Tag Archives: mortality

Why Is It So Hard to Find Urgency? Part 2

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This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, “The Art of Getting Out of the Way.”

3. Until we’re willing to experience the nature and extent of the pain we’re in, we have a limited perspective on our situation and how to find a way out of it. Urgency springs from a transfer of energy that occurs when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the pain underlying an habitual behavior or emotional state. The energy that was applied to suppressing the pain becomes available when we stop the suppression. It is a shift from a mental effort—suppression—to an effortless act—being vulnerable to our feelings.

That available energy is what we draw from to stay grounded and make a conscious decision to change an undesirable situation. Without that available energy, having a choice in the situation is in name only, because we will reflexively choose our conditioned, default behavior time and time again.

By the time we’re young adults, we’ve portioned out all almost all of our life force toward propping up a persona that we can live with and display to the public. Unfortunately, the script written for that persona is based on childhood adaptive strategies, traumas (real and perceived), borrowed beliefs, misinterpretations, fantasies, and false information. Besides making it very difficult to have a direct experience of what is right in front of us, it is our unwillingness to disassemble this web of misperceptions that stands between us and urgency.

In addition, episodes of illness and injury are woven into the story of our life and become associated with repressed emotions, such that a complete healing of the physical ailment requires revisiting the unresolved emotional component. We often fear what may lie on the other side of healing, because it will likely include the exposure of our hidden agendas around maintaining a certain degree of pain in our lives, and those agendas have to be sacrificed in order to achieve real healing.

In my 15 years in health care, I’ve watched clients (and myself) repeatedly choose chronic pain and illness—even death– over honest self-examination. We permit a depth of healing that corresponds to, but does not exceed, the degree of self-exposure that our ego can comfortably handle. In other words, the depth of our healing is directly proportional to how badly we want to know who we are and what motivates our behavior.

4. The mind leverages small discomforts to exert maximum control over our access to urgency. There is a whole universe of sensations and feelings that informs us about our emotional, psychological, and physical state at any given moment, but our mind dutifully chooses which ones to recognize and which ones to ignore and suppress based on the version of reality we’ve painstakingly assembled.

On cue, our mind-body produces mild, context-specific discomforts that signal the very tip of the pain we will have to confront in order to create change in our lives. However, these physical annoyances are not consciously acknowledged as heralding fear, rage, shame or whatever taboo emotion threatens us so profoundly. The more undefined the danger, the more the mind can keep us under its thumb. These discomforts and annoyances surface in that slippery interface between our everyday awareness and the unconscious, and may take many forms: jaw clenching, chest tightness, holding one’s breath, drowsiness, sour stomach, dizziness, and neck pain, to name just a few.

The discomfort’s message is a subtle, but powerful implication that whatever repressed emotions are uncovered will result in a worst-case scenario: death, destruction, public humiliation, or total loss of control. Until the repressed emotion is actually allowed expression, it is only indicated by this sensation-based signature of the repressed emotion.

Here’s an example. A man desperately wants to tell his father he loves him, but every time the thought occurs to him it is accompanied by a tightening of his throat. This has occurred so many times over the years that he no longer notices the discomfort, although without fail it has the effect of squelching the simple words, “Dad, I love you.” The throat tightening delivers the message that if he were to tell his father this simple fact, something bad will happen. It also masks the real reason he cannot say these words: a deep resentment for something that happened in childhood for which he’s never forgiven his father.

Not telling his father he loves him is the son’s way of withholding love in payment for that episode that happened so long ago. The underlying statement is, “I won’t tell you I love you until you admit that you were wrong.” The throat constriction is tied to the son’s inability to relinquish being right about the incident, and the trade-off is the loss of emotional connection to his father.

Since the son will not consciously admit to himself that he cannot let go of a petty grudge against the person who raised him, all that remains is the throat tightening to control his behavior. The end result is the son’s rationalization, “It just wasn’t the right time. I’ll tell him the next time I see him.” And urgency is successfully sidestepped yet again.

This is one of the mind’s primary methods of keeping us in our prison, both at the individual and collective levels. In this way, our past is always informing our present experience, and spontaneity, hence urgency, is kept at bay.

