying of circumstances, like standing in a long line at the grocery store or while in a traffic jam. That is absolutely the worst way to practice patience! To associate patience with frustration will not help anything. It's like suggesting that people learn to love walking by parking at the far edge of a shopping mall parking lot, then walking across the car park to the store and back. A terrible idea! Walking through a parking lot is no fun at all, and kind of nerve-wracking since someone could pull out suddenly or come wheeling around the corner. Ridiculous! If you want to learn to love walking, take a walk in a park or along a beautiful street with nice sidewalks. What are these people thinking?

If you want to practice patience, start with experiences you enjoy, but rush through habitually. If you like to cook, take extra time so you don't have to push and hurry. Turn on some music, pour a glass of wine, take your time. It completely changes the experience for me. Start with the small things that give you pleasure. I take my time putting on makeup, for instance. Self adornment is an age old art. I think about it that way, slow down, and enjoy the process. I only have to add 5 minutes to the time I spend with make up. It changes the experience.

In this way I reduce my impatience.

Emotional impatience arises as a result of intolerance for strong emotion. In a moment of strong emotion there can be an urge to rush quickly through it, get it over with.

I could write a long post about enduring strong emotions, something that is taboo in my society, with the exception of anger and happiness. An entire range of strong emotions is meant to be ignored or discouraged. Emotion is a physiological event that begins long before we are conscious of it. Once we identify the sensation, it becomes a feeling. We judge our feelings as if it's possible to control something already underway. These judgments are not rational.

I understand why we try to squelch sadness, fear and such. These states of being are not comfortable. They aren't fun. The practice of tolerating powerful emotion builds character. It isn't easy, especially in my society. We are shamed when we allow ourselves to fully feel. It causes so many problems.

Stuffing emotions creates a kind of impatience that's harder to address. I use the idea of acceptance to create a little space around these difficult emotional states. Sometimes I ask myself, "Can I be in a place of acceptance?" When I can, I'm more patient with myself and others. I can't always say yes, though, unfortunately. Just like others, I try to cajole myself out of my emotions sometimes, deny them. I try the fake-it-till-you-make-it approach, too of course. Occasionally it works.

Besides tolerance, there is breath. Slow, deep breaths help me tolerate strong emotional states. Nothing I've tried seems to make the experience spacious, though. How does one stroll through strong, unpleasant emotional states? You tell me.

Life is short but we can be spacious, we can take our time. The impatient life is a waste. We don't have to do it all. Believe me.


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Whatever works

I heard a remarkable story about healing this morning. I should say I heard another remarkable story about healing. I hear these stories more often than you might imagine.

Today's story involves a young woman I saw a few times a couple of years ago. Poor thing. She was suffering from multiple phobias, eating disorders, and what seemed to me like PTSD, though it is out of my scope of practice to diagnose that. I was just guessing. She had been in therapy for years without making a lot of progress. She tried psychiatric drugs that made her suicidal. She received acupuncture, saw an herbalist, nutritionist, and so on and so on. She came to DC to spend some time with her grandmother after a horrible breakup with a boyfriend. The grandmother, unclear exactly how to help, sent her to me. After a few weeks, though she was no better, she went home to her parents' house. I hadn't heard anything further about her until this morning when I ran into her grandmother. She had a horrible accident - fell off a roof - smashed her face, knocked out all her teeth and broke a leg and an arm. How awful!

But something happened in that fall that turned things around for her.

After she got out of the hospital, she was somehow able to pull herself together, got a job while still on crutches, found a place to live away from her parents, met a nice man she's now dating. What a miraculous story. And mysterious, oh my.

It reminds me of a client whose knees always hurt her. There was nothing structurally wrong. She lost weight, did physical therapy, saw an osteopath, came to me for bodywork and still her knees always hurt. One day she tripped on the treacherous Capitol Hill brick sidewalks, came down hard right on her kneecaps. After that, her knees stopped hurting. No on can explain how that worked, no one. No one ever will.

I had a friend in San Francisco who suffered from a very rare blood cancer. He did well with the serious chemotherapy they used at the time to treat it, though the chemo never put him into remission. When he was at his worst, he would go to India and take photos, his favorite thing. Even though travel to and from India is arduous, not to mention uncomfortable, it was well worth it to him. When he returned from these trips, the doctors couldn't find a trace of the blood cancer. After a few weeks or few months, the cancer always returned. Incredible that traveling to India put him into remission. Go figure!

He travelled there once or twice a year for ten years. I have no doubt that his pilgrimages were what kept him alive. His pictures were wonderful. When he at last succumbed to the disease, his wife went to India alone. When she came back, she drank herself to death. It's a true story. May their spirits fly high.

The point being: the essence of healing is mysterious even to the most brilliant medical minds of all time. There is no one system of healing that always works for anyone. People swear by this system or that system. I personally swear by Chinese medicine, but it doesn't always work and does not work for everything. The type of medicine we swear by is a clear indication of personal philosophy, but not much more than that as far as I can tell.

We have to try to understand healing. When we suffer, we have to try to alleviate that suffering by whatever means makes sense to us. But we don't get it, even though human beings have engaged in the healing arts since forever ago. I believe medicine is the oldest art, no matter how the joke goes.

Good health is mostly good luck. It's important to work at it, to think about it, to try. If you're healthy, maybe stop right now and say thank you to the Universe for your good fortune. If you aren't healthy, please remember, it's not your fault. Also please do not fall off a roof because it probably will not work for you. OK?

To your health! L'chaim.