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 1

My insurance company pays for one MRI a year, and the next one is coming up on June 24.  I’ve had two ultrasounds in the interim, each one has shown a progressive shrinking of the tumors, so this MRI shouldn’t be such a big deal.  But I’ve been a student for a good part of my life, and I still get anxious before big exams.

I’m preparing for this exam by 1) maintaining the regimen I established last year (I’ll outline this later), 2) following Sun Si-Miao’s 100 day exorcism program to expel “Worms/Ghosts” (definitely more on this later), and 3) gardening like my life depends on it (turns out, it just might, gardening being a major source of joy for me).

I also plan to use the next 4 weeks to reflect on this past year’s events, both external and internal.  How much “history” gets covered before the Big Day depends on the June weather (remember the gardening part of the program–if it’s sunny, I’ll be outside).

It seems I was in constant motion, physically and emotionally, most of April, 2012.  So many hoops to jump through at the medical center, so many health care providers to consult with, and so much information to gather up and evaluate.

By the end of the month, I felt overwhelmed by the complexity of the changes and the choices I needed to make in my life.  So, like Henry David Thoreau, I went to the woods to learn how to live deliberately.  On May Day I packed the car up with my dog, food, clothes, books, 3 x 5 cards, class notes, and altar materials, and drove an hour to the Wildlife Conservation Trust in southern New Hampshire.  I had rented a house there for a week in the middle of nearly 3000 acres of conserved woodland.

WCT isn’t terribly remote, but the houses there are secluded, cell phone service mostly non-existent, and the forest pretty deserted during what we in Vermont/New Hampshire call “mud season.”  Caretakers, a husband and wife team, live on Trust property and share a party line with the rental houses.  For me, it was the ideal blend of solitude and reassurance. I needed time to figure things out sans distractions.

My goals for the week:

1.  Plan a diet that would nourish me and not the cancer, be varied and palatable enough to sustain for what might be a long time, and would support my treatment goals (at that stage, to dry Dampness and to cool Heat in the Stomach).

2.  Teach myself qigong from videos, especially guolin qigong, a form developed to treat cancer and other chronic illnesses.

3.  Identify the stressors in my life and figure out how to minimize them and/or change my response to stress.

4.  Take stock of whatever activities and beings make my heart sing and rearrange my life to do/see more of that/them.

5.  Call upon, though meditation, ritual, and journaling, whatever inner resources I might have to see me through this crisis.

It rained most days, sometimes hard.  The woods, which were already pretty wet from the spring snow melt, became downright boggy. Katy and I ventured out every morning, anyway, with map and compass (trail maintenance and markers neglected in recent years).  We explored a different trail each day, bushwhacking our way through the woods and discovering old cellar holes and farm walls long abandoned and forested over, waterfalls, and vernal pools.  Our only encounter with wildlife involved a couple of nesting geese overreacting to our presence on the other side of their pond (Katy and I fled).

I have a glitch in my brain, no doubt from one or more auto accidents, that gives me vertigo when I cross streams that have turbulent water, to the point that sometimes I get stuck mid-stream, too flustered and disoriented to move, even in shallow water. I usually walk along busy paths, so I’d always found help when I needed it.  Near the end of a three hour loop on the second day of my retreat, I came to a small stream with rushing water almost 18 inches deep.  Big trouble.  I couldn’t turn around to get home, having engaged in some exciting mud sliding down a steep ravine just a while back where the log “bridge” was too slick to negotiate.  Also, I didn’t have the energy for another three hours of hiking, even if I could have scrambled up Mud Mountain.  My only real option was to cross.  I took a few (or a hundred) calming breaths before devising a plan to make my own stepping stone path across the brook.  After twenty minutes of searching for large rocks, prying them out of the earth, and lugging them to the brook, I managed to build a serviceable, though underwater, path to the other side.  I crossed the torrent with two sturdy sticks to support me against the inevitable vertigo.  Luckily the plan worked, because there would be no helpful hiker to rescue me.

I mention this episode because I had brought, in addition to a stack of books on breast cancer and on Chinese dietetics, a few books to read for pleasure.  Cheryl Strayed’s Wild was one of them.  Cheryl’s solo wilderness trek across the Pacific Crest Trail taught her who she is and what she’s made of.  I hadn’t intended for this retreat to be that kind of challenge, but I did feel a small measure of triumph when I crossed that blessed creek!  I believe it’s true that, each time you refuse to let fear stop you, your courage gathers strength for the next challenge (like video games in which you get more powerful with each victory?).    I made it back to my woodland house muddy, thoroughly soaked, and exhausted, but also exhilarated and lighthearted.  Crossing the brook that day quelled a sense of helplessness that had been growing in me faster than my tumors.