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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Living Simply by the Tao 7

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 | pt 4 | pt 5 | pt 6 | pt 7<<you are here

(This will make more sense if you read earlier parts first - see above!)

There's one final part to this story. Everything I've said about Taoism would be meaningless if I couldn't show how it applied to my own life, especially after it was changed so dramatically on 3 December 2009 - the day out in the garden that I was given the first unmistakeable sign I had a brain tumour. I'll try to be brief but the temptation to try to explain everything is strong, and if this is too long, it will lose its balance in terms of getting my message across.

  Balance. That's it, you see. The great thing that Taoism taught me was that balance is the key. When something goes out of balance, it loses its harmony, and whatever is natural in its order is lost. When that balance is lost, then a system tends towards collapse, or to become something else.

  Before that moment I felt the fiery tingling in the fingers of my right hand that day, my system, as far as I knew, was in a fair state of balance, physical and mental. Yet something in my brain, not much bigger than a grape, overturned that balance, or the illusion of balance, in a flash.

  That balance, or as much of it as possible, had to be restored quickly, before the wreckage inside one motor centre in one lobe on one side of my brain extended to other areas even more critical, and I would die within three months.

  In what I have said about Taoism so far, I mentioned seeking a natural way as far as possible to restore balance to anything, including the human body. Doesn't it seem as a contradiction that I chose a course of treatment that seems to fly in the face of this comfortable theory? When put to the test, didn't I just fold, and go down the traditional western medical pathway - chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and finally, Avastin?

  No. Well, no, in the sense that my condition demanded a radical and immediate restoration of the natural balance of my system as far as that was possible. Wandering around the internet, or the country, or the world looking for some 'natural' treatment while there was a trainwreck going on in my brain, with three months of life left to experiment, defies common sense. If such an effective treatment existed in my case, it's hardly likely that the conventional medical fraternity wouldn't have caught up with it by now.

  So 'yes' as well, in answer to the question. Some Taoist liqueur of immortality or another hasn't yet been discovered, and the putatively 'Taoist' sorcerers and alchemists have had thousands of years to come up with it. It surely doesn't exist in such cases that demand immediate attention, so it didn't take long to choose to have my cranium split open, what could be of the tumour removed, the remainder blasted daily with radiotherapy, and vile chemotherapy tablets swallowed - all aimed at containing the runaway cancer cells creeping along all those neural pathways.

  Yin is fine, but there's also a time for yang. The yin principle, the heart of Taoism, works perfectly, but it needs time. Sometimes, the aggressive warlike approach of the yang can't be denied its part in restoring the balance.

  There are times we have to go to war. Taoism recognises this, in some particularly revealing verses, but I can't go into them now, much as I'd like to.

  We were at war with the forces of imbalance in my brain. There was a Hitler in there - still is, the swine - and there is no gentle approach to the Hitlers of the world. Lord knows, Chamberlain tried. Without the benefit of hindsight, which makes us all so wise after events, I would have done more-or-less what Chamberlain did, and you would have too, staring in the face the destruction of Europe all over again. Yes, you would. You may be smart, but you aren't that clever.

  That brings me to the other vital thing Taoism taught me. Understand the real nature of things as far as you can. Here Tracey and I were the yin and the yang in the battle to extend my life.

  I don't mean I was one and she was the other. We were both, just like the yin-yang symbol - that sort of revolving unity of opposites that allows me to be here now.

  And in understanding the nature of things, there's give and take. There are what were to me in hindsight clear mistakes in approach to my medical condition, most of them mine. And they all came down to not understanding the real nature of the enemy - of misinterpreting the clues. That's what happens when you face something completely new.

  I'll give you an example. In the early stages of treatment, I put my right arm under physical stress on a number of occasions. I had a seizure soon after, or even at the same time. From that, I made an association between exercising that arm, and the seizures that did a lot of damage to motor activity.

  I stopped exercising the arm. I also limited leg exercise on the same premise. I felt I had no choice. For a while, this seemed to work well. But through lack of understanding, the muscles atrophied, first in the right arm, which was doing nothing, and then in the leg, which took longer, because to get around, you do have to exercise it whether you like it or not, even if you just want to get to the bathroom.

  Within months, my right arm was in a sling and useless, and we were using a wheelchair for me to get out anywhere.

  If you have ever had no choice but to be wheelchair-bound, I don't know how you can appreciate the psychological effect of that. Even more mentally crushing is not to be able to shower yourself, or towel off after a shower, or to dress. When the last person to do that was your mother when you were 5 or 6, and suddenly it's your lover, the psychological effect can be devastating. Just think about it.

  I had lost balance between the hemispheres of my body, and between what remained of balance between brain and body. And with that, I lost balance in my perspective on the world.

  And this, I remind you, was mainly because of my conviction that exercise was bringing on the seizures. It wasn't the only thing, as the chemotherapy was losing whatever effectiveness it had, even the intravenous chemotherapy I was then on. So was the steroid.

  But not exercising, because I thought it was going to lead to worse, was a wrong conviction.

  It was only after going on to Avastin, feeling much better so quickly and wanting to improve my general physical condition by physiotherapy on the right arm that I discovered all the physio and the exertion at that time were not bringing on seizures.

  I set about restoring the physical balance that I had lost for my arms. I also realised that I couldn't afford to let my legs weaken any more than they had, and added them to the physical exercise regime.

