Ticks, Meditation and State Management
By Philip H. Farber
In the part of New York State where I live, Lyme disease is at an epidemic level. Quite a few of my friends, family members and acquaintances have experienced this illness. One friend holds the record, as far as I know, having contracted the tick-borne illness a total of four times so far. I’m not far beyond, having received Lyme-infected tick bites on three different occasions over the last seven years.
The last time was in June of 2010. I found a tick on me just a couple days before I was scheduled to leave on a trip to Los Angeles, where I was teaching a weekend seminar. I carefully removed the tick using a tick-puller and figured that I’d done a good job and that the tick hadn’t been on me long enough to pass along any illness. I was extremely busy finishing up work, packing and getting ready for the seminar so I put the tick bite out of my mind. The seminar went very well and when I returned there were clients and other seminars to prepare for, in England, Europe and other parts of the USA. The bug bite didn’t itch or hurt and I forgot about it for a while.
In late August things started to get a little strange. I noticed that I was getting a bit weepy and nostalgic – and those are two words I’d never, ever pick to describe myself. And not only was it odd for me to feel that way, the emotions were being triggered by very unusual things. One day I found myself feeling sentimental about a dishwasher that we used to own. Man, I really missed that old machine. That is, I missed it until my wife reminded me that I always hated the noisy monster. I reflected on that. It was true. It was a strange thing for me to experience nostalgia, let alone for a piece of kitchen equipment that I never actually liked! The weepiness was followed, somewhat randomly over the next couple months, by other emotional outbursts, including anger, fear, and despair, all triggered by thoughts that, considered later, were really not worth the response – not to mention that I’m generally a calm, secure and optimistic person. What was going on in my brain?
What was happening in my brain was that a colony of Borrelia spirochetes, the bacteria responsible for Lyme disease, had taken up residence and was, apparently, pushing buttons that messed with my emotional state. It was around that time that other Lyme symptoms started to show up and I went to the doctor and got my diagnosis. The emotional effects of Lyme disease are rarely discussed by doctors, but a quick search of medical literature turned up over a hundred studies that recorded psychological symptoms. For instance, one study (Functional brain imaging and neuropsychological testing in Lyme disease. Fallon BA, Das S, Plutchok JJ, Tager F, Liegner K, Van Heertum R. Clin Infect Dis. 1997 Jul;25 Suppl 1:S57-63. Review.) reported that “Patients with Lyme disease may experience short-term memory loss, severe depression, panic attacks, unrelenting anxiety, impulsivity, paranoia, obsessive compulsive disorder, personality changes marked by irritability and mood swings, and rarely, manic episodes or psychotic states.” Nothing specifically about dishwasher nostalgia, but we can file that under “personality changes” or “mood swings.”
I’ve spent the last thirty or so years of my life practicing meditation and studying state management techniques. Back when I began meditating, I was told that one really starts to notice the results of meditation after 20 years. That seemed like an inordinately long time, back in my youth, and I was quite pleased to notice positive affects fairly quickly in my practice – increasing calm through the days, better sleep at night, ability to relax at will, and much more. But now, decades later, I’m pleased to say that there was also some truth to the advance hype. The long-term positive effects of meditation, for me, amount to, in large part, more of the same, a calmer mind and generally more relaxed mental state. But beyond that, the greatest benefit from all those years sitting and breathing is an understanding of the processes of my mind and an increased ability to observe those processes. Metaphorically speaking, the process of meditation has taught me how to better step back from my own thoughts and observe, listen, and feel what my own brain may be doing. While I’m not sure I’d refer to this as “enlightenment,” this ability has certainly saved my sanity more than a few times.
So, while Borrelia bacteria were messing around in my neurons, I found myself in an odd situation. While part of my consciousness experienced a roller coaster of unusual emotions, I was also sitting back, observing my thoughts and behavior. I suppose I’ve been doing this increasingly all along; now the rapid bacterial shifts in emotion threw it into high relief. Part of my mind, at least, was maintaining its cool. As in a meditation practice, when I became aware of the changes in state, I was moved to accept the change and return my attention to the present.
I think it might be important to reiterate the basic process of meditation here. The meditator attempts to hold attention on a word, symbol, breathing, sitting, being present or any of a thousand other techniques. In mindfulness meditation, one holds attention on the process of consciousness itself. The mind, through its tendency to form associations or because it just likes to wander, will stray from the object of concentration. These breaks in concentration may start from a physical sensation (my foot itches!) or a thought (did I leave the toaster plugged in?) or a daydream (imagine meditating like this on top of a remote Himalayan peak!) or from any of a thousand other distractions. The meditator notices the break in concentration, accepts it without judgment, and then returns to the intended concentration.
It’s the same process that we use throughout our lives, on long-term projects or life goals. We set out with our minds focused on one thing – a way of life, a job, a certain kind of family – and we become distracted and must regain our focus. It was this life-process-as-meditation that Lyme disease kept bringing into my consciousness – and my daily life that I had to continually return my attention to. Without the years of meditation practice, I could easily have become lost in the seeming reality of these emotional shifts.
I also found great benefit from short-term hypnosis and NLP techniques to deal with pain and to change state. First, though, I had to realize that my state had changed, which sounds like a simple thing, but when it happens the shifts are so subjective that they are easy to mistake for legitimate mental processes and not the result of illness. Some of the state management techniques that I used can be found in my forthcoming book Brain Magick: Exercises in Meta-Magick and Invocation (Llewellyn Worldwide, October 2011).
So it took a few months of powerful antibiotics, prescribed by my doctor, to get the bugs out of my system. Because of the physical symptoms of the disease, I wasn’t able to work for a good part of that time, but now I feel like my mind and body are mine again. It was a difficult few months, but I can only imagine how awful it might have been if it weren’t for meditation and hypnosis.
With the benefits of 30 years of meditation on my side, or with the tools of my trade in hand, it all came down to being prepared. In life we often take it for granted that we should learn the steps of driving a car before getting out into heavy traffic, or that we’ll do better in a fight if we’ve practiced martial arts previously, or that our violin recital will go much better if we learn the pieces and perfect them first. How about being prepared for whatever life throws at you – from changing circumstances, financial difficulties, family problems or whatever – by practicing and perfecting our ability to change state beforehand?
I’ll leave you with a quick meditation. It’s about as simple as it gets, but can be as deep and effective as any other form of meditation:
Simple Zen – at least 10 minutes
Sit in a position with your spine vertical and straight (a chair will do nicely). Allow your breathing to become relaxed and natural. Let it set its own rhythm and depth, however it is comfortable. Focus your attention on your breathing, on the movements of your chest and abdomen rather than on your nose and mouth. Keep your attention focused on your breathing. For some people an additional level of concentration may be helpful. You might add a simple counting rhythm, spoken in your head as you breathe: “One” on the inhale, “Two” on the exhale, and repeat. Or you might visualize your breath as a swinging door, swinging in on the inhale and out on the exhale.
(This piece was originally published in The Journal of Hypnotism.)