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Emotional Cancer

by Tom Kenyon

The concept first occurred to me during a training in Anchorage, Alaska several years ago.

I was teaching how sound could be used to unwind emotion for the purpose of psychological healing. A woman, let’s call her Rose, volunteered for the session in which I would model the technique. As part of the demonstration, I asked her to focus on an area of her body that felt uncomfortable, the idea being that emotions often seem to reside in certain areas of the body.

She said that her kidneys were sore and painful. Rose then volunteered the information that she had just gotten out of the hospital where she had been treated for kidney failure. It was a very scary ordeal for her, as you can well imagine. She was now on dialysis and her name was on the waiting list for a kidney transplant.

I coached her how to move her awareness into her kidneys, and to make sounds on the exhale. I told her to imagine that the sounds were actually coming from her kidneys and to listen to her own sounds as she relaxed deeper into the exhales.

As weird as it may sound, it is quite easy to do, and soon she was making soft moans. Then the sounds changed. At first they sounded like an infant or young child, and then they became the desperate cries of a child in distress. All of us in the room were gripped by the intensity of the moment as we watched a grown woman in her forties crying like a terrified young girl.

Eventually her cries became muffled and changed into soft moans again. Reaching behind her, she touched her lower back in the area of her kidneys. Rose opened her eyes.

In disbelief, she looked at me. “The pain is gone,” she said. “The pain is gone!”

I asked her to describe her internal experience during the process, and she said that she had gone back to about two years of age. She was sitting in a high chair which she recognized from her childhood. As her voice unwound the trapped energy in her kidneys, her mind was catapulted back in time, back into a childhood memory. At that moment in her young life, her mother was living with a boyfriend. The mother had gone to work and the boy friend was supposed to take care of her. But he evidently resented that she took attention away from him. Instead of feeding her normally, he would throw the food at her. This frightened her, and it was this terror that she re-experienced during the demonstration. Somehow, the physical kidneys had benefited from the remembrance and vocal expression of this early childhood fear.

In our class discussion following the demonstration, someone mentioned that her brother had died of stomach cancer. The weird thing about it was that his father was very abusive to him as a child. And whenever he got drunk or angry he would kick or punch his son in the stomach telling him that he was a piece of trash.

Rose’s experience had triggered an “ah-ha” and the sister of the dead brother spoke through tears. She saw how her father’s rage had been repeatedly pummeled into her brother’s abdomen.

For her, this explained the cancer and untimely death of her brother.

The idea that tissues hold emotion was proposed by the Western Psychologist, Wilhelm Reich. But the idea goes much further back than that, back in fact to the ancient art of Acupuncture. The Chinese codified this system of subtle energy medicine thousands of years ago, and one of the chief concepts regards emotion. According to Acupuncture theory, different organs tend to hold different types of emotion. The lungs, for instance, tend to hold grief and sorrow, and the kidneys fear.

Had this woman’s childhood experience of fear weakened her kidney energy (called chi) and predisposed her to kidney failure later in her life? Or were the two unrelated? But whether directly related or not, it was interesting that re-experiencing the pain and vocalizing the fear reduced the sensation of pain and discomfort in her physical kidneys.

I began to look at emotional pain and its relationship to health in a new light. Now back then, in the early 90’s, allopathic medicine did not (and for the most part still does not) recognize a direct relationship between emotion and health.

Frankly, I think a lot of this has to do with money. Allopathic medicine is more and more a pharmaceutically based enterprise. And the big drug companies aren’t interested in funding research projects that don’t yield them a profit.

Despite the drug companies’ monolithic hold on medicine, however, a new area of research is taking hold. It is called Psychoneuroimmunology, or the study of how the mind affects health. Back in the early 90’s this fledgling area of medicine was called Psychoimmunology. I guess it’s a sign that the area is more respectable, now that the word is longer and harder to pronounce.

But whatever you call it, this field of medicine is showing some very clear links between our emotional lives and our health.

As the sciences of neurology and psychology join together to explore this formerly unexplored terrain of human biology, some interesting patterns are emerging.

