Strong mind, strong body?

Strong mind, strong body?

When Toronto’s combative Mayor announced his cancer diagnosis, a chorus of sympathy arose from supporters (few) and detractors (many) alike. They sang from the same hymn book, so to speak: “He is a fighter, he will beat this.”  It is a sentiment I hear routinely at the cancer hospital from the families of patients. Once upon a time the mind-body connection was the stuff of fairy tale. Yogis trampled upon by herds of elephants and surviving unscathed. Daredevils chained in underwater cages escaping certain deaths. Mind over matter, we were told to our amazement.

Now, the whole notion of mind-body and healing has come to be accepted as mainstream. (Thank you, Deepak Chopra. Take a bow, Miss Oprah). The problem is, in our haste to be enlightened, have we failed to think things through?

Whenever a terminal diagnosis is given, it is warm and fuzzy to believe that  my loved one (or I) will beat the odds because he is strong-willed, or because she has the faith of a saint. We somehow take is as gospel that there is a kind of jihad going on between the body (which is falling apart) and the mind (which is struggling to keep it together). So the logic goes, think postive thoughts, stay cheerful and determined, and this fatal illness will be defeated. What we conveniently ignore is that the body is born with its own destiny: it is in our DNA. Yes, a happy mind is good for your well-being, but worry does not grow tumors in the brain, hatred does not clog up the arteries of the heart. Were wishes indeed powerful enough to overcome DNA, trust me, I would be six-foot four! And if being “young at heart” were enough, Viagra need never have been invented.

Think of all the thousands of hospitals in the world: almost every patient who enters their double doors have some pretty solid reasons to live (children, youth, or simply the universal urge to survive) yet not every patient will leave the hospital alive. I once heard a patient (a Jehovah’s Witness), say to his roommate, (a Hindu), that if he were to accept Jesus as his saviour his cancer would vanish. (Hey buddy, then how come you are also tethered to a chemotherapy IV?) If we could cure ourselves based upon will, or the power of faith, cemeteries need never exist.

Where the mind does have a gigantic clout however, is in our habits, which have everything to do with healing. A mind trained in self-discipline will effortlessly adhere to a medication regime. A self-controlled mind will exercise the body without fuss, it will not struggle to choose nutritionally beneficial foods, and perhaps most importantly, such a mind will shut off when rest is required. If, on the other hand, say your mind fights obesity and fails, perhaps it is powerless to keep its promises to stop drinking into alcoholic stupors (or crack-laced tirades). Seriously, can such a mind be considered “strong” enough to fight a fatal diagnosis? (Are you listening Toronto?)

I am reminded of my late guru, the great Swami Chinmayanda, who, when I met him, was globetrotting with three-quarters of his heart dead. The last cardiologist who examined him exclaimed: Why is this man even alive?  Those of us lucky enough to have observed him closely knew the reason. His was a very strong mind indeed, his discipline was the opposite of that of Toronto’s mayor. He could catnap at will, he could slow his heart rate to almost nothing, make his breathing almost invisible. I had the opportunity to quiz him about his seemingly miraculous control over his body. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “The body will do what it needs to. Rise above it. Don’t get too concerned.” His words sounded abstract at the time, but strangely personal.

Little did I know then that twenty years later I would be in a coma with the same cardiac condition as his. Many factors helped me but key among them were years of training in disciplining my mind. As long the mind is in conflict with the habits of the body, it will bring pain. His words helped me to accept the outcome of the body, whatever it might be. My mind reached a place of quietude which, ironically, calmed my heart rate enough for the body to recover.

Sadly, I have witnessed patients struggle to the bitter end because their mind was never trained to let go of the body. Any kind of conflict is painful, be it the struggle to adapt habits or the conflict to deny the inevitable. They died in greater agony than was necessary.

There is indeed a body-mind synergy but it exists at the foundation of the conscious mind. With practice anyone can learn to access the common foundation of both the body and the mind through ending conflict. In other words by learning to let go gracefully, the miraculous is possible. Though even this has its limits. Ultimately, Swami Chinmayananda’s body succumbed to its destiny. None is immortal. There is nothing any of us can do except learn to be at peace with this. Now that is strength.






whomeTom is a life-long smoker and has no intentions of quitting just because he has emphemsyma. He has never exercised in his life, loves his fried foods and lots of it. The more we chat the less respectful he is about my self-care lifestyle. “What, you are trying to live forever?”

No, I say, but before I can finish my sentence he is in the midst of a violent coughing fit and I have to fetch his nurse. In a way he answered his own question, though I doubt if he will understand that. I do not expect to live forever. I do not even expect a normal lifespan given my condition. What I would like though would be to go gracefully and without too much fuss. To that end I take great care of my nutrition, I exercise, I try to sleep well and I meditate. I do everything within my power to ensure quality of death.

