Using the brain to heal the body
Healing is truly a whole mind and body affair. As important as dietary changes have been, and in this case more so what I’ve added rather than eliminated, asking myself the right questions (at the right time) has been invaluable.
I’m not talking about which supplement to take, or which healing protocol to follow, but rather the recognition of destructive patterns and suppression of self as roadblocks to healing.
When it comes to the whole-istic healing of self that I have embarked on of late, perhaps the least offbeat has been my first foray into the psyche for at least a decade. I’m not saying that I blocked myself off from delving into my mind for that long, just that I haven’t done it in any kind of structured, guided way. Though meditation is incredible for lowering inflammation and dampening the genes implicated in histamine/mast cell disorders  I found that practiced alone, it was not sufficient for me to process the intense trauma of the last few decades, nor completely deal with my often out of control inflammatory processes.
As my friend BD says, you can’t live your life on the yoga mat.
And I absolutely agree. I spent the last year scared to get off my yoga mat, unsure as to whether the progress I had made would translate to the big bad world around me. Would the work I had done on my temper stick? Would I fall apart when confronted by those (doctors mainly) who had wronged me? Would I still have compassion beyond my visualisations?
To quickly sum up the last few decades in a sentence:
War as a child, abandonment by both parents, soul destroying verbally abusive relationship, war as an adult, insanely stressful journalist career, financial ruin, misdiagnosis and overmedication for non-existent illness, unnecessary operations, inability to work due to illness, and various others.
I’ve spent a really long time wallowing in hate towards those who abandoned me, my illness, those who professed to have my best interests at heart when they convinced me I was mentally ill (due to my histamine/mast cell symptoms) and medicated me so hard that I lost a decade of my life, as well as beating myself up for not being able to save the person I loved (or myself for that matter).
And so it was with incredible trepidation that I began half-heartedly looking for a therapist. After months of searching, I finally wound up on the doorstep of one of the most enlightened practitioners I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.
You know how sometimes you need to cut through all the BS and just connect on a human but intellectual level? You wouldn’t necessarily think that a Buddhist psychotherapist would be the answer. And yet, the more of his videos that I watched, the more of his lectures I heard, the more of his bio I pondered over, the more certain I was that this radical departure from my previous mental health experiences was needed.
Dr. Neale is the assistant Director of the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science and instructor of mind/body medicine at the Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine at Weil Cornell Medical College. Miles teaches meditation and educational courses inspired by the Indo-Tibetan tradition and has trained in the lineage of the Dalai Lamas with American Buddhist scholars Joseph Loizzo and Robert Thurman and Tibetan masters Gelek Rimpoche and Lama Zopa.
In other words, he’s the man, and I’m super lucky to call him my therapist.
And yet I can’t tell you how uncomfortable I felt in his New York city office that first time. Memories of being prescribed fistfuls of mind altering medications week after week, of breaking down into a puddle of psychotic mush on the “sofa” after being declared bipolar and borderline personality (believe me, I wasn’t), just the anguish of a decade washed over me, bringing back something I hadn’t experienced since resolving an issue in my life that left me fearing for my safety. I called it my “existential mode”. My way of rationalising the eerie sensation where I feel so separate from my body that it’s like I’m watching myself from across the room.
Basically, my body goes totally numb and I feel I don’t exist.
Oddly, though nine psychiatrists to date have treated me, none of them managed to sum up my predicament in a couple of sentences like Dr. Neale:
I’m traumatised and random triggers of that trauma were happening all around me, some that I might not recognise as being such, and were causing my body to freak out. Now, having recently had my amygdala triggered big time by a smell on a plane (more on that here), which caused me to vomit for 24 hours for the first time in years, I was ready to finally accept that this same trauma trigger was a huge mast cell/histamine trigger.
I mean I’m not dissing the histamine bucket theory, you know the one that states that you won’t react to a food if your histamine bucket isn’t full (I proposed an alternate model – the inflammation bucket), but what I am saying is that once Dr. Neale pointed this out to me, I had to admit, I could trigger a histamine/mast cell reaction by thinking of traumatic events and even innocuous smells had the power to do so. I mean seriously, incense isn’t really going to logically kill me, except that my amygdala has deemed it so.
I truly believe, that in my case, triggering to food and smells had a lot more to do with my regressing to a traumatised state, or remembering previous negative reactions to food. Given the number of people I speak with in my consultations who also have trauma in their past, who have found that fear at the dinner table is one of their triggers, I can’t help but think this must be the case for many others also.
