A review of The Extraordinary Healing Power of Ordinary Things: Fourteen Natural Steps to Health and Happiness by Larry Dossey, M.D.

A wonderful read sure to enlighten and inform. Covering topics from Optimism and Risk to Tears and Dirt, a wide range of ideas is shared about how the ordinary things in life can bring healing and happiness to us all.  Written by a medical doctor, this work can be scathing at times in calling out the hostility of modern medicine to accept and respect the mundane. Perhaps it is the ever increasing complexity of medicine that poo-poos the simple.  Nonetheless, simplicity is making a resurgence in many ways… likely the result of the increasing complexity of much of modern life!

Below are are some of the wonderful things I learned.  But note that this is a tip of the iceberg to what is included in this 265-page book (298 pages if you include all the Notes).

Optimism: Optimists get sick less often and live longer than pessimists!!  And people enjoy the company of optimists more than pessimists.  Makes me want to be optimistic ALL the time!!  There are a couple extreme stories of optimism and pessimism leading to life or death after a diagnosis.  But… some can find the unending view of the silver lining annoying.  Funniest quote?  Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915): “A pessimist is a man who has been compelled to live with an optimist.”  (I think Dan liked this… or maybe just related well to it!)  He discusses this idea of optimism in much detail, including the downsides of optimism.  One of the critical points made is that optimism can be learned, as can pessimism.  He notes that the learning of pessimism happens “any time we foster social conditions that make it more difficult for people to climb out of poverty, acquire an education, and support their families.”  It’s easy for the privileged to insist in looking on the bright side but for many, it’s easier said than done.

Forgetting: So much ground covered in this chapter!!  The power of a physician “forgetting” the diagnosis from medical records forwarded when giving a second opinion, jurors forgetting the media coverage when determining culpability of a defendant, the sports flub that not being forgotten extinguishes a future successful career.  Dossey also gives tips for preventing age-related memory loss and briefs current research on gene manipulation to improve memory.  Forgetting is critical if we are not to be bogged down by all life’s disappointments and all those little things that happen in the course of being human.  Besides, much of what we think we know is often fiction.

Novelty:  There is no surprise in the idea of new things being fun when you dive into Fechner’s Psychophysical Law, which explains why novelty wears after repeated exposure and pleasure fades over time, even for something extremely exciting on discovery.  I was fascinated how this idea may explain why millionaires require more and more money as they get richer, similar to how addicts require more drugs over time, for the same exhilaration.  Why is there no treatment for money addiction?  Dossey gives many examples and discusses other aspects of novelty: Buckminster Fuller’s idea that we should all change careers every ten years – may not be profitable but we’d sure learn more; mindful eating for better pleasure making each bite “new”; the research showing that neophobes (those who fear new things) die earlier than those who embrace the new.  Interesting was the discussion of how the Psychophysical Law may explain why ideas change too.  Even bigots and haters, who so enjoy their prejudices, can lose interest as they age.  Of course, the opposite can occur… Hitler and Idi Amin simply increased their atrocities over time.

Tears: Dossey discusses the theory of letting babies “cry-it-out” to the history of tears (did you know there is a lachrymatory renaissance in the U.S.?) to how tears for cleansing differ from those caused by emotion.  If you’ve ever felt refreshed after crying, it’s likely because one function of tears is removing toxins from the body.  However, if you have unprovoked laughter or crying, that without any emotional content, it could signal a brain abnormality that you might want to get checked.

Dirt: While I was surprised that he did not cover the microbes in dirt which apparently make us feel happy (they have a similar effect as Prozac to our bodies), he did cover the history of our filth phobia and germ consciousness and how they have led us, in part, to our disposable society and the vocabulary with which some refer to immigrants, i.e., “dirty” Mexicans.  He reminisces about how he and his brother, like others in their community, were urged to play with the kids with chicken pox and the evidence that this likely made immune systems stronger.  Our ideas about dirt may need revision lest we someday have to inject ourselves with bacteria!

Music: A Googling exercise found sex to command 185 million internet listings but music wasn’t far behind, with both having profound effects on human behavior.  Dossey notes that “Crackdowns on music are common wherever repressive regimes are found.” But he also notes the use of music by right-wing extremists to mold minds  like William Pierce, neo-Nazi owner of Resistance Records, a vendor of “hate-core” music.  What institutions fear about music is its “capacity… to point to a reality that transcends the authority of any government or religion.”  Singing has also been found to restore health in some grave situations.  And did you know that humming may relieve sinusitis?  Dossey also provides fascinating forays into the music of DNA, geometry, and nature, as well as how it calms both the surgeon and those with Alzheimer’s disease.

Risk: If you attempt to avoid all risk, you must also forego any opportunity.  And those who warn of risk are often full of hot air.  As Dossey explains, when women entered the workforce, observers (almost all male) noted that “leaving one’s sheltered role… would… put them at risk for health problems.”  But studies showed higher levels of HDL “good” choloesterol, lower levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol, and lower levels of triglycerides as well as better health (for those with positive attitudes toward their jobs).  Of course, there are levels of risk and ways to take risks with planning and forethought as opposed to just jumping the canyon, so to speak.  I think of the times I’ve risked entering into something I wasn’t sure I could do and the exhilaration that follows a successful foray.

