Sunday, December 22, 2013

Self medication

Library of Congress, Jefferson Building

I don't remember if I read this somewhere or it came to me somehow, that every philosophical dilemma arises from the basic problem of reconciling homeostasis, the almost freakish consistency of temperature, respiration, heartbeat and so on inside the body, with the exterior environment which is always in flux.

Like Brother Wind who, though annoying, is simply trying to stabilize atmospheric pressure, we humans try to create conditions that will enable homeostasis to remain in place. When it gets cold, we put on more clothing (or -- we should), we eat soups and stews, we sleep more than we would in warmer weather. The skin is mighty but it is porous and thin. It can only do so much.

What we crave for dinner (chili in December, not so much in July in the northern hemisphere), how long we sleep, how we decide to spend our days, has at its foundation this never ending struggle.

Part of how we deal with the problem is, we self medicate. Every being self medicates. Food, clothing, activity (or not) could all be included under the heading of self medication. Many people only use the term to describe drug and/or alcohol use or abuse, but I don't think it's that simple.

One of the drums I beat regularly has to do with the truth that we humans are not chemistry sets, machines, or in any way predictable. It would be so great if health was directly related to the right numbers on our blood tests, how often or how vigorously we exercise, what we eat or drink or don't. Wouldn't it be wonderful if there really were only one Right Way to eat, live, sleep, work? Oh man.

Of course there isn't because we are not machines, we are not chemistry sets. No. We are complicated!

Caffeine, for instance, has different effects depending not only on who partakes, what time of day they partake, but also depending on who they are at that moment in time. I know that there are days when I can drink coffee and I'm fine with it. Other days, my hands sweat and my heart pounds after only a few sips. Tea affects me quite differently than coffee, even though allegedly, the craving for both has to do with my wish to self medicate with caffeine.

Tea clarifies my mind in a smooth, high-toned way. Coffee is more guttural. What I mean is, coffee kicks me in the ass, kicks me into gear. Caffeine is not the only important facet of these stimulants. I drink one or the other depending on what I need at the moment in space/time. I am self medicating.

Sometimes of course I drink the "wrong" one and end up even more out of balance than before I took my first sip. It's unfortunate, but very common. Self medication is a lifelong art to learn.

Chocolate is not just about sugar. Chocolate is holy, it surely is. I think of the Mayans, drinking chocolate without the ameliorating benefit of sugar or milk. Good lord. If I drank that stuff, I too could plunge my hand into someone's chest and pull out their heart.

OK, maybe not. But chocolate is powerful.

I could get into a whole thing about intoxicants, should I? Or tobacco? The Indians understood Brother Tobacco to be the perfect drug, both energizing and relaxing. They knew to only take one puff, then pass the pipe. It only became toxic when we decided that if smoking one puff was good, smoking an entire carton of cigarettes would be even better. And then we started adding all those toxins to the herb, wrapping them in carcinogenic paper. Nowadays we blame the tobacco, but it isn't the fault of that plant. It's our tendency to go to extremes that's the problem.

I could say a lot more about self medicating, but the point here is that right now, at the bottom of the year (in the northern hemisphere) we humans are battling -- raging, you could even say -- against the dark. Our self medication at this time of year includes rich foods, a lot of sugar, alcohol. We find ourselves in groups of people, bellowing over loud music, wearing funny clothes, drinking way too much, eating way too much, misbehaving.

This is how we fortify ourselves during the holiday season. It is perfectly normal. We are self medicating.

Come January 1st, a different need will sweep over most people; a need to cleanse, let go, detox. I recommend tea as self medication during January -- at least that's what I'll be drinking.

Ah but we aren't there yet. It's December 22. The effort to reconcile 98.6 F, 130/80, 70 heartbeats per minute with the dark, cold, rain/snow/ice involves a hell of a lot of self medication. It just does.

May you find balance between inner and outer as we complete the secular year. May it be so!


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Bad massage

I have had dozens, probably even hundreds, of bad massages, oh man have I. This is because I like to receive from many different practitioners. I always learn something - either something I wish to integrate into my work, or something I would never subject a client to.

That's the thing about massage therapy - every therapist brings something different to the art. The experience of receiving can be spectacular, mediocre or just plain old bad, depending not just on the skill level of the practitioner, but on the rapport between practitioner and receiver.

A massage is a dance in which rapport is crucial. If there isn't a good alchemy between therapist/practitioner and receiver, things can go terribly wrong - as they did on Monday evening. I received a massage from a complete stranger on the other side of the country where I was visiting for Thanksgiving. She didn't lack technical skill, but she seemed to have no empathy. There was no poetry in her work. She was what I call a massage mechanic.

Receiving from a massage mechanic is not a bad thing if they follow the same protocol for every massage, as they do at spas, but when they go rogue and think they can figure out what needs fixing in their client, well, bad things tend to happen. I know someone who received a massage from someone who decided to give her an osteopathic treatment, immediately after which she developed a hideous case of benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. Massage mechanics should stick to the program, not try to be creative.

To move beyond the mechanic stage involves people skills and a sense of rhythm, contour and energy. Those who can put it all together are therapists.

I'm inspired by therapists who listen to what I say, but also "listen" to my tissue and are able to get into the rhythms of the complicated being that is me - my breath, heartbeat, cranial rhythm - so as to enhance the possibilities for balance and wholeness. What they do is never as important as how tuned in they are to my body and being. There's a world of difference between massage mechanics and massage therapists, though we share the same degree.

The mechanic I received from the other day had a sharpness in her energy right from the git-go, as if perpetually waving a finger at the world, or perhaps standing with her hands on her hips, glaring. I noticed, but sometimes things change once I get on the table. Not in this case, but sometimes.

The verbal intake was a disaster.

Practitioner: What can I do for you?
Me: I love a full body massage, though if you want an area to focus on, it would be my shoulders, neck and back. I'm a massage therapist, so my upper body can get stiff, but please don't spend too much time up there because it brings all my energy up rather than helping me feel balanced..
Practitioner: You're a massage therapist? Oh no - the worst kind of client.
Me: What are you talking about? Massage therapists are great receivers, in my experience.
Practitioner: We don't take care of ourselves.
Me: Who is "we"? I take great care of myself.

She just stared at me. It was vaguely hostile.

OK, you would think, after that exchange, I would have decided to skip the bodywork. This was clearly going nowhere good. She told me right to my face that I'm the worst kind of client. Still, I was curious about what the experience might be like.

She spent almost the whole hour on my neck and shoulders, largely ignoring my arms, hands, legs and feet. In other words, she did the exact opposite of what I'd asked her to do. It was a horrible massage and I'm still sore from it.

A bad massage can leave a bitter taste in the mouth. It is discouraging. If you receive a terrible massage, please do not assume every massage is going to be so bad. Massage therapists and massage practitioners come in many forms. Bad massage is a part of my professional research and development, but for most people, it is slightly traumatic.

Rapport is at the center of every kind of healing relationship. Doctors, acupuncturists, dentists, psychotherapists, M.D.s, and massage therapists need to be people you respect and trust. If there is no rapport, even if the practitioner is said to be the "best" (whatever that is), if you don't like them, it makes everything harder.

As for the practitioner from the other day, needless to say I would never go see her again. The experience was certainly not a waste of time. I was reminded of how good I am at listening and taking in what my clients say - a nice confidence booster. I was also reminded that when I encounter that sharp energy from someone, letting them work on me is always a bad idea.

Oh well, lesson learned.