Yes, I said quality of death. We are in such denial over death that we prefer to use the term quality of life instead of what we really mean. After all, isn’t quality of life what Tom has been pursuing all his life? He has done precisely whatever made him happy, damn the consequences. “Divine decadence,” as Sally Bowles famously called it. In that iconic song of hers, Life is a cabaret, she speaks of her friend Elsie who lived fast and died young but was the happiest corpse she had ever seen.

All fine and dandy in fiction but statistical research says otherwise. People with a history of alcohol abuse, drug usage, obesity not only die sooner but worse, they have a prolonged and agonized descent into death. Then I meet Angela. As I troll the cancer wards, I see that life is never as simple as that.

Although she is one-third of Tom’s age, Angela is also undergoing the same excruciating  regime of chemo as him. Her skin is a yellow-green, her bald head is wrapped in a scarf. She asks, “Why me?” It is oh so tempting to dismiss Angela as suffering from an overdose of self-pity. After all, isn’t the unspoken half of why me?: “Why not someone else?” But not so fast. Angela is a self-confessed health-nut, a semi-vegetarian, a dance teacher and so she exercises for a living, a non-smoker, a social drinker and has never used even so much as an Asprin, never mind street drugs. When Angela asks, “Why me?”,  I truly have no answer.

Perhaps it is bad genes. Perhaps Angela is plain unlucky, whatever that means. I even had one young woman say to me that she believed her cancer and imminent death were the result of a curse put upon her by someone who hated her. All I can do is shrug my shoulders. Much of death, as well of life, is random, mysterious, follows no logic or reason. Oh, yes, we can weave whatever narrative we feel comfortable with but there are always far too many exceptions to ever explain away everything.

As I walk home I question why is it exactly that I do all the many things I do for my long-term good when realistically, my long-term is not going to be that long? Is it because it makes me feel pious and somehow better than others? Am I as selfish as the people who never move past “Why me?” Perhaps. I also know that my self-care increases my stamina and pain tolerance. People who practice self-care are better able to withstand extreme trauma such as bone marrow transplants or severe heart attacks.

I think at every step of life we have to make a choice: pleasure now or avoid pain later. It is  rarely a clear-cut choice and often I make the wrong one, but overall I opt for the greater good because that is my nature. There is no right or wrong in that. I am no better or worse than Sally Bowles or Tom or Angela. I don’t discount there are statistical probabilities for sickness and death, but ultimately both are random. So instead of asking, Why me?, I prefer to ask, Why not me?

social hygiene

I just saw a young man walking towards the exit of our building while having his index finger up his nose. He then used the same index finger to press the “open” button. I shudder to think of the next unsuspecting resident who touches that button.

This comes on the heels of last evening, the first of this season’s Christmas functions or as I call them–the Holiday Flu functions.

Lots of strangers crowded into a small room, much kissing cheeks and the obligatory handshaking. Here is a little secret about men: we rarely wash our hands properly after peeing, if at all. Then there is the uncooked finger food, spread out for the attendees to inspect, some coughing while examining. Then we come along and pick up the food with our fingers, the same ones with which we have shaken hands (with the guy who did not wash his hands after peeing).

I know at least one harried hostess (who shall remain nameless) who, when she ran out of plastic wine glasses, decided to reuse the discarded ones without even washing them.

Then there are the people I have observed returning food from their plates back to the buffet trays (they changed their minds after one bite).

Also the ones who use their personal cutlery to scoop out dips such as salsa and humus from the serving bowl.

Of course all of the above is exasperated by alcohol, which not only weakens the immune system but makes one distracted, less aware.  It is no co-incidence that flu season and Christmas party season are one and the same.

There was a time when ladies wore gloves to soirees, children were taught to cover their coughs, men carried handkerchiefs in their breast pockets. Those hygienic niceties are now relics of the  formal past.  As people live in ever more dense cities, one would expect them to be more aware of social hygiene, but we find the opposite–people care less and less. Of course we have a built in immune system, but it was never designed to handle high density living or instant global travel. We saw with the SARS epidemic how quickly a virus spread from Hong Kong to the entire world.

I rarely shake hands with anyone anymore. While this may seem socially awkward, there are many polite alternatives. The Michelle Obama Fist Bump is a current and cool alternative. As are many Asian alternatives. The Japanese head bow might feel too formal, but the Namaste greeting of folded hands leaves no doubt about your friendliness. But if a handshake is socially unavoidable, I carry a pocket hand sanitizer wherever I go. (It is also great for the supermarket after having touched so many public surfaces.) But at functions you need to be discrete, as people sometimes take offense. i usually make frequent trips to the bathroom for hand washing.

And that is the trick with practicing social hygiene, juggling politeness with awareness of high-risk situations.

