Finding peace and keeping well in times of uncertainty
Anyone else, like me, struggling with the negativity at the moment and feel it’s affecting their wellbeing? What can ancient medical philosophies and complementary approaches to health offer to help us today?
In October 2016, in another life working as a medical historian, I published an introductory piece to a collection of papers on the concept of ‘balance’ and the ways in which it has been used to explain the causes of bodily disease and psychological disorder.
In health and medicine, the concept has a long and fascinating history. Even those with no more than a cursory knowledge of medical history might be familiar with the theories of Hippocrates (c. 460 BC–c. 375 BC) and Galen (c. 129 AD–c. 210 AD), and the practice of humoral medicine, which was dominant in the West from Antiquity up until the developments in microbiology during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Central to humoral medicine was the notion of balance, or ‘equilibrium’, whereby health required the correct balance of the four humours: black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. Contrastingly, it was imbalance of these humours that was thought to result in disease.
During this period, mind and body were not regarded as separate, and it was accepted that the emotions profoundly influenced bodily functions. Lifestyle, or ‘regimen’, as it was known, was also central to prevention of disease. The balance, or regulation, of diet, exercise, rest and sleep, excretion and retention of fluids – and knowledge of one’s own constitution—were key to health. In contrast, ill-health was seen as a consequence of poor self-control and the cultivation of bad habits.
The eastern models of Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine also viewed (and continue to view) the mind, soul and physical body as integrated. Eastern medicine proposes that life energy flows throughout the body. Disease or illness are thought to emerge where distortions or ‘blocks’ in energy occur – healing is accomplished by restoring the energy flow to its harmonious pattern.
In the West, as new discoveries were made about anatomy and disease, medical focus moved gradually away from lifestyle and humoral medicine, towards what we now know as ‘biomedicine’. Throughout the twentieth century, confidence grew steadily in the new curative model – a model in which the mind has increasingly been understood to be separate from the physical body.
Despite the dominance of the biomedical model, many people now believe that medicine in the West has somehow lost its soul. While often miraculous in emergency situations, it reduces disease to the level of organs, body parts and microbes – prioritising treatment over prevention. In contrast, the role of a doctor in Eastern medicine is to keep people ‘well’, treating imbalance before it manifests as physical symptoms. Modern society has also undermined our use of intuition. Becoming civilised has largely taught us not to do what our bodies need us to do.
Journey of discovery
One morning in July 2018, I awoke exhausted and miserable. My project on the history of ‘balance’ was nearing its conclusion, yet, ironically, on a personal level, I felt completely unbalanced. As I have written elsewhere my soul had been pleading with me for some time to change my life. Within three months, I made a huge decision to leave my job and started an unexpected journey of self-discovery. A chance meeting with an old school friend one day, led to a conversation about complementary approaches to health, and ultimately, through 2019, to me training as a kinesiologist. Kinesiology is gentle and supportive complementary health practice, which helps clients identify and resolve areas of imbalance in the body. It combines modern, Western techniques, with the ancient Eastern practice of energy medicine. Kinesiology can help reduce stress, raise energy and help people clarify and achieve goals. It is also excellent for clearing emotional blocks and helping to foster healthy attitudes and habits. Above all, kinesiology focuses on maintaining health, as opposed to treating illness. Through this journey I have learned to appreciate the damaging effects of stress and negative energy and have begun to understand why I ‘burned out’, which was in part due to overwork and caring for elderly parents – but also a response to inhabiting a toxic environment.
Negative energy and the body
We don’t have to look far at the moment to see how divided and fractious we are as a society. Social media is on fire with views from polarised perspectives and the mainstream media largely exacerbates these divisions. Many of us have begun to limit the time we spend logged on to these platforms, but it is difficult not to engage with content designed to antagonise and inflame. However, we might all do well to remember that anger and resentment prompt physiological changes in the body, adversely affecting the functioning of the heart, digestion and (most importantly during a pandemic) the immune system.