Plants: We all know the healing value of plants as many of our medicines are plant derivatives.  However, what about a more emotional connection?  Did you know that some plants are so connected to humans that they will blossom when “their” human dies?  While scientist long ago believed that animals did not feel pain, it is now becoming clear that plants also “feel”.  I find great comfort in talking with my plants and trees and I bet their are many plant people I know who find their plants respond to kindness and caring as well as water and sunlight.

Bugs: A very interesting review of the resurgence of leeches and maggots in health care.  Sometimes the very simple and inexpensive is effective when no matter of costly medical technology can heal…

Unhappiness: Just as we know there are far more ways for a venture to fail than to succeed, there are far more ways for something to turn out bad than for it to be good.  Think about your hotel room for an upcoming vacation… it could be perfectly fine!  But there are a lot of ways in which it might fail to please.  There is an argument that dwelling on the possible unhappiness may prepare a creature for the unexpected.  We often find we are drawn to the accident, the fight, the violence while the normal and everyday is passed over without a second glance.  And, if it weren’t for unhappiness, how would we know happiness?  While finding wisdom can come from an epiphany of enlightenment, it often comes as a result of suffering or unhappiness.

Nothing:  This was perhaps the most needed chapter for me to read.  As a Enneagram 7, I am driven to Doing Something… Anything! But there is much value in doing nothing.  It is often where creativity strikes.  With regard to medicine, sometimes doing nothing is the best approach, rather than offering “solutions” which truly only cause side-effects and offer no real cure.  Often, people outgrow problematic behavior that, if focused on and “treated”, could become a more long-term issue.  Think about the three-year-old who throws a tantrum.  When we attend to them, they learn the value of tantrums.  When we ignore them, they eventually tire of the activity and stop it.  Many spiritual paths focus on silence and stillness, only there will we find pure consciousness, that ultimate state of transformational enlightenment!  As Taoism tells us:

In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.

In the pursuit of the Tao, every day something is dropped.

Less and less is done

Until non-action is achieved.

When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

This chapter also revealed a quite interesting concept regarding energy debate:

energy camps

Dossey argues, along these same lines, that prevention is the analog to conservation in medicine and it’s often seen as “boring and unglamourous”.  There is also a nice discussion of how the Big Bang came from Nothing… and Scientists think Mystics are the crazy ones!!

Voices: This chapter gives many examples of hearing voices that result in health or life-saving.  It also discusses where these voices might originate and touches on the idea of consciousness and cellular memory, especially with regard to transplanted organs.  I love this paragraph:

The ancient Greeks would have considered our refusal of the help offered by voices as dangerously arrogant. They would have said that our denial of a Source outside ourselves amounts to hubris.  And they would have predicted our downfall, for that is the punishment the gods reserve for those who adopt such prideful positions.”

Mystery: This chapter gives interesting insight into what made Dossey want to become a doctor – it is the mystery of it all; though he found most of the training failed to address the questions he most wanted answered.  Mystery, or maybe curiosity about the mystery, has been vital to our understanding of health.  And for that matter, anything.  Dossey argues that fundamentalism strives to remove the mystery of religion through the use of rules and dogmas, which I believe may be why it is reducing the interest in religion these days.  Who wants a bunch of rules placed on them?  I think we’d prefer mystery.  And even in science, mystery is the cutting edge.  When we think we have it all figured out (as some scientists clearly do), we lose our edge in progress.  It is in the questioning and uncertainty that we find the next discovery, the next truth.  Dossey notes that “‘Mystery’ is related to the Greek myein… to be quiet, to surrender one’s self-importance.” As such,  Wilderness is a great mystery and perhaps the reason I have been so drawn to moving to the woods.  There is much to discover about life here, including, perhaps, what the purpose of it all might be.

Miracles: Miraculous healings of all kinds are discussed here, along with the incomprehensible rejection of them by many in medicine.  Perhaps if we’d give a bit more curiosity to the spontaneous remissions of cancer and miracles of faith healing, we might discover some methodologies that we could replicate…  There are many in the medical field who have witnessed such things, though few feel comfortable acknowledging them, let alone investigating them.  One thing is clear: “Skeptics” who attack such things as irrational and impossible are not truly skeptics which infers thoughtful inquiring.  Many of these so-called skeptics have long ago made up their mind about these kinds of things – they are simply impossible.  A true skeptic is always open to new insights. Dossey argues that the vehemence with which these people oppose is due to worldview.  Our assumptions about why and how the world works are often held so closely that to question them is to question us.  To suggest our worldview – miracles are impossible – is wrong is equivalent to questioning our sanity.  Dossey notes: “Those who protest miracles are like a man dying of thirst who complains about the temperature of the water he’s offered. You think we’d be more grateful.”  Regardless of how vehemently some will deny them, miracles continue to occur.  Dossey quotes Michael Grosso who notes about Miracles:

“their importance lies in the fact that they foreshadow a revolution in our understanding the structure of human reality itself.”

Even Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life: one is as thought nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.”

As Dossey says, “Miracles will endure, most current theories won’t. … Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the airplane (as) experts considered human flight impossible.  … they flew their plane… even though commuters could look out the windows of the trains and see them doing so, (as) the newspapers they were reading at that very moment decreed that is was completely impossible for a machine heavier than air to fly.”  And today, “While experts assure use that they are impossible, (miracles) keep on happening.”

I have given you some bits and pieces from this work but there is so much more history, detailed examples, and interesting insight to be gained by a reading of your own.  I highly recommend it.