Here’s an example:
Just a few days ago I sat down to lunch on a beautiful beach, with a close friend I’ve known since my teens. I decided to try something I hadn’t in years. Though I was totally chilled out and having a wonderful time, by the second bite of squid, my heart was thumping as though having a heart attack. Soon I was spinning on a merry-go-round and my blood pressure was dropping. And then it clicked that I had begun thinking of anaphylactic shock the moment I had decided to take a bite. Thinking how embarrassing it would be, I was soon beating myself up for being so selfish as to put my friend in a position of dealing with an emergency room visit (which hasn’t happened in years!). That’s how it might have gone down in the past, but this day I was prepared. I excused myself for a moment and went to lie down on a sun bed a little distance from the table. I popped a Neuroprotek quercetin supplement, the only tab I had, knowing it wouldn’t do much on its own, but confident I could convince my brain it would. And so I began my meditation. It wasn’t easy – but immediately lying down made me less aware of my blood pressure drop (totally induced by fear); physiologically it’s the right thing to do if that is what’s happening anyway. I began a meditation Dr. Neale prescribed me, where I really connect with what’s happening in my body. I just allow my awareness to completely experience everything that’s happening in there. Oddly, maybe because of my years of meditation practice at this point, it actually calms me. In my mind, I’m listening to my body, to my brain, allowing them to express their concern regarding what I’ve eaten/done, but encouraging them realise that it doesn’t need to be harmful. Those days are far in the past. I visualised the quercetin getting to work on my mast cells, pushing back any stress hormone induced histamine release. To be honest, at this point I could have taken a placebo and had the same effect. I kid you not: four and a half minutes later I felt fine. I returned to the table and went on with lunch for another hour.
(Please don’t misunderstand – I’m not saying anaphylactic shock can be meditated away, nor that allergies should be ignored. These are my personal experiences.)
You’ll find more on the role of trauma in immune system dysfunction in the wonderful read: The Last Best Cure.
Back to Dr. Neale: psychologists aren’t really there to convince you to do anything. You kind of have to make those decisions yourself. But as Dr. Neale said to me, I need a safe environment in which to rebuild myself and from which to begin to explore the world around me.
I had spent a lifetime in unstable, occasionally terrifying personal and work environments, and now it was time to do something different. He was right. Dr. Neale has been absolutely instrumental in helping me recognise and shed patterns of behaviour that perpetuated my view of myself as a weak person, unable to exist without a controlling partner, incapable of separating myself from the traumatised child/adult who was sleepwalking through life.
He’s also a really freaking cool guy who I absolutely connected with – someone who was totally on my wavelength.
Dr. Neale was kind enough to take some of his valuable time to explain a bit about Buddhist psychotherapy and the dangers of using meditation to numb our pain:
What is Buddhist psychotherapy?
There are currently several western therapeutic modalities that have incorporated meditation and mindfulness into their approach such as Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy and Dialectical Behavior Therapy.
The Buddhist world-view asserts that the mind’s nature is inherently flexible and transformable, suffering is conditioned by past negative experience reinforced into neural wiring, awareness provides pattern-recognition and leverages freedom of choice, and wellbeing is established by dis-identifying from rigid, self-limiting schemas and acting in harmony with the interconnected matrix of living systems. Human beings therefore unconsciously create their own experience of distress but can also learn to consciously redirect their own psychical health, psychological development and spiritual evolution. Read more on Buddhist psychotherapy here.
In your work have you seen evidence of a relationship between previous trauma and present day ill health?
Yes. Because of the mind-body connection I frequently see patients who have major medical conditions, which are exacerbated by stress and sometimes the result of unprocessed psychological trauma. Patients in my practice suffer from chronic pain, crohn’s, IBS, fibromyalgia, insomnia and chronic fatigue. I also treat patients with cancer, heart disease, and obesity, the so-called ‘diseases of civilization’ which are either directly related to stress and trauma or indirectly as a result of maladaptive coping strategies.
How important is meditation for those of us dealing with chronic illness? What are the main benefits?
Meditation may be an important adjunct strategy in the treatment of chronic illness, though I think these days many professionals either grossly underestimate or over-estimated the potential benefits that a simple technique can provide. While there is good research suggesting meditation may reduce overall stress, depression, anxiety, and improve concentration, immune function, and general wellbeing, there is nevertheless a danger of either dismissing it out of hand as primitive or religious, or else making meditation out to be some kind of panacea. Within the traditional Buddhist context, meditation is rarely prescribed independent of the world-view that considers our basic interconnectivity with all living systems and recommends an ethical lifestyle that promotes harmony intrapsychically, interpersonally and environmentally. Therefore, I rarely teach meditation or yoga techniques to those who are unwilling to consider how their outlook, attitude, lifestyle, family system and culture are all implicated in their disease and wellbeing. In other words, meditation can be clinically beneficial, but I don’t hand out techniques like pills. For more on meditation within its original context of Buddhist contemplative science read this.
You raised a very important point in my sessions with you – that the goal of meditation is not to separate us from the body, please elaborate.
Well, first I think its important to clarify that there are many types of meditation techniques each with their own distinct outcomes. Having a wide range of contemplative tools in my toolkit, coupled with an ability to clinically assess the various conditions or needs of a client allows me to effectively prescribe an appropriate treatment. Here’s a video on the variety and clinical applications of meditation
That said, I am a strong proponent of altering clients interested in meditation to what is called ‘spiritual bypassing’ or using spiritual ideas and methods to sidestep unwanted emotions, unmet developmental needs, and unprocessed psychological wounds. I have seen first hand a very common tendency amongst meditators – and frankly all human beings – to avoid pain (often stored in the body) in pursuit of so-called spiritual transcendence. As a therapist working with clients who have histories of trauma, I want to help them use a safe dialogue and mindfulness meditation not to escape the pain of their past but to encounter it with greater wisdom and compassion.
