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Paintings Arts

Socrates and Freedom of Discourse

Occasionally history gifts us an individual compelled by the type of genius that influences our civilization for centuries to come. Socrates, who lived in Athens, Greece approximately 2,500 years ago, was one such individual. What we know about Socrates mostly comes from Plato, one of his students.

Socrates was a controversial figure. Many who talked to Socrates personally could not resist loving and respecting him, but he would come to be hated politically and was eventually condemned to death. Who was Socrates, and how might his life offer us wisdom today?

Socrates, the Wisest

After defeating Persia, Athens became the most powerful city-state in Greece. Led by Pericles, Athens began to excel militarily, politically, and culturally. In a very short period, Athens would create a culture that would be remembered for millennia.

One of the most important features of Athens during this time was the free flow of ideas, encouraged by Pericles, and Athens pursued and embodied an ideal of free speech. Socrates, after serving in the Athenian army, would benefit from this freedom of speech as he would dialogue with some of the greatest thinkers of his time, and would question many Athenian citizens in pursuit of wisdom.

For Socrates, the only thing that mattered was ethical virtue. He believed that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and that questions concerning ethical virtue—not preconceived and absolute notions—are the beginning of human wisdom. Socrates presumed that he knew nothing, and this presumption led the Oracle of Delphi to confirm that Socrates was the wisest person in Athens. The Oracle’s declaration prompted Socrates to begin a life of philosophy.

Socrates also credited any wisdom he had in part to his “daimonion”—what Cicero would translate into a “divine something”—who accompanied Socrates since he was a child. Socrates describes his daimonion in Plato’s “Apology” as “a sort of voice that comes to me, and when it comes it always holds me back from what I am thinking of doing, but never urges me forward.” The daimonion served as an ethical guide for Socrates, and always prevented him from acting in ways that might cause harm.

Socrates walked the streets of Athens and engaged its citizens in ethical dialogues featuring questions such as: “What is Freedom?” “What is Justice?” “What is Courage?” Many of these dialogues would end with the interlocutors opposite Socrates having to change their preconceived answers because of Socrates’s line of questioning, which often exposed their lack of wisdom.

Socrates Corrupts the Youth

Many who possessed the leisure to engage with Socrates were young, wealthy men. Alcibiades, the nephew of Pericles, was a promising young man; he was handsome, rich, politically ambitious, and was elected as one of the generals of Athens. Socrates learned of his political ambitions and sought to dialogue with him; Socrates wanted to show Alcibiades that he was not ready to fulfill his ambitions until he deeply considered and reflected upon the essence of justice.

In 1776, French artist François-André Vincent painted Alcibiades Being Taught by Socrates. On the right side of the composition, Vincent depicts a middle-aged Socrates accompanied by his daimonion, who waits to prevent Socrates from saying or doing anything harmful. Socrates speaks to Alcibiades, positioned on the left side of the painting. Dressed in an elegant general’s attire, Alcibiades appears to listen to Socrates—he stares directly at Socrates—but his body turns away.

Alcibiades’s shield is hanging on the wall in the background, and his left hand appears to conceal his sword from Socrates. Does Alcibiades move to conceal his sword to indicate his promise to consider justice in achieving his ambitions? Or is his attempt to conceal his sword indicative of his political ambitions absent justice?

Alcibiades did indeed pursue his political ambitions without the deep consideration of justice that Socrates asked of him. He planned to conquer Sicily, but religious statues were mutilated before he set sail, which was considered by the masses to be a bad omen. Alcibiades’s political opponents linked him to these acts of blasphemy and demanded that he stand trial. To avoid this fate, he decided to not return to Athens and instead sided with Sparta, which incurred tremendous damage to Athens.

It wasn’t long before Alcibiades was condemned by the Spartans for having an affair with the Spartan queen. He eventually fled to Persia, and aided them as an enemy of Greece. Before being assassinated in Persia, Alcibiades had fought on three sides of the same war. Alcibiades seemed less concerned about justice and more concerned about what was politically expedient.

Is this why the painting depicts his body turning away from Socrates? Does this body language suggest a lack of full attention from Alcibiades? Socrates would later be blamed for impiety toward the gods of Athens and for corruption of the youth. One of these corrupted youths, though never mentioned by name, was presumed to be Alcibiades. Socrates would be tried and condemned to death for these offenses.

The Trial of Socrates

The Athenians had pride in their ideal of free speech. The abilities to freely express and exchange ideas were paramount to Athenian culture and success. After the small Spartan army defeated Athens, however, many Athenians began to admire the dominant and militant power structure of Sparta.

Socrates was called to trial shortly after the Spartans defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War. He was accused of failing to acknowledge the gods of Athens, introducing new divinities, and, of course, corrupting the youth. His accusers brought up his daimonion, which wasn’t one of the acknowledged gods of Athens, and pointed out that many of the people that attacked Athenian democracy were, at least at one time or another, youths associated with Socrates.

Socrates defended himself, stating that these accusations were untrue. Why did so many Athenians believe them to be true, then? Why did so many Athenians hate him? Socrates made the case that the reason Athenians came to despise him despite his best efforts to serve them was because of the media. The play “Clouds” by Aristophanes, for instance, depicted Socrates as an impious buffoon who corrupted the youth and was not to be taken seriously.

Socrates admitted that he pursued wisdom through inquiry with those who would listen—mostly young, wealthy men who would practice a similar line of inquiry with him in pursuit of wisdom. He argued that this was not corrupting but benefiting the democracy of Athens.

As a democracy, the ruling majority forces its vices as well as virtues upon the citizens. It takes a dedicated few, not the many, to pursue ethical virtue and pass it to the next generation. This, of course, requires questioning the very vices the majority believes to be absolute truth.

Socrates also argued that he was not impious; he had devoted his life in obedience to the god at Delphi and to his daimonion, who ethically guided him throughout his life as he attempted to serve the Athenian public. He wanted others, as well as himself, to come to an ever-deeper understanding of virtue so that Athens could reach its full potential and thrive.

The trial of Socrates was an instance in which an Athenian was prosecuted for the alleged harm indirectly caused by the exchange of ideas—for freely speaking. The people of Athens, who once valued the ideal of free speech, required him to denounce his beliefs or die by way of poison. Socrates chose poison.

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates was painted in 1787 by the neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825). It depicts the moment in which Socrates, surrounded by his followers and family, is handed a chalice of hemlock to drink—which he willingly accepted since his daimonion did not try to stop him from doing so. Socrates not only accepts the chalice of hemlock, but points to the heavens and discourses on the immortality of the soul before he drinks. He is shown in a white robe and with the musculature of an ideal youth, which suggest his strong and pure character. Of all the figures depicted, he is illuminated most by the light emanating from the top of the composition.

Socrates discussed ideal forms that existed behind the surface forms we see in everyday life. He suggested that there was a greater truth that illuminated all other things, and that this truth was only accessible to those—the “philosopher kings”—who lived their lives in accordance with higher truths.

In the famous “Allegory of the Cave” from Plato’s “Republic,” Socrates suggests that reality for us is like being chained in a cave and being made to watch a wall on which shadows are cast by a flame behind us. We all mistake the shadows for the truth of reality, not realizing that the actual truth begins with the flame behind us, and that there is another, truer world beyond this one.

The “philosopher king” becomes the one who frees themselves from the cave and sees the flame as the source of the shadows, and the reality of the world beyond the confines of the prison. The question remains: How many of the previous prison inmates could accept the truth of the cave while still being shackled within?

In the painting, David has depicted Socrates as the philosopher king who escaped the shackles that kept him confined to the shadows of the cave wall; we can see the shackles on the ground. Socrates saw the truth, tried to communicate that truth, and was punished with poison.

In the upper left corner of the composition, there is an oil lamp that has almost run its course; an extinguished oil lamp is often used in art as a symbol of the ephemerality of life and imminent death. David depicted the oil lamp as the only object that casts a shadow upon the wall—which aligns with Socrates’s final discourse, in which he states that the soul is immortal and death is an illusion.

There is also a lyre on the bed next to Socrates, who was often thought of as an exemplar of logic and reason, but he had a recurring dream that encouraged him to make music. He thought the dream was referring to the music of philosophy, and it was only after the trial that he considered that the dream was referring to actual music, and he attempted to learn a melody as he waited to die.

