Out of the Casino and into the Arms of Life

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 5 min read

Macao_Casino_Lisboa_at_night_smallIn my last entry I described how emotional healing proceeds by means of Ten Steps Forward, Nine Steps Back. That essay grew out of my recent mood profile: for the last year or so I’ve enjoyed long stretches of expansive ease punctuated by short runs of contractive neurosis. During sunny times, I feel love for all beings and worry little about my personal fate. But during darker days, I hear myself recite a litany of self-focused woes.

It’s embarrassing to witness. After all, I’m capable of writing from a place that sounds centered and mature. Yet I’m also prone to obsessing about personal injuries, setbacks, and shortcomings. My lament always sounds more or less the same: so much has gone wrong in my life, happiness lies forever beyond reach. Yet this toxic mantra makes no sense, since when freed from the grip of self-concern, I’m pretty pleased with my time on this planet.

Well, I am now a few days out from the last contraction, and for some reason it seems more understandable to me than earlier episodes. It seems obvious that the entire problem is one of caring.

That sounds harsh, doesn’t it? I mean, isn’t it humane to care? After all, I recently launched a new website (MindfulBiology.org) to advance a program of compassionate tenderness toward the human body and the earth that gave it birth.

The issue comes down to what we choose to care about. Concern for one’s personal preferences leads to trouble; caring about other beings leads to health and freedom. If one desires liberation from distress, one must break free from caring about what the self craves, accumulates, or dislikes. The Buddha offers us a very clear description of the problem. As long as we construct our well-being on a foundation of personal gratification, personal aggrandizement, and personal protection, we are doomed to suffer.

Well, I don’t consider myself a Buddhist (I’ve learned from many traditions), but the man had a point. How could we hope to find lasting happiness through caring so much about pleasures that fade, attainments that get overshadowed, and safety that eludes? There is nothing durable in anything we can claim as personal. Not only that, but if we look closely we see that one being’s enjoyment often comes at the price of another’s suffering. For instance, if we ask how much misery our modern consuming lifestyle inflicts upon the earth’s non-human inhabitants, we are confronted with the obvious answer: quite a lot. Can we truly be happy knowing our entertainments are purchased at such cost?

All this is well-understood by those who read about mindfulness, attend meditation retreats, etc. I have known these facts for a long time. But knowing the truth conceptually and using it to release personal concerns are two very different things.

Yet right now, as I sit here, it seems like my personality is finally tired of playing the game.

It’s like facing up to a gambling addiction. One recognizes that a casino is designed in a specific way: if you place bets in it long enough, you lose. The odds are against you. There might be brief runs of success–the slot machine’s aces will line up from time to time. But the house always wins in the end.

Seeking satisfaction through self-focus is equally futile. The body ages. The ones we love disappoint us or die. Whatever we achieve gets forgotten or is used as the springboard for the next generation’s leap into the future, as we get left behind. We’re destined to feel wounded and bereft.

Or are we? In truth, these facts are only painful when viewed from a personal perspective. In the bigger picture, how can it matter if one body ages or another dies when new bodies are born all the time? And isn’t advancement a good thing, even if it means older generations grow obsolete? It’s only our own individual sense of affront that makes reality feel so punishing.

At the same time, one sees injustice and misery on all sides.

So what’s the answer? To attend to the happiness of others. To serve. This doesn’t mean one must move to Haiti and build dwellings, although it might. Good works are important, but salvation comes from recognizing common cause. By understanding life as a great unified mass, one finds equanimity.

Which brings us to one of the central points of my work on Mindful Biology: Life is the great equalizer: we are all equally embedded within its seething, growing form. No one is exempt from the rules of living, which impose loss and decay on us all, sooner or later. Our only hope is to accept evolution’s vast scope and momentum on its own thundering terms. With that opening to awe, we discover our true place in the world, where we are at once inconsequential and pivotal in life’s unceasing story.

This organic world has a way of working things out. It always has and it always will. There might be some big upheavals in the process–remember the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs? And yes, humanity appears to be heading toward some difficult times. But solving all of society’s problems is not our task, nor is it within our powers. We must only do our best, as the future finds its way. Some of us effect substantial change. Others simply disregard their own worries and preferences in order to focus on the needs of those nearby. Either way, we feel freer when we attend to the wellbeing of others rather than ourselves.

This doesn’t mean we don’t take care of our health. Despite the interconnection of brain and body, the human mind feels separate from the soma that gives it life. The body is in some sense ‘other,’ and as a living, sensitive organism is deserving of care. It enters our sphere of concern, but we don’t treat it as a possession. We minister to the body’s needs because it is part of the world, and it is the world (not ourselves) we do well to serve.

To paraphrase JFK: We quit asking Life: what can you do do for me? Instead, we inquire: what can I do for you? The answer to that second question will depend on our resources and capabilities. We need only do our part.

