Learning To Heal Ourselves

Learning to heal yourself is a long game. Even normal healing of simple wounds involves some training; a toddler falls and grazes her knee, mum or dad applies cleansing water, and special salves to protect from infection, and loving hugs to heal the sense of injury and pain, so that the body’s natural ability to heal itself can proceed with maximum efficiency. As we grow we learn to take care of these little injuries ourselves, ands all the other natural afflictions of our lives; viruses, food poisoning, burns, sprained ankles etc. 

Healing processes are going on within us all the time. Our immune system is constantly busy, cleaning up our cells, identifying toxic substances and neutralising them where possible, tackling the task of maintaining our wellness, whether we support it with a good night’s sleep and a natural diet, or pressure it with late nights and poor nutrition. 

We discover how to heal ourselves from these self-inflicted injuries too – extra water after too much alcohol, an early night after a late one, a day of light eating after a night of indulgence. We learn to moderate our drinking and our sugar intake; as we get older we naturally notice a shift in our ability to recover from these sorts of insults to our health and we struggle to achieve a balance between hedonism and good sense, with varying success. We do not usually have much trouble accepting responsibility for managing ourselves in this way; most of us recognise that we have a duty of self-care, and are able to postpone some of our gratifications accordingly.

As we age we begin to experience changes in our health that develop slowly over time. We are encouraged to hand over responsibility for our recovery from these stealthier conditions to our medical professionals and the enormous pharmacological industry that has built up around them. Life-threatening conditions such as cancer involve complex interventions with toxic components that a cancer survivor will also need to heal from, once the immediate threat to life has receded. These are odds most people are prepared to take – at least the first time around. 

Much of what changes within us as we age has become medicable; we are prescribed a drug designed to counter an internal imbalance, but each drug comes with its own imbalance-triggering properties–popularly referred to as ‘side effects’–and over time many people find themselves on a selection of drugs without anyone knowing for sure how a particular individual’s system is handling the cocktail of substances they are ingesting daily.

Many doctors are in revolt–particularly in America where the pressure to medicate even very young children for an escalating number of “conditions” and “syndromes” is truly shocking–but anyone who attempts to challenge the narrative of ‘illness = medication’ comes under heavy fire from both well-meaning sceptics and the many vested interests who are by no means so well-intentioned. If you think I am exaggerating you might like to look into the relationship between medical research, media manipulation, and the might of the sugar production industries, or the history of nicotine marketing.

As Gabor Maté put it earlier this year, healing the self has become a subversive act. He is one of the most vocal in the campaign to open the eyes of the medical profession to the significance of stress as the major underlying factor in a wide range of conditions. Here’s a quote from the article I mentioned:

“A study done two years ago showed the more episodes of racism an African American woman experiences, the greater her risk for asthma. You can’t explain that only in individual biological terms. And we’ve known for a long time that the more stressed parents are, the more likely their children are to have asthma. Interestingly, the common treatment for asthma is to give people stress hormones, to open up the airways and reduce inflammation in the lungs. Stress hormones happen to be the most common prescription across all medicine.

Whether you have an inflammation of your nervous system, or connective tissue, or skin, or lungs, or joints, or intestines, you are prescribed cortisol, which is the stress hormone. And yet we never ask ourselves in medicine, “Gee, we give you stress hormones for everything. Is it possible that stress may have something to do with this illness?”

Healing As A Subversive Act – Gabor Maté, 2019

Obviously I have a personal angle, because here I am rather boldly offering to teach processes that I have found to be healing for myself. Most people naturally associate chronic ill health with old age, however for a large and growing number of us health issues begin much earlier in life. We are the allergy-sufferers, the food sensitivity types, the chronic infection / chronic pain / chronic anxiety / chronic fatigue people. Some of us injure ourselves easily and heal slowly; some of us experience the abrupt onset of random pains in our joints or muscles for no apparent reason; some of us have migraines; some of us had “growing pains” in our early years, or regular bouts of tonsillitis, or stomach upsets, or just cold, after cold, after cold. Some of us had asthma very early, some of us developed it as adults.