There’s speculation that Socrates’s turn to music at the end of his life suggests that logic and reason are not absolute and can only take us so far in understanding what it means to be human. The complete human experience requires both science and art as well as freedom of discourse in search of the true essence of both.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).

 

Categories
Chefs Lifestyle

In and Out of Love With Food

Chef Michael Schulson—TV personality and head of a restaurant empire based in Philadelphia—started healing his damaged relationship with food during the pandemic.

And it helped him lose 35 pounds in less than three months.

It sounds delightful and delicious tasting food for high-end restaurants all day. But, Schulson said, “I don’t think I even like food anymore.”

“Yesterday, I think I tasted 12 to 13 dishes—and that’s before 3 p.m. That’s enough food for someone to eat for a day and a half.” He tried the same octopus dish three times to adjust the taste. “Who would want to eat an octopus dish three times in a row?”

“I love food, but the concept of how we have to eat on a day-to-day basis is the problem,” Schulson said. “I want to be able to choose what I eat.”

The pandemic was hard on the restaurant business, and Schulson did what he could to ease the impact on his employees. But the silver lining was a chance to clear his plate, literally and figuratively.

(Courtesy of Michael Schulson)

New Regimen

Schulson started fasting until 2 p.m. and after 8 p.m. each day. He finally got to choose what he was eating, and often enjoyed light meals of fish. He cut back on carbs, salt, and oil.

He started running everyday and exercising in his home gym, but he said “The exercise piece is kind of secondary. … It’s all about eating properly.”

His main advice to anyone looking to start a weight-loss journey is: “Cut back on portion size. First start with portion size. … You can assume if you’re in America, your portion sizes are slightly bigger than they should be.”

Yoga was also part of his new regimen. It got him to slow down and think about things.

He realized, “Anger and toxicity can only be included in your life if you choose it.” You can’t change the people who are toxic in your life, he said, so it’s best to distance yourself from them.

“When you realize where the main piece of anger or toxicity comes from, once that’s removed, the smallest piece of anger and toxicity really sticks out like a sore thumb,” he said.

“It’s almost like I found an emptiness within me. When you don’t have to deal with certain things anymore, you just have all this energy and time to deal with positivity. It feels like an emptiness, but it’s liberating.”

Schulson has reflected more upon what he enjoys and what’s important to him.

He seeks authenticity. When he’s sick of fancy food, he goes to “a dive,” he said. “Because it feels authentic and genuine and it’s not what I’m getting every single day.”

Though his relationship with food has been somewhat strained, he loves the design and operations side of the restaurant business—managing all the “widgets,” as he calls them (such as financing or the cost of goods).

Authentic Design

He studied architectural engineering in his youth, but dropped out because the classes were more about beam weights and building codes than design. He got a job at a pizza joint instead. That was almost 50 years ago and it took a lot of time and effort to work his way to the top.

Harp & Crown. (Courtesy of Michael Schulson)

Young hopefuls in the restaurant business seem to expect to open several restaurants at the beginning of their careers, he said. He pointed out that he spent a decade as a line cook, another decade as a sous chef, then started with a single restaurant.

Double Knot. (Courtesy of Michael Schulson)

He’s glad he got to come back to his interest in design. Authenticity is important to him in the design of his restaurants.

“I like to make people feel a transformative experience. Meaning, if they walk into a restaurant in New York, they feel like they could be in Japan or London or Italy,” Schulson said.

Alpen Rose. (Courtesy of Michael Schulson)

His attention to detail is great. He gave the example of a restaurant he’s working on right now, an Italian pizzeria called Prunella. Construction was almost finished when he walked in recently and spotted a column that didn’t look right. “It doesn’t make me feel spectacular,” he said, so he had it changed.

“I don’t want any one location or spot within the restaurant to feel like we missed it or we ran out of money.”

He’s careful to be true to the concept. If it’s a 1920s style, you won’t include a decor piece from the 1980s, he said. You might include a modernized version of something from the ‘20s, but you have to be well aware of your art history to achieve authenticity.

“Do what you love,” he said. He was only earning several dollars per hour right up into his 40s, but he stuck with his passion. His two sons, aged 11 and 14, are also interested in the business and the elder has spent much time with him learning the ropes.

Categories
Trending Meditation Meditation

Meditation: A Search for Inner Calm and Meaning

Take a moment to clear your mind. Let go of the chatter of doubt and obsession, and just be still.

Meditation is a simple idea, yet challenging in practice. In a world brimming with distractions, developing the ability to maintain a clear mind for any stretch of time takes dedicated effort. But those who practice this mysterious discipline say it’s worth the effort they put into it.

Enlightenment has long been the goal of meditation, but the bar doesn’t usually start so high. Today, meditation is often promoted as a drug-free way to relax, reduce stress, and improve mental focus. A number of studies validate the health benefits of meditation. Some doctors recommend it.

But the drive to meditate goes far beyond the scope of modern science. For Nicole Fiene, a sales representative from Massapequa, New York, meditation spoke to a void deep in her soul that she had never been able to fill.

“I was in a constant and seemingly neverending cycle of feeling unfulfilled with everything I did,” Fiene said. “I lived a beautiful life full of fun adventures and special friendships—always traveling to new places, meeting new people, and trying different things. But on the inside, it was never enough; I always wanted more.”

Fiene says that instead of feeling inspired, her constant search for stimulation left her feeling depleted. She relied heavily on multiple substances just to get through the day.

But when COVID-19 hit last year, Fiene was forced to change her routine. Under lockdown, all the activity and distraction she had grown accustomed to was no longer available. As a result, she could no longer hide from the painful feelings she had previously pushed down.

“Part of me knew that the reason I was going through such pain was because what was about to be next for me would be so extraordinary,” she said. “I knew that if I was going to fix this, I had to get to the root of it, and I knew whatever I was experiencing was spiritual.”

Fiene had no idea where to start, but direction came a day or so later. Speaking to a close business colleague over the phone, Fiene confessed to her emotional and spiritual unraveling during lockdown, and her search for something to cope with it. Her colleague recommended that Fiene try a meditation practice called Falun Gong. Fiene found instructions for the practice on the internet. She tried it and soon felt better.

“I felt a circulation of energy all through my arms, and for the first time in such a long time, I felt this overwhelming sense of peace and safety,” Fiene said. “I didn’t know anything about the practice, but in my heart I knew this was what was going to pull me out of the mental darkness I was experiencing.”

Roots in China

Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a meditation practice in the Buddhist tradition. In addition to the classic seated meditation, it also includes four slow, meditative standing exercises. The exercises are simple to learn, but those who practice them say they bring profound peace.

“Sometimes after meditating, I feel this buzz of soothing energy all around my body and mind, and it’s coupled with kindness and calmness,” Fiene said.

Today, Falun Gong is practiced in more than 80 countries, but it started in China—a place with a long tradition of slow, meditative exercises known as qigong (energy practice).

Falun Gong practitioners demonstrated at Union Square in New York on May 12, 2016. (Benjamin Chasteen/Epoch Times)

Either at parks in large groups or at home, Chinese people have been practicing various kinds of qigong for centuries. Tai chi is perhaps the best-known. Falun Gong was virtually unknown until the early 1990s, but it is said to have been around since ancient times. According to Falun Gong’s founder, Li Hongzhi, before he modified it slightly and introduced it to the public in China, it was a lineage-type practice passed from master to student.

Li gave lectures on Falun Gong in a handful of Chinese cities for a few years, and interest in the practice spread—mostly by word of mouth.

In fact, it grew very popular very fast. By 1999, Falun Gong had grown to become the largest and fastest-growing qigong practice in China. The Chinese regime estimated that 70 million people were practicing Falun Gong, including some high-ranking members of the regime. The appeal was clear: Classes were free and open to anyone, and testimonials of positive experiences increased people’s interest. Many reported significant improvements in their health and state of mind from practicing Falun Gong.

Falun Dafa practitioners in a group practice session in Shenyang City, China, in 1998. (Minghui)

Jane Pang remembers first learning Falun Gong back in China 25 years ago. Today, she’s a 45-year-old school principal living in Toronto. Back then, she was attending a Chinese university, where she would occasionally practice qigong with a group of fellow students in her free time. When one of her qigong buddies introduced her to Falun Gong in 1996, Pang knew she had found something special.

“I practiced qigong, but it didn’t feel anything like Falun Dafa,” Pang said. “[Dafa] gave me a lot of inner peace immediately.”