5. The mind may create a constant crisis state to avoid real urgency. This is a very successful strategy as evidenced by people who use rehab like a vacation home, make a hobby of attending multiple support groups, use permanent disability as a gravy train, or spend all their time putting out other people’s fires. If a person’s baseline state is to be in a crisis situation, how will he possibly be able to discern when he actually is in a crisis?

Hitting bottom for these people will be elusive, since bottom has become the norm. This phenomenon also attests to the extremely subjective nature of pain. Someone may, for instance, be willing to subject himself to the physical pain of heroin withdrawal, but not have the courage to confront the shame that fuels the addiction.

For someone to escape from this horrible trap, they have to recover a baseline experience of well-being, or at least neutrality. For someone who has lived her entire life in a crisis mode, this can be extremely threatening because feeling good has become such an alien experience and is not easily trusted.

If healing completely is too much of a threat to a victim identity, then the mind knows precisely where to draw the line to feel just well enough to keep the identity operational.

Why is It So Hard to Find Urgency? Part I

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, “The Art of Getting Out of the Way.”

Have you ever found yourself envying someone who has received a terminal diagnosis or had a near-death experience, because he claimed that it dramatically enhanced his appreciation for life? Did it lead you to ask yourself, “Am I capable of creating that urgency within myself without needing to look death in the eye?”

Or, we all know a friend or family member whose inability to hit bottom has caused us to shake our heads and say, “Jesus, what’s it gonna take?!” And, in unguarded moments, we may ask that of ourselves as well.

Where does urgency come from and why is it so hard to find? The question becomes even more formidable considering the range of possible reactions to the aforementioned terminal diagnosis. For every person who finds a new immediacy in her life, there are many more that simply give up, hand their fate over to the health care system, or sink into depression or rage because of perceived powerlessness.

Beyond the typical dictionary definition, I would describe urgency as a force that compels us to overcome our habitual behaviors and beliefs to seek a more fulfilling life, and align our actions with our deepest aspirations.

Urgency is required to change many types of situations: quitting a self-destructive habit, ending an unhappy relationship, healing from a chronic health problem, and leaving a soul-sucking job are just a few.

This chapter will not attempt to address our collective inability to find urgency as a nation in rapid decline or as a species that is rapidly destroying itself and its environment. I feel that our individual barriers to urgency are an accurate microcosm of these broader contexts.

The factors that derail urgency are so insidious and varied that it makes sense to identify a just a few of the primary culprits:

1. We don’t give ourselves permission to desire what we actually want. If all we know is that we want a shitty situation to change, but we don’t identify why it has persisted and what we want in its place, it causes us to look for urgency where it does not reside in the situation.

For example, a person may say she wants a partner who is a good provider, but what she really yearns for is someone with whom she can express anger and not be rejected for it. However, she has never given herself permission to feel anger without feeling guilty about it.

In order to have a fulfilling relationship, she would have to find the courage to tamper with her carefully constructed identity of being a person who is above feeling anger. The real reason for her unhappiness in the relationship remains hidden because of her inability to honestly name what she wants due to its personal taboo nature. Until she is able to acknowledge that need she may not even be able to imagine herself in a different situation, and will likely continue in relationships with a partner that does not allow her to express anger.

We’re generally not taught to want something substantive from ourselves like learning to put our own needs first, how to be self-sufficient, how to recover our ability to cry, or be less inhibited. We often look to a therapist or teacher to give us permission to desire these things.

Instead, from an early age we’re handed ready-made constructs to chase such as financial and material success, romantic fantasies, fame, family obligation, patriotism, career, and advanced degrees. So, when our deeper desires gnaw at us they’re often not recognizable as real aspirations but rather as empty, vain pursuits, when compared to the prescribed goals of our culture. In other words, recovering our individual humanity often takes a back seat to being a productive citizen, a cooperative team player, or a good little consumer.

I wasn’t aware of what I really wanted from my life until I was 49, and since then I’ve held on for dear life because my own mind and the pressures of the world are constantly trying to convince me that I’m insane, irresponsible, and self-indulgent for desiring it.

2. We believe that we’re never going to die and that we’re entitled to a pain-free life. If asked, any sane person would deny holding these beliefs, but they are nevertheless clearly demonstrated through our individual and collective behaviors and are reinforced moment-to-moment by the health care system, mass media, our government, the entertainment industry, our educational system, and various other institutions.

