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Archive for the ‘Health Justice’ Category

The SCOTUS Rulings You Didn’t Hear About: Colorblind Racism and the Cult of Private Property in America

In Class Politics, Decolonization, GenSex & Queer Politics, Geography/ Spatial Justice, Health Justice, Identity Politics, Racial Politics on June 28, 2013 at 11:08 PM

My head has been swirling with the various, pivotal issues upon which the conservative Roberts Court struck down its gavel this month. Voting rights. Affirmative action. The Patenting of Life. Indigenous Sovereignty. Housing Development. And, oh yeah. Marriage “equality.”

Not entirely familiar with everything on this abbreviated list? You’re not alone. After all, there were a considerable number of issues, all arbitrated by a mere nine people that make up this country’s judicial branch. A mere nine people who adjudicate rulings that govern a breathtaking jurisdiction: the entire united states** and its colonial “possessions,” over 300 million people.

The fact is, not only is wealth super-concentrated and polarized in this world (see videos on global and US wealth inequalities)—so is power and knowledge. Indeed, that something like NSA mass surveillance has been happening—and continues to happen—should not surprise us when we recognize the realities that enable unadulterated greed and the thirst for conquest. So, understandably, the project of trying to get at the roots of the many issues decided on by our “highest” court is daunting. The powers that be would never want us peering behind the curtains that enable them: our time-consuming wage labor, our mainstream media, our nefarious multinational corporations, our Orwellian Security State.

Given the spate of historic rulings this month, I made a deliberate effort to examine some of those minimized, distorted, or completely hidden from the limelight. I also wanted to contextualize some of the more well-known rulings against the backdrop of deeply-entrenched racism and u.s. colonization (without repeating a recurrent mantra found elsewhere on the Web). Unfortunately, I didn’t have as much time to analyze some of these issues as I would’ve liked—let alone trace their roots and connections. But I’ll leave that for another day.

So, please. Feel free to skim. (And share. And digest. And critique.)

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A bastion of Enlightenment reason…or kangaroo court for white supremacy?

Colorblind Racism and the Tradition of White Supremacy

1) Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (June 24)

Verdict: Universities will need to showcase evidence race is a “necessary” component in their admissions policy that can’t be achieved by any other means. 

Between the heart break over the evisceration of our era’s voting rights laws, and the hoopla over same-sex marriage, we might have forgotten about this one. Granted, affirmative action, a pivotal civil rights accomplishment, has been eroded over the years through numerous legislations, the consolidation of a black and brown elite, and the inauspicious rise of the culture of colorblindness. But this ruling still deals a considerable blow to a faltering, yet much-needed, compensatory policy.

In this ruling, the common admissions practice of factoring in race will now be regulated by a vague notion of “good faith.” Universities will now need, if ever pressed, to showcase evidence that it is “necessary” to factor in applicants’ race “to achieve the educational benefits of diversity.” Blanketed under this cover of multiculturalism is a blatant ignorance of politics and history—a perfect ruse for the neoliberal white supremacist state. And so farther thus we go from the promise of a truly liberatory and equitable education.

 Read More: Supreme Court Ruling May Spell The End of Affirmative Action

2) Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (June 25)

Verdict: A Cherokee father who has appealed for custody of his daughter under the Indian Child Welfare Act—a legislative attempt to preserve the integrity of indigenous sovereignty—has no parental claims above those of the white couple trying to adopt.

This ruling, which dealt a significant imperialist blow to indigenous sovereignty, got little media coverage outside race-focused news and policy agency Colorlines and the Rachel Maddow Show.

In this case, a Latina Oklahoma woman made a decision to give up her daughter for adoption—in this instance, to a white, non-Native couple, the Capobiancos, in South Carolina.  The biological father, an indigenous Cherokee, had been estranged from the mother throughout the pregnancy and initially agreed to relinquish his parental rights. However, upon learning of the news of the adoption, became upset and decided to take matters to the courts.

The father appealed the adoption under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a law enacted in 1978 for the preservation of tribal cohesion in the face of countless Native child adoptions by non-Natives. (As a matter of fact, a cursory inspection of the Act’s history reveals its dark, colonial legacy. From 1958 to 1967, the united states government was directly responsible for a program, the Indian Adoption Project, whose primary aim it was to assimilate Natives into white supremacist amerikkka.) As far as the Cherokee nation is concerned, the daughter, Veronica (“Baby Girl”), is Cherokee and is deemed eligible to live with the biological father. The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of the father, and she was, against the wishes of the Capobiancos, returned to Oklahoma.

And it is upon appeal, at the Supreme Court level, where the politics of empire and white supremacy are most heinously manifested. In its decision, the Roberts Court undermined the determination of the South Carolina Supreme Court and, more tragically, that of the Cherokee nation by claiming that the ICWA does not bar termination of a father’s parental rights. The father, according to the ruling, was never able to invoke the ICWA because he never had legal custody of the girl.

However, it is the long-term implications of this ruling that are truly disheartening. The concept of indigenous sovereignty, or the rudimentary rationales that prompt a need for tribal preservation, never emerged in the ruling. The centuries of genocidal barbarism and destruction of countless First Nation societies, cultures, and languages were never discussed. And the dismissive attitude of the majority side towards Veronica’s claim to indigenous ancestry—that “she is 1.2% (3/256) Cherokee”—makes apparent the undergirding Amerikkkanist notion of race that guides the notion of how a child should be categorized. Indeed, as if to chastise her colleagues for their substral racism, dissenting Justice Sotomayor felt compelled to mention the “majority’s repeated, analytically unnecessary references to the fact that Baby Girl is 3/256 Cherokee.”

Yet little is said about the rights of Cherokees, First Nation peoples, and the threat this ruling poses to further white adoptions to tribal integrity. Such is the violence of the white supremacist state.

3) Shelby County v. Holder (June 25)

Verdict: The preclearance requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, imposed on certain states to curb discriminatory policies in voter registration, are no longer constitutional.

Although I don’t equate voting in corporation-hijacked elections “liberation,” we should nevertheless call this for what it is: a shameless coup on black and Latino self-determination. If appeal efforts prove unsuccessful, this blatant evisceration of Voting Rights Act of 1965 (sections 4 and 5) will surely go down in infamy Using a logic that is very much aligned with a conservative Court (even with the presence of two non-white bodies, Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor), a decision was made to eliminate the “preclearance” requirements of states deemed culpable of discriminatory registration practices in the Civil Rights Era.

The decision, delivered by Justice Roberts, was based on two central arguments: 1) the “historic tradition that all the States enjoy equal sovereignty” and 2) that much has changed in the country since 1965. Right. I especially relish this most exquisite pearl of racist color-blind wisdom: “Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.” To the extent that efforts at racial parity were ever realized, they likely won’t persist when threats of gerrymandering (redistricting) and voter identification laws are legalized.

Indeed, the voracious thirst for power—and the disenfranchisement of a potentially dissident voting bloc—has already seized the legislature of the affected states. As of today (June 28th), at least five of the nine states under the Section 4 preclearance requirements have forged ahead with voter ID laws.

In the case of Texas, where redistricting and voter ID bills were tossed due to failure to comply with Section 4 requirements, the threat is very inimically real. A federal court had previously rejected the infamous voter ID law because of its “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor,” and the state’s very own data that suggested Latinos were more likely to lack a certain state-issued ID. Now the voter ID bill has one less obstacle to passage.

Read moreSupreme Court Guts Voting Rights Act 

Colorblind racism

Throughout the centuries, racism has mutated and morphed in various ways. White people who assert “colorblindness” are doing little more than perpetuate a complicity in (post)colonial violence in the age of global neoliberalism.

Housing and Environmental Justice

4) Koontz v. St Johns River Water Management District (June 25)

Verdict: This ruling in favor of a now-deceased developer argues in favor of limits on governmental fees and regulations over private land use—thus opening the door to unfettered displacement and environmental destruction.

Protecting the interests of private property is an amerikkkan tradition. And this ruling, which some of the justices referred to as a “revolution in land use law,” imposes scrutiny and constraints over governmental regulations and fees that would otherwise (so one would hope) benefit local communities and environments. If this doesn’t sound severe to you, imagine how your neighborhood, town, or nearest nature reserve could be impacted by the construction of a behemoth condominium complex…or even a natural gas company.

To understand this case, one must recognize the precedent set by two prior Supreme Court cases, Nollan v. California Coastal Commission and Dolan v. City of Tigard. Together, these constitute the so-called Nollan-Dolan standard, which demands that the government’s request for land development concessions—such as monetary fees or a percentage devoted to public housing—have a “rough proportionality” (reasonability) as required by the Fifth Amendment. (For the Fifth Amendment reads: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”).

In this case, Koontz, who applied to develop a portion of his property in the Floridian wetlands, was denied approval by the local municipality unless he agreed to spend money to improve public lands elsewhere. Using the Nollan-Dolan standard as his defense, he appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that the concessions were excessive. Defending the municipality’s decision, the Florida Supreme Court then argued that he did not have a claim for two reasons: 1) the Nollan-Dolan standard did not apply to the denial of a permit (as opposed to the approval), and 2) the standard does not apply to a demand for the payment of money.

As regards the first State claim, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that the application of Nollan-Dolan to only permit approvals, and not denials, was arbitrary and would enable all sorts of unconstitutional circumventions. However, the second claim created a 5-4 schism in the Court, with the majority ruling that the exaction of fees was under the domain of Nollan-Dolan and hence subject to scrutiny and litigation under the Fifth Amendment and the Takings Clause (eminent domain).

The dissenting argument, written by Justice Kagan, asserted that a demand for fees in such cases was constitutional and not excessive.  Furthermore, it acknowledged the threat that such fees could result in excessive constraints on local government efforts to regulate land use for the public good. As Kagan writes:

Cities and towns across the nation impose many kinds of permitting fees every day. Some enable a government to mitigate a new development’s impact on the community, like increased traffic or pollution — or destruction of wetlands… Others cover the direct costs of providing services like sewage or water to the development… Still others are meant to limit the number of landowners who engage in a certain activity, as fees for liquor licenses do…. All now must meet Nollan and Dolan’s nexus and proportionality tests. The Federal Constitution thus will decide whether one town is overcharging for sewage, or another is setting the price to sell liquor too high. And the flexibility of state and local governments to take the most routine actions to enhance their communities will diminish accordingly.”

