Thinking With the Heart
Majid Ali, M.D.
The great gift of the 19th century Europe to humankind was being awed by nature – with Darwin, Humboldt, and the great immunologist of the time. The pernicious gift of the 20th century Europe to humankind was head-fixation – with Freud, Jung, and their disciples. They gave us their Cortical Monkey who loves to recycle past misery. When this recycling is not sufficient, it thrives on pre-cycling feared, future misery.
There is a particular species of monkey native to Karnal, my birthplace. During my childhood, these monkeys lived in our town by the hundreds. They were a nuisance for the grown-ups, but for us children they were a lot of fun. I remember my father telling me how these monkeys had a peculiar habit. They did not let their wounds heal. If one of them ever lacerated his skin, he would pick at his wound continuously. He would peel off whatever little scab did form. These wounds festered for long periods of time.
Putting Something Between the Monkey and His Wound
It has occurred to me that the first man to invent a bandage probably got his idea from watching a monkey (or some other animal) constantly pick at his wound. It might have occurred to him that the way to let the wound heal would be to put something between the monkey and his wound. When he got hurt himself, the lesson learned from the monkey might have taken a practical turn. A bunch of leaves, perhaps of some herbal plant, might have served this purpose. This, or something similar, is likely to have been the forerunner of our modern Band-Aid.
There is something relevant in the story of Karnal monkeys to our ideas of self-regulation and healing. Time and again, I see patients who understand how their cortical condition throws roadblocks in the way of limbic healing. In our autoregulation laboratory, I demonstrate to them how their biologic profiles are composed of a host of electromagnetic or molecular events. I show them how their whole biology is sustained in an even state when they go limbic, and how it is thrown into turbulence when they go cortical. I explain to them the impact on their internal organs of talking for control and listening for healing. At intellectual and analytical levels, they seem to understand these phenomena. Yet, left to their own devices, they slide back into the calculating and competitive cortical state. They are unable to keep their analytical mind (“the cortical monkey”) out of the way of the healing limbic state.
The cortical monkey loves to recycle misery, and when that is not enough, it yearns to precycle feared, future misery
Indeed, patient and persistent work is required to break long-established cortical habits and put the cortical monkey to sleep.
The Sword Story
Majid Ali, M.D.
Andrew had been disabled with chronic fatigue for about a year when he first consulted me.
I sensed something different about Andrew within moments of his entering my office. I finished scanning the chronic fatigue questionnaire I use in my practice and looked up to ask him some questions about his health. He stared at me with sad eyes. As I asked questions regarding his medical problems, he kept interrupting his answers to talk about his two daughters who apparently suffered from many of the symptoms he described. Finally, I said,
“Your daughters are not here. You are. Once you get better, we can take care of your daughters.”
“No, you won’t,” Andrew blurted.
“Okay, then we won’t.” His answer took me by surprise but I recovered quickly. “Let’s talk about you.”
“You can’t help my daughters, Doc,” Andrew spoke softly this time.
“Fine! Fine! Tell me when did you…”
“You can’t help my daughters because my wife won’t let you,” he interrupted me.
“Let’s just talk about you, Andrew,” I said with some frustration.
“Doc, I wish you could help my daughters, but you can’t because my wife thinks your work is hocus-pocus.” Andrew became sad and then sat up quickly. “My wife is a successful businesswoman. And she is a very strong woman. I have been disabled with this thing and can’t do anything for my daughters. They are sick every month and I see their pediatrician prescribe antibiotics every month, just the way my pediatrician did for me. I’m very afraid for them.”
I saw Andrew 10 weeks later for a follow-up visit. There was no sign of any improvement. I saw my notation, “concerned about two daughters,” in his clinical chart and wondered how the situation at home might be. I decided not to ask him any questions about that.
Andrew continued to receive immunotherapy from our office but did not keep his appointment for a follow-up visit with me until several months later. Then he came in one day, his face lit up with joy. I wondered if the situation with his daughters had changed but said nothing. Next, I started to make entries in the chronic fatigue outcome sheet that I use in my practice for research studies.
“Tell me Andrew, how is your energy level these days?” I asked.
“Excellent!” he beamed.
“Excellent?” I asked in disbelief.
“Excellent. I am running a marathon,” he crowed.
“Running a marathon?” I was stunned.
“Yup! I am running a marathon.” Andrew became serious.
Chronic fatigue patients do not run marathons — not those who have been disabled for months. I was not prepared for this. Without being too obvious, I thumbed through the chart to see if I had the right chart, to ensure he was the patient I thought he was, the father of two daughters. “Concerned about two daughters,” I saw my notation in the chart and knew that there was no mistake there.
