Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Smelling Gasoline - Bias, Delusion, Denial and Alternative Medicine

Americans want choice. Americans are increasingly using alternative aviation. A recent government study suggests that 75% of Americans have attempted some form of alternative flight, which includes everything from ultralights to falling, tripping and use of bungee cords. (Mark Crislip, Alternative Flight)

For the past month or so, I have noticed that I smell gasoline. Giving my massive head bumping of the summer, I have worried that maybe it was a byproduct of that. So I set about to eliminate the possible reasons to try and determine if it was indeed neurological damage. Talking to a doctor got me a big “I dunno, could be, call me if you have a seizure” which did nothing to put me at ease.

The list begins – I am in a mill, does that explain it? No, where I am in the mill no cars come near and there is no odor in the air. It just seems very localized to me.

Can other people smell it? No. Wait, Yes. No wait, no. Depends on how suggestible they are. So much for that way of eliminating sources.

It wasn’t from anything I use. I am involved with all non-fuel products and processes.

So where is it coming from? Oddly, as it got colder, the smell got stronger and more frequent. Then, when it would warm up it went away. Is it really in my head? Some rattled and crossed wire that just means no more flowers it will all be BP from now on?

Turns out, it is me, but not in my head. After a very careful breaking down of everything around me associated with smelling gasoline, I realized that I only smelled it when I put on my new jacket. And then the odor would get stronger when it got colder because I then put on my spiffy new long underwear. You know the kind, the fleece lined kind of faux polypropylene. I haven’t been smelling gasoline; I have smelled the petroleum used to make the new winter clothing I am now wearing.

Mind you, I prefer the all-natural cottons and wools for other reasons besides the fact that I don’t smell like a refinery in them. They are warmer, last longer and tend to actually dry when you sweat in them. But natural things have gotten to be very expensive and hard to find. I do have a feeling that it was the head bumping that has given me a kind of heightened sensitivity to certain odors and lights. I have found my new riding goggles to be so comfortable in day and night lighting that I am going to have a set of glasses made with the same green tint. It is the old machinist tint that has a bizarre protection from UV but also amplifies light and contrast so you can practically see in the dark. Funny how things come together like that.

It is in this balance of the new and the old, a fave of the steampunk genre of which my poor machinist goggles are lumped in, that many people are drawn. Things just haven’t been working out too well with the all new, and the drive to somehow return to the way things were isn’t proving very realistic as well. Part of the adaptability of Buddhism is supposed to be its weaving together of the new and old, but this has largely been thrown out the window by people attempting to enforce practices and rituals from other centuries into modern life and have them be effective as well. As I continue working on the re-imagining of Dragon Mountain, I am seeking more of a balance so what you learn here, leaves here with you and can be used in the rest of life. As they say, anyone can be a Buddha on a cushion in a quiet room – try practicing the bodichitta in a room full of screaming kids and see if you really know how to put into practice what you believe.

It is this whole idea of the middle road that seems to have gained a new prominence in my life, but not the middle road of apathy that is also promoted as a kind of spiritual achievement. It is the middle road of guidance.

A large part of what I am involved with can be lumped under the category of CAM, or Complementary Alternative Medicine. I have had enough experience with it as a practitioner and a patient to know that most of what is out there is sheer nonsense. Part of what I do, when working with communities on developing Wellness programs, is discovering where the middle path is between what is accepted as proven medicine and what is viable alternative treatment that may just be lacking evidentiary proof. There are many positives to the mainstream and alternative therapies, as many benefits as there are significant drawbacks and potential dangers. It is in helping people understand the dangers of CAM that I find myself a reluctant teacher. One just doesn’t like to be always cast in the role of the devil’s advocate.

That is how I found the wonderful article that gave me the lead in quote. If you remember the old satirical essay on letting the Irish eat children as a solution to their problems, you can see the overtones in this man’s essay. I found it while researching which books to read on the latest round of exploration of the efficacy of alternative medicines. I have, as a complimentary practitioner, become very concerned over the sheer amount of spiritual and material greed that is becoming the over-arching theme of the genre. I can count on one hand the number of people I know who I would consider practitioners, I can use every car in the parking lot of a mall on Black Friday to represent the number of people who have gotten into healing for misguided reasons, discovered money and are creating a potential risk for themselves and others.

There is a very clear line between things that we have no explanation for and things that make no sense. 

Working with hospice, you wind up less with questions about belief and explanations then a kind of surety that there is much more in existence and at play in the Universe than we even have a vocabulary to begin asking about. You also begin to see the desperation with which people want to control their outcomes. Things we have no explanation for are just that. You know something has happened that most likely cannot be explained or duplicated but was true. Things that make no sense are things that fly in the face of any rationality, can’t be duplicated and yet there is an insistence in their reality. The former is a breathtaking experience that can shake you to your very foundations and make you feel honored to be alive and learning. The latter is what we feed the confused to create true believers that grow up to be the fundamentalists of every belief system and bring them all down.

We had a sort of “come to Jesus” meeting with someone who was seeking to become one of the CAM practitioners with the hospice over the fact they were causing extreme physical distress to the patients with their techniques. That happens. Even in what I do, I have learned that some things that are so very comforting to many can be like wood under fingernails to others because the body becomes very different when you are ill and dying. The key to being a good practitioner of anything is to understand that what you do doesn’t work for everyone and to doubt what you do. By doubting I mean to keep an open mind that you may not have the answer and it may not be the right choice.

Whether or not you think that many of the alternative modalities are effective as a placebo only, or that they actually can effect healing isn’t important – the important thing is to never assume that there is a one size fits all approach to the treatment of anything. Medical Doctors make that mistake, Acupuncturists make that mistakes, Energy Healers make it – even priest do. It part of something called a confirmation bias that when coupled with delusion and denial can cause serious harm to all involved.

I was talking with a young man about Pema Chodron and he was very pleased with himself in his studying of the Lojong slogans, which is a form of mind training by using phrases and sayings. He said that he could recognize where he needed to do work because he rejected or was confused by slogans, but the ones he immediately took to and resonated with him was where he was working right now to reinforce his understanding and discipline. He didn’t like that I said it was the ones that he immediately resonated with were the ones he didn’t understand at all and that what he was doing was practicing confirmation bias.
In other words, the ones he couldn't get and rejected were thrown out of his world view because they challenge its very core. The ones that he resonated deeply with also challenged his world view, but he was quickly able to twist and adapt their meaning to something that was already acceptable to him. Confirmation bias is about only paying attention to the evidence that supports what you already believe. Denial is when you push away anything that would challenge your belief. Delusion is when you come to believe that what was denied never existed at all. This is why you should always work with a meditation teacher and not teach and practice it by yourself, it is too easy to wander down a path of denial and bias.

In my practice, much emphasis is placed on doubt. If one loses the capacity to doubt what one believes in, you become a true believer but that makes you the absolute devil in your own universe and not in a way that helps to bring about enlightenment. The moment you think you know what the answer in, you have stopped being a part of the life-giving forces of the Universe which are always in a state of adapting and evolving to accommodate change. The moment you think you always know where to turn to find answers is the moment you have crossed over into preferring confirmation bias to actual investigation. The moment you try to force your true believer belief on someone or something is when harm begins.

Like with the woman who couldn’t get that the aromatherapy oils can burn skin, that when you begin the dying process your skin begins to deteriorate and you can’t fix it with a lotion nor should you try no matter how helpful you believe it is or has benn to other people.

Like the healer who believes they are curing disease when their patients are still dying and never once adjust their patter that they can treat and cure cancer, HIV or other ailments.

Like the doctor who can’t stop trying to stop the spread of a small area of cancer when the rest of the cancer has metastasized in the body and is shutting it down.

Like anyone who promises you can learn any technique of healing from a book or workshop and understand what it means to know how to treat someone responsibly.

Like anyone with an advanced degree of medical study who thinks that makes them specially qualified to know the only options to healing someone.

All of these instances and people, who often mean so well, aren’t a source of harm because what they do doesn’t work but because they are so narrow minded they forget to see the reality of the person involved. Confirmation bias shuts out the world. It is the root and sustainer of fantasy and anything involving healthcare and wellness isn’t going to be found in a fantasy; it is going to be right here with us. With the same chances of being effective as everything else when it is placed in with a combination of ever changing influence.

BTW the two books I can’t recommend enough for people to read, as skeptics and believers are:
Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All by Rose Shapiro (it is a hoot and a great read with a lot of solid information)

And the more staid

If you are interested in finding out more about how CAM does work, take a browse through many of the research studies available on MEDLINE (from the US National Library of Medicine). Read these two books first so you have a better ability to understand which are believable studies and which are so deeply flawed in their methodology as to be discounted.

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