And with an ardor only a severe injustice can muster, Kagan even chastises her follow justices:

“The majority’s errors here are consequential.The majority turns a broad array of local land-use regulations into federal constitutional questions. It deprives state and local governments of the flexibility they need to enhance their communities — to ensure environmentally sound and economically productive development. It places courts smack in the middle of the most everyday local government activity.”

Taxed with the bureaucratic nightmare of proving “proportional” concessions from avaricious, profit-centric land developers (after all, who’s under the impression that they’re here out of loyal servitude to the community?), local governments may choose to not entertain development proposals at all (my hope). Or they may just green-light catastrophes.

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Land “development” almost always does nothing to develop the land, but to destroy it (or reconvert it) for the sake of profitable consumption. Consequently, any “development” project you hear of is likely a nicely-worded disguise for environmental destruction (as in the case of Koontz and the wetlands) or human displacement (gentrification).

Patents, Biotechnology, and DNA

5) Maryland v. King (June 3)

Verdict: This ruling opens the door to the warrantless collection—and processing—of DNA for anyone merely suspected of a serious offense.

This one likely flew under the radar amid the more eye-opening revelations of the NSA surveillance scandal three days later. Yet, ironically, it also deals with surveillance (albeit of a slightly different kind). In fact, it’s quite startling how obviously invasive this ruling is in the name of “security,” permitting the collection of DNA for those merely arrested—not convicted—on the basis of “probable cause to hold for a serious offense.”

As far as this case went, Mr. King was arrested in 2009 on assault charges when he was processed through Maryland booking, at which point a cheek swab sample was taken. His DNA was then run against the FBI’s DNA database (“CODIS”), where it was matched to an unsolved 2003 rape for which he was subsequently charged and convicted. The defendant appealed on the virtue of the “unreasonable search and seizure” clause of the Fourth Amendment. Speaking for the 5-4 majority, Justice Kennedy wrote that such processing does not “intrude on respondent’s privacy in a way that [is]…unconstitutional.”

In the dissenting statement, which makes clear that the rape conviction was premised on a database scanning fluke, Justice Scalia writes:

“Court’s assertion that DNA is being taken, not to solve crimes, but to identify those in the State’s custody, taxes the credulity of the credulous….

Make no mistake about it. As an entirely predictable consequence of today’s decision, your DNA can be taken and entered into a national DNA database if you are ever arrested, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason.”

That remarkably little has been said about this case reminds me of the sort of popular obeisance that enabled passage of PATRIOT Act, two catastrophic wars, and, arguably, the PRISM program.

Surveillance

Imagine a world where your a cheek swab sample of your DNA was taken you so much as looked a cop in the wrong way. And now imagine having that DNA checked, processed and stored in an FBI database. Impossible you say? Not after Maryland v. King (2013) it’s not.

6) FTC v. Actavis (June 17)

Verdict: This ruling potentially jeopardizes the affordability of pharmaceutical drugs by refusing to make generic manufacturing payoffs (the so-called “pay to delay”) illegal.  

This case is centered laws regulating the manufacture and sale of generic drugs—a significant issue in the realm of global public health. To reiterate the obvious, drug patents are designed as measures to protect intellectual property and raise prices for pharmaceutical companies. In 1984, however, a bill originally meant to ease the manufacture of cheaper generics was mutated under the Big Pharma lobby to become what it is now: the Drug Price Competition and Patent Term Restoration Act (aka the Hatch-Waxman Act). As a complement to patent law protections, this law now prevents generic manufacturing of brand-name products until after patent expiration—a process that falls under a somewhat complex rubric and can take as long as 14 years.

In this case, Solvay Pharmaceuticals obtained a patent for Androgel, a topical testosterone medication. Subsequently, two competing companies—namely, Actavis and Paddock—filed applications for generic drugs modeled after Androgel, an action that was quite naturally brought to suit for patent infringement.

What proceeded next was nothing less than a back-room dealing. When Actavis’ product was approved by the FDA (in spite of the lawsuit), it chose to not immediately market the product per a “reverse payment” settlement agreement reached with Solvay. Such ‘pay to delay’ agreement had two main conditions: 1) that Actavis not bring the generic to market for a specified number of years, and 2) that Actavis promote AndroGel to doctors in exchange for a multimillion dollar amount. Two other companies—namely, Paddock and Par—made similar settlements with Solvay.

Upon learning of this coercion through the dollar, the Federal Trade Commission sued Actavis, Solvay, and the other companies for unlawfully agreeing “to share in Solvay’s monopoly profits, abandon their patent challenges, and refrain from launching their low-cost generic products to compete with AndroGel for nine years.” A lower court, however, dismissed the suit for “as long as the anticompetitive effects of a settlement fall within the scope of the patent’s exclusionary potential, the settlement [between the two pharmaceutical companies] is immune from antitrust attack.”

Fortunately for us, the Supreme Court did overrule the lower court’s dismissal, asserting that the FTC does have a right to sue on the basis of anti-trust laws. The 5-3 decision thus effectively legalizes anti-trust lawsuits against morally ambiguous “reverse payments”—an unequivocal victory. However, it is now the responsibility of judges throughout the country to arbitrate individual cases to determine whether or not such deals are anti-competitive (i.e. monopoly price-promoting). And this ruling does not assert the illegality of such deals, let alone discourage this habitual, anti-consumer practice that favors profits over people. And given the incredible resources of Big Pharma (with revenues expected to exceed $1 trillion next year) it is unlikely that many successful anti-trust lawsuits are forthcoming.

7) Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics (June 13)

Verdict: This unanimous ruling affirmed that patents on naturally occurring human DNA, as a “product of nature,” is unconstitutional.

This case came about after a Myriad Genetics, Inc. obtained several patents over the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes—mutations they identified as dramatically increasing the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Conceding Myriad’s contribution to locating these genes, the Court nevertheless nullified the constitutionality of the patents, stating that products of nature are “not patent eligible.” Its undeniable significance, according to Karuna Jaggar, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, lies in the fact that it puts “patients’ health before corporate profits.”

It is noteworthy, however, that the Court also argued that synthetic complementary DNA (“cDNA”) is patent eligible as it is not a “product of nature.” The ruling also makes it very clear that it does not involve “the patentability of DNA in which the order of the naturally occurring nucleotides has been altered.” Thus, while this ruling made a significant, if not essential, contribution to patent and biogenetic legislation, it still leaves the door open for biotech corporations to tamper with human DNA and unleash potentially dangerous products (as in the case of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs).

Tumors in rats after being fed GM corn

If Big Pharma doesn’t kill you with its many pills, you can always count on big agribusiness to finish the job. The images here are of two female rats with large mammary tumors…not because their genes were directly tampered with, but because they ate genetically modified (GM) corn, with and without herbicide

Reproductive Justice and Same-Sex Marriage

8) Cline v. Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice (TBD)

Verdict: Pending response from the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Like the Adoptive Couple case, this one deals with babies—err, potential babies—in Oklahoma. Except that the Supreme Court decided to hold off any “further proceedings” until after hearing from the State Court regarding its interpretation of the law in question

In the case, the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice sued various state officials for what was then House Bill 1970—a piece of legislation that heinously sought to regulate how doctors could prescribe abortion-inducing FDA-approved medication.

The violence against women is evident in the very language used in the conclusion of a district court, which stated the purpose of House Bill 1970 was to “impose a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion.”

9) United States v. Windsor (June 25)

Verdict: You must have been living under a rock if you didn’t hear about this one. Plus, I’ve already written about this one.

** Many of the changes in conventional English grammar are intentional, including lower-cased proper nouns and otherwise “deviant” spellings.

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Making Sense of Medicinal Yoga

In Health Justice, Multiple Sclerosis, Philosophical Musings on June 11, 2013 at 10:12 PM

For the longest time, I’ve been a fitness enthusiast. It started when I was a teenager trying to overcome severe depression, when hitting the gym to boost my confidence and self-esteem.

Since aesthetics didn’t factor in until later, I simply enjoyed the way working out made me feel in my own skin.

The law of impermanence would ensure that wouldn’t last. It just didn’t occur to me that it could happen so quickly.

One summer afternoon, sometime after my sophomore year in college, I was in the gym as usual and sweating profusely after a few sets of an abs workout. Suddenly I noticed stars flashing in my left eye. I didn’t think much of it at first. I assumed it was an after-image from the bright sun that day.

When the after-image persisted and intensified over the course of the following days and weeks, I became concerned and consulted an ophthalmologist in Brooklyn.

Before long I was being shuffled between facilities and doctors, had blood and fluids drawn, had my head thrown into an MRI machine. Within two months, the life-altering diagnosis: MS, or multiple sclerosis.

Fast forward five years. I’m as dreadfully skinny as I was before hitting the gym. The Universe has tested my resilience by putting me through a number of flare-ups, including a heinous one just this past month.

In this one, the lethargy and weakness were beyond what most of you temporarily healthy folks could imagine. A walk to the pharmacy felt like a hike up a canyon. Bedridden and constantly sick, I knew something had to seriously change.

After getting treated for my relapse, I made a decision to analyze my habits (again) and see if there was something else I could do that I haven’t already done.

I’ve done yoga during sporadic periods of my life, never consistently, but always understood it was a “healthy” thing to do. I pursued this course of thought.

Now a few weeks in of assiduous practice, with as many as two to three sessions a day, I can optimistically report a number of improvements that confirm the widely reported health benefits of yoga I had previously only read about.

First, I’ve been able to attain levels of flexibility unthinkable when I was an amateur bodybuilder. More importantly, I’ve seen an upsurge in energy, stamina, and libido, and find myself feeling more at ease with (and even enjoying) my newfound unemployment. A

nd once again I am writing and returning to long ignored interests. Like millions of practitioners worldwide, I’ve become completely enamored with the millennia-old tradition of yoga.

