Even if you don’t want to bother anyone, because it’s more of the same, and people’s patience is bound to give out.
Even if depression is a cliche, even if it’s seasonal, even if you have damn good reason.
Your brain, evolutionarily speaking, DOES have damn good reason for balking, this time of year. Psychologists say that situational depression is the body’s way of conserving energy when continued struggle would be counterproductive. Depression helps the immune system heal wounds and fight infections. And obsessively replaying Life’s Worst Moments in your head (‘rumination,’ for the less blatantly abject) helps you discover what patterns of behavior might be ripe for change.
And there can be a certain joy in wallowing. Because allowing yourself to feel ALL the feels can be the quickest path to moving through the crappy ones.
So if you are full of grief, anxiety, anguish, despair–I see you. Put on the Depression Playlist. Lie face down on the floor. Go to the woods, stare at the sky and weep. Write the words you will burn.
And trust that even in the darkness, you are held.
I’m signed up for a lot of Inspirational Mailing Lists. My inbox is inundated with a symphony of earnest healers and coaches, all urging me to “Slow down to speed up! Take some time for reflection! Don’t be busy for the sake of it!”
If they only knew.
Sometimes I think the systems I’ve created in order to structure my life as a single mother, owner of twobusinesses, and aspiring author threaten to overtake the work that they purport to enable. I work out, meditate, fill out my Six Big Rocks, journal, network, research, interview, write self-indulgent blog posts, host my spiritual community, and lie on my foam roller. It’s a wonder I get anything done at all, in the cracks between striving not to be busy.
So I often feel that these missives I send to you, my beloved friends and colleagues, are redundant in the extreme. “Take some time for self-care,” I urge you, over and over. Yeah, duh.
But then it occurs to me that there’s still a voice in my head telling me that I’m going to wind up a bag lady because I got a massage on my friend’s birthday, and took another friend to a Korean spa, the very next weekend. That my business is going to fail because I went to the gym after bus stop drop-off and didn’t get to the office until 11AM. That I shouldn’t start taking care of myself until my debts are paid off and I’ve got a six-month cushion in my bank account.
And that, I think, is because all the unspoken cues I’ve received since birth have been along the lines of “work harder, not smarter,” because otherwise, there’s no telling what will become of me. That’s the culture of the good ol’ US of A. That’s how Tim Ferriss can sell you lazy as a lifestyle while living the opposite.
Lack of self-care, in other words, is the norm.
So here’s something I learned from an Inspirational Coach. When your brain tells you something like, “I shouldn’t go get a massage, because that’s lazy, self-indulgent, and I can’t afford it,” stop. Ask your brain, “Is it true? Am I absolutely sure that it’s true? What is this thought giving me? Who would I be without this thought?”
I love to grocery shop. It’s grounding, sensual, creative and pragmatic. In a world full of anxiety, filling my cupboards with a week’s worth of healthy meals feels like putting a carabiner in the cliff face of my life.
But I’m also a professional health-news junkie. And now my local Superfresh is a minefield.
Top priority: fresh fruits and vegetables, of course. Except that I will no longer buy commercial tomatoes. Aside from the fact that they’re tasteless, odorless and have the texture of moist sand, they’re produced by slave labor under brutally toxic working conditions that lay waste to Florida’s wetlands. (This is not remotely hyperbolic. Read the book.)
I try to buy locally grown, semi-organic, in-season produce, without bankrupting myself by insisting on Organic Everything. But lurking in the back of my mind is the knowledge that I’m almost certainly buying something that was sprayed with something poisonous by a person making starvation wages, with no civil rights and no healthcare.
But then Andrew Sullivan posted about about the lives of factory-farmed pigs–how they spend their entire lives in cages too small to turn around in. About the body parts that get cut off of chickens because they’re crushed into boxes too closely to avoid injuring one another, otherwise. And then there are the super-viruses which are created when we routinely pump animals full of antibiotics, and the health risks that come from eating meat and dairy full of added hormones.
