Symptom Management

coldLiving next door to my two year old granddaughter has been an enlightening experience. She is darling. She is sweet. She is delightful. And she is a walking germ factory. I had forgotten that the parents, and in this case grandparents as well, get to experience the wonder of the way children build healthy immune systems – by catching every virus imaginable. Most of these they pass on to family.

In the midst of my second cold of the past two months, I became fascinated by the process of illness. I know that there is a complex body/mind connection in illness; that the body can help heal the mind and that the mind can help heal the body. I was practicing with training my thought process to support my body and had just written down a healing affirmation: My body is efficiently removing the toxic effects of this cold and restoring itself to health. Immediately I had a coughing fit, a sneezing fit, and a nose that flowed with mucus. “Some efficiency,” I thought, “so much for affirmations!” Then I realized that my body responded exactly as it should to such an affirmation.

Symptom management is an interesting thing, sometimes necessary and helpful but often counter to the body’s processes and natural instincts for healing. Sneezing, snuffling, coughing, and even fever are the ways the body sloughs off toxic material. Too much symptom “management” actually interferes with this healing activity. I will take something to ease a sore throat and help me sleep, but if I can avoid over-medicating myself I will be more in line with my body’s wisdom.

Much of our psychological and social suffering is the same – natural symptoms produced by the toxicity of a conditioned mind and culture. Without the perception of suffering, the disease would surely kill our spirit quietly and quickly. The person who is dismayed is the person with a healthy psychic immune system. It may be the attempt to manage our psychic symptoms that has exacerbated the disease to fatal proportions in our species. Our conditioned mind has developed a series of toxic “viruses” – existential fear and anxiety and the accompanying grasping, distraction, blame, and violence. Rather than let these symptoms lead us to true self-examination and the discovery of the root causes of our personal and social ills, we put all of our energy into economic symptom management – accumulation, diversion, distraction, blame, violence, and ultimately warfare over resources to insure the continuing economic ability to manage the symptoms.

Teachers such as Jesus, Lao-Tzu and the Buddha emphasized simplicity, not because of the intrinsic virtue in such a practice, but because simplicity allows the symptoms to emerge from repression and denial and begin to work their difficult, but ultimately healing and joyful, process in our spirit. By letting our fears, anxieties, angers, and sufferings be available for mindful awareness, we find that they actually lead to our healing and happiness. But by seeking to manage them through clinging, accumulation, and distraction, we keep the disease active for a whole lifetime – working its ravages in our bodies, minds, and cultures.

I am ill with far more than a simple cold. Semi-consciously I have been seeking to cooperate with my spirit to heal this illness. The more my habitual management tools have fallen away, the more severe the symptoms appear. Rather than sinking into despair over this, I see it as a call for a new approach that will bring actual healing rather than a medicinal cover-up job. It is hard work, as I have said before, but only by seeing clearly through all the illusions I have constructed will I find the ultimate joy and freedom that is my birthright.

Toxic Thinking

toxicI am learning about depression from the inside. Despite its destructive and enervating qualities, the experience has fascinating aspects. I notice the physical nature of the process in a profound lack of energy, especially as the day turns into afternoon. Aspects of life that seem manageable in the morning gradually turn into major difficulties by 3:00 in the afternoon, and into overwhelming obstacles by evening. I wait for bedtime so I can shut down the toxicity of my mind for a few hours.

I usually wake up willing to make coffee and sit with my morning writing pages. As I write and sip my hot coffee from the heavy white mug labeled, “Flatiron, Jerome, AZ,” I am able to watch my mental processes as they spill out my fingers onto the page. In this way I can put my attention on my thinking processes while my mind is fresh and focused. Even when the morning seems somewhat dim, by the time I am finished with three pages of writing I am usually able to see how to reframe my thinking into a more positive framework.

When I stop writing and go about the day my attention tends to shift and no longer notices the flow of toxic thoughts. They circulate in the background of my psyche, just out of my conscious awareness. By the time a few hours have passed these thoughts have done their work on my mood and energy. The evidence for the effect of thoughts on mental and physical health is overwhelming. Thoughts trigger countless chemical, hormonal, and organic reactions. We have, perhaps, 30,000 thoughts each day and most of them, in our culture, are not particularly health-enhancing.

One aspect of countering toxic thinking is helping the brain chemistry in its production of serotonin. Stress and aging decrease serotonin. Sunlight enhances its production. Exercise enhances its production. Rest and self-care enhance its production. And certain pharmaceuticals enable serotonin to remain circulating in the brain longer. These strategies provide a basic biological/physical support for treating depression.

