I want vitality

I’ve changed the title from wanting to be free of pain, because it’s much more effective to focus on the wanted than the unwanted.

When pain or other unwanted physical symptoms arise they tend to grab our attention.

But that’s largely because we haven’t practiced directing and focusing our thoughts and attention.

My pain used to arise whenever I was stressed. But I’m much better at letting go of stress now.

So now I’m noticing pain arise differently: it arises after I’ve been feeling really good.

A faster stream

Abraham-Hicks uses the metaphor of a stream to make the point that when we feel good our stream is flowing faster. While feeling good is obviously what we desire, a faster flowing stream means that resistance is amplified.

A great example is when you work on improving your posture and find you can no longer bear slumped or slouching positons that used to feel normal.

Or when you take up exercise and find you can no longer bear sitting in front of the TV like you once did.

After feeling good?

Notice I said the pain now starts after I’ve been feeling good, and that means I’ve stopped focusing on thoughts that feel good, I’ve let my mind wander, and some old resistance has cropped up.

The best bet would be to not lose focus in the first place but that’s okay. It’s all part of the journey.

Instead we can take the opportunity to clean up our thoughts and attitude around whatever subject has triggered the resistance, or around the subject of our physical body itself.

A body that feels good

If you are prone to physical aches and pains like I have been, it means we’ve been telling an old story about our bodies that isn’t up to speed with the fullness of health and happiness.

I used to have many negative thoughts about my body, and I’m excited now about applying all that I’ve learned to my physical well-being.

The way forward is to start appreciating every aspect of your body that works well and feels good.

If your back hurts, I’ll bet nearly every other bit of you feels good in comparison. Appreciate the hell out of every inch of you that works well and feels good.

Appreciate instead of noticing or focusing on unwanted symptoms.

If you devoted as much time to appreciating what works, what feels good, as you have to what hurts…imagine the transformation to your quality of life and happiness!

We create pain…and appreciation

The truth is I used to ignore the parts of me that don’t hurt. So my physical self-image is of a body I only really noticed when it went wrong.

I’ve been training myself to look for unwanted aspects of my physical embodiment. And so all I have in my memory is selective evidence of a body that is always going wrong!

What I want now is a total inversion on that score: set an intention to feel physically good all the time, appreciate my wellness, and let aches and pains become the most minor exceptions to this new rule.

Happiness Day 13

Chasing your shadow.

Today I’ve been caught up in the parallels between my approach to weight loss, and my current efforts to improve my life by feeling better.

I like my weight-loss approach because it cut out all my uncertainty and confusion, but also took me deep into my own motivations and feelings around eating.

I like it because it took something that was simply a struggle and showed me the cross-purposes in my own mind, hidden behind self-deception.

Most of all I liked it because it worked. That’s why I’m applying the same process and intensity to my goal of feeling better.

Reality is a shadow

Chasing your shadow means mistaking the effect for the cause, the symptom for the underlying disease. In the context of weight loss I learned to stop focusing on being overweight as an undesirable state, because it was really just the symptom or effect.

The real issue was my relationship with food. I even went so far as to say that being overweight was a healthy physical response to unhealthy eating habits.

I viewed my weight as always good, always a clear indicator of my relationship with food.

What was undesirable was not my weight but my approach to eating.

Reality is like your body weight

By analogy my experience of life is always a clear indicator of my relationship with God, my inner being, the spirit within me.

Because God is always reaching out to us. Our inner being is always pouring love and appreciation into us. And this spiritual reality would colour and infuse our whole existence and physical reality if we stopped turning away from it and clinging to unwanted things.

I’ve seen it today in my own mind: I may be feeling peace and happiness and appreciation, but then I reach for thoughts of worry and deadlines and “I need to get the kids dressed in the next twenty minutes or we’ll be late!”

What do I get out of it?

My relationship with food changed when I realised I didn’t like being overweight, but part of me quietly, determinedly, wanted to eat as an escape and distraction from unpleasant feelings.

Losing weight was always a struggle because I was wanting contradictory things and hiding the conflict from myself.

So by inference there must be something I want to get from feeling bad. I must want to focus on bad feeling thoughts even while I’m trying to focus on good feeling thoughts.

Why?

Well perhaps it’s because feeling bad, worried, and stressed gives the illusion of safety.

Feeling crappy all the time might be draining, but it’s much better than walking unawares into danger.

At least, in any given moment it’s much much better to feel worried and vigilant than to be caught by surprise and feel the sudden shock and terror or hurt or panic at being accused, threatened, ridiculed, or tricked by others.