May there be harmony between you and those who lay hands on you, the massage therapists, doctors, dentists, hair stylists, manicure/pedicure people, etc. We humans are animals. If we hope to find healing and wholeness, touch should occur in an atmosphere of compassion and trust. Believe me.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States, our harvest feast of abundance. It's a pagan ritual, meant to let the gods know we wish to be well fed through the long cold winter. There is a sacrifice, of course, the homely turkey. In addition to the centerpiece of the meal, it's traditional to feast on mashed potatoes, gravy, the weird green bean and fried onions casserole, (weird to me), etc. There must be pie, if you wish to be traditional. Thanksgiving foods stick to your ribs. It's part of the ritual.

In order for the ritual to work properly, there should be at least a little more of everything than is absolutely necessary. There should be too much food, too much drink. There should be a crowd of people around the table. Celebrants should plan to eat and drink a little too much. Also, there must be leftovers.

In American society, this poses something of a problem since our cultural ideal at the moment celebrates those who don't eat enough. I'm not complaining; in every society, there's stuff about food. You could say that every society has some kind of eating disorder. After all, if we do not eat, we will die.

Perhaps I shouldn't worry so much about how people celebrate this feast. After all, winter is no longer a long, dark, scary season for we Americans. In fact, Thanksgiving is not generally thought of as a ritual. It's a holiday, a time of gathering for family and loved ones. If people decide to pick at their food, what's it to me?

I am such a traditionalist!

I wish you a wonderful feast, no matter how you celebrate it. May you never hunger, may you never thirst. May it be a gentle winter. May it be so.

The ritual sacrifice, elegantly presented.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Kill the bastards

Ever since microscopes powerful enough to enable us to see germs were invented, we've been against them - the germs, not the microscopes. It makes sense. Creepy, crawly, alien-like things they are, indeed. If you doubt it, google "germs microscopic pictures." Yuck!

It makes sense that once we saw them, we developed a strategy of total annihilation. The goal was to kill as many germs as possible when cleaning house, hence the rise of antibacterial soaps and sprays. Kills 99% of germs on contact. We in my society became germ killing zealots.

The scorched earth policy also applied to the body, externally and internally. The development of antibiotic creams and ointments, antimicrobial sock and shoe liners, etc. - as well as prescription antibiotic medicines - blossomed into a huge industry. We would not stop until every germ was dead.

Recently we discovered that without bacteria, we are toast. Our health, well being and sanity depend on zillions and zillions of bacteria. Some years ago, ironically at the same time we realized bacteria were becoming antibiotic resistant, scientists began to map the human microbiome. Good timing! As they learned more about the importance of bacteria to every healthy function, even thinking and behavior, it began to dawn on them that killing as many germs as possible has probably not been that great of an idea. Bacteria are clever little things; they evolve quickly. The 1% that survive the chemical shitstorm of destruction we call housecleaning and healthcare not only survive, they become stronger. This link is to an article about bacteria that feed on antibiotics.

Oops. In our efforts to be clean and clear, pure, free of germs, we have made ourselves so much sicker.

The good news is, the scientists we trust to know what's best for us are beginning to turn around the decades old common wisdom of utter destruction. This is great! The sooner the better.

If you're ready to shift away from the Kill the Bastards strategy, I suggest thinking in terms of interrupting patterns rather than destroying the bad bugs. When you wash, your goal should not be to kill every last bug. By scrubbing with warm sudsy water (just soap, no antibacterial crap please - it's very bad for you), you disorganize the bacteria. The same is true when you brush your teeth, wash your hands or mop the floor.

It's not possible to kill everything "bad" without also killing the beneficial bugs. Too many antibiotics will destroy the immune system. Weakened immunity makes possible situations in which "bad" germs become organized, are able to gain a foothold in the vastly complicated body/minds we inhabit. Weakened immunity means we have no defenses. With no power to disorganize these cells, things spiral downwards. We take stronger and stronger drugs. We get weaker and weaker. It's a terrible cycle.

But things are turning around. The way scientists think about bacteria is changing rapidly.

I should say I am not against antibiotics. They are powerful drugs that must be relied upon from time to time. A few years ago, I came down with "the flu." I had a high fever and terrible congestion + coughing. As usual I gave it some time to run its course. I drank warm liquids, stayed in bed and waited. After four days my fever was still raging and I was coughing my lungs up or so it seemed. At that point I went straight to the doctor. I had developed pneumonia. i was so sick. Within 48 hours of taking the antibiotics, I felt almost well. Wow. So yes, there is a place for these drugs.

Purity is overrated, it surely is. In fact, it isn't possible. Celebrate your bacteria, y'all. Without it, you could not prevail. Disrupt unhealthy patterns, but otherwise, please respect the complexity and wisdom of your humanity, including the germs. Please? You'll be happier, healthier, and more whole.


Monday, November 18, 2013

The Evolution of Midwifery

Back in the olden days, midwives had all kinds of herbs, mushrooms and stuff to help women through the ordeal of labor and childbirth. I bet they had them chewing tree bark, I bet they had the laboring mothers chewing on medicinal leaves. I bet they tried as hard as they could to ease the pain. I'm sure of it. Wanna bet?

The revival of midwifery in the U.S. has been fraught. Ina May Gaskin and the others who brought it back into practice had to fight hard against the medical establishment of the time. Childbirth was medicalized in the 1940s. A lot of things were medicalized at that time. The common wisdom for the next two or three decades was that the doctor knew best and the patient should just do as he said, without asking too many questions. It was a very harsh moment in modern medicine. The doctor reigned supreme. Almost always, that doctor was a man.

The practice of doping women up, strapping them down, then yanking out the babies with a pair of tongs, holding the newborn upside down while slapping its ass until the baby cried, continued through the 50s and much of the 60s. It explains a lot about we baby boomers, those hideous births. Can you imagine? The husband/father/partner was not present. His job was to pace back and forth in the waiting room, his pocket full of cigars to share when the baby arrived. Babies were delivered in operating room settings. The doctors wore masks - it was truly crazy. I believe the UFO recovered memories from people who believed they were abducted were really recovered memories of highly medicalized births. But that's another blog post.

Hence when Ina May Gaskin created The Farm (her birthing commune), what she was up against was powerful. I can only imagine the scorn with which she was treated by the medical establishment of the time. This link is to a Salon article about her. A nice profile.

I understand why they had to be so macho back then, but what I've been wondering is why they're still so macho. Because they are, they really are. I've never met a midwife who didn't have an agenda, that being "natural" childbirth. EVERYONE MUST HAVE A "NATURAL" CHILDBIRTH - OR ELSE! It's a crusade. There's fire in their eyes when they talk about it. It is intense!

What "natural" childbirth means is no pain medication. Every pregnant woman who works with a midwife is encouraged to prove herself in labor and delivery. Not only must she give birth to a baby, but she must also prove that she can go the course, hang in there no matter how horrible it is, without any support for pain.

For some women, childbirth is perfectly doable without pain medication, also without a great deal of assistance, but for many, it is a life or death ordeal. In the past, these women and/or their babies died, in great numbers I should say. Every woman is built differently in body, mind and spirit. I think it's a sexist thought form that every woman should be great at having babies. It doesn't make any sense.

I've seen midwives deny pain medication for women in labor even while giving them intravenous fluids and other medications (to stop nausea, for instance). I've seen midwives try to talk women out of pain medication even when the women had been in labor for 24 hours or longer and were crying out in agony, begging for relief. What is that about?

I witnessed a midwife offering a Percoset to a woman moments after the baby was born, after talking her out of the epidural. That does not make sense. Does it?