One can’t exist in a bubble. One has to interact with the world. I drink alcohol slowly and in small quantities because I enjoy keeping aware. I also think it is important to boost my immune capabilities with foods rich in vitamin C and anti-toxicants. Kiwis and critic fruits, for example, boost immune functions. As does ensuring a good night’s sleep and regular exercise. Although the latter can expose one to more hazards. I routinely observe people not sanitizing before or after using a machine at the gym. I carry my own towel at the gym. People assume I use it for wiping off sweat from by face, but I really use it wipe off theirs. I use it to cover machine bars and surfaces.

Part of being self-aware means you notice your hand gestures, even when not in public. I rarely rub my eyes or bite my fingers because this is one of the ways we invite bacteria and viruses into our bodies.

Which brings me under the mistletoe. This kissing under the mistletoe tradition sometimes leads to the inebriated office grope–or so I am told. There is no such thing as sanitary sex. It’s all about exchanging saliva and touching, well, everything. While sex with a co-worker may be ethically questionable, there is no question it is physically messy. Only an overdose of eggnog will convince a person otherwise–and it sometimes does. I consider myself fortunate to have reached an age where sex is a very low priority in life.

Though ironically, I am also at an age where reaching out to others leaves me vulnerable to more infections than casual sex ever could. I cut hair at the homeless shelter and some of those guys don’t bathe. I wear latex gloves but there is nothing I can do about the odors. I have to remind myself that that is natural scent of the human body. And that these people are more than the sum of their body parts. Their essence is consciousness, which has no scent. This helps me stay cheerful and calm, and that aids my immune system.

Therefore, I try to remember the same about those Holiday party guests, no matter how unsanitary their habits.

Centenarian Fauja Singh completed the Toronto Marathon.

Exercise and I have had an on-off relationship. Back in the Eighties I too was caught up in the workout-for-vanity craze of that era. This time round however, the push came from my cardiologist. My ejection fraction, the amount of blood the heart pumps out with each beat, was so low that he thought of installing a defibrillator into my chest cavity. I didn’t much care for having an electronic device surgically attached to my heart. Reluctantly I began to use the treadmill in my building five times a week. That was three years ago. Now I only ever miss a session if I am sick, or out of town. I keep going back because I have discovered that exercise has a few other benefits rarely talked about.

Sleep:– I used to have very erratic sleep, often waking in the night, unable to return to sleep. Since I began regular exercise my sleep patterns have stabilized. It is not only the quantity of sleep that has improved but the quality. My dreams are less wild, I feel more rested now when I awake. Which has also improved the rhythms of my…

Appetite:  I now actually feel hungry. Eating is a pleasure  and not just something I have to do for the good of my health. In particular, I am drawn to fresh fruits and vegetables. I enjoy making my own meals because I trust the healthy ingredients I put into them. I believe both the sleep and the eating rhythms are tied to….

Breathing: Cardio improves the respiratory system as well. To maximize this effect,  while I run on the treadmill I deliberately breathe deeply. In yoga, breathing and movement are closely synchronized, but people seem to forget about that in other activity.  By focussing on the breath, the heart, and the lungs I get the full benefit of the half-hour. I see so many people on the treadmill with their i-Pods or their magazines. I prefer to be aware of what is happening within my body during movement. The spill over of that attention is that I am more mindful when walking down the street. When walking along the street, or doing mundane physical work, my attention returns to deep, rhythmic breathing. Even sitting on the subway, or in a movie I habitually focus on my breathing and that helps with …

Moods: Regular exercise normalizes the hormones of the body, the serotonin and Dopamine and other feel-good body chemicals. I find I can handle stress much better than before. I have more mental stamina to think about deeper things, read more meaningful books. The world feels less scary now that I exercise, as though I have taken back some control. This means there has been an improvement in my…

Relationships: Having that half-hour to myself daily has afforded me the luxury of self-reflection. I find my mind spontaneously reviews the previous day’s activity and my behavior in it. Regret is not always a bad thing. If it is combined with compassion, it can lead to remorse and an improvement in how one relates with others.  Plus I have met some great people in the exercise room, which has led to more….

Friendships: There are some great people in my building who lead interesting lives, are caring and compassionate people. Some are fighting off aging issues such as imbalance, painful joints, or cardiac problems. Being around good company brings with it greater peace of mind, which helps with…

Awareness: Meditations are deeper, more insightful and rewarding. They seem to carry over effortlessly into daily activity. All of which feeds into improving the above aspects of life. A kind of virtuous circle is set up. As far as I know regular, moderate exercise is only panacea there is for a balanced, healthy life.

These benefits accrue over time. Moderate but regular exercise is the key here, which of course helps develop patience. Oh, and by the way, my ejection fraction improved significantly. My cardiologists decided I did not need a defibrillator at this time.

%d bloggers like this: