The Big C
Last week I started working for Chai Cancer Care as an acupuncturist over in their South Woodford branch, in East London. I've also recently had a family member diagnosed with cancer. It's not unique in my family and I know many other families that have been touched by Cancer.
The Chinese Medical understanding of Cancer is a form of violent stagnation. In Acupuncture there is understood to be a psychological and/or emotional content to all diseases and sometimes people are uncomfortable with the idea that feelings can lead to disease. How can we 'be blamed' for what we feel? 'Why am I being punished for…'? But the medical understanding of feelings is not so judgemental really. We can all be aware of tension in our bodies. And, unless we're sitting on an Easyjet flight with our knees by our ears, often the cause of the tension is psychological or emotional : we may be outside of our comfort zone, facing down a challenge, or expecting an adverse situation. For some of us our home or work environments mean we experience these tensions everyday.
For young people who are in conflict situations, the dangers are even worse. In terms of chlid development, before a strong ego is formed, it is natural for children to embody the feelings of those around them. If those feelings are negative (perhaps given to their parents and carers in their childhood) the child is confronted by strong and violent emotions that they have never experienced first-hand. because they are not actually his or her feelings, this can lead to feelings of helplessness, and loss of control. Furhtermore if the expression of these emotions are censored (by school, friends, or parents and carers) then the feelings that go with they can be supressed. They can be internalised. They can create physiological and even cellular change.
Recently I read an article by Rabbi Arthur Waskow a rabbi associated with the Jewish Renewal movement. I came across Arthur in my Uni studies and have been fascinated by him ever since. Firstly he looks uncannily like Santa Claus and, as I have never seen him and Santa in the same room, I have my suspicions… Secondly he speaks with quite the passion about the religious responsibility to act on government and our surroundings with conscience. He is untiring in his motivation and facilitation of groups that do so and has been writing, teaching and preaching since the 60s (although only became a Rabbi in '69). Rabbi recently wrote in his own blog that he has been diagnosed with a cancer in his throat. Of course, being Arthur Waskow, he has used this experience for reflection and teaching. What follows are a few excerpts from his post, 'Healing Earth's Cancer, Healing My Cancer':
Ever since Bill McKibben announced the 3-week wave of civil disobedience at the White House to stop the Tar Sands pipeline from Canada to Texas, I had planned to take part on August 29, in an interfaith aspect that The Shalom Center and I helped initiate. But for medical reasons, I can’t be there. In July, after months of a persistent sore throat, I was diagnosed with a Stage 1 very localized cancer right next to my larynx. So I began a six-week regimen, to end September 30 (making for a slightly weird Rosh Hashanah!) The doctors all assure me that there is a 95% likelihood that these treatments will solve the problem.
But first, a plea: The 3-week wave will end on Saturday, September 3. That day will include both nonviolent civil disobedience (expecting arrests) and a legal vigil/ demonstration with speakers, etc. I have my own qualms about doing this on Shabbat, but after brooding I have come to this: Vigils, prayers, and nonviolence are the nearest cousins to Shabbat — “praying with our legs,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said. And we are calling for America to pause from frantic Doing/ Making/ Producing/ Exploiting to make a moment of reflection, of calm, of rest.
The regimen includes radiation aimed at the trouble spot in my throat, six treatments a week (one very early a.m. each workday plus an extra on Friday afternoon) – plus once a week, a chemo treatment with a very cancer-targeting chemical called Erbitux. The radiation takes fifteen minutes. They have fit me for a strong and rigid plastic face mask to hold my head in the right position for the rays to reach the right spot. It has a number of holes to see and breathe through. I lie quiet for 15 minutes, listen to classical music or Sinatra, and that’s it. My daily moment of Shabbat. Not bad. I have also begun doing acupuncture, to keep my immune system vigorous. Since September 3, Saturday, is NOT a day I would be getting treatments anyway, I feel more free to go, if I am not by then exhausted from the continuing treatments.