So pork and bacon are off the list, unless I know the farmer who raised the pig. Instead of getting big packages of cheap chicken, I get small ones that claim to be humane and antibiotic-free. I get frozen seafood on sale, closing my eyes to the problems of overfishing, ocean pollution and the potential disease and toxicity of factory-farmed fish. Occasionally, wracked with guilt, I grab a steak, but I never buy frozen processed food-like objects made of ground-up gristle or Pink Slime, even when my daughter points them out.
For it is a fact of modern life that any package which bears an adorable cartoon character on it contains more than 50% sugar, high-fructose corn sweetener, artificial coloring, trans fats, and any number of other nutrition-free, metabolism-wrecking substances. When I say to my four-year-old, “No, we’re not getting that, honey, because it’s poisonous,” I am not joking. I read toofreakingmuch.
I do not want to be a rigid, humorless hippie mom whose kid has never tasted candy. Neither do I want my child to grow up at increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver disease, obesity, kidney disease, autoimmune disease, and mental health issues (!). The twelfth time I have to say “No, you can’t have that, because it’s got TOO MUCH SUGAR,” I start to think that these goals are mutually incompatible.
By the time we get to the eggs (cage and cruelty-free, no antibiotics or hormones), cheese, milk and yogurt (organic? Not enough money in the bank this month–or this year, or this decade), I’m exhausted. I feel like a criminal. I want to grab the grocery conglomerates by the throat and scream, “DO YOU HAVE SOULS??? WHY, THEN, WHY????” Why is it so easy to obtain food that harms your body, other people, animals and the planet, and so difficult (and expensive!) to find food that nourishes and heals?
This, then, is why I braved the suffocating claustrophobia and militaristic organizational structure of the Park Slope Food Coop for nearly a decade. This, my friends, is why I joined the Kensington Community Food Coop when I moved to Philadelphia, and why I give a 10% discount to members. Food is important. It’s what we’re made of. We HAVE to spend our money on it, and money is a powerful force for good or evil.
And we can’t put the supermarket Pandora back in the box alone.
Turns out my crippled ankle wasn’t psychosomatic after all. According to my fabulous new podiatrist, I have posterior tibial tendon dysfunction, caused by the extra bone in my flat, flat foot torquing my gait and stretching the tendon until it is practically shredded. He says if I don’t wear this brace, I’m a candidate for surgical reconstruction of my entire ankle joint when the tendon gives way completely.
It took me awhile to assimilate this information.
Because it’s a lot easier to be the big, strong person who helps OTHER people with their frustrating pain and mobility problems. It is terrifying to admit that I don’t have all the answers, that I can’t fix everything, that most mornings I have a hard time negotiating my way downstairs, because my ankle won’t flex properly. It is hard to ask for help.
On the other hand, it’s great to be running up and down stairs again. A little support in the right place makes all the difference.
And knowing what I know about alignment, I am kicking myself for not recognizing the obvious. I was so focused on how the rest of my body was affecting my ankle, I failed to consider the possibility that the ankle was, in fact, the source of the problem. It’s a wonder my knee and hip and back aren’t completely wrecked; for this, I have yoga and foam rolling to thank.
The moment that mortified me the most was when my podiatrist said EXACTLY THE SAME THING to me that I say to my own clients. “You need to take care of this now, so you’ll be massaging people for longer.” Ouch. I can spend my life telling people that self-care is not a luxury, but am I walking my talk?
It seems to me that the people who give the most to others are often the least willing to give to themselves. Are you one of them? Think about how many people are depending on you, at your job, in your family, in your relationships. If something happened to you–like, say, you stopped being able to climb stairs, or walk more than 30 feet, or started getting regular migraines, or collapsed under intolerable strain–how would this affect them? How does it affect them when you’re exhausted, anxious and in pain? Are you more likely to become impatient, angry or detached?
And if a child of yours were forced to endure the same level of pain, stress and fatigue you put yourself through on a daily basis, would this be okay with you?
