Ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties

Day of the Dead, 2013

Ghosts!…I almost think we are all of us ghosts…It is not only what we have inherited from our father and mother that “walks” in us.  It is all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth.  They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we cannot shake them off.  Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines.  There must be ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sands of the sea.  And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light.  (Mrs. Alving, Act II, Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, 1881)

 

Ghosts in our cells

As I understand the biomedical narrative, cancer occurs when our genetic material runs amok, causing cell mutation and disordered proliferation.  This is not my field of expertise, obviously, but my research has led me to the fascinating field of epigenetics, the study of epigenomes.  The clearest and most succinct explanation of epigenomes can be found at http://www.genome.gov/27532724:

A genome is the complete set of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, in a cell. DNA carries the instructions for building all of the proteins that make each living creature unique.

Derived from the Greek, epigenome means “above” the genome. The epigenome consists of chemical compounds that modify, or mark, the genome in a way that tells it what to do, where to do it and when to do it. The marks, which are not part of the DNA itself, can be passed on from cell to cell as cells divide, and from one generation to the next…

The epigenome is made up of chemical compounds, some of which come from natural sources like food and others from man-made sources like medicines or pesticides. As it marks the genome with these chemical tags, the epigenome serves as the intersection between the genome and the environment.

An epigenome essentially programs its cell by allowing some genes to express and by muting the rest (i.e., by turning some genes “on” and some genes “off”).  Something sometimes prompts normal cells to mutate and divide like crazy, and my money would be on the epigenomic binary mediation between the genome and environmental stimuli–if I were a biomedicine practitioner.

Strong emotions can trigger chemical chain reactions in the body, and these chemicals probably affect our epigenomes just like known environmental carcinogens.  Experiments with rats and mice show that traumatic events inflicted on a pregnant rodent can cause post-traumatic stress disorder in her offspring, and even in their offspring.  (This reminds me of the Old Testament passage that says that the iniquities of the fathers will be visited upon their children and their children’s children, unto the third or fourth generation.)  Remember the much maligned Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who said that acquired characteristics could be passed on to future generations?  He may have been spot on.

Scott C. Johnson, a journalist who wrote a short book entitled “Ghost in the Cell,” reports on research into the possible epigenomic perpetuation of family violence and dysfunction in humans, even if children are removed early from their families of origin and placed in nurturing environments.  One young women, who managed to break her family’s cycle of violence in her life, for now, tells him:  “I can’t really shake some of this behaviour, it’s like a ghost.  The ghost, it’s in my being.  No matter what…that ghost is still there. It’s like it’s out to kill me.

You don’t have to grow up in a toxic home environment to suffer from emotional toxicity.  Watching the evening news or any 24/7 TV news network can certainly fill you up with enough fear, paranoia, anxiety, and anger to keep your sympathetic nervous system constantly on “red alert.”  The list of things to fear grows exponentially every day, overwhelming us with a sense of helplessness, defeat and doom.  Ibsen’s “Mrs. Alving” was right about that: “Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see ghosts gliding between the lines.”

As communications technology advances, so does our awareness of human violence and cataclysmic disasters in even far corners of the world.  Sometimes we witness these horrors in real time (thanks to cell phone cameras and the internet).  We are traumatized every time we turn on the TV or read a newspaper.  No wonder cancer is so prevalent, with such relentless assaults on our sense of peace and well-being.  It’s too soon to know if emotionally prompted epigenomic changes to our genomes cause cancer directly, but I believe these changes may explain why too much (or some types of) stress weakens our immune systems (wei qi), our primary protection from tumor development.

Maybe cancer research into epigenomes will someday discover ways to calm the ghosts in our wilding cells, those galloping headless horsemen who shatter our health.

In the meantime, I’ll do my own ghost-busting, relying mostly on classical Chinese medicine, which offers several strategies for treating the problem.

At one point in the history of Chinese medicine, it was considered immoral to use the Eight Extra Vessels to treat diseases, in the belief that tampering with the 8EV’s, as blueprints for our lives, alter a person’s destiny.  If you interpret “destiny” as “DNA,” as some contemporary Chinese medical theorists do, then it makes a great deal of sense to tap into the 8 EVs, especially the Dai Mai, to treat breast and prostate cancers.  Maybe Dai Mai treatments alter epigenomes to program healthy gene expression, thus exorcising the ghosts in our cells.

Negative emotions affect epigenomes in ways that cause us harm.  Fortunately, positive emotions produce the opposite effect.  A change of heart may literally change our genetic expression and reverse the disease process.  Chinese medicine describes this as the “Heart Vaporizes Phlegm”.  If we think of “Phlegm” as representing all the physical and emotional pollution that gums up our thinking, poisons our body and spirit, and scrambles healthy genetic expression in our cells, then we should throw all our effort into cultivating joy (real joy, not mere pleasure) to strengthen our Heart energy.  We can initiate this powerful transformation through meditation (such as the Buddhist “loving-kindness/Metta” meditation), by expressing gratitude for all our blessings (i.e., prayer), by using affirmations, or by taking whatever action works.  Each and every day, do something that gives you joy.

