Choose life... or a cup of tea
One thing I can't stand is intolerant people
Getting to the root of it
The Big C
The Big C - PT 2
Same same but different
Love it or leave it
If you will it
The Prince and the Magician
Stay on the fence
What helps your medicine go down
The Big C - PT 2
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 are interested in giving directly to CLIC-Sargent.
Back to the top
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 extroverted 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)!
Back to the top
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 they asked members of the tribe "why was there no protection to stop the children walking into the fire". They were asked in return, "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 swirling mass in your chest centre
- As you reconnect to the breath feel it come and go deeply and calmly
- As you breathe out, visualise the swirling mass becoming smaller and smaller as it is absorbed into a pool of gold
- As you breathe in, relax
- As you breathe out, visualise the swirling mass becoming smaller and smaller as it is absorbed into a pool of gold
- As you breathe in, relax
- Breathing in and out, continue to see the 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.
Back to the top