A health crisis is an opportunity for great changes to take place. It is nature's way of letting us know we have been out of balance too long. In natural health philosophy symptoms are understood to be the body's innate desire to return to balance showing itself. This can be in small ways such as a fever to "burn up" pathogens or gastro intestinal symptoms following an inappropriate meal or combination of foods. The vital force of the body "throws off" the toxins and the balance of homeostasis is restored.
Serious diseases, though, present a much more dramatic situation. Some people would say it's too late for philosophy and reach for the most effective drug or surgery option. There are many cases where that is the sensible route, but a lot goes on once a person enters the role of "patient" and begins to work with numerous health care professionals. Not all of the events surrounding a diagnosis of something like cancer or heart disease are about the physical body. Physicians have been observing and survivors will attest that states of mind play a crucial role in the outcome of treatments. These days, mind-body medicine, integrative medicine, positive psychology, psychoneuroimmunology, health psychology, bio-psychology, mindfulness and wellness are increasingly well researched fields with findings that tend to support the long established folk medicine, traditional healing and naturopathic understandings of health.
Life is a constant process of transformation. Cells are continually transforming as we grow, develop, heal and degenerate. Humans are like a microcosm of the universe, a vast organism in a constant state of flux. Yet we seek security and cling to the familiar. When it comes to our health, we find it challenging at times to make the best choices for our wellbeing. Under pressure, we tend to revert to easy options and avoid some health promoting behaviours in exchange for perceived comfort or relaxation. And up to a point, the body adapts to those habits and allows us to carry on functioning.
Eventually, the tipping point is reached and we become unwell. When faced with a health crisis, life pushes us to transform ourselves. Changes in behaviour require a change in thinking and belief systems - not necessarily an easy thing to do.
While materialists have denied any link between a non physical mind and the physical body, holistic thinkers have been exploring the fascinating area of biopsychology and mind-body medicine. The impact of our thoughts on the physical body can be easily felt and known inside oneself. Just compare your level of energy when thinking about an unpleasant task compared with something you are looking forward to eagerly. A positive frame of mind immediately brings to the physical body a feeling of greater vitality.
Vitality is an intangible quality, but you know it when you have it and you are well aware when it's in short supply. Feeling tired is a common complaint and comes from a lack of fulfilment in any area of life. Closely related to the ubiquitous malady of "stress", a lack of energy is the first stage in diminishing health - for the organs of the body require energy to function. The cells utilise ATP, but even that is just the crudest level of energy. Food, water, sunlight, air and the breath all carry the subtler forms of energy, known variously as prana, chi, ki, or vital force.
Self healing is the art and science of harnessing vital force and utilising it to boost the innate healing capacity of the body. It is the mind which directs that vital force, which enables it to be frittered away or held and directed consciously.
It seems that when everything is going along swimmingly, humans tend to ignore the subtle connections. But the "gift within the garbage" as Maryanne Sea puts it, is the way in which a serious diagnosis or severely compromised physical function leads us to deep insights. A researcher named Michael McCollough and his colleagues at the University of Miami studied just this phenomenon and termed it "benefit finding". It's something psychologically healthy people tend to do even in the worst of life situations. Their research led them to the conclusion that having had a serious physical illness can result in increased levels of bravery, curiosity, fairness, humour and an enhanced appreciation of beauty.
The initial shock of a serious illness causes a variety of responses, not only within the diagnosed person, but also from their family, partner, children or parents, co-workers and friends. The vast majority of people are initially distressed, then may move through any number of emotional responses and reactions including denial, anger, minimisation, catastrophisation, hopelessness, depression, numbness or malaise. Along with the physical implications the illness brings, there is the disruption to normal life of numerous appointments and the generally uncomfortable medical atmospheres the patient endures. Some treatment regimes or medication side effects are devastating to the self image and painful, physically and emotionally.
It is at this stage that Ian Gawler has noted people adopt either a gung ho "Rambo" attitude or a strong, but more internally focused, "martial artist" way of approaching their health. He points out the flaw in the thinking of the battling warrior, which is that they may feel like they have lost or failed if their physical health cannot be salvaged. On the other hand, the person who seeks an internal perspective, who enters a battle not to vanquish but to fight with honour and find more of themselves in facing their challenges honestly, gains something meaningful whether they "win" or "lose".
Like many palliative carers, Gawler has witnessed extraordinarily beautiful deaths, where the person has found a sense of grace within themselves and are able to leave the body in relative peace. Then, moving from a physical based reality into a non physical form is a transition, a gentle letting go rather than a brutal breaking of attachments. This transition to a subtler form can be seen in the context of spirituality as a positive transformation. While there will still be grief, there is also healing for all involved.
The essential fear of humans is to lose the physical form. Really, all our other fears boil down to this - we want to live. The purpose of living, according to the ancient sciences of yoga and Ayurveda, is to express through the physical body for the purpose of evolving mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Just like the universe itself, according to yoga philosophy, begins in Oneness, expresses itself through many forms and then those forms gradually return to Oneness, so, too, does the individual soul journey through lifetimes. The extroversial and introversial flows of life are continually recycling, moving always from subtle to crude, from crude back to subtle.
Arthur Barsky is a psychiatrist at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital who published an article in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) in 2002 urging practitioners to pay closer attention to the "nocebo effect". The opposite of the placebo effect where healing seems to arise even when the prescribed treatment appears to have no effect, the nocebo effect is largely ignored. Yet the research that has been done demonstrates that patients who believe the treatment will not work, are often right. Patients who know the side effects of their medications have been found to experience them more (or at least report experiencing them more) than control groups who did not have conscious knowledge of the possible side effects.
So a cancer or heart disease or other serious diagnosis which leaves you "scared to death" or "worried sick" is likely to worsen the condition by stimulating unhelpful biological responses.
Of the so called "cancer miracles", including that of well known meditation and lifestyle teacher Ian Gawler and champion cyclist Lance Armstrong, there are strong recurring themes. Dr Bernie Siegel has documented 57 cases of people who have healed themselves and survived despite the odds being stacked against them. He found that they all gave up anger and depression by making a specific decision to do so. From that point on their tumours started to shrink.
Gawler and Armstrong both embraced a holistic approach to self care and took responsibility for their healing through nutrition, exercise and meditation. While they may seem to have battled valiantly, their warrior natures are distinctly peaceful. This is a crucial distinction. Particularly in the cancer field, there is a great deal of language around battles, wars and victories. Yet Gawler hits the nail on the head when he says that the Rambo approach is unsustainable.
Beating cancer (or any other health issue) is not a matter of violently attacking the disease with "shock and awe" tactics. The disease has manifested in your body after all, so you are really fighting with yourself. The wiser approach more closely resembles the stance of the martial artist, using the forces within to strengthen what is good and diminish what is no longer serving the evolution of the entire being. And when the entire being is addressed, the mind, soul or spiritual self, as well as the physical body, the experience is a far more transformational one.
With this kind of approach to healing, the survival of the body is not the only way to measure "success". Even if the body degenerates (and remember that ultimately it must), the mind has potential to find peace, to let go of grievances and to feel expanded. The expanded perception opens up new paradigms that help the person feel ready to transform beyond this physical form. That is not such a bad way to go out. Not kicking and fighting to hold onto the body and worldly attachments, but content that you took every step to heal yourself and the inner life had precedence. Self healing is not just about the radical shrinking of tumours or clearing of arteries, but also about the internal transformation that facing one's mortality can bring.
Chandrika Gibson ND is a holistic yoga teacher and naturopath.