When May comes around every year, I celebrate a private anniversary. Way back in May 2001, my life took a different turn when, together with my husband, we set about publishing this very special magazine.
Even back then, NOVA had become something of an icon in Western Australia since its launch in March 1994. So we knew it came with a big responsibility and much joy and I can't really believe how much change it has brought into our lives in the intervening 12 years. And what momentous years they have been on the world stage.
Just a few months later, after our own launch issue on the theme of Simplicity in July, the terrible events of 9/11 changed our world irrevocably. My own world was changing too as my mother lay suddenly, and critically, ill in hospital. I grieved on many levels - and NOVA was my salvation.
To be surrounded by people who cared and who weren't afraid to show it, was balm to my soul. And there were others close at hand whose strength in the face of the world's loss of innocence gave me the courage I needed, and empowered us all. That's the reality of the holistic community and such qualities really come to the fore, I believe, when the chips are down or when the world seems to be changing at a breakneck pace.
Once again, just this week, the US has endured another terrible blow with the bombings at the Boston Marathon, an event that stirred those memories of 9/11. We number many Americans among our readers online and we send our heartfelt wishes to you and hope this wound heals soon.
We all know the extraordinary ways our lives are changing - just look around a cafe and count the smart phones for starters. It's an essential extra guest or four at any table! And Facebook hadn't even been thought of back then, let alone reached the stage of overfamiliarity! Our climate has changed in ways we'd rather not think about, we've endured a GFC which lingers still, those grand old broadsheets that flapped about in the wind are virtually extinct.
But there's also so much that's been good - same sex marriage is now widely accepted and New Zealand's embrace of it, celebrated in their parliament with a Maori love song, leaves us Aussies in their wake. Kids aspire to amazingly exciting careers that didn't exist 10 years ago, the world of communication - my world - is making quantum leaps. It's a fantastic journey so let's enjoy it.
We have great advice once again this month from our regular contributors and some new faces as well. A stalwart of the shamanic teaching scene in Australia, Rafael Locke, shows us that this ancient practice is also evolving to meet the needs of our modern society; Andrew Harvey who wrote for us on Rumi last month, introduces us to that challenging lady, the Black Madonna; we learn how to sleep better with the calming words of Olivier LeJus; and Peter Dingle suggests all we need is a good laugh. Great advice. Have an upbeat month in May!
The Best Cure
Having a good laugh is seriously underrated but so good for us, says public health advocate Peter Dingle PhD
"A clown is like an aspirin, only he works twice as fast." ~ Groucho Marx
Laughter really is the best medicine. Humour and laughter are integral to the social, physiological and biochemical heath of all humans.
Unfortunately, as we age we lose our humour and forget to laugh. We tend to get more serious and forget a lot of the lightness in life and get bogged down. On average, children laugh 400 times a day, and adults only laugh 15 times a day. And yet it is so good for us. Humour is associated not only fun but also with good physical health, and with superior psychological and social adjustment.
The benefits of humour include:
If the benefits of laughter could be bottled, they would sell for millions of dollars. Laughter has dramatic effects on decreasing stress and improving a sense of well being. And, interestingly enough, your display of happiness benefits the people around you. Even a big, fake smile can make you feel better because it will still cause chemicals associated with feeling good to flow through your bloodstream and nervous system. Laughter breaks the ice, bonds us, generates good will and dampens hostility and aggression. Humorous events provide important bonding experiences between people in close relationships. Laughter as a relief from tension results when people laugh after a mentally or physically tense time has been relieved; the degree of this tension determines the "depth" of the laughter. When a situation that causes tension turns out to be harmless or mildly amusing, laughter accompanied by a switch from the sympathetic nerves to parasympathetic nerves of the autonomic nervous system occurs. This is important for good health and as a social lubricant, lifting spirits and encouraging smooth communication and cordial relations. As humour also improves psychological well being by allowing the release of emotional tension, humour helps us cope with depression and anxiety.
A major biochemical effect that results from laughter is a reduction of concentrations of dopamine, adrenaline and cortisol associated with stress response. This represents a reversal of the classic physiological changes that occur during stress. Laughter may also release endorphins, which may help reduce pain. One study found that laughter reduces anxiety and lifts mood, and that its effects are comparable to or possibly stronger than a bout of exercise of similar duration.
Research at Stanford University demonstrated that the simple act of smiling and laughing provides some of the same benefits as exercise. Perhaps we can liken it to a form of internal jogging.
Laughter is a motor reflex that requires the coordinated movement of 15 facial muscles and a change in the normal breathing pattern. Laughter increases blood supply just enough to provide our tissues with increased oxygen. During laughter, muscles in the head, neck, chest and pelvis tense and relax in a way that reduces stress, keeping the muscles limber and allowing them to relax more readily. That doesn't mean you can stop exercising, just add laughter to your exercise regime - something they forgot in 'The Biggest Loser'.
