In his book 'Jewish Wisdom', Rabbi Telushkin quotes a medieval Jewish thinker called Maimonides: "No one should, by vows or oaths forbid to himself the use of things otherwise permitted". In other words if it's allowed, you shouldn't say no. Excellent, three fingers of Talisker and one of your finest cigars please. Don't get me wrong, I'm not here to preach against Maimonedes, I'm fond of my vices. I like the occasional smoke and, having been raised in a Sefardi family where a meal from my grandma consisted of ful, chicken sofrito, mountains of rice and pasta, followed by a (very thorough) selection of pastries, I enjoy the occasional button-popper of a feast.
And yet as a health worker involved in the Jewish community I am unsure of my cultures' relationship with the body. I am not talking about a 'weight issue', although if I were I would for once be guaranteeing a torrent of comments! I'm not talking about trying to fit in with the Hellenistic ideals shown in every media stream in the world. I am talking about an awareness of the body as a means to achieve its full scope for spiritual and sensual awareness in the material world. But before we work out what that awareness might look, sound and feel like perhaps it is worth spending a little more time asking what it is we actually mean by 'our body'? It may seem a ridiculous question but it's one that philosophers have discussed for centuries.
This rather weighty sounding but massively interesting document explains how most Western medicine is based on one philopsophical view of the body whilst most forms of Holistic medicine take a different philosophical view. To summarize for those without the time or inclination towards words like teleological, phenomenon and depersonalization I shall offer my own (probably biased) summary: Your body has it's own mind and is also your mind. Your emotions, experiences, identity, feelings, thoughts and preferences - from which cake to eat (first), to who to sleep with - are all literally embodied.
Another description of what bodies are comes from the Taoist roots of Chinese Medicine: humans are a microcosm of the cosmos. Because of this, the rotation of the seasons - a movement called the 'five changes' (wu xing) - are observable through the functioning and interaction of the organs of every human being. Unsurprisingly in Taoism the ideal way of living is to be in harmony with the way, or Tao, of nature. As all good ideas are, this concept is echoed in many other traditions. A story from the Talmud (the Rabbinic commentary on the Old Testament) is told of Rabbi Hillel who leaves a House of Study to attend a bathhouse "to fulfill a religious obligation". When his students question him why attending a bathhouse is a religious obligation he responds "I, who am created in the image and likeness of God… [should] take care of my body". From this I understand that a Jewish person is obligated to care for their body because they were created in the image of G-d. So, if our body is either G-d, the entire universe, or at least our entire self, it becomes a little clearer why our relationship with it might benefit from a little more thought or at least attention. So what does it mean to take care of one's body?
The first way of tending to the body is by using it in a socially connected and caring way. Studies have shown that giving to charity and having a harmonious social structure prolong life and increase the chance of healing from even severe injury. The foundation of inter-personal ethics in Judaism is that humans are created 'tzelem elokim', in the image of God. As such, caring towards other human beings is as welcome to the creator as prayer and study. Likewise in Taoism individual and communal health (through effective governing) find their foundation in virtue.
However, morals in Taoism are seen as a departure from virtue. The Taoist seminal text, the Tao Te Ching, says, "Manners mean loyalty and trust are thin" (Ch34). This is because in Taoism humans are created 'perfect' and unlearn that perfection when they accrete 'un-natural' ways of behaving. To me this resonates with the body's physical accretions. 'Knots' in the shoulders, or anywhere in the body, are an accretion of the muscles' waste products created by doing work; these accretions limit the movement of muscle fibres and cause pain and lack of range of movement. Likewise manners or social mores when elevated above a virtue such as compassion can stop a person's range of movement towards other people, or groups of people e.g. in London many people would not stop for someone injured on the street as 'keeping your head down' is a higher social value, historically heterosexual people must keep a distance from homosexual people, etc. This relationship between body and soul is captured in Judaism in the saying 'im ain kemach, ain torah; im ain torah, ain kemach', which means that without physical sustenance there can be no spiritual growth, and without spiritual understanding there can be no appreciation of our physical existence.