Shabbat keeps coming into this story in strange ways: One way of thinking about cancer is that it is made up of cells that refuse to pause, to rest, to make Shabbat. Our society’s mania for Doing/ Making/ Speeding/ Never-Pausing is the society-wide equivalent of cancer, of refusing to make Shabbat. That is why I feel called so strongly to join in this call for a decision to refrain from Speeding-Up our poisoning of the Earth and each other.
With blessings of love & shalom, salaam, healing —
[Shabbat, for those of you unfamiliar with the concept, is the Jewish Sabbath. The Old Testament suggests that it is the day that God rested from Creation and saw how good it all was.]
In this modern world where more than 382 and a half FB friends is rumoured to drive you mad with jealousy, and even super models wear lash extensions for mascara adverts, it is perhaps natural to feel we're operating a little under par. Haven't made your first million by the time you're 19? Rihanna is actually crying in her soup for you.
However, it's a simple fact that we all totally rock. Resting can allow us to realise that whatever we have done, whatever changes we have made, whatever growth we have embarked upon (even if it is none at all or in a backwards direction), RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW, IT IS VERY GOOD. Often I see clients whose main method of recuperation should not be diet, nor exercise, nor qi gung, nor meditation, but simply stopping! In Chinese cosmology Yin (rest) and Yang (activity) are the (pro)creative female and male impulses. One leads naturally and without effort into the next. So the next time you are struggling to fit it all in - to get the essay, and the job, and the kids, and the partner all taken care of, feel free to simply rest. To paraphrase Yoda "Do or not do, there is no try".
Shabbat Shalom (Sabbath peace) to everyone.
P.S. This post is thanks to my muses, bloggers extraordinaire: Danya Zohar Simons and Vered Simons!
P.P.S. Chai is a registered charity. It does not charge its clients for any of its services. If you would like to donate or support Chai in any other way please visit their website
Same same but different
Lao Tzu, one of the 'originators' of Taoism, writes in the Tao Te Ching : "From one came two, from two came three, and from three came the ten thousand things". In other words, before the 'undifferentiated everything' split into lots of individual people and things, there was unity. Interestingly, this cosmic phenomenon shares parallels with our development as children.
When we are babies we see the world as one big pattern of light and shade. Then we are taught the names of things (differentiation). Very slowly we become aware that we are separate from these things and that they are outside of us. We can act and be acted upon by them. Some of those named things create pleasurable sensations - ice cream - and some bring up unpleasant sensations - being told off - only marmite is both. Learning the difference between things is, of course, very important. Perhaps the most important difference that parents try to teach their children is between right and wrong. This is the basis of socialising a young person to function harmoniously, accept and be accepted within every culture (even if the values of what is wrong and right within each culture may differ).
Lao Tzu however offers a slightly different opinion: "Throw away morality and justice, and people will do the right thing."! My understanding of this is that external restrictions are not necessary for harmonious behaviour. He ranks morals as lower than virtue ,where morals are seen as external, 'man-made' rules as opposed to true virtue, which comes from Heaven, and is simply living in harmony with nature. An example of a culture where internal trumps external can be found in the following account from observers of a Native American tribe: Surprised that there were no barriers between children and the campfire. When they asked members of the tribe "why was there no protection to stop the children walking into the fire" they were asked, "why would children want to walk into a fire?". To our health and safety conscious mind, this is a disaster waiting to happen, but perhaps trusting to our own natures is assurance enough without needing to 'legislate'.
So how do we live in harmony with our own natures? A quote from Taoist sources reads, "Only the infant and the sage (enlightened person) are able to move effortlessly through the transitions of life unencumbered by the fetters of self awareness." Erm, okay; but is it not a little odd that self-awareness is considered a fetter, an barrier, to grow as a person? Surely self-awareness is a good thing? How can we become powerful, loving and capable individuals if we don't have self-awareness? The distinction is between self (ego) and Self (higher intelligence/purpose). One aim of religious devotion in the Hindu tradition is to 'break the vessel' (between our self and God) to unify the 'substance' inside (self) and outside (God/Self).