One area this shows up most clearly is in the area of cancer. As you may know, cancer is reaching epidemic proportions in industrialized countries. And there is a growing body of research which shows that much of this is due to increased toxic pollution of our food, air and water. But don’t count on the Big Guys in Washington, or your state capitol for that matter, to do much about it. Money is all that seems to talk in the political arena, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of profit in cleaning up the air and water right now.

I do find it interesting that the current US Oil Companies, excuse me, I mean the current US Administration, virtually wiped out decades of hard won environmental protections overnight.

But let me return to the topic at hand. I didn’t mean for this to be a political statement. Still, one cannot really separate public health from social and political issues. Despite their slight of hand card tricks, our political leaders cannot alter the reality that public health and the quality of our environment are intimately connected.

While the quality of our external environment plays heavily on our state of health, it is another type of environment I wish to discuss,

You cannot see it, but you can feel it. It is your emotional environment. And as a psychotherapist looking at our society, I am reminded of a line from the musical The Music Man—”There’s trouble in River City.”

I call it emotional cancer, and like cancer in general, it can be deadly. Left to its own devices, it can destroy a life. At the very least, it can psychologically cripple an individual so that he or she does not make appropriate life choices. In its more aggressive forms, it can actually disrupt cellular biology leading to physical illness.

Ironically, I have found that this type of emotional cancer frequently shows up in spiritual communities, regardless of their philosophical and/or religious beliefs. There is a reason for this, and I hope to talk about it in a bit. But first I’d like to put some background in place.

Dangerous Meditations

A friend of mine who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico attended a lecture at a local health food store on herbal and homeopathic treatments for depression a few years ago. At the time, he was depressed himself, but was amazed to see so many people in the audience. The place was packed. And by his estimation, about 90% of those present were practicing meditators following some kind of spiritual tradition. And of these, over half were practicing Buddhists!

Now I don’t know about you, but in my book something is wrong here. And since I am going to be lambasting some sacred cows, let me be very precise in what I am about to say.

For one, I am a meditator. In fact, I have been practicing various forms of meditation for over forty years. And I am also a Buddhist. Well, actually I am a Neo-pagan Tibetan Buddhist and part-time Taoist, but I won’t go into that here. Suffice it to say this—I believe that the fundamental insights of Buddhism are an accurate description of the mystery that we call consciousness.

So my discomfort is not with Buddhism or with meditation in general, but rather with how they are practiced. When they are used to penetrate the authentic nature of our minds, they can be of inestimable value. But when they are used to avoid emotional truth, they are self-destructive. And I don’t care how many prostrations you do, how much incense you burn, or how long you sit on your ass in contemplation—this type of meditation does not lead to enlightenment.

I think the reason the lecture hall was so full of practicing meditators is that they were using meditation as a drug.

They discovered that they could use meditative states as a way to avoid emotional pain. Now most meditators who fall into this trap do not realize that they are necessarily avoiding emotional pain. They just know that they feel shitty if they don’t take time to meditate. It’s one thing to enjoy the vistas of mind that meditation provides. It’s another to be dependent upon it for feeling good.

This type of quasi-meditation produces a sedative effect on the mind, which dulls or lessens (for awhile) one’s emotional pain. It does this by altering serotonin levels in the brain. In other words, you get stoned. The brain is the master pharmacist, leaving even the most advanced drug companies in the dust.

The brain is capable of producing a myriad of psychoactive substances, and getting yourself stoned is quite easy once you discover how to do it. A large number of people who meditate are actually just getting stoned. Now I have no trouble with getting high, mind you, especially when it is produced by one’s own nervous system. But this is not penetrating the mystery of one’s mind. It is simply floating on a self-created samsaric high.

For those unfamiliar with the term samsaric, it refers to a Sanskrit word—samsara, the world of illusion. That which is not real is called samsara in Buddhism. So what I mean by that statement is that the experience of being stoned in meditation is a samsaric or illusory bliss. It is not real; it is self-created.

Now this is where it gets tricky. The nature of consciousness is bliss (or annanda in Sanskrit). But this type of bliss is not the same as the opiate-like high that some meditators experience. The bliss of bodhicitta (Buddha-mind) has a quality of being both expansive and clearly present. There is no avoidance of anything. All aspects of the self are present, including the emotional.

In Avoidance Meditation, a term I made up, one is using the opiate of brain chemistry to avoid an experience of one’s own emotional pain. This meditation will not yield anything of true value. It will just help you to avoid an authentic experience of your self.

It is natural for us to avoid pain. All biological organisms have this innate tendency. But when we avoid an awareness of our emotional pain or discomfort, we dim the light of self-awareness. And for anyone on the spiritual path this is an anathema.

Avoidance Meditation is just one way to avoid emotional awareness, albeit it a clever one. Among “spiritual people”, another popular way to avoid emotional awareness is by serving others.

Serving Others to Avoid Self-awareness

I told you that I was going to lambast some sacred cows in this article, so let me, once again, be clear about what I am saying. I am not saying that service to others is wrong or bad. In fact, I think that it is crucial to the spiritual path. It is a form of divine love (agape) which expresses itself as human love (filios). According to many esoteric and mystical traditions, the source of all things (call it God if you wish) can only express his/her love to us through the actions of our fellow humans. Thus we are indispensable to the divine. Without us, it cannot express its infinite love in this world.

But for many on the spiritual path serving others is a way to avoid awareness of their own pain and/or needs. The strategy is usually unconsciously driven, with little or no awareness of one’s hidden agenda(s). But by focusing on the needs of other people, we can easily lose ourselves and avoid awareness of our own un-met needs.

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, so let me paint one for you. The central figure was a powerful healer referred to me by several of her concerned friends. She was a world famous healer and people came literally from all over the world to see her. Although she had healed many people, she herself was ill. She was experiencing many unexplained spells of exhaustion, but medical tests had revealed nothing physical.

The Wounded Healer

The first thing that struck me was her bearing. She was obviously a powerful woman with tremendous strength of character and a keen intellect. She was also frustrated that she had not been able to cure herself of this “thing.”

She had resisted her friends’ proddings to see me, but a recent incident convinced her to give it a try. At the time, she was suffering from one of her many episodes of exhaustion and fatigue. Late that night, someone came to her door. They had traveled from a very far distance to see her and their companion was in the throws of what had been diagnosed as a terminal illness. Despite being exhausted herself, Lily (not her real name) ministered to this person throughout the night and into the next day.

There was a turn around and the person miraculously survived. The three grateful visitors left with feelings of gratitude to this remarkable healer. Lily felt satisfied that she had served the wishes of spirit even though she had over extended herself energetically.

And then she hit “the wall”. Every healer who has ever given too much of themselves in a session knows what “the wall” is. It is an energetic block that affects the nervous system. Her body ached. She felt weak and feverish. She passed between the worlds for a couple of days, too weak to get out of bed to even feed herself. During this inner journey, she had an encounter with herself. She knew that if she didn’t change something in how she worked, her service to humanity would wind up killing her.

The plain truth of the matter was that Lily didn’t know how to say no. She felt that anyone who showed up on her door had been “sent by spirit,” and she was supposed to work with them. It didn’t matter if it was day or night. And the needs of these strangers would even take precedent over the needs of her own children. Lily’s children had voiced annoyance at this, but she just wrote it off to the annoying fact that they were teenagers.

I asked her what her childhood was like. “What does that have to do with it,” she asked. She distrusted therapists and their over-focus on the past.

“Well as strange as it may sound, I find that issues from childhood often disguise themselves later in life.”

“I’ve been through that stuff ad nauseam,” she said.

“Well just humor me for a moment,” I retorted. “I promise we won’t spend much time there. I just need a quick sketch of the family.”

Lily proceeded to tell me quite matter of factly that her mother had died when she was nine years old. She was the oldest of seven children and quickly took on the mothering role to her younger brothers and sisters. When they got sick she would stay up through the night caring for them. It was then that Lily discovered her healing abilities. She didn’t know how she did it, but she could put her hands on someone sick and make them feel better.

“So Lily, did you feel guilty about your mom dying?”

“What do you mean,” she asked in a challenging tone of voice.

