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.






The Quest For Sound Sleep

January 28, 2013


Drifting Off. John Everett Millais’ Ophelia

Oh to sleep like a teenager again! How I miss the capacity to fall asleep on cue, and more importantly, stay asleep until, well, lunch. If only my bladder would co-operate. It demands (and I mean a collection agent demand) that I empty it at 3.00 a.m. sharp. Then there is the problem of noise. Teenage me once slept in a Manhattan nightclub with my head against the speaker. Now any passing garbage (and garbage truck) is enough to break the ironically named sound sleep.

I wish there were a magic bullet. A simple one-size-fits-all solution. But alas, the reasons for poor quality sleep are as countless as the sheep.  What I did discover is a process whereby anyone can help himself.

I begin with the most urgent. When one or more of the body’s physiology is in disharmony, the first symptom is poor sleep. It is the body’s alarm for danger. Consult a reliable physician for any underlying health issues. But, good luck with that. I have found most physicians to be shamelessly dismissive about sleep apnea, pre-diabetes and other ill harbingers. (Perhaps because as interns they worked for months without any sleep). I had to train myself as my own GP (I even purchased a white lab coat). I researched. I quizzed family members (we have enough professionals to open our own hospital). I surfed the net. I read a book or two (okay, two dozen).

Next, I beautified my environment. It may seem like stating the obvious that a clean, tidy bedroom is conducive to good sleep, but in my experience (don’t ask me how I know) for some people the bedroom is the messiest room in the house. The other day I saw a homeless man fast asleep in the island of a highway, in the middle of morning rush hour yet! For about two seconds it made me question whether environment is at all important. I realized he was passed out from intoxication. For the rest of us, proper furniture placement, high end bedding, ambient lighting, pleasant scents and soothing sounds all contribute their little bit. More subtlety, it suggests to the mind that sleep is a luxurious pleasure to be enjoyed. Though I am thrifty in other ways, I do invest in high-thread count sheets and orthopedic pillows.

Thirdly, find yourself a nice temporary bed companion. The least expensive, and definitely the least clingy, is a diary. I used to keep mine on my bedside stand and each morning I recorded the quality and quantity of sleep. I stopped only once it improved significantly. In it I also used to note the main points of previous day. It is a basic but neglected fact that the quality of your sleep is a reflection of your waking hours. Try this simple test: spend the day at a rock concert, indulge in wild orgies, eat a dozen varieties of jalapeno, then observe the quality of your sleep. You get the idea. Sleep is so holistic that it is affected by every other aspect of your waking life, from your stress levels to your nutrition and leisure activities. In disciplining one’s sleep, one ends up disciplining every other aspect of one’s life. People seem to forget that waking and sleep are two sides of the same coin.

The other night I was at dinner party where we were eating till 11.00 p.m. It was a rich, starchy supper, topped off with coffee and a sugary dessert (the host threatened us with espresso). Needless to say sleep was difficult that night. I generally avoid nighttime snacking and also suppers such as pasta, rice and potatoes, which turn liquid a few hours after digestion. Breads on the other hand absorb liquids and are an aide in sleeping through the night. The nocturnal digestion of starch activates insulin, causing blood sugar levels to dip, which then prompts the adrenaline to fire up. Presto, you are wide awake at 4.00 a.m. for no good reason.

It is infuriating. The more annoyed I get, the harder it is to fall back asleep. Now I play a trick on my own mind. I discovered 3.00 a.m. is the perfect solitude for mediation. It beats being angry at the interruption of sleep. This change in attitude has helped me fall back asleep much more quickly. Failing that, it has led to some deep, deep meditative states. Win-win I say.

Not surprising really because sleep and meditation are not dissimilar. Sleep is also an altered state of consciousness. The same skills, the same dedication and the same vigilance cultivated in meditation come in handy in attaining better sleep.

And so I observe my bedtime rituals rather earnestly. It works because the human mind is highly habitual. I avoid violent TV just before bed, specially the news. I find reading before bed a better option, though never fiction. Fiction is designed to put images in your head. I prefer philosophical writings that blow my mind wonderfully out of day’s cares.

If that sounds suspiciously like an endorsement for a life of awareness, that’s because it is. Of course the quest for good sleep (just like the quest for love or happiness) is never-ending. It has to be fine tuned daily according to life’s changing demands.

Sweet dreams.
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