The child does not differentiate between its self and the outside world, likewise the sage has transcended the barrier between their self and the world around him or her. And, like the Hindu idea that the inside and outside of the vessel are in fact the same, perhaps the Way (Dao) and our own Way (own nature) are indistinguishable. Or, as the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “I long to escape the prison of my ego and lose myself in you.”.
So why bother with all this soul-searching anyway? One source says that "the upper class of medicines govern the nourishment of destiny and correspond to heaven... If one wishes to prolong the years of life without ageing, one should use these". Sounds good. How's that work then? Lonny Jarrett, a Five Element practitioner writes "Zhen-qi is the qi present when an individual is manifesting destiny by being true to the authentic self.". Jarrett goes on to quote Porkert, "This kind of energy not only sustains the integrity of an individual but protects and defends it against exogenous (from without) and endogenous (from within) attacks and disturbances." Hence, the term Zhen Qi contains the notion that an individuals health and integrity springs from the fulfilment of destiny.". This is pretty amazing. It basically says that if we do what we are meant to do in this life we'll be healthier and more resistant to disease from external and internal causes!
[As a side note Zhen qi is also called "upright qi" and you can clearly observe its absence in city workers slumped on the tube at the end of the day! Although zhen qi keeps us upright it is different from a rigid forcing of our spinal column. Watch children under 7 sitting and standing still (all be it momentarily). Their spines are straight and relaxed at the same time. It is not simply their muscles keeping them upright but also their zhen qi. Hence doing what we love is also good for our posture!]
But how do we discover our own inner nature? "The way to understand heaven is through the exhaustion or utmost devotion of one's heart; on the other hand, the way to serve heaven is to preserve one's heart within and nourish one's own [original] nature. [emphasis added]". Interesting. To understand heaven, or our Self, we must pursue our heart's desire with a whole heart, to exhaustion! But to serve heaven i.e. fulfil our destiny, live forever, etc. we must preserve our heart. How does one preserve one's heart?
The Heart in Chinese Medicine is the organ of the element of Fire. It is the seat of passion and is stimulated by excitement and lust. Thanks to every ad campaign since the 50s featuring sexual excitement (sex sells!) our hearts are constantly stimulated by everything from cars to coffee to computers. We MUST HAVE the new… whatever. As Tyler Durden says in the film Fight Club, "Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need.". The Kidney on the other hand is the organ of the element of Water. It is the seat of willpower. It is the residence of our primary fuel, called in Chinese, Jing. The relationship between Fire and Water is the primary axis of creation. If you want something but don’t have the willpower to get it, then you'll never have it in your life. If you have buckets of willpower but are passionless you will not know in what direction to go; you will not be striving towards anything. There is a beautiful metaphor in Chinese Medicine to sum up the correct, healthy relationship between our Passion and out Will, our Heart and Kidney: "The Dragon lives under the water". Subsuming our passion to our will, spending our Heart fire on the things we desire most for our soul 's purpose. This is preserving our heart.
As mentioned, the heart loves to love! It fills itself with desires and emotions and thoughts all swirling around, crashing into each other and generally making a ruckus. It fills our vision (eyes are the windows to the soul!) until we can't see our long term goals and values in our day-to-day life. In order to preserve the Heart in our everyday life we can empty it of desire in the following, very simple, way.
Sit quietly, listen to the breath coming and going without need for change or judgement
After a few moments start to notice where you mind is - perhaps considering the shopping list or an argument with someone or a happy moment with someone else.
Gently bring your attention back to your breath
Allow your attention to rest in the centre of your chest
Visualise all the thoughts and desires you are currently aware of holding as a dark mass swirling in your chest centre
As you reconnect to the breath feel it come and go deeply and calmly
As you breathe out, visualise the dark swirling mass being absorbed into a pool o f gold becoming smaller and smaller
As you breathe in, relax
As you breathe out, visualise the dark swirling mass being absorbed into a pool o f gold becoming smaller and smaller
As you breathe in, relax
Breathing in and out, continue to see the dark swirling mass of thoughts, emotions and desires becoming smaller and smaller until all that is left is a pool of gold.