“Well it seems to me that if you discovered your healing abilities after your mother died, there might be some regret that you hadn’t discovered them earlier and been able to heal your mom.”

“But I was nine years old when she died!” There was unmistakable anguish in Lily’s voice.

“I know, I know. And there was nothing you could do.” I paused to let my last words set in.

Lily started to sob, and a great release from thirty-some years of pent up grief and sorrow began to leave her.

After several minutes we began to talk further. It was becoming clear that Lily had been driven by unrecognized grief and loss around her mother. Because she had not owned or recognized her emotional pain around this, she projected it onto those people who came to see her for healing.

She was used to taking care of people. After all, she had started at any early age. And she was good at what she did. There was no question that Lily had helped hundreds of people.

But she had abandoned herself. By over-focusing on the needs of others, she had lost touch with her own needs—needs as simple as taking time off to rest.

The situation was exasperated by Lily’s immense spiritual development. Yes, as odd as it sounds, spiritual development does not necessarily bring psychological or physical wellness.

She had a profound sense of compassion for other beings and a deeply rooted desire to help them. But she did not include herself in the equation. If someone was suffering, in her mind, their needs far exceeded her needs, even the needs of her own children.

Now this simply doesn’t work in the world of embodied beings. As human animals we have authentic needs that must be met. If they aren’t, we will pay a price either in physical and/or mental distress.

Lily had not been attending to her own needs and was paying for it. She was a victim of emotional cancer.

Cancer occurs when cells begin multiplying out of control. Unchecked, they can eventually kill off healthy cells and eventually even kill their host.

Emotional cancers operate in a very similar way. An unrecognized emotional pattern begins proliferating. In this case, Lily’s pattern was taking care of others to avoid feeling the pain around her mother’s death. The problem was not that she was a healer. The problem was that she couldn’t recognize when it wasn’t appropriate for her to extend herself.

But under the grips of emotional cancer she didn’t have the right or the permission to take care of herself in the presence of other people’s needs. To do so would have seemed “selfish.” Not only this, but to take time for herself while others were suffering would have put her face to face with the unresolved feelings around her mother’s death.

The whole thing was made even more complicated by Lily’s belief in spiritual service through sacrifice. This is an old spiritual template that has been with us here on Earth for a long long time. And Lily had accepted this as part of her spirituality. For the record, I think that there are times when self-sacrifice may be a noble act, but chronic unconscious self-sacrifice is just plain stupid.

As Lily searched for a way to integrate her new found insights into her dilemma as a healer, Lily had to reach a more mature understanding about the needs of her self in relation to the needs of others.

If she was not able to integrate her needs into her view of herself and the world, her emotional cancer would eventually kill her. Now be clear here—emotional patterns do not kill directly. But they lead to behaviors that are self-destructive. If Lily did not start to take time off, she would burn out or worse, contract some type of disease.

In some cases, emotional cancers actually become physical cancer. Until recently, the mechanism that changed emotion into disease was not understood. But through the work of Dr. Candace Pert and the concept of neuropeptides, this mystery is being explained.

According to current neuropeptide theory, these highly active biochemical activators interact with receptor sites on the surface of cells. According to Dr. Pert, repressed emotions are stored in the body by means of neuropeptides, and memories are stored in neuropeptide receptors.

It has long been an observation of body oriented therapists that the body holds memory. And this type of memory can be stored away for years.

I recall demonstrating a hypnotic technique during a professional training several years ago. When I suggested that the young woman go back to an earlier time, she started to cry. When she composed herself, I asked her what had happened.

She said she flashed back to around seven or eight years old. She was playing softball and got hit in the face with a bat. Her father was the coach of the team and she remembers not crying after being hit. Her father told her on the way home that he was proud of her for not crying.

During the brief hypnotic state, she re-experienced the physical pain of being hit as if she had been hit all over again. The pain was not remembered, mind you, but physically experienced!

Not only this, but the realization that her father had wanted a son instead of a girl, came crashing in on her. She had tried to live up to her father’s expectations her entire life.

I have been in the presence of hundreds of people re-experiencing past pain in my therapy practice. And based on this twenty-some-years of observation, I would say that Dr. Pert’s theory or some form of it is bang on.