Sometimes, though, we are too harried by ghosts to even think about joy.

Metaphysical Ghosts

In Asheville last April I attended Jeffrey Yuen’s 4-day seminar on “Change and the Dynamics of Shen [Spirit] According to Sun Si-Miao.”  Sun Si-Miao (581-682 CE), “The Medicine King,” remains a major–if not the greatest–influence on classical Chinese medicine today.

This year’s classes continued Jeffrey’s April 2012’s lectures on Sun Si-Miao’s work, especially SS-M’s use of the “13 Ghost Points” (to treat possession/mental illness).  Together, these seminars summarized how to diagnose and treat disorders of the mind/spirit, particularly when certain events, habits of mind, or other obstacles arise (such as strokes, dementia and, yes, even spirit possession) to distract and possibly derail us from completing our life’s work.

“Ghosts” in Chinese medicine can mean anything from actual ghosts to worms and parasites, but the concept also provides a powerful metaphor for mental illness.  All that is neither here nor there for this blog, although I believe that Sun Si-Miao was a brilliant psychologist, too.  I want to focus on the idea of “ghosts” as being those non-tangible entities that haunt us–memories of trauma, missed opportunities, stupid decisions, unkind words that hang in the air–anything that makes us feel uneasy.

Tucked into the seminar’s discussion of diagnosing and treating ghost-related disorders was an aside about protecting oneself against “the 3 corpses and the 9 worms” (or, as the Scottish prayer has it, “ghoulies and ghosties.”)

Deep background information:  The first known doctors in China, in the Shang Dynasty  (ca. 1600-1046 BCE), were shamans or spirit mediums.  The oldest Chinese character for “acupuncture” depicts a spear being thrown into an empty space, to pierce a ghost or spirit.  Sun Si-Miao was clearly working within a tradition that had already been evolving for at least a thousand years.

I decided to try Sun Si-Miao’s protection program.  I ain’t afraid of no ghost, but cancer’s a kind of possession, isn’t it?

There are four parts to this regimen, each one to be done daily for 100 days (or 10 days on, 5 days off for 10 cycles):

1.  Practice visualization (recommended: Daoist qigong’s “Microcosmic Orbit”)

2.  Don’t eat grains (no rice, noodles, pasta, or breads/pastries)

3.  Do exercises that emphasize exhalation

4.  Take 10 herbal tea pills of song jie (lignum pini nodi), fu ling (poria) and several optional herbs once a day in a small amount of wine.

I had never made my own tea pills before, so I focused my efforts on the herbs.  (I love working with herbs–definitely a joyful activity for me!)  To make the tea pills, mix the finely powdered raw herbs in enough honey to make a stiff dough, then roll mung bean-size pills from the dough.  It was very satisfying when I finally got the right ratio for a dense, non-sticky tea pill.  In the meantime, I had misplaced my notes and forgot about the qigong and exhalation exercise parts (clearly my non-attention to the exercise parts of any program is a serious, ongoing character flaw).  I did refrain, almost 100%, from eating the forbidden foods, since they feed cancer cells and increase Damp.  I took the 100 days-in-a-row option.

As early as Day 3 of the program, even though I didn’t adhere to it perfectly, odd things began to happen.  Some really old and unpleasant thought patterns reemerged from the depths, my dreams dredged up mostly forgotten events (not disturbing, exactly, but clearly pointing out unfinished business), and people close to me were able to work buttons I thought I had deactivated long ago.  Somehow I recognized these events for what they were–opportunities to face my demons and neutralize their effects on me.  I tried to respond differently to old triggers and to reinterpret remembered events from the vantage point of age and experience.  Each time I succeeded in deflating (or forgiving) a ghost, I felt stronger and lighter.

Toward the end of the 100 days, while daydreaming on a train, a scene from my childhood flickered across my mind, and I heard the words:  “this is where your cancer began.”  Soon afterward–too soon to be coincidence–a bit of family-of-origin drama compelled me to express my anger (held inside for many decades) about what I had experienced as a child and how no one had protected me.  It felt great to defend myself at last.  It was a sign to me that my wei qi (immune system) had kicked in and was ready to kick butt.

I’ve now seen, identified and exorcized the proto-ghost, thanks to the revelation on the train.  “The Ghost”, my lobular tumor (which comes from, according to Jeffrey Yuen, Damp and Phlegm!) has, thus far, not shown any significant change in size or shape.  I’m curious to see if that’s still true when I have the next ultrasound exam (November 11).

At any rate, I’m done with ghosts for the moment.  Someday I might repeat Sun Si-Miao’s 100-day exorcism treatment and include all 4 parts this time (memo to the file:  “exercise exorcises”).

The next phase of this healing journey, strengthening my Heart Qi, begins tomorrow.  Strength training calls for a great motivating soundtrack.  Rocky’s theme, “Gonna Fly Now,” might work, but I think I’ll go with the inspirational anthem of Three Dog Night:

Joy to the world
All the boys and girls, now
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me!

Retreat, Part 2

Katy was not my only companion on this retreat.  Toward the end of the week Judi arrived with fresh fruit and veggies, followed the next day by John.  Both went home after a couple of days so I could finish up the week in solitude.

In reality, I was never alone.  I brought gifts to place on my altar:

  • a teddy bear from Linda (her own breast cancer talisman, never far from her side for the past 16+ years)
  • a dragonfly ornament from Judi
  • a stained glass panel from Karen, made in her California studio as soon as she got the news and found out what colors I like best
  • Nan Lu’s DVD on qigong for breast cancer, sent to me from a total stranger–a breast cancer survivor and acupuncture teacher/mentor of my friend and colleague Pat,
  • who gave me a medallion quoting Julian of Norwich:  “All shall be well”
  • inspiration cards from Ginny, John’s sister
  • a favorite piece of early art from each of my now-grown children
  • photos of my husband, children, and grandson
  • cards and letters from friends expressing their concern and support
  • a shawl given to me years ago by Gardner, who died of AIDS a few days after we had one of the most moving conversations in my life, in which he convinced me that love really is all there is

My hill top house at WCT had a large window looking out to a small mountain through an open field–a peaceful, soothing view.  I hung Karen’s stained glass panel in the window, along with Judi’s dragonfly.  The coffee table in front of the window became the altar, upon which I placed the gifts, along with my special “breast rattle”, incense, some crystals, my wand, a candle, and a goblet of water over the shawl/altar cloth.  I set a couple of drums next to the table.

(Maybe now’s the time to mention that I was heavy into “women’s spirituality” in my 30’s and 40’s, so I like to set up altars and know how to cast circles.  I could write a whole blog about Isis.)

Ah, the breast rattle.  I bought it in Taos almost 30 years ago, drawn to its unusual shape.  It’s a large rattle made from a gourd that resembles the semi-flattened breast of a reclining woman.  The stem forms a nipple.  I liked the shape; I loved the sound.  I used this rattle when I worked with the fire element.  (Since you’re no doubt asking yourself:  on the altar in my study back then I had an ocarina for “air,” a drum for “earth”, and a small rain stick for, yup, “water”.  But I digress.)  On a windy summer’s day about 25 years ago, the window next to this altar blew out (old house, strange windows, you’d have to have been there).  The wood frame landed on the rattle, breaking it into about two dozen pieces.  I grieved.  Because it was a fire rattle, I decided to burn it in our fireplace as soon as the weather cooled.  In the meantime, all the pieces and the stones that were inside remained on the altar.

It happens rarely–but often enough, alas, to reinforce my natural inclination–that procrastination pays off.  Before I could return the rattle to its spiritual home (I do realize how silly that sounds), I met a man who makes drums and gourd rattles.  When I described my rattle’s accident, he told me if I glued it back together with wood glue, it would be as strong as ever.  So I did, and I took the opportunity to add some small quartz and celestite crystals to the stones within.  The rattle now looks like a breast with scars all over it, but it’s whole, and it sounds amazing.

I grabbed the rattle automatically when gathering altar pieces for the retreat, not realizing until actually setting up the altar how perfect a choice it was.  In Five Phase/Five Element theory of Chinese medicine, the Heart belongs to the Fire Phase.  I needed to rid my body of Fire Toxins while strengthening my Heart Fire.  Something else to ponder:  Heart’s season is Summer.  Who knows how long these tumors have been gathering mass in my breast.  I wonder if they began the same summer when the rattle sustained a hit.  What better instrument to use for my healing than a breast-shaped fire rattle that was once shattered by Wind (considered a major source of disease in Chinese medicine) and then made whole by my own hands?

What does an altar have to do with Chinese medicine, really?

Chinese medicine describes “spontaneous remission” as “the Heart Vaporizes Phlegm.” In a nutshell, when you open up to your Heart energy and focus it, nothing unwholesome can withstand its radiance.  Most of us have heard tales of people coming out of prayer, meditation, retreat, or just a peaceful walk on a beautiful day in a garden, fully healed.  You can label this phenomenon amazing Grace, the power of prayer, divine intervention, or whatever you wish.  I prefer the Chinese metaphor.  According to Chinese medical physiology, the Heart houses the Spirit.  It’s all and always about Spirit.  (Much much more about this later.)

I placed my altar in the center of the house to remind me that I love and am loved. There’s no better cure for the blues, and I believe there’s no cure for cancer that works without first engaging the Heart/Spirit.

In reality, we’re never alone.