Humour also increases people's tolerance for higher levels of physical discomfort. In his book Anatomy of an Illness, Norman Cousins wrote about having been diagnosed with a debilitating and progressive disease that had made him bedridden with pain and stiffness. Once the specialists said there was nothing that could be done for him, Cousins decided to take things into his own hands. He rented a hotel room where he watched funny programs including Candid Camera and The Marx Brothers. He found that a good belly laugh gave him up to four hours of pain relief. Later, he supplemented this approach with Vitamin C and virtually cured the disease. He was working within a few weeks of beginning his unorthodox treatments. Millions of people have read his book and applied his technique. In a survey of 53 chronic cancer patients testing self initiation intervention, they rated laughter as the most effective therapy. The use of humour directly as a health intervention is becoming common practice in hospitals, where clowns use visual and verbal humour to help in the healing process.
When we laugh it relaxes the body and reduces the flow of stress hormones. When stress hormones are secreted, the heart rate increases and more blood flows to muscles. Laughter negates this process and tells the body to relax. Following laughter, the body produces proteins, which stops bacteria and other germs from getting into our lungs. It also strengthens your stomach, face, leg and back muscles. Laughter will increase the release of endorphins into the bloodstream, with resultant pain relief and euphoria. Laughter also disrupts the normal cyclic breathing pattern, increasing ventilation and accelerating exchange of residual air, which enhances blood oxygen levels.
In some hospital intensive care units, bone marrow transplant units, emergency rooms and other acute facilities, clowns are used to entertain child patients and make them laugh. The journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics published a study of the effect of clowns on the anxiety level of children about to receive anaesthesia prior to surgery, and the stress levels of patients' parents. Research concluded that both the parents and the children were significantly less anxious during the administration of anaesthetic as a result of the laughter.
Laughter has been found to help patients with chronic respiratory conditions, such as emphysema, by aiding ventilation and clearing mucus plugs. Therapists find laughter more readily accepted than conventional therapy as patients preferred laughter and joking more than traditional aggressive treatments. Laughter and humour also have major effects on the immune system. In one study, people with a poor sense of humour were found to have a greater suppression of immune function in response to stress. Laughter stimulates the release of certain neurotransmitters called catecholamines, which raise alertness and mental functioning. It increases the concentration of antibodies in the bloodstream, protecting the body and making it more resistant to infection and disease.
A study was conducted involving 52 male subjects watching a 60 minute humorous video. The activity of natural killer cells, which assist in immune surveillance and cancer prevention, was found to be elevated in the subjects for at least 12 hours after watching the video. Other studies have found many other cancer fighting components of the immune system stimulated after bouts of laughter.
One study found blood sugar levels to be lower in both those affected by Type 2 diabetes and those without the disease when exposed to a 40 minute comedy show. This study correlates with a similar study in Japan, which observed significant drops in blood sugar levels in diabetics on days when they laughed.
In the business world, the main benefits of humour include increasing motivation, enabling learning and problem solving and promoting personal survival. Humour is associated with the limbic system, which functions in motivation and emotional behaviours in humans. Humour is also essential to health and wellbeing, as well as productivity and achieving outcomes in a business environment. It does this through stress relief, relationship building, and enhanced managerial communication and effectiveness. Humour and laughter also produce beneficial biochemical changes in the central nervous system. Humour has been associated with improved ageing through improved physical, mental and social health. So go out and laugh. It's time to stop being serious and have some fun. I have the biggest belly laughs when I play with Sienna, my 20 month old granddaughter, or watch our cat or dog play. Other things you can do include buying a joke book and learning a few jokes a night. Then share it with your friends. Even badly told jokes can be funny. Watch some funny movies. I love reruns of Candid Camera and The Big Bang Theory. Make time to have fun and muck around, to play. Fun is underrated. It's the source of much of our joy in life. One look at children at play is enough to confirm this. Walk around your workplace or home with a big, big smile and check out the reaction of others.
"A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor's book." ~ Irish Proverb
DISCLAIMER: Dr Peter Dingle is a researcher, educator and public health advocate. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor.
The New Shamanic Journey
Until the 1960s in the Western world, the topic of shamanism was either ignored or regarded as unworthy of serious attention. However, with the growth of new and radical ideas about health and healing through the holistic health movement, riding on the wave of the broad counter culture, professional interest began to change.
Until that time, shamanism had been largely the preserve of anthropologists and related researchers in the Eastern Bloc. But the holistic health movement and counter culture served to focus attention on two important areas.
The first of these was the realisation that many cultures had established and effective ways of dealing with health maintenance and healing and that many of these methods had a spiritual foundation. Traditional Chinese Medicine and Yogic medicine were good examples.
Secondly, and probably more importantly, there was a renewed interest in the nature of human consciousness, states of consciousness and their involvement in healing and other human potentials such as ESP, psychokinesis, out-of-body experiences, and so on.
The value of these developments derived significantly from the needs of mostly urban people searching for a meaningful, self realised existence and, along with that, a more humanised and personal approach to healing. Shamanism seemed to offer just that possibility.
In 1979, Michael Harner published The Way of the Shaman and its immediate success opened the door to public, professional and scientific interest on a large scale. The re-discovery of shamanism was enlivened by published accounts and photographs of cave art throughout the world, and especially in the Pyrenees. The famous Dead Man cave in this region seemed to depict a person (shaman) in a 'trance', body rigid, penis erect (indications of extreme arousal) in close communion with animals and with a 'wand' that had a bird mounted on it. Could this indicate the flight of the soul which is one of the core features of shamanism? Discussion continues to this day.
The cave discoveries, dating back almost 40,000 years, indicated the development of symbolic consciousness and perhaps the ability to induce altered states for purposes of divination, at least through art. Cave art and its shamanic connections has become a major interest in archaeology, cultural and biological evolution. Of particular interest are the paintings and rock carvings of the South African Bushmen found in the Drakensberg Ranges. There are very clear indications of journeys taken out of this world and into other worlds beneath the earth and in the sky. These paintings also indicate a very strong connection with nature and especially with animals that are important food sources.
From these factors and an intense 50 years of research, a picture of shamanism emerges: the shaman is a visionary practitioner who is able to cultivate a range of states of consciousness which, in cultural terms, allow the exploration of the mythological cosmos, to take journeys to discover resources which are beyond ordinary, everyday access, and to bring them back in the service of the community.
Individuals may become shamans spontaneously, as in a transformative and unexpected transcendental experience, a vision, a 'trance', an opening to other worlds and other non-human beings. But most are trained, apprenticed by established shamans who teach their students the technologies of consciousness change, healing, divination, ritual practice and magic, amongst other things.
The technologies of consciousness change are many and varied. They include fasting, thirsting, extreme physical and emotional stress, social and physical isolation, sensory deprivation and drug ingestion. The last form of state change induction is very popular in our society now where there is widespread, but sequestered, use of Ayahuasca, San Pedro cactus and other botanically derived hallucinogens.
Shamanism: a link to the past and future
Shamanism is the oldest form of transpersonal or spiritual practice on earth. Its history stretches back at least 40,000 years and possibly up to 100,000 years ago. It is a testament to the abilities of human beings to explore consciousness through inducing state change and entering into the worlds which open up in this way. The fundamental element in this is the shamanic journey. Shamans may sing, dance, drum, take drugs, fast or use a wide range of other methods to open the door to other worlds to which they travel and pass through, encountering spirit beings which can be the source of knowledge, wisdom, healing and access to the past and future. The idea is to bring these gifts back to the community in service to its needs.
Spirit beings take many forms, depending on the culture in which the shaman operates. But from a psychological and medical point of view, these are powerful images or symbols which allow access to both individual and collective unconscious processes and can change key physiological and psychological factors involved in health and wellbeing when used in rituals. In this way, they are akin to hypnosis, meditation, imagery healing, and narrative psychotherapy, for example.
The future of shamanism is now assured. Whereas once it was considered to be a 'primitive' residue of pre-literate cultures, it is now taken a whole lot more seriously. The drugs taken in shamanic journeys in North, Central and South America, as well as Africa, are now being examined from the point of view of their healing value in addictions, in particular, and a wide range of other disorders.
Of particular interest is the growing connection between shamanic practices and psychiatry. The World Health Organisation (WHO) began this hybridisation of what appeared to be these two very different approaches to human suffering in 1972 under the guidance of Dr Lambo, a Nigerian medical doctor. However, these early attempts faded by the 1980s only to be resurrected in the last decade. What we now have are ways in which Western psychiatry and medicine can join with shamanic healing to produce new and effective treatments that are culturally relevant.
A good example of this is a program in which I was professionally involved in the Western Desert in Australia. It was established to deal with the difficulties associated with extreme alcohol abuse and derivative illnesses in Aboriginal communities. AA, Western medicine and psychiatry had not made any impression on the scale or severity of the problem.
This changed with the involvement of Aboriginal shamans (Marban) who worked with doctors, social workers and psychiatrists to create a program of healing. What was distinctive about this program was that it was implemented around the shamanic diagnosis of soul loss where alcoholics were considered to have undergone serious soul damage leading to soul loss - the loss of connection with life, passion for life, and a corrosion of the desire to live, replaced by a drive toward death. Shamans combine myths (Dreaming stories), rituals expressing these myths and specific healing journeys to find the lost soul and restore it - and life - to vitality.
Of course, many would claim that this is irrational, unsustainable and a step back into a past best forgotten. However, worldwide, the results from all continents cannot be ignored. A new profession is emerging: it is the shamanic practitioner who is taught and mentored in traditional healing, shamanic journeys and ritual techniques, as well as being able to access the latest in research about psychotherapy, counselling, consciousness and psychiatry.