Choose life... or a cup of tea
What are the biggest decisions in your life? Your mobile phone tariff? The best route to get to work this morning? Probably not. Probably the biggest decisions in your life are the ones about who you are, the way you treat other people, who your partner is, and what you are doing with your life; but big or small we make choices all the time. Minute to minute, second to second, we are reviewing options and discarding some in favour of others. Some of this process is unconscious, represented in our dreams and day dreams; some is subconscious, as a result of our conditioning in childhood or our response to the messages in our cultures; some is made by our conscious minds (or at least appears to be). As common as choosing is, it is equally common to feel that we don't have a choice in something; that we are trapped. Very often, illness, or a persistent condition such as muscular pain, makes us feel trapped.
Jeffrey Yuen, a Taoist master and acupuncture teacher, is erudite (and generally mind-blowing) in his explanation of how disease, or dis-ease, is a failure to adapt to change. At the bottom of it all, the choices we make are based on the most important things of all, who we are and why we are here. Change challenges us at this deep level even when the change is effecting something seemingly trivial or mundane. It is therefore unsurprising that we are so resistant to it! Our work and our lifestyle represent Us, and We are damn important people. We have worked hard, paid our dues, faced, and overcome hardships of all kinds to be where we are today. We deserve to… be loved unconditionally, make tons of money, live forever, etc.
When we have achieved the symbol of who and why we are, we justifiably want to hold on to that winning situation; and then… something changes. We grow older and our bodies can't do what they used to, we grow apart from friends and possibly even spouses, or they move the bloody road-works on the A406, again. And how does that make us feel? Scared, angry, sad, confused, shocked, nervous, manic, depressed, or all of the above.
When I treat Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) and clients ask me "what can I do to make it better" I (helpfully) say "stop doing the action that's causing it". This hardly ever goes down well. In response I usually hear ,"I can't afford to leave my I.T. job", or, "playing piano gives me too much joy" or "xyz". There will almost certainly be elements of truth to the statements made to justify continuing the activity that is causing harm but if "xyz" is leading to a physical disorder then I suggest that spirit, mind and body are not all in agreement!
So why when we are adults do we think we know it all? We are so certain about our abilities and our knowledge that, even when the evidence of our own bodies contradicts us, we refuse to let go of our certainties. In Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) there is a saying that the "map is not the territory". The 'map' refers to the model of the world we have built inside our heads. This model includes an image of ourselves. We may be bold and dashing, beautiful and talented, villainous and despised, or some combination of all these utterly contradictory archetypes. Our image of ourselves may even occasionally coincide with other people's images of us! But this 'map' is not the whole truth. It is a series of beliefs that we have built to make sense to ourselves of our environments and the things that happen to us.
Lao Tzu, one of the original Taoist philosophers is credited with the quote, "When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be". Hippy drivel? Possibly, but when we learnt new things as children we did exactly that. We let go of pre-conditioned understanding and abilities and gained deeper insights and more powerful abilities. And, in areas that we enjoyed and were well-educated in, we did it instinctively and without (too much!) resistance.
The Tao Te Ching is a seminal text of Taoism. The philosophy found in this text takes shape in Tai Chi Chuan, an ancient martial art and health practice, not least the concepts of flexibility and 'the path of least resistance'. When fighting a Tai Chi practitioner who is attempting to remain unmoved by an opponent, will relax and 'sink' as fully as possible rather than 'holding on for dear life'!
Taking as a metaphor I am suggesting we can stick to our values, goals and priorities by relaxing and remaining flexible. Difficulties arise when we mistake our jobs or the other things that make us feel fulfilled, successful and happy as the end and not the means. Change will almost certainly occur around these means but other means are always available, provided free of charge by the cosmos (this is definitely hippy drivel but I also believe it to be true).
What follows is a reworking of a meditation/energy work from the Barefoot Doctor in Barefoot Doctor's Handbook for the Urban Warrior: Spiritual Survival Guide (I strongly suggest you buy the original!):
Sitting quietly and comfortably (full lotus NOT necessary!) become aware of the rise and fall of your breath.
