I have realised there has been a painfully long absence since my last post, I'm sure your lives have been bleak and miserable without them. I know that most of the people who read this also have their own blogs so I'm sure you can sympathise. There is a point at which inertia overwhelms. The effort to blog becomes overwhelmed by the feeling that I have nothing to say (if only that were true!). But then, the other day I heard one of my favourite rabbis give a drash, a teaching, about exactly this phenomenon, although he was talking about talking. The message of his lesson was that exactly when talking has come to an end, exactly when dialogue grinds to a painful, crushing halt, that is the time to open your mouth and continue to speak. So that's what I'm gonna do.
In Chinese medicine every orifice is seen as an opening, or vent, to an associated organ and it is the mouth that is the orifice of the Heart, specifically, the tongue. The condition of our spirit, or Shen , that effects our ability to express ourselves verbally (why else is an important conversation between you and your closest friend called a 'heart-to-heart'?).
My first thought about this is that "man is not meant to be alone". Men and women are social creatures. We live in a highly socialised structure where there are a million and one ways to communicate. And while our methods of communication have multiplied beyond counting the value and meaning of our communication is not something that is often communicated about! As the Dalai Lama said,
"We’ve been all the way to the moon and back.
But we have trouble crossing the street to meet the new neighbour.
We built more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever, but have less communication."
So what does talking that is good for the heart sound like? Is it a matter of dissonance or harmony? Is it language that flatters and placates? Is it brutal honesty? Both Judaism and Buddhism place a high value on speech that is 'Right'. Right Speech is one of the eight aspects of the eightfold path, which leads to the end of suffering. Judaism talks about abstaining from Lashon Hara (lit. Evil Tongue). Both of these religions highlight some qualities of how we can use speech in an ethical fashion.
Abstain from lying about another person. But also, avoid talking about others in any context. Although one might expect only a lie to cause harm, if we praise another it can make others feel envious towards them or encourage them to call into doubt our positive opinions about that person ("they can't be that good"). Every Organ/Element has an associated taste. In small amounts these tastes benefit the organ. However when in a pathological state the Organ will crave an abundance of the specific taste. The taste associated with the Heart is bitterness and in Chinese Herbal Medicine many heart tonics contain bitter ingredients. This got me thinking - how often do we speak bitter words and what are we expressing about our expectations when we do so.
A Chasidic teaching reads: "The Rabbi of Kobryn taught: When a person suffers he should not say 'That's bad!' Nothing that G-d imposes on man is bad. But it is alright to say 'That's bitter!', for among medicines there are some that are made with bitter herbs". A secular example of this teaching is the saying "everything happens for a reason". Any experience we go through no matter how uncomfortable or painful or 'unfair' is an experience we can take meaning from. It can teach us something about ourselves and our world. In this way bitterness can be used 'medicinally' to open our heart to the world around us and a deeper knowledge of who we are. Conversely 'becoming bitter' about our circumstances can close the heart and close us off to opportunity or joy, the emotion of the Heart organ in balance. Another Chasisidic teacher, Rabbi Moshe, said: "In this day and age the greatest devotion - greater than learning and praying - consists in accepting the world exactly as it happens to be". If bitterness is a denial of reality, acceptance is an embrace.
Regarding speech with others, Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, said, "Deep listening is the foundation of Right Speech. If we cannot listen mindfully, we cannot practice Right Speech. No matter what we say, it will not be mindful, because we'll be speaking only our own ideas and not in response to the other person". Listening deeply is not so easy! We are all (or is it just me?) fascinated with our own stories. How often do we offer a "oh yeah that happened to me" as a response to others' stories, or a "I know just what you mean, that happened to me too"? Often we listen only until we have 'solved' the 'problem' being presented by another and then present them proudly with that solution, sometimes even interrupting their thought process as we do so. Obviously they would be mad to ignore our enlightened views but that's exactly what they do. The next time we see them the same stuff is happening. If only they had used our perfect solution! Nancy Klein in Time to Think talks extensively about the power of listening without contributing. Her belief is that everyone has their own 'solution' to their 'problems'. They just need to be prompted to think about and around their 'stuff' and given the time to think thoroughly, without interruption.