Of course, we need only examine our own lives or anyone around us to know that death and pain are hallmarks of being in human form. So, how do we reconcile this massive contradiction in our minds and sustain beliefs that are disproven at every turn? Presto, the magic of suppression and repression enables us to occupy unlimited contradictory positions and avert pain or a spontaneous recognition of our mortality.

We can either choose the pain of staying the same or the pain of growing up, and that can seem like a bleak outlook unless we develop a relationship to pain and discomfort other than our ingrained default response of aversion and suppression. Unfortunately, we most often choose the pain of staying the same because familiar pain is our twisted security blanket, and the latter is an uncomfortable leap into the unknown. It is ironic that we often chastise teenagers for taking unnecessary risks with their lives as though they were immortal, while as adults we express this same belief in immortality through a profound lack of risk taking.

We are rarely encouraged to move toward pain and discomfort as a doorway to healing and change, and in fact, we’re likely to be labeled masochistic and mentally unstable if we do. If we voluntarily chose the discomfort of vulnerability and self-exposure more often, there would be little need for a self-help industry, spiritual gurus, or motivational speakers.

So, we look for urgency in a package that is anything but painful or threatening. However, urgency does not hang out in a warm and fuzzy place, and when we do not find it there the mind serves up a generous buffet of justifications and rationalizations prepared for just this occasion. We pat our ego on the back for at least making an effort to find urgency, but alas, it just didn’t answer when we called.

Separation in Health

The following is an excerpt from my e-book “Activate Your Inner Physician,” available at http://www.amazon.com.

Separation: The conscious mind’s attempt to maintain order by imposing artificial boundaries around aspects of mind and body. As a result we have the physical self, the emotional self, the psychological self, the spiritual self, etc. It is the opposite of movement and hence the opposite of healing. Pain and suffering are by-products of separation.

Our health care system is based on two falsehoods: that we will never die and that we’re entitled to a pain-free existence. When you create a model that denies two of the most fundamental truths of human existence, how can that not create separation of the highest order? And, if separation is what causes pain to be necessary in the first place, it follows that our accepted model of health actually sets the stage for pain and suffering.

We get funneled into various specialists who will treat the physical problem and one who will counsel you on the emotional and psychological issues, once again reinforcing in our minds that these are two unrelated problems. The linking of physical and emotional-psychological symptoms is often left up to the individual because very few practitioners will tell you that liver inflammation and repressed grief need to be treated as one event.

The multitude of diagnostic tests and procedures that grows daily is another reflection of this fractured perspective. A lab tech at the hospital is evaluating your blood glucose level while another tech across town at a private lab is testing the pH level of your urine. Talk about separation—your bodily fluids aren’t even in the same building!

One of the original Old English meanings of health is “whole.” The deep desire of the body-mind is to return to wholeness, and pain is the price for recognizing that we’re not whole. If health is meant to describe a whole experience, why can’t we talk about it without classifying it as “good” health or “poor” health, or applying a diagnosis to a feeling or a mental state?

Our conditioning to regard our minds and bodies as separate entities sets us up to become fodder for the health care machine. For example, our body has little opportunity to show us that it can heal an infection on its own, because we cannot hear the word infection without hearing the word “antibiotics” in the same breath. The mind will hold the infection in place until the actual physical proof of the antibiotic is presented to it in the form of a pill or an injection.

A good example of how separation permeates our language around health is how we regard a cancer diagnosis. The person is described as “battling cancer.” By definition, there has to be a winner and a loser in a battle. If the patient adopts this perspective, she has already compromised herself with this declaration of war, which is the equivalent to stating, “I am not my body and my body is the enemy.” How is she supposed to have compassion for an enemy that’s trying to kill her? Then she chooses a practitioner (her general in the battle against her disease), draws her line in the sand and goes to war against herself to eradicate the clues to her humanity.

If the patient survives and wins the battle, who or what exactly lost the battle? The standard answer would be, “Well, the cancer lost, of course!” On the contrary, the loser was more likely a deeper part of that person seeking attention–such as unexpressed regret or grief–and the only way to make itself known was through something as extreme as a life-threatening disease. It had otherwise run out of options. Since the mind will never equate cancer with our humanity this connection often goes unexamined. So, we congratulate the victor on avoiding yet another close call with self-recognition.