The biggest change Pang first noticed from the practice was that it calmed her down. She was a very dedicated student, but extremely stressed from all the pressure she was under, and full of anxiety. Falun Gong meditation helped her get her anxiety under control.

“Meditation helps me physically,” she said. “I have more and more control of my physical body. I can calm myself down and relax myself. I’m not worried about the results. I think that’s a big change for me.”

At first, the Chinese regime was pleased with the beneficial results people like Pang experienced with Falun Gong. Some officials even noted how it could save money on health care costs. An official from China’s National Sports Commission told U.S. News and World Report that Falun Gong’s influence could save each person 1,000 yuan per year in medical fees, and the benefits could add up.

“If 100 million people are practicing it, that’s 100 billion yuan saved per year in medical fees,” the official said.

But in 1999, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) changed its tune. Top officials suddenly became concerned that Falun Gong was becoming too popular, and feared the influence of such a large segment of the population involved in an activity outside communist control. Perhaps most serious of all, Falun Gong was deeply rooted in traditional Chinese culture, something the CCP had worked to destroy since the regime’s founding in 1949. Socialism and atheism effectively became the state religion.

Falun Gong books were ordered burned, the exercises were forbidden, and a major propaganda campaign to demonize the practice was carried out by virtually every media outlet in the country—all of which operate under tight state control.

Thousands of Falun Gong practitioners went to the Chinese capital to appeal what they believed was a misguided decision by the CCP. In 1999, Pang made her way to Beijing to convince the authorities that Falun Gong was good, that it wasn’t political or any kind of threat to the regime. It was something to be celebrated. Like many other practitioners in China at the time, Pang thought that if people in power could hear her positive experience, it would change their minds.

“We wanted them to know there shouldn’t be any concerns,” Pang said. “I thought if I went there and shared my story, it would help them to understand what Falun Gong is.”

However, these types of appeals seemed only to intensify the regime’s determination to stamp out the practice. After they arrived in Beijing to appeal, Pang and other practitioners found themselves incarcerated. Pang says she was abducted on the street, put on a bus, and taken to several detention centers over the course of the next few days. She was tortured, starved, and denied access to a restroom. She also had no idea where she was.

“I was very, very scared,” Pang said. “I wanted to say goodbye to my family members. I felt that at any moment, I could be dead. And if they killed me, my family would never know how I died.”

After being processed at five or six different detention centers, Pang was eventually taken to a labor camp where she spent the next two years. The experience was designed to break prisoners like Pang of their adherence to Falun Gong. Ironically, it only deepened her dedication.

“Even if I just had a minute or two to myself, I would close my eyes and do the meditation. I tried to get some peace internally,” Pang said. “My physical body was deteriorating from the torture, but mentally I did not break down. Meditation helped me a lot in such a difficult situation.”

Better Health, Brighter Outlook

Falun Gong shares similar elements with Buddhism and Taoism, but it also has unique characteristics. In addition to providing methods to clear the mind and move energy through the body, it also teaches practitioners to elevate their character. This means doing their best to be a good person in every situation in life. The three guiding principles of Falun Gong are truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance.

(Photo courtesy of NYCC Falun Dafa)

Those who live by these principles say they have the power to overcome virtually anything. Pang says that even today she feels a profound sense of protection.

“Whatever happens in your life, your heart cannot be touched. It can be an extreme situation, but you feel calm because you feel protected,” Pang said. “I’ve been able to go through so many difficult situations because of the meditation practice of Falun Gong. I’ve benefited from day one.”

Falun Gong comes from China, but the people who practice it today hail from all over the world. One of them is 45-year-old Tabitha Smile. In 2014, Smile was a single mother of two teenagers and working a corporate job when she decided she wanted to find a meditation practice.

Smile had some previous knowledge of meditation practices found in Asia because of time spent in the Far East. Many of her formative childhood years were spent in Japan, and she also visited Korea and Taiwan.

But she discovered Falun Gong in a room above a Whole Foods store in Portland, Oregon, where she met up with a small local group to learn the exercises. She says it was a casual atmosphere where she felt comfortable to go at her own pace. But she saw profound benefits right away.

“The first time I did the Falun Dafa exercises in the group, I could feel the gentle warmth and vibrations throughout my entire body. I felt very light and wonderful, and I knew I had found a true practice.”

“For weeks after my practice, I felt a rotational type of vibration all over my body,” she said.

Within a few months, Smile’s chronic back pain disappeared, and a persistent skin issue that had plagued her for years was finally gone.

“I also felt an increase in energy,” she said.

If you’re new to Chinese culture, much of the philosophy of Falun Gong may seem odd at first. Mystical talk of energy channels, the power of inner silence, and the accumulation of virtue as a real physical substance are all a part of traditional Asian culture. But interested Westerners can find a connection with these ideas.

Those who come to embrace Falun Gong often talk about finding it at a pivotal point in their lives. Joseph Gigliotti, a 29-year-old chiropractor, was first introduced to Falun Gong almost seven years ago while in chiropractic college.

Jeanne Mitchell practicing the 5th exercise of Falun Dafa

“It was at a time when I was beginning to see that I had some serious work to do on my character. I was looking for an authentic spiritual discipline that could help me mature and be a better person,” Gigliotti said. “When a friend told me about this practice, I immediately knew this was unique, authentic, and very powerful.”

Gigliotti had previously struggled with anxiety and depression, but he says through Falun Gong, these issues simply melted away.

“I could never imagine then the changes that would take place in me,” he said. “Falun Dafa has left a permanent mark on who I am, and it has transformed all my relationships.”

Today, Gigliotti says meditation has become an integral part of his life. It has taught him to think of others first, and to look within whenever he faces any difficult ordeal.

“In many ways, this practice saved my life,” Gigliotti said. “I wouldn’t be who I am without it. It’s so nice to be able to sit and settle my mind.”

“While meditating, it feels like a shower to my mind and body. It can really be pleasant. It can also be challenging at times and helps me temper myself.”

A Treasured Discovery

Many Falun Gong practitioners say they treasure the practice because of the journey—the search they took to find it. But sometimes the practice finds them.

That’s what happened to a 63-year-old music teacher and photographer, Syl Lebar. In 2004, Lebar was researching information about a style of tai chi known as “wu,” but for some reason, his search results kept leading him to Falun Gong.

“Every time I searched, Google only showed me pages and pages of Falun Dafa. I had heard of it before, but that’s not what I was looking for at the time. I tried a second time, and the same thing happened. A third, and yet the same results,” Lebar said.

At first he was annoyed, but he decided to see what Falun Dafa was about. He found the main text of the practice, “Zhuan Falun,” online. After reading just a few pages, he was hooked.

“Before I knew it, I was in the third chapter. I couldn’t stop reading it,” Lebar said. “When I went to bed, it suddenly occurred to me—that was no accident with the results when I was looking for wu-style tai chi. Someone was guiding me there. I smiled when I realized what had happened. Dafa is what I was looking for all my life.”

Over time, Lebar saw benefits that he attributed directly to his Falun Gong practice. His health was improving. He developed a more positive outlook, and he found it easier to handle all the little challenges of life.

“Everything in my daily life seemed to be taking an unknown direction for the better. The meditation that goes with the teaching put me in a state of internal peace that I had not felt before, even with other cultivation systems,” Lebar said. “Relationships to my immediate and extended family were improving as well.”

Lebar says he got a lot out of other meditation systems he had tried in the past, but they didn’t compare to what he gained from Falun Gong.

“I could not imagine life without it,” he said.

Categories
Relationships

How to Write the Ultimate Holiday Greeting

Each year, we purchase and sign an untold number of greeting cards. We may spend an hour perusing the aisle, reading card after card, in search of one that expresses just the right sentiment, with just the right image and tone. And while we may triumph in finding a card that captures our intent just right, it never quite connects to the recipient as meaningfully as our own words, in our own handwriting, would have.

There is a power lost amid the text-message culture of smartphones and social media. It’s the power of the human face, smiling instead of sending a smiley emoji; the power of the human voice, sharing warm words instead of typing them; and the power of words written in our own hand instead of a computer’s impersonal, if attractive, typography.

A written greeting offers the opportunity to write something deeply felt and honestly held. Human beings have a profound ability to see one another, to empathize and understand one another—most especially those we have had years to watch and know.