This is the key to ease. It sounds easy, but of course it’s not. Or at least it isn’t at first. But as we tire of entering the casino with full pockets and walking out drained, we begin to find our way. We realize that life is directing us, pain by pain, to downplay our personal concerns in favor of universal ones.

Emotional healing will continue to punctuate itself with collapse until the mind is ready, once and for all, to let go it’s petty obsessions with its own self-interests. The poor little thing can’t find satisfaction that way and yet keeps rolling the dice hoping its luck will change. In time, it begins to see that even a run of good fortune fails to satisfy, and it slowly accepts the fact of its own unimportance.

And with that surrender into insignificance, human consciousness at last approaches its great potential. It becomes a wise parent to the world, heedless of individual concern and committed to the common good. Ah, what a goal! How could we strive for anything less?

That’s how things look to me today, this moment. History has proven me capable of writing this way one week, only to cringe in frustration the next. But I feel more weary of the game than before, and more prepared to abandon my self-seeking. I am ready to cease caring so much about my personal preferences. I sense the ease relinquishment brings, and it leads me onward.



Healing after Trauma: Ten Steps Forward, Nine Steps Back

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 6 min read

shutterstock_179082995Most of us have suffered psychological wounds. Just as the body can be damaged, so can the mind. But the similarity ends there, because mental and physical injuries heal by different means.

At another time I’ll explore physical healing in detail, but for now a brief outline will suffice:

A wound to flesh and bone heals through sequential processes of fibro-vascular ingrowth, scar formation, and remodeling. Early steps focus on restoring basic integrity. The first-responders are inflammatory cells that establish barriers and plug leaks. They patch the tissues temporarily, like homeowners securing a tarp over a leaking roof in a storm. Just as the tarp can be blown away by a strong wind, the initial repairs of injured tissue are delicate and easily disrupted. Later, after the acute emergency, more permanent work gets done. The roofing crew tacks down new shingles; the immune system sends in cells that lay down collagen to generate scar. In due time, remodeling follows. Perhaps sections of roof are replaced; scar tissue is strengthened in some areas and softened in others. Fractured bones knitted together with collagen grow harder and stronger across the break.

The body slowly settles on a new form. A minor injury may leave little trace. A major one will sport a permanent scar. But over time healing stabilizes. The pace of change slows, and a new equilibrium is achieved.

In comparison, psychological recovery is only loosely analogous to physical healing. It’s true that early steps differ from later ones, but there is no emotional sequence as predictable as fibro-vascular ingrowth, scar formation, and remodeling. Early on, the personality does its best to cope with overwhelming terror, grief, humiliation, or despair. Denial is very common. To outward observers, the rape victim or bereaved spouse may seem superficially normal, acting as if she or he is doing fine. In other cases, there may be an appearance of collapse; the traumatized person may spend hours sobbing hopelessly, or refuse to get out of bed. Rage is not uncommon, and since the cause or perpetrator of the trauma is usually out of reach, friends and family may endure outbursts and hurtful attacks.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross outlined five stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), while emphasizing that they don’t necessarily follow one another in predictable order. Depression may precede anger; bargaining may come before denial, and so on. There is great variability.

Response to mental as opposed to physical wounding is not stereotyped. It adapts to temperament, personal history, social expectations, psychological insight, maturity, and fatigue. The rape victim who was raised in a safe, loving home will likely react differently from one who was molested in childhood. The newly diagnosed cancer patient with a robust support network may look less fearful or enraged than one who feels isolated.

And yet, fairly consistent modes of adaptation can be identified. Kubler-Ross’s observations confirm that healing after major loss does not occur haphazardly, even if its precise contours aren’t predictable. Although the relative pace, emphasis, and ordering of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression are variable, people tend to cycle through most of them as they stagger toward acceptance after major loss or injury.

Another regular feature of healing after neuropsychological injury is relapse. Here we can compare trauma resolution with addiction recovery. Although Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step groups often treat recidivists as failures who must start over at the beginning, professionals who work in the field know that ‘slips’ are common and sometimes even helpful. For instance, a chaotic relapse after a period of stability may help the addict see more clearly the damaging effects of his or her compulsive behavior.

Relapse can occur after physical injury, but it is less characteristic. Backs that have been weakened by repetitive stress may suffer periodic debilitating spasms. A person who heals after a badly sprained ankle may find the ankle gives way more easily in the future. But in many cases an injury heals almost completely. There may be residual weakness or ongoing pain but it is not common for wounds to reopen or bones to re-break spontaneously or after slight impact.

Yet in the psychological realm, a full-blown meltdown or flashback may follow what seems like a trivial stimulus, even years after the original trauma. The war veteran walking down a suburban street hears a car backfire and dives for cover. The young college student who suffered childhood sexual abuse goes rigid with terror when her new boyfriend places a hand on her thigh.

I have experienced emotional relapse with disturbing regularity, despite considerable improvement. Years ago, I was consistently jumpy and reactive, quick to lash out and slow to trust. Nowadays, I am calmer and less defensive, but I remain prone to regression.