It's brutal, attending births with midwives, I tell you. When I attended births, it was as a doula. I was there for the mother and did not have an agenda, except to assist the mother in every way I could. My goal was to go with the flow of the moment rather than follow a particular script. When they asked for pain relief, I made sure they got it. I've had to shout at midwives to make that happen, make a scene at the nurse's station. It's bizarre!

Why? Why is this cruelty still thought necessary? The dreaded epidural does not cross the placenta; it does not affect the baby. Anesthesiologists are so good with this procedure these days - women still have sensation, just not excruciating pain. Women can and do push out their babies after an epidural. Why is it still so reviled?

Why haven't midwives incorporated acupuncture and herbs into their practice? In China, certain surgeries are performed without anesthesia, because acupuncture is so good for easing pain. Why hasn't this "natural" process been integrated? The only pain relief I've seen them offer is the injection of water under the skin at the sacrum, usually for back labor. The shots are horribly painful, though afterwards they seem to bring relief temporarily. But they hurt like hell. It seems a part of the hazing to me.

As for going up against the medical establishment, I wonder how it is midwives haven't noticed that obstetrics has changed drastically since 1971, along with the rest of modern medicine. I don't know of of any hospital where super medicalized labor/delivery is the rule of thumb. What is going on?

Yes we do a lot of C-section births, including for women who worked with midwives and were offered no support for their pain. I have several theories on that, too. That's another blog post.

May midwifery soften now that it's mainstream. May midwives learn how to ease pain with herbs, with acupuncture and other natural methods. May they befriend the anesthesiologists, work as partners with them when that is the best way to bring the baby into the world. May they back away from the macho model of childbirth. May it be so.


Friday, November 15, 2013

The Gift of Denial

I am in awe of corporeal intelligence. I'm talking about the wisdom of the body that is not in any way related to consciousness or thinking. Swelling that takes place after an injury, for instance, is the body's way of stabilizing the injury. Swelling is the body's way of creating a splint. An adema caused by inflammation - not injury - or a condition that is out of control or ongoing (chronic) has to be addressed, but injury related swelling is normal and even helpful. When the body's response is alarming, we always want to stop the symptoms, but unless it gets too extreme, the body is quite good at self care. If only we would listen.

Shock is one of the ways the body grapples. I'm not talking here about the kind of shock that takes place after a grave injury. That is shock in its most extreme form, when the person turns blue and is utterly unresponsive. In that case, they must lie down, be covered with a space blanket. Call 911 right away in that situation.

Even at its most extreme, shock serves as a psychological cushion. It is a protective state, part of the survival instinct.

People suffer from mild states of shock on a regular basis. Right after a bad breakup, or just after being fired, though we might appear to be fine, we aren't all there. It's hard to connect with any kind of emotion in those moments. We are in shock.

The grief often arrives a day or two later. I remember the phone call when my sister died. She was very ill; we knew her death was imminent, but the news still put me into a state of shock. It was early morning when I received the news. I decided I would go to work anyway, and set out on my morning commute. Halfway there, I realized the fullness of it - my sister had died. I turned around and walked home.

Mild states of shock also accompany good news. Imagine the look on the face of the person who has just won the lottery, for instance. I could go on, but I'm sure you get the picture. Shock is one of the ways we shield ourselves from the full impact of certain events. It is the way our intelligent bodies give us time to process a big piece of news. In healthy people, the shock gradually dissipates, allowing the person to integrate whatever it was that happened.

Denial is a form of chronic shock. It, too, is protective. Those who are in denial are often judged. I think of the mother who can't believe her daughter has an eating disorder even though it's clear as a bell to everyone else, the person who refuses to believe his lover has been seeing other people, the office worker who doesn't see how a co-worker is undermining him or her, the addict who believes he or she can stop any time they want to. It's not uncommon for other people, outside of these situations, to be incredulous. How could she not know? Well - she's in shock. That's why she doesn't see it.

Often, receiving a scary diagnosis creates a state of shock in the person receiving the news. Much of what people think of as a patient's fighting spirit could also be seen as a state of denial. It depends on the diagnosis, of course, and the personality of the person receiving the news.

I'm not one of those who thinks that breaking someone else's denial is always a great idea. I'm repelled by the practice of intervention, for instance, in which people gang up on the person in denial to bully them until they see the truth. If these people were capable of handling whatever it is they're denying, they surely would become conscious of it on their own, yes? I say yes. They're doing the best they can.

Life is tumultuous. You never know what's going to happen next. None of us are super heroes who can take it all in stride right from the get go. We are tender, highly emotional beings. Things get to us. This is part of what makes us so adorable, at least I think so.

Here's a link to a Mayo Clinic article about denial.

Should you receive shocking news or a bad diagnosis, give yourself time, please, before making decisions about what to do next. Treat yourself with kindness and gentleness, at least for a day or two, OK? Give yourself time to take it in. While in a mild state of shock, it's hard to make good decisions.

Actually, will you please always treat yourself with kindness and gentleness? Please? Thank you.


Monday, October 28, 2013

heilsu brauði þínu!

Someone asked me yesterday if I've started looking at the health care exchanges. Umm ... not yet! It will take some time to work out the first chaotic round of change, of course. Hilarious, isn't it, that the very people who did everything they could to block the law are now outraged because the roll out is a mess? To me, this is funny. Maybe I'm supposed to be outraged, too. I'm not at all surprised. Are you? How else could it be? Even Apple has to deal with bugs when it rolls out a new ios. This link is to a story from last month about how Apple maps sent drivers onto an airport runway. It's a disaster - and we're talking about Apple. Would anyone really believe the government could do this perfectly? For heaven's sake.

When things settle down a bit, I'll be looking for disaster coverage, you know - in case I have a stroke or something. I'll also want coverage for dental, vision, acupuncture, therapeutic massage and psychotherapy.

Yeah. Are you shaking your head slowly back and forth? Are you thinking I live in a dream world? I know, and yes, I am. However, insurance for health care should cover my health care - right? - which includes the above.

Once upon a time, health insurance was fairly comprehensive in some environments. Back in the 1980s when I worked for the San Francisco Symphony, the insurance covered a pair of glasses every year, dental check-ups and a hefty portion of dentistry. It covered my psychotherapy for five years! I co-paid $15 per session, every week. That therapy saved my life. It was crucial health care. I can't imagine what would have happened had I not had access to psychotherapy.

Even the Symphony insurance did not cover acupuncture, but it did pay for osteopathic treatment and homeopathy. I was allowed to choose my own doctors. It was great insurance. Those were the good old days.

What's wrong with our approach to health care runs so much deeper than the dollars and cents. Yes, we're gouged whether we pay insurance companies or our practitioners. This link is to an article about hospital charges, how ridiculous they are and how what is charged varies widely from place to place.

The system is falling to pieces. I suppose it has to. I'm hopeful that what will rise from the ashes is a much more balanced, sensible approach to good health. We're headed in that direction already. But we have a long ways to go, we surely do. In the meantime, I plan to continue my practice of aggressive self care which includes Chinese medicine - ancient and venerable, ultra modern medicine - elegant and groovy, therapeutic massage on a regular schedule, psychotherapy when I need it. A part of aggressive self care is getting out for a walk every day, allowing myself enough time to sleep, high quality food, spending time with people I love, and creative expression. You see? I'm aggressive in this arena.

And - I am so lucky to be healthy! So very very lucky. I count my blessings every day.