Not one to be complacent with yoga-as-exercise, I decided recently that I wanted to investigate this ever-alluring science as thoroughly as possible.

After all, why should I not invest some months learning about yoga when it can potentially revamp my quality of life for decades? With a chronic condition that is poorly understood and over which I feel little control, doing yoga gives me a desperately desired feeling of control.

But my awarenss of the health benefits of yoga were rudimentary. Although I knew of research studies pointing to health benefits, the abstracts I read were unhelpful in explaining the actual substance of yoga.

When I set out to investigate the literature on yoga more thoroughly, however, I was impressed by its nuanced complexity and sociopolitical history—aspects of yoga that are rarely, if ever, explored in the context of general courses. Per usual, I was left with more questions than answers.

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The Sanskrit symbol “Om,” inscribed within a mandala.

One of the things that has impressed me the most vis-à-vis yoga is the vast proliferation of schools, styles, and practices that fall under its name. For something as new to the West as yoga (having first been introduced to europe and the united states in the 1890s), it is fascinating that one can now find a yoga class, or even a yoga studio, in virtually every major amerikkan city.

The many schools of yoga include such disparate styles as Power Yoga, Bikram Yoga, Astanga Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, even Naked Yoga and Laughing Yoga. Moreover, according to the New York Times, the number of U.S. practitioners rose from 4 million in 2001 to a whopping 20 million in 2011 (add link). Having experienced first-hand the variations in yoga, from the highly exercise-oriented Astanga to the breath-centric spirituality of Kundalini, I was fascinated by what seemed to be an ever-growing trend that churned out classes faster than you can finish chanting ‘Om.’

Quite naturally, my skepticism led me to wonder whether a rigorous traditional and spiritual discipline, said to be thousands of years old, was going the wayside of other traditional, non-white customs co-opted and bastardized by a dominant consumerist culture.

To be clear, I can emphatically say that I’m not against modernizations or alterations of tradition, especially when such changes are necessary or beneficial.

Yet, when something becomes a trend in our media-saturated profit-driven society, with corporatized yoga being retailed in niche markets that engender highly lucrative careers for certain charismatic self-professed gurus, I have considerable reason to be skeptical. But this self-righteous skepticism is mixed uncomfortably with an insatiable curiosity to plunge the depths of a science with purported healing capabilities. And why wouldn’t I?

Living with MS, I am lured by the idea that I can foster the healing power of my body and mind to keep disabling flare-ups at bay. So this brings me to the central questions I sought to answer: What exactly is yoga, and how do its supposed medicinal properties work? Is there a deep, uncovered wisdom in this practice from ‘the ancients,’ or are we being hoodwinkeden by a marketing ploy that exploits our exoticized fantasies?

Being relatively new to the study of Yoga as a bona fide discipline, I make no claims to being an authority in this field. Nevertheless, from what I’ve been able to cull from the literature, here are some basics:

  • The word ‘yoga’ is used to refer to a number of distinct disciplinary practices that have their roots in ancient India, and that are encompassed within Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Many scholars postulate an origin in Dravidian civilizations as far back as the 7th millennium BCE.
  • The very term ‘yoga’ is popularly interpreted from the Sanskrit as meaning “union” or “a bringing together”—an allusion to the Hindu belief in an ever-present connection between individual self (jivatman) and Absolute, or cosmic, self (paramatman).
  • Yoga has many definitions. For instance, Timothy McCall, a doctor and writer of the book Yoga as Medicine, defines yoga as “a systematic technology to improve the body, understand the mind, and free the spirit” as well as a “series of practices that allow you to steadily gain discipline, strength, and self-control while cultivating relaxation, awareness, and equanimity.” Jean and Doriel Hall, writers of Astanga Yoga & Meditation, refer to it as “an inner journey to the true centre of the soul,” while Yogi Bhole Prabhu defines it as “an experiential science of self-study.”
  • The term ‘yoga’ appears frequently in the Bhagavid Gita, one of the oldest scriptural texts in Hinduism. In it, the deity Lord Krishna tells Prince Arjuna to “[p]erform your duty equiposed…abandoning all attachment to success or failure. Such equanimity is called yoga” (2.48). According to A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, this aphorism can be interpreted to signify yoga as a “means to concentrate the mind upon the Supreme by controlling the ever-disturbing senses.”
  • The first writings to formally systematize the practices of yoga were the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (C. 100BC – AD100), which defined it as a state wherein “there is stilling of the movement of thought.” It is the foundational text of what is now called raja yoga.
  • The first known written introduction of asanas [bodily postures] come from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written in the 15th century.  It is believed that hatha yoga became the dominant yogic practice in India after the turn of the first millennium, and it is the basis of what we commonly refer to as ‘yoga.’
  • Much of what the mainstream calls ‘yoga’ (i.e. a set of postural movements) actually refers to a specific type of yoga, hatha yoga, and specifically within that, the asanas. Yoga has traditionally included meditation, breath work, and various practices aimed at taming the mind with the goal of self-realization. In classical texts, yoga simply refers to communion with the Absolute; consequently, there are forms of yoga that do not involve asanas, such as bhakti-yoga (yoga of devotional service) or karma-yoga (yoga of action).
  • While many of us have been taught that the asanas come from ancient knowledge passed on through the ages, research into the literature suggests that the vast number of the postures used today were invented in the 20th century, if not more recently, by a relatively small number of gurus (to see one treatment of this issue, read yoga expert Alanna Kaivalya’s article in the Huffington Post. In fact, much of what is taught in the different modern yoga schools can be traced to Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, a yogi said to have learned the ‘original’ asanas from an unpreserved (and unverified) text. The only known asanas preserved in the writing of classical texts still with us today are the mere fifteen shown in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
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Warrior I pose

Researching the historical and philosophical underpinnings of yoga gave me added reason to doubt certain claims (such as that it never hurts and always heals 123) while feeling validated in my belief of others.

For one, I think it is necessary to acknowledge the modernization, commercialization, and yes, the colonization of yoga. The possibility that most of the known asanas were created after introduction of yoga to the West, as well as the known reality that certain yoga schools (such as Power Yoga and Phoenix Rising Yoga) were founded by Western yogis, makes it evident that yoga, in the broadest terms, is not simply an ‘ancient’ discipline.

The most obvious changes, such as the invention of new asanas like “airplane pose” and the popularity of music-thumping yoga classes in sports clubs, make it clear that many amerikkans are not averse to the blatant evisceration of spirituality and philosophical inquiry from classical Yoga. Personally, I can respect some of the asana-focused courses of corporatized yoga—given, of course, that it is advertised as the exercise-centric activity that it is. So let’s at least make the terms clear.

As far as medicinal yoga is concerned, such clarification is needed if we are to genuinely understand its healing properties. After all, how best to disaggregate research data or understand the ideological substrate of yogic practice than to know what, in actuality, we’re doing?

Putting Yoga Inc. aside, there are actually many reasons to take yoga seriously as both an ancient spiritual science and as a form of body-mind discipline. For one thing, yoga works. I’ve experienced firsthand its potential to heal, and this is in addition to the reports many of us have likely read or heard regarding its health benefits (McCall, 2007):

  • increased flexibility;
  • stronger muscles;
  • improved immune function;
  • increased oxygenation of tissues;
  • relaxation of the nervous system;
  • an activated prefrontal cortex;
  • lowered stress hormones, blood sugar, and blood pressure;
  • pain relief;
  • improved psychological health;
  • an elicited placebo effect and many others.

Recently, it was uncovered that yoga has a beneficial impact on the genetic expression of immune cells. This latter finding is worth emphasizing, for the fact that yoga can tap into the molecules that formulate the fabric of our very being is a very powerful realization, indeed.

One of the factors said to contribute to yoga’s success, even as evidenced in the realm of empirical evidence-based studies, is its ability to unify body and mind (and for believers, the cosmic soul) through the breath.

Whereas Western science has only recently uncovered the role of mental force on bodily responses through such disciplines as psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) and positive psychology, this connection has long been axiomatic to yogic philosophy. In fact, the vinyasa flow of the physical postures is believed to help relax the nervous system enough to facilitate meditation, known for easing excitatory responses and producing mental clarity.

Because the ultimate goal of classical yoga was to produce serenity through a quieting of thoughts, the goal of which was self-realization and commune with Brahman, our cosmic self, breath work and meditation were always integral to yoga practice. In this day and age, when stress contributes to a disproportionate number of medical conditions, yoga can help us modify our bodily reactions to environmental stressors through a deactivation of the sympathetic nervous system and a “rewiring” of neural networks.

At the macro-level of medical philosophy, yoga also provides a much-needed holistic approach to the body. Incorporating a corporeal ontology that links mind, spirit, and energy, yoga’s relation to medicine is arguably distinct from the dominant allopathic model that treats the body as a compartmentalizable machine. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras do not mention asanas, but rather, such concepts as pranayama,  yamas (abstentions such as non-violence or non-stealing), dharana (concentration), and dhyana (meditation), all of which are necessary for the ultimate goal of self-realization.

Although they lacked the imaging technology to study the endocrine system, yogic scholars were nevertheless able to identify what they called chakras, centers of energy aligned with specific plexuses (nerve clusters) and endocrine structures in the body. Their studies also highlighted the importance of the breath in facilitating changes in energy throughout the body.

This alternative to the dominant Western medical model, which has been with us in its modern form only since the 19th century, may become increasingly necessary as the years advance. In my own experience, yoga as an all-body, whole self discipline has provided me with benefits that the dominant medical model would have achieved only through excessive risk and costs: pain relief, nervous relaxation, aerobic conditioning, energy improvement, improved libido. By way of contrast, my own experience with doctors makes evident the alienating dynamics of capitalist medicine. Having seen various doctors for my neuropathic pain, the atomizing tendencies of the established medical field became apparent when the different neurologists I’ve sought for help all provided distinct explanations of my condition with corresponding, distinct remedies and treatments. The fact that four different doctors with the same specialty (neurology), three of whom share the same sub-specialty (pain management), could offer such disparate treatments is telling.