This precious personal history is the raw fuel for that rare opportunity a greeting card offers: the chance to handwrite something that truly represents what that person means to us. There are few things more meaningful that human beings can do for one another than to make clear that they honor and appreciate the other person’s presence in this world. When we share our unique view of another person’s singular presence, we offer our fellow beings more than recognition: We offer them a reminder of their lasting legacy of goodness in this world.

In a time when we are constantly being told we are not enough, when social media drives comparison-culture, and everywhere marketers beckon with products that promise to complete us, there is something essential and potent in sharing our honest regards. With that in mind, here are one human being’s thoughts on how to let someone else know that they are known, and needed, this holiday season.

First of all, there is no requirement for a perfect card. The card becomes what you put into it. This is where some thought comes in.

Thought.

How often does one human being truly take the time to reflect on others, to consider someone’s presence in this world and their impact on our lives? The ultimate goal of whatever you write in that card is to show that you have taken this effort. You want to capture something essential, uplifting, and personal.

Take a moment to clear your mind of any other thoughts, and imagine your recipients clearly in your mind. There is no need to glorify or idealize them. You are not trying to flatter them or ingratiate yourself. You are trying to see them: see their qualities, their struggles, their pains, and their triumphs.

Each person is an incredible tale, and all but a few of us are all-but-ignored by the world we inhabit. But not your recipients. Not today. You know them. You know what they have done, what their strengths are, what they value.

We all have enough negative self-talk and delusional justifications, so there’s no need to attempt to draw out advice or offer excuses. This isn’t an effort at appeasing or elevating others. But you do want to look for their light, that unique hue they cast that illuminates a part of our reality like no other can.

For example, maybe you have an aunt who is pristine in her decor and appearance. What may seem superficial to some, you know to be a dignity of being, an attention to beauty that she brings with her everywhere she lives and breathes. There are too few people, and too few opportunities, to capture something like that on paper, and make it known to them that they are known.

So pause, think on them, and ask yourself what lesson their presence and history can deliver to this world. Ask yourself what they have shown you about yourself, when you measure your conduct against their best qualities. And then share with them whatever you have seen.

It can be as short as a sentence or as long as a paragraph. Reinforce what you consider to be some of their best attributes. Give them that encouragement we each need to strive toward our ultimate self, not through hollow platitudes, but through affirming to them their best qualities.

Remind them of something they do that others may no longer notice. Share with them a memory that affirms your perception of their most noble self. Offer them a reason to strengthen that best part of themselves by holding it up for them to see. And know, deep down, that you have the power to nourish another person’s soul.

Categories
Mental Health Mind & Body Relationships

Set Yourself Free This Holiday Season 

While Christmas is a joyful time of the year, many of us dread the family gatherings. If your family is anything like mine, deep wounds and suppressed emotions surface during family festivities. Every year, tension inevitably invites itself to the party.

Whether it’s divisive comments about politics or religion, unsolicited advice, or a family member harping on how we raise our children, most of us have at least one relative who knows how to get under our skin. By the end of the gathering, we can feel defensive, inadequate and, quite frankly, picked on. Over the years, we may begin to anticipate these negative interactions, which can lead to dread instead of joy.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to heal these family divides and set yourself free from the holiday dread? That may sound like a Christmas miracle, but that’s exactly what I did.

A few years ago, dread turned into excitement, and the holiday gatherings became a blessing. What prompted the change? Did my uncle stop making inflammatory political comments over dinner? Nope. Did my in-laws stop hounding me about my children not learning to be “part of a team” because they don’t play league sports? Nope. Did my stepmother stop making comments about how I’m a “disgrace” to women because I choose to homeschool my children? Nope. Nobody intentionally changed—except me.

We all know you can’t control people, and you can’t change them either. However, most of us want people to act a certain way. For instance, we believe a parent is “supposed” to be protective, and a friend is “supposed” to be supportive. When they don’t live up to our expectations, we feel disappointed.

For years, I wanted my family members to act a certain way. In fact, I expected them to act a certain way. However, carrying those misplaced expectations routinely led to disappointment because I was expecting them to be something they were not capable of being.

It’s like wanting someone to be an ocean that can hold a quintillion gallons of water, but they are just a jug that can hold only a few quarts. I was expecting my relatives to hold the whole ocean. And, when they failed to meet my expectation, I directed my disappointment toward them. However, it was my misplaced expectation that created the tension in the first place.

Once I realized misplaced expectations were at the core of my emotional distress, I changed my perception. Instead of becoming frustrated and questioning, “Why won’t they accept me for who I am?” I began asking myself, “Why am I not accepting them for who they are?”

Consequently, I decided to forgive each family member. I forgave them for not being the way I wanted them to be. Admittedly, forgiveness is often met with resistance. I struggled with it for years because when you feel you’ve been wronged, you often view forgiveness as thinking that the person’s actions are acceptable. However, that’s not what forgiveness means.

Forgiveness is a gift to yourself. When you forgive, you are saying to yourself that you are no longer willing to carry the burden; you are no longer willing to spend your energy harboring negative emotions from your past; you are no longer willing to allow the past to define your present moment. When you forgive, you set yourself free.

In my pursuit of forgiveness, I’ve encountered many instances where I felt I could not forgive a family member because the trauma and subsequent emotional distress was too great. However, once I realized I had an expectation for how I wanted them to be and they did not live up to my expectation, the door to forgiveness opened.

Likewise, I was able to forgive myself for placing those expectations on my family. By expecting them to behave a certain way, I created a situation where I set them up for failure. Once I realized I was trying to control them, I took responsibility for my part. I forgave myself for not being the way I wanted me to be.

Once I walked through the door to forgiveness, something magical happened. I released the misplaced expectations, and for the first time, I saw each of my relatives for who they truly are, instead of seeing them as what they talked about. I saw beyond the political views and the criticisms. I saw beyond the cheap shots and the bullying. I finally saw the common ground that exists among all of us—a wounded child.

The truth is, we all have a wounded child inside of us, one who is scared and longing for love and acceptance. So, when your dad criticizes you for your choice in boyfriends or your mom badgers you for the millionth time about finally settling down and getting married so she can have grandchildren, their comments are actually not about you. Their comments stem from their own fear and insecurity because they have probably never truly felt loved and accepted—just as you probably don’t feel completely loved and accepted by them.

Once I identified with the wounded child instead of the superficial comments that I had allowed to define my relatives, I no longer viewed them as judging me and trying to control my life. Instead, I saw them as scared children looking for love, just like me. I realized that I was expecting them to give me something they are not capable of giving because they are not oceans; they are mere jugs.

In that moment of truth, I was able to love and accept them for who they are instead of trying to change them into what I wanted them to be. In doing so, I set myself free, and I set my family free from my judgment.

Even though I had not confronted anyone, and the forgiveness occurred in my own mind, the ripple effect was profound. During the next family gathering, the energy of the room shifted from tension to peace. Why? Because I had changed.

For instance, when my father-in-law passed judgment about my dietary choices, instead of reacting in a defensive manner, I paused and imagined his wounded child. He was 6 years old, scared, alone and just wanting someone to love him. In my mind, I reached out my arms and embraced his inner child. I held him tight and told him that he is safe and loved and that I would never leave him.

Picturing his inner child allowed me to identify our common ground, and instantly, I forgave him for not being the way I wanted him to be. That simple act of forgiveness shifted my energy from fear to love. Consequently, my response to his judgment was no longer about me defending my choices. I was no longer attached to the outcome of the conversation because I was no longer trying to convince him that my choices in life were right. Being right no longer mattered. I stopped trying to change him based on my misplaced expectations of who I wanted him to be. I no longer needed his approval. Instead, I focused on simply loving his wounded child.

Once I created that single positive interaction, a domino effect ensued. Every subsequent interaction for the day shifted from fear to love, from tension to peace, and from dread to joy. It was a Christmas miracle.

You can create your own Christmas miracle, too. As you prepare for your family gathering this holiday season, give yourself the gift of forgiveness. Free yourself from the burden of carrying negative emotions. Free yourself from the stress that comes with holding a grudge. Picture each relative as a wounded child and forgive them for not being the way you wanted them to be. Then forgive yourself for saddling your loved ones with misplaced expectations. It may be the gift that finally sets you free this holiday season.