Spend as much time as you like looking into this viscous pool of gold, seeing only the reflections of your higher self, until you are ready to return, energised and refreshed to your everyday life.
If you will it
Sharon Darwish in her blog, Brain Freeze asks the question "If willpower can be depleted like a muscle, what is being depleted?" Admittedly, people who've just spent their willpower reading her enlightening post will almost certainly now be staring vacantly out of the window, dreamily investigating the contents of their nose. Nevertheless if you want to know a possible answer suggested by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) then read on.
In Chinese Medicine organ theory each organ 'houses a 'spirit'. Will, or willpower, is considered one of these 'spirits', and it is 'housed' in the Kidneys. The Kidneys are responsible for the creation and containment of jing, the body's most essential 'battery'. When jing qi expires so do we. (See here for more about the functions of the Kidney).
In TCM the body's energy or qi is carried from the inside to the outside and around the body through channels, or meridians. There are 12 channels (excluding the 'extraordinary meridians') which can be seen as 6 sets of partnered channels called the '6 Divisions'. The 6 Divisions connect one arm channel and one leg channel and divide the bodies yang (posterior) and yin (anterior) surface into three channels each. You can envisage it as an onion with three 'outer' layers and three 'inner' layers moving from primarily protective to primarily nutritive functions. One of the innermost layers, Shao Yin, is a division that connects the Kidney channel to the Heart channel. Energetically this is a connection between Fire and Water, the original creative axis.
Metaphysically, the journey along the Kidney channel is a "journey from jing into ling" or, drive into destiny (Lonny Jarrett, 2003). The Kidney channel rises from its beginnings on the feet to its terminus on the Chest where the Heart channel begins. The function of the points move from the physicality of development and child-bearing , to points that our fundamental fire, the drive to get something, anything, to our passionate fire of desire, lust and excitement. These latter points are often used in aging clients who are 'running out of steam' and finding fewer and fewer things to be excited about.
Modern media is based on riling the Heart and Kidneys by over-stimulating them with images and sounds designed to ignite desire and fear. When Sharon asks "what is being depleted" I would suggest that it is our Heart and in turn our Kidney fires. Adrenal fatigue (Kidney deficiency) is a common modern complaint. London especially contains many environments that make our hearts race and fire up adrenaline (and not always for good reasons). Long hours combined with regular intake of stimulants means that our bodies are always running to keep up with our minds. As mentioned the Heart and Kidney are in a Fire and Water axis. The correct (healthy) relationship when considering Fire is described in TCM texts as when the "Dragon lives under the Water". This is understood to mean that the fire of our drive should be rooted in manifesting the destiny of our original nature and not in an over-excited or an insatiable greedy place.
In Sharon's post she compares willpower to a muscle. In TCM our true nature fulfils its destiny, erm, naturally... Perhaps, when we need to force Will as though it were an atrophied muscle it is because it has been compromised by "the accretion of negativity dysfunctionally assimilated during life" (Lonny Jarrett, 2003). As a tangent, I love that Jarrett implies that negativity is a dysfunctional way to experience the world. As Jess Gold recently pointed out, watching news items that focus only on the fearful and negative is a skewed way of perceiving the world around us.
The Tao Te Ching says that the Tao (the natural harmonious Way to live forever!) is "empty yet inexhaustible". That emptiness or stillness at our core enables everything to come to fruition without effort. Both Judaism and Taoism embrace the concept of an essential nature that is pure. Perhaps when we are tired, lacklustre and lacking in willpower it is because we have spent too long chasing the 'desires of our eyes'. Turning inwards and taking time out from other peoples fears and desires for us can help us tune back into what our hearts genuinely seek and in turn can reconnect us with the will power.
May we follow our fascinations and be full of abundant energy and diamond hard will.