Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Seeing the Problem

When my mother was taken to the shock trauma unit with a fractured skull in early June, she had three CAT scans within 24 hours. Knowing the extent of the bleeding in her brain depended on seeing differences. Comparing each scan to determine any changes was the only way for the doctors to ascertain whether the bleeding had stopped. Across from her curtained cubicle I watched an array of screens where doctors studied x-rays of bones, pointing, discussing, drawing their conclusions based on what they saw in the pictures. Their knowledge of how something should look was consciously compared to the condition in the x-ray. Medicine is a triumph of educated visual knowledge.
Advances in medicine have followed advances in imaging technologies. The more we see the better we understand. We can get cameras just about anywhere. Even without high-tech imaging, what makes a doctor good is the power of perception. The bigger the picture, the more elements included and connected to the whole, the clearer the sense of the problem. This is why I appreciate my doctor, Rong Zhang. When I had a serious food-born infection that put me in the hospital for almost a week, she knew what the problem was as soon as she saw me. She said that even before she examined me she could tell from my body language that she would have to admit me. I had all the tests and scans that the specialists in the hospital required, and they speculated on all kinds of other possibilities based on the numbers, but in the end she turned out to be right. A few years before, I left a previous doctor who’d been too focused on isolated cause and effect. She’d looked up the symptom in a book, followed the line across to the other column and wrote a prescription for the drug listed there. When I got the drug home I read through the pages of information on it and noticed it shouldn’t be taken if another symptom was present that I had described in the consultation. Her focus on the narrow complaint filtered out what didn’t fit her limited view of the condition. Her image was oversimplified, not recognizing the body’s big picture as multiple interacting systems. Diet turned out to be the solution.
In relation to our mental and physical being, the idea of single cause and effect ignores the continuous adjustments of our bodies’ efforts to maintain balance. The biological principle of homeostasis refers to the dynamic adjustment for balance that occurs on a continuum throughout our bodies, from the chemical and cellular levels to the way our feelings shift in the course of a conversation as we adjust to the other person’s body language, facial expressions and tone of voice, as well as the words themselves. Adjustment is a primary action of living things and every perception includes the feeling that accompanies the inner shift for balance. Every symptom represents the body’s adjustment to something else. When something feels off in my body, I borrow an idea from Qi Gong to send positive feelings to the ailing part, focusing loving attention on it with thoughts of gratitude for the hard work that organ or system does keeping my body running smoothly. It fits my image of the body as a team. The mind is the coach, cheering the contributing elements of an interconnected whole which shares a common purpose. The widespread image dominating much of modern medicine is something closer to police action, ferreting out deviant numbers, warring with some defective element, isolating a sick part. The brain is just another part that might betray us arbitrarily, not connected or potentially helpful. The enforcing authority is outside the being.
Three years ago I developed a chronic pain in my side, and it kept getting worse. Directing my attention first was whether something in my habitual actions might be afflicting the muscles of that side. After a day or two of self- observation, I discovered that a position I lapsed into after I’d been painting for a while twisted my torso in a way that clearly could be causing it. When I avoided sitting like that, the pain I’d had for several months went away. If a member of our body-team is calling out for help, the coach and other team members show concern, they don’t eradicate the call with force.
Pain is a message, a call for attention, and often, reflecting on the big picture, the visual mind can see the problem.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


Face Knowledge

Watching Wimbleton has offered a wide range of facial expressions to feel inside. That was one of the big attractions when I first started watching tennis. It felt like such a privilege to observe so closely as the camera zoomed in on the face of someone in a pivotal moment. This opportunity to access the attitude toward a significant event felt like it was tuning something powerful inside me. Because we build new circuits to accommodate new experience, I’ve benefited from resonating with the faces of champions. Paul Eckman says we can recognize 10,000 different facial expressions. That’s an incredible spectrum of variation. There are good versions of ferociously determined and bad versions. The best reveal someone at one with their purpose. The expressions I find unpleasant seem dominated by self and something to prove. In a class discussion of beauty one student brought up a television program he’d seen that connected beauty to symmetry. I suggested that symmetry often depends on the purity of emotions beneath it. If there are contradictions or fear beneath the surface, that can twist the features to one side. Feeling more balanced as a person, more focused on a goal without contamination of egotism and the features reflect that inner order.
When we recognize a particular expression it’s because it’s familiar to us. What we notice in the world reflects something we’re trying to understand in ourselves. When I hear people blaming or criticizing someone, I always feel they’re talking about themselves. They know the trait from the inside. It’s not that the label is wrong. But we use what we see in the outside world to illuminate the inner world. What today’s psychologists label “projection” is a human trait that’s been observed by philosophers and writers for thousands of years. Marcus Aurelius said “evil is in that part of us that points to evil.” The I Ching says to look in yourself for the faults you brand in others, and that being a “superior person” depends on the parts of the self one chooses to cultivate. Cultivating your better qualities makes you a better person. Expressions that attract us are leading us to those better qualities. We feel pleasure looking at joy or concentration as we experience the endorphins that are stimulated to encourage us to seek out the positive. What facilitates growth creates pleasure.
My husband has recently gotten into watching Guy Fieri on the Food Network. As he says repeatedly, ”It’s a pleasure to watch him eat.” He has so many version of enjoyment of his food, that it probably adds dimension to our own. We don’t necessarily think about learning from the looks on other’s faces but whether it’s the determination of an athlete or the joy of the beagle that won the big dog show, the range of our own experience is enlarged by witnessing others’ reactions. Facial expressions provide real information about another person’s inner world. When what we see on a face contradicts what a person says about a situation, we tend to believe the face and are thrown into conflict when the other insists on the truth of the verbal statement. Recognizing the importance and persuasiveness of visual knowledge can enhance our ability to understand ourselves and others and stimulate our better selves as we recognize the attitudes that propel us forward.