Saturday, June 1, 2013

Step away from the smorgasbord

In the bustling spiritual market-place that makes up McLeodganj and Bagsu - where Israeli backpackers hanging upside down at Indian yogashalas rub shoulders (or knees) with German Chi Gong practitioners learning Tantra at shakti-shiva workshops, where Norwegian kinesiologists get their Vedic charts done, Moroccan Craniosacral therapists treat stressed French economists and Russian businesswomen set up roadside chai (tea) stalls - it's easy to get distracted.

After all, you could be learning how to make string and stone bracelets, to dreadlock hair, to carve wood, to play the sitar or tabla, to paint thangka pictures, to speak Hindi or Tibetan, to set jewels in silver and gold, to dance Rajastan gypsy or Egyptian style – or sampling, improving, perfecting or learning how to teach the ever-present yoga, meditation and reiki. Or all of them at once.

Perhaps an inner child workshop or rebirthing, a consultation with a Vedic astologer, a numerologist or even that guy in specs and kurta reading palms next to the tea shop on Bagsu road would help in the quest to find out why you're here in the first place, what you should be doing with your life and where you're going next? In other words whether you should do the reiki level 1 or the om meditation course.

It's the spiritual equivalent of going to the market without a shopping list and asking a complete stranger what you should make for dinner. Tibetan momos or green Thai curry? Pizza or fish fingers?

(And then you might as well get a panchakarma treatment/homeopathy session/tibetan massage/casting out of demons* while you're at it. After all, you're in India where even the blatantly inauthentic seems more authentic in its inauthenticity than the pretentious watered-down versions available everywhere in the world that isn't India. And it's still a bargain compared to what you'd pay at home. Sometimes. Just.)

And here's where things get overly messy in the spiritual supermarket. When the posters advertise African-Indian-Turkish fusion concerts, Kundalini Siddha meditations and therapies are dynamic, energetic, healing, therapeutic, relaxing and awakening – all at the same time – I can't help thinking about what happens when you mix momos, Thai curry, pizza and fish fingers up together.

Mush, my friends.


And who eats mush?

I'll tell you. Babies. People with no teeth.
In my case I came here to find out more about Ayurveda and so that's what I'll be eating for dinner. In fact that's the diet I'm going to follow from now on. Because when you are already partaking of what is nourishing to you the variety of dishes on offer aren't quite as tempting. Rather than picking and choosing from what we can see already set out on the smorgasbord we should hold out for what we really want - whether it's right in front of us or not. Even if we have to get up and look for it. Dig it up or pluck it from the tree and wash it. Steam or boil or bake it. Wait for it to be properly done.

Because tasting a bit of this and that isn't quite the same as eating a proper meal and, just as your mother always told you, too much snacking from the buffet means you're not hungry at dinnertime.

Real learning, like good nutrition, comes not from putting any old food into our mouths and swallowing but from choosing what to ingest according to sight, smell and taste, chewing properly, digesting and absorbing it until what is separate from us (information) becomes a part of us (knowledge). Half-baked concepts are indigestible and either decay inside us or pass right through us without offering any nutrition at all.

When we find the right food we can't wait to get our teeth into it. After all that's what teeth are for.

*To be fair I'm not absolutely certain that this is available in Bagsu. I may be thinking of Rome.

Internal and external factors which aid or hinder healing

Ayurveda says that high sattva is Dharma for the patient, alongside faith in and surrender to the doctor, the ability to accurately describe symptoms and the economic ability to pay for and follow the treatment prescribed.

The level of a patient's sattva – mental stamina – is a determining factor in their prognosis; strongminded patients sometimes experience remission from what appear to be terminal illnesses, whereas apathetic or depressed patients who give up hope or feel like victims tend not to do so well. High sattva implies taking responsibility for the situation and taking positive action to try to improve it, though not necessarily ''fighting'' the illness or disease with an aggressive attitude. Sattva's mental clarity may derive from genetic inheritance and karmic influence but it can be improved if the patient takes the correct attitude and is able to calmly look at the situation.

Given that what we focus our attention on (in terms of time, money and energy) tends to increase the patient should focus on improving his health rather than obsessing about his illness.
When the patient constantly thinks and talks about what he is not able to do, eat, enjoy or have, suffering is increased. Instead of lamenting the gap between what he wants and what he can have, the patient should try to reduce it by becoming more realistic about his possibilities. Focusing on what is still possible and finding creative alternatives to what is not keeps the patient's spirits up and prevents deterioration.

Patients with little direction in life or those who feel they are lacking affection and attention from others may develop a tendency to cling to, or even exaggerate, their illness. The illness may be perceived unconsciously as a friend and companion, something which has given them a certain status or identity or which becomes an excuse not to engage intensely with life. While the 12 Step Programme (on which Alcoholics Anonymous et al are based) has been a lifesaving support for many people with addictive behaviours it is problematic in that it encourages them to define themselves, reductively as their illness. This tendency should be resisted. Ayurveda recognises that people are much more than just their minds and bodies and so evidently much more than their mental or physical illnesses! In other words it is important for the patient to remember that they have an illness but that they are not their illness, although this is easier when the illness is physical rather than mental.

Patients should not isolate themselves from others to obsess on their illness, symptoms or prognosis but continue with their everyday activities as much as possible. It would be better to view illness as a guest who is passing through rather than giving it a permanent place at the table. By withdrawing from everyday life the patient actually deprives himself of the enjoyment, pleasure and happiness that are still available to him, thereby weakening his optimism and will to recover. If the patient expands himself to contain the illness the illness becomes proportionally less important. If on the other hand, the patient allows his world (and self) to shrink to the confines of the sickbed, the illness may become all consuming and incurable. Giving ''sick notes'' (ie a doctor's note to exempt the patient from work) for depression or anxiety is often counterproductive as without the distraction or responsibility of work the person becomes more depressed and less functional and the problem becomes chronic.

Sometimes the patient's family and friends also become over-involved with the patient's illness, further disabling the patient with their anxiety or fearfulness. In the case of a young woman suffering ulcerative colitis and chronic diarrhoea her husband and whole family so dedicated themselves to fighting her illness that they lost sight of the bigger picture of who she was. Her husband left his job and heroically devoted himself to finding a cure for her illness. However in the process of becoming an expert, he began to behave more like a doctor than a husband, neglecting the gestures of simple affection that might have helped his wife feel loved as a woman rather than cared for as a helpless patient. The Dharma of a husband in these circumstances might have been to help his wife maintain contact with life beyond her sickroom, perhaps by bringing affection, laughter and news from outside into it, supporting her to look beyond her physical illness.

The doctor can also support the patient by paying attention to what improvements are made or on giving positive feedback to the patient. It is important not to criticise the patient or give information in a tactless manner but to help the patient maintain a positive frame of mind. In the above mentioned situation the patient was still able to enjoy spectacular scenery, fresh air and the company and affection of her family, something her loved ones had lost sight of.

Another factor that impacts healing is the patient's ability to trust the doctor's competence and good will (surrender). While it is fine for someone to be careful in choosing the right doctor, once they have begun treatment they should not continue ''shopping''. Following one treatment or philosophy properly is of far more value than stopping and starting with different doctors or cherrypicking the doctor's orders according to whim. The patient should also resist the temptation to ''apply extra mind'' by trying to find out more and more about their illness, and setting this superficial information against their doctor's training. This will only lead to confusion and doubt. The patient should avoid self-diagnosis and trying to know better than the doctor. This lack of trust will be an impediment to healing, whether openly acknowledged or not. Faith and openmindedness are important to recovery.