Is awakening easy?

No, but it’s worth it. I think what fascinated me when I starting looking at the process of awakening is how we think what we see out there is “reality”. It is reality of a kind, but it’s our reality. Our reality with all our preconceived ideas, filters and beliefs bolted on as well.

An analogy would would be say – wearing a ski mask. When you have the mask on, all you can see is the inside of the mask and the outside world through the lens. Take the mask off, and hold it in front of you and you can see, not only the view through the mask but also the area around the mask. So more information comes in and is available to the “viewer”

This can be pretty overwhelming at first as we can cling pretty hard to the “what we see is what we get” mantra. I’ve seen many patients over the years who have come in to see me in a bit of state because they have experimented with psychedelic drugs and suddenly opened up their world of reality and they haven’t been able to incorporate it or make sense of it. This doesn’t happen to everyone but can certainly occur.

Usually these people will be treated for anxiety or more rarely bipolar as the stress of the experience can manifest in the pressure of speech and flight of ideas that occur in the acute phase of mania.

I remember one lady who had experienced quite a quick awakening following the use of LSD. She subsequently reported to doctors that she could intuit peoples’ intentions. This can certainly happen with people who are highly awake and present and in touch with their own processes. However, it was viewed as a psychotic phenomenon and she was medicated. Personally I don’t believe she was psychotic as she functioned fairly well in other aspects of her life. She was turning up to work, running a home and managing to look after her kids. Gradually she learnt to use her new found gifts in a quiet way and she became a very skilled therapist and counsellor

Personally, I found change to be challenging. I had well-worn ways of doing things and to be able to look at some of the medical processes that were going on – over reliance on drugs / over reliance on guidelines / heavy drug industry sponsorship and realise that in many cases, these were not the way forward and were not helping the patient to get better. Once I saw this, I had to change my role and practice but also watch carefully that I practiced in a way that was fitting with the regulatory authorities of my country. This was important because we have to keep patients safe.

But what if it becomes too rigid and our patients fail to get better. What if they are harmed by drug side effects or develop a resistant infection through the use of unnecessary antibiotics? To help people heal can require a dose of creativity which is not accommodated for in the rigidity of western medical practice

Waking up and seeing things more clear as perhaps they are is enlightening but scary at times. It’s harder and stand back and do nothing. It makes it easier to people to find and practice what truly makes sense for them. In the service of others, it allows more connection, more creativity and perhaps a greater social conscience

Less me and more us


When emotions cause symptoms

I haven’t blogged for a few months. I’ve been busy with professional work and the months have flown by. Now I’ve had a taste of my own medicine. A couple of days ago I woke up with severe lower back pain.

I’ve had back pain before but it’s usually the type where one takes a paracetamol and gets on with it. Now this was different. A severe muscular spasm, mostly contained in the lower back but periodically radiating around to the hips. It felt like the flexors of my spine were trying to flex and the extensor muscles were trying to extend. And they had got stuck, trapping me in an S-Shaped position. Why should muscles tense up like this?

The simple answer is that it is likely to relate to some sort of threat. Our bodies respond physically to real or perceived threats. Many conventionally trained doctors do not realise this. We are trained to recognise physical pain as a sign that there there is some sort of tissue damage going on.

I did pop in to see my GP who examined me, confirmed the presence of muscle tension and prescribed some painkillers. Here at least I received a correct diagnosis – tension.

This is medicine’s blind spot, sadly, not asking the patient about sources or tension in their lives and not recognising when emotions are causing physical symptoms. Thankfully I knew the cause and went away to work on it. There was a large emotional conflict that was winging its way to the surface of my awareness. It related to my job, my frustrations with the medical system and my deeper frustrations dating right back to my early years.

One pioneer who observed the relationship between chronic pain and emotions was Dr John Sarno

He died in 2017 before his work was fully embraced by the medical profession. He noticed that many patients who were presenting to him, in pain, had other potentially stress related conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and migraine.

From this, he hypothesised that unexpressed emotions were are the root of many conditions (where no disease process could be found). Rage was the predominant emotion but there are others – shame, anxiety, jealousy and they are unconscious. He named this process Tension Myositis Syndrome or TMS.

These emotions are unconscious because the body-mind classifies them as too dangerous to come into conscious awareness. The person is not aware of the emotions and so it can come as a huge shock to find that there is anger and rage bubbling under the surface-particularly if one sees oneself as a “good, together type of person”

The interesting thing is that once these emotions are acknowledged, there is no need for the symptom or the pain. The game is up and the body-mind no longer has to create diversions.

In my case, I was aware intellectually that at times, I experienced a crippling low self esteem. I had an inner critic that berated me and I had tried for many years to “prove the voice wrong” by amassing a selection of worldly achievements. This desire to hide this “part”of me was so great that I was prepared to stay in a job I didn’t like and toe the party line as opposed to speaking my truth.

When this facade cracked open (this was through an intensive meditation practice), waves of shame and anger poured out and I sank into a deep depression for a while.

But interestingly the back pain went

I’d encourage anyone who is struggling with pain or medically unexplained symptoms to research Dr Sarno. His legacy lives on and health care professionals who have developed his work can be found in both the UK and the US

Check out the links below:

Twelve – Stepping into Narcotics Anonymous

So I joined Narcotics Anonymous. I was desperate and I knew that if I continued to use, I would lose my career and my relationship with my future husband. I had some knowledge of Alcoholics Anonymous. I remembered having to learn about the program for an exam I was sitting. I had envisaged crusty old men in a dusty church hall. NA was very different. For a start, most of the “members” were around the same age as me. Our backgrounds were very different though. They were mostly males and many had been addicted to heroin and been through the criminal justice system. A large proportion of them were smokers. I didn’t really know what to say to them.

When I get stressed and anxious, I tend to use long, intelligent sounding words to cover my insecurity. One guy, named Tony came to chat to me and told me all about his recent leg operation where he had ended up with septicaemia and post-thrombotic syndrome. Many years later, he told me he had seen straight through me and this was his way of breaking the ice and helping me to feel at home. I was very grateful to him.

I remember sitting down in the circle and trying to work out who the “leaders” of the group were. What were their credentials and qualifications? Perhaps I could be the leader? I probably had more letters after my name than most of them there. I was also very arrogant. Never mind. After my second meeting, I was given a job making tea for the meeting. This was in theory easy to do but there was one small problem. The amount of sugar used. This is not uncommon in twelve step groups where members will switch addictions from say, drugs to sugar and caffeine. I felt that from a health promotion point of view, I was not being true to my profession, if I didn’t ration the amount of sugar being consumed. I even bought sugar cubes and tongs to aid me in this quest. Needless to say, this was not well received by the group and I was forced to reign in my controlling tendencies. I was still very arrogant

Twelve step groups work on many levels and to be honest, when I first arrived I wasn’t expecting much. I went to meetings, I did what they told me to do, keeping it simple. I attended 90 meetings in 90 days and I found myself a sponsor. A sponsor is simply another member of the program who agrees to keep tabs on you and help you work through the steps. My sponsor was a pharmacist who had become addicted to dextroamphetamine. This suited me as I felt a greater connection to her because of my pharmaceutical addictions.

There is no doubt to my mind that 12 Step programs such as NA work. They are not perfect and they certainly don’t fix everything. They operate on many levels. Firstly, they provide a solution to the isolation and dishonesty and characterises active substance addiction. Suddenly, you are part of a community of people who have all done what you did and so there is nowhere left to hide. Rigorous honesty is called for (especially with your sponsor) and members work together to help the newcomer – who is the most important person at any meeting.

The Steps themselves are spiritual in their outlook. The concept of God is a very loose concept. Basically God can be anything as long as it isn’t related to the addictive process. Albert Einstein said that “No problem can be solved from the same level of thinking that created it”. Once you step outside of the problem, you have a better chance of finding the solution.

The 12 Steps of Narcotics Anonymous

Deep change can really only come from surrender and this is the basis of Step One. “We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable”. For me, this ties in with Leonard Cohen’s quote a blog or so back. When we finally STOP doing what we are doing, there is a metaphorical space for something new to come in. Then we have the concept of the “Higher Power/Higher Self” – whatever which can help and guide us into new choices. (Steps 2 and 3).

The motivational author Louise Hay once said that “In order to clean a house, you had to be able to see the dirt”. This is the basis of Step 4 and 5 where you identify your personal character defects and share them with your sponsor. I’m not a fan of the term “character defects”. In my experience, patterns of behaviour develop to help the person cope with the environment they are living in.

We are adaptive creatures and this serves as a helpful survival strategy. For me, my preferred character defects were perfectionism, people pleasing and self obsession. In many ways, I hadn’t matured or grown up and I was still trying to control and ensure care by controlling others. It was all about me. I was also frightened. Frightened about being alone, people leaving me and a horrendous feeling of being bad and defective. It kind of made sense but it was not helpful in 2019. Sharing this part of oneself with another is a very freeing act. One of the really healing aspects of 4 and 5 is the realisation that the sponsor has often struggled with the same issues and to a wider perspective, so do most of humanity. We are all in it together.

Steps 6 and 7 allow us to prepare and subsequently ask our higher power to remove these defects. Again for me, this allows one to step back and exercise new choices. To come out of that pattern of problem behaviour and allow new choices to come in. Depending on the belief system, some people have experienced miraculous healings which they have attributed to divine intervention . It doesn’t really matter why it happens, only that it does sometimes.

We then move onto Steps 8 and 9 which are the amends steps where we seek to make retribution for our wrongs. In my case, I had stolen drugs from various medical establishments when in active addiction and so it was not practical to to simply admit this as it would have set in chain a number of consequences. I decided that the way to rectify this was to donate the value of the drugs to charity and commit to mending my ways. I did this through extensive personal work and did what I could to become a more caring and effective health professional. Where possible I tried to show myself the compassion I would have shown to a patient who was unwell and this practice actually helped me to become more compassionate in general. I still have a long way to go.

The final three steps work in the present. They teach us to be awake and aware. Moment by moment . How do we conduct ourselves in the Now? Are there people that we may have offended and we need to apologise? This means, paying attention to one’s speech. Is what I am saying kind? I might think it is funny but does the other person see it that way? Free speech is all very well but are we mindful of others? Does this itch to share something have to do with my ego, my importance or is it helpful to the other person? Taking inventory at the end of the day is another part of the tail end of the steps. It’s like a reflection of what happened and what could change. Depending on the belief system, we can ask a higher power for help. Perhaps we tap into the sense of humanness, the Universe, the sense of “Us”

And finally Step 12, the giving back. The buzzword is “carrying the message”. We seek to connect with newcomers and help others to get clean. Working with others without strings attached is therapeutic. It integrates us back into society and the human race. We start to wake up and become useful to others and that builds our sense of esteem and helps to keep us clean.

The Steps work – If you are struggling with an addiction, perhaps there is something in a group for you?

The edge of my world

My name is Lily. I work as a family physician. My practice is situated close to a university and many of my patients are college students. I never set out to go on this path. It kind of all started in 2014. Well it had started before then, but I’ll cover that in a later blog. I’d booked to go on a medical communications course. I’d been following the teacher running the course for a couple of years and had read his book. I turned up with the expectation that I would learn something useful to help me communicate more effectively with my patients. I wasn’t really going for self development. At that time in my life I lived mainly in my head. I loved reading and cramming my memory with all sorts of facts. It was an addiction. I didn’t realise this at the time, it was just what I did. I think others found me quite irritating as I was one of those people who talks too much and wants everyone else to know how much THEY know. I felt more comfortable that way. Call it imposter syndrome – whatever, I was deeply insecure.

Anyway we had an exercise to do and of course I volunteered to go up to the front. The course organiser asked me if I had any issues? (well is the Pope Catholic?). I’ll try and steer away from bad cliches in future. I mentioned that I often experienced this really unpleasant feeling at the base of my sternum. It was so unpleasant that if it turned up when I was trying to work, I would be distracted by it and it would get in the way of consulting with patients. I’d even taken antidepressants to try and quell its strength (to some benefit). It was like an unwanted dinner guest. My colleague asked me to step back, observe it and just allow it to be there. This seemed too simplistic but I went along with it as I trusted him.

Something really odd happened then which changed the course of my life. As I observed the sensation, I felt it move, initially up into my chest, and then it became expansive and spread quickly into my extremities. As the same time it went from feeling unpleasant to ecstatic. Something shifted, all self-consciousness melted away and I felt connected to everyone in the room. It didn’t last long, but it changed me. I couldn’t understand how something so unpleasant (that I’d drugged in the past), could morph into something like that. And there was something else that happened, that I didn’t really have the words for at the time. This is often one of the features of these sorts of experiences is that people can’t find the words. If I were to describe it now, I kind of saw the “edge” of my world. I had this sense that my issues and problems and neuroticisms were small fry and there was a much bigger sense of expansiveness out there. And from that moment, I continued to read and search for information about “awakenings”. It became a hobby, almost an obsession. Little did I know, there was no-where really to go. I was, in a way, already there.