My advice? Back slowly away from the health care exchanges until they work out the worst of the bugs. Your liver will thank you, your heart muscle will thank you, your adrenal glands will be forever grateful. Perhaps your clenched jaw will be able to relax a bit. They'll figure it out. It will all work out, give it some time.


Saturday, October 26, 2013

Lady Sings the Blues

The Sumerians called opium poppies "the joy plant." That was in 3,400 B.C. Who knows how much earlier it was used as an intoxicant and medicine? Before the Sumerians, people didn't write things down. What we know is that since then, the use of opiates spread east and west, north and south, all around the Silk Road and eventually to the Americas.

The popularity of the joy plant is not hard to understand. It induces bliss. That's why it is so addictive. There are those who believe it doesn't actually relieve pain, but the person under its influence doesn't care, kind of like nitrous oxide. Bliss is a powerful pain reliever, it surely is.

Opiates are so pleasurable, in fact, that their use turns some people into zombies who will do anything - anything - for that high. Kill, steal, whatever it takes. It has happened often, continues to happen.

In 21st century America, there are those who still smoke opium, also plenty of people who shoot or snort heroin. There are also many people who develop an addiction by way of legally prescribed opiates: Oxycontin, Oxycodone, Percoset, Vicodan, Morphine and Codeine, to name just a few.

I'm not against pain medication, I should say. After surgery, also for people suffering from end stage diseases, these drugs are a godsend. Terminally ill people of course do not have to worry about how to get off the drug, but those who have had surgery often struggle when the time comes to taper off the opiates. The people who continue to take the drugs long after surgery are likely to suffer from full blown withdrawal when they come off the high. I've not experienced this, but from what I hear, withdrawal is a horrible experience.

Better withdrawal, though, than continued use. I've known people who became so addicted they were powerless to stop using. I was married to someone with a severe addiction to pain pills. I didn't know about it - that was long ago when I was far more naive. He was never quite present when he was using. He was detached, foggy, smiling at a joke only he could understand. His body was present, but not his soul. He would lock himself in a room and listen to music, sometimes not coming out for a day or two except to use the bathroom. I can't remember what form of denial I used to explain this to myself. Needless to say, the marriage did not survive. How could it?

Too, I've had clients who became slaves to opiates. Some were able to get off the drugs, thank god, others couldn't. I don't know what happened to those people because I don't work with addicts who are using. It's not difficult to spot the symptoms, the drowsiness, the vague, foggy lack of presence. It is extremely creepy!

I don't judge those who become addicted, I do not. Humans all around the world have used opiates for thousands of years. I smoked opium just once, sometime during the decade of my 20s. It made me throw up, then I nodded out and had horrible nightmares. It took days to recover my usual energy. I never touched the stuff again.

I'm lucky I didn't like it. Also lucky that I've not had to take prescription grade opiates.

It was long ago that someone or someones forged a relationship with the opium poppy, so long ago that no one can trace it. In my opinion, it is a very dangerous, unhelpful relationship, one of the many things we humans do that is no good for us. And yet, we're just trying to get through the days of our lives as painlessly and happily as we can. Who can blame us for wanting to be happy? If there is a pill or a powder that makes us happy, of course many of us will assume that's a good thing.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of a prescription for opiate pain medication, tread carefully, will you? Get off the stuff as soon as you can, please? These are the days of our lives. It's best to participate in life, though life can be fraught, though life can be painful, yes? I say yes. Shalom.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Seek light

For those of us who live north of the equator, the days are growing shorter. Here in the American midatlantic, the rate of change at this time of year is alarming, at least to the brainstem. Light is necessary for our survival. "Our" includes all living beings on this beautiful, ever wobbling (hence seasonal) planet.

We humans have pathologized our need for light, of course. We love to pathologize everything in my society. Our name for the lethargy, depression and hopelessness that some people feel keenly during winter is Seasonal Affective Disorder. SAD. Someone clever made up that name.

I have a quarrel with the idea that this is a disorder. My belief is that almost everyone reacts to the shift of the seasons. Having no reaction at all to the change in light is more of a disorder than the other way around. I've never met anyone who was completely oblivious to the change, though I've known many who practice ignoring how they're feeling - about the change of season and other things as well.

Some react powerfully enough to need help getting through the long, dark winter. Here is a link to a page on the Mayo Clinic site about light boxes. The people I know who use them say they really help.

The need for light extends beyond mere survival, you know. Light is also necessary for joy, hope and inspiration. Those who live in darkness don't have access to these things. I'm thinking about bats. I adore them, they are noble animals, but do they radiate joy? Do they seem inspired? If so, I have never been able to connect with the light in them. Have you? I sense calmness, focus, determination, and vivaciousness, but not joy.

But light comes in many forms, visible and invisible. Bats might tune in to a type of light I know nothing about. I hope that's true.

What I do know is that people who live in darkness become dull and lifeless after awhile. Their eyes become dull, their hair and teeth, too. Their moods flatten. Their spirits get droopy. It's a sad thing to see. 

Here in Washington DC, there's daylight all year round, just less of it in the winter. Many people rise before Brother Sun, arrive at the office just as it's getting light, then spend the entire day indoors. Brother Sun sets before they go home. Other people work nights, spend their days sleeping. In summer they will still encounter daylight at some point, but maybe not in winter. Some among us dislike the cold weather, hence stay indoors a lot in winter. Through no fault of their own, in winter many people are deprived of the life giving, inspiring, joyous wonders of daylight. Even an overcast sky provides plenty of healthy light. 

Please make sure to spend time outdoors every day, no matter the weather or season. Plain daylight is as important for your health and well being as good food, good sleep and exercise. In winter it might be more complicated to include daylight in your agenda, but it is well worth it. Daylight in winter should be a priority.

In addition to daylight, you'll fare better over the winter if you allow yourself the beauty and inspiration of candlelight and - if possible - the light of a briskly burning fire. Glowing jack-o-lanterns, Christmas lights and the like are also ways we bring ourselves cheer during fall and winter. I'm all for whatever kinds of light help us remember that spring will come again.

We are creatures of flesh and blood who do not fare well without light. We need light! Over winter, make it a priority to seek light, yes? I say yes. Daylight, candle light, holiday lights, firelight. 

Let there be light. Shalom.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Off course

Though we strive to be balanced, moderate and mindful - or, should say - some of us do, the truth is that, by and large, as a species we are anything but. We are often, (not always), passionate, impulsive and given to fits of very different kinds of moods. I think most humans could be diagnosed as bi-polar, though most of us keep the ends of our emotional/metabolic spectrums within a manageable range or learn to hide our excesses from others. But we all have our ups and downs, every single one of us, no matter how mild they appear from the outside looking in. It's nothing to be ashamed of.

At one end of the human spectrum are the behaviors that could be classified as benders. I'm not just talking about overdoing intoxicants for a period of time. People go on work benders, exercise benders. When people fall in love, initially, that condition is definitely a bender. I've been thinking about the mass shootings that seem part of life in the U.S. these days, unfortunately. Those people, the shooters, reach some kind of bender tipping point at which time they buy guns and go on a rampage. Suicide is a bender. The Tour de France? Bender.

I could go on, but I'm sure you get the idea.

On the other end of the spectrum is what I usually call shutdown. In certain cases I think of it as locked down, or even locked down and rusted shut, as a friend describes it. Included in the condition of shutdown is depression. All sleep difficulties - whether a person sleeps too much, avoiding wakefulness, or at the other extreme, when a person can not sleep, therefore can not integrate and process through sleep and dreams, and can not rest, that person is suffering from shutdown.

