Everyone is sensitive to atmospheres and vibrations. This is a normal human sensitivity. But some of us are more highly tuned than others.
Some sceptics might protest and say that it is all imaginary – made up by an overactive mind – and I reply: Did you ever rent or buy a home where you didn’t like the vibe? The sceptic responds: Never! And I, trying not to be smug, say: Case proven. Because you are sensitive to atmospheres.
One of my friends was an officer in a nuclear submarine. When things went wrong and needed fine tuning, the captain always asked my friend to fix it because he had an extraordinary sensitivity to how the vessel felt and where it needed attention.
My dad was a psychiatrist and disliked all kinds of psychism and spirituality. Nevertheless he claimed that he could tell what was wrong with his patients the moment that they stood in the doorway of his consulting room. How could he do this? He said that he could read body language, but I have known of many blind people who have the same ability so cannot ready body language. So what is the source of their sensitivity? And in your own home or work place, can you feel the mood of someone coming in the front door – especially if they are angry or depressed?
This is all very normal stuff. We all sense invisible stuff. It is a human sense just like sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Sometimes, in ‘respectable’ language, it is called intuition. For me, I simply understand it as a result of the fact that we all have magnetic fields. Every atom and cell in our body has a magnetic field. That is basic chemistry and physics. Planet Earth has a magnetic field. Birds guide their migration roots using their magnetic field.
When something enters our magnetic field, it creates an ‘event’ that ripples through into our nervous system. We then feel or sense it.
The challenge for some people, including me, is that we have very sensitive energy fields and nervous systems. This means that sometimes we feel too much and it can be disturbing, tiring or even overwhelming.
In my mid-twenties for instance I lived off-grid for two years in the High Atlas Mountains of southern Morocco. When I came back home to central London my body could not stop shaking for several months as I felt all the vibrations of the city after two years in the mountain calm.
At the same time I was also exploring different approaches to spirituality and healing. Because of my own sensitivity I was particularly interested in spooks and negative atmospheres. I explored whether these unpleasant experiences were psychological or energetic phenomena and how to discern the difference. I led many workshops and trainings in this topic and wrote two books Psychic Protection and Feeling Safe on the subject.
I can summarise the advice I give to people who are sensitive to energies:
Learn about your magnetic field and energy body; and how it integrates with your nervous and endocrine systems. Know thyself.
Do what works best to strengthen your nervous system. Less caffeine, less alcohol, less recreational drugs, less rubbish food. More exercise.
Learn about internal martial arts – chi gung– how to use meditation and movement to build your inner strength.
Develop a stable grounded centre of gravity – what is called hara in martial arts and bottom in horse riding.
Practice the classical strategies of psychic protection such as protective bubbles, shield, columns of lights, power animals and plants.
Keep your energy moving – physically, psychologically and in your home and workplace.
Use your sensitivity to deepen your connection with the unconditional love that permeates the universe.
Ask and pray for help.
Develop your ability to love, bless and forgive those whom you dislike and might be ‘enemies’.
Understand that sometimes you attract difficult situations that are in fact great opportunities for learning and development.
Visiting my GP a little while ago he began talking with me about his own health. This was not unusual as we had known each other for twenty years and he had read my self-help book The Endorphin Effect. He was committed to a holistic approach and believed that good medicine enabled patients into self-care.
‘If only I had practised what I preach,’ he said wryly, ‘I would have caught my own condition much earlier and probably avoided surgery. ’
We then chatted for a while about the archetype of the wounded healer and the self-sacrificing hero; and that medics have a calling to relieve the suffering of others, but not themselves. Self-care is hardly on the clinical map and hardly possible in a busy day.
‘You could do the self-examination in the bath or lying in bed or even commuting to work,’ I nudged. ‘You know exactly where to scan.’
He sighed. He agreed. He then had to see more patients and I left.
The interesting thing for me about clinicians is that of all people you know how to scan a body for signs of ill health. You know the crucial importance of early diagnosis and appropriate adjustments in behaviour, diet, exercise and life style. But you rarely do it for yourself.When you examine patients you get a quick sense of their state from their body posture, skin tone, breathing and the state of their eyes. But you rarely do it for yourself.With careful hands and appropriate kit you touch, push, look, listen and feel. You know all the signs of ill health. But . . .