A second, and perhaps even more important, tactic in dealing with depression is developing the ability to bring attention and mindfulness to the thinking process. This practice is difficult to perfect because our conditioned mind is not trained to be attentive and mindful of its own processes. Toxic thinking is usually the default mechanism for the idle brain. When we are not depressed the mind has a certain resilience which injects more positive elements into the thinking process; seeing options, alternatives, support systems, and broader views of reality. When depression settles in, however, toxic thinking – always in the background – combines with the physical aspects of brain chemistry and together they overwhelm the resilience.

Sometimes the toxic thoughts are overt and one can almost hear them echoing in the chambers of the mind: It’s too much for you. You made a big mistake. You’ll never make it. You’re not strong enough. Who do you think you are? What have you done? You should be ashamed. You’re a failure. Your life is meaningless. Disaster is just around the corner… on and on the repetitive, vicious, poisonous voices drone; overtly and covertly they drone on. An alert and non-depressed mind can somewhat balance these thoughts – though they are toxic to all of us even at the best of times. Our brain/body system is continually struggling to balance the effects of this truly poisonous process.

As I work with my own depression I am using all the tactics at my disposal: sunlight, exercise, rest, self-care, a mild SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor that helps the serotonin remain in circulation), and a commitment to the practice of attention and awareness. Qigong provides both exercise and mindfulness of my body’s energy. Walks promote the flow of energy but I have to be careful to keep them shorter and slower so as not to bring on extra fatigue. Continuing to write during the day helps me see the processes. And I am reminding myself to make every moment a meditative moment – not in the sense of seeking serenity but simply cultivating the ability to notice what my thinking is doing while I’m going about each little ordinary activity. I am beginning to consciously catch the toxic thoughts more often. This doesn’t always stop their poison from entering my system, but it lessens the dosage a bit. I am able to say to myself, “That’s bullshit. Stop poisoning me. I wouldn’t have a person in my life who talked to me like that and I won’t have you! Get the hell out!”

I have accepted depression as an essential part of this “Desert Experience.” I have, in part deliberately and in part unknowingly, withdrawn most of my life-long support systems – systems that have maintained my conditioned mind and business as usual for decades. I’m experiencing the natural consequences of this withdrawal and I trust that I will come through to a new and profoundly transformed phase of my life. If you have experienced, or are experiencing, depression (and our number is legion!) you know the difficulty. But trust the process; take care of yourself; rest; get the help you need; and pay attention. It’s an important time, perhaps the most important time of our lives.

Resting in the Desert

restingThe frenetic activity of the past four months has come to a halt and I am coming to terms with the stress and loss that my wandering path has brought about. Freedom, simplicity, and joy remain as the guiding current in the river of my life, but the stream has gone underground for the time being. The starkness of the high Sonoran Desert has brought me an unexpected gift – an unavoidable period of fatigue and depression.

Our home on wheels is parked, “docked,” to use motor home language, at my son’s house in southern Arizona. The weather is lovely. The family is supportive. And I am absolutely exhausted. Plans to roam about the area have been shelved and replaced by plans to read lots of books and take frequent naps. Quixotic notions of slaying windmills have faded for the moment and I find my mind slipping into a spacious place of healing and recovery.

I had underestimated the psychological and physical effect of leaving everything behind. I don’t regret it at all, for I can sense the spaciousness that is now slowly taking shape. It remains, however, a profound loss of all familiar things, places, and routines that are associated with “home.” These things cannot be immediately and off-handedly replaced by an entirely different way of living without a grieving process.

Continued stress greatly reduces the body’s production of Serotonin, a neurotransmitter among whose complex functions, is enabling the ability to feel optimistic and enjoy a sense of well-being. Aging, wouldn’t you know it, also slows down the production of Serotonin. So this aging, tired, and depressed man has been clearly told by all of his advisors, seen and unseen, material and spiritual, to Rest! The adventure is an authentic and important one, but for the next two or three months… Rest your body and mind!

It is very helpful for me to be able to frame the coming months as a “resting in the desert” experience. Many spiritual traditions see the desert as a place of cleansing and renewal. One returns from the desert having experienced the burning away of the extraneous and inauthentic. The desert is not a place of bustling activity, it is a place where roots must burrow deep for water; where rest occupies the greatest part of the day; where stillness brings insight; and where beauty is found in hidden places.

So, this is me… resting. I might not write as often for a bit, but will do so when it seems congruent with the healing process. My invitation to you is to pay attention to your own stress and fatigue. It builds up silent and hidden, repressed by the need to produce and be active. These are stress-filled times. Make rest and healing a non-negotiable part of your life.