While Yoga is no panacea, it might be the perspective we need in the face of austerity medicine, environmental degradation, factory farming and other forms of systemic violence that threaten the viability of our species.

While acknowledging the breakthrough achievements of allopathic medicine, we should also be cognizant of the deteriorating effects of the neoliberal impetus to turn everything—including land, clean air, and water—into commodities. And I anticipate a rise in more young people, like myself, finding themselves with unexplainable autoimmune conditions. In this age of empire, we might just need yoga if we are to survive.

An Activist’s Struggle with “Acceptance”

In Chronic Pain, Health Justice, Philosophical Musings, The Revolution on January 29, 2013 at 12:39 AM

In Buddhist lore, there is a story about a woman named Kisagotami who suffered from the death of her only child. In her grief and desperation, she went to the Buddha hoping that he would know a way to bring her child back to life. As the story goes, the Buddha told her to bring him a handful of mustard seed—and that such seed needed to come from a household where no one had ever died. The woman agreed to this task and immediately went about going from house to house in search of the mustard seed. However, after visiting one household after the other, she realized that there wasn’t a single one where death had not visited. Acknowledging this sad fact, she returned to the Buddha who in turn told her, with great compassion, that she was not alone in her grief. Death—the ultimate sign of life’s impermanence—was a natural part of human existence.

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Kisagotami coming to the Buddha with the desire to resurrect her child.

This now-mythic story appears at the beginning of a chapter on suffering in a book entitled The Art of Happiness (1998), co-written by the Dalai Lama and psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler. In the book, Cutler interviews the Dalai Lama to examine the Buddhist prescription for finding happiness in a life badgered by constant stress and suffering. Regarding the story summarized above, they write: “Kisagotami’s search taught her that no one lives free from suffering and loss. She hadn’t been singled out for this terrible misfortune. This insight didn’t eliminate the inevitable suffering that comes from loss, but it did reduce the suffering that came from struggling against this sad fact of life… Although pain and suffering are universal human phenomena, that doesn’t mean we have an easy time accepting them.” [emphasis mine]

As I’ve noted in previous posts, I began looking into Buddhism seeking answers: a way to deal with inscrutable health issues that created an impassable chasm between my current sickly living and the life I had become accustomed to. For sure, my life before was filled with struggle—but it was one where I found fulfillment and hope in the very process of struggling. Being in the thick of a fight gave my life meaning—even when I knew I was up against impossible odds.

Today, my chronic pain prevents me from moving forward the way I once secretly envisioned. Whether I acknowledged it to myself or not, I hoped that at this point in my life I’d be more engaged in explicit activist efforts, working side-by-side with my communities, developing old friendships while making new ones. And while some of that has occurred, my invisible pain has kept me bed-ridden more times than I can count. My entire worldview has been altered by a web of health conditions that makes simple survival—getting by day to day—a struggle. To avoid slipping into a seemingly inevitable abyss of loneliness, I sought a philosophy that dealt directly with the issues that now mattered to me most: coping with pain and illness, finding a sustainable way of living in peace without compromising my revolutionary integrity. The dharma seemed to bear that promise, and I’ve been adamantly trying to learn as much about Buddha’s philosophy ever since.

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Front cover to the 1998 bestseller co-authored by the Dalai Lama

All of this said, I quickly found myself dealing with an internal turmoil. An earnest desire to learn more about the dharma resulted in many questions on my part, and I sensed a common motif between many of the issues I was confronting. Namely, I sensed a friction between struggle and acceptance, two paths of action in a world filled with decision-making junctures. The story of Kisagotami highlights the role that both struggle and acceptance play in Buddhism and in our daily lives. Are there struggles—like the internal struggle Kisagotami had against the death of her child—that should be tempered with acceptance? Is acceptance always the way to finding peace and happiness in this world? The more I examined the questions of when to struggle, when to accept, the more I realized that this was an incredibly nuanced discussion that merits explicit attention.

Below I will attempt to explain the emotional/philosophical quandary in question, first by examining how I came to the quandary in the first place. As the discussion is highly detailed, I fragmented this written exploration into parts meant for easier access and readability. It is part autobiographical, part historical, part philosophical, and part social and political commentary. I encourage readers to read or skim through sections as they see fit.

My Path: From Revolution to Dharma

I hesitate to use the word “revolutionary” to describe myself, largely because of the ways in which that label has become colored with meanings that seem to obfuscate more than clarify, but I would most definitely say that I see a need for “revolution.” Having grown up in a working-class immigrant family in the heart of Empire, seeing daily the costs of our run-amok capitalist world on the very livelihood of my family—and my own personal suffering—it’s hard for me not to desire change. Not some pennies-and-nickels reformism, but a veritable radical revolution that will bring an end to elite favoritism and greed, and lessen the unjustifiable suffering of the world’s oppressed. So before I became severely ill, I had already suffered and struggled through depression, suicidality, and constant efforts to prove myself in academic environments where who you knew was more important what you knew.

But things changed as I became involved in political struggles, building an activist’s optimism that infused my life with meaning. Although I battled depression and fatigue while I worked long hours, it all seemed worth it. As Victor Frankl notes in Man’s Search for Meaning, individuals who suffer with purpose are more likely to survive through the most hellish circumstances. And having spent years working around immigrants’ rights, housing, and labor rights, and building a career in political education, I felt fulfilled in being able to fight the good fight. Things were never easy. Everything seemed to be a struggle. But I was at least healthy enough to put up a fight.

Things radically changed in a short period of time as a tornado wrecked havoc on my body, leaving irremediable changes in its wake. My brother’s paradoxically long-but-young life of suffering was over, but a new set of struggles had only just started for me. As if the Universe had left me with the pieces of his unresolved struggle. Like my brother, I started a downward path of debilitating symptoms, a lessening in quality of life, a withdrawal from the communities that gave me a sense of personhood and hope. Chronic pain had set in, and as months rolled by and as one medical treatment after the other failed me, my future started to seem bleaker and bleaker.

“What kind of a life had I in store for me now?,” I thought. One where I was in constant pain, unable to pursue the dreams that once brightened the landscape of an already-arduous life?

I couldn’t find solutions for my intensely personal struggle in the activism or revolutionary politics that became embedded in my identity. At best, perhaps a theory for understanding how my autoimmune condition arose, an understanding of the larger picture of transgenerational suffering and marginalization that led to where I am now. But reading Marx or Alinsky or any other revolutionary writer provided no prescription for what to do with my body, mind, and spirit. (And, of course, the literature from mainstream biomedical industrial complex only offered weak suggestions.)

I felt like a soldier down, too wounded to fight side-by-side other activists, taken away from the battlefield when that was the very experience that gave me energy. I became a homebody for once in my life as my pain made spending time outside too uncomfortable. And much like anyone else first learning to cope with chronic pain, I wanted to treat it and get it over with. I wanted to think that it was like a terrible flu or a broken bone, something that could heal with the proper assortment of pills, diet, and exercise. And given that this was pain, I wanted to put the healing process on turbo-drive so I could go quickly resume life as normal.

Time made me realize that this was nothing like a flu or a broken bone. Whenever I felt any relief I was quickly slammed against the cold concrete of interminable pain. I came to truly recognize my former able-bodied privilege—and to this day, I feel stuck in a perpetual straddling of an amorphous line between healthy and unhealthy. Most disturbing of all was my realization that I wasn’t going to be soothed by the answers of our dominant, seemingly effective system of medical institutions (what many recognize as the primacy of allopathic medicine). Since I was already critical of the medical industrial complex, and since I had already opened my heart to yoga and meditation, I chose to trust my gut and move from there.

In my research I learned about very different paradigms of health and healing. I learned that unlike the positivist approach that underlies the allopathic medical establishment (feigning absolute “objectivity” in its efforts to maintain power over human minds and bodies), other forms of medicine—such as homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, or Ayurvedic medicine—were very overtly affiliated with philosophies that examined the entirety of human experience and the interconnectivities of the Universe. Unlike the current Western medical establishment, embedded as it is within a capitalist-postmodernist zeitgeist, the other forms of medicine I investigated treated the body holistically, as being connected with something vaster and more Supreme. Rather than treating the body like a machine with various interchangeable parts, these other medicines saw the interconnections between mind and spirit (way before the emergence of ‘psychoneuroimmunology’). They saw how stress could impact the body, and how practices like meditation and yoga could remedy these impacts—all without the need for potent, potentially harmful pharmaceuticals.

Reading about the medicinal practices of yoga and meditation that originated in India, I was slowly drawn into studying Buddhism. I was intrigued by the dharma’s focus on impermanence and its willingness to examine dukkha (translated as suffering or stress). I found a way of thought that directly addressed illness and suffering and gave a prescription for how to cope with these. It gave me a sense of optimism much in the same way that activism did for me before. Although I had done yoga and meditation before, I started to take these very seriously now that I understood, more intimately, how stress can deteriorate one’s health. For certain, I started these practices for quite selfish reasons: improving my health. But over time I was drawn to the worldviews that these practices emanated from, and so I kept reading and researching vigorously.

Unsurprisingly, what are likely naïve questions on my part began to surface. Having come to see struggle as a part of our existence, a part of our survival, even a part of our happiness, I started to have issues with the way “acceptance” was discussed among certain Buddhist writers. Wasn’t acceptance, after all, a form of complacency? How does acceptance of suffering lead to peace and happiness, for is it not the struggle against suffering that enables us to overcome it? Furthermore, the mantra-like focus on changing one’s “perspective,” “looking inward,” and “taming the mind” all seemed to explicate larger socio-political problems onto highly individualized cognitive appraisals (this is a point I don’t wholeheartedly disagree with, but lack of space prevents me from engaging this point any further). I was baffled and intrigued by this seemingly large conundrum.

I once asked for advice from an energy healer (an obvious act of desperation if one ever existed). His suggestion was that I shouldn’t seek to change the world. “There’s nothing wrong with the world,” he said. The world is full of beauty and goodness, and there’s no need to change it. His very suggestion implied passive acceptance.

All of this seemed to go counter to my education as an activist. I never questioned whether there was suffering in the world, and I never questioned the importance of struggle. Collective struggles are what enabled us to achieve certain victories that many of us (really, the most fortunate among us) take for granted today: an eight-hour workday, weekends, the ability to work without fear of injury or the ability to go to a hospital if we do get injured. Of course, many of these victories are being curtailed as we speak, but fighting seemed to be the key to seeking the world of peace and happiness we wanted. In my mind, sitting back and devoting our energies to accepting our suffering—interpreted in the wrong way—could lead to the sort of interpretation given by the healer who offered me “advice.” Coming from a place of affluence and privilege, it was easy enough for him to suggest an individualistic path of focusing on one’s own mind, on acceptance. But that struck me as completely unacceptable.

And I started to encounter a similar sort of advice being propounded by more self-identified Buddhists in essays and films. It was as if collective struggle was worthless, or at least, not the right way to solving the world’s problems; rather, it was turning to our minds, learning acceptance, that was crucial. My confusion was augmented when I read about Buddhist activists who held views that were admittedly more palatable but nevertheless question-raising. Briefly put, I encountered what seemed to be a dialectical friction between struggle and acceptance.

What’s in a struggle?

Having become accustomed to a paradigm of ‘struggle’—both in my personal life, and in my way of understanding social conflict and power dynamics—I recently started thinking more deeply about its relation to suffering and how it was playing out in my disease-ridden life. Upon questioning myself on the matter, I immediately realized, in spite of their oft-accepted conflation, that struggle is not suffering. At the very least, they’re not equivalent in the way we typically understand these terms in the English language. One can struggle for higher wages, respect, security, love—and these struggles, while they may involve some level of suffering, can be exercises that confer fulfillment and purpose to our lives. As an action, struggle can involve contending with a difficult situation or challenge; suffering, on the other hand, is an experience that can result from loss, failure, or mental unrest.

I also realized that although the concept of struggle was constantly on my mind, the very term finds form in different meanings. We have collective struggle and personal struggle. We struggle against issues within ourselves (against illness, confusion, fear or general unhappiness) as well as without (against an abusive boss, a hot-headed partner, environmental injustice and war). Struggle can be conscious and voluntary (as when we choose to fight back against the police) or unconscious and involuntary (as when we struggle to remain alive after being beaten). A ‘struggle’ can be a small tussle in a boxing ring or a large-scale power play between forces of corporate domination and the preservation of people’s livelihoods. Additionally, what I realized for myself was that being able to struggle with community meant something far different than this more personalized subjugation of struggling with chronic pain and health issues. And it is this difference between collective and personal that I want to give a closer look.

Undoubtedly, written history is rife with examples of collective struggle, almost invariably a struggle between those with less power and those with more. Whether we examine the examples of historical interplays between plebeians and tyrants, slaves and masters, it is clear that people have long forged common bonds and fought against mutual enemies. Although history is always written by the powerful and winners of wars, lurking beneath is the undeniable truth of people’s revolts, battles, and struggles against the oppression of emperors, monarchs, and entrenched elites. Occluded from mainstream history texts are the individual plights and perspectives of those of an oppressed class, whether they be the plebeians of Rome, the untouchable castes of India, Japan, or Tibet, or the peasants and slaves of the Mesoamerica. In spite of what we’re taught in schools, the brutal examples of global imperial colonization and domination that resulted in an immeasurable loss of life and culture among indigenous Americans, Africans, Asians, and non-continental nations did not occur without protracted wars, rebellions, and individual mutinies. Certainly, the very many people’s revolts have left indelible markers on the historical landscape, but were quickly suppressed and forgotten via the willful dictates of the powerful in particular times and spaces.

Of course, one need not look deep into the historical canon to see examples of collective struggles of what we commonly call the ‘common folk’ or ‘the people.’ The American and French Revolutions would have been impossible without the vital support of the supposed commoner (although, as critical historians have seen in both cases, the more powerful of the ‘oppressed’ quickly gained the helm while the individual plights and perspectives from the lower classes rarely made it into the history books). The protracted labor struggles that came in the advent of industrialization in Britain and the United States gave rise to new reconfigurations and models of organizing that we continue to utilize today. And although many today look to the revolutionary movements of the late 60’s and early ‘70s to find examples of collective struggle (from antiwar demonstrations to women’s rights to black, indigenous, Asian and Latina/o struggles for liberation), the socially-aware observer will find all sorts of examples of collective struggle in our “postmodern” informational age in the form of multiscalar progressive organizational coalitions and networks (e.g. Right to the City Alliance, Take Back the Land,  the various independent struggles lumped under the ‘Arab Spring,’ Occupy Wall Street and its offsprings, Yo Soy 132, and Idle No More).

The examples of collective struggles are endless and I can do no justice here trying to engage them all. But as a non-religious person trying to critically engage with Buddhist thought, I couldn’t help but wonder what Buddhist scholars thought of collective struggles, particularly people’s resistance struggles, much of which was necessarily violent. If, as I hinted earlier, acceptance meant compliance with an unjust brutal world that was shaped (and could be changed) by humans, then this was an acceptance I wanted nothing to do with. It reeked too horribly of thoughtless compliance and bourgeois ideology. But when I thought of historical examples of Buddhists fighting in the trenches against ostensible injustices, I began to really question whether Buddhism (a religion or spiritual system of thought that has as many varied interpretations as any other religious/spiritual system) had a single, homogeneous understanding of acceptance—and, for that matter, struggle and suffering.

Buddhists in Collective Struggle

In thinking about Buddhists in collective struggle, the first example that came to mind was the famous role of Buddhists in the Southeast Asian War (aka Vietnam War). I thought back to the memorable account of a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in a public square in Saigon (June 1963) to protest the U.S.-backed Diem regime. This, of course, was all I was taught in my high school U.S. history course. Researching the topic further, I found information that resonated with my knowledge of history and politics in the Americas—information that is deliberately ignored, obfuscated, or suppressed in the most accessible outlets of public media. Although I make no claims of being a historian (let alone an “objective” one, which does not exist), I will try to briefly narrate what are verifiable accounts:

Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, burns himself to death on a Saigon street June 11, 1963 to protest alleged persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. (AP Photo/Malcolm Browne)

Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, burns himself to death on a Saigon street on June 11, 1963 to protest persecution of Buddhists by the U.S. puppet government of Ngo Dinh Diem. (AP Photo/Malcolm Browne)

The history of Euro-American imperialism in Southeast Asia dates back to the so-called Age of Exploration, becoming most clearly manifest in the military conquests of France in a period between 1859 and 1885. As with other examples of imperial-colonial domination, the people of what was then called Indochina fought endlessly for self-government and basic civil liberties. After generations of struggle against French rule, another imperial power (Japan) came into the fold following the defeat of France to Germany during World War II.

It was under oppressive Japanese occupation that a communist-nationalist liberation movement, the Vietminh, came into power with a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh, as its leader. As Howard Zinn (1980) writes in his renowned chapter on the Vietnam (Southeast Asian) War, the Viet Minh successfully defeated the Japanese and its puppet government in 1945, celebrating their victory by issuing a Declaration of Independence  that modeled the U.S.’s. This proved to be a short-lived victory, however, as French forces (now liberated from the Third Reich) began bombarding communist-led Vietnam in 1946. This was the beginning of the First Indochina War that lasted until 1954.

The Geneva Conference of that last year dissolved French Indochina and partitioned the region into four independent countries: Laos, Cambodia, North Vietnam (under the Viet Minh government), and South Vietnam (under Emperor Bảo Đại). It wasn’t long before this partition of nations led to conflict, primarily in a Cold War geopolitical environment that drove the McCarthyist U.S. into “defending” its Southern sphere of influence. After a U.S.-backed coup d’etat by then-Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, a staunch anti-communist who blocked efforts for democratic elections, the socio-political atmosphere of South Vietnam quickly became heated. In a nation that consisted mostly of poor rural laborers who were Buddhist, rule under a Catholic U.S.-puppet president (who had recently moved back from living in New Jersey) was completely insufferable. By siding with large landowners, much-needed land reform for most of the population was never implemented. He imprisoned and killed communist-supporters and critics of his corrupt regime while replacing locally elected leaders with his own men. In 1960, a National Liberation Front was formed in South Vietnam that united various strands of Diem’s opposition, including (most importantly) disgruntled peasants.

By 1963, Buddhist discontent circulated after Diem (who for years implemented policies favoring Catholics) placed a ban on flying the Buddhist flag. In droves, Buddhists had protested the ban by publicly flying their flags and facing government gunfire (and in many instances, death). A turning-point was reached when Mahayana Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, with the support of several other monks and nuns, performed a self-immolation that was publicized around the world. Many Buddhists thereafter followed his example, following his last words in a letter written immediately before his death:

“I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.”1

In the ensuing years, a number of other monks set themselves on fire in a flagrant dramatization of what was truly a people’s oppositional movement. Given the vast abundance of literature about the Southeast Asian War, there is no need to recapitulate the obvious facts. However, it is noteworthy that a largely rural peasant counteroffensive in South Vietnam with a substantially weaker military arsenal defeated a Goliath superpower. This is perhaps one of the greatest testaments in recent history to the power of collective struggle against inhumane injustices.

Another prominent example of Buddhists engaged in collective struggle is showcased in the fight for Tibetan independence. Much like with Southeast Asian Buddhists, the struggle among Tibetan Buddhists involves a long history of fighting against imperial powers. For centuries, Tibet’s autonomy was challenged by nearby Chinese and Mongolian empires as well as by a brief effort by British forces (in 1904). The year following Mao Zedong’s takeover of China in 1949, the People’s Liberation Army entered Tibet and immediately began to assert influence on the Tibetan government, headquartered in the capital city of Lhasa. In 1951, under significant duress and following defeat at the Battle of Chamdo, representatives of the young Dalai Lama signed onto a seventeen point agreement with Mao’s regime. The agreement affirmed Chinese sovereignty while claiming to provide for some degree of Tibetan autonomy.

In the years following, however, considerable unrest brewed under oppressive Chinese military rule, most especially in the eastern Tibetan section of Kham. There, the native Khampas faced starvation, beatings, and imprisonment as many of them (numbering in the tens of thousands by the late 1950s) chose to join the resistance. Kham leaders, without the explicit approval of the Lhasa government, contacted the CIA under President Eisenhower to request support—which it did, by training and arming Tibetan guerrillas. Needless to say, this strategic U.S. support was given as part of a larger effort to subvert the imperial foe of Communist China.

As the Tibetan resistance movement spread, many Tibetans in Lhasa started to agree with their local Tibetans in Kham. On March 10, 1959, after years of Chinese military intervention and a fear that the Chinese would abduct their Dalai Lama, several thousand Tibetans gathered around the Dalai Lama’s summer palace 2. This launched an uprising (celebrated annually by Tibetans) that was eventually crushed and led to the exile of The Dalai Lama and other Tibetans to Dharamsala, India. In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands of Tibetans who stayed in Tibet were executed in the guerrilla warfare that ensued (again, with the intrusion of the CIA). Along with the extreme and brutal loss of life came a replication of an oft-seen pattern that has persevered since the early 16th century: colonization in the form of territorial occupation and cultural co-optation, marked here by the destruction of thousands of Tibetan monasteries and cultural institutional as well as the coerced influx of Chinese from the interior.

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Tibetans gather around the Potala Palace in Lhasa on March 17, 1959.

A recently produced documentary, The Sun Behind the Clouds (2010), examines in-depth the contemporary issues facing Tibetans, torn between clashing interpersonal views and divergent spheres of imperial influence (those of China and the United States). Although the detailed politics of Tibetan independence are beyond the scope of this review, what’s clear is that there exists an ongoing collective resistance among Tibetan Buddhists against Chinese imperial rule. I find that my attempt to understand the dialectic between acceptance and struggle within a Buddhist paradigm is illuminated by the conflicts exposed in this film. Whereas the Dalai Lama demonstrates a willingness to negotiate with (and even forgive) the Chinese government, those supporting the Tibetan independence movement, including many Tibetans and non-Tibetans, within Tibet and beyond, seem willing to engage in further collective struggle. This schism that places many Buddhists at odds with a Nobel Peace Prize-winning spiritual leader makes it clear that choosing between when to fight back and struggle, and when to forgive and accept, is a highly contentious terrain.

The Meanings of Personal Struggle

As with individual Tibetan Buddhists who must choose between resisting, accepting, or finding a middle ground, all humans are challenged to make decisions about when to fight and when to stand back or run away. Although there can be no collective struggle without personal struggle, I’ve come to understand the importance of acknowledging the latter as something in itself, as something quite different. Of course, there is much that intertwines collective and personal struggles: as two examples, personal issues can be shared by others in the community, helping build cohesion; and community struggles, which often work to create mass consciousness, may challenge individuals to take sides. However, I may also deal with personal struggles that others may not share. This is something that requires much nuance to explain, but briefly put, even if I suffer from conditions (chronic pain and multiple sclerosis) others do share, the uniqueness of my symptoms, medical history, etc. makes this an incredibly personal struggle. (You can even choose to see this as another dialectic, between the personal and the collective)

Of course, this notion of personal vs. collective is nothing new. There is a widely-held belief that through our inherent humanity we are also all unique individuals with unique needs, unique relationships, and unique histories. Canonical history itself shows us that, even when we forge common bonds and build collective struggles, there are almost always cracks in any surface of homogeneity. One need only consider examples of well-known historical struggles (e.g. women of color in the feminist movement, blacks in the early U.S. labor movement, trans-people and other marginalized queers in the gay and lesbian movement) to see that movements are often fragmented by sub-group differences. At the more micro level, divisions are also fostered by personal differences, even within well-organized political groups (e.g. the American Anti-Slavery Society, the Wobblies, Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Panthers).

Figuring out how to navigate a social landscape of strategic political coalitions and nuanced viewpoints is never easy, as any one actively engaged in community struggles can attest to. Identity politics, philosophical views, spiritual beliefs, and economic well-being all collide in our conflict-ridden world. This is not to say that unity and solidarity are impossible—just that they are contingent upon a recognition of each other’s intrinsic humanity and individual differences. Even when we are seemingly well-situated in a group, collective, or movement, each one of us must contend with problems that are intensely singular, sometimes threatening to any belief in shared humanity or “one-ness.” In my case, the very real threat of loneliness emerges from intensely personal medical/socioeconomic/spiritual struggles around which it’s hard to foment movement or solidarity. In my brother’s case, I saw how a rare ailment and a set of conditions very few could relate to brought upon despair and social withdrawal.

It is all this, of course, that led me to seek answers beyond a conventional Leftist political paradigm. I’ve started to wonder what happens when we no longer have the energy to fight. What do we do when we’ve exhausted all our possibilities of struggle? What do we do when (physical) struggle is no longer viable? What if compromise, submission, or downright resignation are the most rational choices?

Moments of Acceptance

I have no doubt in my mind that I am conflating many issues from multiple scales of experience. But my own experiences lent themselves to a very complex understanding of what struggle and acceptance mean, and it is the latter that I turn to next.

Not surprisingly, like the term ‘struggle,’ ‘acceptance’ has variegated meanings that shift from one moment to the other, one space to the next. Unlike ‘struggle,’ which has been a forceful word in my vocabulary for years, ‘acceptance’ echoed strangely within the pre-articulated limbo of my mind. When I conjured up examples of how the word could be used (“to accept one’s fate,” “to accept payment,” “to accept one’s apology”), I realized that my understanding of the word “accepting,” as used in the Dalai Lama’s Art of Happiness, could be entirely muddled or even misguided. I thus decided to look up its definition on dictionary.com:

Needless to say, the alternate definitions of acceptance left me confused. In the context of Buddhism, I was left with many possible interpretations: When writers talk about acceptance of suffering, do they mean that we must receive suffering with approval, like a gift from the heavens to help us reach enlightenment? Do they mean that we must take it like foul-tasting medicine, awful to bear but good for the soul? Or does it simply mean that we must believe that suffering is a fact whose undeniable veracity we must assent to? All of these may be possibilities, and for all I know, maybe all true. Certainly, the evident semantic issue is not helped by the fact that these writers are translating ideas from Japanese, Chinese, Sanskrit, and Pali texts which were in turn written by scholars who did not write in the Buddha’s (unknown) native tongue.

Yet, even in contending with the confusion, I came to certain realizations about what acceptance does not mean. Acceptance does not mean complacency, subservience, or willful ignorance. Acceptance does not mean admitting defeat. Acceptance does not mean falling into despair. Acceptance does not mean giving up.

I realized these things when noting that resignation, complacency, and defeat are nowhere in any of the writings or videos with Buddhists discussing ‘acceptance.’ And the word ‘struggle’ (which has the less-ambiguous meanings of “to contend with an adversary or opposing force” or “to exert strength, energy, and force”) bears no apparent conflict with the meaning of acceptance. Wanting to resolve the issue, I decided there is no contradiction between struggling and accepting, and that, in fact, the two often work in tandem. For instance, when accepting the fact that you’re up against an incredible enemy (whether that be your mother, your boss, your partner’s ex, your government, or advanced neoliberal capitalism), you may decide that struggle may be useful if not blatantly necessary. Likewise, when struggling against a difficult situation at home, you may choose to accept the situation, accept its difficulty, and accept the fact that you are only human.

During the time I had my first significant MS flare-ups, I had to deal with a number of experiences that coerced me into acceptance. The first notable instance was accepting the fact that my brother was approaching death. I saw how hard my parents struggled with this notion, and though their reactions were understandable, I couldn’t help but feel as if it was (like Kisogatami’s story) a struggle against an undeniable fact of life. When they chose not to disclose to my brother the doctor’s intention of putting him in a hospice facility, I yelled at them because I thought it was dishonest and unhelpful in the long-term. None of this, however, gets at the fact that each one of us was dealing with my brother’s impending death in different ways. We were united in our suffering—and yet our responses, our struggles, were markedly unique.

Shortly after news that my brother’s life was as visibly short-termed as the sands at the top of an hourglass, I suffered a flare-up that gave me intense vertigo for a week. After recovering and going back to work, I experienced severe dysesthesias that made getting by on a day-to-day basis excruciating. From my desk in Manhattan I read about the encampments at Liberty Square, feeling at once disconnected from the world and my body. Just months after playing an organizing role for an earlier demonstration on Wall Street, I was angry that my body was not letting me join the fight. The stress of my brother’s health, my parents’ reactions, my alienating job, and my newly-formed health problems began to unravel in my body. Rather than voluntarily accepting issues that were boiling up for years, I was forced—finally—into submission. At that time, I was too caught up struggling against my new stressors (my disease, my disabilities, my parents’ failure to accept the undeniable) to continue my struggle against the old (“the system,” corporate greed, the non-profit industrial complex, and my internal propensities to loneliness and depression).

In my continuous turmoil and struggle that slowed the pace of time, the months of October and November trudged on by painfully. I was incapable of walking during one week in November, during which time I wondered what would happen to me, my brother, and my family. Shortly after my brother was transferred to a hospice facility in Brooklyn, I was able to make my way down there alone, albeit with obvious impairments: my feet and hands periodically numb, my energy drained. Making my way into the hospice facility, I was surprised by how unfazed I was at the sight of dying bodies. I found my brother cold asleep in his room and chose to take advantage of the time by reading my book on a hallway bench. It wasn’t long before an elderly white woman—presumably a volunteer from the church—sat next to me and asked me who I was waiting for.

In my typical, New York-conditioned skepticism, I gave her a curt and somewhat-dismissive answer: “My brother.”

I just didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t even want to speak. But she persisted.

“What’s his name?”

“Anthony.”

“How old is he?”

“Twenty-six.”

Before long I was telling her that I was dealing with MS, that I had just suffered continuous flare-ups in a short period of time, and that I wasn’t sure whether I would be at my brother’s bedside when he moved on. My voice felt monotonous, detached, cold.