Dr. Sina McCullough is the creator of GO WILD: How I Reverse Chronic & Autoimmune Disease and author of “Hands Off My Food!: How Government and Industry Have Corrupted Our Food and Easy Ways to Fight Back” and “Beyond Labels: A Doctor and a Farmer Conquer Food Confusion One Bite at a Time.” She holds a doctorate in nutrition from the University of California–Davis. She’s a master herbalist, Gluten Free Society-certified practitioner, and homeschool mom of three.

Categories
Mind & Body

Maintain Energy and Positivity Through the Holidays

While the holidays are a time to relax and celebrate, for many people, holiday stresses tax the physiological system and exhaust the adrenal glands. Exhausted adrenal glands compromise the ability to sleep and to think clearly, and can even contribute to depression.

If we use typical substances to temporarily restore energy, like caffeine or sugar, we add even more stress on our body and brain. These substances provide energy—on credit—and the interest can be steep. In essence, we are robbing Peter to pay Paul, and bankruptcy is inevitable. In the short term, certain foods and drinks seem to lift our spirits, but the accounting will eventually arrive.

For most Americans, the winter season is an emotional downswing with fatigue, too much sitting, and unhealthy eating. And for many, especially for those in the colder parts of our country, the lack of sunshine and time outdoors contributes to the winter blues.

To escape this seasonal cycle, you need to get proactive about your mental and physical energy.

Seek Silence

None of us were designed to cope with the noise of modern society—especially with the cacophony of the internet and our personal distraction devices. Investing just one minute in complete silence three times a day will help balance your autonomic nervous system by down-regulating your fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system, so your rest-and-digest parasympathetic nervous system can take over.

If this exercise sounds ridiculously simple, I dare you to try it. I bet your first few attempts will be surprising. Most people are amazed at how quickly their mind wanders back into hyperdrive. But as you practice, the results will encourage you.

What can we “do” during those minutes of doing nothing? Two things: Breathe deeply, and count your blessings. Gratitude is probably the best preventive medicine when it comes to the winter blues.

For the other 1,437 minutes in your day, turn off as much noise as you can, as often as you can. Silence recharges us. Noise and mental clutter drain us and make people more susceptible to negative thoughts and feelings. Stillness allows the brain to reorganize and become more engaged in the present moment.

Too often, we allow cultural excesses, comparisons, busyness, and “fear of missing out” to steal our joy, but this season can be a time of reflection and celebration.

Boost Your Brain

When you exercise—hopping on a treadmill, going for a brisk walk, jogging along a path, or lifting weights—chemicals such as IGF-1 enter your bloodstream and brain, then stimulate production of other chemicals, such as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor)—a “Miracle-Gro for the brain.”

The more BDNF, the more your brain nerve cells fan out, forming the interconnected webs needed to communicate as designed, and creating a larger capacity for you to store information. Of all the things you can do to enhance cognitive performance and stave off the kind of decline that contributes to diseases like Alzheimer’s, exercise is number one.

Vitamin D

Researchers and functional medicine practitioners have found a significant association between vitamin D levels and patients’ perceived quality of life. Low vitamin D in winter can worsen depression or bring on what is known as “seasonal affective disorder.”

Did you know that the primary source of vitamin D is sunlight? No other source comes close in effectiveness, and it’s free. Shorter winter days and cooler temperatures keep most Americans inside and watching screens, but the light from your smartphone or TV depletes rather than restores you; this could be part of the reason why so many Americans are chronically deficient in this essential vitamin. In fact, most patients we evaluate are found to be lacking in proper levels of vitamin D. Human beings are intimately tied to the sun—so soak it up.

Shake Things Up

Here’s a recipe for our “Quick Energy” shake.

  • One scoop of vanilla protein powder
  • Half cup of frozen berries
  • Half cup of almond milk/cashew milk
  • 1 scoop of greens vital nutrients powder[Which product is meant? Capitalize]
  • 1 scoop of reds vital nutrients powder[Which product is meant? Capitalize]
  • 1 scoop of maca root (If you don’t know where to buy these ingredients, feel free to contact us)
  • Ice
  • 2 to 3 drops of flavored stevia (use a different flavor each time to give taste buds a nice variety)

The ingredients in this quick energy shake fuel you in multiple ways. Proteins are the building blocks of life, improving muscle function and providing energy for the metabolic pathways. The greens and reds provide a complete vitamin and mineral profile that aids energy production at a cellular level. Maca root is an ancient herb used to improve adrenal function. If we give the adrenals nutrition to improve their function, they are less likely to run out of fuel. That’s a particular risk today, when these glands work overtime producing stress hormones.

Invigorate Your Largest Organ

Yes, I’m talking about our skin. Create a body scrub by mixing 1 teaspoon of an unscented body soap and two drops of your favorite essential oil (eucalyptus, peppermint, grapefruit, or whatever you like). Use the soap in the shower with a loofah scrub brush.

Doing so opens skin pores, improves respiratory function, dilates respiratory bronchioles, and enhances breathing. When respiration is improved, your body enjoys more oxygen, which increases energy and vigor.

The scents of the oils also work on the olfactory centers of the brain and improve alertness. Using a loofah exfoliates dry, dead skin, and leaves me feeling extra-clean and rejuvenated. (Yes, men, this is for you, too!) Additionally, experimenting with water temperature during your shower can be invigorating, as temperature changes can improve blood flow.

And for an energizing bonus, while you’re in the shower—sing! And keep singing throughout the day. Music and singing uplift our entire being, and, whether they admit it or not, lift the spirits of those around us.

Pay Attention

Most people, especially busy people, don’t stop to pay attention to what energizes or drains them—they just keep hustling. Do you feel somewhat down after a Netflix binge? What do you think you should do about that? Does a walk or jog seem like the worst idea in the world—until a few minutes into your excursion? How do you feel after exercise?

When we make unhealthy choices, such as excessive use of caffeine and other stimulants to provide a quick energy hit, they ultimately leave us worse off. Doing this day after day digs the hole deeper, and eventually we cannot dig ourselves out.

Here’s a rather obvious point, but one I need to remind myself of often: Do more of what energizes you and less of what drains you. Try these simple practices, and as you pay attention to what builds you up and enhances your joy of living, do more of that. The new habits you form this winter will make your New Year that much better.

Dr. Mark Sherwood along with his wife, Dr. Michele Sherwood, are the founders of a successful medical practice and help patients from around the world find the health they were created to enjoy, in every area of life. As bestselling authors, podcasters, movie producers, and media personalities, they founded Hope Dealers International to reach beyond their clinic. Download their free holiday recipes here: www.Sherwood.tv/holiday

Categories
Mind & Body

What Holistic Medicine Can Do for You

Holistic medical providers come in many forms, but what they all have in common is a commitment to treating the person instead of a disease. Their scope of practice may vary widely, from traditional herbalists and bodyworkers to naturopathic physicians and functional medicine doctors.

The oldest extant practice of holistic medicine comes from ancient China. Now in its modern form—thousands of years later—traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is more than a mature system of prescribing herbal formulas and administering acupuncture. The crown jewel of TCM is the wisdom of viewing life as an integrated and dynamic system. The health of the environment is reflected in the health of people. So too do thoughts and emotions play a role in the formation of disease.

TCM places as much emphasis, for instance, on how aberrant emotions like anger contribute to disease as it does on gross physical causes like overeating junk food. This is an insight that took modern medical researchers much longer to validate. Now we know that the body’s biochemical state changes dramatically depending on whether we’re calm, stressed, depressed, angry, and so on. Emotions have an actual molecular effect and can profoundly shift the expression of different hormones, neurotransmitters, immune function, and more.

Yet our body, mind, and emotions don’t explain the origins of all human illnesses.

We must also consider the integrity of our environment to gain a complete picture of human health. This is of critical importance when establishing the root cause of disease.

Asthma may be kept in check with suppressive medication, but if the root cause is exposure to small-particulate air pollution, the body may never fully heal. Worse, other health issues may arise as the toxic burden accumulates.

The root cause of much of our illness lies in the complex interaction of our genetics, environment, and behavior. This is known as epigenetics. The founders of TCM knew this well and taught the principles of a balanced lifestyle with a focus on preventing disease. Much of modern medical care and research remains inert until a disease has progressed to a dangerous state. TCM teaches that the longer we delay treatment, the more difficult the recovery from it will be.