More than that, before any physical examination you ask the core question, ‘How do you feel?’ But . . .
Again – and I know that I am repeating myself but it bears this repetition –because it is your profession you know exactly what to scan for and what signs are important, but in failing to self-examine you continually risk your own physical and mental health.
So. How do you feel?
Your main piece of kit here is your own mental ability to scan, sense and cognise what it feelslike inside your body. This requires the self-discipline of an intentional pause and then deliberately focusing down into your own physicality.
This sensory, felt awareness of yourself is crucial. It is the sovereign individual who alone can really know and experience their own state; and is able to self-assess and catch early signs of threatening symptoms. Who else can notice those signals that require just a tad of relevant adjustment: a bit more exercise, regular stretching, earlier nights, less caffeine, better food, more fresh air?
Being very serious and also pragmatic, surely the long-term viability of the NHS is based in this self-awareness, early diagnosis and preventative self-care.
Self-care as preventative medicine is not of course a new model. Indeed in classical Chinese medicine the art of being in a friendly clinical relationship with your own body is considered the foundation of good health. There is even a clear set of instructions on precisely how to conduct this practice. At its heart is a relaxed and friendly bedside manner towards your own physicality.
Sometimes this self-care practice is translated from Chinese as The Inner Smile, which may sound quirky to a cynical ear, a prime candidate for a bad science award. But unpack the Inner Smile tolerantly and we can see that it meshes extremely well with a modern understanding of the integration of brain, nervous system, endocrine system and gut ecology.
The Inner Smile is in fact a good example of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) and polyvagal theory put into practice. The practitioner is advised to do it daily, when the body is at ease, with a particular focus on letting the abdomen drop down and sink into relaxation. With a calm and friendly attitude the practitioner then conducts an internal scan, especially checking in on all the major organs and noticing how they feel. Moreover the practitioner is asked to come into a direct and personal relationship with each organ, greeting it with a smile.
Is this hippy-dippy? Anyone with the slightest knowledge of mind-body anatomy and PNI will understand that this internal focus triggers signals from the brain through the nervous system into the endocrine system. It is crucial therefore that the practitioner’s attitude be friendly. If the self-examination is conducted with a purely clinical, impatient or, worst, an inquisitorial attitude, the message triggered in the neuro-endocrinal system will be that of threat, thereby precipitating the production of cortisol and adrenalin. If however the attitude is friendly and comfortingly parental then the neural signal is reassuring and soothing, triggering a cocktail of wellbeing hormones: endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin. Just as an external caring parent can do wonders for our health, so an internal caring persona can have a similar positive effect.
Scanning with the Inner Smile then serves two purposes.
It brings into conscious awareness the felt state of your own body; early diagnosis leading to appropriate early intervention.
It self-soothes, relaxing and opening up tissue, integrating heart rate variability, settling and balancing gut ecology — all of which support general good health and a strong immune system.
Done on a daily basis the benefits are obvious.
But people are predictably human and, despite how sensible and positive this practice is, there is resistance to adopting it. I opened this piece with that conversation with my GP who was bemoaning that he had not followed his own advice and caught an early diagnosis on his own illness. He provides an excellent example of the many clinicians and carers who fail to self-care even though they know precisely how to do it and how beneficial it is for them.
So why is there this resistance? Why do professionals who preach self-care and the importance of early intervention completely ignore their own advice? In my opinion it is good to be realistic about the sources of this self-sabotage, because recognising them makes them easier to manage. So here are a few possibilities. See which ones might apply to you:
WHY I DON’T SELF-CARE
Can’t break old habits
New behaviour to learn
It wasn’t in my training
Embarrassing and awkward to care for self
Internalised authority figure judging you for appearing soft and narcissistic
Pretend there is not enough time
Frightened to look at what might be wrong
Addicted to role of stoic hero and healer
Scared of feeling feelings
Lazy and lack discipline
Depressed and no motivation
Those are all extremely good and normal reasons for avoiding self-care.