While most people are not particularly interested in biochemistry, and such things as the mechanisms behind disease, they are interested in staying healthy.

I called this article Emotional Cancer, because I believe that toxic emotions do, in fact, transform into disease. Now let me be clear here again—I do not believe that all disease is caused by negative un-owned emotion. Some of it is undoubtedly physically based. But some of it can be traced back to patterns of feeling, and this is no where more clear than with physical forms of cancer.

The Psychology of Cancer

As more studies are conducted on the psychology of cancer patients, some fascinating tendencies are starting to emerge.

For one, it has been observed by a number of psychologists that women with breast cancer often have self-sacrifice as a part of their psychological life. They also often feel like they have no right to their own needs. They take care of the needs of those around them, long before they take care of themselves. Their needs, to use a proverbial saying, have been put on “the back burner.” And many cancer patients are often self-effacing and always try to be “nice” regardless of the situation.

Now the immune system’s basic function is to discriminate between “self” and “non-self.” And it does this through a vast array of processes including site receptors on the surfaces of cells.

If a foreign object invades the body, say a virus or bacteria, the immune system sends a hoard of specialized cells, things like T-Killer cells, microphages, etc., to the site of the invasion. These micro-warriors quite simply contain the invaders and destroy them.

Now I believe that our emotional selves have processes similar to our immune systems. The function of emotional immunity is to also discriminate between self and non-self. If someone is toxic or abusive to us, our emotional immunity separates us from them. We have the sense of a healthy psychological autonomy. There is the recognition that we are separate beings, and that we are not obliged to accept or take in their abuse.

But this only occurs with a healthy emotional immune system. If it is damaged, we will accept abuse or manipulation from others. In such cases, there is no inherent sense of psychological autonomy, and we feel we have no right but to accept the abuse.

Now abuse can take many forms. Physical abuse is obvious, but mental or emotional abuse can often be harder to spot. But the toxic elements of abuse, whether physical, mental or emotional, are similar in that they are all destructive to emotional immunity.

Joan (not her real name) had been sexually abused by her father, who was ironically, a minister. He had a high profile position in a large congregation and was living, it would seem, two lives. Although the physical abuse stopped when Joan was around twelve, the emotional abuse continued. Her overbearing father controlled her every move and belittled any and all of her accomplishments.

By her own estimation, Joan was the perfect minister’s daughter. She always had a smile on her face, and always knew what to say to make someone feel better. When her parents weren’t home, she would often counsel parishioners in distress.

Throughout high school and college she was very popular with lots of friends. But something was missing. She was removed from her own feelings, and although she knew what to do in a social situation, she had no idea what to do when she was alone. She had been robbed of her sense of self, and not even being in the best sorority could make it better.

While at college, Joan had two un-wanted pregnancies outside of wedlock. She aborted the first child, to the horror of her parents. When she got pregnant again, she decided to keep the child. Reflecting back at her decision, Joan told me that she simply couldn’t bear the judgment of her parents a second time.

As far as any one could tell, Joan lived a happy life. She got married and had another child. Things were going well—on the surface, at least. Then when Joan turned forty, she started having a series of dreams. They were to haunt her for nearly three years with varying degrees and different locations, but always with the same theme.

A black woman would chase her. The pitch black female was the color of tar or the darkest night. She was frightening, and often bared her teeth and made hissing sounds. She always said the same thing—”Change, or I will kill you!”

After about three years of this, the dreams stopped. Joan, by her own estimation, had not changed much at all. And then about two years later, Joan was diagnosed with breast cancer.

The black woman was a messenger from the deep that Joan had disregarded. Some part, the authentic part of Joan, was angry. This is why the dark figure had bared her teeth and hissed like a snake. The messenger from the unconscious was sending a distress call. Something needed to change, or life would not be allowed to continue. The “something” that needed to change was Joan’s way of living for others rather than for herself.

Joan eventually succumbed to the disease despite valiant medical attempts to stop it.

I mentioned this case because it is a poignant example of what I call Emotional Cancer and the toll it can exact.