People in shutdown are dull. Their hair is dull, their eyes are dull, their skin is dull. There is not a lot of life force around them. They suffer from chronic ailments that never improve or get worse. They are unfocused, unmotivated. They languish in jobs they dislike, relationships that are offline or chronically dysfunctional. Their routines become entrenched. They watch a lot of television. In severe shutdown, over time, humans become blank. Do you know what I'm talking about?

I believe it's normal for us to touch these extremes sometimes - briefly, please. Go ahead, go on a bender, but not forever, not until you crash and burn. Go on a bendette. Touch the extreme, then come back to center. Likewise, sink into shutdown if you will, but don't linger too long in the muck of that extreme. Come back to center. As long as we don't stay too long at the extremes, the movement back and forth allows us the full range of human expression. It also helps us organize around the process of returning to a place of balance. The ebb and flow of emotion is an essential part of being human. We need the ebb and flow, as long as we turn back towards center before it becomes destructive.

There are many disciplines that map a course from the extremes of benders and shutdown back to a place of balance. Meditation, yoga, the martial arts are three I mention often because classes and instructions are widely available. But there are many ways to learn to come into your center from whatever outlying regions you've traveled to.

If you don't meditate, please begin right away. Take a class, join a group in your community, or just set a timer and sit down for twenty minutes. Just sit down. Here's a link to sitting meditation instructions, beautifully written by Jack Kornfield who was my first teacher. 

I live in Washington DC, just a few blocks from the Capitol. Our lawmakers are on a bender of power struggling which has resulted in a government shutdown. They have somehow gotten so bent out of shape that they've merged the two ends of the spectrum I described above. Congress is suffering from an ourobouros of imbalance. It's a crisis of extremes with no balance of any kind in sight.

I wonder how many members of Congress meditate. Some of them do yoga, some engage in the martial arts. How I wish someone would sit them down together in the rotunda of the Capitol and guide them through several sessions of mindfulness meditation, lovingkindness meditation, and the Inner Smile meditation.

A congressional daylong meditation retreat would break the impasse. Can you imagine? Sadly, that's the last thing anyone is going to suggest. It's a damn shame.

May the pattern and impasse be broken. May they move forwards with compassion and clarity. I'm not holding my breath, but may it be so. Shalom.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Make nice

Flags at half mast to honor and remember the people who died in the mass shooting at the U.S. Navy yard last week. This was taken at Union Station in DC.

It's instinctual to admire those among us who are tough, strong, fierce. We look up to those who can leap over tall buildings in a single bound. We love our superheroes in every one of life's arenas. We buy in, at a primal level, to the idea of survival of the fittest. Even med school is a kind of hazing, the way they work those people around the clock, to weed out the weak among them, I guess. Because working 24 hour shifts has nothing to do with being a healer. It's only about being a bad ass. Even doctors are supposed to be bad asses. So weird.

It's my belief that the natural, instinctual longing to be safe (the reason we admire strength and toughness) has chipped away at our belief in the value of gentleness.

  1. 1.
    (of a person) mild in temperament or behavior; kind or tender.
    "he was a gentle, sensitive man"
  2. 2.
    moderate in action, effect, or degree; not harsh or severe.
    "a little gentle persuasion"
    synonyms:lightsoft More

  1. 1.
    make or become gentle; calm or pacify.
    "Cobb's tone gentled a little"

Mildness is not well rewarded in our society, is it? They say, When things get tough, the tough get going. OK. But, though in a street fight it's best to be the strongest and toughest, being a tough guy does not always bring out the best facets of humanity, right? Cultivating gentleness, on the other hand, helps bring out the best in us when we aren't in a street fight. Please remember, most of the time, we are not engaged in battle. Our actual lives are not like the movies. Must we always be hard and tough? That's no way to live happily, if you ask me. C'mon.

Fortunately, there are many tried and true paths that help us cultivate gentleness. All of these practices involve settling down and becoming, in one way or another, contemplative. Meditation, yoga, the martial arts, and community service are examples of practices that help us develop gentleness.

There are little things you can do to become more gentle. For instance, think about the times of day when you feel most fragile, maybe first thing in the morning. Many people are a little raw, fresh out of sleep. For them, spending a few minutes stretching or breathing, snuggling or quietly remembering dreams before leaping into the fray of their busy lives helps launch the day with gentleness. That old saying, she woke up on the wrong side of the bed, sometimes refers to the harsh way many people start their days. Startled awake by an obnoxious alarm clock, they immediately jump into the shower, gulp coffee and worst of all, turn on the news. Who can feel relaxed and refreshed, ready to face the day, after an assault like that? Yikes.

Of course there are those who bounce out of bed at 5:00 a.m., chipper and good to go. For those folks, evening might be a time when some gentle, quiet moments would be kinder than sitting in a noisy bar, bellowing over the grinding beat of dance music.

Do you have an afternoon slump period? You aren't the only one. That's why people sit down for tea or take a nap. Even stepping outside to breathe some fresh air for a few minutes is a practice of self compassion, a gentle way to take care of yourself, to remind yourself that in addition to being a bad ass, you're also a creature of flesh and blood. Even small moments of self compassion help us embody and remember how to be kind not only to ourselves.

In some ways, we take very good care of ourselves. But being a bad ass is not the best course of action in most circumstances. We are a very emotional species. We need kindness, we need tenderness, from ourselves and each other. It's every bit as important as exercise "boot camps," harsh detox diets and personal trainers, believe me.

May your mind be spacious and your heart be soft and kind.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Pre-Existing Conditions

When people say "my back went out," what does that mean? It's an old fashioned phrase. I like it. No doubt it means something different to each individual. I think it means the person didn't notice -- until it was too late -- the twinges, tightness or discomfort in his or her back, or noticed and decided it was nothing and would go away on its own. Whatever is out of balance gets a little worse, then worse still. One day the situation passes a tipping point which is what people mean when they say their back "went out."

The sensation of pulling or tightness, soreness or uneasiness indicates something isn't quite right. I am a big fan of the wait-and-see school of healing, for non-acute conditions of course. If I broke my arm I wouldn't wait to see if it would heal on its own, but a little twinge? I might do some stretching, get a good night's sleep, and hope for the best.

When the back goes out, there's no choice but to address the situation -- rest or stop doing something strenuous that makes it worse, go for bodywork or acupuncture -- you know. When it gets so bad you can't ignore it, that is the first stage of healing.

Healing is dynamic, often dramatic. To disorganize the pattern of dis-ease requires a time of chaos. That chaos is almost always painful. In the case of colds and the flu, the fever, sneezing, nose blowing, coughing, diarrhea and throwing up disorganizes the foothold of the offending virus. The symptoms are not caused by the virus, but are part of human immunity. Sometimes the immune response is gentle, but sometimes it can be quite violent. Sometimes, in order to shake off a potent virus, all of life's routines must be interrupted, or so it seems. We call in sick, thrash around in bed, leave trails of used kleenexes all over the house. Every pattern is disorganized. When the virus has been dispatched, we rebuild our lives from what seems like scratch.

Divorce, quitting or getting fired from a job, moving house or to a new location, and other dramatic changes of life situation serve to dislodge stale patterns that are no longer balanced or healthy. I see these experiences in the same light as catching a nasty cold, or suffering when the back goes out. The unhappy accidents of life serve a purpose. I believe this even as I curse these situations when I have to endure them.

Is there something going on in your life or in your body right now that feels like a minor, nagging discomfort? Is there a sense of tightness, restriction, staleness or decay in your muscles, sinuses, relationships, job, house? These are the pre-existing conditions that point in the direction of healing and balance. These are clues that can help you see where you're slipping out of balance.