‘Mindfulness of sensations’ in specific allows clients to safely and systematically reconnect with their bodies, experience the release of stored traumatic residue, develop the necessary life-skills of affect regulation and distress-tolerance, and finally to deepen self-attunement or what I call real intimacy. Because modern culture has become so pain-averse we have actually atrophied our ability to navigate the constantly changing and unavoidable terrain of negative inner experience. This type of meditation offers what therapists call ‘exposure in a safe setting’ for the purpose of systematic desensitization and experience-dependent resilience training. We are consciously regrowing our nervous system’s capacity to be adaptive to all of life’s circumstances and challenges by confronting gently and consistently the very sensations, emotions and thoughts that would instinctually trigger adverse reactions. For those interested in real healing, the only way out of pain is through it in an intelligent and caring way.
In your course at the Nalanda Institute you talk about it being important not to have a goal in mind when meditating. Why is this and how do we accomplish this?
When I teach mindfulness meditation we begin the practice by setting an intention, clarifying our desired outcome in a similar way that one sets the destination on a GPS before embarking on a journey. In our ADD culture its important to clarify our goals to help keep us on track. If we don’t first identify a clear and positive vision of where we’re going, we’ll never get there. Once the meditation begins however, its important to relinquish that goal-directedness in order to become truly present with the moment-to-moment process, and the micro details and textures of one’s lived experience. One of the skills developed during mindfulness practice is variously called deautomitization, natural wakefulness, bare attention or open presence, which permits an increasingly more subtle skill of pattern-recognition thus leveraging freedom of choice. You want to be able to take your eyes off the GPS, so that you can consciously avoid the bumps in the road as well as enjoy the beauty of the scenic view as it passes by.
Watch this video for Dr. Neale’s five-point instruction for mindfulness meditation:
Should we try to guide the body in how to heal us, or should we simply provide a stable, serene environment (through meditation) for it to get on with it alone?
This is actually a profound question. Perhaps both. Neuroscientifically informed psychotherapy and mindfulness meditation help guide the body towards integration, while traditional medicine systems from ancient cultures like India and China provide the necessary conditions for the nervous system to heal itself.
From the neuroscience perspective, unprocessed trauma can be stored in the body as implicit memory and may be triggered inadvertently sending someone into a panic or a dissociative state, which I call the time-machine because we are unknowingly transported to the painful past as if its happening in the present. When the nervous system is repeatedly over-exposed to the chaos of overwhelming affect it involuntarily tightens the faucet of energy into a state of rigidity and primitive self-protectiveness. Many of the most common psychological disorders can be explained by these polar extremes of disregulation and shutdown in the nervous system: Anxiety disorders, PTSD, OCD, Cocaine addiction, Hypomania, and Bipolar I are syndromes of emotional overwhelm, right-brain activation and unprocessed trauma, while Major Depression, Anorexia, Paranoia, Heroin or Alcohol addiction represent syndromes of emotional shut down, left brain activation and memory avoidance.
Essentially healing occurs through and integration between the right and left brain, between cortical and sub-cortical regions, and between distinct yet attuned minds in a relationship. Therapy and meditation work in tandem to rehabilitate and strengthen the right-brain’s ability to tolerate and regulate the release of stored deposits of traumatic energy, unpleasant emotion, implicit memory, and bodily sensation while recruiting the left brain’s ability to process and consolidate that energy into coherent and meaningful narrative. So from the neuroscience perspective both the therapeutic relationship and the meditative tools help guide us interpersonally and intrapsychically towards greater levels of neural integration, emotional balance and relational attunement.
From the perspectives of the world’s ancient contemplative traditions such as Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Rajayoga and Tantric Buddhism, there might be an entirely different pathway to health and balance. Given the necessary conditions, one permits or activates the innate wisdom of the body to heal itself. Greater cross-cultural and multidisciplinary dialogue will help delineate the precise mechanisms by which healing occurs in these ancient approaches.
Dr. Miles Neale is a Buddhist psychotherapist in private practice, Assistant Director of the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science and instructor of mind/body medicine at the Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine at Weil Cornell Medical College. Miles teaches meditation and educational courses inspired by the Indo-Tibetan tradition and has trained in the lineage of the Dalai Lamas with American Buddhist scholars Joseph Loizzo and Robert Thurman and Tibetan masters Gelek Rimpoche and Lama Zopa. More available at www.milesneale.com
For more on Nalanda’s Certificate Program in Contemplative Psychotherapy visit:
Please don’t forget antihistamine, pain killing foods can still hurt us, so please always check with your doctor before adding new foods to your diet.