Recently, I had a four-hour layover in Times Square. I was taking the bus up north to visit family, one of whom is critically ill, and my stress level was seismic. Times Square is not a restorative locale at the best of times; after ducking into Le Pain Quotidien for an overpriced lunch, and unwilling to stiff a long-suffering waitress by spending the afternoon there, I found myself walking the streets in a freezing drizzle, lugging a leaden backpack, and overwhelmed by chaos.
Suprisingly good for a random choice.
Urban Outfitters provided no refuge; neither did H & M, Sephora, or any of the other glamorous shops in my path. The rain kept coming. By this time my nerves were so frazzled that I couldn’t summon up the will to obtain an umbrella; for me, chaotic environments are almost as obstructive as low blood sugar, when it comes to making sensible decisions.
Finally, in desperation, I ducked into a movie theatre and bought a ticket for the next available show. (It was ‘Argo,’ : highly recommended.) As soon as I was seated, in spacious, temperature-controlled darkness, I felt my blood pressure start to descend. By the end of the previews I was feeling human again.
A movie theatre, even during an action film, is the opposite of a chaotic environment. Every element of your surroundings is aligned to give you a singular experience; sound, light, temperature, furniture, even smell. Your nervous system is receiving a coherent set of stimuli, telling you–look this way, listen to this, follow this story, feel this emotion. You are taken on a journey, and all you have to do is receive it.
By the time I emerged from the theatre, I was able to tackle the rest of my trip with an organized mind. I’ve never been a Ben Affleck fan, but now I forgive him for looking like a frat boy.
This organized neurological journey is a big part of the healing process, and one often overlooked by modern healthcare systems, although this is beginning to change. It is one of the reasons that I design the Practical Bodywork treatment space with attention to every sense; color, light, smell, sound, temperature. Every element of the environment should send the message: ‘safety, comfort, welcome, peace.’
Macagno has been testing hospital design in a virtual-reality lab, and this work could bring us closer to that elusive hospital where, for example, no one gets lost. Other findings from the kind of research he is talking about may challenge what architects have practiced for years. For instance, hospital rooms for premature babies were long built to accommodate their medical equipment and caregivers, not to promote the development of the newborns’ brains. Neuroscience research tells us that the constant noise and harsh lighting of such environments can interfere with the early development of a baby’s visual and auditory systems.
Your environment can either promote well-being, or detract from it. This is a simple idea–perhaps so simple that it is often dismissed. Certainly it seems to have been ignored by a generation or three of big-box retailers, public schools, hospitals and urban planners. Not to mention physical therapy offices.
As many of you know, my brother-in-law, Leif, is currently battling a rare form of cancer called mantle cell lymphoma. He’s young, formidably strong and has one of the healthiest lifestyles of anyone I know. We went up to Maine to visit him last week.
It’s impossible to describe what it’s like to watch someone you love go through a terrible experience. As far too many of us already know, cancer treatment is not only brutal, but chronic; it just goes on and on. Coping with chronic is qualitatively different from coping with a crisis, like getting hit by a bus; getting hit by a bus has a narrative arc that you can move through. Getting cancer is like setting up house in the middle of a freeway.
Most of us, of course, want to be able to walk into a crisis and fix it. Feeling helpless in the face of suffering is thus one of the most difficult states of mind we endure. So what can we do about that? Here are a few suggestions.
• Never underestimate the healing value of mundane service. Wash dishes, clean floors, do laundry, run errands, cook a healthy meal. These tasks are particularly helpful by virtue of the fact that they are infinitely renewable, and can be done without thinking too hard.
• Just be around. Send notes, send gifts, make phone calls. They’re appreciated.
• Don’t say, “If there’s anything I can do, give me a call!” Instead say, “Would it be helpful if I brought a meal, did laundry?” People under stress are often too overwhelmed to be proactive in asking for help. Use your common sense, double-check, and listen to the answers.