In the face of too many frustrations, I lose my center. A friend’s ill-chosen words may disturb my sleep; and if some project I’m working on encounters obstacles the next day, the combined effect may leave me doubting the quality of my relationships and personality. Even as I try to breathe evenly and maintain perspective, I grow tense and grumpy. Sometimes it gets so bad I end up thinking death might be preferable to life. I no longer contemplate suicide, but the thought that a sudden heart attack might be welcome has a way of undermining confidence in one’s mental health.

This is discouraging, to say the least. Despite years of meditative work, psychological exploration, and journaling, despite my commitment to learning from hardship and embracing life on its own terms, I sometimes feel almost as despairing as in the old days.

The word almost in that last sentence is key. My thinking gets almost as unbalanced, my mood almost as foul, my faith almost as vacuous. I call this: ten steps forward, nine steps back. Because if I look closely, I see that although the despair feels familiar, it is less intense and stubborn than before. It doesn’t lead me to contemplate suicide, and it seldom lasts more than a few hours; usually I wake up the next day feeling back on track. What’s more, as time goes on relapses occur more and more rarely.

Ten years ago it wasn’t uncommon for me to be depressed and near suicide for days on end, with few ‘breathers’ between episodes. Nowadays I feel down only occasionally and for brief periods. Even better, my baseline is more optimistic and enthusiastic. Rather than living with a stubborn low-grade depression and rare hypomanic lifts, I now enjoy a background state of sweet (if slightly sad) acceptance with occasional hours of serenity–or even bliss–during meditation.

If you repeatedly move ten steps forward and nine back, after a few thousand cycles you can cover a lot of ground. It may seem unfair that others move faster, but in most cases the swift are less burdened by baggage. To walk one mile dragging a steamer trunk of sand may be more of an accomplishment than walking ten carrying only a canteen and an apple.

The fact that psychological recovery is fraught with relapse is explained by the science of learning. When an experimental animal hears a tone and then receives an intense electric shock, after just an exposure or two it will react anxiously to the sound of the tone alone. If thereafter the shocks cease, the animal will gradually lower its defenses and begin to ignore the tone. But even after a long period of safety, if the tone is followed by just a mild shock, the animal’s terrorized behavior is likely to return full-force. Th learned behavior, it appears, was displaced rather than erased. It remains at the ready should old threats return.

Unlike physical wounds that heal by means of steadily strengthening scar tissue that replaces weaker repairs, psychological wounds heal by the adoption of new patterns while the old, wounded reactions remain programmed in the nervous system. The reactive mode is not overwritten, and it remains in the background, perpetually vigilant. The person recovering from trauma may gain tools for reacting less strongly or settling more quickly, but deeply ingrained fears are never permanently extinguished. The best we can aim for is less frequent and intense reactions with quicker recovery.

It can feel discouraging to suffer a recurrence after months of stability. But as addiction specialists understand, the subsiding of reactivity does not proceed by a smooth trajectory. It’s more like a receding tide whose progress can only be seen over the long term, while in the short run outsized waves occasionally break upon the drying shore.

Despite the differences between physical and psychological healing, in both circumstances the organism can recover, especially if we arrange circumstances to favor healing. In the case of bodily wounds, one aims for good nutrition and appropriate patterns of gentle activity versus needed rest. In the case of psychological injury, one works to avoid repeated trauma while building up a sense of safety and support (for which I recommend Rick Hanson’s book, Hardwiring Happiness, as a helpful tool). Of key importance is recognizing the patterns of normal healing, so that relapses aren’t viewed as failures but as steps along the path to wellness. Ten steps forward, nine steps back is the normal pace of recovery from psychological wounds.

Grieving woman image available from Shutterstock.



The Empty Fullness of Life

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 3 min read

UntitledOne strain of meditative practice within Buddhism leads us to appreciation of emptiness. As we trace experience to its core, it dissolves before our eyes.

This happens, for instance, in the psyche. Our sense of identity seems solid until we try to locate it in the mind, where we discover only a mass of competing influences without fixed axis.

If we seek solidity in ‘real-world’ experience, we discover that our minds offer us halls of mirrors. Perceptions are but reflections within the corridors of mind; they supply traces of reality rather than direct contact with it. (This truth has been explored by many philosophers, beginning at least as far back as Plato.) The world we experience is a projection in awareness, useful but lacking substance.

Emptiness is also detectable in physics. Down at the level of atoms, solidity vanishes. In its place are found energetic swirls that are simultaneously point-like and diffuse. Matter that appears solid is mostly empty space, and the processes that occupy that space can be described only as mathematical abstractions. It’s as if we peer into a room we believe full of furnishings but find only floating motes of dust.

Insight into emptiness is valued by Buddhists because it reduces suffering. Knowing mental and physical processes to be diaphanous and shifting frees us from taking them too seriously.

