In my last blog post I hoped to get us thinking more about the ever-present connection between mind and body, citing the results of a study that linked chronic hostility–a form of stress–with poorer lung function. Being mindful of this reality is of immediate practical value, and helps us to work more intelligently with regard to maintaining our health. Today I share some related points to ponder as well as a few action items, found below.
But first, some brief discussion. It’s not just our respiratory system that can be adversely affected by mental-emotional states. Depending on our unique constitution, our stress-thoughts and stress-feelings can contribute to symptoms in virtually any functional system (headaches, body pain, elevated blood pressure, digestive dysfunction, erectile dysfunction are but a few examples). But given our current dominant medical paradigm that emphasizes both cost-effectiveness as well as a reductionist approach to therapeutics, this fundamental relationship is often overlooked.
To illustrate, take a common condition like bronchitis. The reductionist paradigm says OK, what we’ve got here is a bacteria that’s “causing” the infection. Let’s administer this antibiotic to off the offending bug, and that will take care of it.
For the serious student of health, however, this thinking almost always falls short of optimal. Questions immediately arise: what’s going on with the immune system? what else is going on in the big picture that might be compromising our defensive function? how’s the air quality in the house? what’s the diet like? what stressful interpersonal relationships might this patient be experiencing? how has sleep been? All of these topics are system inputs directly impacting our immune status.
The holistic paradigm–inherent in millennia-old systems like Oriental Medicine and Ayurveda–is concerned with these matters, and seeks to implement solutions that address the respective problems. To continue with the above example, a list of action items for optimal recovery from (ideally, preventing in the first place) bronchitis could include: therapies/medicinals to treat the disease with its attendant symptoms, ensuring exposure to fresh air and sunlight at least 15 minutes daily, meditation/qigong/yoga practice, medicinal herbs to promote improved sleep.
An integrative model where both reductionist and holistic concepts come together for the highest benefit of the patient will be of greater service than either alone. Let’s give the antibiotic when necessary, but let’s also make sure the patient gets their diet and sleep right. Let’s make sure the patient knows that the ongoing worry about unpaid bills and animosity between her and her spouse are factors. Let’s get her in for a therapeutic massage every two months. All are ways to support a nervous-endocrine-immune complex that works more efficiently and effectively.
You, as an educated health consumer, are instrumental in keeping the movement toward integration going! Recognizing the body-mind interweave is a solid foundation-level step.
Our health-disease status can be likened to a richly-flavored soup: the product of several factors interacting with each other over long periods of time. To understand health-disease, then, means that we must understand each of the factors we have thrown into the metaphorical pot and their effects on the equation. Diet and lifestyle are examples of well-known contributors; the influence of our mental-emotional states is a lesser-known, and thus arguably an even more important, factor.
Points to Ponder/Action Items:
Mind and body interact richly, and often in ways we are either blind to or do not recognize. We can gain fuller awareness with the right practice.
Our mental-emotional states are within our control. We spiral out of control and tumble down into sickness because we have abdicated self-responsibility.
Reclaim self-responsibility for your own mental-emotional states.
Practice regular self-inquiry. One method is to cultivate the habit of observing the different layers of mental-emotional reaction to life experiences, ranging from those which provoke a passionate emotional response to seemingly minor annoyances we tend to quickly brush off. Be ruthlessly self-honest. Identify with clear thought what those reactions are. When the mind is clear and unagitated (difficult, if not impossible when we’ve been freshly triggered!), actively examine the merits and faults of the thinking deep to the specific reactions. Two useful questions to ask: what did I want but not get? what did I not want but did get? Keep a journal so that you can gain awareness of trends within your own psyche.
This work takes marathon-type sustained effort, with many levels of work.
Sometimes the room is disordered because no one has decided to clean it. Sometimes the window is closed because no one has decided to open it. Sometimes we remain angry because we have not decided to allow love and compassion in.
Healing in the true sense of the word often involves death, the dismantling &/or giving-up of cherished structures. If we fear death, then we cannot fully live life. Fearing death, we cannot leave behind the cycles of suffering. How could our cup be filled with new life when we resist emptying out the old familiar?
Are we prepared to let an old, familiar way die so that another can take its place? As I learned from Wilbert Alix of TranceDance International at a past training retreat, “every act of creation is also an act of destruction.”
Chronic mental-emotional stress–of which persistent attitudes of hostility are but a subset–promotes an internal environment of maladaptive inflammation. Depending on our constitution, this will appear as different symptoms in different systems. Abiding in states of all-inclusive loving-kindness, compassion, and benevolence promotes an internal environment favorable to eudaimonia (literally, good spiritedness) and decrease of maladaptive inflammation.
Practice generating the above noble attitudes as an intentional lifestyle. It is like keeping company with good friends. Practice letting this benevolent force surround and suffuse the self-levels trapped in vicious cycle of anger and fear. This post includes a quote from a Buddhist sutra “Hymn of Universal Love” that describes the internal state of one abiding in loving-kindness, and may serve as a helpful introduction.
If we allow love and compassion into the places where we harbor anger and fear, and if we allow love and compassion to teach us, a beautiful healing takes place.
Practice meditation daily as a means of deepening self-awareness. Many safe and effective practices can be found on the first page of any search engine using the term “beginner meditation” (however, one must be discerning). This earlier post is an introduction to the Zen Buddhist practice of breath-counting–simple rules, and easily incorporated to virtually all spiritual or secular lifestyles.
Practice forgiveness. Yes, it’s a process that’s got levels to it–but so does anything else that’s important. It’s more than just letting things slide. Really forgiving exposes our dark side to the light of day, and so involves some temporary moments of discomfort–just like medicine applied to a wound does. Opening up and engaging in the work of forgiveness (usually not a short-term process) allows Truth to surround, suffuse, and heal the wounds in our mind-heart.
Traditional Oriental Medicine’s version of the Lung System is linked with both the integrity of our skin as well as the functioning of the Large Intestine system. The Lung Channel originates in the area of the Stomach. The Lung System is connected with the circulation of Weiqi (defensive life-force energy), a concept roughly analagous to immune function. Thus, skin problems, digestive problems, and dysregulated immune states all may involve the Lung System.
According to principles governing Traditional Oriental Medicine, sadness/grief is associated with the Metal Phase, and the Lung System.
Research the practice of and seek a qualified teacher of qigong (chee gohng). Literally translated as “cultivation of life-force energy”, many qigong exercises integrate movement, breath, and intent which facilitates deeper states of relaxed awareness, a key shift in decreasing hostile mental states and downmodulating the stress response in the nervous-endocrine-immune complex.
Copyright (c) 2020, Justin Jaucian