By Steve E. Hodes, M.D.
Physician to Meta-physician
The concept of a vaccine is actually quite simple: expose a living organism to a safe form of a potentially lethal virus and it will generate its own immune response which will then protect it against the native pathogen [‘bug’].
There are various types of vaccines and degrees of effectiveness. There are significant controversies as well regarding the efficacy and saftey of vaccines. My purpose here is to draw analogies to the healing process in all its broad ramifications.
In the natural setting our bodies are exposed to offending bacteria and viral insults throughout our lives. Although we may experience temporary illnesses, in the presesnce of an intact immune system, we recover with a newly minted defense against subsequent exposures. This is a form of ‘natural’ vaccination.
Our body-minds react in a similar fashion. Reality becomes our vaccine. Stress is the term we apply to mental, emotional, physical and spiritual ‘insults’. We all understand how physical exertion, exercise, ‘working-out’ strengthens our bodies. Without these physical challenges our muscles and endurance would never increase. Twentieth century physician and endocrinologist Hans Selye described various concepts of stress. ‘Distress’ was seen as a potentially toxic degree and exposure to psychological and emotional trauma. ‘Eustress’, on the other hand, was viewed as encouraging the evolution and development of the personality and mind. The similarity between ‘dis-stress’ and ‘dis-ease’ is no coincidence.
Cleary, the distinction between these two concepts of stress also rests in the individual’s reaction, interpretation and response to them. What becomes exceedingly clear to me is that all human experience incorporates enormous subjective elements. Someone is fired from a job. They immediately sink into a state of extreme sadness and depression. This event may confirm their own deep-seated insecurities and self-doubt. From childhood they may have received messages that they were not competent individuals and the firing only confirms this. To this individual the firing cannot function as a vaccine. Rather it is experienced as a full-fledged plague! Hopefully, this subjective interpretation can eventually be transformed.
Another individual who is similarly fired may experience a temporary emotional shock as well. Yet they soon decide that this jolt to their system is teaching them something extremely important. Perhaps they may even come to realize that the firing did reflect some element of incompetence or inexperience on their part. Yet they decide that this event will not diminish their notion of their intrinsic ability or self-worth. Instead they may feel spurred-on to explore how they can rise to their full potential. They may even see the firing as a wake-up call, an important life lesson, an opportunity to make a change and grow. They may even ‘spin’ the event, viewing it as a gift to them, one that will make them stronger and ultimately more successful in life. Furthermore they are encouraged by seeing their own ability to deal with this trauma and move through it. They may even look back at this event when subsequent disappointments in life arise. For such an individual, life’s temporary set-backs function as vaccines.
A child’s pet dies. They suffer the stages of mourning for this loss [as enumerated by the late Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross]. When they move through this process they begin to understand the nature of loss and death. This experience becomes a vaccine for later experiences of the death of friends and relatives. Pain will always be present as long as we have human consciousness. The degree of suffering, however, may be altered or reduced because we have had the experience previously.
We live in a culture that denies the reality of aging and death. We worship youth and turn away from the frail, confused and elderly. We fear our own abilities to deal with intense emotional losses and this fear wounds us further. Nursing homes become the repository for the dysfunctional elderly who in previous generations lived and died within the context of multi-generational enviornment. In such societies, children come to understand that decline, deterioration and death is natural and expected. They received their exposure to the reality of death at home.
The vaccine of life’s experience allows us to move through the pain with a level of suffering that allows us to heal and move on in our lives. This does not imply that we can or should become unfeeling and withdrawn from human interaction. The vast majority of us will experience loss of love, employment, companionship and even our own health with powerful and potentially incapacitating emotional reactions. We need to learn that our reactions are not only normal but necessary to experience for long term healing. We need to understand that we can and will survive them and move forward.
Psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan in her book, HEALING THROUGH THE DARK EMOTIONS, discusses the necessity of facing grief, fear and despair and allowing ourselves to move through them to the otherside of healing. Because we live in a society which is itself ’emotion-phobic’ we may feel the need to deny or suppress our own reactions. According to Greenspan this only delays ultimate healing and may result in other long-term psychological disorders including phobias. Numbing ourselves with drugs, alcohol, sex or denial is self-defeating.
From this perspective, it would seem to me that only by acknowledging and facing our dark emotions can they function as a vaccine for future ‘exposures’. This is not to imply that such an approach is easy or should be attempted without professional help. Sharing these feelings with loved-ones is enormously healing as well.
The universality of suffering should alert us to its inescapable reality. We often vicariously share the loss of their own loved-ones with friends, family and even our entire society. This experience becomes a vaccine for us as well. Buddhism wisely emphasizes the need to face the reality of death and ,once understood, move on towards joy and happiness. One of the often repeated stories about the Buddha involves a distraught mother’s plea to restore the life of her dead child. The Buddha actually agrees to do so but under one condition: that she return to him with a tamarind seed from the home of any family who has not experienced a similar loss. Of course she is unable to do so–every family had experienced their own version of tragedy and suffering.
This was Buddha’s lesson, not only to this woman but to all his followers. Try to gain awareness of this reality even before we experience it. Awareness, then, becomes a vaccine for life’s pain.
© Steven E. Hodes, MD., 2006
Steven E. Hodes, M.D. is a board certified gastroenterologist with over 25 years private practice based in Edison and Old Bridge New Jersey. He also has a degree in Religious Studies and teaches Contemporary Metaphysics at Brookdale College as well as lecturing and writing on Kabbalah and Healing, the Jewish View of Afterlife and on Near-Death Experience. Visit him at his Blog, Physician to Meta-Physician at www.meta-md.com