That’s all well and good, but when we come home to an injured child or pet, we rush to assist no matter how refined our feel for emptiness. The world demands participation even as it vanishes on near inspection.

How do we reconcile traditions that help us discover emptiness behind the screen of experience with those that call us to act compassionately? In one Buddhist practice angst dissolves in a void. In another, metta prayers entreat that ‘all beings be freed from suffering.’ How is it possible to believe reality illusory while also caring about distress within it?

I recently launched a new website: MindfulBiology.org, devoted to helping us feel more friendly toward our bodies. Why should we nurture affection for a human organism that disappears, at subatomic grain, into a buzz of abstractions? Wouldn’t it make more sense to declare the body a distraction and spend our days pondering the vast, crystalline emptiness?

Perhaps, but we’ve already seen that emotional separation proves unsustainable. Life insists we take it seriously.

The answer to this dilemma is the Middle Way. The Buddha emphasized that neither worldly indulgence nor ascetic denial provide relief. The best we can do is engage with the world while handling its challenges with a looser grip.

In terms of MindfulBiology, we use life science to to understand our human forms as temporary processes of that arise, live for a time, and then dissipate, stamped all the while by history. With this perspective on our own baffling complexity, we feel less sense of entrapment, ownership, and affront. Detaching in this way is useful in the face of physical discomfort; it is also a tonic for feelings of disappointment and embarrassment as the body ages. When the mind can monitor the body from a slight remove, it feels cushioned against distress.

At the same time, our body is a sensitive organism. As our living home in the world, it deserves our affection and care. Denying the body’s importance in deference to a rarefied sense of emptiness hardly seems wise. So we hold the soma in love, while keeping in mind its transience. We allow it the inevitable changes of age. We accept its limitations. Knowing the body to be a evanescent swirl in the currents of time, we appreciate it all the more.

To summarize: nothing appears substantial when probed to depth. Mentally, we find a shifting population of influences without central identity. When our mind interacts with the world, it tries to objectify what it sees ‘outside,’ but everything the mind experiences is already ‘inside,’ where perception is as insubstantial as the play of light on a movie screen. And even if we ignore that problem and treat the inwardly perceived world like something outward and objective, physics presents us with an unbounded space of abstract vibrations. What a strange, empty place this is!

But for all this dizzying emptiness of matter and mind, the grounded experience of daily life compels us to participate. We can’t ignore the ceaseless activity that begs our involvement at every turn. Even though it’s a play of formless energies, we embrace life as it presents itself.

For some people, like me, solace comes from climbing toward an unobstructed view of reality. As we peer further and further, we begin to make out a truth of great healing power, a truth that is ever shining for us. Part of this truth is the fact of emptiness, but another is the need to act in the world. If we learn the lessons that are offered, we begin to behave with less personal concern and more compassion. With heart in hand, we greet life in its empty mists.



Your Inner River

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 3 min read

Conness_Lakes_falls_stream_North_Peak-2

We know we’re made of water. The bodily proportion of H2O is 50% in females and 60% in males. My new project, MindfulBiology.org, aims to help us understand what it means to be a human organism, and to take that understanding inward by way of felt experience. By appreciating our biological nature, we can begin to feel more grounded and less alone, a key task in recovering after childhood adversity. It helps to remember that we are rooted in life itself, and that we share this experience with all that lives. As an early step in this exploration, it’s natural to investigate our relationship with water, the fluid that makes living possible.

Water flows through us. In channels large and small it flows. As liquid courses through our bodies its chemistry is monitored and corrected as needed, and this adjustment of the inner fluid is vital to life.

Like so much of what our bodies do for us, we seldom think about fluid balance and what it entails. Sure, we get thirsty and seek out water (often, these days, with sugars and other stuff dissolved in it). We pee every few hours while awake, but unless we’re out of reach of a restroom for too long, releasing waste water seems to happen with little notice. If we exercise, we might soak our clothing with perspiration, but we don’t connect the dots.

What dots might we connect? How about linking our perspiration at the gym with the beverage we drank earlier. Or that glass of tea with rain or snow that fell months ago and found its way into a reservoir or water table, and then was pumped through distribution lines to our tap. Or sun beating down on the ocean and forests, coaxing moisture upward, in due time leading to clouds and then precipitation. Or, most profoundly, the fact that at this moment half or more of our form is made of what was recently sea and sap, snow and rain.

Nor do we connect the dots going the other way, as liquid trickles from our bladders and flows to a treatment plant or septic system and thence to ocean or water table, completing the circuit.

Giant cycles of water move across the planet while our bodies diverge their little streams: they take in H2O as food and drink, use it for a time, and then release it. Rivulets of blood circulate in the body, mixing with lakes of fluid in the tissues. Composition is critical. Too dehydrated and we feel intense thirst, too little salt and we end up woozy and cramped. If deviations worsen, life itself is threatened. Luckily, bodies with access to water and electrolytes rapidly optimize their inner chemistry, so we seldom worry about it.

