image: creative commons CC0 license from pixabay
The theme for a recent ‘rhythm meditation’ retreat at my house was healing. Since my current preoccupation with meditation is mostly about learning to deal with stress more effectively, it was very much on topic for me. Healing (including self-healing) is also one of the five pillars of my preparing for collapse model.
If you trace the words for ‘health’ and ‘wellness’ back to their roots, they refer to the idea of wholeness and correctness, things being ‘intact’ and ‘as they should normally be’. There is growing evidence that prehistoric humans lived extremely healthy lives, so anything other than excellent health was an aberration, and the real danger to the health of early humans (apart from the obvious one of being eaten) was accident, not illness.
We modern domesticated creatures are not so fortunate. Most of us are subject to an enduring and growing host of illnesses, both physical and emotional, from an early age, attesting to our unnaturally massive numbers (living in unnatural proximity and anonymity), and living a very unnatural and unhealthy lifestyle — typically featuring lifelong poor nutrition, dangerous and unhealthy living conditions, recurring and debilitating trauma, and high levels of chronic stress.
As a result, we are all to some extent ill, physically and emotionally, and all engaged in a difficult, lifelong and often unsuccessful healing journey. How, then, might we best conduct our own healing journey, and help others along theirs?
Modern life offers us a limited number of strategies. We can help heal ourselves and support each other (or not) through self-awareness and self-knowledge, through letting go of our attachments, through loving unreservedly, and through empathy, compassion, giving and forgiving — ourselves, those we care about, and those we are in community with. But many, for a variety of reasons, will probably never acquire the capacity to do these things.
Some may find value in conversational ‘talk therapies’ or by spending time in wild places. Some will be fortunate enough to be surrounded by love, and have the freedom to rest and recover. Others will find at least temporary relief through distractions and diversions from their pain and dis-ease.
I’ve been thinking lately about what other ’therapies’ are available to us for our lifelong healing journeys. Although I’m increasingly dubious about how much ‘free will’ we have to change our beliefs and behaviours, there are some therapies that would seem to be available to all, if only we are aware of them and willing to try them. Here’s a list of some of them that have worked for me:
- Monitor, Measure and Self-Manage: Every body is different, and one great failing of the medical profession (both mainstream and alternative) is believing that you can generalize enough about bodies and minds and illnesses to be able to reliably prescribe medicines to someone based on very limited knowledge of the symptoms afflicting them. A more effective method, in my experience, health self-experimentation and self-management, entails keeping very detailed records of exactly what you eat, what medicines you use and what you do each day, and tracking how that correlates with your self-assessed state of health. After I was diagnosed with severe ulcerative colitis, and was (mis-)prescribed steroids, I began a daily tracking of what I ate, what medicines and supplements I consumed, what exercises and other activities I undertook, and how healthy I felt subjectively a day later. Using Excel, I then ran a regression analysis, and ceased the medications, supplements and activities that did not correlate highly to a feeling of health the next day or two, and quickly homed in on a regimen that worked brilliantly for me, and continues to do so a decade later. All it takes is a reasonable skepticism about traditional health care approaches and some confidence in your own health self-management capacity (you can get a math geek to show you how to do the regression analysis, the results of which are pretty easy to understand).
- Move: Our bodies are meant to move. Dance, running, qigong, hiking, yoga, martial arts, traveling in a moving vehicle, all fulfill something in us. Movement makes us stronger, fitter, happier, more resilient, more agile. It opens us.
- Play: By this I mean having fun without pressure, competition, rules or deliberate purpose. Play relaxes us, fuels our imagination and creativity, makes us more aware and present, and increases our capacity to learn, to relate, to adapt and to be kind to each other, and to just be.
- Have Sex: Including solo sex. Sex, and the cocktail of chemicals it releases, heals us, both as a stressbuster and as a form of meditation. It’s important that it not be used as a form of abuse of our partners, and important not to feel guilty about indulging in it, no matter how the social norms of the day judge it. It’s also important, I think, that it not be too tied up in unrealizable fantasy, when it becomes disconnecting instead of connecting. But beyond that, the more, and the longer, the better.
- Touch: Massage, hugs, caresses, sleeping together, all kinds of physical contact are good for us. Touch releases many of the same chemicals that sex does, and some additional ones too. It is essential to forming deep relationships and building trust, and establishing our sense of who we are.
- Dive into Water: Both the feel and the sound of water, whether it be from a bubble bath, a hot tub, or an ocean, connects us to where we intuitively feel we belong. We lived in water, after all, before we were born. Our bodies are mostly water. Loren Eiseley once described the body as “a way that water has of going about, beyond the reach of rivers.”
- Bathe in Warmth and Light: You’ve probably noticed how animals gravitate to sun patches (and even heating vents) as a place to sleep. We intuitively love the healing warmth of a heating pad, a hot water bottle, and the sun. The energy of sunlight and moonlight and lamplight can fill us with resonant emotion: joy and wonder and a sense of calmness and peace.
- Immerse Yourself in Music and Art: Waves of sound can ‘move’ us just as waves of light can. Many depressed people find that music has the power to pull them “down and then out through” from a prolonged depression. Music and art affect the same parts of the brain as the emotional and tactile phenomena that release “pleasure chemicals” in our bodies. Music and art are “re-presentations” of reality that can re-connect us to each other and the world.
- Less Stress and
- Better Nutrition: In The Triple Helix, scientist Richard Lewontin writes: “The most plausible explanation we have [for why infectious disease rates fell in Europe long before modern drugs were invented or the agents of infection were known] is that during the nineteenth century there was a general trend of increase in the real wage, an increase in the state of nutrition of European populations, and a decrease in the number of hours worked. As people were better nourished and better clothed and had more rest time to recover from taxing labor, their bodies, being in a less stressed physiological state, were better able to recover from the further severe stress of infection. So, although they may still have fallen sick, they survived. Infectious diseases were not the causes of death, but only the agencies. The causes of death in Europe in earlier times were what they still are in the Third World: overwork and undernourishment.” If overwork (i.e. chronic stress) and undernourishment (not the same as hunger) are the main causes of illness, what might we do to reduce them? How might we each reduce the stress in our lives and improve the nourishment of our diets? For some this might mean withdrawing from unhealthy relationships, or finding some way to quit their high-stress jobs. For some it might mean learning to make simple, affordable, meals from a wide variety of micronutrient-rich ingredients, instead of relying on “fast” and processed foods. For each of us the road to less stress and better nutrition will be something different.
As part of my ongoing health regimen, and especially at times when I’m feeling unhealthy, I try to incorporate as many of the above therapies as possible each day. Even when I’m feeling great, these therapies often deepen my sense of joy and pleasure, help me to be more present, equanimous and at peace, and make others happier in my company.
May you be whole, as you should normally be. And may we live long enough to see a world where this is once again the way we normally are.