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“In fact, after personally researching the maze of therapeutic protocols, I began to question more and more the ideology of allopathic medicine and the limited paradigm of the body it reflects.”

Monthly Aspectarian November 1996

Originally published in The Monthly Aspectarian, November1996, Chicago, IL, USA.

This is the premiere column that I will be writing for the Monthly Aspectarian each month on HIV-related perspectives and alternative healing practices. This month I want to introduce a biopsychosocial (the confluence of biology, psychology and culture) perspective on HIV which is part of my on-going inquiry into the nature of disease and its treatment.

For the past thirteen years, I have been HIV-positive and have explored various pathways for healing. This journey has included a wide assortment of alternatives ranging from the traditional (acupuncture and sweat lodges) to the recent (applied kinesiology and psychotherapy), to name only a few. I do not take allopathic medication for HIV disease, not because I am anti-Western medicine but because the medical world has had nothing to offer me that I found useful for my body.

(Certainly much improvement has been made as of late with the highly regarded designer drugs, yet even here there are some big problems. I will examine this issue next month as I reflect on the news from the XI International Conference on AIDS in Vancouver this past July.)

In fact, after personally researching the maze of therapeutic protocols, I began to question more and more the ideology of allopathic medicine and the limited paradigm of the body it reflects.

My professional work as a movement therapist and expressive arts educator has brought me into contact with innovative thinkers and theorists of the body, including Anna Halprin, Marjorie Barstow, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, and Emilie Conrad-Da’oud, to name a few, who have revolutionized my thinking and have helped me enlarge my views of the body, health and healing. My spiritual journey has also brought me into direct contact with the Buddhist teachings about life and death as presented by Steven Levine and Thich Nhat Hahn. I am grateful to these teachers, and the hundreds of students and clients that I have had the opportunity to learn from in the past 10 years. They have taught me to appreciate, investigate and remember the somatic wisdom and expressive power of the body.

The body is so much more than a collection of cells, bones, tissues, and blood values. The body (or as I will refer to it here, the human organism) as we know it now is matter, thought, spirit and context. This organism is a biopsychosocial entity, our bodies, feelings, beliefs and soul operating as a unified and communicative system not only internally but with our environment as well. As current research in the rapidly expanding field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) has indicated, the organism is a vast network of interactive possibilities. The recently discovered brain chemicals refered to as "neurotransmitters", the chemical conveyors of human emotion, circulate throughout the body and "talk" with our immune system. A recent scientific conference in the Netherlands was dedicated to the theme, "The (Non)Expression of Feelings in Health and Disease". The immune system is not only a physiological reality, but also a reflection of our psychological make-up and our relationships with others and our environment(2). I have been persuaded by this mounting body of evidence, my own subjective experience and my observations of others to rely upon the inquiry into my own being as my primary treatment modality.

(Dr. George Solomon of UCLA has compiled an extraordinary collection of 185 postulates from the field of PNI. You can order it from him directly for $25 at: The Fund for PNI, P.O.Box 2875, Malibu, CA 90265-7875. Also see Henry Dreher, The Immune Power Personality (New York: Dutton, 1995).)

The body is not only a biological construction, but a human and cultural one as well. It is necessary to deal with the demands, needs and desires of all formations when we consider healing. Almost every cell in the body is re-created within seven years. In fact, our granulocytes, the first line of defense in the white blood cells, are replaced twice in one day! And the more sophisticated lymphocytes are overhauled every 100-300 days. Biology has revealed to us the impermanence of the self in molecular terms. What organizes and holds together this wildly fluctuating organism, this river of changing cells, desires, perceptions? And what intelligence coordinates the automatic rejuvenation and reparation of the on-going cycle of life and death within us?

When we refer to immune competency, what is it actually? A standard definition includes the idea that this competency is the ability to adapt to change, to mount an appropriate response. Certainly the fluid intelligence of the body possesses the ability to creatively respond and adapt... if we believe in and support that change. The behavioral matrix we refer to as personality has not been constructed as fluidly as the body, nor have we examined its role until recently in as much detail. Are we not able to regulate and change the belief systems and behaviors which can be obstacles for the system to seamlessly continue its dance? The ability of the organism to accomodate physiological changes is inextricabley related to the fluidity and strength of our thinking and behavioral process. Behavioral changes are harder to manage as they are woven into the fabric of our identity in imperceptible ways, yet they are truly important co-factors in disease. Each pattern of behavior comes with its own unique chemistry, its own constellation of neuro-muscular organization, and its own array of perceptual abilities. In this light, it is vital that we teach and practice somatic awareness and creative behavior starting in families and schools.

Our health care systems reflect a Cartesian philosophy, encouraging us to view the body as a machine. Many healing practices in Western culture, whether they are traditional or alternative, perpetuate a paradigm of objectification, dependency and consumerism. We are not taught how to have a relationship with our bodies, how to listen, feel, respond and self-regulate. As a result, many people feel powerless and estranged from their own somatic process and, very often, reliant upon a pill, a doctor or a formula that comes from the outside.

We have also been hypnotized by generations and lifetimes of perceiving the original sin of the body, the unworthiness of the flesh, the culturally sanctioned split between body and spirit. To enter the experience of the bodily self with respect, trust and devotion seems contrary to our spiritual traditions which very often exhort us to be somewhat ascetic, to favor suffering over pleasure, mind over sensation, ideals over flesh. How can we reclaim the original grace of our being and cultivate a renewed sense of selfhood that is based on an intrinsic sense of wholeness in the flesh?

Webster’s defines heal as, to make sound or whole; to patch up; to restore to original purity or integrity. What most of us need to make whole is the unconscious negation of the organism and its expression as a biological entity. This is essential if we are confronted with a disease process, when many of us want to check out and flee our bodies. What is called for, though, is to move in the opposite direction, to deepen our relationship with our body, to seek to understand its intelligence, and to love this container which shapes our spirit and life-force.

In our existential and psychological struggles it is easy to forget that the body is no different from other life forms, that we can turn to biological process for guidance. We are all organisms with our own rhythm, our own cadence, our need to move out, move in, condense, expand, rest and act. To re-establish this connection and once again feel ourselves as part of the cycles of nature is to go beyond our conditioning and start listening to our bodies. The whole notion of listening to the body and acting out of the body’s needs, to advocate for our animal nature, is truly a subversive act as it equalizes the cultural imbalance between the male and female principles, the thinking and the sensing.

Conditions of disease can become confused in our unconscious with issues of unworthiness, guilt, shame and self-loathing. Especially a disease like HIV which can very often become a distinctive reminder of one’s stigmatized "sexual perversity."

(See Walt Odets, In the Shadow of the Epidemic (Durham: Duke University, 1995). A most remarkable treatise which focusses primarily on HIV- gay men and their psychological needs, but speaks to all of us on the "homosexualization of AIDS" and the distressing consequences of homophobia as a co-factor in disease.)

To focus on ridding ourselves of the virus, the basic fault, the fatal flaw of the self very often generates more resistance and antagonism. By extension, we support the inner war rather than promulgate the peace. Where we put our attention, energy flows. In pursuing "aggressive therapy", as many protocols demand, are we declaring war on ourselves? Medicine unconsciously perpetuates the image of disease as "evil", part of the "fatal flaw" of the self that should be extricated by any means possible. An indices of psychological and spiritual maturity is the increased tolerance of anxieties, imperfections and limitations. If we are able to co-exist with the shadow, the imperfection of being human, perhaps we are able to make space for a truer realization of the Self. Does not this same concept apply to biological adaptation?

What is more upsetting to the organism, the presence of HIV or our personal/collective responses to it? We know that CD4 lymphocytes are diminished by the replication of HIV...but we never ask ourselves the question, what in turn is being strengthened? The knowledge that the CD4’s are being depleted generates fear, creating a chain reaction of biochemical changes. The enduring stress of fear - whether conscious or repressed into the unconscious - creates an imbalanced environment in the organism. Our lack of faith in the body is reflected by the scientific view that the wily virus is "mutating", becoming drug-resistant and more elusive to treatment. The "bad thing" is able to change, but what about the adaptation and mutation(or evolution) of the body? What is coming forward in the body to take on the role of the CD4’s?

I think the biggest challenge we have before us as people with HIV is to confront and battle our own fear, not the virus. The virus can become a convenient target with which we mask our other fears of living. Mastering my own fears about the virus, as well as my fears about being openly gay in the world, loving another man, doing the work of Spirit in this life, speaking my truth, living with integrity is a big work. All of these fears can collaborate to make me a potential victim of my own life. Yet to have courage (from the French, to have heart) is to open myself to a larger source of power which moves through me and goes beyond my own skin, and swim with the currents of life. It is hard to move, though, when there are so many internal and external obstacles which invite stasis and holding on. I am challenged in this life right now not so much by HIV but my inability to trust and move forward with grace and ease as I am called to. In fact, HIV is the constant reminder not of itself, but of my own inadequacy in being a warrior of the heart. It is necessary to continually participate in the re-creation of myself by challenging the edges of the habit mind and of the culture which both keep me imprisoned in this limiting identity and, by extension, in this cellular blueprint.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the ammunition of anti-viral herbs is only for short term use, just enough to take some of the overwhelming pressure off of the body so that it can go on a restorative vacation, get out of the conflict long enough to recoup its energy. Western medicine can be used in a similar fashion and very often is. It’s not the antibiotic that makes your infection go away, but the space it gives the body to mount its own defenses.

(See Andrew Weil, MD, Spontaneous Healing (New York: Knopf, 1995) for an MD’s reflections on Western medicine and his adaptations of the system.)

But to continually rely on these drugs is to counteract their temporary usefullness, and potentially distort the natural process of the organism. The continual suppression of symptoms can actually drive the disease process inward to the more vital organs of the body and create more harm. Are we actually weakening the intelligence/adaptability of the body’s field with the excessive use of force against the virus? By constantly barraging the body with man-made medications, are we taxing the ability of the system to adapt to input and thus re-directing energy away from healing?

As Moshe Feldenkrais pointed out in bodywork practice, you don’t go directly to the pain/tension, but you work in the field around it, softening the edges and creating a climate whereby the imprisoned area can relax/trust/open to a new possibility. A similar philosophy prevails in Chinese medicine where we are attempting to enhance the whole field and make it stronger to handle the challenges of disease. So many of our treatment strategies around HIV are based on foreign agents (drugs) creating a change in the body to fight off particular microbes. It's a far easier solution to package and dispense rather than the more empowering approach of drawing upon, supporting and enlarging each individual's own psychic/spiritual/emotional resources.

A basic premise of somatic movement therapy is that when we re-engage with our selves through the body, expand our relationship with the sensing/feeling self, and shift the locus of control from outer dictates to our own somatic center, we awaken the full potential and functioning of the expressive, alive self. We can build and amplify the life-force as a way to prevent the deterioration of the immune system. We do not need to necessarily wait for a diagnosis to awaken and begin the inquiry into the whole self. To "live our dying" now, as Buddhism maintains, is to embrace the impermanence of life and the flux of change which is inherent in healthy biological systems. By increasing the awareness on our selves(psyche) and the body(soma), we are able to "deepen subjectivity, the capacity for real and authentic relatedness, the re-vitalization of the life force, and the change in the mode of self-experiencing from a spatial/appetite-based self to a temporal/here-and-now self."

(Mark Epstein, Thoughts without a Thinker (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), pg. 150. The author is a psychiatrist who makes a wonderful bridge between psychoanalytic theory and Buddhist thought.)

Immune competency in this light can be thought of as empowering the self more than the virus, addressing the needs of the whole self rather than merely focussing on the biological symptom. To awaken to ourselves, to continue to peel away the layers of illusion, repression, and obsolete conditioning that obscure our true nature is not only good for our spiritual growth but also for our health. And by addressing the needs of the whole biopsychosocial self, we need to begin to ask ourselves individually and collectively some of the difficult questions that are easier left unsaid. Why is so much effort going into saving the lives of gay men when we simultaneously deny them the rights of ordinary citizens? What is the role of social structures and systems on the health of the organism? As we begin to see that the boundaries of the immune system extend beyond our own skin, that our individual well-being is intricately related biologically and spiritually to all sentient beings, we must consider how we can all play a role in "strengthening the field" through individual and social action.

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Jamie McHugh.
Photo by Rick Chapman.