Sunday, August 9, 2009

A cheerful heart is good medicine

The recent article Feeling Stressed? Why You May Feel It in Your Gut, touched on a subject that I've been considering for many years, ever since I read that metaphysics teacher Connie Mendez mentioned in one of her books that ulcers and cancer in the stomach are oftentimes caused by a chronic history of strong, toxic, volatile emotions. The study appears to indicate that high stress levels increase the activity of pain receptors in the guts.

Later on I observed that, at least for one neighbor of mine who died of stomach cancer, the link was probably right on: she was a very unforgiving person, one who would always hold grudges even for apparently insignificant reasons. A history of negative emotions will probably generate serious stomach health issues.

Aboriginal, Hindu and Chinese systems of medicine resonate with this truth. The idea is that there is no real boundary between the spirit, the emotions, and the body and that all things affect each other within our body-mind complex. The healing system of accupunture is based on this understanding that all of our parts are connected in many, very subtle ways.

The Vedic medicinal system understands the chakras to be energy centers within the body which carry out all kinds of subtle functions in addition to those accepted by Western medicine. The stomach chakra in particular is considered to be the emotional plexus, which explains why emotional shocks produce knots in the stomach and the inability to eat. Humans are not just bone and flesh: our thoughts and emotions are things that move within our bodies and affect everything else, as the movie What The Bleep Do We Know so plainly explained in detail.

What this means is that, by LITERALLY listening to our guts, we are literally putting an ear to the ground of our emotional self. The stomach chakra is where the emotions dwell and make themselves known.

Presumably, a healthy tummy would also support a healthier emotional life. The culinary traditions that associate emotional states with foods and how they are prepared are not only popular in India, where food lovingly cooked for God is considered transcendental and known as prasadam (literally, God's mercy). In the West, we have also incorporated language into how we eat that reflects an intuitive understanding of the link between our states of mind and our food: the notion of 'comfort foods' comes to mind. Emotional eating is also linked to several very serious eating disorders such as bullemia and anorexia, which can claim human lives.

The wisdom tradition contains numerous passages linking health with states of consciousness:

A happy heart makes the face cheerful,
but heartache crushes the spirit.

Proverbs 15:13

A cheerful heart is good medicine,
but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.

- Proverbs 17:22

And, of course, aboriginal American spirituality speaks of God's grace as medicine and is a botanical, medicinal tradition very much concerned with natural physical and emotional health and its origins in Spirit. Like the wisdom tradition, aboriginals also link Spirit and states of consciousness with health.

Then there's the etymological origins of words like spirit (from Latin for breath, life-force). Right breathing is the foundation of the various yoga and zen meditation systems, the positive health effects of which are well documented.

In Latin, anima is another word for soul and it's linked to animosity, animation, animated, and with levels of energy and vitality in general. Shamans believe that sometimes sick people who lack vitality, do so because their soul has left them.

People who are habitually bad-tempered in colloquial Spanish are said to have a 'mal genio' (a bad spirit). People who are fed up and angry, in English, also speak of being 'sick of' a person or situation. Much more can be said of the shamanic therapeutic uses and origins of these notions. Suffice it to say that words evoke, and originate in, the depths of the human psyche and should be studied carefully: it is in these forests of unexplored rhetoric that our hidden thoughts, emotions and inner drama can be found.

Since Spirit and health go hand in hand, methods of stress relief, both religious and secular, should therefore be all considered medicinal and spiritual practices. Acts of laughter, of joy, social interaction between friends and family, forgiveness, creativity, exercise, all carry a kind of natural medicine, quite literally. They all support not just the emotional health, but the bodily health as well.

In addition, drinks and foods that lift the spirits, that act as mood boosters without harmful side effects, can safely be considered sacraments, because the boundary between nutrition and medicine is non existent in them.

In my religious tradition, we are told that we should ONLY eat prasadam. That is how important eating spiritualized food is to us.

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