The Islamic mystic Rumi says, “Everything in the universe is within you. Ask all from yourself”. I was talking recently with a client of mine, a highly intelligent professional woman who is conversant in at least 5 spoken languages. However, if she isn't concentrating she will rock slightly on her feet when standing. She has been known to fall down stairs, smash her head getting out of cars, and has inflicted a host of other painful wounds on her self primarily from a lack of body awareness. She may simply be poorly coordinated, or even have a minor neurological problem, but what is also apparent is that she spends a lot more time communicating with the cerebral and emotional aspects of herself than she does with her physical senses. So when we take Rumi's advice and "ask all from ourself" must not the answer depend on the language we ask in? To put it another way, how do we speak body?
Speaking body means: a way of communicating with the needs of our bodies. The body is the ground upon which we experience all psychic and emotional phenomena. Elation, sadness, awe, compassion, depression, hatred, lust and love are all experienced within our bodies' nervous system. Over time habitual patterns of emotion become embedded in physical habits - the angry red face, the hunched and defensive anxious posture. These messages are manifested in the body and when attended to and integrated they can help us develop physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Fans of Schrödinger's cat, Heisenberg and the observer effect will tell you that all the cleverest scientists these days are pretty sure that when we simply observe a thing it changes its nature. In other words there is no need to make change happen. It is unstoppable. When all you do is observe, change will happen. Simples.
To this end turn off your phone, put your tablet in stand by, unplug your pc and sit comfortably with your back in a rested position somewhere quiet and calm. Notice your breath… coming… and going. You may wonder when your breathing will deepen even further.
You can easily notice how your shoulder blades relax and, as you become aware of your breathing becoming more natural and calm, you can gently place your attention on your body.
Allow the bodies messages of cold and warmth, discomfort and comfort, tightness and looseness to enter your awareness, welcoming each like a old friend into your house. "Wassup shoulder blades, how you been?", "hi there lower back, it's been too long since we talked", "hey knees, come see my new loft extension, how's the love life?"
As each sensation enters your consciousness, you may become aware of how easy it is to simply notice and accept each in turn. Don't feel that you can't allow each one time and space to relax gently in the warm glow of your attention.
When you have spent as much time as you like spending time with each sensation you may gently return to your in breath… and to your out breath... to the awareness of your sitting position and the possibility of a nice cup of tea, or a coffee, or three fingers of Talisker.
Love it or Leave it
An article that trended a while back by Miya Tokumitsu opined that the 'creed' of do what you love (DWYL) devalues work. That for every Steve Jobs-ian Creative doing what she or he loves, there are 1000 or so disempowered minimum-wage grunts doing the heavy lifting. That DWYL is a bourgeois sentiment espoused by MacBook-wielding frappucino-drinkers and that nobody who actually works for a living can maintain such entitled sentiment. Well of course they can. And of course they should. In fact I believe that far from the sentiment being bourgeois, taken to its fullest expression, it is a revolutionary statement that's as Marxist as an iron bull.
I admit that a word like love is hard to define and, regardless of its definition, often at odds to the hard-nosed business world, but also to 'carey-sharey' professions (I know many physical therapists, including myself, who have to be very careful with the language they use on websites and marketing material in order to clearly separate themselves from those in the business of 'negotiable affection'). So love is apparently a word that has no place in any business or contractual relationships. But I have a question for the 20 and 30-somethings who are being told "just be grateful if you've got a job". Why be grateful for a job where no-one cares about you? You wouldn't settle for a relationship with a person who didn't care about you (hopefully). Transactional analysis understands human relationships as a series of transactions, the purpose of which is to receive 'strokes', or units of attention. Emotionally and psychologically we derive meaning and an understanding of our world from the reactions of those around us.
Admittedly romantic love or infatuation is not a helpful model of love to apply to business scenarios. This is because romantic love is about as robust as a paper trampoline - you may have noticed that in no rom-com ever has the budding lethario brushed his teeth in the bathroom while the woman of his dreams enjoys taking a poo. But what about Beatles-love? You know: "Love is all you need", "G-d is Love", "Love is all around us" (admittedly that wasn't The Beatles). What about love in its grandest sense - as the motivation for, and the power behind creation?
