One of the profound insights that are offered to readers in Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ is the experience of an incredible perspective shift as to the nature and quality of one’s life.
Consider that we are preoccupied with the contents of our existence, our work schedule, daily goals, life goals, past achievements, future plans, the clothes we wear, our hairstyle, our diets, our visual shape, too much fat here, too little muscle there. Alongside those mental lyrics are floating notions of the people in our lives, the quality of our relationships, partners, parents, siblings, friends, acquaintances, people who mean literally nothing to us, people we find distasteful and maybe even enemies. We further occupy ourselves with thoughts of status, money, worldly achievements, who we will remain to be when death strikes the final blow. Did we fulfill the fairy tale of glory?
By contrast, there is this reality of concentration camps, monuments of the physical torture and psychological torment that human beings inflict upon each other. Within concrete walls are genuine sadist savouring pain, starvation, infectious rotting bodies stacking up and decomposing within constant sight and reach, glaring neon evil looming over sick, dying, traumatized human creatures in every second of every day.
Such things, we never even consider might enter the landscape of our own lives, except for in the vaguest ways, such as an occasional violent and intrusive thought. Yet, they offer us the rare opportunity to reconsider our lives through the lens of a cold and brutal light. A light that subsequently transforms itself into a glow of infinite warmth and appreciation. It highlights, by means of stark contrast, the things which are so beautiful to us and in the constant reach of our immediate environment.
In exchange for a degree of mental and emotional sensitivity ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ gives readers the gift of finding eternal bliss within one’s grasp. Reading Frankl’s story and thesis, I found myself pondering whether it is perhaps only by a certain depth of processing that sensitivity is present. The sensitivity to temporarily sacrifice a portion of comfort to try to viscerally realize the horror of such stories.
Contrastingly, Frankl illustrates instances of how an inner function of sensitivity enriched life within the concentration camps.
He states, ‘In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom’.
Author takes us briefly through the the harrowing history of the treatment of dementia patients,. Walking through from ancient times to the modern day, take a look at how the development of medical and neuroscientific knowledge occurred.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is the modern term that we use to describe a collection of diseases of the brain, like Alzheimer’s Disease, Lewy Body Dementia, or Vascular Dementia. These diseases vary in their symptoms, but all share these common features.
Loss in ability to think
Loss in memory
Decrease in ability to make decisions
Dementia will affect between one in ten and one in twenty of all people over the age of 60 worldwide. Dementia has been affecting people at this rate since thebeginning of mankind. Historically, different cultures have treated dementia patients differently throughout time, sometimes barbarically. In this article I will take you through the ages, and try to give you an understanding of how dementia patients were treated or described by the famous doctors of these times.
Pythagoras, arguably the most interesting philosopher of all time, considered life to be a progression through stages. The last two stages of life were considered ‘old age’. These two stages included features like the decline of both the body and mind, matching the dementia symptoms of today. Importantly, these later stages were considered by Pythagoras to be essential to life, and therefore dementia was not seen as a problem to be solved.
A couple of centuries later came Hippocrates, a philosopher known for his incredible and longstanding contributions to medicine. At the time, Hippocrates separated mental disorders into several classifications, such as mania, insanity, disobedience, paranoia, and hysteria. He believed that treatment of these so-called ‘diseases of the soul’ required a health-care model that included physical exercise, massages, diets, as well as divine treatment. However, he still believed that these ‘diseases of the soul’ were caused by the brain, and should be treated as physical disorders.
Plato also believed that dementia was a disease of the soul. He thought that to truly heal our soul, we must be the ones to do it. This led to a great deal of Plato’s patients sitting in large, open rooms by yourself for extended periods of time as a form of treatment. Asclepius, another Greek philosopher, claimed that music could be used as a therapy to treat diseases of the soul, a practice that has transformed from imaginary to medical over the years.
As a side note, Pythagoras was also one of the first physicians to push the idea of ‘encephalocentricism’, or the idea that the brain was the center of consciousness. Other philosophers of the same time period believed in ‘cardiocentrism’, or the idea that the heart is the center of intelligence.
Cicero, a Roman philosopher, wrote a book titled ‘On Old Age’ in the year before he was executed for royal treason at the age of 82. Cicero, in ‘On Old Age’, did not believe in the ‘fallacy’ of memory loss as you got older. He cleverly remarked in his book that “an old man never forgets where he had hidden his money”. He believed that losing your memory in age was a mere projection of the apathy of old men to the regular plights of young ones. He likely drew a line between dementia and growing old, as this was the beginning of an era of scientific discovery that would mark the beginning of something that resembled medicine as we know it today.
Galen, the so-called ‘father of neuroscience’, was the first of the Roman physicians to put a name to dementia, calling it ‘morosis’. Galen described morosis as the loss of memory and the loss of reason. These are two of the key symptoms of dementia that we use today. Whilst Galen did treat dementia as a disease, it was thought to be a side-effect of growing old and therefore; incurable.
The Dark Ages
It would be in later years that a stigma would begin to form around dementia. Although Hippocrates established medical science as we know it today, there was a significant backslide away from science and research in the western parts of the world, due in large part to the rise of the Christian church. This, as well as the endorsement of a book by the Pope, led to the horrific tales of witchcraft and stake-burning.
By the Middle Ages, medical literature was almost non-existent. Tales of red-hot iron treatments for hemorrhoids, bloodletting, and metal catheters plagued the streets of the justly-called Dark Ages. Dementia patients were represented to the general public as demon-possessed witches, too dangerous to keep around.
The 1486 medical tale, “Malleus Maleficarum”, or the Hammer of the Witches, provided the simplest Alzheimer’s cure that exists: burning on the stake. The Hammer of the Witches was endorsed by the pope at the time, Pope Innocent VIII, and contributed to the brutal persecution of mostly women throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. The bodies of hundreds of thousands of innocent, confused, and terrified men and women have been charred since 1486 in a practice that still continues to this day in some parts of the world.
The Early Modern Era
It wasn’t until the 18th century, with the rise of anatomical dissection of human bodies and brains that scientists were able to point to a physical symptom of dementia, that being the degradation of the brain. At the time there were many different academic groups functioning throughout Europe, and many of these believed that there was only one mental illness: insanity. All other mental diseases were still considered insanity, but just of varying degrees. Dementia was known as the final stage of insanity.
Even during this time of supposed enlightenment those living with dementia were confined to asylums and ‘treated’ with barbaric frontal lobe lobotomy – the frontal part of your brain would be separated from the rest of it; normally through the eye socket.
The ‘Modern’ Era
It wasn’t until 1880 that the idea of dementia as a diagnosis would be separated from the umbrella term of insanity. At this point there was a reorganization of patients to put Vascular Dementia and senile dementia in their own class of disease. It took until 1908, when Dr Alois Alzheimer discovered the presence of specific forms of brain degeneration in a young patient, that Alzheimer’s disease would be separated again. Lewy Body Dementia would be separated in a similar way, as Dr Friederich Lewy discovered abnormal brain deposits in a patient during 1912.
Today, the idea of throwing family members in asylums or burning them at stake sound repulsive, but that doesn’t mean that the stigma of being diagnosed with a cognitive disease doesn’t resonate deeply with people of today.
Oftentimes patients will shy away from the diagnosis of incurable diseases, not wanting to be considered a burden or a liability. We have a long way to go before we cure dementia, and but we should be looking back to the early Greek Philosophers to see how they treated dementia patients; as they were treated in life, with dignity and respect.
What Can You Do to Prevent Dementia?
Avoid inhaling anything that isn’t air
Stay at a healthy weight, whatever that might be for you
Try and exercise for at least 30 minutes per day
Stay mentally and socially involved, especially as you age
Read books, join community clubs, have hobbies!
Have the correct genetics: this is a big one.
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Reviewing China in historical perspective to the rest of the world. A brief Introduction to the concept of Qi and comparison with bioelectromagnetic energy. A quick look at some scientific support for the perks of this art.
China in Perspective
When looking into the history of China, one finds many fascinating insights into, not only Chinese culture, but also into the capabilities and nature of all humankind. In recent revisions, Chinese civilization has been proclaimed to be over 10,000 years old.
To put that in perspective, America was founded less than 250 years ago, the rise of the British empire was less than 500 years ago, Rome was founded less than 3000 years ago. The ancient Greeks who had their time for a period of about 300 years, were not even 3000 years ago. The ancient Mesopotamian’s, famous for math, the wheel, sailboats, maps and writing, were around 6000 years ago.
Considering the magnitude of impact these civilizations have had on the world as we know it, it begs the question, what did China produce during their long stretch of civilization?
When we look at China, we see a nation that bred some of the world’s greatest philosophers, scholars, architects, and engineers. They achieved unimaginable feats, while most of the rest of the world lived in technological darkness. The small, enigmatic human beings that can manifest unfathomable outcomes with a seemingly inhuman ability to labour. There is a long list of almost stupefying innovations from China. The 8,000 warrior statues made of terracotta, the rivers of mercury, the moving of mountains, the medicine, the tea, the 5,500 miles of Great Wall, the ability to endure incomprehensible amounts of suffering. The vast suffering is what some say advanced the development of much of Chinese philosophy and healing arts. Of course, this is conjecture, and suffering is not historically unique to China.