I have no idea whether it's possible to avoid the calamities that bring a pre-existing condition up to the surface, but I hang on to the hope that if I pay close attention, I'll be able to perhaps, maybe, nip in the bud some of the looming catastrophes that make up the narratives of every human life.

I am such a dreamer. But it can't hurt to try.

Be well. Shalom.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Sweet Spot

We are cyclical beings, living in a cyclical universe. Just like the moon and the seasons, we wax and wane. Just like the stars rise and fall and spiral around in the night sky, so do we. We are not separate from the physics of the solar system. We are part of it. We surely are!

All is change. Why is change so hard for some of us? Why are there individuals who dig in their heels, who try hard to hang on to what was?

I have several theories about this of course. One among them is that we just want to be comfortable. It's an offshoot of the survival instinct. We seek pleasure and comfort because that makes us feel safe. When we find a way to feel comfortable, whether it's physical, emotional or spiritual, we want to stop the cycle. We begin to believe it's possible to stay comfortable - maybe forever - even though no one has ever accomplished this, not ever. Never. Life is dynamic and cyclical. The longer we hold on, the less comfortable we become. We harden against change, hang on tighter and tighter, long after the time when there was comfort and pleasure in whatever we cling to. Becoming stuck, blocked, and/or stagnant is not good for body, mind or spirit. It's not natural. And yet we try.

I'm talking about some of us, not everyone, of course. Those who try desperately to hang on or stay put are called stubborn, stuck, blocked, or they're pathologized, labeled as regressed, phobic, lazy. The desire to feel safe, to be comfortable, is understandable. I can't blame anyone for that even though it doesn't serve any good purpose.

This is on my mind after watching The Wonders of the Solar System, narrated by the cheerful Brian Cox, also in light of the fact that several of my clients are now going through huge life changes that they were unprepared to meet, even though some among them consciously chose to make the changes. Somehow it didn't sink in that their lives as they knew them are now over and done with. The wheel has turned. Onwards and upwards.

There's no way to stay the same. Every sweet spot passes. Let it pass. Let go. Go with the flow. Shalom.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

This is your brain on evolution

For most of history, in the cultures I know about (only a fraction of earth's cultures, should say), the heart has traditionally been thought of as the center of our humanity. In my society, especially here and now in the 21st century, we think of the brain as the arbiter of everything that makes us who we are. I've been wondering why.

Back in the 20th century we were very interested in the brain, but until the old paradigm of hard wiring was replaced by plasticity as the theory du jour, brain research was more or less a study in mechanics, therefore perhaps not as fascinating as now. I'm sure the brain has always been interesting to some researchers, of course.

There's a way in which all this focus on the brain has lead people to think of the brain as separate from, or above, the body. I just googled "brain and body." Among the 402,000,000 results are links to a yoga franchise called Brain and Body, as well as many articles about brain research. The language of these sites makes clear this idea that the brain is separate from the rest of us.

There's a NOVA page called Brain + Body. Hmm. Other titles from the google search: "Feeding the brain and body", "How opioids affect the brain and body", "How does marijuana affect your brain and body?" There's a book named, "Change Your Brain, Change Your Body." A Huff Post headline: "Why the brain loves dancers over 60."

Did you know there is such a thing as brain to body mass ratio? I didn't.

I could go on, but it's probably not necessary.

I assure you, your brain is not separate from your body. It is human tissue, just like your elbow, intestines and lungs. Your brain is inside your body, inextricable except in sci fi movies. It is.

Is there an elbow to body mass ratio index? Of course not.

What has brought us to this obsession with the human brain? I'm sure you can guess I have a theory about that. I surely do.

I think we're hyperfocused on the brain at this moment in history because we're in the first stages of a major leap in evolution. That leap will involve the human brain.

We cannot continue the evolutionary strategy that depends on larger and larger brains as we have in the past. Our heads are so huge, we can barely be born as it is. No, in order to evolve, we must learn to use our brains differently. In fact I believe we are doing just that, stretching the limits of brain use through technology, as well as focusing our thinking with meditation, yoga and other contemplative arts.

Evolution brings chaos as the old pattern breaks down to make way for the new pattern. The jump we're now involved in has already yielded quite a bit of fallout. ADHD, OCD, and the entire spectrum of autism are some examples, as is Alzheimers and other dementias.

Theories about evolution of all kinds include the idea that it's a crucial part of adapting to changes in the climate. It's ironic that we have contributed so heavily to the climactic shift, now in full gear. I mean it's ironic that we were such a big part of it, because now we must hurry up and evolve, or die because of it.

We surely must evolve - or die - hence we decided the brain is plastic and can change. We're scanning and measuring and watching our brains like hawks. We're multi-tasking, we're texting while driving, we're skipping from channel to channel when we watch TV. We are bombarding ourselves with information. Our brains are adapting to the tsunami of incoming information. But we're also learning to quiet the mind through contemplative practices. Meditation, yoga and the martial arts are practiced by more of us than ever before.

We're connecting with each other in unprecedented numbers through the internet. The relationships we're now able to maintain would have been unthinkable even twenty years ago. Our connections here and on social networks contribute to our leap forward. We're creating a global version of a neural net.

We're changing very quickly now. Hand an ipad to a 5 year old - they know exactly how to use it, or if not, they'll soon figure it out. Hand the ipad to a person of my age. For us, there is a learning curve. Even in two generations, the way our brains work has changed dramatically. Though the fallout is alarming, it is inevitable. We must change or die. We're changing.

We're evolving. May we prevail.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Tao of Goldilocks and Core Strength

When I was a kid, we were told to stand up straight. That meant we were to supposed to become stiff and armored, our chests puffed out, bellies sucked in hard, shoulders yanked backwards, chins lifted and jaws tensed. It was a military posture that was advocated at that time. They didn't tell us to make our jaws tense, but when you stand like that, it's kind of hard not to clench. Give it a try and see.

Then the 1960s arrived. Suddenly we were told to let it all hang out, get loose. We were supposed to let our bellies be soft. Our bellies softened, oh yeah. We over softened our bellies, because we in the U.S. tend to go to extremes. It is our way and I don't think we need to blame ourselves.

At that time, not very many people even knew what yoga was. The martial arts, too, were mostly unknown in America. If you doubt that we had no concept of the martial arts, watch any of the early James Bond movies. The fight scenes are kind of hilarious. No one even bothered to try to make it look real. Thank god for Bruce Lee! He showed us that martial arts are about core strength, balance, poise and awareness.

The practice of yoga, Pilates, Alexander technique and/or any of the martial arts will help develop what is now called core strength. Core strength means the spine and internal organs are supported by the muscles that surround the spine as well as all three sets of abdominal muscles. Core strength also refers to a self awareness, grace, and authenticity. With strong cores, we are neither too soft nor too hard. We are vivid and real. Does that make sense?

Please don't yearn for a hard body. Those who have pronounced six packs, for instance, have overdeveloped their rectus abdominis muscles. That can impair functioning of the organs and result in back strains or sore shoulders because the muscles are over-engaged. I can't figure out why anyone thinks that's sexy. A boyfriend you can kick in the stomach. He won't even notice. Is that sexy? A six pack indicates external armoring of the type that was once so popular. A hard body is not flexible or resilient.

Also, if I were you, I would avoid any exercise program called "boot camp." You wouldn't believe how many people come to me with strains and sprains caused by doing too much, too fast, in these over-ambitious exercise programs. I think these "boot camps" are our culture's version of spiritual austeries, meant to make people stronger through punishment. I think of those saddhu guys I saw in India, sitting within a circle of fires, meditating fiercely.