And in an attempt at a conciliatory tone she said, “There’s only so much any of us can do. We’re only human. And sometimes we just need to accept what we’re able to do.”

It was a painful learning experience, for sure, but I did learn to accept—in a post-superficial way—that I was person with a body and that I was thus prone to illness, aging, and death. Slowly, too, I saw my mother’s anxiety-ridden face melt into a calm obeisance, as if she understood that the inexorable mysteries of God were beyond her. As if this particular struggle was found to be no longer sensible and worthy.

And it is in what we both experienced that I’ve come to appreciate another (emancipatory) meaning of acceptance: letting go. Letting go of an obsessive need to control all aspects of life. Letting go of views that no longer make sense in our actual spatio-historical context. Letting go of what we think our lives are, and letting go of who we think we will become.

The Middle Way

In thinking about this turning point in my life, I realize that struggle and acceptance have always coexisted. After all, my struggle to get by with illness continues, but I accept that this is now a part of my life.  You can accept the existence of struggle, or (as Kisagotami did) struggle against an acceptance of our impermanence.

Thinking in a way that acknowledges a dialectical co-existence between acceptance and struggle lends itself to all sorts of transformative analysis. For instance, although Buddhist monks in Vietnam struggled against the Diem regime for years, it was likely an acceptance of death that enabled some of them to set themselves on fire. And in Tibet, while many continue to struggle against the oppressive Chinese regime, many also accept that the fate of the country is beyond the workings of a single player.

Acknowledging such co-existence, however, doesn’t offer the definitive resolution one might seek. As I’ve noted earlier, the problems with mere semantics creates an issue with framing a struggle-acceptance dialectic, and trying to untangle meanings from context and using them for practical ends is an incredibly arduous challenge whose purpose may ultimately prove worthless. With respect to the semantics issue, we can easily find ourselves in a rut of arbitrariness if, say, we can accept our struggle, or struggle with our acceptance, or accept and struggle at the same time. We can easily find ourselves reconfiguring meanings ad nauseum, shifting the meaning of ‘struggle’ and ‘acceptance’ at will while moving about like a pendulum in frictionless space. And once we’re able to reconfigure meanings in a relativist fashion, cherry-picking which definitions or meanings we choose to utilize in a particular context, we have to contend with undesirable consequences, such as the ambiguities of how to decide and act. We can, for instance, interpret the Dalai Lama’s (and other Buddhists’) advice on accepting suffering as implying, by the very fact that it was even suggested, that acceptance is itself a struggle—and, absurdly, a struggle we must accept. This potentially infinite regress reeks of nonsense and vacuous non-sequiturs that give us no basis for action.

Although all of this reads like a perplexing koan, I do find a saving grace in Buddhism’s very understanding of impermanence and the cyclical nature of life. Within this view is a recognition of the world as both changing and immutable, something shaped by one’s point of view and consciousness. As we are susceptible to highly polarized views, we are advised, in our search for peace, to find a “middle way” between extremes in thought and feeling. Much like a synthetic resolution to a Hegelian dialectical quandary, the “middle way” might be more than just an approach expounded by the Dalai Lama around the issue of Tibet. It may actually mean that no one perspective can give us Truth, and that our peace and happiness lies in an art of balancing (and shifting between) decision-making polarities: whether to be violent or non-violent, to be forgiving or unforgiving, to be struggling or accepting.

To be sure, this is a most irresolute of resolutions—but so is the nature of philosophizing on life. What bothers me most, however, is how such inconclusivity will be understood. I can’t help but hear a Left critique that says that any “middle way” is automatically a compromise in a war between enemies, a most despicable form of concessionary politics that uses divide-and-conquer to pare the edges of a revolutionary momentum. Maybe. Maybe not. Although I’m prone to be sympathetic to such a view, would it really apply in all cases? I’ve come to think that “middle way” approaches are more likely to be de-radicalizing accommodations in the context of collective struggles, but when it comes to personal struggles, a “middle way” approach may offer a much-needed balance in the aim for mental clarity and corporeal health.

And when it comes to the question I first presented—of when to accept, when to struggle—I will deliberately avoid universalizing maxims of ethical behavior (even at the likely expense of seeming like a post-modern relativist). As simple as it sounds, I find this to be true for me: I don’t think we will find an answer that makes sense for all of us all of the time. There is a certain relief that comes from this recognition, this letting go of a need to control the world under a paradigm of universal truths. Realizing this, I’ve decided that I need not find answers in Buddhist thought, but can rather allow new thoughts and resolutions enter through the personal dharmic road that led me here.

I’ve thus decided that there are moments when it makes sense to struggle—often with all the passion our bodies and souls can muster. I’ve also decided that there are moments when we must accept that, as humans, there is only so much pain, suffering, and injustice we can bear alone.

Doing a bit of word-play, I would also like to end by adding that we can also accept into our hearts not only the truths about illness and death, but also the beauties and joys of simple living. We can live with a revolutionary acceptance of different forms of life, one that goes beyond a superficial multicultural tokenism to a realization that all humans have a right to freedom. By accepting such freedom, we allow room for a diversity of tactics, a diversity of views, a diversity of ways in which to live and love. Such is an acceptance I can truly embrace.

Desperate Times, Desperate Treatments

In Chronic Pain, Class Politics, Crip Politics / Disability Politics, Health Justice, Identity Politics, Multiple Sclerosis, Neuroscience on November 18, 2012 at 11:30 PM
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Pills, pills, and more pills…

A web of issues has kept me from writing in the past few weeks, and the entire experience has had me think deeply about how seemingly intractable concerns self-perpetuate.

I’ve been dealing with chronic fatigue and pain for quite some time now, but a vicious circle has solidified that makes my health issues seem substantially worse: irregular hours at work, a lack of family support or community, an overall lack of inspiration…

I’ve also been dealing with intractable, difficult-to-treat neuropathic pain that results from damaged nerve cells.

Typically, pain is associated with signals sent along specialized nerve fibers—nociceptors—whenever you experience something like a stubbed toe. In the case of neuropathic pain, however, it can be the very nerve fibers that communicate pain to our central nervous system that are themselves damaged. The pain signaling process that typically alerts us to harmful stimuli is suddenly miscommunicating, with nociceptors firing in the presence of usually non-painful stimuli (allodynia) or firing spontaneously or at higher intensity (hyperalgesia).

In my case, the damage wrought by successive MS-related relapses last fall created multiple lesions in my brain and spinal cord, with many localized in the midbrain (the part of the brain that controls autonomic nervous activity, such as breathing, temperature regulation, and motor coordination).

My last MRI indicated at least twenty different lesions—area of the brain where demyelination led to disruption in nerve signaling, possibly even the destruction of entire neurons.

My symptoms include abnormal sensations (dysesthesias), like throbbing or “electric shocks” in my hands or lower back. However, the issue that’s been disrupting my life the most has been the never-ending throbbing at the back of my head—precisely in the midbrain region, where the cervical spinal cord meets with the brain.

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The pons and the corpus collosum were among two areas where lesions were spotted in my most recent MRIs

That my case is emblematic of the strange symptoms MS can cause is clear: this is nothing like a migraine or typical pain that I’ve experienced before in my life.

In my case, it isn’t exactly an “acute” pain sensation either—it’s more like a dull, but heavy, throbbing that refuses to go away. Over-the-counters (like Advil, Motrin, and Aleve) have no effect.

Typically, the treatment regimen for neuropathic pain includes anti-seizure medications (like gabapentin and pregabalin) or tricyclic antidepressants (like amitriptyline and nortriptyline)—both of which I’ve already tried. The downside with these medications is that they exacerbate a symptom I was already having before the demyelination period I had last year—chronic fatigue.

Having learned more about the pharmaceutical industry, the history of the medical establishment in the United States, and the medical-industrial complex (MIC) overall, I find the idea of depending on many pharmaceuticals for my daily living to be revolting.

Yet anyone suggesting that you can find non-pharmaceutical outlets for curing even the worst conditions (some even make this claim for terminal cancer) likely hasn’t experienced it for herself.

I was gravitated towards yoga and meditation shortly after my symptoms appeared—and yes, these practices are tremendously helpful in alleviating and managing the stress that my health condition causes. I would recommend them to anyone, and had I practiced these before my condition worsened, I likely wouldn’t be here writing about how I’m managing my neuropathic pain.

But I still find myself needing Western medicine and its drugs to get by—and trust me when I say I’ve tried getting by without it.

Among the experiments: I’ve tried changes in my diet (becoming a pescatarian, then a vegetarian, then a pescatarian who avoids dairy products), played with various herbs and exercise routines, tried acupuncture and homeopathy, and yet…

There, the throbbing remains like a stubborn, unwanted guest in your bedroom. This is the world of neuropathic pain: even the best treatments only have a chance of efficacy.

I remember coming across one study that suggested that even our best pharmaceuticals have around a 30% success rate for even partial relief, and there’s even less evidence for ‘alternative’ treatments like acupuncture and meditation (though this, of course, is due to the MIC’s disinterest in free or low-cost, but potentially effective, treatments).

Like many people who are desperate about pain relief, I feel like I’ve tried it all…

Yet, there’s always something new out there you can try, some new treatment, or combination of drugs, or a new doctor or paradigm that might resolve it all. There’s always the possibility that if you give this treatment just a little more time it might actually work. The mottos seem to be: try this, try it with this other thing, try giving it more time, try, try, try…

People with chronic pain can be especially susceptible to snake oil salesmen precisely because we’ve already been let down by our other health care providers. Like others, my path down this road of chronic pain has been filled with moments of despair, desperation, loneliness, and incredible confusion.

My latest attempts are exemplary of the sort of things that people with confusing and difficult-to-treat ailments do. In addition to the Lyrica (pregabalin) and Klonopin I take every night (which only blunts the pain enough to let me sleep), I’ve been having as many as two acupuncture treatments a week and taking what must seem like an alchemist’s prescription: Valerian, Lion’s Mane Mushroom, Milk Thistle, and other herbs alongside Vitamin D and Omega 3 supplements (all taken inconsistently and depending on the day).