The kidneys, of course, play the biggest part in maintaining good blood chemistry, though they operate under guidance from brain, hormonal, and cardiovascular systems, while the digestive tract plays a supportive role. Nearly a quarter of the cardiac output flows to these small paired organs (each about the size of your fist), which are tucked safely near the bottom of the ribcage on either side of the spine. Through intricately coiled tubing, fluid filtered from blood travels into the depths of the kidneys and then back out again–the cycling of water continues.

As the proto-urine moves through the kidneys, waste salts are added and vital salts removed. There are systems that excrete impurities such as medications, which body sees these as foreign, regardless of whether we (or our doctors) believe them necessary. Obviously, the conscious mind doesn’t influence the kidneys much; they do their job beneath awareness and outside control. And, truth be told, we wouldn’t want to be bothered. We’re perfectly happy to let them percolate silently, without troubling us or expecting our involvement.

I invite you to take a moment, here and now, to appreciate your own inner flow of liquid. Think of some water you drank recently. See if you can trace that water back to its source. Did it come from a tap? Is the tap connected to a private well or a public utility? If the latter, does your water come from a nearby watershed or from snowmelt in distant mountains? Imagine the rain or snow that fed your water supply. Be mindful of the journey water followed before joining your body.

Think too of the liquid that has departed you today as urine or solid waste, or through perspiration. Some also evaporates into the atmosphere with every breath. Be mindful of how water leaves your body, and how it finds its way back.

Water is ever flowing. In our bodies it arrives, circulates, and leaves. We are like lakes filled by one route and emptied by others, bodies of water that remain full despite all this coming and going.

As you sit comfortably, perhaps with eyes closed, remember that your inner river flows every moment. It works its way through your intestines as food is digested and water extracted; it races through your blood stream, never stopping; it accumulates in tissues, bathing your cells, and then flows on. Finally, it collects in your bladder (and to a lesser extent in the colon), before it is expelled.

Perhaps you can feel your pulse, gently, in your fingertips, or hear a subtle whoosh of blood flow in your ears. Imagine the vital fluids circulating to every part of you. And imagine also your steadfast kidneys, keeping the chemistry just right. Thank them, if it feels appropriate, for sustaining this marvelous experience of living.



Floating in the Hormonal Sea

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 2 min read

Meyers_b1_s0268bOur body chemistry changes, moment by moment. We feel this indirectly as energy levels rise and fall, fullness gives way to hunger, and arousal alternates with sleepiness. Many of these internal shifts are due to hormones.

The pituitary gland, connected directly to the hypothalamus in the brain, drives many of the body’s other glands, and so plays a big part in this hormonal drama. It is a primary means by which the nervous system influences somatic states. At the same time, hormones flow back into the brain, allowing the body’s responses to affect our minds.

Thus, as hormonal profiles change, so does inner experience. As a striking example, remember how attitudes toward sexuality and relationships transform during adolescence. While young children are curious about sex, teenagers feel driven by it. While in grade school kids ignore or mock the opposite gender, in high school they have trouble thinking of anything else. So much depends on hormones!

Hormones function as a bidirectional communication system. Since they are carried by blood, which has some similarity to sea water, we can imagine an ocean that flows between the brain on one shore and the body on the other. In this ocean are suspended the hormones that enable the two continents to converse in a fluid, organic way. It’s as if each coast marinates in wines from the opposite shore.

Hormonal fluctuations are especially striking during sexual maturation, but they influence daily experience throughout life. The sleepiness we feel at end of day, the edginess that floods us while rushing to work, and the warmth that arises as we spend time with loved ones all emerge, to an extent, from the body’s chemical ocean.

Take a moment, here and now, to sense your own inner state. Detect the qualities swimming in your sea of life. Are you anticipating your next meal? Your stomach may be secreting grehlin, a hormone that influences the brain and leads to sensations of hunger. Are you feeling alert and energetic? Your thyroid gland may be at work. Do you feel as if tension has been mounting for hours? There’s a good chance your pituitary has been stimulating your adrenal glands to secrete stress hormones.

You might even try closing your eyes while resting in a comfortable position. Imagine your body suspended in warm tropical waters, where currents are washing you with all the chemicals that influence your inner state. As if you are a delicate sea creature, imagine how slight changes in the ocean’s composition affect you in subtle ways. Feel the momentary surges of energy, agitation, sleepiness, hunger, or lust, as they flow through you. Appreciate how your body reacts to hormonal eddies that are sometimes ripples and other times maelstroms. Feel some compassion for your responsive organism, alert to each shift in chemistry, whether it’s a major sea change or a simple ebb and flow. Before returning to your day, take a moment to honor your body’s sensitivity to the living ocean within.

This is the essence of MindfulBiology.org, a new project I’ve recently launched. It’s devoted to combining brief explanations of biology with guided meditations, with the aim of increasing our affection for this amazing human body. The website needs a lot of work, but I plan to gradually fill it with text and videos. I hope to encourage us all to remember how hard our bodies work, and how dearly they crave affection and care.