The art of Qi Gong is believed to be about 5,000 years old, so why hasn’t most of the world heard of it until so recently?
China, in the past, seems to have made seclusion from the rest of the world one of its more serious missions. They didn’t begin trading with the outside world until the 1900’s. Before that, they did have a brief period of trade when during the 1400’s hundreds the Ming emperor built the largest fleet of ships that the world has ever seen. The fleet was said to have up to 3,500 ships, to put this in perspective, the U.S navy today only has 430.
After the death of the emperor, the fleet (known as the ‘Treasure Fleet’) was burnt by his successor, in an almost superstitious stance to power. Along with the fleet, most records of it having ever existed were also destroyed. This kind of tendency toward isolation and secrecy that we can observe from the Chinese, might explain why Qi Gong has yet to become as popular as its Indian counterpart, yoga.
Personally, I see no other reason that this body of knowledge shouldn’t be known to the west to a greater extent.
Benefits of Tai Chi / Qi Gong
It is on par with yoga for its health benefits and could certainly play as big of a role in aiding us into understanding our minds and bodies to a greater extent.
This art is said to lead to increased longevity. Studies have shown that it increases flexibility and agility, boosts cognitive ability in elderly, improves balance and coordination, and increases physical strength and stamina.
A qualitative meta-analysis on the effects revealed that it leads many practitioners to having extraordinary experiences at various levels of bio-psycho-spiritual/energetic functioning. This is congruent with other iconic, though non-scientific literature on the practice.
The metanalysis of randomized controlled trials referenced below, shows evidence supporting the claim that Tai Chi helps in the management of Parkinson’s disease. This is no small feat, considering the lack of options at hand for sufferers of this harrowing neurodegenerative disease.
Results from one of the studies show that patients who received a 6-month training intervention, had 67% less falls than those who did not.
It shows clear and promising signs for helping patients cope with and reduce symptoms. However, the mechanism which might underlie this is not understood, and more research needs to be done in this.
So, What Is Qi Gong Anyway?
Qi (also spelled ‘chi’ or ‘ji’) is often described by eastern exercise practitioners as ‘life force energy’. Whether they are yogi’s who refer to this energy as ‘prana’ or whether they are Reiki practitioners who refer to this energy as ‘Ki’. Qi is said to be present in all living things, such as plants and animals but also said to be in the air around us. It is described as a driving force that influences and nourishes all things, an invisible body of energy that is working in accordance with its laws whether we are aware of it or not.
Dr Yang Jwing Ming, PhD. Physics, and Tai Chi Scholar, suggests in his book ‘The Root of Chinese Qi Gong’, that what has always been known as Qi to the Chinese, is the same as what we now know as bioelectromagnetic energy. This was first detected by Luigi Galvani, an Italian physician and physicist in the 1800’s. This electromagnetic energy is produced in living cells, tissue and organisms, which is so far consistent with the behavioural nature of Qi as described in ancient texts.
‘Qi Gong’ can so be directly translated as ‘energy work’. It is comprised of a series of physical movements and forms, which are integrated with constant mindfulness through the fluidity of slow movements. In this way, it’s not so different from yoga, and in fact operates on many of the same principles. Many of the breathing techniques can be compared, along with the theory behind the mechanism. While Qi Gong has the famous Yin & Yang, Yoga, similarly, has Ida & Pingala.
Qi Gong involves the cultivation of energy to achieve the perfect Yin Yang balance, although we in the west are all familiar with the iconic Yin Yang Symbol, few of us know what it really about.
If you are interested in learning more or beginning to practice yourself, check out the links below (not sponsored).
A short reflection on the early days of eastern practices, some key historical figures, and the interplay between Daosim and Buddhism.
Bodhidharma & Buddhist Qi Gong
In 527 A.D, a well-regarded ‘bodhisattva’, or ‘enlightened being’ named Bodhidharma (known by the Chinese as ‘Da Mo’) was invited by Emperor Liang Wu Di into China to preach Buddhism. Bodhidharma, who was once the prince of a small tribe in southern India, is often depicted for his barbaric appearances. He was said to be a hairy, bearded, dark skinned man, dressed in orange robes, as many Mahayana Buddhists did at the time.
After the emperor (for reasons unknown) decided that he did not like Bodhidharma, the monk was forced to retreat to a temple in Shaolin. Upon arriving, he saw that the priests who resided in that temple were physically very weak. Many had become ill, as they had been fully neglecting their physical bodies, thinking that it was not necessary to cultivate physically to attain enlightenment. This is still considered true for many meditation intensive schools of practice, Vipassana, being one very notable example.
They believed it was altogether, a waste of time to exercise the body and laughed it off. Bodhidharma then put the argument to them, that attaining enlightenment requires time. That by being weak and sickly they are decreasing their longevity, shortening the span of their life and therefore, shortening the time with which they had, to work towards becoming enlightened.
The monks agreed that this was true and Bodhidharma stayed in the Shaolin temple, ardently working on the problem at hand. After nine full years, he emerged with a series of techniques, known as ‘Da Mo’s Muscle/Tendon Changing & Marrow/Brain Washing Classics’.
In this book is a series of physical, breath and meditation exercises, aimed to increase the strength of the physical body and bring one’s mind closer to an enlightened state. These exercises are commonly referred to as a type of ‘Qi Gong’, directly translated as ‘energy work’. Qi Gong is said to be the ancestor or parent of Tai Chi, which is an evolved, martial form of the healing art. Tai Chi is said to be the child of Qi Gong and the sibling of Kung Fu.
It is characterized by its martial arts-type forms, involving highly technical coordination of a liquid-like flow of movement and focuses on mindful presence and relaxation.
Where is Tai Chi From?
In the 12th century, a Taoist monk named Zhang San Feng, who had given away his property to his family and was living life in accordance with the Tao, was strolling leisurely between the summits of the Wu Dang mountains in Hubei province in China. He stopped, captivated by the sight of a bird attacking a snake. After seeing how the snake defended itself, keeping still, observing and then lunging in for a fatal bite upon the bird, he was inspired.
It was from this legend that Tai Chi Chuan is said to have emerged, and that it was Zhang San Feng went on to create a set of 72 Tai Chi Chuan movements.
Prior to the discovery of old documents, which confirmed the existence of Zhang San Feng, many people believed, and in some cases still do, that Tai Chi was created in Chen village, Henan Province. Yang style is possibly the most popular style of Tai Chi which circulates around the west today, it is said to be a later expression of Chen style and can also be traced back to Chen Village.
Internal and External Tai Chi
While styles such as Yang and Chen are said to be ‘external’, what is now Wudang Taoist Tai Chi is characterized by being uniquely ‘internal’. Now, what exactly is meant by ‘external’ and ‘internal’? There is also some room for debating the implications of these labels and where they come from. Some will say that the ‘external’ styles are characterized as being ‘hard’, while the other ‘soft’, some will argue that as Tai Chi as a whole is comprised of both external and internal exercises, that one focuses more heavily on one part than the other. But interestingly there is also another argument which relates not to the practice itself, but to the geographical origin. The styles which originated from Chen Village date back to being influenced by Da Mo. As Da Mo came from India, the manifestations of his influence are labelled as ‘external’ (outside of China). Taoism, being indigenous to the Chinese Wudang mountains, has resulted in their style being named ‘internal”.
Again, it is quite difficult to say with any certainty at this time, and there seems to be much room to open argument on the subject still, as is the nature with ancient histories.
Taoism vs Buddhism
For many people, distinguishing the difference between Taoist philosophy and Buddhism is a very convoluted and tightly tangled endeavour, and with good reason! Most people know at least, that Taoism is Chinese and Buddhism was originally Indian (though the Buddha himself came from Nepal).
”Do not dwell on the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment”
-Gautama The Buddha
Actually, Taoism is comprised of a large degree of Buddhist philosophy, over time they absorbed many of the philosophies of Buddhism that were being preached in China, being influenced by the general zeitgeist.
It apparently wasn’t uncommon for Taoist and Buddhist monks to befriend each other and share philosophies. However, while Taoism’s open- minded approach to learning enabled it to move like water and adapt, Buddhism was far more conservative than that, and refrained from making new adaptations based on newly available knowledge.
The Buddhist’s then were absolutely forbidden from eating meat, drinking alcohol, in the cases of monkhood they were forbidden from sexual activity and made to shave their heads. The Taoist’s had a slight touch of rascality to them. They could eat meat, drink wine, grow their hair long and priest’s (in some casts) were even allowed to marry and have children.
”If you are depressed, you are living in the past.
If you are anxious, you are living in the future.
If you are at peace, you are living in the present”
Despite these considerably minor differences, both philosophies aim toward the same goal of enlightenment and cultivating the ‘Tao’. They both focus on taming the emotional body, in order to achieve inner peace, purifying the self and attaining the ultimate goal of enlightenment in order to escape the cycles of ‘Samsara’ (cyclical death and rebirth).
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Dr Yang Jwing Ming, The Root of Chinese Qi Gong
Qigong, The Secret of Youth: Da Mo’s Muscle/Tendon Changing and Marrow/Brain Washing Classics