The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle reminds us that the thinking mind (the ego) makes incessant noise. Almost everyone in Western society is engaged with incessant thinking and inclined to construct their sense of ‘who they are’ – their very identity, around their thought. When decisions and responses come from a place of stillness and ‘being’, he argues, the mind is a useful tool. However, the more we identify with our thinking, the more we stimulate strong emotions – reactions that prompt biochemical changes in the body. If we are not aware of this process, emotions eventually emerge as a physical pain or other bodily symptoms.
The guru Deepak Chopra, in Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, speaks of something similar, where we are inclined to be influenced by situations, circumstances, people and things (something he describes as object-referral) instead of identifying with our internal reference point – our own spirit. He reminds us that we ‘have become bundles of conditioned reflexes’, that are constantly being triggered by people and circumstances.
Alan Watts, the philosopher and writer, also warned us that we have allowed ‘brain’ thinking to develop and dominate our lives, out of all proportion with instinctual wisdom. In typically elegant style, he wrote: ‘We are at war with ourselves – the brain desiring things which the body does not want, and the body desiring things which the brain does not allow; the brain giving directions which the body will not follow, and the body giving impulses, which the brain cannot understand’.
During his journey through academia, Eckhart Tolle was originally convinced that the answers to all dilemmas of human existence could be found through intellect. However, after many years of poor mental health, he eventually disentangled himself from his ‘thinking mind’, arguing later that no great societal change is possible, until each of us change our internal state of consciousness. The mindset ‘we are right, and they are wrong’ is deeply embedded in our national and international discourse – and between us on an individual level. Both sides of any conflict are deeply identified with their own perspective – their ‘thinking mind’. In many parts of the world, people are not able or willing to accommodate a competing narrative. Tolle reminds us that both sides believe themselves to be in possession of the ‘truth’, and therefore regard themselves as superior. In contrast, we can all recognise someone whose functions originate from the deeper core of ‘being’. They are simply themselves, unassuming and natural, standing out as remarkable for being those things alone. Watts makes an important distinction between belief and faith. Belief has come to mean that ‘the truth’ is what one would wish it to be. Faith, on the other hand is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever that turns out to be. Belief ‘clings’, but faith ‘lets go’.
Stress response and the power of the present
Stress is caused by being ‘here’ but wanting to be ‘there’, remarks Tolle in his book The Power of Now. Most spiritual teaching and meditation practices identify the importance of being in the ‘now’. Many of us yearn for the end of the working day; for success; for a better job; or a bigger house. However, in the words of Alan Watts, if we focus on the past and the future, we miss the ‘now’; we have effectively had our noses in the guidebook for most of our lives and have never looked at the view. We build ever more grand material structures to provide material space, instead of providing space for living. Tolle warns us that if we are unable to access the power of ‘now’, emotional pain from the past can live on in us. He calls this the ‘pain-body’: accumulated pain – a negative energy field that can consume your body and mind. Look closely, he suggests, and you will see that your thinking and behaviour are designed to keep the pain going. As long as we construct our identity from the pain, we cannot be free of it.
Those of us working in energy medicine are familiar with the stress-response loop and its deleterious effects on the body. Increasingly doctors working within mainstream medicine also acknowledge the constant interplay between mind, body and environment. Dr Rangan Chatterjee (from the TV series Doctor in the House) and Dr Rupy Aujla (aka The Doctor’s Kitchen) are both examples of a new generation of GPs promoting a holistic view of health, alongside traditional methods. Dr Chatterjee’s recent book outlines the long-term harmful effects of stress and negativity on a wide range of bodily processes including: the heart and circulatory system, insulin and metabolism, hormone balance, digestion, and mood. In a recent podcast, Chatterjee discussed neuroscientific evidence which suggests that when a person’s identity or world view is challenged, a stress response is triggered, causing increased activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain that correlates with negative emotions. As a result, Chatterjee proposed that this is why social media is so toxic – when we construct our identity around our beliefs, we become imprisoned by them. Similarly, combining spirituality and science, Dr David Hamilton in How your Mind Can Heal your Body, demonstrates how anger, hostility and emotional pain play a role in many illnesses, predisposing us to coronary heart disease, obstructing healing and damaging immunity. In contrast, oxytocin, which is produced by feelings of love and kindness, leads to a reduction in blood pressure and a level of protection against heart disease. In a global pandemic, now more than ever, we need to restore balance in our emotions and attitude.