Observe your thoughts as they come and go. Keep returning to an awareness of your breath until you feel it coming and going 'unhitched' and regular.
Now bring you mind to your tummy. Feel the tummy fall with the out breath and rise with the in breath.
Become aware of a point about 2 fingers below and 2 fingers inside your body. This is your lower tan tien or hara (Chinese or Japanese).
Imagine plugging in a petrol pump filled with energy into this point. Watch the litres pile up with every in-breath (don't worry it's free). When you are brimming with energy simply return to the breath and enjoy the warm glow for a minute or two.
Now bring your mind to the centre of your chest
Imagine the happiest day of your life. Allow the smile you are now wearing to spread to your heart centre - a big golden smile getting bigger with every in breath.
When you are wrapped in your golden smile and feel as happy as you want to then return to your breath.
Now gently bring to mind your goal for the upcoming day/week/lifetime. Be as gratuitous as you want!
When you have the goal in mind visualise yourself after having achieved it. See how you are standing/sitting. How do you feel? Whereabouts in your body is that feeling? How do you smell? Form as multi-sensory and 3D an image as you can.
Bring to mind a symbol, picture or any other kind of thought bubble that represents your 3D image.
Please note - the cosmos is much better equipped to deliver to you when you don't try to control others. As such concentrating on how you feel and look will deliver much better results than just imagining yourself with Scarlett Johansson/ Ryan Reynolds. Likewise symbols are how our higher intelligence communicates with us, the cosmos does better with symbols than rational left-brain specifics.
Hold your symbol in mind, now infuse it with your golden smile until it's humming. Finally, fill it with the petrol from your lower tan tien and watch it rocket out of the top of your head to be received with love by an abundant cosmos.
Sit and wait patiently for all you have asked for to be delivered direct to your lap.
One thing I can't stand is intolerant people
In many of our jobs or personal relationships we encounter negativity in many forms. Recently I worked for an organisation where that negativity took the form of 'bitching'. People complained about others regularly, for not doing something fast enough, well enough, 'right' enough. It wound me up. So what did I do when I was no longer around these people whose negativity was wearing me out? I bitched. Oh the irony. So I thought I'd write a post about how Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can help us deal with frustration and how being a nice person is good for you.
The Chinese cosmology thinks of the universe in terms of 5 Elements (as opposed to Western systems which tends to think in terms of 4). They are: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Each of the 5 Elements in Chinese Medicine 'govern' other categories (amongst others): an Organ, an emotion, a season, and a virtue. Organs in TCM are not just 'things'. The Organ is also its function and its relationships as well as simply its physical form. Each Organ is also considered to have a psychological/emotional aspect (called its shen or spirit). Certain psycho-emotional conditions show when an Organ or organ-relationship is out of balance.
So let's take the element of Wood as an example. Wood's Organ is the Liver. The season it is associated with is Spring which is a time of assertiveness and growth. Wood is 'selfish' or 'self-centred' in the way that plants and children must be self-centred in order to reach a secure stage of development. When our outward movement is blocked, assertiveness can turn to frustration and aggression; it is for this reason that Wood's associated, pathological, emotion is Anger. As well as a pathological reaction when out of balance the Liver also has an associated virtue that is spontaneously generated when our mind and body are in balance. That virtue is Kindness.
So in a moment of anger how can we bring relief to our squashed and overheated Liver s? The energetic action of the liver is 'up and out'. Activities that mimic this form of energy (e.g. kick boxing, sprinting, dance) will bring temporary relief to the Liver. Substances that utilise the Liver's functions e.g. alcohol and recreational drugs also bring temporary relief but at the highly likely cost of long term damage. The other way to calm the Liver is not to give it more of what it likes (explosive activity) but the opposite. Stillness and expansiveness. These are much rarer commodities in our high-paced lifestyle but have a more profound and long lasting positive effect on the Liver. As an example, the Liver benefits from swinging movements and the colour green. In other words go for an unencumbered walk through a forest.