The Soft Animal of the Body

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 5 min read

(Canavalia_lineata)_sprout_at_Madhurawada

Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. — Mary Oliver

Bessel van der Kolk’s 2014 book, The Body Keeps the Score, reminds me of how strongly both my physical and mental condition have been shaped by trauma. Spinal arthritis, abdominal pain, chronic muscle aches, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and many other problems combine to form an inner ledger of the abuse, bereavement, and neglect of my childhood and the uproar, frustration, and terror of my adult experience.

Why should this be? Why should trauma have such profound effects on body and mind?

It’s useful to remember what it means to live as a human organism. There are many ways to explore this, but let’s try an outside-in approach.

  • Skin: Our bodies are covered with a protective surface that is highly sensitive and easily injured. The skin registers both loving caress and brutal blows. It is multilayered, with a relatively dry outer layer and a most inner layer, rich with blood vessels and nerves. It’s an exquisite interface, but also the one that suffers much under the hardship of life. And every message the skin receives travels throughout the human form, like ripples on a pond. Affectionate touch can build confidence, while violation instills shame.
  • Sense organs: Eyes, ears, nose, and tongue provide animals with vital information about the environment. The eyes register facial expression; they narrow slightly when we laugh among amusing friends, and they broaden in terror when a fist swings toward the face, or a car spins on a freeway, or a loved one suffers a bad fall, or an abuser stares at us with sadistic contempt. The ears are sensitive to volume, pitch, and cadence. The coo of a lover’s voice softens the heart, while the threats and insults of a cruel caregiver freeze us in states of lonely shame. Many animals can smell rage and fear, and perhaps we can too. The nostrils flare when we feel unsafe. What’s more, the scents associated with a terrible history remain imprinted forever. Long after we’re adults, the smell of alcohol on a person’s breath might transport us instantly back to the awful past.
  • Muscles: Think of how much tension gets stored in the muscles of the face, jaw, neck, upper back, lumbar region, and pelvis. Wilhelm Reich called the layer of tight musculature “armor,” and the word fits. In a vain attempt to protect itself, the body builds a wall. The safety the armor promises is an illusion, but the way it cuts us off from feeling spontaneous and affectionate is all-too-real.
  • Bone: The bone is our innermost strength. It stores some of the deepest physical scars as thickened areas where fractures have healed. It gradually thins with age, as hormonal shifts change the balance of buildup and breakdown. It also holds the imprint of our habitual posture. How many of us develop chronic slumps in the shoulders and upper backs, the stamp of chronic defensiveness and lack of confidence? How many of us feel ready to stand tall every moment of our lives? In this age of epidemic trauma, it doesn’t help that our lifestyles encourage collapse, as we hunch over LED screens. Our skeletons become maps of withdrawal and insecurity.
  • Lungs: In Chinese Medicine, the lungs are viewed as the reservoirs of sorrow. Depression and grief are reflected in breathing patterns, which become shallow and choppy. The lungs connect us most intimately, and also most vulnerably, with our environment. They open a vast surface to the atmosphere (about the size of a basketball court in every person), so that each breath is as intimate as lovemaking. How sad that our atmosphere is so often polluted, or that we feel so stressed we find comfort in inhaling the toxic fumes of cigarettes and vaporizers.
  • Digestive Organs: We are what we eat. We know this, and yet in the aftermath of a harrowing upbringing, or after a stressful day in a difficult job, we find ourselves swallowing oily, salty, sugary, and ugly junk food. Our stomach and intestines dutifully break down whatever we ingest, but potato chips and candy bars send shock waves through the blood stream, so that many of us suffer with high cholesterol, hypertension, and diabetes. How much healthier to fill the inner channel with what it craves: good, wholesome food that isn’t laced with pesticides, preservatives, and empty calories. Yet how difficult that can be!
  • Nervous System: The brain sits at the top of the spinal cord, like a king surveying his realm. Nerves come in from every inch of the skin, from the matrix of bone, the airway linings, the digestive organs, and everything else. It registers and remembers the sensations and–most importantly–their associations. Does a touch on the arm evoke the caress of a gentle mother or the groping of a drunk molester? Does the scent of detergent remind us of laundry drying in the sun or institutional cruelties? The nervous system can remain on high alert for decades, storms ever gathering on the mental horizon. Or, it can slowly settle down, it can find ease and safety despite the uncertainty of life. The nervous system elaborates our consciousness in all of its complexity, and it can create either a hell or a heaven, depending on our experiences and our responses.
  • Reproductive Organs: How confused our feelings become around these structures we all possess! Pathways of passion and ecstasy can so easily become coils of confusion. Does sex feel safe or threatening? Do others desire our bodies or ignore them? Does desire come with affection or is it nothing but narcissistic lust? Do our memories of early sexual awareness feel pleasantly nostalgic or sickeningly shameful? These sweet systems that carry life through time have become such hotbeds of unhappiness, it is truly sad. But we can imagine a better way, we can work to build a culture that celebrates sexuality without obsessing about it. One that views sex and reproduction with curious awe, rather than prurience and contempt.
  • The Heart: She is the queen of the body, sitting in her palace in the body’s core. The first organ to become functional, and the one that pulses with vitality from a few weeks after conception until the moment of death. She is hopeful but can become discouraged, radiant with affection at baseline but cold with terror or indifference when overwhelmed. The heart truly keeps the score, but in a way that remains optimistic. Luckily, it doesn’t take long for us to reawaken the heart to its natural state of wonder. We just need to let the soft animal of our bodies love what they love. Of course, to do that we have to learn what our bodies feel, to quit turning away from the discomfort within. This is a key task of trauma recovery, and in The Body Keeps the Score, van der Kolk points out that yoga, for instance, is a great way of moving through resistance to meet the body where it stands.

