Mind-Body Connections

I’ve recently finished reading Healing Back Pain, The Mind-Body Connection by Dr. John Sarno. A couple of friends told me how within six weeks after reading this book their back pain went away. That was the cure, they read the book. Say what? Yes, the position of this book is that a lot of pain, especially back pain, arises not from any misalignment, or disc issues, or overwork, or strain or any physical source, but rather it stems from pain in the mind. Dr. Sarno tells in medically correct prose how time after time he has successfully treated patients by helping them explore that they are suffering from hard times: harsh emotions sent from their mind course down through their central nervous system, restricting blood flow and causing pain. And as the patient discovers how their mind has been shielding them from emotional injury by distracting them into feeling physical pain, the distraction no longer works. The pain goes away, and the circumstances that created the emotional pain are seen for what they are. That’s how it worked for my friends Christy and Lissy.

Without delving into the details of what Sarno calls “Tension Myositis Syndrome,” a lot of us wellness practitioners talk about how different emotions “inhabit the body.” Anger, fear, hurt, shame, anxiety, guilt, sadness…they all take away the freedom in our motion, the clarity of our thinking, the alignment of our posture, and they put the hurt onto the medial glutes, the hips, the lumbar, the trapezius, and the heart…. This is actually not a new idea, in fact it’s rediscovering what the ancients knew and really what our bodies know very well, that we are a mind-body system. For a few centuries though we’ve been operating (literally and metaphorically) by a strangely controlling and very fallible assumption, that the body is a chemical-physical machine that will do what we tell it to, that corrections come from surgeries, physical therapies and chemical manipulations, and that we are at our highest capacity when our minds operate independently and computer-like, by disembodied logic.

The classic statement for the inspiration of the body-as-machine tradition was Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” Defining us by logic alone; what was he thinking? Did the man really exist only as thought? Why didn’t he declare, I feel therefore I am? Just as easily he could have said, I fear therefore I am, or better yet, I love therefore I am. And why did we follow him down the road of disembodied logic and pretty much go about dismissing as noise all the messages of life that don’t subscribe to said logic? And of course the whole idea crumbles to the level of a joke on all of us when we learn that Descartes’ inspiration for his declaration was a dream from an angel—not a particularly logic-based source. Logic is a powerful tool, and even as we continue to use and need it every day we are steadily unwinding the imposed belief that body and mind are separate with the body subordinate, like driver and car. A declaration that the mind can command everything is essentially a wrong assumption and at its most extreme it is a declaration of war on the body. Today we are ramming into the limitations of Descartes’ assertions, and accepting that heart and body awareness play into the steerage of our lives.

Maybe the most powerful way to understand how mind and spirit inhabit the body is the chakra system, developed by yogis in India. The best treatise I’ve seen on the seven wheel-centers of life-energy that stack up along the spine is Eastern Body, Western Mind by Anodea Judith. Thanks to Dr. Jennifer Rapp, professor at Deep Springs College and formerly at Stanford for turning me on to this book. From the tailbone-area chakra where we contain confidence or fear for our very existence, through our emotional-sexual groin, to the belly chakra that centers our intentions for presence in society, up through the central heart chakra where love generates, on through our creative and intuitive centers and up to the spiritual foramen that finds links to the cosmos, the chakra system is at the very least a map for personal growth. More powerfully, it is a system of awareness that pays dividends as we delve into it over years of practice. One aspect explained well in Judith’s book is how the chakras operate with both rising and sinking energy. Upward is liberation, downward is manifestation, and we are healthy when energy from both directions flows through. Without downward rootedness in the things and processes of everyday life, spiritual sensations are doomed to float aimlessly. Without a spiritual awareness and upward seeking, the things and processes of everyday life are just that, bound to stray and mould in their own dark corners.

In 2001 I was in an airplane crash that crushed at least 3 of my lumbar vertebrae. I was damaged, kind of fundamentally. Today the bones and joints have been physically healed for over a decade, and I rarely feel pain. But for many years and even still I have movement restrictions in that core area of my body. Scar tissue? Not really. Damaged muscles and ligaments? Not any more. I don’t think doctors have a working physical explanation of what limits someone with an “old” injury like this, and I find it most helpful to accept simply that fear inhabits that center of my body. Of course it’s afraid, I suffered a horrendous trauma. My lumbar area wants to protect itself, and my mind wants to reinforce that protection.

But movement is reassuring, and vital. T’ai-chi and yoga and walking and running and rock climbing all are good for me partly by enhancing blood flow, but I suspect that the more important point is that movement reassures those muscles, bones, and joints and probably the part of the mind that manages them that we, body and mind, are all free to move now without fear of getting hurt again. It takes time. There’s been a mental-spiritual recovery that roughly correlates with my physical recovery. I emerged out of stunned terror to awareness and appreciation that I was going to live, and I’ve progressed through rediscovering that I have renewed motivations and a role in life, I’ve sired a son, and onward through the manifestations and aspirations of a roughly healthy individual, all the time working to expand mobility and develop fortitude along my injured spine.

In T’ai-chi practice we integrate movement through the spine, in fact we put the spine in charge. As my teacher Mr. Pang says, we practice because our minds need rest and our bodies need exercise. We do T’ai-chi’s “choreography” with the mind simply paying attention to movement through all the joints, from the center of the body down through the hips and knees, upward through the chest and shoulders, feeling the feet accept the shifting of our weight and our hands at the end of our arms aware but soft as air, just following direction from the very defined center. We pay attention to opening tense areas and activating dead areas, giving less and less quarter to pain or fear holding on with tension. With practice we feel each movement evolve into the next and the next with unrestrained accuracy and fluidness—effective, centered, and relaxed certainty. And, we pay special attention to balancing the paradox of movement: we punch by pressing into the ground through our spine and legs, we push right by opening left. Every movement is facilitated by applying the counterforce. When we are done practicing, the mind comes back in to a slightly new and refreshed body, and thoughts come naturally more positive.

I’ve poked around with a variety of wellness practices, and I’ve found T’ai-chi to be especially effective and straightforward in calling the mind to quiet down and inhabit our whole body. In fact, we can think of it as moving so that the body inhabits the mind, with toe-to-head effectiveness. Without strain you just find the most effective and powerful movements. As Mr. Pang said long before Nike, we just do it.

Stay tuned for a T’ai-chi for Climbers workshop at Body Wisdom studio in Bishop.