This isn’t some quaint notion to be relegated to a spa retreat. A global pandemic has forced the world to see how fragile human health can be when the most vulnerable are those with preexisting conditions. Whereas the primary focus of conventional medicine has been on quelling the pandemic with vaccination, public health officials and the media have largely overlooked the importance of providing guidance on building resilience to prevent infection or minimize symptoms.

Medical science has historically explained infectious diseases through two different paradigms: germ theory and terrain theory.

Germ theory posits that the microbe causes illness, while terrain theory upholds that the health of the body determines the severity of illness. Both are correct, but terrain theory is largely ignored by a conventional medical model that does its best work by reductionism.

Reductionism is the scientific axiom of breaking down areas of study into simpler and more fundamental aspects to aid the understanding and scaling-up of more complex subjects. For instance, understanding the chemistry of a liver cell provides insight into the physiological function of the liver organ as a whole.

The downside of reductionism is that it may fail to see how different systems integrate in unexpected ways. If the emotion of anger negatively affects liver function—as is purported in TCM—it takes a holistic perspective to make the connection between psychology and physiology.

In terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, if you want an innovative vaccine in record time, you need the scientific method in all its reductionist glory. But if you want to create healthy people over the long-term and without costly medical interventions, allow the wisdom of holistic medicine to have a seat at the table.

As any good gardener knows, the health of the soil determines the fate of the planted seed. With COVID-19, the virus SARS-CoV-2 is a proximate cause. Emergency room physicians have made the astute observation that those who contract the coronavirus eliminate the pathogen from their systems rather quickly. It’s the downstream effect of the virus on inflammation—called a cytokine storm—and the coagulation of blood that contribute to severe long-term effects and death.

From the holistic medical perspective, the state of the body and its ability to fight off infectious disease is just as important as the germ itself. The allopathic axiom of “one bug, one drug” isn’t nearly as effective a treatment strategy when the terrain of human health is disrupted by poor diet, lack of sleep, and being sedentary.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if the medicine is “traditional” or “conventional,” “Western” or “Eastern,” so long as it treats the whole person safely, effectively, and compassionately. While we celebrate the technological advances of allopathic medicine in preventing death, holistic medicine offers wisdom that reinforces life and invites us to live in harmony with natural rhythms.

When consulting with a holistic medical provider, be prepared to answer a lot of questions. Treating you instead of the symptoms affecting you requires a deep understanding of your story. Asking what was happening around the time the problem began reveals hidden lifestyle and environmental contributions. Inquiring about work and home life exposes sources of chronic stress. With each response, the attentive holistic health care provider is establishing the patient’s mindset and gauging willingness to make lifestyle changes. With time and support, getting the patient on an ideal diet with physical activity and plenty of sleep can help them move beyond the healing of symptoms toward an empowered existence.

Hopefully, we won’t lose the lesson of this pandemic and miss the chance to return to the basics of human health. We live and work in communities that must heal together to move forward as a more resilient species. As one strand of humanity—one healthy community of engaged people—grows stronger, so too does the rope of our coexistence. This is the promise of holistic medicine.

Brandon LaGreca, LAc, MAcOM, is a licensed acupuncturist in the state of Wisconsin. He has authored two books on cancer, “Cancer and EMF Radiation: How to Protect Yourself From the Silent Carcinogen of Electropollution,” and “Cancer, Stress & Mindset: Focusing the Mind to Empower Healing and Resilience.” He shares his thoughts at EmpoweredPatientBlog.com.

Categories
Fitness Mind & Body

What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

Getting sick is unquestionably dangerous for some. But what if these infections are actually agents of healing?

That seems to be what happened to a British man who was suffering from swollen lymph nodes and unexplained weight loss. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer most common in people between the ages of 20 and 40, and those over 55. Then the ailing 61-year-old started wheezing and having difficulty breathing. He tested positive for COVID-19. His case was so severe that he was admitted to the hospital.

The lymphatic system is the part of the immune system that helps fight infections with white blood cells. Think of white blood cells as soldiers, always alert and ready for a fight. They flow through the bloodstream to fight viruses, invasive bacteria, and anything else foreign that could threaten your health. White blood cells are made in bone marrow and stored in the blood and lymph tissues.

When you have cancer in your blood—including leukemia and lymphoma—it develops in the cells in your lymphatic system. Lymphoma is unchecked growth of abnormal white blood cells.

After eleven days in the hospital, the 61-year-old British man was well enough to go home. A follow-up scan for lymphoma uncovered something astonishing. Not only had he made a full recovery from SARS-CoV-2 pneumonia, but there had also been a widespread and unexpected reduction in the cancer in his lymph nodes.

Without any cancer treatment at all, the disease was almost gone. The medical scans tell a visual story: Before he got a bad case of COVID-19, the cancer-affected areas were lit up like a birthday cake. After the severe infection, many of those areas disappeared completely. Others were significantly reduced.

His doctors, who wrote up his case in an article published in January in the peer-reviewed journal Images in Haematology, argue that the severe COVID-19 infection may have had an “anti-tumor” effect.

“There have been many documented cases of people with cancer who have then gotten a viral or bacterial infection and their cancer goes away,” says Laura Orlando, who’s been teaching classes on environmental health for almost 20 years and was not involved in the study.

“The presumption is that the immune system gets revved up in a manner that addresses the cancer,” says Orlando, an adjunct professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health as well as the executive director of the Boston-based, Resource Institute for Low Entropy Systems, a nonprofit that works at the intersection of human health and the environment.

Benefits of Viral Infections

At first glance, it would seem almost impossible for there to be any benefit in getting COVID-19. We’ve been bombarded with fear around catching COVID-19 for over a year. Especially terrifying to many is the idea of becoming a “long-hauler.” Long COVID is the term used for people who continue to feel sick for months after any measurable sign of the infection is gone. Long-haulers test negative but don’t feel well. Anthony Komaroff, M.D., editor of the Harvard Health Letter, estimates that tens of thousands of people are suffering from long COVID. A recent study in Nature confirms that COVID-19 long-haulers are at increased risk of death and other poor health outcomes (including lung problems, heart issues, gastrointestinal upset, anxiety, and fatigue) than people who never had COVID-19.

So how is it possible that having COVID-19 may have the unexpected benefit of waking up the immune system to fight back against cancer?

Evidence in the scientific literature shows that there can be myriad unexpected benefits to getting sick. For example, we’ve known since 1966 that women who’ve had mumps in childhood have much less risk of developing reproductive cancer later in life. In fact, at least eight studies have found that getting mumps is protective against ovarian cancer. One theory for why this is the case is that an acute inflammatory event, like mumps, leads to the body creating antibodies that can later recognize and clear cancer cells.

And consider this: According to a Japanese study published in 2015, measles and mumps infections in childhood reduce the risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Surveying over 100,000 men and women ages 40 to 79, researchers from Osaka University found that getting just measles or mumps were both associated with a decreased risk of death from heart disease. Interestingly, people who had both illnesses in childhood had the lowest risk.

“Homeopaths have long argued for childhood illnesses to be left alone because they have beneficial effects,” says Annette Fang, a mother of three who has a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry. Fang studied homeopathy for three years and uses remedies to help her children and husband (also a chemist) when they get sick. “In the end, these diseases—even the common cold—are detox reactions,” Fang says. “In homeopathy, we call a cold ‘the drain of the brain.’ It’s good for the brain and your whole system.”

Benefits of Fever

One common symptom of illnesses like mumps, measles, and SARS-CoV-2 is fever. Most people normally have a body temperature between 97 and 99 degrees, so anything higher than 100.4 is considered a fever. My youngest daughter maintains a chipper attitude even when she has a fever, even asking her dad to take her to the skate park one afternoon even though she was burning up. For most, a fever feels awful. A low-grade fever may not make you feel very sick, but a higher fever is often accompanied by whole-body aching and lethargy. When you or a loved one is burning with fever, it’s hard to imagine there’s anything beneficial about it. But it’s not just humans that spike fevers when they’re sick. Fish, reptiles, and other mammals, including rabbits and dogs, get fevers as well.

Studies of both animals and humans have found that fever has beneficial effects. In one 2019 study, a team of Chinese scientists found that fever helped make the immune system more effective. Fever appeared to boost two specific molecules: alpha-4 integrin and heat shock protein 90. These molecules help white blood cells get from blood vessels into the lymph nodes where they can team up with other immune cells to attack infections.