We tend to look at the body as a dumb beast or worse, as a machine. Modern medicine has convinced us it’s a mere mechanism. True, we can now replace hip bones with metal contraptions, and this is a boon to many. But that doesn’t mean the body is no different from the artifacts with which we repair it. The body is alive in every one of its cells. Each is a life form in its own right, just as every honeybee is an individual even as the hive is the unit that reproduces. The body is a society, with its cells, tissues, and organs each playing important roles in the drama of human life.

Trauma disrupts the body by obstructing the smooth communication and subtle rhythms that characterize life. We become disconnected and irregular, robbed of our birthright of intimacy and resonance.

And yet, the body’s reactions are its best effort to keep life moving. Armor is designed to shield us. Flashbacks are meant to keep us vigilant. Disconnection is meant to isolate us from danger. The intelligence of the body is doing its best, moment-by-moment. Trauma recovery depends on reeducating the organism, so it can respond to our situation as it is now and not as it was then. With slow and careful work, we can grow more accepting of our bodies. We can become more vibrant: appropriately protective when necessary and beautifully permeable when appropriate.



The Most Important Key to Healthy Aging

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 1 min read

In my recent post, 4 Ways to Embrace Aging, I offered five hints but should have offered a sixth. What’s most important when growing older, I believe, is to treat the body with compassion.

There is a temptation to micro-manage our physical forms as they age. Cosmetic surgery, anti-aging creams, hair-growth formulas, erectile drugs, and innumerable other interventions promise to halt, reverse, or compensate for deterioration. Their massive market success is testament to how we resist growing older, how we struggle to hold time at bay.

From one perspective, steps to slow the aging process make sense. It is surely a good idea to eat well, exercise regularly, stretch out the muscles, and maintain sleep hygiene. In later years we do well to eliminate destructive habits and reduce stress. The wise person lives as healthfully as possible.

But from another perspective, striving to stay young sets us in opposition to Nature. The battle against aging must be lost sooner or later, so why battle at all? Why not just treat our bodies with kindness, support them as best we can, but grant them the freedom to follow their inevitable trajectories without criticizing or feeling ashamed of them?

Compassion is key to feeling satisfied during later years: compassion for our companions and their struggles, compassion for our own foibles and difficulties, but most of all compassion for our physical forms. This organism that is the human body deserves affection and appreciation for the way it tries so hard, the way it does so much to support our personalities on this journey of Life. Such gratitude for our own biology nurtures feelings of rootedness in the world, feelings of belonging to an ecosphere that is vast, ancient, and luminous.



4 Ways to Embrace Aging

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 2 min read

Our bodies age. As members of the kingdom of animals, we inherit a biology that grows less efficient with time. Glitches and injuries accumulate. Our youthful form is lost, and our aged one is gained.

By dint of fear of change, the innate sexual attractiveness of younger bodies, and massive exploitation of both by marketing forces, we feel embarrassed and deprived as our bodies slowly deteriorate.

Not all cultures view aging so negatively. So the bias could be overcome. But how?