…Foremost among these practices is the one known as tonglen, which means “taking and sending.” The practice is as follows:
In meditation, picture or visualize someone you know and love who is going through much suffering–an illness, a loss, depression, pain, anxiety, fear. As you breathe in, imagine all of that person’s suffering–in the form of dark, black, smokelike, tarlike, thick, and heavy clouds–entering your nostrils and traveling down into your heart. Hold that suffering in your heart. Then, on the outbreath, take all of your peace, freedom, health, goodness, and virtue, and send it out to the person in the form of healing, liberating light. Imagine that they take it all in, and feel completely free, released, and happy. Do that for several breaths. Then imagine the town that person is in, and, on the inbreath, take in all of the suffering of that town, and send back all of your health and happiness to everyone in it. Then do that for the entire, state, then the entire country, the entire planet, the universe. You are taking in all the suffering of beings everywhere and sending them back health and happiness and virtue.
When people are first introduced to this practice, their reactions are usually strong, visceral, and negative. Mine were. Take that black tar into me? Are you kidding? What if I actually get sick? This is insane, dangerous! When Kalu first gave us these tonglen instructions, a woman stood up in the audience of about one hundred people and said what virtually everybody there was thinking:
“But what if I am doing this with someone who is really sick, and I start to get that sickness myself?”
Without hesitating Kalu said, “You should think, Oh good! It’s working!”
A strange thing begins to happen when one practices tonglen for any length of time. First of all, nobody actually gets sick. Rather, you find that you stop recoiling in the face of suffering, both yours and others’. You stop running from pain, and instead find that you can begin to transform it by simply being willing to take it into yourself and then release it. The real changes start to happen in you, by the simple willingness to get your ego-protecting tendencies out of the way.
–Ken Wilber, ‘Grace and Grit,’ 247-49
This doesn’t have to be a big dogmatic deal. You don’t have to let anyone know you’re doing it. It’s a practice that may help you to be more present, less anxious, and less visibly freaked out. Lots of us want to ‘be strong’ for our loved ones, but what does that mean? Stoicism? False cheer? Pretending nothing’s wrong?
Tonglen meditation can help you stop ‘doing’ and move into ‘being,’ which is where authentic connection lives.
Now, I’m not going to name any names. Let’s just say that There are Those Out There who will tell you, with great fluidity and earnestness, that you are what you think. That “your attitude determines your altitude.” That changing your mind will change your life. They will tell you this in a spiritual context, in a relationship context, in a financial context, in a healing context.
And without naming names, or going into detail, I will allow that they are partly correct. The mind is an amazing thing. Recent research into the placebo effect indicates that the brain releases endorphins that alleviate pain even when youknow you’re taking a placebo. Your thoughts can actually program your body for health or destruction, as well as for many things in between.
However, many New Age healers take this paradigm a step too far. They will kindly, earnestly and abusively tell a sick person that they ‘created their illness,’ and, by implication, that they can cure themselves by will alone. This is the kind of thing that generates much antipathy toward New Age healers in certain circles.
“Heart,” oil on canvas, 36″x 48″, Stephanie Lee Jackson 2007.
Two things. First of all, the mind-body connection is not a one-way street. It is a feedback loop. As much as your state of mind can affect your body (psycho-somatic), the state of your body certainly affects your mind (somato-psychic). There are a few people with such naturally sunny dispositions that their minds carry their bodies on an effortless wave of health and prosperity, but those aren’t most of us. Most of us get crabby when we have a headache, let alone a major illness, and we’re not going to think our way out of it.
Second of all–and this is something I’ve only discovered after years of giving and receiving both thought-based therapy and bodywork–your body locks in thought patterns that can only be accessed somatically. The reason you can’t will your way out of an injury or illness (besides the obvious) is that most somatic memory lies beneath the level of conscious awareness. Trying to ‘change your thoughts to attract health and abundance’ when you have oodles of trauma locked in your tissues only creates guilt, frustration, rage and misery.