Joan’s sense of self had been violated by her father, and her emotional immunity had been damaged. At a deep emotional level she felt she had no right to make choices different from those around her. And as this Emotional Cancer proliferated, she felt increasingly disempowered. Her relationships felt more and more like spider webs. Being quite psychic, Joan reported that she could often feel the desires of those around her. She shied away from crowds; the conflicting desires were simply too much for her.

The irony didn’t escape Joan that she had developed cancer of the breast. She told me that over the years, she had felt like she was an unwitting mother to the world.

Joan wasn’t able to figure out how to reclaim her sense of self and the life that came with it. She was not able to change her inner world, and the dark figure from her unconscious came to take her.

Healing from Cancer

A common theme among survivors of catastrophic illness such as cancer is a shift from the needs of others to the needs of self. Such a massive turn around in psychological orientation evidently releases tremendous healing energy. Perhaps such changes stimulate the release of healing neuropeptides. But whatever the physiological mechanism, focusing on the authentic needs of the self is healing.

I have a friend who experienced this many years ago. She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and told to get her affairs in order. She went home and announced to her astonished family that she was leaving them. She said that since her life was ending, she was going to do something she always wanted to—visit Japan. She took off for Tokyo and had such a good time visiting Japan and the rest of Asia, the cancer went into remission!

Building Emotional Immunity

It is fairly well known that we can strengthen our physical immune systems by making lifestyle changes. But it is less known that we can strengthen our emotional immune systems as well.

The first task is to recognize if one is suffering from a weak emotional immune system. A healthy emotional immune system is based upon having the ability to recognize one’s authentic needs (as opposed to wants) and the internal permission to take care of those needs. It also includes a clear sense of oneself as an autonomous being, separate from others.

Now this sometimes poses problems for people on a spiritual path. This is because from the level of the heart, we recognize that we are all One. We see that there is one life, one consciousness living through multitudinous forms. There is a natural feeling of interconnectedness with others when the heart space is activated. And from the vantage point of higher consciousness, there is no self separate from anyone else anyway.

And while this is true, it is also true that we have bodies that are separate from other bodies. And the innate intelligence of our biology dictates that we honor those differences. If we don’t, we will get ill. Our immune systems follow this irrevocable law of nature.

Our emotional immune systems also follow this law. If we don’t become aware of psychologically toxic elements and avoid them, we will become ill, either physically or emotionally.

I hope by now that it has become clear that Emotional Cancer is created by violating one’s sense of self. This usually occurs due to some kind of abuse. And while physical, sexual and emotional abuse are fairly recognized, there is one form of abuse that often slips by unnoticed. I call it spiritual abuse.

In its simplest form, spiritual abuse leads one down a path of forgetting the self. One’s needs are supplanted by an ideal that is perceived as far loftier than one’s mere self. This kind of spiritual robbery shows up in a myriad of forms and no spiritual lineage is immune to it. If you find yourself involved in a group or a teaching that denies the validity of your feelings and/or dishonors your needs, then I suggest you get “the hell out of Dodge!”

My reason for saying this is that the root of the word “holy” means “to make whole.” That which increases our wholeness is sacred and that which decreases our wholeness is profane. The task of re-membering oneself through the cultivation of emotional awareness is holy work.

Finally, the way to protect our emotional immunity is to pay attention to our needs. First, we have to give ourselves permission to recognize that we have them. And, secondly, we have to find a way to integrate our needs into the myriad demands of our daily life. This is no small task, especially in a society that seems hell bent on avoiding self-awareness.

There can be a lot of social pressure for one to remain unconscious around one’s authentic needs and feelings—especially in “spiritual communities.” I have found, for instance, that those who are uncomfortable with their own needs and feelings, are often uncomfortable with other people’s needs and feelings.

What do you do with your feelings when they run counter to those around you? What do you do when your needs are different from those around you? These are crucial questions and how you answer them will have a significant impact on your “emotional immunity.”

For those choosing the holy work of re-membering the self, there is no other way. One must find the means to be honest with one’s self and to accommodate one’s needs while living in a world that discourages self-awareness and honesty.

It’s a tough one, but it is one of the best games in town.