  1. Don’t take aging personally. After all, aging happens to everyone, from the beginning of life until its end. And like they say, Growing old beats the alternative! Every person who has ever lived beyond early adulthood has grappled with the changes the years impose. Granted, some people age more slowly than others, but every one of us looks and feels older as time passes. You are not alone.
  2. See aging as Natural. We live in an era when ‘organic,’ ‘all-natural,’ ‘non-GMO,’ ‘cage-free,’ and other eco-marketing catchphrases are used to sell products. Moderns want the growth and harvesting of foodstuffs to proceed naturally. Well, aging is no less aligned with Nature than vegetables cultivated without pesticides; why not embrace growing older the way we embrace organic foods?
  3. Appreciate the gifts of aging. As we grow older, we grow wiser. This isn’t folk mythology; it’s fact. We learn from experience. We find more acceptance in our hearts. We assess our strengths and weakness with more humility and self-compassion. We begin to view circumstances in shades of gray rather than black-and-white. Youthful hunger wanes until we find ourselves valuing what matters over the long run above what feels pleasant in the short run. We care less about personal goals and more about collective ones. To my mind, at least, the gain of gentleness, nuance, and altruism more than compensate for the lessening of passion and militance.
  4. Embrace the big picture. If you listed the names of all 108 billion people who have ever lived, at the rate of one per second, it would take 3,400 years. And the entire human saga has unfolded over just the last 0.005% of the time since life began on this planet. Does it make sense to feel affronted by a body’s aging when so many people (and countless other lifeforms) have endured the same fate, and when the span of even the longest human life barely measures as a single tick on the cosmic clock? Each of us is a unique product of history, but we delude ourselves if we believe our own lives more important than those of all the others. If we identify with Life as it has grown on this planet for billions of years, rather than our personal speck of biology, we gain freedom from the constrictions of daily concerns. We feel opened to a larger world, a larger sense of Self, and the great, beautiful mystery that is Living.
  5. Nurture a sense of humor. It helps to take aging less seriously. Early in 2014 I underwent major surgery. Postoperatively, I was horrified to see how the abdominal muscles I’d been strengthening for years ended up looking scarred and distorted. It helped lessen the sense of grief when I joked about losing my ‘last bastion of sexiness.’ The use of humor has a long history of helping the aged feel less burdened by wrinkles, sags, dribbles, creaks, and farts. Join the fun!


4 Tips for Improving Self-Esteem

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 1 min read

shutterstock_113619055Low self-esteem, which is just another term for shame, is very common in our culture. It especially afflicts those who grew up abused, neglected, or bereaved. Here are some simple tips for building confidence.

1. Be Fair

Everyone suffers from flaws. It’s not fair to focus on our own personal defects without acknowledging the messiness of every personality.

If we only notice our own shortcomings, we feel insecure. If we remember that falling short is part of the human condition, we gain compassion for ourselves and others.

2. Be Honest

We all possess strengths, and we all display weaknesses. Identifying vulnerabilities is healthy, provided we also identify areas of resilience, perseverance, effectiveness, and so on. Thorough self-honesty provides a balanced view, a good remedy for low self-esteem.

3. Be Humble

Humility is not a four letter word. Our culture celebrates the brash narcissist, but wiser minds see blustery self-promotion as immature. We can let our works speak for themselves.

4. Be Proud

It’s odd that we see so much egotism but so little pride. Long ago I spent a short time in Jamaica. I was struck by the upright bearing and unspoken confidence displayed by people with so little material wealth and such a long history of oppression. They did not seem to question their right to exist the way I did.

Sometime later, I read these words in The Desiderata:

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.

Pride is knowing one belongs on this earth. Egotism is believing one better and more deserving than others. The former is healthy, the latter toxic.

Fairness, Honesty, Humility, and Pride will go a long way toward eliminating shame and improving self-esteem.

Image of woman on bench available from Shutterstock.



5 Tips for Healing after Childhood Adversity

By Will Meecham, MD, MA • 1 min read

1. Reframe Vulnerabilities

Those of us who experienced abuse, grief, or neglect during childhood feel different from those who didn’t. We are more easily hurt, which leads to withdrawal or rage. We feel less confident in ourselves, which leads to under- or over-achievement. We have problems with attention, suffering either hyper-vigilance or dreaminess.

But what looks like a vulnerability from one perspective can be a strength from another. To be easily hurt is to be sensitive. To lack confidence is to possess humility. The hyper-vigilant are detail-oriented, whereas dreamers are imaginative. The italicized words are all positive human qualities–claim them!

2. Credit the Past

Do you believe you failed to reach your potential? Do you blame yourself?

Imagine your childhood happened to someone else. Would a person who endured your upbringing be highly likely to succeed across the board? Or would such a history be expected to cause problems in later life?

We are products of our conditioning. If we were raised to believe that we don’t count, that those we trust will hurt us, or that we will never measure up, we shouldn’t blame ourselves for struggling in adulthood. Codependence, mistrust, and insecurity make careers and relationships difficult.

3. Feel Special

Rather than feeling like an oddball, celebrate your uniqueness. Throughout history the most interesting figures have been those who deviated from the mainstream. They were not conformists. Consider yourself different in a good way.

4. Reject Societal Standards

This one’s a corollary to Number 3. In order to feel unique rather than defective, we must reject much of what our culture tells us. Is it really true that status, wealth, and popularity are what make a person valuable? Are outward signs of success more impressive than wisdom, compassion, and perseverance? I personally doubt it. So should all of us who grew up in difficult circumstances.

5. Lower Expectations

Life is under no obligation to satisfy our desires. Every wisdom tradition attempts, in one way or another, to help us reign in our demands. These days, I find satisfaction in appreciating natural beauty, feeling warmed by human kindness, and breathing deeply. It doesn’t take much to feel contented in life, and the sooner we realize this, the sooner we heal.



 
 

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