The majority of us have problems that can be described as “auto-immune”, i.e. the self under attack from the self, and very few of us experience effective long-term relief from drugs alone, although mostly that is all we can be offered. Consequently often we are also the medically adventurous, ready to try new behaviours, new diets, to explore the many alternative or complementary approaches available, because we know the medications we are on will not be good for us in the long term.

The problem with these medications is easy to explain. How do you stop your immune system from attacking you? Easy, turn it off! Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti the right medication at the right time. Steroids are hugely valuable, steroids save lives–they have certainly saved mine, probably more than once–but the long term effects of switching off the system that usually takes care of all those little, regular, ongoing healing processes are multiple, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and thinning bones, to mention just a few. There’s a full description of steroids and their effects in this article on the Mayo Clinic website.

So people like me are the people that start learning to heal themselves earlier in life. We have usually looked up hypochondria* and realised that it is not what we are dealing with… 

“Hypochondriasis or hypochondria is a condition in which a person is excessively and unduly worried about having a serious illness. An old concept, its meaning has repeatedly changed due to redefinitions in its source metaphors.”

…from Wikipedia

…We have usually tried a few new ways of eating and discovered how useful an approach changing your diet can be. We often drink plenty of water, we may take a few supplements–we have often had very positive experiences with Vitamin D or Magnesium (in liquid form)–we cut down our alcohol intake sooner that our peers, we gave up smoking, many of us feel better when we don’t eat gluten. We do our best to get enough sleep, and, when we feel up to it, enough exercise. Many of us cannot cope with the exercise regimes that are most often recommended, and find ourselves more drawn to movement – to dance, Tai Chi, the gentler forms of Yoga, and Feldenkrais, my speciality.

…and slowly we realise that none of that is quite enough. We are not a ‘body’ alone, a biological machine that just needs the right kind of maintenance. We are a complex system, with emergent properties, including really mysterious ones such as consciousness, and the ability to create something brand new entirely within our own imagination, astonishing capabilities that are usually referred to simply as the ‘mind’.

While the recognition of our inherent “oneness” is not new or controversial for any but the most committed Cartesian Dualists, the language that dominates our scientific culture has serious limitations when it comes to discussing this complex self. We can only express our single indivisible nature with awkward combinations such as ‘body-mind’ – or ‘mind-body-spirit’ for the bravest and most oblivious to scorn. Using these terms can get you labelled a ‘quack’ in the blink of an eye. Much of the knee-jerk dismissiveness that abounded in any public discussion of alternative health a few years back only began to make sense to me once I realised that for many commentators the term ‘holistic’ was inextricably conflated with ‘pseudoscience’. I am pleased to say that looking up holistic medicine on Google today is a much more encouraging experience.

We heal ourselves all the time, even from very severe conditions, with or without medical intervention. There’s a lot of evidence out there, the vast majority of it anecdotal and totally impossible to prove. Many of us have personal experience of an unusual or unexpected “spontaneous remission” whether our own or someone else’s, but the most regularly researched experiences of healing through a change in thinking are due to the ubiquitous and highly consistent Placebo Effect. This is an enormous subject so I won’t attempt to cover it in one post. The article attached to the link is pretty comprehensive, but if you don’t have time to read it you might like to know that placebo responses are not simply “all in the mind” and have been demonstrated even with something as complex as knee surgery.

I will simply say this, that there is clearly enormous benefit to be had in thinking that you are going to get well. It therefore makes sense to look for ways to encourage your positive expectation of healing, and if you are wary of generating false hope you might also like to consider how much evidence there is for avoiding the negative effects of false despair.

The previous post is an introduction to my Quintessensual Consciousness course – in the future I plan to teach it live online as well as at my venues in London. The details of the course and the workshops in August are here.

I am going to pause here with this discussion of one way some kinds of sickness occur. This is one of the many talks he has posted on YouTube that I cannot recommend highly enough.

None of what Gabor has to say surprises me, but I love how clearly he explains the connections between our attitudes to ourselves in relation to those around us, and our health – hopefully in a way that even the most self-sacrificing among us may be able to hear…

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