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My new portable TENS machine

Recently, I bought myself a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machine, which works (more or less) by sticking electrodes near the site of pain and transmitting electrical currents.

It’s inconclusive science, but the idea is based on what is popularly recognized in neuroscience as the gate control theory of pain (by Melzack & Wall, 1965). Roughly put, the electrical currents from the TENS machine send signals to sensory neurons that then inhibit the activity of pain-signaling nociceptors. I’ve only tried it a few times thus far, but I’ve yet to notice anything substantial.

However, I’ve noticed that my particular, subtler pain doesn’t display immediate relief to anything, even the pharmaceuticals—so I’m left wondering if it’s just a matter of time.

What was possibly my most desperate attempt to find relief happened last weekend, when I made a long trip into central New Jersey to meet with an energy healer. (To be fair, although it’s clear that his machine is meant to deal with energy healing, he never promoted himself as such.)

I’ve kept my heart and mind open to various possibilities (having gone beyond my neuroscientific training in college to reading about homeopathy, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Ayurvedic medicine), but this was by far the most extreme in challenging the Western allopathic model.

I learned about the healer through my acupuncturist, who claimed to have gotten good results from working with him; I decided that, given how stubborn my head-throbbing was (even to consistent acupuncture), it was at least worth a shot.

When I went to see the energy healer I was caught a bit off-guard by how small the ‘body scan’ machine was. Perhaps I was expecting something straight out of a science-fiction movie, but the machine seemed too compact to be able to reveal issues in my energy channels.

However, as he explained to me over the course of the few hours we had together, the body scan was created by scientists in Germany who worked off the science of meridian points and energy channels (the basis of acupuncture) to create a device that works the way a lie detector machine does—using galvanic skin responses.

This portable ‘body scan’ had electrical detectors that were strapped around my index fingers, my forehead, and my left calf—which, the healer explained, would measure my body up against thousands of different potential toxins to find the source of any energy imbalances.

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Image of the Spectravision Body Scanner the ‘energy healer’ used. I wonder how much one of these is worth.

We spent a good deal of time talking about numerology and astrology (for which I admit much ignorance) before the machine finished its scan. What showed up on the electronic screen was a list of toxins and issues correlated with the most imbalance—and much of it surprised me. Inexplicably, ‘gamma rays’ came at the top of the list. Right below it was ‘Headaches’ and some slots below that was “Alkaline Phosphatase” (an enzyme particularly concentrated in the liver).

The healer then asked me to hold onto a copper cylinder while he asked me a couple of questions (or gave me a number of prompts) that would measure my body’s sensitivity to the correlating issue. For instance, he would ask me what my name was, and the machine would be able to detect whether or not the response I gave was true. He then asked me a number of times to think about my health concerns and anxieties, and we found that the biggest ‘triggers’ were ‘anxiety’ and ‘worrying.’ Not much of a surprise there.

But the body scan also listed ‘cervicogenic pain’ at the top of another list relating to bodily issues, and listed ‘passion’ at the top of a list relating to emotions. It just seemed to hit the nail on the head there as far as accuracy. Was this for real? Was I dreaming this? I still can’t say for sure what I think—or how I feel—but I went along with his prompts as we continued to “solve” the mystery behind my ailments. What was possibly the most surprising component of that session came when we tried to find the health condition that was troubling me.

The body scan rejected ‘multiple sclerosis’ as an accurate diagnosis. Instead, it gave me this lesser-known autoimmune disease, ‘primary biliary cirrhosis,’ as the veritable diagnosis. (I later read about it and learned it was a condition marked by destruction of the bile ducts within the liver. That a liver enzyme and a liver condition appeared twice in this machine’s scan gave me incredible pause.)

I remember going home that night utterly confused. From the healer’s perspective, what I needed to do (in accordance with my astrological signs) was follow my heart, follow my passions and my instincts, and learn to love myself. That was the prescription.

How the hell would I go back home, wanting to manage my chronic pain, with information I already knew?

Any number of books I’ve read would have given me the same advice. I know, for instance, that meditating frequently will help me deal with stress more effectively. But meditation is at least a practice I can manage. Following my heart and learning to love myself? That’s a little too amorphous for me to work with.

What boggles my mind the most is the fact that I still can’t refute the efficacy of anything I’ve tried.

Maybe, just maybe, the healer was right and the ‘cure’ is to ‘follow my heart’ (whatever that means). Maybe, just maybe, the solution is to quit my job and do as much yoga and meditation as possible. Maybe shocking my brain every day will help, and maybe taking more of the pregabalin in conjunction with the other treatments will work.

Needless to say, it’s hard to eliminate anything from the list of possible treatments, and I’m left managing my day to day in a nebulous world of ‘maybes.’

Is this the best I’m going to get? Is there yet another solution lurking in the corners I haven’t tried? Do I keep looking or work on acceptance—or both? Perhaps this is just the way it’s going to be—at least for now.

Noble Truths

In Chronic Pain, Health Justice, Multiple Sclerosis, Philosophical Musings on October 28, 2012 at 12:08 AM

“We may think that our exhaustion comes from our job or our family, but in many cases, it’s not the job or family itself — it’s our mind. What’s exhausting us is how we relate to our life conceptually and emotionally. We risk becoming so stuck in the realm of concepts that nothing we do feels fresh, inspired, or natural.”
– Dzogchen Ponlop, “Rebel Buddha”

Lately it has felt as if the Universe has been unkind to me. With a sick, unhealing body, stuck in a stressful and thankless job, all the while living in emotional vacuum of my parents’ far-away home, it feels as if my years of labor, anxiety, and emotional torment were lived through in vain. I can exhaust countless words trying to bemoan my hapless situation, in which I feel as I’m whirling about in a nightmarishly interminable unmerry-go-round. The same frighteningly dark, long, and lonely nights on the A train to Ozone Park; the same mournful gaze into my mother’s anxiety-ridden eyes and aging face as we discuss one problem or another; the constant re-positioning of myself at life’s various forks-in-the-road…

Yet, while the war may seem harder than ever at times, I’ve uncovered new facets of this ephemeral space we occupy on this Earth. The world can be harsh and merciless some days; on others, it is intriguing, maybe even exciting; and yet on others, boring and unamusing. At best, it is constant in being so inconstant–a seemingly pretentious euphemism, but a veritable dialectic if I ever encountered one. (I hope what follows will shed light on this)

The brutal facts: no one seems to know what to do with me. The constant, dull throbbing at the back of my head (which I can now say, with a certain modicum of certainty, is due to at least one lesion in my brainstem) seems to be impervious to resolute treatments. The traditional painkillers, the antidepressants, the antiepileptics, the vitamins, the herbs, the acupuncture, the yoga, the meditation, the aromatherapy, the avoidance of drugs and alcohol and dairy, and… sigh… the transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation…. I’ve traversed the country and back, spent countless dollars and seen various specialists, and there it still is. The ceaseless painless pain that has bound itself so inextricably that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a non-throbbing head.

It’s been nearly a year, and this headache has not stopped for a second. Sounds terrifying, doesn’t it?

Yet, as harrowing as it seems at particular moments, it seems like it was a much-needed gift from a tough-love mother. I’ve had to contend with bodily limits in a strange time in my life, with dietary restrictions compounded by an inability to overexert myself physically while the rest of the world sees an able-bodied young man. And what is difficult to explain is that the symptoms ebb and flow in what must make an incredibly erratic storm: some days I feel well-rested and free-flowing in my thoughts, able to run and teach and multi-task; others, I am sluggish and fried, my bones as heavy as lead. These inconstancies have made me re-appreciate the impermanence of it all.  From birth to death, the boundaries we draw (healthy/unhealthy; fast/slow; young/old) are at best our minds’ attempt to impose an order we can live by—but they are mental constructions that, while helpful at times, can be harmful if we take accept them too religiously. They can incarcerate us, circumscribing the limits of our experience and potential.

I say this because it resonates with my experience. I’ve kept feeling disappointed because a notion that I harbored around age (I am 24, and therefore I should be able to do _____, and not feeling _____) prevented me from accepting things as they were, as the Universe unraveled them to me. I kept feeling disappointed because I harbored a notion that good health was something that was indebted to me, that I’ve suffered enough already (as if that logic ever worked for anyone!). These are concepts that prevented me from seeing the world as it is, as opposed to what it ‘ought’ to be.

For me, the journey to understanding this came from exploring medical alternatives to what I finally accepted to be a long-term condition. When I came back from the West Coast and began exploring yoga, meditation, and acupuncture, I started to experience incremental improvements…but not necessarily in the limited notion of ‘fixing’ a broken piece of my body.  By concentrating heavily on the breath, and in my body’s simple movements, I experienced a newfound energy, a newfound curiosity for a world jaded by overstimulation and rigid concepts and desires.  Going back to the labor force has made the task of balancing stresses an immense challenge, but as with my political reawakening this past year, these past few weeks have opened up a spiritual horizon I had once completely shut off.

I continue to struggle with my health, circling through combinations of treatments and specialties while trying to carefully center myself—through the continuous hurdles of disappointments and hopes. But there is an invaluable insight I’ve gained through this entire experience that has made me come to an unexpected peace. I don’t claim to now live my life completely in perpetual awe and peace—I’m still a work-in-progress, but with a certain level of self-consciousness that also breeds an organic acceptance.

I’ve learned—in new, unpredictable ways—the importance of self-forgiveness and acceptance, of seeing the world through the gaze of something much smaller than ourselves. That breathing and walking and talking and laughing can be miraculous events if we allow them to be.

I can’t claim to have found that ever-evasive goal of enlightenment, inner peace, or love for humankind. In fact, any effort to force ‘peace’ and ‘loving-kindness’ is a contradiction in terms, and operates symmetrically opposite to the world of competition, greed, and power that is destroying so many of us at once. However, I’ve caught onto a new modality of thinking that deconstructs the notion of “world” and “I,” “you” and “me,” “pain” and “happiness.” For this knowledge, I am grateful. And for all this, I will continue to avidly explore those less-appreciated spaces at the interstices of mind, body, and spirit.

 

 

Kristin Richardson Jordan

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