  Taoism reminds me every moment that failure to understand what you are dealing with can have catastrophic results. It also reminds me that the 'Uncarved Block' is the state where for any entity, that's where we need to head mentally. Balance is critical - balance in every way. In Buddhist terms, the Middle Way.

  There are so, so many other Taoist lessons. All I've done is exemplify a few of them. Today, although I can't stop an inevitable process from occurring, whatever that process may be, I can exert more control. My right arm has strength again, though it lacks coordination - yet I use both hands together. I can tie shoelaces. Don't laugh. Gaffa tape your index and middle fingers of your right hand, and try tying your shoelaces.

  Not so easy, hey? I can shower. I can dress. It takes a while but god it's good to be able to walk out of that bedroom fully clothed. I can unscrew lids and pick up blueberries with my right hand and put them in my mouth, if I'm careful. I can walk round the block, as long as I remember with each step to think of the sequence of thigh, knee, ankle, angles. Lift. Bend. Straighten. Repeat. Concentrate! The things a two-year old can do far better than I because they don't need to think about them.

  There's much I can't do, or do poorly. My right arm still feels like it's encased in ten kilos of lead when I try to lift it. But Taoism also taught me to accept what I can't change, and go with it all, as far as I can. It doesn't allow me to give up on things unless I've reached the limit of trying. It reminds me above all to take each experience as one of learning - that there's no such thing as failure. It teaches me not to whinge on my own account even when I get angry at the brutality and ignorance of others, and the sheer pettiness that makes healthy people moan about their lot.

  Above all, it reminds me that many others are vastly worse off, and that I have an enormous amount to be grateful for.

  There's so much more I could say about the Taoist approach and how to get the most out of the Tao te Ching, but we've reached our limit here. The balance is tipping.

  Maybe one more part to write. Let's see.

pt 1 | pt 2 | pt 3 | pt 4 | pt 5 | pt 6 | pt 7<<you are here


  1. It is my understanding that underlying the Chinese tradition of medicine is the philosophy of Taoism. I see no evidence that medical treatment should be contradictory to Taoism. The divide in our minds seems to be between "eastern" and "western" medicine rather than between what is natural and unnatural.

    As far as I'm concerned, medicine is medicine. Evidence rather than preconceived notions (a nicer term than prejudice)should be the factor on which we make our assessments.

    When I investigated the beliefs of some traditional African tribal peoples, I found that they had no problem using "western" medicine alongside their traditional practices. Only the anthropologists saw a contradiction and believed that one must be wrong if the other were right. The tribal people accessed their shamans and healers as well as western doctors. They also accepted the Christian God as just another version of the high god. No problem for them.

  2. I am so grateful for this posting. It makes tears come to my eyes and calm to my heart that you have expressed these ideas, vitally necessary to us all, so beautifully. Each day, I think, I wear myself out battling for balance -now that can't be right, can it:)! The balance between my needs and my family's; between action and patience; between emotion and logic...and so on. Life is very forgiving yet very cruel and demanding, too.

    Julie xx

  3. Joan - yes, it surely does underlie traditional medicine. I'm sure in your 2nd sentence you meant 'modern' or 'western' medicine. In the end the one vital principle is understanding the nature of the disease/condition and the best treatment.

    What you say about African treatments is equally true of Indian ones too. Indian medicine was always concerned with the best treatment in a holistic way. Considering they were doing plastic surgery 1500 years ago at least, apart from other 'modern' therapies, this will come as no surprise.

    Yin and yang together. They are both needed.

    And yes, Julie. It's all about balance. But balance only comes with understanding and discipline!

  4. Understanding and discipline -does it come even then? Only for a few, I suspect! Each new day brings its exercises in this task.

    Julie xx

  5. Perhaps I do mean "modern", but most of it has come from the west and stems from the Renaissance and Enlightenment approach to medical treatment, perhaps beginning with the Greeks but certainly established in the west by Paracelsus. In the west we are developing an antagonism towards our own medical tradition, and I agree that at times the treatments can seem excessive and brutal.

    For example, many people are turning against vaccination, pharmaceuticals, surgery and other "western" or "modern" treatments in favour of alternative therapies from other cultures, as though the two were mutually exclusive.

    For a more personal example, a friend of mine in America was diagnosed with blocked arteries and was told she needed a stent urgently or she would risk a heart attack. Instead, she started a regime of Ayurvedic treatment, changes to her diet and exercise, etc. Of course she had the heart attack and ended up with a stent. Fortunately the heart attack was mild and she's okay, but she felt somehow that the medicine developed in her own culture was inferior to that of traditional Indian culture.

    Western medicine, on the whole, repudiates traditional treatments such as Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture. So to me the divide is between east and west, at least in our culture.

    Since Taoism underlies Chinese medicine, therefore a Taoist approach would embrace the use of medical treatment to combat disease and would choose the best and most effective treatment, as you are doing. I see no conflict in the course of treatments you have chosen and your Taoist approach to life.

    As for balance, as my mother said, the pendulum swings in one direction and then the other. It never stays still. Perhaps what she meant was that everything is in a dynamic equilibrium, constantly trying to balance itself, but never finding that still point. There was an interesting program on TV recently about this -- that physicists and ecologists no longer talk about the balance of nature, but this dynamic equilibrium -- a bit like walking a tight rope. It looks stable, but there are many tiny adjustments happening all the time.

    Goddess, I do blather on!

  6. Just saw your posting, Julie. How true. Each day is a challenge and sometimes we seem to start all over again.


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