Likewise, in our relationships, creating an explosive resolution of the conflict may make us feel better short term. However in relationships the 'having out' of an argument may make one person feel better but is likely to leave the other feeling mauled and in the mood for retribution. The emotional equivalent therefore of the walk in the forest is responding with Kindness. Kindness also mimics the up and out energy of the Liver. In this case, we move up of our self-regard and out towards others. Kindness may appear like passivity but extending kindness to others (and to ourselves) can restore a feeling of being in control rather than victimised by the strong negative feelings of others.
What follows is a meditation used to generate kindness to others by building on the qualities we have already generated for the sake of our loved ones. I hope that using it brings you peace, happiness and balance.
[I think this is a Metta Bhavana meditation used in the Buddhist tradition, but not being a practising Buddhist I have no idea if this is case or not. Comments and corrections welcome].
To practice this technique, it helps to have someone in your life that you love. It also helps if you have someone in your life that you strongly dislike, or feel any other negative emotion like jealousy or disgust towards.
1. After sitting quietly for a minute or two imagine a person for whom you feel love or any other strong positive emotion: admiration, respect, etc.
2. Become aware of the tangible feelings thinking about this person causes to arise in your body; where are you feeling them (chest, head, throat, etc.)? and what is the nature of that feeling (warm, tingly, soothing, etc.)?
3. Now imagine a person for whom you feel negative emotions. Without self-judgement become aware of the sensations arising (as in point 2. above) - what do you feel and where do you feel it in your body.
4. Return now to the person you 'love' and the positive sensations they cause to arise. Imagine transmitting those feelings to the person you 'dislike' - an aid to imagining this can be visualising that person sitting in your heart, or sending a colour of light towards that person (one that represents peace or harmony to you).
Getting to the root of it
Clients often present with a multitude of sins! Although they might have come for a treatment for a bad shoulder, they often bring with them a hefty 'back catalogue' of aches, pains and conditions. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners are expected to treat both the 'branch' and the 'root' of the condition. What then are the root causes of disease and how do we treat the source and not just the manifestation?
An example of just how strong this connection is can be found in the book 'Pain'; in it the author describes how in war, survivors of mutilating injuries have recorded lower pain levels than those with less severe wounds. The author reasons that because those with less severe injuries would be returning to the front, a horrific and terrific prospect, their brains flooded with chemicals that increased their pain . Those more severely injured soldiers that were to return home to safety produced bio-chemicals that reduced their pain. Anecdotally this is also evidenced by clients who report that their symptoms "disappear" when on holiday in relaxed surroundings away from their regular responsibilities. Together this evidence suggests that our attitude towards our environment is what instructs the body to produce chemicals that relax or stimulate us and this is supported by findings from the discipline of psychoneuroimmunology. The connection between our bodies and our experiences is further indicated by our language. When we use terms such as "I couldn't shoulder the responsibility" or "it's back-breaking work". We are indicating, consciously or subconsciously where we are experiencing, and potentially storing, our emotions towards our environments.
This relationship between emotion and physicality is present at birth and both positive and negative habits are usually formed in 'kidulthood' and concretised as an adult. In secondary school, during the awkwardness of adolescence, we manipulate our bodies to gain acceptance and/or dominance. For example, depending on a young person's self-esteem and the culture of their peer group, taller teens may stoop to subconsciously 'fit in better'. The media emphasis on 'perfect bodies' also has teens 'working out' in ways that will compromise their natural growth during their teen years.
The use of postural muscles are used throughout our lives to display dominance and submission in group situations (think office politics). These are often gender specific such as rotation and tilt in the hips to accentuate femininity and over extension in the chest to accentuate masculinity. As well as overt changes we can also store emotions that are literally inappropriate in a work place such as anger or disgust. In clients who are unable to challenge managers or colleagues overtly due to sensibilities in their work environments there can be pronounced tightness in the gluteal muscles (these are the muscles that give our bottoms it's curved shape). I speculate that storing tension in the back of the body is a safer, less visible place than the front of the body which are observable face to face, such as gritting one's teeth or tightening pectoral (chest) muscles . This is not quite as cut and dried as the example implies, but you get the gist.
