Letting Go

After my woodland retreat in early May 2012, the plan was to change my life in all ways that mattered.  It’s always good to have a plan.

Plans and intentions are fragile boats on a changing sea, though.  In spite of my determination to keep an upbeat attitude toward this cancer and my treatment choices, the fact remains that the diagnosis daunts.  Even now, I can almost never forget that I have cancer.  Most of the time this consciousness remains a muted presence at the edge of my awareness, rarely interfering with what I do or think.  But sometimes I sink a bit.

I tried to keep up my Chinese medical practice, but it wasn’t fair to my patients.  Chinese medicine is an energy medicine.  During acupuncture sessions, the practitioner needs to be fully present with the patient to be sensitive to subtle changes in the patient’s energy.  To be honest, I know I’ve given acupuncture treatments from time to time while my mind and energy wandered off, but I always strove to cultivate a consistent “presence” in the treatment room.

In the months following the cancer diagnosis, I needed time to focus on my health and to regain emotional equilibrium.  Therefore, in late May I told my patients I was taking a leave of absence for the summer.  My daughter’s upcoming August wedding provided a great “cover” for this leave, since sharing personal problems with patients violates their boundaries and is unethical.  For the few who didn’t buy that excuse I admitted there was an illness in the family–as well as the wedding–that needed my attention.  (For the record, Diana and her fiance did all the work for the wedding.  My job was to show up in a nice dress and shoes.  All went well.)

At the end of August, I decided to close my practice permanently because it was unclear when or if I could ever be wholly or consistently present for my patients again.

When I returned to practice in September I announced I would retire in mid-November to current patients and closed the practice to new patients.  Most people would finish their course of treatments before R-Day, and those with chronic conditions would have time to find other suitable Chinese medicine clinics.  Turning 64 and my growing family (another grandchild on the way!) provided plausible reasons for this decision.

For many years I’ve shared my office with a muscular therapy practitioner and friend, Kevin, who agreed to take over the lease.

Earlier in the year, an acupuncturist new to the area asked to use my treatment room on evenings and weekends.  After I retired, she took over the space.  I didn’t sell my practice to Marni or give her my patient charts (unless the patient asked), but it was a relief to know my patients would have at least the continuity of the location if they wanted it.

Now, almost a year later, I can report that the decision to retire was the right one.  I did, and still sometimes still do, though, miss this work that I loved for decades.

Kevin’s keeping the office has allowed me the luxury of just walking away.  I don’t have to deal with disposing of the office furnishings, just yet, and Kevin doesn’t mind all the herbs still on the pharmacy shelves (they smell wonderful).  I’ve given all my powered herb concentrates to Brendan.  Eventually I’ll either pass along the healing roots, berries, leaves, shells, cicada husks, barks, flowers, etc. to someone who’s trained to use them, or I’ll compost them for my meditation garden.  I’m keeping the prepared herbs (tea pills and tinctures) because they remain viable for a long time, and might prove useful to me, family and friends in the future.

This beautifully laid out office became, to me, and possibly to Kevin (I’ve never asked), a sacred space for healing.  I frequently see Kevin for massage, and it’s taken a while to enter the office as “just” a client without a wistful pang.  But heck, my art collection is still on the walls that I patched and painted when I set the office up years ago, and Kevin keeps “my” potted plants in excellent health.  As I deeply inhale the earthy fragrance of the pharmacy that wafts into the waiting room, my mind and body relax to the green beings’ message that “healing is here.”

This has been a soft exit for me.  I can still imagine that, when the tumors dissolve, I can take up my career again without even having to set up a new office (providing Marni would be willing to share the treatment room).  The possibility of return made the transition less wrenching last year, and each passing month finds me more peaceful about letting go.

“Letting go,” actually, is a major theme in cancer treatment, especially in breast and prostate cancers that occur in late middle and old age.  It’s a “Dai Mai” thing.

When we were tiny blastocysts, our energetic matrix was comprised of the Eight Extra Vessels (8EVs), which roughly form an octahedron-shaped energy scaffolding within the body.  The 8EVs pretty much governed our development for our first few years, then receded deeper into our bodies when the Primary Meridians and other secondary vessels reached maturation and took over.

What’s germane to this post is the 8EVs’ influence that continues after that.  Each of the eight “mai” (“vessel” or “meridian”) controls an aspect of our life’s “curriculum” from birth to death, in a specific chronological order, following our life cycles of 7/8 years (7 for women, 8 for men).  The last stage, the final 8EV cycle, is that of the Dai Mai.

The Dai Mai is the only EV that runs horizontally across the body.  Sometimes called the “Belt/Girdle Channel,” it roughly circles the waist area.  Its job is to absorb any unresolved issues from our post-natal environment, to be a holding receptacle for all the wrongs, traumas, betrayals, and other deeply held emotions that we couldn’t deal with when they occurred.  By the time our 8th life cycle comes around, most of us have accumulated quite a lot of stuff there.  “Middle age spread” is a visual analog of these emotional accretions.

Physical symptoms of Dai Mai pathology include bloating, low back pain, a sensation of sitting in cold water, stiffness in the hips, watery ears, cataracts, glaucoma, tremors, spasms…

Emotional symptoms usually include obsessive thinking, dwelling in the past, holding on to bad habits or ineffective coping strategies, resisting change…

When we cling to whatever doesn’t serve us anymore–old griefs, old grudges, old fears, old beliefs, old failures, even old triumphs–these useless artifacts collected during our lives can congeal into physical lumps and tumors.  Uterine fibroids, prostate and breast cancers, and omental fat (from accrued unresolved stress) are all Dai Mai issues.

The Dai Mai represents the final cycle of life.  This is the time to release all that stored detritus (through diet, exercise, body work, meditation, therapy, journaling, or whatever does the trick for you).  If you jettison the junk and take down all the barriers that block your will, you’ll unfetter your energy, heal your body and create a more satisfying life. Freeing yourself from the past encourages forward movement.  Dai Mai treatment is the closest thing we have to a “reset” protocol, with the added bonus that “reset” doesn’t mean “erase.”  We get to keep our life’s experiences–all of them–but without the emotional weight that drags us down and makes us sluggish and, turns us, frankly, into boring old geezers.

“Letting go” is the plan.  Dai Mai issues, though, by their very nature and duration in our lives, can be quite stubborn!  Letting go, and I mean really letting go of past stuff, takes time, effort, and patience, but, most of all, courage.  It means examining all those painful traumas, regrets, cringe-worthy deeds, and sins of omissions, and then stripping them of their power by forgiving ourselves and others.  I’ve mentioned earlier the acupoint Zulinqi/Gall Bladder 41/”Receptacle of Tears that Should Be Overflowing.”  This point, so important for treating breast cancer, turns out also to be the Dai Mai’s “master point” (even though it’s on the foot!).  Not surprisingly, in Chinese medicine, the Gall Bladder’s energetic system is the one that gives us courage to make decisions, to act, and to make changes.

Letting go of my medical practice was the logical first step in this process, because I now have time to wade through the swampland of my considerable Dai Mai accumulations.  The last time Brendan needled Zulinqi on me, a few weeks ago, I spent the rest of the day sobbing.  It took me a long time to get to that point (pun may be intended), but letting go of those stored up tears is a great second step.  First you cry, then you decide to act and make changes.

My Kitchen

Following my retreat in May 2012, I purged our pantry and freezer of all flours, pastas, whole grains (including oats and rice) and sugars, and I cleared off shelves to make room for seaweeds, dried mung beans, Job’s tears, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots and other staples.  I didn’t renew our share in a local meat CSA, because the only meats allowed on my new diet are duck and pork.  We donated most of the meat in our freezer (lamb, beef, chicken) to a food pantry.  Almost all of our spices and herbs moved to a high shelf, out of my reach.

(By early fall, rice and some other grains were back in the kitchen, mostly for John, but, I confess, sometimes I need a little rice–brown/black/wild–along with the usual beans or lentils to liven up my steamed vegetables and pork/duck/fish.)

I stored the coffee maker and grinder (to use when we have company) and got a single cup machine for John’s breakfast.

Next, I replaced all our plastic food containers with glass storage jars and dishes.  Even BPA free plastics can leach out chemicals, so why risk it?  Three years ago, before my diagnosis, we bought a Sodastream carbonator so we could make sparkling water in glass carafes, mostly to reduce environmental waste, but also because I think of water in plastic bottles as “hormone water.”

Twice a week I cook up large quantities of mung beans and Job’s tears and refrigerate them in glass containers.  I also store all our dried foods in either glass or ceramic jars or in stainless steel canisters.  Of course, most non-fresh foods are sold in plastic containers, so I’m sure there’s going to be some chemical contamination.  (By the way, those carbonless receipt copies that you get from ATMs, restaurants and cash registers are loaded with BPA–avoid prolonged contact with them and don’t recycle them.  See  http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/factors/plastic.)

I didn’t have to upgrade our cookware.  Herbalists just don’t use aluminum or non-stick pans for cooking, since those surfaces can react with herbs and food, altering taste and efficacy while adding toxins.  All my pots and pans are stainless steel, glass, or ceramic.

I am consciously trying to let food be my medicine, using my newly organized kitchen as a compounding pharmacy.

This whole dietary endeavor isn’t as cheerless as it sounds, though.  I often enjoy the alchemical challenge of transforming a narrow range of ingredients into a variety of dishes.  The condiments, herbs, and spices that support my treatment goals, though quite limited, add enough zest to stave off total boredom.

John gallantly offered to eat only what I eat–to show solidarity with this restricted diet–but I let him off the hook.  My diet targets specific and shifting internal conditions in my body.  John and I follow a plan that has worked for more than a year.  For most breakfasts we prepare our own very different foods (I have Job’s tears and asparagus), except for a shared bacon (local, nitrate free) and eggs breakfast two or three times a month (he gets toast and honey).  John has whatever he wants for lunch (at work), while I have mung beans, seaweed, and shiitake mushrooms.   Dinner at home together follows my diet but he augments his meal with bread, cheese and sometimes wine.

I’d like to report that I follow this diet all the time.  Not so!  When we travel or eat in restaurants with friends I try to stick as close to Daoist dietary principles as possible.  But, for all my braggadocio about kitchen alchemy and the intellectual challenge of whipping up enticing meals of steamed vegetables and legumes, I occasionally cheat–sometimes outrageously, but always joyously.  Food really is medicine, and sometimes sharing an apple galette with friends is just what the doctor ordered.