How can we help ourselves?
Empowerment is a theme that runs through ancient medical teachings and complementary health practices. As John Thie, the founder of Touch for Health kinesiology, reminds us, ‘You are your primary care provider’, best placed to assess lifestyle and wellness within the context of your own life. In complementary health, we are encouraged to cultivate the habit of bodily awareness – we feel negative energy and anger in our body, often around the solar plexus, heart or stomach. Awareness of a physical sensation can help us diffuse negative energy and locate a suitable response to a given situation. Watts reminds us that Western culture has disconnected us from the powers of instinct which govern the body. When we do not inhabit the body, we continue to be dominated by the mind. Once we disassociate with the mind (the ego), we can respond from a place of stillness – with clarity, unruffled by the ego. Chopra invites us to observe how, when we relinquish the need to convince others of our point of view, we gain access to energy that would previously have been wasted. From a position of stillness and being, we are more flexible and can begin to see others’ perspectives.
It is not surprising that spiritual teachings and complementary approaches to health also promote the importance of nature. The first of Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws is the law of potentiality, in which he suggests that spending time in nature enables us to sense the harmonious interaction of the elements, helping us to connect with the innermost essence of our ‘being’. For those of us in the creative industries, Julia Cameron, in her beautiful book The Artist’s Way reminds us that, in order to create, we draw from our artistic reservoir – our ‘inner well’. Over-tapping this well leaves us depleted and blocked. Filling the well requires rich sensory experiences: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Nature provides them all!
Being aware of our breathing also creates space, by diverting attention away from thinking. Those who practice yoga will be familiar with Pranayama – the formal practice of controlling the breath. Increasingly, the power of ancient and modern breath practices are being harnessed to improve health and relieve stress. Conscious breathing will put us back in touch with our bodies, helping us to stay present and quieten our thinking minds.
Tolle reminds us that our ‘egoic’ mind has become like a sinking ship. Humans are still in its grip, entangled with conflict, illness and despair. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has given us all time to recalibrate and reflect. I speak as master of none of these practices or philosophies, but as someone at the beginning of this journey, which was prompted by the need to seek a more authentic life. I am by no means immune to reacting from a place of pain and ego, and often find myself tempted to be drawn into heated debates. However, by asking, ‘what is going on inside me at the moment?’ I can now distinguish between ‘reaction’ and ‘response’. Over the last year, strange and surprising things have happened! I have had unexpected encounters with people on similar journeys; and my compulsion to over-work has dissolved. I have learned to welcome uncertainty, for, as Chopra reminds us, in challenging times are the seeds of opportunity for the creation of something new and beautiful.
Below are resources that I have found helpful. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.
Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way (1994)
Rangan Chatterjee, The Stress Solution (2018)
Deepak Chopra, Perfect Health (1990)
Deepak Chopra, The Seven Spiritual Laws (1996)
Cyndi Dale, The Subtle Body (2009)
Donna Eden, Energy Medicine (1998)
David Hamilton, How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body (2018)
Charles T Krebs and Tania O’Neill McGown, Energetic Kinesiology (2014)
Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now (1999)
Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks (2003)
Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth (2005)
Eckhart Tolle, Oneness with All Life (2008)
Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951)
Rangan Chatterjee’s interview with Brian MacKenzie
Mckenzie’s State breathing app
Three pillars of breathing with Patrick McKeown
Links from text above:
Introductory piece I wrote
Chatterjee’s link to paper on neuroscientific evidence: