How does it feel?

Remarrying body and mind

Our post-enlightenment belief system is built on pure materialism. It must tear before consciousness can be put to work to heal.

by Philip Hall

What is the experience of dying? Well, the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol) describes it. You can imagine monks told monks, as they were dying, all about it. Then monks made a collection of these descriptions. Then there were sets of observations written down making value judgements about better or worse deaths.

When the dying person is finally communicating his or her most private feelings, do not interrupt, deny, or diminish what the person is saying. The terminally ill or dying are in the most vulnerable situation of their lives, and you will need all your skill and resources of sensitivity, and warmth, and loving compassion to enable them to reveal themselves. Learn to listen, and learn to receive in silence: an open, calm silence that makes the other person feel accepted. Be as relaxed as you can, be at ease; sit there with your dying friend or relative as if you had nothing more important or enjoyable to do.


A dying person most needs to be shown as unconditional a love as possible, released from all expectations. Don’t think you have to be an expert in any way. Be natural, be yourself, be a true friend, and the dying person will be reassured that you are really with them, communicating with them simply and as an equal, as one human being to another.


It is essential that we care enough to try, and that we reassure that person that whatever he or she may be feeling, whatever his or her frustration and anger, it is normal. Dying will bring out many repressed emotions: sadness or numbness or guilt, or even jealousy of those who are still well. Help the person not to repress these emotions when they rise. Be with the person as the waves of pain and grief break; with acceptance, time, and patient understanding, the emotions slowly subside and return the dying person to that ground of serenity, calm, and sanity that is most deeply and truly theirs.


Don’t try to be too wise; don’t always try to search for something profound to say. You don’t have to do or say anything to make things better. Just be there as fully as you can. And if you are feeling a lot of anxiety and fear, and don’t know what to do, admit that openly to the dying person and ask his or her help. This honesty will bring you and the dying person closer together, and help in opening up a freer communication. Sometimes the dying know far better than we how they can be helped, and we need to know how to draw on their wisdom and let them give to us what they know.

Sogyal Rinpoche The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying


Monks wrote tracts on the similarities and differences in the perceptions of people who were dying. Such techniques came naturally to these expert meditators who were working within a long tradition – especially when these experts were backed up by libraries full of similar hand written observations.

Traditional medicine is the product of close, focused attention and awareness of what happens to the body from the inside.


There were also a few scholars in the past who seemed to have developed a uniquely enhanced control over their bodies. Perhaps a modernexample is Wim Hoff, The Iceman, or Herbert Nitsch The Deepest Man on Earth. Some people have the capacity to influence their own autonomic systems, and some have possessed regenerative power by using their awareness and their minds. An advanced technique they used involved becoming more aware of the autonomic nervous system. They used this awareness and focused their informed intention in order to improve health. The methods that they implemented effectively derived from a minimum of roughly nine years of systematic advanced meditation and hard study. In years, if not in its nature, this is comparable to the training a modern doctor undergoes.


A lot of traditional Chinese and Indian medicine arises out of meditation and introspection and the codification of experience. Traditional medicine is the product of close, focused attention and awareness of what happens to the body from the inside. How does it feel? This role of perception and awareness is vastly more important in traditional medicine, the medical practices of 100,000 years, than it is in modern medicine. For millennia, in traditional medicine, a language of metaphor was developed and used systematically and methodically in order to understand and influence health.


This metaphorical language invoked the elements and images of flowing heat and cold, wet and dry, light and darkness. The metaphors were a codification of the perception of bodily and mental experience; Chinese trophology, for example, classifies food according to the experts’ subjective perception of its effect. For the traditional Chinese doctors, food was medicine and medicine was food. The meridians were identified by sensing them, not by randomly pricking the body.


Ding Fuzi, Fresh Fruit


What is termed psychosomatic healing is a product of the intervention of the consciousness into helping overcome illness. But to call something psychosomatic is mere word chaff. The additional, and gratuitous, deduction is that it is an unconscious belief that triggers psychosomatic healing.

For the traditional Chinese doctors, food was medicine and medicine was food.

But with psychosomatic healing (toxic positivity aside) no healing powers are attributed to consciousness itself by medicine; instead the healing is supposed to be the by-product of a successful self deceit. We must ask the question. Why does the placebo take the shape of a pill? How odd that instead of taking an active conscious role in our own cure, we must ascribe it to an external agent. It is a serious cultural failure when we cannot admit our own conscious agency in healing.


Downplaying the role of subjective awareness in healing is very strange when you consider that all pain and illness is experienced; when you consider that the reason doctors and scientists attempt to cure people is to remove not only the physical causes of discomfort, but the experience of them.


Pills, photo, from Wikipedia


Many of the magical systems of the west, and the self-help tradition that derives partly from them, have developed around ideas of ritual. They have borrowed soundbites in translation from eastern traditions. The magical techniques require ritual because to live in a social reality is to live in a hypnogogic state and ritual disperses it a little. Unfortunately, it does so by creating an alternative hypnogogic state. One only has to think of the way people under hypnosis or in religious ceremonies can sometimes convince their bodies to ignore pain.

It is a serious cultural failure when we cannot admit our own conscious agency in healing.


Psychotropic drugs might also enhance the role of consciousness in healing. The idea is that psilocybin and its derivatives and relatives free the mind from social conditioning, allowing us to see the world in the raw, without that social conditioning; one has to shove one’s head under water sometimes in order to see the fishes. Still, intoxication is a high price to pay for acquiring questionable insights. All this thrashing about trying to engage our conscious minds in healing inside a culture convinced of mindlessness, all the staring at flashing images of the brain on a screen seems rather desperate. This is not the path to a happy reconciliation between mind and body.


The use of anachronistic, arbitrary, rituals, unanchored and disordering, becomes necessary in societies where the subjective experience of illness and social malaise is forced to take a back seat. People who are lost in subjectivity and alienated by a world that only validates the material hold on to guttering flames of spirituality. They try desperately to shield these little flames from being blown out by what passes for reason, and by the temptation to thoughtless conformity. We are social animals, so we conform.


Tarkovsy’s Nostalghia, the guttering flames of ‘spirituality’


There is no tradition of internal alchemy, or profound understanding of the psychosomatic effect in western medicine. The traditional understanding of the effect of the mind on the body has almost been lost in Europe. Bright hospital lights, shiny scalpels, whirring machines that look at your bones, and bitter medicines are very convincing. These are all reinforcing and reassuring props. They play the part, like the thick walls and marble floors of a bank. Money is real, and we all live by it. But money is also, like the accoutrements of a hospital and pills, a cypher.

Pain and discomfort are always experienced subjectively. Scanning, cutting, dosing and vaccinating can solve or prevent the problem. But some diseases like diabetes, cancer, pancreatic failure and many other conditions can come about and are exacerbated by our actions and attitudes.

The alleviation of many health conditions, their prevention and perhaps, in some cases, even their cure, lies also in the development of an active subjectivity; in a post-post enlightenment remarriage between bodies and minds.