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea, Andrew,” I began. “Marathons shouldn’t be run by people who are just coming out of chronic fatigue,” I counseled.
“I knew that’s what you would say, Doc. But I am not coming out of chronic fatigue now. I have been out of chronic fatigue. I waited for three months before I decided to come and tell you about it. Your story did it. Yup, your story did it for me.” Andrew grinned broadly.
I tell a lot of stories to my patients to help them understand the nature of this beast of chronic fatigue, and to help them cope with their unique brand of suffering. What story was Andrew talking about? I wondered. I looked up. Andrew was studying my face with his intense, blue eyes.
“Dr, Ali, your sword story did it. You remember your sword story, Doc. Don’t you?” Andrew flashed a smile.
I often tell my patients the sword story to make some points about spiritual search and rewards. It goes something like this:
There was a ferocious captain in Genghis Khan’s army during the invasion of India. He killed people with his sword at the least provocation and often without any provocation at all. His reputation preceded him whereever he went. On this occasion, after he entered a town, he thunderously demanded from his lieutenants to know if there was anyone left alive.
“No one, sir! No one except for this spiritual man,” a lieutenant answered.
“Aha! A spiritual fool!” he thundered. “Take me to the fool,” he ordered.
His lieutenant led him to an ancient small temple with a broken wooden door. The captain ordered the door smashed down. Within moments, his lieutenants smashed it. The captain entered the tiny courtyard. A thin man in a loincloth and wooden sandals stood still in the middle of the courtyard. The captain contemptuously looked at the spiritual man and roared,
“Do you know who I am?”
“No, I don’t,” the spiritual man answered meekly.
“You don’t know who I am?” the captain asked, shaking with rage.
“No, I don’t,” the spiritual man repeated his words timidly.
The captain pulled his sword from its sheath and flashed it with his full might. “I can slice through your body and not blink an eye,” he thundered again.
Everyone standing behind the captain froze, their eyes fixed on the spiritual man. Time seemed to stop. The spiritual man stood silently, looking back at the captain with vacant eyes. Then he asked in a whisper, “Do you know who I am, sir?”
“Who are you?” the captain roared again, thrusting his sword forward until it nearly touched the spiritual man’s abdomen.
“I could have your sword slice through me and not blink an eye,” the spiritual man answered.
The captain trembled in his feet and walked out without saying a word.
“How did the sword story help you?” I asked Andrew in good humor.
“Your sword story did it, Doc. I’m serious,” Andrew began with a grin. “A few months after I saw you last, my wife took a lover and threw me out. Suddenly, there I was. I had no wife. No home. No job. And I couldn’t see my daughters. What would I tell my daughters anyway? I had nothing left. There was no reason for me to go on. No reason to fight back at all. No reason to live. There was nothing there. Just darkness. Then into that darkness came the sword and the man in the loincloth and wooden sandals. Then I don’t quite know what happened — except that I wasn’t afraid anymore. Nothing mattered anymore. I wasn’t afraid. I think that did it! I wasn’t afraid anymore. I guess I was just like that spiritual man. I thought I could have anyone slice through me and I wouldn’t blink an eye — just like the man in the loincloth and wooden sandal. I began to move around and then I found the energy to start walking and then running. Before I knew it, I was preparing for the marathon. This is how it all happened. I was free at last — free of fear and free of anger. I wasn’t a victim anymore. I knew there was something out there. I didn’t know what, but it was out there, and it didn’t seem to matter that I couldn’t know it any better. I wasn’t tired anymore. Honest Doc, that’s what happened.” Andrew shook his head warmly. There was nothing for me to say.
The story came back to me some weeks after I saw Andrew. In a flash, I saw him the way he looked during the first visit — distraught, deeply hurt, interrupting his answers about his health to talk about his daughters. Then I saw clearly what I had failed to see then: He was going through a profound change then — a spiritual change, through his suffering for his daughters. He didn’t see it then, nor did I. Now I know it was not the sword story that did it. It was his love for his daughters that did it. He suffered for his daughters, and, through that suffering, he came to the truth — that there is something, someone, beyond our bodily senses and beyond all reach of the intellect that can sustain us when nothing else does. He went to that third dimension — the spiritual — that none of us is destined to know, and returned with a change, a transformation that neither he nor I could have known with our bodily senses nor with our clever-thinking. The spiritual man in the loincloth and wooden sandals in the sword story was just a little spark that he saw during his journey.