In other words, thoughts that feel bad might help us approach situations with caution and self-protective guardedness.

But as a long term strategy the cost is too great. And since we create our reality it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If I imagine letting go of that guardedness and protective cynicism I do indeed feel afraid of something worse. Better to get hit when you’re expecting it than to go down to a sucker-punch.

But it’s much much worse to go through life flinching at every imagined blow.

I think the way forward is to face the fear of being open and unsuspecting of harm, and not seek to avoid that fear by dampening my happiness.

It might be intimidating at first but it will also be a huge relief to own the fear directly rather than taking so many demoralising efforts to avoid it.

The Way of abundance

The way I lost weight and the way I healed my autoimmune pain had a lot in common.

One of the commonalities was my underlying belief that health is natural. Our bodies naturally incline to a healthy weight. Our immune systems naturally protect the body rather than attacking it.

According to Daoism it is our interference in nature and our contrived efforts to control nature that end up causing illness and dysfunction.

So the whole time I was searching for the solution to these physical problems, I had great faith that my natural state of health would re-emerge if I stopped interfering.

And it did. I took away compulsive overeating, listened to my natural hunger, and my weight decreased naturally.

I stopped pushing myself and let go of various stressful thoughts, and my pain and inflammation went away.

What about life?

But when it came to the rest of life, that faith dissipated.

Why?

Partly because “nature” is easier to associate with the body than with society, economy, and meaning in life.

These “higher order” subjects are usually associated with the problem of human interference, rather than with the movement of the Way.

But it’s also partly because physical health is not under our direct control. It makes sense that our health would follow nature, but how can our career choices, income, daily interactions, or the flow of traffic?

False dichotomy

I didn’t give up on finding the Way in daily life, but because of this dichotomy between the human and the natural I concluded that finding the Way in everyday life was much harder and required more effort.

I was fixated on the problem of “ego” and the Daoist idea of being free from desires. I thought I had to attain a special spiritual state before I could find my Way.

It didn’t occur to me to equate living a good life with the natural health of my body.

Yet health and wealth are not so different. The Dao or Way that governs my physical body and draws it naturally to health is the same Way that guides my life into ease and abundance.

So by inference, what I require is faith that the Way wills abundance in my life just as it wills health in my body, and the only obstacle to both is my own interference.

I don’t need to attain a special spiritual state, just stop interfering in the natural flow and movement of the Way.

Health and wealth

Wealth is not just about money and property. The word itself actually means “well-being” and comes from the same root as “weal“.

In fact health isn’t just about the absence of illness and disease either. Health is wholeness and completeness, and by extension well-being also.

Daoism teaches that the Way nourishes and cares for all beings. Reminiscent of “Consider the lily” or the birds of the field, the mysterious power of the Way assures us of well-being.

How do we get out of our own way? How do we stop interfering with the wholeness and well-being that flow to us?

As I’ve been learning, the answer is twofold: first and most importantly, appreciate and savour the well-being that already flows to you, because in so doing, we tune into the source of that well-being and reaffirm its full availability to us.

I did this automatically with my health issues: recognising that the rest of my body functioned perfectly well; and even going so far as to recognise that being overweight was actually a healthy response to overeating, and that my autoimmune pain was a healthy reaction to internal stress and emotional tension.

The second part of aligning with our natural well-being is to recognise that it is our negative thoughts and ensuing emotions that interfere with this well-being.  The Way does not abandon us, we are the ones who deviate from its path.

In that sense, our negative feelings and the absence of well-being is an indicator that we are straying from the path. The gaps in our welfare and happiness are self-inflicted, if we stop entertaining them our natural well-being will quickly reassert itself in our experience.

Imagine, then, the streams of well-being flowing to you from the Way, the mysterious being that governs and nourishes all things, nourishing and guiding you into the wholeness and well-being you desire.

Remain in that stream, appreciate the goodness and relief and happiness it contains and let it carry you forward in grace.

Miracle cures and short-sightedness

I’m in my second day without wearing glasses, because I want to cure my myopia.

If that sounds bizarre, let me explain.

The miracle ‘cure’

I’ve always been both hopeful and skeptical about the prospect of ‘miraculous’ cures for physical illnesses and ailments.

I use the term ‘miraculous’ loosely to refer to cures that do not match our normal expectations for how health and illness work.

So, for example, I can quite honestly say in one sense that I ‘cured’ my autoimmune disease. My honesty makes me put ‘cured’ in quotation marks because I don’t have sufficient evidence to prove that what happened to me amounts to a ‘miraculous’ recovery from that disease.