Disease is clearly experienced physically - through our bodies, our breathing, our skin, our nervous systems and so on. However the relationship between body and mind is such a strong one that the condition of our mind can impact massively on the way we experience disease. Another word for disease, or dis-ease, is discomfort. Being totally (physically and emotionally) comfortable in our bodies, past the age of 7 or so is far rarer than one would think. Or, as the Czech would have it "If you wake up in the morning and feel no pain, it is to be feared that you died in the night". Cheery. So how do we get (and stay) comfortable in our own bodies?
Our bodies are hardwired to react to threats. Evolutionally, this has been a good thing! However a curse (and blessing) of the human condition is our imagination; our ability to think things through before and after they happen. Unfortunately our bodies have a hard time distinguishing between what is actually happening and what we imagine to be happening. Think about a conflict and your heart will speed up, breathing will become more shallow and adrenaline will start pumping through the body. Conversely, thinking happy thoughts will generate endorphins that relax the body. Therefore reuniting our mind with our bodies is the first step to being at peace physically as well as mentally.
Firstly however I would suggest patience and acceptance of whatever physical and emotional states we are in right now! Our bodies have taken on the shape they have to protect us as best they know how. There's no point being angry with ourselves, it only furthers our disassociation from our bodies. Put on a bit of weight? Good. That's the body giving you a layer of insulation from the British weather (or the chill your boss sends up your spine). Getting that rounded shoulder look? Fair enough given the hours you spend at the computer doing your best to meet the rent. But take note, if you do want to change physical and mental habits it is necessary to commit to frequent and regular actions. Small steps will get you there but only if you take enough of them. To create lasting change in the body it is necessary to do it daily - be it exercise, meditation, affirmations or whatever it is you are doing to create change. It can be for as little as 5 or 10 minutes but it is important to create genuine, undisturbed special time and space for you to be with you - body and mind.
So, how should you change? First of all there's no should! It totally depends on what type of person you are. For example many people find Tai Chi too slow. Now, even if you are the kind of person who would benefit from slowing down a bit, if you kill yourself out of boredom before you've calmed down then we've not really made progress. In my opinion most forms of exercise unite body and mind through the breath.
'Hard form' or aerobic exercises will benefit cardiovascular and respiratory systems and strengthen wei qi which is the body's first defence against air-born pathogens (i.e. it keeps you more resistant to disease). However it can be harder on the joints and so, after a certain age - which depends on your previous level of physical fitness - I believe it is worth concentrating more on soft form exercises.
Meanwhile stretches develop physical flexibility which can enable us to 'roll with the punches' on a psychic/emotional level. 'Soft form' stretches such as tai chi or chi gong are good for the cardiovascular and respiratory system as well as the connective tissue, or fascia, of the body. Fascia is connected to the autonomic and parasympathetic nervous systems which govern automatic processes such as breathing and digestion as well as the bodies ability to heal.
Ideally, you'll do both (and meditate!) Fortunately I don't have to describe running here and other of my posts will deal with ideas and techniques around meditation so for now I will leave you with a classic Qi Gung posture that is rumoured to be the only one you'll ever need!
Zhan Zhuang (Jam Joong)
Place your legs shoulder width apart with feet facing forwards. The space between your second and third toes should face straight ahead this can make you look a little pigeon toed but that's the Chinese straight for you
Bend the knees slightly. When you look down you should still be able to see your toes (stomach permitting)
Feel the crown of you head suspended as though from a string. Tuck the chin in slightly and feel the back of the neck open.
Sit down. As though sitting on a bar stool with your pelvis tucked under slightly.
Feel your spine straight and your head, perineum (the bit between genitals and anus) and the point midway between your feet all in a straight line.
Let your hands float up to mouth height, palms face towards the body and slightly upwards (as though there is a coil in your arms). Hands are lower than shoulders. Elbows are lower than hands.
Relax the shoulders and BREATHE!
Try to practice this once a day building from two-three minutes up to ten-twenty minutes and although you (probably) won’t live forever you will almost certainly experience an increase in physical and emotional resilience.