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.

 

 

 

 

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Just as nutritious as mom's?

Just as nutritious as mom’s?

Shivakumar’s  hospitable food arrives cellophane wrapped, the main dish of boiled cauliflower and some kind of brown meat patty is obviously microwaved because it cools quickly and the fibers have that lacerated quality to them. I am embarrassed to serve this food to my elderly Sri Lankan patient. He is accustomed to his wife’s delicately spiced cooking. I have no doubt that were she still alive she would bring him lovingly-prepared tupperware containers of curried prawns and string hopper noodles. I also have no doubt that as a consequence, his recovery would be so much swifter.

One can hardly blame the hospitals for their low-cost approach to feeding patients. They survive on ever-shrinking budgets. Patients’ needs and tastes are so diverse that it would require  the skills of a master chef to keep each patient content for his entire length of stay. Although all meals are vetted by a trained nutritionist, I can’t help but wonder: does food nourish more than body?

Of course, any master chef will tell you that food which is presented aesthetically, with the right color combinations, fresh green garnish, on beautifully crafted ceramics will taste better to the recipient than if the same meal were slopped together on a styrofoam container. They say we taste with our eyes as well as our tongues. Isn’t that because a thoughtfully presented meal signals to the mind that care and attention has been lavished on this meal? Isn’t it this tenderness that tastes so delicious?

Recently I was treated by my sister to a week of meals I had not tasted since my childhood. As we reminisced about our mutual upbringing, I was unaware that she was making notes of the flavors and tastes that I was sub-consciously missing. She continually surprised me by making for me obscure dishes I had forgotten I loved. Nothing elaborate, street foods, perhaps even peasant comfort foods one might say. Yet nothing ever tasted quiet so good to me (and I have dined at some of the best restaurants). Was it the care she put into the meals? The love and attention? Yes, plus one other vital ingredient.

A few years back I eagerly accompanied my friend to a newly-opened restaurant in our neighborhood. We had observed the extensive renovation done to the building and had high hopes for the food. Being vegetarian I am accustomed to having limited choices in menus. The sole vegetarian dish listed was a pasta dish which I verified was carcass-free with my waiter before I ordered it. As soon as I bit into the meal I was assaulted by the crunch and fetid taste of a dead chicken. I summoned the waiter and sent back the meal. He took the plate to the kitchen but returned apologetically, explaining that the chef thought that there was so little meat in that dish he didn’t expect that I should mind it. I was appalled by the blatant disrespect this chef had for me and my choices. To this day I hesitate to dine in that place.

It occurred to me then that we invest too much trust in the persons cooking our meals. It is a well-known food industry trick that should a guest act belligerent, rude or snooty, the cooks and the servers have ways of getting even. Having once worked in the food industry I have personally witnessed cooks spitting into the food, waiters pissing in the soup, then watching as the clueless guests devoured their just desserts. And yet we continue to trust the people working behind those steel doors of restaurant kitchens?

Materialists would argue that food is only about the nutrition in the thing eaten. Five-star gourmet meals comes out the same mess in the toilet bowl as the machine-made TV dinners. Spiritualist say that beyond the aesthetics, food is a reflection of the person who cooks it. They say the moods and emotions of the cook are transferred and digested through the meal. Eat the food cooked by an angry or depressed person and you ingest his hate. Likewise, eat the food of one who is cheerful and loving and that meal will nourish you emotionally as well as physically. I think one reason your mother’s food is always the best is because it is psychologically linked to your first meals from her bosom. It is no small coincidence that the most influential chefs of today have a joyous sensuality about them: Jamie Oliver, Padma Lakshmi, Nigella Lawson.

In Toronto there is a restaurant called O Noir, which serves food in complete darkness. As soon as you enter there is only pitch black, a blind waiter guides you to your table. When the food arrives you can’t see what it looks like. You don’t know if it is exactly as you ordered. You don’t know who served it and who cooked it. You taste it based on, well, blind faith.


hungerWhile the rest of us were tucking into our Christmas feast, Barbara was beginning her fast. No, she is no vain fashionista, simply a woman in hospital with a severe stomach issue. Whenever she swallows there is intolerable pain  from her gastric region and so the doctors have denied her food and water till it clears. Four weeks later she is still not allowed food or water. Barbara shuts the door of her room when the hospital’s lunch trays arrive for neighboring patients because even a whiff of the food drives her insane with jealousy. It may be rehydrated mashed potatoes and microwaved fish but when you are deprived of food for as many days as she has, it still smells like the best gourmet ever.

She grabs several cooking magazines from my trolley and says mischievously, “Food porn.” She dreams about food and she says whenever she closes her eyes the only images in her mind’s eye are, well,… you know.

I saw Barbara again this week. “Still not eating?” I asked. “No,” she replied, “but I don’t think about it anymore. It is her experience, as well as mine, that after a length of time without food, you cease to get hungry. It is as though the stomach has given up and put away all its usual tricks to get you to eat. I wonder, is hunger just another kind of addiction?

It seems to follow the same pattern as any other addiction. There is a dependency. You get cranky and irritable when deprived. Denied too long, you experience withdrawal symptoms. But persist and you reach a state of freedom. You no longer crave, you no longer feel the urge to kill to get your fix.

The idea is not new. Religions have been promoting fasting as good for the soul for centuries. We used to hear myths about yogis who lived for decades without food and water. They survived purely on the energy derived from the Cosmos (much in the same way as fashion models survive without eating purely on the energy derived from attention). Perhaps fasting’s value lies in demonstrating that we don’t need to eat as regularly as we believe?

