Reflections from the shallow end of the pool of knowledge.


We seek the moon but find only its reflection. (courtesy TORLEY/flickr) All creatures, simple to complex, have a limited level of understanding about this world. It is those limitations which make their life bearable, given the manifestation of their form. A dog cannot conceptualize much beyond his immediate environs; the hand of his master caressing his head, the full bowl of food, the warmth of the hearth upon which he lies. To have knowledge beyond that, of the atrocities which exist beyond his ken, would make his life one long terror. A dog is not equipped to cope with such knowings.

Conversely, this same limitation of understanding is a blessing to the dog afflicted by a cruel owner. To know of a better life, to be able to see and understand it and to know it exists, while daily experiencing the inhuman treatment of a heartless master --- that understanding, too, would make the poor mastiff's life even more of an unendurable hell. His ignorance protects him from even greater pain.

Man is no exception to this rule. The limitations of our insight befit our admittedly extraordinary ability to manipulate the world around us. From stone, sand and water, we create objects to extend our knowledge and presence to realms once unimaginable. Nonetheless, our understanding of the universe remains constrained by fetters we cannot see. They are so hidden that, like the dog, we don't even know that they are there.

To attempt to step over these boundaries is to dance toe-to-toe with madness. Those that can expand their horizons and absorb the chaos and heartbreak of fuller understanding yet retain their humanity are few and far between.

But from time to time, it does happen. And what then?

They return to us with their greater knowledge, and we immediately re-encumber them with the handcuffs of our own sad vision. We give them a name — Christ, Buddha, Moses — and anneal their message of dangerous freedom into a form which, by making it comprehensible, strips it of its meaning. The next thing you know, we are baptising, circumcising or prostrating in the pursuit of a reflection of the moon on a pool of water.

Knowledge becomes dogma, perception becomes ritual and teaching becomes liturgy, because we find no way to fit the larger picture into our smaller box.

However, if we discard the playthings of the ignorant worldlings that we are and look at the messages that these teachers have brought back, there are, as others have pointed out, universal truths that stand what we believe to be true on its head.

  • Less is more.
  • There is no I, only we.
  • Belief is the fundamental act of our existence.

These spiritual truths are no less valuable from the perspective of health. How often have I suggested to a patient that they are partaking too much of a good thing, whether that thing is pizza or pantothenic acid? How many hours have I spent explaining that the very microbes that live inside of us are not only critical for our digestive health, but also our immune health and our mental health, and that without our microbial friends or each other, we would die? How often has a patient improved solely because they have confidence in the doctor treating them?

We truly create our health, and the health of the world around us, by our thoughts and our actions. Chronic diseases in particular are susceptible to the metaphysical, and it is here that the future of chronic disease treatment lies.

We have such good tools to create vibrant, healthy selves. But using them means dropping our attachments, and facing the veil of our unknowns without fear or desire. Though the path has been trod, it is a hard path to follow. And you don't have to win to succeed.

Just take a step. And breathe.

Adventures in meditation


altar-2-roate Not the least of my challenges in sitting zazen are the dogs. The year-old puppy likes nothing better than to sit in the room with me, gnawing on his bone and occasionally trying to share it with me, although in his puppy brain "share" is spelled "let's play tuggies." Of course, playing tug of war is not conducive to the spiritual process of letting go, but the puppy doesn't seem to mind.

I try to remember how fortunate I am. After all, how many people around the world, sitting and meditating at the same time I am, have the opportunity to seek enlightenment against the backdrop of teeth scraping across femur? Not many, I suspect. I'm a lucky man.

My 12-year-old dog, though, mostly minds his own business. He and I -- well, we've been through the wars together. He was a rescue pup I met when he was  one year old. When we first met, he looked at me as if to say "Well, what took you so long?"

He and I have been inseparable ever since. He was beside me on that long, lonely drive across the country after my mother died. When the oak tree tried to kill me by falling on my head, he did his best to take care of me. And when I got hypothermia while rolling logs in a foot of snow during a blizzard, he was the first one to say, "Dude, you're a wreck. Get inside."

He's been there for the good times, too, like when my then-10-year-old daughter conquered Mt. Washington, and when I caught a monster-sized rainbow trout in a stream that shall forever remain unidentified. He helped me raise my girls; I always counted on him to be my proxy, ensuring my family's safety when I wasn't around. Yeah, the old guy is part of the warp and woof (so to speak)  of my life.

Old age isn't being friendly to him, though. His joints hurt in the morning, and he's got some sort of tremor, and more damn lipomas than a billiard table has balls. He has also gotten a little curmudgeonly, a bit stand-offish. He'll come if you call, will welcome a tummy rub, but rarely requests my affection.

So his behavior when I sat down to meditate this morning came as a bit of a surprise. As I was settling myself in with my first few conscious breaths, he came over to my side, and leaned up against me. He didn't lick me or look up at me. Just leaned in on me.

Without breaking rhythm, I pulled my hands apart and draped my arm about his shoulders, feeling the warmth of his body against mine. In the flickering of the candlelight I looked down at the old guy, thinking about all of the breaths that we had shared in the making of a home and the raising of a family.

"Well," I thought to myself, "I guess today's meditation will be about love."