What therefore might motivate someone to push through the resistance? We could just wait for a harsh health crisis to prod you into action – the stick. Or — and I write this carefully after decades of experience in the field — you could just exercise sensible self-discipline,similar to washing your hands after the loo. I have led hundreds of trainings and I really know that other than the unpleasant shock of a severe illness, the only thing that seems to work is a disciplined rhythm that ultimately, like hand-washing, becomes a part of your normal life style. The carrots of self-care and early intervention are obvious.
Be encouraged as a professional by the skills and knowledge you already bring to self-care.
YOUR SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE
Necessity of early intervention
Good bedside manner
High awareness of the basic strategies for general good health
High awareness of the immediate ameliorating strategies for specific health challenges
Importance of modelling self-care for others
Scientific understanding of the neuro-endocrinal mechanism and benefits of the Inner Smile self-care practice
And do the practice.
INNER SMILE SELF-CARE
Daily — perhaps in bed; lunch break; watching television; whenever suits you
Allow your body to sink down into being at ease
Let your abdomen slump and let your breath soften
Switch on the attitude of good bedside manner, like a friendly parent
Focus down into your own body and scan it
In whatever sequence works for you, give awareness to and feel into each organ and each region; sense into your systems
Notice how it all feels and the indications
Think about the appropriate health benefiting activities
Action the appropriate health benefiting activities
The long-term benefits for you and your community are immense.
What is the connection between the state of your gut and spiritual wisdom?
If you are up-to-speed with developments in medicine you will know that there is substantial evidence now for the health connection between the lower intestine and the brain. This is so well evidenced that some hospitals are performing poo transplants, replacing unhealthy with healthy faeces. The condition of the gut is implicated in so many illnesses. Some of them are obvious, such as inflammatory bowel disease, obesity and cancer. Some are more unexpected such as autism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other mental health conditions.
Spiritual traditions have known about the gut’s importance for millennia. You can see it expressed in drawings and sculptures of many goddess figures and Buddhas. These images show a contented being with a large but very comfortable belly.
In most traditions of meditation, self-healing and internal martial arts, there is clear guidance to be at ease in our abdomens – to ground, centre and earth our bodies. When we do this, our stomachs relax and sink. There is a shift in our physical and mental states. We become calm in our bodies. Our centre of gravity drops down into our abdomen and is no longer in the chest or head. The feeling is good and comfortable. From this stable and agreeable state we can then meditate and do our spiritual practices more effectively.
The teaching is always the same. Be centred and at ease in your body. In martial arts and classical Japanese medicine there is a single word for this state – hara. To be in hara means to be grounded down in your body and at the same time kind and mindful.
All of this points to a very clear traditional understanding of mind-body-spirit integration.
This connection between the gut and our psychological state is so clearly demonstrated in anxiety and tension. When we are anxious our gut is tense, acidic and its microbes unbalanced. Our heartbeat is not integrated. Our breath is uncomfortable. Our brains are over-stimulated and it is difficult to think straight. We may sweat or shake or feel nauseous.
Most spiritual traditions teach the same quick and efficient way to manage that horrible state. It is very simple: belly breaths. These are soft, slow and calm breaths down into the abdomen. Just two or three soft breaths can work wonders.
These gentle abdominal breaths send reassuring messages through our neuro-endocrinal system. They are a signal that we are in control and consciously self-managing. Get your abdomen to be at ease – and it will ripple through your whole body, calming your heart, breath and brain.
But for me there is more to it than just the physical and mental wellbeing. There is also an important spiritual dimension. This is the crucial concept that the spiritual purpose of being human is to manifest love and compassion, and to become fully mindful and conscious. I am sure that many of my readers align with this philosophy: we are here to embody love.
And one thing is certain. If we are a bag of nerves, dealing with the frantic arousals of survival and anxiety, we cannot fulfil this spiritual purpose. On the contrary, we need a calm foundation, a gut that is at peace.
Our bodies need to be at ease so that we are oases of calm and blessing in a wounded world. So whenever you can and whenever you need, remember the universal strategy taught for millennia across the world: Gentle, slow, soft breaths down into the belly. Just two or three soft breaths can shift the mood. This is good for your health, your spiritual growth and everyone around you.
This year I was part of a significant breakthrough when Ofqual, the government body, accredited the first UK qualification in spirituality. Yes this is a success but it was a process that took me right out of my comfort zone.
Throughout my life I have been disturbed, nervy and irritable when I have had to order my thinking so as to fit into other people’s boxes. I am okay with simple forms, but I am not okay with anything longer or more complex. Ask me to place a strategic business plan into a sequence of boxes in which you have to distinguish, for example, between ‘aims’, ‘purposes’ and ‘outcomes’ — and I react like a nervous horse being saddled for the first time. I also have a challenge looking at databases and excel sheets. My vision blurs and I get a headache.
For decades therefore I have avoided this kind of paperwork, but for the Ofqual accreditation I was faced with months of it. It was a recipe for angry depression.
I knew I had to do something about this and self-manage my process. So for the first time in decades, before beginning work, I used ceremony. Before opening my computer I lit a candle, put on background music, meditated and said a prayer asking for help. This soothed me and I was then able to do the form filling without freaking out.
This went on for months as versions of the course application and policies were edited and revised. Slowly, gradually, I became comfortable with the process. After a while I no longer needed the ceremony and could just sit quietly with the paperwork, even enjoying it.
During this period I also had a moment of uncomfortable personal insight.
I have a background in special educational needs and I realised that I had a cognitive challenge related to my learning style. My brain is not wired easily to manage visually boxed information. It’s a very minor form of dyslexia. Plus I have tendency towards impatience.
The insight was uncomfortable because I then looked back at my life and noticed how often I had disrespected people who are comfortable with boxed information, detailed specifications and databases. I had at times, under the guise of humour, even been rude and disruptive.
Now many years on and after reflection I could understand that my negative behaviour was a defence mechanism protecting me from my own low self-esteem because I could not do that kind of work myself. Argh!
I squirmed because I well knew that this kind of behaviour is typical of people with undiagnosed learning difficulties. As well as managing their learning challenge, they also have to manage their psychological backstory and compensatory defensiveness. I knew about all this in others but had not seen it in myself.
Fortunately I could take all of this into my daily practice of meditation, compassionate awareness and healing. And of course I have prayed for forgiveness. I am glad too to share my process openly with you. We all have our histories and challenges. Being open about them can really support us in the highest possible way.
Several moons on I now celebrate the divine economy of it all.
It is a good package.
The Ofqual qualification has landed. An aspect of the new spirituality is grounded in the mainstream. I embrace administrative paperwork. My defensive negative behaviour has been brought into the light and healed. These are good outcomes. More love, more awareness.
But is there a more general and useful lesson that can be gleaned from my process? I think there is. Most of us know that whenever we are emotionally reactive we are meeting an opportunity for personal growth. But this growth requires intelligent care. We need to step back, take responsibility and put into action practical strategies for self-management, healing and transformation.
At the same time there is a mysterious and benevolent flow to life, so it is crucial too that we ask for and are open to receiving help. If it healed my wayward attitude to bureaucratic paperwork it can heal anything.
Review The Spark in the Machine: How the Science of Acupuncture Explains the Mysteries of Western Medicine Dan Keown Publisher: Singing Dragon, March 2014
This is a review of a very exciting and ground-breaking new book which, for me, is a game-changer and which I recommend to you. It will change how you understand the human body!
First, would you join me in a spiritual version of desert island disks? What are your favourite spiritual practices? And if you could only take one practice, which one would it be?
If I were only allowed one particular exercise it would be the Inner Smile. This wonderful meditation exercise supports physical and emotional health, develops compassion, acceptance and love, and also wakes up our higher consciousness.
It is also very easy. It only needs us to do two things that we can do already. The first is to relax. We all do that sometimes. In bed. Sitting at a cafe watching the world go by. On the bus. After a long walk and looking at a lovely view. Just let your body sink into relaxation. It’s a familiar place.
The second element of the Inner Smile is to transmit kind messages through our nervous system and into our bodies. We have that skill too, but usually with others. We all know how to give careful loving kindness to someone who is vulnerable, anxious and in suffering. We do that when we lean down to care for a small child who is hurt; or we cup our hands and hold a baby bird that has fallen from its nest.
When we practise the Inner Smile we relax. Then with the same caring attitude we would give to a hurt little child, we turn our attention within and send loving thoughts and feelings through our own bodies.
This strategy is hugely beneficial as it releases tension and allows a flow of healing agents. It is psychologically positive too because it enables mindful and compassionate self-care, which then spills over to care for others. It also brings us into a healthy relationship with our bodies. Our souls inhabit these wonderful vehicles and through practising the Inner Smile we become fully aware of these ‘temples of the flesh’.
Familiarity and rapport with our own bodies is a crucial key to good health and integrated spiritual development.
Familiarity with our bodies means that we understand how our bodies function. We know how important attitude, food and exercise are. Many of us are also engaged in healthcare and healing, for ourselves and for our clients. It is therefore crucial that we understand human anatomy because this guides how we practise our healthcare.
For a long time I have wanted to read a book that fully unpacks the insights of Chinese medicine in a way that satisfies my curiosity and can also meet the demands of a western medical mind. Dan Keown, a British medical doctor who also has a degree in Chinese medicine, has finally written that book. The Spark in the Machine is sub-titled How the Science of Acupuncture Explains the Mysteries of Western Medicine and it is brilliant. There is a touch of genius about it.
It has substantially transformed my understanding of my own body, healthcare and healing. I absolutely recommend The Spark in the Machine to you if you have the slightest interest in health and healing. In my opinion it is a significant breakthrough book and may come to be regarded as a classic.
It is beautifully written with a warm humour and a rigorous scientific approach. It provides a wonderful, holistic and in-depth description of how classical Chinese and modern western medical approaches can merge.
With great care and intelligence Dan Keown explains how the body’s natural electricity, its qi, flows through, around and organises the body. He describes how the body and its organs emerge and develop from a single dividing cell, and the miraculous ways in which it connects and interconnects.
As a result of reading this book when I practise the Inner Smile my whole experience has changed. I have a far better understanding of how the thoughts and feelings of my mind and heart are generating a flow of electricity and benevolent qi through the fascia (like cellophane or cling-film) beneath the skin, around and into the tissues and organs. I am entranced by the thought of my lungs being an upside-down tree. I absolutely sense the three levels of my body as being similar to a garden: the lower compost level of my abdomen, liver, kidneys and intestines; the middle level of soil of my lungs and heart; and the flowering plant at the top in my head, mouth, eyes, ears and brain.
I am grateful for the knowledge and insights.
One of the gifts of our age is the continuing integration of classical wisdom and modern science. What is constant however is the miraculous wonder of nature, our bodies and the cosmos.
An interesting research paper was recently published in Iran. It described an experiment conducted with 160 Muslim women who had recently undergone C-section under spinal anaesthesia.
Half of the group listened to 20 minutes of a recited prayer meditation using headphones. The other half also wore headphones but there was no sound.
Rendered into English phonetics the prayer was Ya man esmoho davaa va zekroho shafa, Allahomma salle ala mohammad va ale mohammad. (No translation was given in the paper’s abstracts and if any reader knows the translation, I would be grateful if you would post it here on this blog. See below.)
Pain intensity was assessed before, during and after the prayer meditation. The results indicated no differences in pain level during or immediately after the prayer meditation.
However, for the women who had listened to the prayer the pain was significantly reduced a few hours afterwards.
This is good news.
I wanted to share this with you for a couple of reasons.
First I think it is an engaging piece of research and reassuring to those of us who are interested in healing and science.
Second it is good to break down stereotypes.
This research took place in Iran, was published in an Iranian academic journal and conducted with Muslim women. This transforms so many prejudiced perceptions that we might have.
It is good in our fractured world to acknowledge the profound heritage of arts, culture and science in Iran/Persia. The photo by Mohammed Ganji is of the pink mosque in Shiraz.
Of course, being quizzical, it may not have been the power of the prayer itself that was beneficial. Perhaps it was the cadence, repetition and tone that had the benevolent effect. But that too is engaging and important.
The reference for the research is: Beiranvand S, Noaparast M, Eslamizade N, Saeedikia S (2014). The effects of religion and spirituality on post-operative pain, hemodynamic functioning and anxiety after cesarean section. Acta Medica Iranica 52(12):909-915 My attention was drawn to it by the Newsletter of the Duke University Center for Spirituality, Theology & Health. To receive their Newsletter click on the small orange button on the bottom left hand corner of their website home page www.spiritualityandhealth.duke.edu