From Cells to Spirit

In January of 2013, in the middle of my chemotherapy treatments, I wrote this letter on my Caring Bridge site. I’ve been thinking about this letter lately because now that I am now fully on the other side, I want to share my gratitude for the support I received and pay forward my lessons learned.

Dear Friends and Family,

I am now 60 hours into the 96-hour infusion. So far, so good. I call it, "Extreme Makeover, Chemotherapy Edition," or “Restructuring From Cells to Spirit,” spirit being that essence in us that creates consciousness. It turns out that the two titles are connected. I can feel the spirits of my little cells, each with their intentions and efforts, working inside my body. Stem cells in my bone marrow make new blood cells to replace the ones that the chemo kills. The chemo speeds up the flow of the blood cell life cycle; old cells die faster, and new ones are born. Soon I will have a whole new blood system - white cells, red cells and platelets - all healthy. 

Beliefs affect us at the cellular level too according to Bruce Lipton in The Biology of Belief. One-celled organisms tune in to their environments directly through receptors on their cell walls. They detect levels of salt in the ocean, pH, nutrients. These signals connect straight to the genetic machinery of the single-cell creatures, turning genes on and off to keep the little guys in line with what is going on around them. 

Human sense organs (such as eyes, ears, taste buds) detect signals too, but unlike one-celled organisms, we use big brains to turn these sensory signals into perceptions, and our beliefs about the world shape our perceptions just as much as what’s detected. How do genes fit into this equation? Sense organs send signals to the brain, which (along with our consciousness) create a meaningful perception of what is happening, and this meaningful perception activates or deactivates our genes. Different beliefs create different perceptions, which change genes. A mind-body connection!

If we are stressed, our brains send signals through our nerves and hormones that tell the body we are in danger. Genes get activated that mobilize us to fight or flee. On the other hand, if we are calm and connected, our brains let the body know that it is a good time for healing, growth and regeneration. We don’t heal or grow while we are in danger. If we are running from a tiger, we don't want our body to be making repairs; we want all our resources going to our speeding muscles. When we get back to the cave, then we can lick our wounds and use our strength to get better. Nice engineering!

As my aunt Judy and I were recently exploring beliefs, we discovered Michael Shermer’s article “The Mind's Compartments Create Conflicting Beliefs” in Scientific American. Shermer says that the brain/mind creates what he calls belief modules, which work like apps on a smartphone, each relatively independently. Like individual apps, our belief modules don’t always talk to one another, and we don’t have a natural operating system to realign conflicting beliefs. He explains, "The module that leads us to crave sweet and fatty foods in the short term is in conflict with the module that monitors our body image and health in the long term. The module for cooperation is in conflict with the one for competition, as are the modules for altruism and avarice or the modules for truth telling and lying." It actually takes effort to get these conflicting belief modules to talk to and integrate with each other. 

In my course on doctor-patient communication at the UMKC School of Medicine, I teach Motivational Interviewing, a strategy to help patients sort out conflicting belief modules that were interfering with healthy habits. Here’s how it works: You get your patient to tell you the good things about a particular behavior, say smoking. For example, it relaxes you, wakes you up, etc. Next, you ask them to tell you the not-so-good things about it -- it makes you cough, makes you short of breath, causes cancer. Now get some examples of the not-so-good things about smoking if you can. Examples bring the not-so-good belief modules to life. Once your patient has talked about the good and not-so-good things, you have them take in the whole situation by asking, "What do you think about what we have been talking about?" They see how their belief modules fit into the bigger picture and are motivated to change their habits.

Shermer says that the persistent presence of conflicting beliefs explains why people are immune to scientific data, like the age of the earth, the effects of climate change and the risks of assault weapons. Dissecting a cadaver 28 ago, I realized that when I was little I thought that the large intestine made poop, and the small intestine made pee. Even in medical school, when I knew better and could get the answer right on a board exam, I still had a nagging doubt about the small intestine’s role. In my mind I could picture the gastrointestinal tract, from mouth to exit, visualizing the small intestine between the stomach and colon. But the “small intestine makes pee” module still made me feel that the med school belief might be wrong. Why did the doubt endure? According to Shermer, it’s hard to remove deeply held beliefs and trying to change them can create a "worldview backlash." No wonder Shermer’s research finds that people who doubt their own beliefs tend to assert them most strongly.

Avatar® exercises, which are different from Motivational Interviewing, speed up the flow of belief module integration like chemo speeds up the flow of the blood cell’s life cycle. Avatar teaches a person strategies to locate the beliefs that no longer serve, and  to create new beliefs too. It’s like you get the administrator password for the operating system of your consciousness -- you can install and uninstall whatever beliefs you like. Avatar calls this belief management. Here are some new beliefs I created using the Avatar tools:

  • The chemo goes only and exactly where it needs to go, and my body relaxes with this confidence. 

  • My powerful team clears the cancer completely and keeps it gone forever. 

  • Unearned suffering redeems me and serves the world. 

It turns out that our beliefs are like the cells of our consciousness, and as we become aware that we can change our beliefs, we identify more with the essence that can change consciousness. We aren’t simply physical beings; our essence is our true spirit. What a relief to align ourselves with our spirit!

In closing I thank you for your love and support. I feel you with me always. Here is my wish for you -- May you be free from suffering and the roots of suffering. May you know happiness and the roots of happiness. May you bring a sense of wonder and discovery to those you meet today. 


Note from 2017 -- I am now experiencing the new beliefs I created - the cancer is cured!


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George Thompson1 Comment