In Part 1 I talked about the misconception of the separation between mind and body. In Part 2 I wrote about how that misconception leads us to respond in ways that will reinforce rather than help the condition, and that what we need to do is start listening to what our body is telling us and change our responses. In this post, I thought I would outline the impact taking this approach has had on my illness.
One of the key things to understand about Mickel Therapy (MT), is it is a system. Results come from understanding how the system works, applying, and committing to it.
In this respect, it’s remarkably similar to losing weight (for those who don’t know, 7 years ago I used to be around 90lbs heavier). Short-term, quick fixes rarely work in the long term, and might even be counter productive. It’s known, for example, that 95-98% of all diets fail – that is, within 2 to 3 years the dieter has put back on all the weight they lost, and in many cases more. In order to sustain the weight loss, you have to shift from thinking about diets and move to thinking about a lifelong commitment to healthy eating. If you choose to eat healthily, and stick with it, then weight loss becomes an inevitable side effect.
But behind eating healthily, you have to first understand why you have been overeating in the first place – addressing not just habits, but your emotional relationship with food becomes crucial if you ever going to be able to make sustainable changes.
Nor is it a matter of blind faith or belief. Of course, if you don’t believe eating healthily will help, then you’ll never be able to commit to it, and keep doing it through times when you would kill for [insert craving of choice].
So MT is a system where you learn how to become aware of what your body and emotions are up to; you learn how to accept what you are feeling and place it in an appropriate context; and you learn how to change your actions so you are no longer fighting, but working with your body and primal emotional states.
On one level, you could say you are learning to become authentic. And this can have a profound effect on your entire system.
In this way, you could just as easily commit to Buddhist principles to achieve the same end. The 4 Noble Truths give you a starting point, and the 8-fold path is a system, which will bring about balance and authenticity. Again, no belief in anything mystical is actually required. And if the commitment is there to the system, over time, the brain actually rewires itself (click here for a 4-minute interview with the Buddhist Matthieu Ricard on a BBC News radio programme, after his brain was scanned by MRI machines).
So as I see it, at the core of how something like MT can work are 2 fundamental ideas. The first is the mistaken notion that the mind is a separate entity to the body - and the traditional sense of the conscious mind as being the “real” self and the primary authority – is dangerously naïve (as described in the previous posts). The second is the understanding of the plasticity of the brain – how we respond and how we act lay down and reinforce connections and pathways – and if we change our understandings and actions, then we can rewire aspects of the brain.
It is not passive, and it is not necessarily easy. Many of our thought patterns and responses are so embedded we are not even aware of them. But part of the system of MT helps to identify them. As time moves on, and we establish new ways of interacting with our bodies, minds, and the world around us, many of the symptoms begin to reduce in their severity and may disappear altogether.
Over the past 6 months I have learned all sorts of things about myself – how I think, how I react, and the unseen, unchallenged pathways I follow by default. Despite the fact I thought I was pretty self aware already, the reality is we all have multiple blind spots.
And our biggest blind spots are usually hidden in plainest sight. In fact, it’s not uncommon for our biggest areas of self-sabotage to be hidden smack bang in the middle of what we perceive to be our greatest strengths.
Nearly 6 years ago, when the term CFS started to be mentioned by the doctor I was seeing, my good blogging friend Carole said, in her opinion my problem was TMB – too much brain. I was constantly thinking of anything and everything, pulling it apart and reassembling it in a multitude of ways. She expressed surprise that I couldn’t see I was probably exhausting myself with that amount of cranial activity.
Of course I laughed and dismissed it. My problem solving abilities were one of my most powerful strengths. Now, though, I’ve come to realise that on some levels, she was right (Carole, you can say you told me so, but only once – OK?).
Regardless of what triggered my condition, my investment in the authority of my fast and agile thoughts was now playing against me. In a brain primed for fight-or-flight responses, grabbing hold of any thoughts that flittered across my consciousness and trying to solve them, was now a dangerous thing to do.
And as I became increasingly tired, so I tried even harder to “solve” this mystery illness – analysing aspects of my life, looking for traumatic episodes, searching for patterns. Far from helping me, this activity helped to embed the pathways that were assisting in my decline.
As the Mickel Therapy got underway, this realisation was one of those epiphany moments for me – it’s when I wrote the post Who’s in Charge.
I understood that one the primary strategies I had to develop was to learn let go of trying to solve everything that came into my head; to stop constantly ruminating and continually gnawing away at thoughts.
And the best tools for this are Mindfulness and Meditation.
In essence, the basic approach is to be in the moment, rather than mulling over the past or the future – each time you find your mind digging its claws into some thought, you gently release it and return your attention to whatever you are doing.
For a couple of years I’d been forcing myself to go for a walk every morning, but 10 minutes was my absolute limit. If I went to 11, it was like the plug was pulled out and exhaustion would overwhelm me.
Back then, I barely noticed what my body was up to - during my walk I would be absorbed in whatever was most prominent in my mind. Now I practice being Mindful. I pull myself back to the present, to the now, whenever I realise my mind has wandered off again. I feel the wind on my face and the pavement beneath my feet; I listen to the sounds of the birds, trees, passing cars. I try and experience being completely in the walk, ideally without much thought at all.
Every afternoon, instead of going to bed, I now meditate for half an hour, focusing on my breathing. Each time my mind wanders off, I gently bring it back to my breathing.
Every day I practice 10 to 15 minutes of Tai Chi, trying as best I can to be completely in the movement, feeling the body, the air and the flow – gently bringing my mind back to the movement each time I realise it has wandered off.
Along with starting to learn how to listen to my body and emotions, these things have had a profound effect.
I now happily go for a 20 minute walk every day, sometimes longer, sometimes heading out to the shops as well – and I’m not exhausted. If I do a lot of walking in one day, I might get a bit tired, but then part of that is I’m not particularly fit, having not been able to exercise for over 5 years.
I no longer have to worry about what will happen if I’m not home by 2pm to be able to sleep during the afternoon.
I no longer live in fear of the Fatigue.
Can I say with certainty that MT will work for everyone? No. As I said at the outset of these posts, I am not a medical doctor/researcher, nor I am not a trained Mickel Therapist - this is just my interpretation of MT. However, despite some of the fears I have read on various sites, I am convinced it cannot harm – how can becoming more in tune with yourself make things worse?
Am I completely cured? No. Quite apart from the fact I feel “cure” is a misleading word - it implies returning to a previous state of being, whereas I feel I’m creating a new way of being - the reality is there are still some symptoms that make themselves felt. As I said before, this is not a quick fix, and it is less than 6 months since I began the MT. But I am considerably improved on where I was – far more than I could possibly have hoped for at the outset – and can see how I will continue to improve as I continue to apply what I have learned.
What alternative would I recommend if for you MT is not possible (or desirable) for whatever reason? Zen Buddhism. And I’m quite serious about that.