When The Body Says No- Gabor Maté

“When we have been prevented from learning how to say no, our bodies may end up saying it for us.”- Gabor Maté, When the Body Says No

I think it’s common knowledge that stress takes its toll on the body and can cause chronic illness. Gabor Maté goes a step further in his analysis on stress’ impact on the body and looks in more depth into autoimmune diseases and how our reactions to life, as well as our upbringings,  and our relationships with loved ones, might affect how our body reacts, for better or for worse. This book has a wealth of information that I feel should be essential reading.

Maté’s book was a wake up call in many ways. The author is a well-known and beloved Vancouver physician and he writes with such passion and understanding over the human body, illness and life experiences. The main issue Maté looks at is that of psychoneuroimmunology, the science of the interactions between the mind and the body. Basically, “our immune system does not exist in isolation from daily experience.” , and our emotions and physiology are connected. Doctors often ask for our symptoms but few really help us understand that our childhood, upbringing and other factors play a huge part in our health. Maté advocates for a more holistic approach to healthcare.

I found the real examples in this book very informative, and also very sad. There was the story of Gilda Radner, who died from ovarian cancer. One of the things she said, which I’ll try my best to live by, goes as follows:  “It is important to realize that you have to take care of yourself because you can’t take care of anybody else until you do.”

In addition to Radner, there were also analyses on Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels) and Ronald Reagan, who Maté said wrote his autobiography with “emotional poverty, disguised by sentiment.” Emotions were a big part of this book, suppressed emotions being seen as unhealthy expression and aiding in stress:

” Emotions interpret the world for us. They have a signal function, telling us about our internal states as they are affected by input from the outside. Emotions are responses to present stimuli as filtered through the memory of past experience, and they anticipate the future based on our perception of the past.”

“Repressed anger will lead to disordered immunity. The inability to process and express feelings effectively, and the tendency to serve the needs of others before considering one’s own, are common patterns in people who develop chronic illness.”

I learned that perfectionism is harmful. I also learned that so many of us carry other people’s burdens and it can become crippling. I learned more about  Alzheimer’s, cancer, dementia, .multiple sclerosis. and other diseases, and was impressed by how Maté managed to communicate what he believes to be the sources of these diseases without taking on an accusatory or judgmental tone.  He has so much empathy, and what he does in his writing, as well as informing and guiding us to self-analyze, is helping us achieve self-acceptance and healing.

This book challenged me to take an honest look at myself, at my life, how I do things, and how I react to things.

Finally, a mantra for those of us who perhaps do too much: “I should be a guide, not a god.”

 

Braiding Sweetgrass- Robin Wall Kimmerer

 

“What if you were a teacher but had no voice to speak your knowledge? What if you had no language at all and yet there was something you needed to say? Wouldn’t you dance it? Wouldn’t you act it out? Wouldn’t your every movement tell the story? In time you would be so eloquent that just to gaze upon you would reveal it all. And so it is with these silent green lives.”– Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

In 2007, Yann Martel compiled a reading list for Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper . People on Twitter was discussing other books to add to the list to make it more diverse . Our PM isn’t that great with environmental issues or indigenous issues, so this is one book I would recommend this book to him if he’s not too busy meeting panda bears.

This is by far one of the most important books I’ve read this year. The author is a scientist but she is also a poet. Her writing is absolutely stunning and eloquent. Her love for the land, especially the land she grew up on, comes through very clearly in her writing.

There is acknowledgement that the previously ignored indigenous cultures and knowledge are absolutely essential. As much as I focus on indigenous research in my studies, this is the first time I have seen the focus being on science. This book was definitely a shout out to indigenous culture and knowledge, knowledge that is often ignored by academia, or seen as wishy-washy or not true science:

“My natural inclination was to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide. But science is rigorous in separating the observer from the observed, and the observed from the observer.”

The book clearly states the importance of the land, for so many reasons: sustenance, healing, etc. While reading this, I thought of how my mother had had asthma as a child but my grandfather, who was very familiar with traditional African medicine (which was of course seen as backwards by Western medicine) knew which plant medicine to give my mother. She doesn’t have asthma anymore. My grandfather also helped with my sister’s anaemia (by boiling guava leaves in water and giving her the liquid to drink – this helps to replenish iron levels). What sort of knowledge is dying out because people aren’t interested in the land anymore? My grandfather passed away and I wonder who has the knowledge of the herb that cured my mother’s asthma.

The author uses incidents from her personal life, as well as myths, to enrich her insight on nature, plants and the land. The book is relatively heavy on the science (biology) but I think basic high school biology knowledge is enough to understand most of the processes.

Also included in the book is the sad history of the Natives in North America, the death of language, the near-extermination of their culture and what it means to the world as a whole:

“In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us….It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be sold.”

After reading this, I feel compelled to observe nature more closely, plant vegetables, look at possible relationships between plants, tap maple trees for syrup, something! The most engaging science book I’ve ever read and one I’d recommend to anyone.