In practical terms, I no longer have symptoms of that illness, and I have a subjectively meaningful narrative for how those symptoms came to an end as a result of my own actions.

My rheumatologists were quite happy to give me a provisional diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis based on my symptoms and a genetic marker. The only caveat is that if my symptoms stopped, then obviously they would withdraw the diagnosis.

A skeptical contention would be that if I hadn’t done anything to change my outlook on the illness and seek some kind of psychological cure to the physical problem, the symptoms would have disappeared anyway.

It’s impossible to prove in my case, and it’s hard to imagine an appropriately rigorous medical trial to test the theory (hard but not impossible).

So for me it remains a choice. I had to choose to face my illness as a reflection of a deeper psychological or spiritual issue. In so doing, I observed a pattern to the symptoms that matched changes to my mental and emotional state. When I became aware of these changes and adapted them, the symptoms ceased.

A short-sighted approach

So what about eyesight?

I’ve been short-sighted for a long time. I had my eyes tested in about year 5 at school, but I may have suffered from short-sightedness before that.

Wearing glasses has always bothered me. I don’t like being so dependent on a fragile external tool to interact with my environment. So when my glasses frame broke two days ago I decided to take the opportunity to investigate the problems with my vision.

Meditation on illness

Both auto-immune disease and short-sightedness  relate to extraordinarily complex biological systems.

An auto-immune disease is a good candidate for examination because it consists in essence of the body attacking itself without an obvious external cause.

But it turns out that myopia is also somewhat mysterious, with both hereditary and environmental factors at play.

Myopia is a form of refractive error due to the shape of the eye. I have trouble seeing long distances clearly because my eye is longer than it ought to be.

I don’t know about you, but my response to being told “your body’s immune system is attacking your joints” and “your eyeball is too long to focus the light properly”, is a profound and indomitable sense of challenge.

The spiritual approach

For want of a better word, let’s call this a ‘spiritual’ approach to illness. The idea is that our experience of life is not simply the random outcome of external processes. Rather, our experience of reality is mysterious and meaningful.

What this means is that something like suffering an auto-immune disease or having bad vision is not an accident or a random outcome. It has deeper significance. It relates to your life and your own person as if you were a character in a story.

Whether we continue to suffer from the illness, or find reprieve, I think it makes sense to try to see the personal meaning in it.

For me this process of looking for meaning begins with observing how I feel about the illness, the symptoms, and their impact on my life.

It turns out that despite not giving much thought to my short-sightedness for many years, I do carry strong feelings about it.

Going for two days without my glasses has made me realise how much fear and powerlessness I feel when I can’t clearly see what is going on around me.

Driving without my glasses is safe enough – I can see every object in my vicinity – but more than a hundred or so metres away and objects become blurred. People are easy to see but impossible to recognise. They become fuzzy humanoid shapes, obvious but unreadable.

The inability to see what’s coming right to the farthest horizon or the very end of the road is fear-inducing. I can see things but I don’t know what they are.

Then there’s the powerlessness. I can’t look down the aisle of a supermarket and read the signs for the food categories anymore. I have to walk towards things to make out exactly what they are. And as for people – they might as well be dressed in shrouds and wearing masks until they come within about five metres of me.

It’s a profoundly alienating experience.

So there you go. This short-sightedness does have a great deal of meaning for me, a meaning I’ve ignored and neglected by wearing glasses all the time.

I don’t want to wear glasses anymore, and that means I have to start confronting and facing these fears and insecurities.

So what am I saying?

Does that mean if I confront my fears and anxieties my eyes will magically change and I’ll be able to see without glasses?

Well, what I discovered when I tried to heal my auto-immune disease was that I had to accept the truth about the disease first. The truth was that my disease was just a reflection of my own psychological and spiritual state.

I know how challenging that sounds, because I resisted accepting it for a long time. I didn’t like the idea that progress would depend on choosing to believe something. If the evidence could convince me, I was ready to believe it. But to just believe, without evidence? That sounded pathetic and weak.

Yet there was evidence. Not evidence that could convince me this was the truth, but evidence that I could make no progress, do nothing more, until I had accepted this basic premise.

To put it bluntly, if my disease really was just some random or genetically determined biological quirk, then I was ******.

If my symptoms weren’t a reflection of my deeper psychological and spiritual state, then there was nothing I could do about it. But if they were a reflection, then nothing was set in stone.

In the end that was the choice: the choice to try to give up or try to find answers.

And if there’s one thing I know from my studies and reading in philosophy and mysticism, it’s that our claims to absolute knowledge of external reality are as much a choice as any.

