This story is long overdue in being told. It’s one of the most powerful biohacks I’ve ever benefited from. One reason I hadn’t shared it yet is that I wanted this blog to focus not on treating conditions, but on biohacks that the vast majority of the population could benefit from. However, I think a lot of people out there are suffering from similar ailments and could benefit from a similar treatment that I employed, so I feel compelled to share this.
Back in the Spring of 2006, I was in my first year of the physics PhD program at UCSB. I had entered pretty gung-ho and optimistic. I was trying to focus my PhD on something that was both interesting to me and could be developed into a useful technology. So I started working in a group focusing on some basic physics that the professor believed would have applicability in nanotech.
As the year wore on, I became frustrated that the research didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I was essentially doing chemistry, not really what I had in mind when I entered the physics program, and was having fundamental problems with a synthesis that neither me nor my advisor was well-equipped to resolve. I was working essentially on my own in a lab, repeatedly doing tedious procedures, making small tweaks every time, none of which were producing promising results. I was also realizing that I just fundamentally disliked doing lab work. I started to feel a bit like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill again and again, to no avail. I thought about quitting, but was rather averse to doing so. I was the type that tended to grin, bear it, and try to power through; at least for the things I thought were core to what I was about, and physics qualified as that at that the time.
Sometime in the Spring, I started to develop symptoms of pain in my hands and fingers. It seemed to get especially aggravated after doing a few hours of data analysis on the computer. At first, I just ignored it and pressed on. But it started to become clear that it wasn’t going to go away on its own and was getting worse. I began to worry about where this was headed, so I sought medical help.
The medical system diagnosed me with a repetitive strain injury
(RSI), and prescribed some basic anti-inflammatories, temporary cessation of activities that aggravated symptoms, and physical therapy. The PT seemed to be premised on the notion that perhaps my posture was contributing to the situation, so focused on improving that through stretches and exercises. I followed their regime for about 6-8 weeks, I can’t remember exactly. I had essentially zero improvement in my symptoms, although things weren’t getting worse either.
I became somewhat more desperate (or shall we say motivated) at this point, with notions going through my head of never being able to do computer work again, of living disabled, etc. It also occurred to me how absurd it was to be having these symptoms from 3-4 hours of moderate computer use per day, when at times in the past (*ahem* Ultima Online Summer 1999 *ahem*) I had done ~10 hours of more intense usage a day without problems. These two things led me to aggressively seek out research on my condition and alternative explanations and therapies.
I first tried some qigong, which seemed relaxing and mildly helpful. More important though was becoming that type of patient who goes on Google, mouse in hand, and won’t rest until he finds plausible diagnoses and solutions to his health issues. This led me pretty quickly to the work of Dr. Sarno.
Sarno had spent most of his career treating patients with neck, shoulder, and back pain. He was at first using standard methodology of trying to treat any injuries or structural issues that may have been causing the pain. But he noticed that a lot of his patients weren’t getting any better. He also noticed that many had some of the following characteristics: hardworking, conscientious, compulsive, or perfectionist. There are a lot more details to his story (which I encourage you to read about
), but eventually he developed the notion that in a lot of the cases he was seeing, the chronic pain could be primarily caused by some unconscious frustration or rage associated with these personality characteristics and life circumstances. This is not to say that the pain is “all in their heads,” but rather that the mind is exerting an influence on the body in such a way that pain is a result. This could include a physical influence, like the narrowing of blood vessels, which the nervous system is quite empowered to do. He called the type of pain-manifesting mind-body disease that he was seeing Tension Myositis Syndrome
After reading Sarno, I didn’t really accept the idea that I was in any way causing my symptoms. That seemed too ludicrous. But it did open me to the potential power of the mind’s ability to affect the body. It’s interesting how much resistance you can get to this idea when talking to hard-headed reductionists. It sounds woo to them and outside of the Western medicine paradigm. Yet a basic powerful example exists right in front of our noses that we have all experienced at many points in our lives: How stress/nerves/anxiety/fear can manifest very obvious physical symptoms in our gut. So. . .if the mind can affect the body so profoundly in that particular way, then why not in a myriad of other ways? Has Western medicine mapped and charted out all of these interactions in detail? (No, it hasn’t)
So, what I came away from Sarno with was a lot of evidence that the mind can have a much bigger influence than I had realized on what might seem to be purely physical symptoms like pain. While I had initially been steering my own boat in my line of research, at the time my symptoms arose, it was definitely the case that I simply felt trapped. My heart wasn’t in my work whatsoever. Even though I couldn’t accept the notion that my mind’s state might be causing my symptoms, I could accept the idea that by changing the state of my mind I might be able to reduce that pain. Another important piece to the puzzle was that I had at some point figured out that soaking my hands in warm water drastically alleviated any pain that I was experiencing. That shifted my mental model of my condition from *my hands are internally damaged* to *my nervous system and/or circulatory system is functioning in such a way that pain arises in my hands.* The latter seemed a lot more plausible to influence with the mind. I don’t advise using the below method to treat a broken bone!
So what I ended up doing that was so effective was actually not something prescribed by Sarno, but definitely inspired by him. I decided that if my mind was going to improve the circulation/nervous activity in my hands, then it first had to be intimately familiar with what was actually going on there. I also was more primed to dealing with the problematic emotional and psychological issues of my life situation. So I started meditations that had basically two components:
- Complete unconditional compassion, empathy, and love, for myself and my hands in particular, as if they were their own entity.
- Sensitizing myself to what was going on in my hands. I would just tune into all the sensations there and let that become my entire universe. The technique is not so much to try to exclude everything else, but instead to take an immense interest in the detailed experience present in that part of the body, with the aim of bringing conscious awareness to it. Comprehend it on the level of direct experience, in the here and now, as opposed to thinking of narrative stories about it.
When I had developed sufficient sensitivity, I started to feel like I had the capacity to actually willfully cause the positive energy of the compassion and love to flow directly into my hands. I repurposed all of the suffering, stress and angst that had built up over the course of the condition. I used that energy to generate an intense fervor of unconditional love and a will to get better and projected that down through my arms and into my hands.
In addition to these intensive meditation sessions, I also started a throughout-the-day practice of being sensitized to my hands. I started to notice that I was very clearly displacing mental and emotional stress down into my hands, just as some of us, when stressed, sit in hunched over postures and collect tension in the upper back and traps. It seemed to me that this must have been going on subconsciously for quite some time. The only thing that was different now was that I had brought conscious awareness to it. With my new-found sensitivity, I was simply able to stop the flow of stress, just as you can stop scratching an itch after you notice that you are doing so.
This produced profound results. After 6-8 weeks of essentially no progress, I was 90% better within 1 week. I completely recovered not much later, with no lasting ill effects whatsoever. About two weeks after beginning this methodology, I was spending long hours coding for a computer science class with no problems and with suboptimal ergonomics to boot.
If you think that this technique might be useful to you and want to try it, I have to stress several things that I think are important towards it working:
- It helps to really be motivated. The intensity of my suffering was crucial to generating the will to overcome it and the discipline to focus single-mindedly on the sensations in my hands. You might still succeed without as high motivation as I had, but it might take longer. Have some patience.
- It helps to have every part of you onboard. It might be surprising, but it’s true that many of us have parts of our minds that are holding us back. Maybe some part is scared of success, or some part believes that we deserve to suffer or aren’t good enough or are cursed by witches or whatever. Wipe the slate. Decide that the only thing that matters right now is getting better. Get your entire mind, subconscious, and emotional framework 100% dedicated to your recovery and well-being.
- It might also help to get out of your typical environment and go to a more conducive one. Some examples might be back home to your family (if that’s a loving place for you) or out into nature.
I’ll just add that if you are already a meditator, especially if you are well-trained in focusing in on sensations in the body and paying mindful attention to them, then you are much better equipped to use this technique than I was when I started. Then again, such people are much less likely to find themselves in this situation in the first place ;). This experience had a lot to do with launching my own serious meditation and mindfulness practice, although it wasn’t immediate after this. This just immensely opened me to the potential power and subtlety of the mind and the potential to improve our well-being by tuning it with meditation.
If you have tried something similar to this with good results, please leave a comment!