The Heart in Chinese Medicine is the place of perfect still awareness. In fact it is the yin of stillness that then leads the heart's outward yang activity. If the Heart is not able to rest in stillness it becomes fraught and over full. And yet silence between people, especially in our extraverted Western culture can be interpreted as socially incompetency. Not that sitting with another's negative emotion is always comfortable. If someone is miserable or angry it is hard not to attempt to 'cheer them up' or get them to 'look on the bright side'. However the theory of yin and yang tells us though that no state can persist indefinitely. Allowing a state to run its full course can sometimes be all that is necessary; where as attempting to reframe someone's experience simply adds fuel to the fire - what we resist persists!
In order to be still enough to listen to another person's whirlwind universe it helps to be able to still our own hearts and simply to observe with compassion and listen with genuine interest. An exercise to clear the ears out and temporarily still the monkey chatter mind is as follows:
Beating the Golden drum
Pull the bottom lobe of you ears up and against the ear holes of both ears with your thumbs. Fold the top lobes of your ears over the bottom lobes and hold closed with the index fingers. Beat the middle fingers against the index fingers creating a tinny beating in the ears.
Continue for 30 seconds to a minute while breathing deeply.
Listen perfectly to the sounds of the cosmos (including your fascinating friends)!
I loved Elie Jesner's article about Yom Kippur. I always enjoy reading his interpretations of texts, not least because they give me access to sources way beyond my level of Jewish education! In this article I think Elie intelligently highlights the separation between internal and external, between spirit and matter whilst remaining aware of the problems inherent in dualism. I especially enjoyed his comment that "we may ascribe [our objects… our possessions] – or our lack of them – magical and redemptive powers, to believe that our next material acquisition will be the one which really makes the difference, which really changes the quality of our lives." (and I think we have a tendency to ascribe these powers to people also!).
However when Elie suggests that, "Man’s spiritual condition is a deeply interior affair... [which]... leaves the impression that our feelings can be located somewhere, that they have a physical location, and hence, perhaps, a physical constitution, a physical cause. This is of course not the case.", I would like to offer a different viewpoint. Whilst agreeing that there are more than physical causes to our feelings, I also think that feelings do very much have a physical location and a constitution. I would assert that, asked the right questions, most people will be able to locate their feelings, along with a sensation or perhaps a sense of movement attributed to that feeling. When we feel anything, the tool which we use to do so is our body, specifically our nervous system. A feeling is called a feeling specifically because of its tactile nature. Feelings exist and are experienced within us, 'internally' if you will.
Eli asks "Where do we feel fear, angst, joy or liberation? " and asserts "We do not feel them in a place, we simply feel them". Personally, I am very aware of where I feel my emotions. For example, when I am liberated I feel lighter and I feel that lightness from my chest extending outwards from my shoulders and the crown of my head. Joy I feel more in my chest as a irrepressible bubbling. This specific location and sensations are most likely unique to me. Feelings are congruent with our physical state. Breathing, muscle tension, cardiovascular rate, eye dilation, oxygenation and many other physical processes are all affected by and effect our emotions.
Emotions and feelings1 occupy neurological and chemical (endocrinal) and physiological space. Being, a body worker I am familiar with watching states of mind/heart play out in the body. The sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and repose) nervous systems are easily observed during treatment. For example, a client who is scared of needles coming for their first acupuncture treatment will be demonstrating fear as some or all of: a pale face, sweaty palms, shallow breathing and strain in the voice. After they have received treatment they tend to have some of or all of: reduced muscle tension, rosy cheeks, a deeper voice and more dilated pupils.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the holistic relationship between mind and body is taken very seriously. Organs, as well as their physical capabilities and roles, have attributed to them emotions: fear, anger, loss/grief, joy, etc. TCM understands that emotions have energetic movements . Anger for example moves our energy upwards and outwards, while grief's movement is inwards and downwards. When emotions are blocked from moving through and out of our body; stopped from being realised, acknowledged, expressed and released then the qi (energy) of that emotion stagnates in our body, which is the physical framework for our emotional experiences. Over the long term emotions and feelings create change in the body. The body type (and health) of a chronically angry person is very different from that of a humble, happy, anxious, arrogant or gentle person. I believe that emotions have a location and a constitution because I can get a sense of person's emotional state just by watching them move and observing the colour of their face.