This summer I met the insanely awesome Professor Laurie Zoloth at Limmud in the Woods. Professor Zoloth directs the Center for Bioethics, Science and Society at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago. Her reduced biography covers more pages than my university dissertation. Main point of relevance: her service on the NASA Planetary Protection Advisory Committee (apparently that's a real thing!). When I asked her what being on a Committee that sounds like it's from a Joss Whedon movie entailed, she explained that she was responsible for "advising on the ethical issues around terraforming" - and probably wearing her knickers outside her tights. Now if you can think of any level of technological or creative power that exceeds the ability to reshape an entire planet then please, do share, because I can't. This is literally a Godlike level of power (if you believe the literature) and it's refreshing to see that the President of the United States of America considers there may be ethical implications to its use.
Now, if you wish, imagine that the twin strands of DNA are a metaphor for power and love. With every growth in power, true evolution occurs when there is a corresponding growth in the compassionate, or loving, application of that power; and here's where I finally explain why DWYL is at least a little bit Red. Marx argued that there is a fundamental conflict between the Bourgeoisie, who own and control the means of production in society, and the Proletariat, who simply sell their labour power in the market place of Capitalism. Because the proletariat are divorced from the fruits of their labour, he argued, there is no common interest in the work place. This is kind of the opposite of what happens in the best case volunteering projects, self-employment and, it could be argued, in the best families.
Parents, on the whole don't enjoy changing nappies. On the whole though they appreciate it as part of the wider picture. Self-employed people, Steve Jobs-ian Creatives included, don't enjoy vast swathes of their jobs - be it weathering the rash of predatory SEO-ranking cold calls, filing tax returns, marketing or any of the other parts of the job other than the one they're actually trained for. They do these things out of a belief that it benefits the purpose of their business. This could be because that self-employed people have what your 'average' workers may not: an identity that includes the work that they do. They are fulfilled.
When you're at a house party and you ask some random what they do, I think you can pretty much tell whether they enjoy their job from the way they tell you about it. Rarely does someone enthusiastically gush that they are in telemarketing. But what if the workplace could be transformed into an arena where, when the most menial, the most distasteful tasks need to get done, they are done with a loving intent? What would this do to us as human beings? Put aside for a moment the need to eat, what would happen if we refused to do work for any reason apart from fulfillment, whatever our needs were. Some people are fulfilled by succeeding in the material arena. They are genuinely happiest with big houses and shiny cars. And, critique of the whole Capitalist system aside for a moment, if it doesn't hurt anyone else, why not? But some people are not completed by those things, even if MTV tells them they should be. Maybe they need committed relationships or someone who pays their thoughts and feelings attention (possibly even approval). Maybe they need statues in their honour, power or the ability to shape the world around them in a tangible way. Maybe they need to care for others. Maybe they just need bacon . Whatever, it takes all kinds of kinds.
The sociology of education examines school as the training ground for work life. Educational guru, Sugata Mitra explains that the systems we use in the UK is a hangover from Victorian times. That nothing would get done if we all went around expressing what we really, really want (thank you Spice Girls), and that expressing and integrating emotions slows down productivity, is IMO also a fallacy passed down by repressed Victorians. And, to be frank Britain can't really slow down its rate of productivity much more without ceasing to attend work at all.
However, when education and work start to genuinely celebrate diversity it will have to acknowledge that we all learn differently and that we are all fulfilled by different environments. The quest, by the people for the people, to create work environments that actually get them what they most need is a radical transformation that is not just Marxist but utopian in its fullest sense.
The Prince and the Magician
Once upon a time there was a young prince, who believed in all things but three. He did not believe in princesses, he did not believe in islands, and he did not believe in God. His father, the king, told him that such things did not exist. As there were no princesses or islands in his father's domains, and no sign of God, the young man believed his father.
But then, one day, the prince ran away from his palace. He came to the next land. There, to his astonishment, from every coast he saw islands, and on these islands, strange and troubling creatures whom he dared not name. As he was searching for a boat, a man in full evening dress approached him along the shore.
"Are those real islands?" asked the young prince.
"Of course they are real islands," said the man in evening dress.
"And those strange and troubling creatures?"
"They are all genuine and authentic princesses."
"Then God also must exist!" cried the prince.