Mahatma Gandhi famously survived twenty-eight days without food. During the 1981 Hunger Strikes by Irish prisoners (also against the British) ten of the protesters survived without eating for between forty-six and seventy-three days. And then there’s me, getting cranky if I happen to miss a meal.

I am one of those people who has no store of body fat. Denied a meal, my blood sugars dip to a point where a migraine is imminent. I notice that when I do not eat, the stress response kicks in almost immediately. I am unable to concentrate, on edge with elevated adrenalin and neurotoxins floating within my body. So I never fast for recreation, though for medical treatments I have had to endure both short and long periods of fasting.

What is interesting about fasting is how we crave certain foods more than others. The hidden desires entangled within biological hunger reveal themselves. We see that our hunger has morphed from a simple survival mechanism to this monstrous hydra-like creature with multitude tentacles of needs and wants. The marketing industry has exploited these needs throughly in getting people addicted to salty and fatty foods. There is a reason fresh fruits and vegetables are always located near the entrance of the supermarket. Once a shopper has satisfied his need to buy nourishing foods, he is much more inclined to indulge his addictions for ice cream pies and deep-fried pizza.

Then there is this whole cultural preference around food. When I was at an ashram in India, there was a boy from Mexico studying with me. During his first week I caught him in the cafeteria rolling the Indian rotis into burritos around the curried vegetables. I had to laugh. Burritos are what his mother taught him to recognize as food, not this strange Indian meal. I personally love International cuisines, but as a vegetarian whenever I travel I am as suspicious of local cuisines as any befuddled tourist.

Few things are as unique about a person as his specific taste in food: the type of spicing he prefers, the vegetables he prefers, the obsession for meats (either indulging or abstaining). Psychologically also, some eat for comfort, some eat as a social activity, others find it impossible to eat without reading or watching the TV at the same time.

Eat we must but I believe the benefit of fasting lies in its ability to free us from insistence upon specific foods as well as specific conditions. It can make us more adaptable, more flexible to changing situations around us. It can help us to grab control over our meanest emotions.

And oh yes, it can help us empathize with people such as Barbara.


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?

Nutrition Myths

June 4, 2012


The news media love to pepper their pages with the latest discoveries in the field of nutrition and health. And who can blame them. Amid all the economic gloom and crime reportage, a story about a startling new finding on the merits of tumeric or olive oil is a breath of fresh air. Or is it? For those of us  interested in self-care, there is a confusing amount of information about just which foods are good for your body. In this post, I have decided to critically examine some common myths.

Broccoli is a superfood: While it is true that broccoli does have cholesterol-reducing properties as well vitamins and fiber, so do other cruciferous vegetables. A researcher might conduct a study to prove the benefits of a food group and he chooses a member of that class of vegetables to experiment with. But the media confuses the sample for the finding.  If broccoli or blueberries were used as a sample in the study, the media announces that broccoli or blueberries is the superfood. Totally missing the point of the research, and confusing the public. The truth is, a good serving of a variety of fruits and vegetables in  your diet will have steady, long term benefits. That is all the researchers ever try to illustrate.

Fresh is better than frozen or canned. Instinctively that makes sense but that is not the case. So much of our fresh food is imported, and as such is picked unripe to increase its shelf life during transportation. By contrast, sometimes canning happens at the farms themselves, or the produce is frozen before canning, hence retaining its full nutritional properties. Of course, buying the seasonal fruits and vegetables from your local farmer’s market is the best tasting option, nutritionally the canned variety is usually the same.

Supplements are good for you. Some of us have a plethora of vitamins on our shelves – every letter of the alphabet. Yet there is no medical evidence to suggest that popping vitamin pills has health benefits. That does not mean they don’t do any good either. It may just be that people who consume supplements are  concerned about their well-being and as such do other things such as exercise to maintain good health. Hence the supplements alone do not give them better health but we can’t isolate that they don’t either. Generally, there is no substitute for a well-balanced diet. Supplements are useful for short-term deficiencies detected in your blood work (such as iron or calcium), but they should not be relied upon as a permanent and exclusive solution.

Fish Oil is good for the brain and heart. Omega-3 is, and fish oil does contain rich amounts of it. But then, so do walnuts, flax seeds and kiwi. If you have an ethical issue with consuming mangled up fish bodies (as I do) then many alternatives are available that are equally as good. Though you would never guess it from the media coverage fish oil gets.

The Mediterranean Diet is Best. This makes for good press, but what does it really mean? Italian food is often high in starch and is very salty, very different from a couscous salad. The essence of the Mediterranean diet is that it is low in red meats, and high in fresh fruits and vegetables. The cuisine of any part of the world that is balanced and consumed with an awareness of these facts is just as good. I have often heard it said that Indian food is bad for you because it is oily. My mother always cooked everything from scratch. She never used processed foods. Oil was used sparringly, we rarely ate fried foods. It is also now known that spices such as tumeric and cumin contain healing curcumin, an effective anti-inflammatory.

My mother also taught me to splurge on the best quality of fresh food I could afford. While cutting corners with other luxuries makes sense, cutting corners with nutrition does not. One of the great things about living in a global world is the availability of varieties of cuisines at your doorsteps. It is foolish to restrict yourself to just one type of foods. Nutrition seems complicated if we rely on headlines, but the research is all pointing to the same few things. Eat well-balanced, variety of foods in moderation. Simple.

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