Of course, being human we don't even need to be experiencing the event in the present moment to observe a neurological, physiological and endocrinal responses to it. Simply remembering or imaging the event is enough. In Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) our central and peripheral nervous system is understood to be an intelligence that uses all 5 senses to create a map of our world. In this map we use symbols to represent our friends, families, co-workers, lovers, grocery shops, big screen TVs and everything else of importance or irrelevance to us. Our Neurological Levels, a 'hierarchy of needs', further organises this map according to our:
NLP is used extensively in all sorts of change work, from corporate psychology to working with young offenders. Eli explains that "we are given assurance that [Yom Kippur] Day itself will help us, will change us. [Although] I doubt that a day alone could ever change us, without any input or effort from our side." Interestingly, change in the neurological levels has been found to always make change in levels further 'downstream' (hence the inverted pyramid) but changes will not always move upwards. For example changing school, house, or spouse will not always make us behave differently or even believe something different about our self, whereas realising a new sense of self-esteem (the level of belief/values and possibly even identity) may, for example, make us realise what we are actually capable of, or where or how we want to be.
So, when Eli says "they become the definition of what it means to be us. They become our being" in NLP terms he is speaking to the neurological level of identity. Feelings can be all-consuming and when we identify with them to a strong degree we can almost disappear inside them. In NLP terms though this is called conflating the levels of behaviour or environment (internal though it may be) with identity. We are not our emotions - to my understanding many basic rituals of Judaism are designed specifically to teach us this e.g. wearing tallit, saying shema. Furthermore, we must be able to separate between our feelings and our behaviours for the principle of shalom bayit and other ethical principles of Judaism. Awareness of the physical 'symptoms' of emotion is one of the most powerful tools I have been introduced to in my mispent youth (and now my mispent old age!) to use whilst "pursuing peace". Knowing what the warning symptoms are of, for example, my anger or frustration does not always stop me acting like an arsehole but at least I am a marginally more conscious arsehole. Once conscious, I am more able to then accept responsibility for my actions and to ask for forgiveness from them. Of course because I behave badly (level of behaviour) it does not make me a bad person (level of identity) , which is why I appreciate Eli's point that we can always revisit our inner core of purity.
I pray that Yom Kippur has been a chance for all of us to reattach to our purpose here on Earth, our relationship with one another and with G-d. That we had a chance to spend time appreciating those parts of our identity that enhance our skills, capabilities, medicine and relationships, and that the changes Yom Kippur has bought about inside us lead to ever more skilled behaviours and fun-packed internal and external environments.
There may be a distinction between an emotion and a feeling. A feeling then can be an intuition , where as an emotion is perhaps something more concrete - as my wife said "I wouldn't have an emotion that someone was about to call!". For the purposes of this post however, I am treating emotion and feeling as semantically interchangeable.
The Big C - II
Cancer , aka the Big C, once again strikes into the heart of the Silk household. This time the young grand-daughter of a close family friend has contracted leukaemia. Talking about the sad news over dinner, my wife, a faithful reader of my blog, asked "how does a girl that age get Cancer, I thought you said it was all about lifestyle". And she's right - most cancers are understood by Chinese Medicine to be a matter of accumulation and stagnation. Young people rarely accumulate and, certainly not before the pressures of teenage-hood, do their energies stagnate. Medically speaking therefore, in young people cancers are a whole different story .
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM ) energy or qi can be categorised into
a) post-natal qi
b) pre-heaven qi.
Post-natal qi is energy put into the body by what and how we eat and what and how we breathe. It is here that accumulation and stagnation rule supreme - over-eat and then hold your breath: sounds like your average adult office lunchtime.
Pre-heaven qi is our inherited energy and our essence, called jing. It is analogous to the coal that fuels the fire of our activity. Burn too bright and too fast and the fuel will run out. Over-work and, to the great delight of my acupuncture class, ''over-sex'', will drain our resources. Jing is 'delivered' from the parents' Kidney to the Kidney of the foetus [Organs in TCM are understood in terms of energetic function and relationship as well as 'simply' the structure and form of an organ - they parallel but are different from a Western Medical understanding of organs]. From then-on the child's development is dependent on the strength of that jing. In western terms this could be considered as a link between genetics and health.
In Chinese Medicine Kidney has several functions. They govern head hair, develop the skeletal structure and support the immune system. The Kidney's relationship with head hair serves to demonstrate their role in aging. As we age, we use up jing and our hair turns white (or a commanding salt and pepper in my case). In the case of leukaemia, a disease of the bone marrow, Kidney is relevant in that it "produces marrow". Although the 'Marrow' of Chinese medicine has no direct translation in Western medical terms its function is to produce red blood cells in the heads of the long bones and develop a robust skeletal system. It is partnered with the Lungs to create Wei Qi (Defensive Qi) that fights off pathogenic invasions and people who sneeze on the tube - this is an immune system function.
According to Stephen Gasgoigne, a British medical doctor who trained in TCM in Shanghai, cancer is all about the immune system. The progression of a cancer from primary to secondary sites is dependent on the quality of a person's immune system. As well as Kidney qi playing an important role in the immune system there is a form of qi in the body known as zhen qi or upright qi. This qi can be observed in the posture of an individual. Simply put upright qi keeps us on the straight and narrow. A person who is 'down in the mouth', slumped over or 'pressed down by life' has compromised zhen qi.
Many people with cancer believe in the importance of maintaining a so-called P.M.A. (and struggle with all that that entails) and evidence does suggest that we heal better if we are feeling positive. However, to maintain a true balance of mental health there also has to be dialogue with the parts of one's self that are aware of the negatives of a life with cancer. I mention the relationship between cancer and zhen qi more as a treatment protocol rather than offering unasked-for and trite advice to people who have cancer. As cancer treatments sometimes target the very resources a patient may need in order to recover and move into remission it is important to use acupuncture to help the patient become as resilient and healthy as possible.
The language used in describing and treating cancer is often aggressive and problem focused. We have "malignant" tumours. Malignancy comes from the word malign. Although in pathology terms this is understood to mean uncontrolled growth, malign can mean "disposed to cause harm, suffering, or distress deliberately". When asked to draw a malignant tumour and a benign tumour clients often draw the malignant tumour with a vicious face. It may be anthropomorphism but we are all predisposed to personalise the experiences we have. If we believe there is something in us that is vicious and wants to cause us harm it is unsurprising we want to "war against cancer". The cancerous cells though are part of us. If we go to war, we go to war against ourselves.
I donate regularly to Cancer Research (in fact some of my best friends are cancer researchers!). I hold in the highest esteem the professionalism, learning and compassion of the oncology units in the UK and I very much doubt that if my child or anyone I was close to, G-d forbid, was to get cancer I would react in a different way. I would want them treated, and treated immediately, by the best experts in the world but in this blog I am simply reflecting on whether this knee-jerk reaction would indeed be the very best thing for that person.
Cancer is terrifying. The idea of being eaten from within, or however you visualise it, is a scary demon. According to a Course in Miracles we only have two emotions: love and fear and if we act from one we cannot act from the other. Fear can make us seek authority. It has been observed countless times in the voting patterns of a frightened society that we seek the certainty of the extremes. Cancer, possibly because of the fear it generates, is treated as a medical emergency and interventions are powerful and speedy. As already mentioned many of these treatments drain the immune system that is central to recovery from cancer.
As a therapist I would feel very uncomfortable treating anyone for cancer who was not 'in the system', who was not having a course of chemo or radio or whatever therapy an oncology doctor believed was best for them. I believe in this context acupuncture can only be complementary. I don't personally believe 6 tons of goji berries is going to magically transform you into a cancer-free entity. But I do believe in re-integration. I believe that if we can radiate peace and acceptance to the parts of us that are hurt and suffering and if we can focus on how we would like to feel and look instead of fighting how we don't want to look and feel then we spend our time in a happier place even if we are there for no longer than if we spent it fighting and suffering.
As a therapist my aim is to hold an image of the patient as strong and healthy, robust and happy. I choose to focus on a positive objective rather than putting my attention and energy solely on the cancer. Finally, I would like say a massive thank everyone who recently sponsored me for a skydive for CLIC-Sargent Cancer Care. Please click here if you would like to donate to my personal fundraising page or here is you are interested in giving directly to CLIC-Sargent.