Do you want to improve your core strength? Here's a simple practice, borrowed from Pilates. Practice as often as you remember to do so. Your abdominal muscles will respond and over time become healthy and resilient, holding your spine and organs without squeezing them.

Core strength is neither hard as a rock nor soft as jelly. It isn't external, but arises from flexible, resilient, engaged muscles close to the spine and surrounding the trunk of the body. The Tao of Goldilocks is what you're looking for.

Stand up and take a couple of deep breaths. Now imagine you've just put on a pair of jeans straight from the dryer (they will be rather snug). Not tight, just snug. Imagine zipping up your jeans. As you visualize, feel your lower abdomen pull inwards as it would in that situation. 
Now imagine buckling your belt. As you imagine, engage the muscles around your waist. Feel it in your back as well as in the front body. 
Finally, button your vest, engaging the muscles towards the center line from your navel to the bottom of your breastbone. 
Let your belly be engaged but not tight. You shoulders will be relaxed, neither curled forward nor yanked backwards, and your head will align itself on your spine. It's kind of amazing to feel everything line up at the conclusion of the exercise.

Take a couple of breaths, smile and go on about your day.

So wrong.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Tao of Goldilocks in the Age of Modern Medicine

Modern medicine is emergency medicine. It is dramatic, heroic and always extreme. May I say straightaway I am grateful for modern medicine? Because I am, I really am. When I had pneumonia a few years ago, I did not try to get in to see the acupuncturist. After a few days of a raging fever and intense congestion, I went straight to the M.D. Once on antibiotics, within twenty four hours I was on the mend. Miraculous!

For chronic conditions, modern medicine is not often effective. It can be expensive, frustrating and scary as hell trying to diagnose and treat ongoing, non-acute symptoms through the lens of emergency treatment. Chances are you will be incorrectly diagnosed, receive prescriptions for strong medicines that make you feel horrible but do not address your symptoms, and frightened out of your mind when they decide to "rule out" diseases like cancer - diseases that require emergency care.

The other way it can go is that the doctors keep testing and testing and prodding, poking, removing tissue for biopsies, drawing vials of blood, taking your pee and poop to examine, scanning and radiating your poor, beleaguered body in every possible way after requiring you to drink poisonous dyes or starve yourself or drink gallons of water that you're not allowed to pee out. Modern medical testing is really uncomfortable, terribly frightening to the animal of the body. It is loud, cold, and dehumanizing. In an emergency, it's appropriate, but when you have a chronic runny nose and nothing else, it can be overkill. It surely can. Sometimes they keep testing until a crisis erupts, after which they will be able to treat whatever happened because it's an emergency.

I don't blame doctors for this. It's their frame of reference. It is how they're taught to think.

The wonders of emergency medicine won the confidence of my society, sadly to the exclusion of many modalities that are far more effective for chronic conditions. We've come to believe that instant cures, miraculous improvements, instant good health is always possible, that it should be possible. Sometimes healing is dramatic, but often, it is just the opposite. Often healing is tedious, requires patience, compassion and spaciousness. Healing is often a long term process that involves relapses and periods of discouragement. Sometimes there is no healing for what ails you. It happens all the time. Is it so bad to admit it?

There is compassion in modern medicine for sure, but not so much the spaciousness or patience for any malady that can't be dispatched ASAP with pills or surgery. The expectations are enormous and unreasonable.

Chronic conditions, such as allergies, persistent congestion or frequent headaches, stomachaches, rashes or other skin problems, also chronic conditions of the spirit such as what we call bi-polar disorder, depression, and such, are patterns that set in to the person who suffers from them. Chronic conditions are not pathogens that must be destroyed or removed, they are patterns that become, over time, part of the tapestry of body/mind. These patterns could perhaps be shattered through the heroics of modern medicine, but the price paid for the medical warfare can be almost as bad as the condition. For instance, I know someone who took antibiotics for ten years because it cleared her acne. Ten years? Can you imagine what that did to her immunity? It kind of freaks me out to think about it.

I'm on about this after reading this article from the New York Times, about the vast numbers of people who take antidepressants. It's depressing to read about the process by which many people who need them never get access, while those who are going through a rough time are drugged up even though the mood is transient. Taking a pill while going through a breakup often means the patient will be unable learn from his/her hardships. Suffering, in moderate doses, builds character and helps us integrate wisdom. Too much is horrible. Too little means we do not evolve. I am not for suffering, by the way. I see how it can be a great teacher, though. It shows us who we are.

In modern medicine, a diagnosis is very specific. Certain markers must be met in order to meet the diagnostic criteria. Chronic conditions are not specific. People who suffer from a chronically sour stomach that isn't an ulcer or cancer do not meet the criteria, hence there is no way to address their symptoms with modern medicine. They have symptoms that reflect imbalance, but nothing that can be cut out or obliterated. Their numbers are within the normal range, they should be fine, or so they are sometimes told. They're left out in the cold, or told it's in their head. They're told to lose weight, see a physical therapist. There's no helping them with modern medicine. It's sad.

Chronic conditions are patterns that set in over time. Instead of being shattered by emergency medicine, many people respond far better to simpler, gentler healing methods. A change in diet can often address the perpetually sour stomach, headaches and ongoing congestion many people suffer from. It can be as simple as that. You are what you eat.

Sometimes, people need more sleep, fresh air, a relaxing walk through the park after work.

The next step up would include what is ingeniously called "alternative" medicine. Chinese medicine including acupuncture and herbs has been around for thousands of years. It is hardly alternative. Massage therapy (not spa massage, I'm talking about therapeutic massage) can help unhinge chronic patterns, as can osteopathy, homeopathy, Reiki, Chinese medicine, herbal medicine.

Does every health situation have to be an emergency, treated epically? Must we ignore our symptoms until or unless they become unbearable? Must healing always be a matter of life or death? Honestly - no. We can pay attention to the subtle symptoms, to the nagging aches and pains. We can treat ourselves kindly, cultivate patience and self awareness. It's part of being a human.

None of the above will help if you break a bone - in that case go straight to the ER.

Modern medicine is the too big, too hard, too hot side of healing. Ignoring symptoms is the too small, too soft, too cold end of the spectrum. What's just right, the Tao of Goldilocks, has to do with paying attention, finding the right process for what ails, with kindness and patience.

Every symptom can not be cured or even addressed. We are complicated animals, we surely are. Things happen that don't require heroics, but still deserve to be addressed. We don't always need to be hit over the head in order to heal. Believe me!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Bite it

Temporomandibular joint problems are rampant in the U.S. In fact, it's so prevalent that people don't even bother adding "problem," "disfunction," or "issue" after the letters TMJ. People say, "I have TMJ." Everybody knows what they mean.

We clench, we grind our teeth. For some, the joint where upper and lower jaw comes together is so tight they can barely open their mouths, or they have to move the bottom jaw at an angle in order to yawn. It's very sad. At night these unfortunate souls wear bite guards because they can't even relax the jaw while they sleep. For many people it actually gets worse when they sleep. It's a big problem.

I could write a post about chronic anxiety and frustration in my society, I could write about how we're jacked up on caffeine, sleep deprived, overworked and stressed out of our minds. Our behaviors become more than a sum of their parts. These behaviors define modern day Americans. It is very sad, and ... is it any wonder we clench? I'm a massage therapist and I clench, though not to the point of needing a bite guard, thank god.

There are ways to engage the TMJ that can help us feel calmer and more satisfied. What I'm saying is, we need to chew.

I bite, therefore I am. It's true that, back in the day, if you didn't have teeth to bite and chew, you would soon die. Teeth, the jaws, the ability to bite and chew is intimately connected to the survival instinct. The maseter muscle, responsible for closing the jaws, is the strongest muscle in your body. Yes, stronger than the quads, stronger than the biceps. There is power in biting and chewing. There is potential for moving a lot of energy by chewing. And yet, as important as it is, we don't bite or chew much these days.

Most of the food we eat is soft. A burger and fries, plus a milkshake? You could probably eat all of that without teeth. The same goes for the traditional Thanksgiving meal. It's currently in vogue to blend or juice food that could be crunchy, like carrots and kale. I see lots of recipes on the internet for blended foods, horrendous combinations of veggies and fruits, blended to a pulp, swallowed without any need to chew.


I know, people eat salads, but do they chew their salad or inhale it? We are really fast eaters in the U.S.

Digestion begins in the mouth. Chewing food is important. If you swallow it whole, or blend it until it needs no chewing, you're skipping the first step in digestion. The next time you're at the drugstore or health food store, check out the indigestion and reflux medicines. There are a million of them. Have you ever wondered why we have such a hard time digesting what we eat? There are many reasons, of course. One major reason is that we don't chew our food.

I see people rushing to the Metro, stuffing bites of scone into their mouths as they talk on the phone. How well do you think these people chew the scone before swallowing? Well?

In addition to assisting with digestion, chewing triggers satiety within the brain. It surely does. Chewing is satisfying on many levels. It's grounding, it's instinctual. Chewing makes us feel safe and well fed at a primal level. Chewing helps us think. It's calming.

We need to chew!

Chewing gum is not the same thing. A part of the satisfaction of chewing is feeling the food change in the mouth. Gum changes at first - softens, the sugar dissolves, but after that it stay the same. Chewing gum will only make your jaw stiffer. Just chew your food, that's all I ask.

I could say more, but I'll stop now. Please take care of your teeth. The people who study these things have linked bad teeth and unhealthy gums to many diseases including heart disease. Take care of your teeth so you can bite and chew. Yes? I say yes.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Heart Health

Heart disease is caused by -- oh -- wait. No one knows.

It's not anyone's fault that this remains mysterious. Most diseases are mysterious. What I mean is, in the lab, diseases are, on some levels, well understood. The way disease manifests in human beings is a whole other question. We continue to try to find a common denominator, but considering how unique each of us is, well, I wish good luck to the researchers. Depending on the mood of the people who hold important positions in the world of medicine, there is always a theory about causes, but no one knows for sure. Every kind of health practitioner tries to understand, but none of us really gets it, even if we act like we do. Human beings are complicated! I'm glad we keep trying.

Not so long ago, when someone was thought to have a bad heart, they were put to bed, sometimes forever. In recent decades, the treatment of heart disease has evolved and expanded. Perhaps I should say exploded. There are surgical techniques, drugs, "lifestyle changes" that are thought to be helpful. Some of them work for some people, others work for other people. There are some whose hearts can't be made right, no matter what is done for them. I think of Dick Cheney. Nothing has worked for everyone, and indeed, along with the explosion in ways to treat it, heart disease has become much more prevalent in the U.S. It's a huge problem about which I have many ideas, of course.

I remember when heart health was thought to be improved by avoiding anything with fat in it. My society's response to that idea was to begin producing low fat and no fat products. People who honestly yearned to remain healthy started buying heavily processed no fat "food" that was full, instead, of chemicals and fake fats which - as it turns out - are twice as bad for your heart as real food. Margarine is probably the best example of fake fat that is horrible for us. Just horrible. Just as dreadful are no fat products. What is no fat half and half, for instance? What does that mean? I read somewhere recently that no fat and low fat peanut butter is nothing but empty calories. Everything nutritious about peanut butter is in the fat!

With the idea that fat=bad came the trend towards stripping cholesterol out of the body. I get where they were coming from but what a bad idea! Your brain needs cholesterol. So do your muscles. Not too much, but not too little either. Did you know there's no such thing as "good" or "bad" cholesterol?

Modern medicine is emergency medicine, hence the early statins were really fierce - and so very bad for people. They prescribe lower dosages now, but it's still bad for you. Bad enough that there is a class action lawsuit against Lipitor floating around out there.

Recently, I'm happy to say, the idea that fat=bad is turning around, and with it, the idea that stripping cholesterol from the body will prevent heart disease. They're now able to recognize that for many people, muscle pain and weakness, fatigue and mental fogginess are "side effects" of statin use. Many cutting edge researchers are beginning to doubt that cholesterol levels in the blood have anything to do with heart disease. Oops.

The trend these days includes a more joyful set of foods. Here's an article from the Cleveland Clinic that speaks to the benefits of eating dark chocolate. A few years ago, they decided that drinking wine is good for the heart. Now they think champagne is good for the heart as well.

I am enjoying the shift from thinking heart health involves a stern and tasteless diet towards a culture of happiness, i.e. dark chocolate and champagne. I think they're moving in the right direction. I hope they will conclude that flogging yourself at the gym for an hour after sitting at a desk for eight hours can not be good for your heart and will suggest more moving around at the office, followed by maybe a nice walk after work.

Another thing I wish modern medicine would do a lot more of is study healthy people. As long as they do their research around those who are suffering (understandable and certainly worthy) they will only be able to see human health through a pathological lens. That goes for every kind of malady, not just heart disease. They look for what is wrong. I think they would be equally well served to scan for what is right, especially in healthy people who break the rules of good health, whatever that means. They might find something very interesting in that way.

I have a lot more to say about this. But for now, let me offer one of my daily heart health practices. It's the metta or lovingkindness prayer, borrowed from the Buddhists. This practice is supposed to be easy. If, at any layer, it becomes a struggle, drop back to a layer in which it's easy to wish for these things. If you never get beyond yourself and your nearests and dearests, that's fine. This is not a demand and is certainly not magic. Just ask, sincerely. Just ask.

There are many forms of this practice. I offer the one taught to me, the one I use daily. Buddhists all over the world use some form of this practice. I love knowing there are people out there wishing for my happiness every day.



Breathing in and out of your heart, letting your jaw relax, gently closing your eyes, ask silently for yourself:

May I be happy
May I be peaceful
May I be healthy
May I be filled with love

Opening your heart now to those nearest and dearest to you, perhaps bringing their faces into your heart, trying to feel your heart opening, ask for your beloveds:

May they be happy
May they be peaceful
May they be healthy
May they be filled with love

Open your heart to someone about whom you have no particular feelings, like the guy behind the counter at the corner store, the UPS delivery guy. Should be someone you don't really know. Ask for him or her:

May they be happy
May they be peaceful
May they be healthy
May they be filled with love

Now if it feels easy, open your heart to someone you're currently having trouble with. It shouldn't be the person you're having the MOST trouble with. Ask for him or her:

May they be happy
May they be peaceful
May they be healthy
May they be filled with love

Take a deep breath. Open your heart to all sentient beings everywhere around this beautiful planet. It's easier than it seems like it would be. Ask for them:

May all beings be happy
May all beings be peaceful
May all beings be healthy
May all beings be filled with love

Now taking a couple of deep breaths, letting go of all sentient beings, everyone for whom you wished, bringing your attention back to your own heart and only your heart, ask for yourself:

May I be happy
May I be peaceful
May I be healthy
May I be filled with love.

Breathe. Open your eyes and go on about your day.