A woman’s breast cancer doesn’t heal because thousands of people are doing a 5K walk, which is just a gussied-up version of going to war. Who else marches but an army? Again, it’s an expression of separation. The only enemy to confront is in the mirror. Her healing, if it occurs, is a very private and unique event that cannot be marketed or branded, and if we want to help then we stay as neutral as possible about the disease.

Self-Mutilation or Preventive Health Care?

Sometimes the clearest demonstrations of human nature are played out in seemingly throwaway, tabloid-type stories. Like it or not, this is where America often hides its gold. Recently, Angelina Jolie revealed that she’d undergone a double mastectomy because she possessed a gene that has been identified as a carrier of breast cancer and wanted to give herself the best chance possible to beat the odds.

We make choices every day about our health and well-being with little or no effect on public perception. However, if I’m a well-respected, high-profile celebrity who elects to go public about my choices it pushes the discussion into a larger forum. Jolie is currently portrayed in the media as a compassionate humanitarian and consummate mom. Essentially, she is beyond reproach in an entertainment culture that usually eats celebrities for breakfast.

This perception of Jolie is important because it lends tacit legitimacy to her decisions and actions. Can you imagine what the public response would’ve been if the subject had been Pamela Anderson or Nikki Minaj, for instance? So, if I’m a teenage girl who idolizes Jolie, I could easily get the message that it’s okay to hate my body and totally disregard what it has to tell me about myself. Once again, we’re unable to view disease as anything but the enemy and not as a part of us that’s attempting to make itself heard. We don’t heal by making ourselves less whole, we heal by becoming more whole.

Whatever intelligence is driving a hereditary health pattern will find a way to express itself, even if in our arrogance we attempt to avoid its expression by divesting ourselves of a body part that hasn’t even shown any evidence of disease. We’re simply not in control here, folks.

Thankfully, Melissa Etheridge had the stones to publicly question whether this was a decision that Jolie made out of fear rather than courage. Considering the present atmosphere in this country, this statement couldn’t have come from a man. There have been so many instances of male conservative politicians making asinine, ignorant statements about women lately that the backlash would’ve been too intense to examine whether he actually had anything legitimate to say. The rush to Jolie’s defense would’ve been immediate, as the issue would’ve been polarized into a male vs. female context, and the subtler implications of the story would’ve been lost.

Rather, it took a woman like Etheridge who has healed from her own breast cancer and is not shy about discussing how it taught her a lot about herself to offer an alternative perspective. What about the courage it takes to actually communicate and participate with one’s body? How about the courage required to trust a process that our culture and health care system judges as a betrayal by the body? Etheridge’s story of recovery is the kind of experience that actually informs us about our humanity rather than reinforces an illusion of immortality and invincibility.

If you know you may have a predisposition toward a particular disease, then you’re in a unique and empowered position to watch whether your mind will manifest the disease or not, because in the end it’s our beliefs that determine our health. We blithely talk about “living in the present,” but this is one instance that genuinely requires it. But it is regarded as a curse and not a gift. And, by the way, all of us have a predisposition toward a terminal condition, and it’s called death.

A person cannot simply come out and say, “I’m going to have my breasts surgically removed because I’m afraid to die.” No, it has to be framed as a noble choice that requires “courage.” This story is all about our collective fear of death, but we shape the narrative in any other way possible, because any real discussion of death is too taboo. We’re trained early on in life to both fear death and to feel ashamed of acknowledging that fear. This leaves us no recourse but to talk around death in some manner that makes a pretense of confronting our mortality, but in reality goes only so far as to skirt any uncomfortable feelings. We all instinctively know where those boundaries lie. It’s a careful tightrope act that we perform around death and it goes largely unnoticed.

How much evidence do we need that one of the prices of inhabiting a physical body is witnessing its dissolution? Does this thrill me? Of course not, because I’ve been taught to fear death just as much as the next person. But it is a simple fact of life that presents itself on a daily basis. And, if we could begin to acknowledge the inevitability and practical reality of death on a culture-wide basis, it would profoundly transform our idea of health and our health care system.

James Rolwing, DC