And scientists have found that when we reduce fevers, infections get worse. Children with sepsis are more likely to die if their temperatures are lower. According to Paul Offit, M.D., writing in The Daily Beast, reducing fever via anti-pyretic medication has also been found to prolong symptoms of influenza, the common cold, and chickenpox.

Beyond helping the individual who’s feeling sick, fever may also be nature’s way of protecting the herd. My daughter’s spunk notwithstanding, when most people have a fever, we don’t want to be around others. Because we feel so unwell, we want to be in bed, resting or sleeping. This self-imposed isolation, courtesy of the fever, not only helps us heal, it keeps us away from other people, which helps them avoid getting sick.

Benefits of Getting Worms

Over 50 years ago, a medical doctor with the British Royal Navy, uncovered something baffling. Peter John Preston reported that a dozen officers broke free of their seasonal allergies after acquiring human roundworm. The exposure to worms appeared to heal their hay fever. Another scientist, John Turton, intentionally gave himself hookworms, which also seemed to cure his seasonal allergies.

William Parker, Ph.D., an immunologist at Duke University’s medical school, has been studying using worms—also called helminth therapy—to treat auto-immune disorders for over a decade. It’s a hard sell, Parker admits, but we humans and all other mammals have actually co-evolved to live with worms. We don’t usually think of the human body as an ecosystem, but that’s precisely what we are. We have beneficial microbes that live on us and inside us, microscopic mites that live on our faces, feeding off the oils secreted by our hair follicles, and fungi of all kinds that live on our skin and in our ear canals. All these critters make up the zoo in you, what researchers call the microbiome. We know that beneficial bacteria plays a key role in human health, and it turns out other “parasites” do too.

Parker says that dozens of scientific studies have shown that symbiotic worms can alleviate the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, and several other autoimmune, allergic, and digestive conditions. His own research has also shown that helminths may help with anxiety, migraines, and neuropsychiatric disorders.

“One of the things that’s very tricky about this research is that there’s no standard dosing for worms,” Parker tells me. “Take the rat tapeworm, for instance. Some people need five every six weeks, others need 250 every three days. It depends on the person, and there’s a lot of variability.”

This research, as you can imagine, remains controversial. Dosage matters, as does how the worms are cultivated, which Parker argues are the main reasons why some scientific studies have failed to show beneficial effects.

Having too many worms in your system can make you sick. The illness often manifests as gastrointestinal upset, though this varies based on the worm, Parker says, and it’s easily treatable with anti-helminth medication. But when you co-habitate with helminths “in the right balance,” Parker says, the benefits significantly outweigh the harms. “We’ve seen that people can resolve autoimmune and other chronic problems,” he says.

If It Doesn’t Kill You…

This brings us back to COVID-19. One of the questions we haven’t been asking is why some people get so sick from COVID-19 (or any other viral illness) but others remain asymptomatic or have mild symptoms that quickly resolve. We want our immune systems to be awake, and our bodies to fight off what’s harmful, but we don’t want our immune system to overreact and harm us, as happens during a cytokine storm. We also don’t want to attack our own cells and tissues—an over-active immune system with nothing to fight against creates autoimmune diseases.

It’s not this virus in particular, or illness in general, that we need to fear. The problem comes when we have a severe reaction to the virus. “How resilient you are in the face of challenges is what matters most,” says Martha Herbert, Ph.D., M.D.

Herbert, 69, retired recently from Harvard Medical School, where she was on the faculty of the Department of Neurology for 20 years. “Our bodies are capable of handling a whole range of challenges, and we have the power to upgrade how well we handle them, but people aren’t taught that,” she says.

In other words, the problem is not getting sick. The real concern is suffering long-lasting health problems or dying from infection.

“Being sick is usually showing you something isn’t tuned properly, either in your lifestyle or in your environment,” Herbert says. She argues that illness can be a transformative experience, one that helps you get out of your ruts. “It should alert you to go into Sherlock Holmes mode of what you should improve, not in a scared or fanatical way, but in an informed way.”

So what information do you need for your body to be resilient to infections, toxic exposures, and catastrophic diseases like cancer? Herbert says we build resilience by eating nutrient-dense food, reducing our stress levels, exercising, and taking better care of ourselves. Regenerating soil that’s been depleted of nutrients because of industrial farming practices is important too. By eating well and avoiding toxic exposures (which includes stress), Herbert says, we help our bodies marshal the biological resources that allow us to heal.

Laura Orlando, 58, is a colleague of Herbert’s. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 52. It was terrifying news: Orlando’s mother died of colon cancer at 51 and her brother died of brain cancer at 52. By the time she got the diagnosis, the cancer had metastasized to her lymphatic system.

Orlando, who has a master’s in public administration from Harvard, teaches classes on wastewater and health, water quality, and international development. She grew up in farm country in Southwest Michigan, with two nuclear power plants nearby. As a child, she was also exposed to pesticides, herbicides, and many other toxins in the soil, food, air, and water. Her family also used to burn their garbage.

Though treating the cancer was an exhausting ordeal, Orlando found unexpected benefits to being sick. “I wouldn’t say I was glad I had cancer,” she says. “But my cancer is a reflection of the world I live in that’s awash with poisons that affect different bodies in different ways. So it brought my work into my life in a deeply personal and intimate way.”

One positive aspect to having cancer for Orlando was finding a community to rally to her aid. Two or three friends, some who had never met each other before, came with her to every treatment. The conversations they had were so intense and interesting that she would be sorry when she dozed off. As strange as it sounds, she tells me, though one of the hardest periods of her life, she and her partner think back fondly on those chemo days.

“My experience was not one of trauma or loneliness,” Orlando says. “There was misery in there for me, of course, but it was trumped by community.”

As someone who teaches systems thinking, Orlando had a different way of thinking about her cancer. She was not battling the cancer, but rather trying to keep it from overwhelming her body. “I’m in relationship with my cancer. I don’t want to die of cancer. But I would never say I’m fighting it. I would say: How do I live with this particular disease?”

Orlando says this is the question we have to ask, also, about COVID-19. Not how do we fight against and conquer it, but how do we cohabitate with it. “There are huge numbers of viruses in the soil and the seawater. They are not these boogeymen they’re made out to be. In recent years, we’ve come to know the human microbiome. We are multitudes. … My body is in relationship to the world around me, to the viruses, the bacteria, the pollen in the air, the food I eat, the chemicals around me. Our bodies are amazing.”

If we see viruses, bacteria, or even cancers as “killers,” then we’re operating from a place of fear. But fear shuts down our thinking around how to live in relationship with every aspect of our environment. Instead of trying to eradicate it, Orlando says we should figure out what we need to do to limit the possibility that a given disease is going to make us really sick. Since it’s likely SARS-CoV-2 will be cohabitating with us for some time, we have to ask: How do I live with this?

“This virus is a teacher,” Orlando says. “Let’s take it on.”

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a science journalist based in Oregon. She’s appeared live on prime-time TV in France and worked on a child survival campaign in Niger, West Africa. A Fulbright grantee and sought-after speaker, she authored “Your Baby, Your Way,” and co-authored “The Vaccine-Friendly Plan.” Learn more at www.JenniferMargulis.net

Categories
Arts Fine Arts Paintings

Leonardo’s Saint Anne

The interview with Vincent Delieuvin below has been edited for brevity and clarity.

This subject, this composition, is really very symbolic. Leonardo spent nearly 20 years conceiving this composition. From 1500 to his death in 1519, he never stopped perfecting every detail, and transforming his ideas. For him, every part of the painting was fundamental, because he really wanted to portray something very particular—the very moment when the Virgin agreed to let Jesus go to his destiny. It is something very subtle that reveals it: A movement, one could say, between the moment Christ returns to the arms of the Virgin, and the moment when she lets him toward his destiny.

What is fundamental, for Leonardo da Vinci, is the expression of feelings, and especially a perfect correspondence between the movement of the body and the movement of the mind. Here, the three protagonists, Saint Anne, the Virgin, and the child unfold differently. We see that Jesus takes hold of a lamb; the symbol of his approaching death, the sacrificed animal. He turns, and with a bit of mischief, he smiles. It looks like they are playing with the animal but in fact, he looks back at his mother and grandmother to see if they understood the true meaning of this gesture, this game that was the announcement of his death. Then he smiles, too, in a way, to reassure them.