We choose to believe the world is real, not because we have seen convincing evidence that it is real, but because we have seen evidence that to choose otherwise gives us nothing in return.

If I choose to believe the world is a figment of my imagination, there is nothing anyone can say or do to prove me wrong. But there is plenty that can be said and done to prove that a real world is a much better thing to believe in than a deluded imaginary one.

Auto-Immunity: stop hitting thyself?

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An auto-immune disease is, as far as I can tell, the disease equivalent of accidentally biting off a chunk of your own tongue.

My particular auto-immune disease causes inflammation in various key joints, resulting in mild-to-excruciating levels of pain that erupt seemingly at random throughout the course of the year.

Each doctor I’ve spoken to has been more or less firm about the association between stress or negative affect and flare-ups of the disease; firmly against any such association, I mean. There is no evidence to suggest that the progression of diseases like mine is in any way linked to psychological factors, though there is good evidence that the experience of pain can be moderated by psychological factors.

Needless to say, I’m not content with this and rest somewhat assuredly on the dictum “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, taking some confidence in what I know to be the limitations of evidential standards and processes, such that if I find a personal or subjective association, I’m not going to dismiss it on the basis of insufficient peer-reviewed studies.

At the same time, it’s somewhat dismaying to see people dismiss actual studies from a position of willful ignorance and wishful thinking. I’ve seen plenty of people embrace conspiracy theories or other combative attitudes towards established medical and scientific practices and institutions. It’s not a pretty sight. Ideally we should know and understand the things we criticise, and be aware of the limitations of our own knowledge, n’est-ce pa?

As such, I’m not going to tell people that their auto-immune condition is the result of stress and negative affect. What I can tell them is that I’ve noticed in myself that my bouts of inflammation seem to correspond with periods of self-imposed stress or pressure.

It seems I am of a temperament which is inclined to say to itself: “Now you know what you ought to be doing, so do it; do it without ceasing. Do nothing else. Nothing matters but that you do this, and do it diligently forever and ever, Amen.”

For example, I had a flare-up some time after deciding that I ought to pursue my writing more seriously. ‘More seriously’ as in, unceasingly and compulsively without any concept of an end point. On the positive side, that helped me produce an unprecedented number of articles – if I remember correctly: 12 published articles in a one month period.

But as my productivity began to decrease, the conviction that “I must write” slowly devolved from a genuine motivation into a mere sense of grinding necessity. Grinding is perhaps the operative word, as my joints inflamed and it became painful to move.

I’ve noticed since that the pain seems to coincide with these bouts of grueling yet unproductive urgency, the sense that I must get something done without excursion or delay.

Yesterday I noticed a growing sense of urgency relating to ‘getting things done’ with respect to domestic production. I’ve been meaning to make some cheese, but have struggled to find a good local source of necessary ingredients. The delay and the awful heat (42 degrees C yesterday) left me feeling unproductive, and this morning I woke up with the telltale stiffness and pain in my lower back.

As tentative as I am to try to dictate the cause of my illness to others, I’m equally cautious in extolling a particular treatment. I’m not trying to sell anything.

However, I have found it personally beneficial to treat the pain as a symptom of the underlying urgency, and therefore to treat the urgency directly. I do this by making a conscious effort to defuse this compulsive state of mind. I reflect on the fact that it doesn’t actually matter if I make a cheese today/write an article tomorrow, or if I do these things next month, or in all honesty if I never do them ever again.

By ‘reflect’ I mean it’s not enough to simply tell myself that it doesn’t matter. I have to really feel that it doesn’t matter, because feeling it means I can let go of the stress, tension, and urgency. Feeling that it doesn’t matter reveals how truly tense and stressed I have become – winding myself up into a state of impossible and unnecessary tension. I can feel the tension now through my whole body, yet I was oblivious to it until I started to focus on ‘letting go’.

Does ‘letting go’ fix the problem? Objective analysis would be nearly impossible. The factors at play are highly subjective, and would be very difficult to study or isolate under experimental conditions. But like Pascal’s wager, if I’m wrong about the connexion I’ve nonetheless benefited from becoming aware of my stress and tension and reducing them to more salubrious levels.

Feeling more relaxed, happier, and healthier is a pretty benign form of treatment. There’s not really anything to lose.

Does the pain go away? As strange as it might sound: I hadn’t really noticed. In hindsight, it must go away because I notice its subsequent return. But I’m usually so caught up in the great sense of relief and relaxation, the sheer pleasure of ‘letting go’ all the stress, strain, and slowly mounting pressures of life, that the pain, the stiffness and the sense of disease seem to just dissolve away.