"I am God," replied the man in full evening dress, with a bow.
The young prince returned home as quickly as he could.
"So you are back," said his father, the king.
"I have seen islands, I have seen princesses, I have seen God," said the prince reproachfully.
The king was unmoved.
"Neither real islands, nor real princesses, nor a real God, exist."
"I saw them!"
"Tell me how God was dressed."
"God was in full evening dress."
"Were the sleeves of his coat rolled back?"
The prince remembered that they had been. The king smiled. "That is the uniform of a magician. You have been deceived."
At this, the prince returned to the next land, and went to the same shore, where once again he came upon the man in full evening dress.
"My father the king has told me who you are," said the young prince indignantly. "You deceived me last time, but not again. Now I know that those are not real islands and real princesses, because you are a magician."
The man on the shore smiled. "It is you who are deceived, my boy. In your father's kingdom there are many islands and many princesses. But you are under your father's spell, so you cannot see them."
The prince returned pensively home. When he saw his father, he looked him in the eyes.
"Father, is it true that you are not a real king, but only a magician?"
The king smiled, and rolled back his sleeves.
"Yes, my son, I am only a magician."
"Then the man on the shore was God."
"The man on the shore was another magician."
"I must know the real truth, the truth beyond magic."
"There is no truth beyond magic," said the king.
The prince was full of sadness.
He said, "I will kill myself."
The king by magic caused death to appear. Death stood in the door and beckoned to the prince. The prince shuddered. He remembered the beautiful but unreal islands and the unreal but beautiful princesses.
"Very well," he said. "I can bear it."
"You see, my son," said the king, "you too now begin to be a magician."
Qi (pronounced like the 'chee' in cheese) is found everywhere in Chinese medicine. Tai Qi, Qi Gong, Da Qi, Zhen Qi, Bin Qi, Wei Qi. Spend 5 minutes with an acupuncturist and you'll hear more qis than you would in school on photo day. But what is it? Well, as with most topics in Chinese medicine there are a few answers. My favourite? Qi is… everything!
The Tao Te Ching, a seminal Taoist texts explains that "from one came two, from two came three and from three came the ten thousand things [which means everything else]". The 'two' in this sentence is Yin Qi and Yang Qi, dark and light, female and male. In nature these two polar opposites can be seen to give rise to creation (thanks Mum and Dad!).
The more yin a thing is the darker, denser or colder it is; the more yang, the brighter, sparser or warmer it is.
Yin qi and yang qi govern everything and are relative to one another. Things are really only more yin or more yang. You can't ever get to the end of one or the other. When you do they transform into their opposite. That's why there's a black dot in the white half and a white dot in the black half.
With all this qi about it becomes necessary to rename some of it for the sake of clarity. The differentiation of Qi is similar to Water. Ice, water and steam is all H2O but if we just called it water we'd struggle to get our Baileys at the right temperature. Qi in the body can also be understood as a trinity called the 'three treasures': Jing, Qi, Shen:
Also from Yin and Yang come the qi of the wu xing or five phases. These are the five phases of nature and of the body.
In the body, the wu xing govern the organs of the body. Each organ has its own form of qi. These qis govern certain movements and functions of the body e.g. Liver qi is upwards and expansive, it governs the free flow of emotions, when blocked it leads to anger; Kidney qi descends and grasps, it governs Will, when blocked it leads to fear. Now here's the kicker: the definition of health is the movement between the phases.
From the diagram below we can see that the movement runs around the outside: 'the generating cycle' and as a 5 pointed star on the inside: 'the limiting cycle'. These indicate the two primal forms of change of growth and destruction. Where the body is allowed to grow without limits pathologies such as cancer develop. Where the body is limited without the ability to grow or expand constrictive disorders like stroke or COPD develop.
Change therefore is not just beneficial, it is essential to human health.
However, when most of us are confronted by change we feel anything but healthy! Instead our feelings may range to fear, lack of control and grief. This resistance to change, in some thinkers opinions, is the root cause of all dis-ease.
So, next time you feel fretful, anxious, scared, angry, resentful or generally insecure about change simply repeat to yourself:
"All change is good"The more this plays on your inner iPod the smoother and healthier the transition will become.