There are two different reactions to this moment. Saint Anne, the grandmother, already knows. She knows that this death is essential for the redemption of humanity and therefore she decides not to intervene. She looks passive but bares a broad smile that shows that she knows it was destiny, certainly tragic, but at the same time wonderful.

“The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne” by Leonardo da Vinci.

On the other hand, the most ambiguous expression, the most subtle—the most moving too—is that of the Virgin who is presented in a physical and spiritual moment of conflict with herself. And this is what Leonardo da Vinci places at the center of his composition. She is in a particular moment—between wanting to hold her son, to separate him from the lamb and therefore keep him alive and yet there is a smile on her face in which we guess is a little melancholy and it expresses her acceptance. She is accepting this destiny and she is going to let him go to his future death. So it’s something very subtle, and that is what makes “Saint Anne” the great masterpiece in the expression of human feelings and also in the expression of movement.

Here is a world that includes everything—sweetness, joy, melancholy, and movements partly contradictory but that are nevertheless resolved in a rather joyful atmosphere at the end.

And the landscape is a character in and of itself. It’s a wonderful and scientific representation of nature,  but there are also elements in this landscape that are both extremely calm, reassuring, and distant—a great sense of perspective that invites us to see things from a perspective with a long view. And when we approach the painting, we see this great cascade of water, absolutely extraordinary, which shows that this journey will also be strewn with pitfalls, in particular by the death of Christ.

Categories
Arts Classical Music Composers

Brahms, the Humble

The three B’s of classical music, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, lived in the baroque, classical, and romantic eras of music, respectively. While Ludwig van Beethoven’s music saw success during his life, he couldn’t fully enjoy that success, since by the end of his career, he was completely deaf. Johann Sebastian Bach’s music was neglected for years after his death until fellow composer Felix Mendelssohn brought it back to life. Johannes Brahms’s music wasn’t always accepted, but toward the end of his life, he was a celebrity in Vienna, and could walk down the street and be recognized by his fans.

Brahms’s Early Education

Johannes Brahms (1833–1897), the oldest of three children, grew up in a simple family. His father, Johann Jakob Brahms, was a struggling musician, and his mother was a seamstress.

As a child, studying piano with his first teacher, Otto Cossel, he already had the aspiration to compose. Cossel had no skill in teaching composition, so he introduced Brahms to Eduard Marxsen, his own teacher at one time. Marxsen recognized Brahms’s talent, but wanted him to focus on the piano; composing lessons would come in due time. But Brahms continued to prod Marxsen about it until he finally gave in.

Brahms, the Composer

According to “Brahms: A Biography” by Jan Swafford, Brahms was known to put himself at the forefront of his mind when composing. He composed for himself first, his friends second, and lastly for his audience.

He lived in an era when music was changing drastically. The “New German School” of music believed that music should convey a story; they felt that Beethoven was great, but that music should not stop progressing beyond Beethoven. The leading figures of this school were composers Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. Some of Liszt’s later works bordered on atonalism, and the New German School paved the way for impressionist composers like Claude Debussy.

Brahms and composer Robert Schumann, the leading figures of “absolute music,” believed that what the listener perceived in music should be up to them, and not determined by the composer—that music should be enjoyed purely for music’s sake. In other words, progressing toward impressionism or, dare they imagine, losing a tonal center, was out of the picture.

Brahms appreciated Liszt’s virtuosity—he knew he could never match Liszt in that regard—but he despised Liszt’s music. He thought it was too emotional and yet still lacked substance; it wasn’t music that made him feel good. He felt that music should convey pure emotions. “Now if things should be going badly with you, music is always the great consolation,” he would say.

When Brahms met Robert and Clara Schumann in 1853, the couple immediately took a liking to the dashing young lad. The Brahms that we picture today is the older, plumper Johannes Brahms sporting a large beard. In fact, he had trouble growing facial hair in his younger days. He was lithe, boyish, and was a bundle of nerves when he played a piece he composed for the Schumanns.

The Schumanns loved his music, and it wasn’t long before Robert Schumann wrote about Brahms in a music journal, calling him the savior of German music and the successor of Beethoven. Schumann believed that Brahms would be the leader and the protector of the traditions that Beethoven and Mozart had left behind. Brahms adored these two composers.

Many expected Brahms to fill Beethoven’s shoes, and that led him to think and rethink his music. Brahms was compared to Beethoven all his life. His first symphony took him over 20 years from conception to completion, and conductor Hans von Bülow was the first to call it “Beethoven’s 10th.” In fact, Brahms took over 20 years to complete a piece not once, but thrice.

Critics of his music often alleged that he was trying to copy Beethoven. One reviewer said, “One of your themes was very similar to one of Beethoven’s.” And Brahms’s famous response was, “Of course it was. Everyone steals; the important thing is to do it brilliantly.”

Brahms, the Man

When Robert Schumann became ill, he developed hallucinations and threw himself into the Rhine River. After being rescued, he was sent to an asylum, where he died a year later. During this time, Brahms spent more and more time with Clara and her children. They fell in love, but never married. Brahms struggled with his feelings for talented women all of his life, but he was unable to devote his life to another.

After Brahms made his name in Vienna, he fully had the means to buy and furnish a comfortable and lavish home for himself. It was almost an expectation for a composer of Brahms’s caliber to live in luxury. Lavish apartments at the time were decked with peacock feathers and made to look exotic; Richard Wagner was said to be a great admirer of that style of decor. Brahms’s apartment however, resembled a student’s apartment, as described by Max Kalbeck, his chosen biographer. His landlady was also his housekeeper. She provided the furniture he used, and most of the furniture was old and shabby.

Brahms wasn’t poor, and could be considered one of the most financially stable composers of that time. He composed when he wanted to, and he didn’t have to bind himself to an employer or patron like many composers before him. It is entirely possible that his economic independence was directly related to his single status all of his life, as he didn’t have a wife or children to provide for.

After Robert Schumann’s death, Clara had to raise their children on her own. She was a spectacular pianist, and was able to support her children, as well as her husband in the asylum, with the money she received performing concerts. After she became ill and the pain in her hands grew too unbearable for her to continue performing, Brahms would sometimes transfer money to her secretly. They were good friends and Clara would have been embarrassed to ask for money, and Brahms’s generosity was undoubtedly appreciated.

Perhaps Brahms’s choice of living space was also connected to his preference for a very private life. After he read biographies about the composers who preceded him, particularly Beethoven, he was acutely aware and perhaps afraid that his name and life would befall the same fate, and that his secrets would literally be an open book for everyone to read. So, starting from his early days of composing, if he wasn’t satisfied with something he wrote, he would destroy it.

When Brahms gave his compositions to friends, on several occasions he asked for them to be returned. He would then destroy those compositions, as well. Near the end of his life, he also destroyed the letters that were sent to him, and wrote to Clara Schumann asking her to destroy his letters. Perhaps Clara refused, or maybe she forgot, as a portion of their correspondence has survived.

Brahms knew his shortcomings well. For instance, he knew he wasn’t strong in writing counterpoint, so he pored over Bach’s music to study the great master. He once famously said, “Study Bach. There you will find everything.”

Johannes Brahms was one of the greatest composers who ever lived. And while he had his fair share of imperfections, he had his great virtues, as well. He didn’t flaunt his wealth, lived a simple lifestyle, and was generous: He didn’t only help Clara Schumann in her struggling years, but also a number of young, promising artists. His legacy is the sublime music that he has left the world. As much as he wanted to avoid public speculation, the complexity of Brahms’s music speaks volumes about him.

 

Categories
Gardening Lifestyle Meditation Mind & Body

Calm as a Rock

What most people know today as a Japanese “zen garden” actually predates the arrival of Zen Buddhism in Japan. In a place where there was no water or stream, one could build a stone garden and use sand to fill the void.

Known as a Japanese rock garden, these unique spaces drew their inspiration from an even older Chinese garden style that used arrangements of rocks to symbolize the mountain-island home of the Eight Immortals in Chinese mythology, Mount Penglai.

Tending to these gardens includes raking the sand or gravel to represent the ripples of water. Over time these rock gardens came to be important places for meditation and their simple design was an aid in those seeking tranquility.

Unlike many other garden forms, Zen gardens have few plants, place emphasis on rocks, and are largely defined by their sand or gravel. They were frequently made at temples.

For people today looking to create a sanctuary in their backyard, this style offers several benefits. It requires relatively little water, is easy to maintain, and has a well-established pedigree helping people calm their minds in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment.