22 April 2010

Panic in Hipville



I can't concentrate on much of anything except my left hip. The upper left thigh started hurting last week and the pain's gotten steadily worse. I'm try hard to relax mind and body—a non sequitur if ever there was one—during Qigong practice every morning, but to no avail. The hip flexor now pulls when I walk; the left abductor hurts when I lie on that side. When I stand up after sitting too long at the computer, the left gluteal muscles ache.

How do I know these terms? After undergoing four hip replacement surgeries in three years, I'm a walking Gray's Anatomy when it comes to naming the muscles around hip joints.

My hip saga began in February 1991 outside the northern Thai town of Chiang Saen on the afternoon of the first day I'd ever driven a motorbike. Coming into a turn I accidentally accelerated instead of braking, hit a small concrete road barrier and catapulted into a narrow roadside ditch filled with water. Miraculously I only dislocated my right hip and not my non-helmeted head. The month I spent immobilized in traction in the orthopedic ward of the Chiang Rai government hospital catalyzed my love affair with Thailand. The accident itself catalyzed a decade-long process of hip degeneration resulting in arthritis.

Starting around 2002 I developed persistent lower back pain and a reduced range of motion in the left hip. By 2004 Thai doctors counseled hip replacement surgery. A highly recommended Thai surgeon performed a partial replacement on the left hip in May 2005. The standard total hip replacement was unnecessary, he said, since the hip socket was fine. Thanks to a rigorous physical therapy program taught me by Mr. Jun, an incredibly talented young physical therapist, the right hip started feeling more or less normal two months post-op.

In October 2006 the same surgeon performed a similar partial replacement on the ailing right hip. I followed the identical physical therapy regimen but this hip wouldn't heal. When I limped into the doctor's office five months later demanding to know what was wrong, he mumbled how I'd probably be better in a year and practically threw me out. Around the same time the left hip started seizing up.

I ended up spending three months with old friends in the Belgian countryside during the summer of 2007 while a surgeon at a university hospital in Ghent successfully fixed both botched Thai replacements in two separate operations. This hip specialist couldn't believe the Thai doctor hadn't performed total hip replacements because the both joints were completely arthritic. Alas he couldn't repair the torn right abductor muscle— that large muscle along the outer thigh—which the Thai doctor inadvertently slashed using his outdated operating techniques.

Once again I relied on Mr. Jun's exercises to get myself up and walking. By the end of 2007, apart from a slight weakness on the right leg from the torn abductor, my body felt pretty great compared to the previous five years. Instead of being grateful, I believed all those medical travails gave me carte blanche to worry and whinge about the tiniest skeletal-related ache or pain.

Beginning with our first session in March 2009, Sifu H discounted my every complaint about hips or other body parts. "The pain's in your mind," he asserted back then and still reiterates with mantra-like regularity whenever I present him with a new symptom. I used to burst into tears whenever he said that and sobbingly insist he couldn't possibly understand my fear that both hips might fail again. "See the reality," he dispassionately counseled.

At the end of each session with Sifu H I actually do see the reality. Until now, however, I've simply refused to acknowledge it. The reality is that four month-long sessions of learning Qigong and a daily home practice have diminished or eliminated all the physical ailments I presented with in March 2009. Ditto for the other minor aches and pains I created for myself back home by forcing instead of relaxing my body during certain moves.

Sifu H constantly reminds me that power doesn't arise from brute force. Learning how to relax using the breath and how to move from the dan tian lets me perform powerful movements without yanking or thrusting. Instead of relying on medication, massage or acupuncture, my own energy has gradually healed one bunion, two achy shoulders, and a swollen and clicking thumb joint. Not to mention how it's cleared years' worth of stress stuck in those multi-operated hips.

It's taken almost a week to write this post. I began by attempting to justify whinging about the latest hip-related symptom and conclude by admitting that none of the evidence supports my panicky doom and gloom hypothesis. I've also officially outed a dirty little secret to myself and anyone else who reads this post. To whit: I've been health-obsessed—a polite euphemism for a hypochondriac—for decades. Never loving myself enough, I try to elicit caring and sympathy from others by complaining.

Another important reality is that while four hip operations aren't pleasant, many people suffer far more serious and life-threatening conditions with humor, strength and equanimity instead of constant moaning. My biggest problem is not an aching hip but a hyper-active mind that delights in concocting scenarios filled with dire outcomes. Mental maladies don't heal as quickly as  physical ones, but acknowledging them is half the battle.

Being grateful promotes health and happiness. Whinging creates stress which in turn weakens the immune system. So herewith some hippy gratitudes:

•  For years I hated the Thai surgeon for being an incompetent blowhard  and a liar. Now I'm grateful to him for screwing up. Even if he'd performed total hip replacements on both hips, I know his antiquated operating techniques wouldn't have compared to the Belgian specialist's.

•  I railed against the Thai hospital for plying me with antibiotics during and after both surgeries. When I developed horrible sinusitis after both operations, they prescribed even more. Now I'm grateful to those months of antibiotics which wiped out my immune system and resulted in systemic candida. Without being so ill I'd never have radically changed my diet nor discovered Sifu H.



Oh, and that pesky left hip still aches, but less so than before. Or perhaps it aches as much as before but I've stopped worrying about it.

15 April 2010

DWBH


Here's the gist of an argument Transforming Jennifer and Resistant Jennifer have every morning around 5:30 a.m.

RJ:  [Stretching.] Let's stay in bed. Who cares about missing one day of Qigong practice? We can always do it again tomorrow.
TJ:  [Looking at the clock and getting out of bed.] No way. I'm getting up now. The exercises always give me energy and a positive outlook for the day.
RJ:  Aw c'mon! It's comfortable here and we can lay about reading the latest issue of [New Yorker, Vanity Fair, whatever].
TJ:  No! I can read later. If I don't start Qigong now there won't be enough time to shower before Noi comes at 8:45 (on Mon, Wed., Fri.). Besides the living room'll be too hot soon.
RJ:  Puh-lease! Who cares if we miss one measly day?
TJ:  I care. You don't notice all the positive changes in me since I started Qigong. It's only the best thing I've ever done for myself! I'm finally becoming mentally and physically healthy.
RJ:  Oh spare me! If you were so mentally healthy we wouldn't even be having this conversation! [Sighs.] Well as long as we're up, let's do something constructive like [showering, washing, nail clipping, hair cutting, going online, eating breakfast].
TJ:  Give it a rest! That's petty stuff I can do anytime. First comes Qigong. Now get your butt to the living room!

Internal tugs of war between opposing mindsets are longstanding and instinctual behaviors for me and, I imagine, for other people too. I'm not talking about multiple personalities (dissociative identity disorder in contemporary therapy parlance), but merely the incredible diversity that comprises each of us.

I learned something about the cast of characters inside my personality one Christmastime in Thailand during late 1990s. I was very depressed and contacted Ken Fox, a wonderful former therapist and friend in California who via email taught me a technique called Voice Dialogue. It's designed to bring the different aspects of our psyche into more balance. With Ken's caring online encouragement, I discovered The Writer, The Critic, Little Jennifer, Big Jennifer, etc. Each morning I'd sit down and hand write the "conversation" that took place between one of the characters and my Objective Self. (That's the subconscious me—or was it the ├╝ber conscious me, I forget—that objectively understands the Real Jennifer.)

Voice Dialogue got me over that particular episode but I soon gave up doing it, like I abandoned all the other mind-centric therapies I've dabbled in over the years. I'd always feel better for a while until my non-stop worrywart mind found another opportunity to beat up on me again. I hated feeling like such a loser on the inside but like any other addiction it was a familiar and somehow comforting state. And it took far less effort to stay stuck in a rut than to change.

RJ:  My, my. Isn't this just fascinating. I bet everyone's absolutely enthralled with all your self-centered navel gazing.
TJ:  Jeez. Don't you ever give up? Why are you still hanging around yammering and trying to undermine my progress?
RJ:  I've grown accustomed to your face, you almost make my day begin.
TJ:  Until I started doing Qigong daily, I could never get past your mental chatter and learn how to love or accept myself.
RJ:  Well just cry me a river.
TJ:  Why am I arguing with you? I should be grateful. Every morning you give me yet another opportunity to overcome your relentless negativity and clear my mind using the Qigong movements and the breathing.
RJ:  Trust me, you'll abandon this too.
TJ:  Instead of spouting corny lyrics or making your standard doom and gloom prognostications, listen to the lyrics of DWBH. Sifu H recommended it back when you could still transform my every molehill into a mountain. You think it's easy to not worry and be happy? Why don't YOU try it then. Not worrying so much and being happier helps me transform your negativity into acceptance! If Ken Fox were still alive, he'd be cheering me on with one of his big gins and a heartfelt "Yippeeee!"

10 April 2010

The Menace of the Calculating Mind


According to Sifu H, I've got a very calculating mind. Indeed he says it's the biggest obstacle to unlocking all those creative and healing abilities he swears I possess. During every session he relentlessly points out the many instances of my calculating mind in action.

Being forced to confront how my overactive mind permeates — and pollutes — so many interactions with myself and others isn't a feel-good experience. I always reacted defensively to Sifu H's comments — which I inevitably perceived as criticisms — by arguing, getting angry or bursting into tears. "I'm not criticizing you," he'd patiently assure me. "I'm teaching you."

I may be incredibly resistant to facing my inner demons but I'm also extremely diligent and deeply want to heal. Especially because Sifu H says that as people age, their negative energy only intensifies. Unless I start seriously dealing with these issues now, he warned, my dysfunctional coping mechanisms would only worsen.

Little by little I'm recognizing how my hyperactive mind works to protect me by attempting to control this inherently uncontrollable condition called life. It does this by treating life as a mathematical equation. It constantly weighs the pros and cons of every situation and evaluates potential outcomes of various courses of action. IF I pay, say, wear, achieve, think, work, perform X, THEN the logical outcome will be Y.

Some examples:
• If I am [a good writer], then I will receive [money/respect/travel] and feel [important]
• If I am [thin, funkily dressed], then I will receive [praise, a boyfriend] and feel [loved]
• If I am [a good Qigong student], then I will receive [praise from my teacher] and feel [special]
• If people are [nice to me], then I must be [a great person] and I feel [important]
• If people are [mean/critical], then I must be [a terrible person] and I feel [miserable/a failure]


Terrified the world would fall apart if it relinquishes control, my calculating mind never allowed me to simply relax and accept the realities of life, warts and all. Unconsciously I assumed the worst in most situations. To orient myself in time and space, my mind feverishly planned, judged, compared, analyzed, criticized, looked for hidden meanings. With such a mindset, no wonder I had such trouble unconditionally loving, trusting or giving to others.

Over the decades I've tried countless classic and arcane therapies. Yet only Qigong Psychoanalysis (my pet name for the Qigong practice and the intense conversations with Sifu H) has broken through the thick armor shielding me from my true self. What a joy to jettison so many decades' worth of inappropriate and ultimately self-abusive behavior patterns!

07 April 2010

Q-tips

This is only the eighth post and already a couple of readers have asked me to explain more about Qigong. My newly renascent writing muse completely balks at the idea of synthesizing pages of internet research on Qigong into interesting Jennifer-speak. It's just too reminiscent of when the candida-brain muse and I stared at 40+ typewritten pages of interview notes and internet research for an entire month in 2008 while trying—and failing—to produce a publishable magazine article about Penang.

Besides, this blog is a chronicle of one person's Qigong journey, not a bunch of essays on the practice itself. Last year Sifu H gave me several books on Buddhist-related topics, but none about Qigong. I completely trust his sense of when I'm ready to learn something new and reckon he's got his reasons for not going into it right now.

While looking for an image of the two Chinese characters for Qi gong (roughly translated as energy work), I found this overview and history which pretty accurately describe the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of the practice. Some, but not all, the FAQs are relevant too.

All that said, from our first day together in March 2009, Sifu H conveyed tons of useful Qigong tips which I dutifully tried to record. I wanted to capture his every word, but he insisted that until I  experienced Qigong in my body, writing words was a waste of time.

"The mind is not dependable on," is a typical Sifu statement. And as usual he's right. Paging through my little notebook to pick out salient tips for this post, I'm shocked at how often he repeated the basic tenets and how quickly I completely forgot them. "Forget the words," he'd say when I tried to bring out my digital recorder. "You can't tape record a feeling or how to feel it!" I've got plenty more Sifu-isms for other posts.

Relaxing = Letting Go ≠ Floppy
This sounds deceptively simple but even now I still struggle to understand that Qigong strength comes through letting go, not tensing or forcing.

Body parts to relax
This list doesn't include many other body parts I've discovered since those early days. Back then these were more than enough for my tense, gym-exercised body and frenetically busy mind to handle:

• eyes • neck • shoulders • elbows • coccyx • soles of feet • hips • knees •  groin • hands • wrists •  fingers. And the most crucial body part of all...... • mind.


Body Can Release Mind
Mind Cannot Release Body
•  Tight strong muscles = mind (Sifu H is totally against gym training)
•  Dynamic energetic limbs = body

•  Mind = physical tension
•  Mind = control

•  Pumped up body = brute strength
•  Qi-ful body = quiet force
•  Qi generates its own energy

•  Pain arises from mental tension
•  Mental tension arises from fear, desire for perfection

• Trust: my body, myself, my teacher

•  The mind commands (the GENERAL)
•  Dan tian executes (the CAPTAIN)
   (Dan tian is the region in the lower abdomen below the navel where Qi is cultivated and stored.)
•   Arms and legs are SERGEANTS
•  Captain can't execute the command if the mind won't let go
•  Breath can release the mind.

•  Trust the energy in the dan tian. Let it guide the body.
•  Energy moves body, not vice versa!
•  Energy channels regenerate.
•  Like a stream, energy finds its way
•  Body decays; energy does not

05 April 2010

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Good:
Yesterday I gave birth to a blog about my personal transformation through learning Qigong. Not bad for a blocked writer who's barely written anything coherent for nearly two years.

The Bad:
Today I woke up with a severe case of postpartum depression. No sooner do I achieve something positive that I'm proud of, negativity demons start barraging me with a litany of criticisms:
•  All that good writing was a temporary fluke.
•  There's nothing more to write about; you've shot your wad.
•  How boring to post different versions of essentially the same message, i.e. that you now respond to situations in new and positive ways.
•  You're not demonstrating HOW Qigong is changing you. This blog is a huge time waster that cannot possibly help anyone else.

And in case I wasn't sufficiently demoralized, the demons iced their negativity cake with the same cosmic questions that for decades have dragged me down into a quagmire of self-criticism and self-pity:
•  So what?
•  What's the point?
•  Who cares anyhow?

In spite of all this negative mental chatter, I got up early as I do every morning and did an hour of Qigong. I showered, breakfasted and, wonder of wonders, sat down to write! Outing my demons to the world isn't half as much fun as talking about formerly vicious dogs licking me, but it's probably just as integral to the healing process.


The Ugly:
 In Why QFN? I wrote that this blog was only for me and I didn't care what anyone thought about it. No sooner did I take the blog live than a friend wondered why I'd put up such an unflattering passport photo in Screws and Snaps. Especially when he knew I had tons of better ones I could have used. (He probably just looked at the picture without reading the post.)

Why indeed? Posting the photo represented a half-hearted attempt to embrace the essential human condition of decay and death. Without the tender ministrations of Photoshop, cheap studio lighting and camera flashes bring out the worst in any subject, even a young hottie. And for a 62 year-old with pretensions of looking as young as possible, the photo highlighted the grim reality far too well. Terrified the entire world would see the "real" me, I deleted the offending passport photo and inserted an innocuous snapshot of an earring.

If I can ignore the constant harping of my longstanding negativity demons and get on with my life, embracing decay and death should be a piece of cake. Gulp. So to support my progress in letting go of old paradigms and accepting new ones, here's that pesky passport photo along with another more flattering head shot. Both were taken in mid March.