A Meditation on Spirituality and Health

Self-appointed "skeptics" frequently point to practices such as mine, claiming that I'm engaging in nothing but voodoo witchcraft, preying on those so ill and so without hope that they will grasp at any straw proffered them, ante up any outrageous fee desired, and dearly pay for the false hope which I and my colleagues allegedly peddle.

My patients, of course, know the reality is far different. They know me as a hard-headed pragmatist, whose foremost rule is "Find it, fix it, and get out of the way." They know me as a doctor who will rather unflinchingly -- though I hope not unkindly -- point out how they have contributed to their own ill health, while also finding ways they can repair the damage. And they know that my fees are modest; I am unlikely to bathe in gold coin anytime soon from the revenues of my practice.

What they don't know, unless they ask, is that each discipline that I practice, whether it is chiropractic, acupuncture, or herbal/nutritional therapy, is supported by a wealth of scientific research that supports every modality that I use.

When I have used acupuncture to treat children with Tourette's syndrome -- usually successfully, I might add -- I can point to not just one, but several studies that support and guide my intervention.

When I blend a custom herbal formula for a patient suffering from a cold or urinary tract infection, I am relying on studies which show me that the herbs in question are more effective than anything in the MD's formidable arsenal. Though of course, the FDA would have the fantods were I to be so foolish as to make the claim that herbs can actually kill the bacteria causing the infection, even though studies exist demonstrating that very fact. So I won't make the claim that herbs can help cure the common cold, even though substantial research exists supporting that statement.

And when I explain to an acupuncture patient that Qi is a life-force running through their body, and that the flow of this Qi can be altered by placing needles at certain points along that flow, I know that I am using a time-tested analogy for a phenomena that we are only beginning to touch upon in Western science. It is likely that this Qi is actually a form of intercellular communication, and that acupuncture alters the nature of that communication. When you begin to change the body's command and control systems, your results are going to be powerful and intersystemic, which is why both acupuncture and chiropractic have such profound effects on people. Chiropractic adjusting, through its influence on neural communication, and acupuncture, through its alteration of intercellular ionic flow, are both acting on a meta level, thus their widespread effects.

With all of that said; with all of my adherence to the logical discrimination of disease and therapeutics, and my hard-headed emphasis on results, I cannot ignore the power of my patient's spirits, nor their immeasurable will to survive, improve, and in some cases achieve a level of health they never thought possible. Where does this will come from, and how does it manifest its results? Most importantly from my perspective, how can I help my patient harness that power?

Multiple studies have shown that intercessory prayer have little effect on disease outcome. Nonetheless, it is often through their religion or spiritual beliefs that people harness that powerful exercise of volition which dramatically alters the course of their disease.

Despite increasingly frequent forays into this domain, the realm of the spirit remains largely opaque to the otherwise piercing lenses of science. There is some evidence that  our brains are hardwired, as it were, to engage in spiritual practice; to "believe" in unquantifiable, unmeasurable forces which help to direct our lives. And those familiar with the work of Carl Jung and subsequently Joseph Campbell will recognize the hero myth as the unifying essence of almost all religions. Neurological research has shown how the regular practice of meditation, independent of the specific religious tradition of the meditator, can create long-term alterations in our brains. Nonetheless, these scattered breadcrumbs only beg the question of how these beliefs unlock such potent personal power that the course of a disease can be radically altered.

This is a question worthy of consideration, particularly today, when much of Christianity celebrates the birth of its central figure. And as I drove home from a family gathering last night, I could not ignore the beauty and tranquility exuded by the churches I passed, all decked out for their celebrations and lit with candles for their midnight services. There is a compelling power there, not just in Christianity, but in any religion as it expresses the majesty of its office in our affairs. From the miraculous birth of Jesus to the transcendental satori of Gautama Shakyamuni to the revelations of the cave-dwelling Muhammad, there is a common thread from which has emerged some of the most beautiful expressions of art, literature and music of which humans are capable.

To that I would add religion's ability to give us the power to manifest our ideal selves in the physical realm as well as the sphere of ideas. While I cannot explain it, I would be a fool to ignore it, though it is clearly not in my scope to harness it. That is more truly the realm of the priest, the roshi, the imam. As a doctor, I must remain ecumenical to best serve my patients.

To me, this day marks both a beginning and an end. It is the end of the work year for me, and over the next week of "vacation," I lay the foundations for beginning the new year. I am looking forward to the changes I hope to bring about, both personally and in my practice. And I know that this question, the role of spirituality in health, will be one which will invite me back to ponder its challenges throughout this year. I am looking forward to the conversation about to ensue.

And I am also, as always, incredibly thankful to my patients who continue to be my most influential teachers. Thank all of you for your trust in me, and thank you for permitting me to join you down the short segment of your path that we are traveling together. I hope my guidance has not led you astray, but assisted you to become more of who you want to be.

And to all of the readers of my blog, thank you for your attention and your feedback. You encourage me to continue these public musings and consider new topics and new approaches.

Happy Holidays to all! I look forward to seeing you in 2012.

Dr. Avery Jenkins is a chiropractic physician specializing in the treatment of people with chronic disorders. He can be reached at alj@docaltmed.com or by calling 860-567-5727.