In my experience, undertaking a healing path is a continuous, spiraling journey. Entertaining a new way of thinking can help a lot. I have undergone surges of positive thinking which performed as advertised–they attract health, joy, abundance and fabulous new friends. However, I have just as often fought my own thoughts for decades, only to have an expert bodyworker fiddle with my arm, my solar plexus or my big toe and trigger an unforeseen breakthrough, both physically and psychologically.
Recently I interviewed a colleague, Kathy Fleetwood, about her Reiki practice. She lit up. “It’s changed my life,” she declared.
Last year, Kathy’s mother came down with something that doctors tentatively diagnosed as Parkinson’s. She lost weight, was too exhausted to work, ached all over, and walked with a shuffle and a stoop. Kathy flew home to the UK over Christmas, and gave her two Reiki treatments a day for ten days. A month later her mother was back to normal. The doctors couldn’t say what had happened.
Kathy’s brother is a heroin addict. He has come close to losing a leg from systemic infections. Kathy has given him Reiki when he needed a fix, and the cravings ceased for a day or two. She credits the Reiki for the fact that he still has his legs.
“It’s not coming from me, it’s the energy,” Kathy says. Reiki has been popular in the UK for over a decade; it is widely accepted there as a treatment for all sorts of ills.
Reiki is often described as a treatment that helps life energy to flow in a patient—an explanation not generally accepted by scientists. Barrie Cassileth, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, calls the energy theory “absurd” but says light-touch therapy can have a “great relaxing effect” on cancer patients “who are constantly poked, prodded and given needles.”
I have been using Reiki in my practice for over a decade. I cannot give any scientific opinion about its efficacy, because with the number of different techniques I use, it’s impossible to say which are getting results, or whether it’s the integration of therapies itself which is effective. So all I can offer are my observations, as distinct from my beliefs, which change from year to year. (Belief, for me, is a tool for enquiry–if I subscribe to this philosophy, what are its effects in my life? What about that one? Next year, let’s try Buddhism!)
Some phenomenae I have observed in my practice:
If I start doing Reiki while a client is talking, they usually fall silent, sometimes in the middle of a sentence.
If they aren’t talking, they often fall asleep. Suddenly, with a slight snore.
Their muscles will sometimes release along an entire fascial pathway, with an abrupt jerk or shudder.
They feel heat coming from my hands.
During or after a session, they report a cessation of pain and anxiety, profound relaxation, and the occasional vision, color display or ‘spiritual experience.’
All of this is mild, anecdotal, and easily explained away by the placebo effect. Any claim that Reiki is a cure for all ills is greatly exaggerated. But the placebo effect is an effect–it is the body’s response to the mind’s reassurance. All of our minds need more reassurance than we usually get.
What I have found is that Reiki imbues my work with reverence. It causes me to stop and contemplate the fact, as Kathy says, that I’m not the one in control here. It reminds me to observe myself, observe my clients, to acknowledge how little I know, and motivates me to discover more.
In other words, it’s a ritual tool for getting my ego out of the way.
So I have no quarrel with skeptics who dismiss Reiki as so much BS. I do not know whether I am channelling healing purple light through my palms, and I have no way to prove it one way or the other. I do know that we’re all going to die sooner or later, and Reiki won’t change that. The best I can do for my clients is to help them make their finite time more pleasant, and possibly more conscious.
What if Sullivan’s anxiety wasn’t merely an emotional side effect of her difficult life but the central issue affecting her health? According to research that Burke had been reading, the traumatic events that Sullivan experienced in childhood had likely caused significant and long-lasting chemical changes in both her brain and her body, and these changes could well be making her sick, and also increasing her chances of serious medical problems in adulthood.
As the New Yorker article indicates, research into the long-term effects of childhood trauma is in its infancy, but I see it every day in my practice. The body remembers everything that happens to it, whether these memories remain in the conscious, working mind or not. Chronic illness and unexplained pain correllates with past trauma, more often than not. The chain of cause and effect may not be scientifically mapped, but do we need to know the precise cause of a wound before we stanch the bleeding?