I hate self-help books, and yet I realize, when I begin a sentence with, “I hate self-help books,” it’s because I’m about to make a sharp turn with, “But this book is different.”
Yes, it’s true. Sadly, I am now someone who found a book (or rather two), that have had pronounced effects on my physical and mental health. I’m writing about them together, because they both share one trait. They seek to vanquish recurring pains. One in the body, and one in the mind.
For a good 15 years I had a buttload of back pain. I’ve blamed it on my obsessive weightlifting in my younger days — a time when bench pressing twice my own weight seemed a bigger achievement than working.
It was a misspent youth, but it could have been worse. I’m alive at 50 because of my fitness obsession. As fitness editor of Prevention, and later editor of Men’s Health, I spent between two and three hours a day cultivating a fleshy garden with 4 percent body fat. And for what?
The exercise became the solution — there was never a goal other than “increase” and “cut.” I chased a perverse maintenance that swallowed time — which allowed me to avoid scary choices and risky opportunities. I turned down jobs because of this madness.
But after millions of incline, decline and military press reps — my back was fucked. I’d have spasms and chronic aches that would leave me rigid and crooked. The spasms would hit almost always before I’d have to travel. Or, they’d occur on vacation — forcing me to sleep on the floor instead of the plush king bed. On the beach, I’d lie face down in the sand like an unconscious leftover from the night before. It was strange how it only happened on vacation.
I found out, however, from John Sarno that this was normal for freaks like me.
After much massage, physical therapy, pills, and doctor visits did nothing, some MD finally mentioned surgery. But all the while, there was little in my MRI’s that showed any injury, damage or weirdness.
At some low point, I remembered listening to Howard Stern a decade or so earlier talk about how he beat his back pain, and then I remembered John Stossel doing something on that same doctor for 20/20. I looked it up. It was a guy named John Sarno who had helped both conquer back pain.
I ordered a cheap paperback called Healing Back Pain and made an appointment with his office in New York. Sarno emailed me back — told me he had retired, but sent me to his crew, which was still in practice, at a major hospital.
By the time I was done with the book though, I emailed to cancel the appointment. I said I was fixed. They were not surprised. In the book, it says that sometimes the book is enough. Unlike normal self-help gurus, they were interested in actual self-help. I don’t think they even cared that I was in the media, and could help them sell copies. I’ve never heard from them since. They were like, “whatever.” That’s a sure sign they weren’t quacks.
The premise of that book sounds goofy, but it’s based on an MD’s decades of experience with patients. His conclusions were, from what I remember, that the pain was muscular, brought on by repressed emotions or stress, and it’s better just to stop worrying that you might be hurting yourself by doing normal, daily stuff.
The moment I decided to stop thinking about the damage I might be doing, and chose instead to live normally, the back pain disappeared. That was three years ago. By denying the existence of physical damage of back pain, the pain moved on.
I remember old Greg. He was always touching his back, and dramatically expressing an anguished acknowledgment of suffering. He took days off to nurse it.
The new Greg is better: when he feels back pain, he simply tells it to go fuck itself (I believe this is also what Stossel says to his back pain, and mustache).
Before you stop reading this for fear I am a gullible dope, I must implore you that I hate new age medicine. I hate self-help experts. Working in health mags for a decade made me abhor charlatans. I hate gimmicks and caftans.
But this, is not that. Sarno is an MD who spent his life working with patients. His conclusions are revolutionary, but not necessary to accept, to reap their benefits. That the pain might be due to repressed anger is secondary, and to me, meaningless. The primary key was his solution: Do not adjust your life to the pain, but instead return to full activity. Because there is no reason to think you are making matters worse when living your life. MOVE ON. This is key: we stop doing things because we think we ARE making things worse. By erasing that option, it creates freedom. By refusing to surrender to the spasm, the spasm retreats .
Which brings me to neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris’s new book, Waking Up.
(FYI Sam Harris is the same guy that Ben Affleck attacked on Bill Maher’s show two weeks ago over Islam.)
After my mom died, my super-sized pal Penn Jillette emailed me and told me to get Sam’s book. Penn may not know me well, but he knows me VERY well — because he sensed this book might be helpful. He called the publicist and had it sent to me. He also said, “It might be nuts,” but it could “change your life.” When Penn tells me to do something, I do it. Because he’s super smart, and also way bigger than me.
Billed as “a guide to spirituality without religion,” which the book is, it actually serves up something more meaningful to the modern neurotic like me.
I am a neurotic gnome. My worry is beneficial — it gets me up in the morning to meet deadlines, write books, and go to the gym. But it also prevents me from trying new things, taking risks, and basically doing the stuff other people do. Ask any of my friends or family.
I doubt I will change, but Waking Up makes me think it might be possible. It’s really the first book that addresses the universal endless faucet of intrusive thoughts and sensations — and the anxieties caused. Not unlike Sarno’s treatment of back pain, Harris focuses on the intrusive visitor, and asks that you identify it and then let it go.
For the inexperienced, agnostic hater of new age bilge, the book introduced me to a world of mindful meditation — the kind of practice that I would normally mock, back in my days at Prevention and Men’s Health. I hated yoga, meditation, and those who did it. But I’d never addressed the science of consciousness, or stuff like vipassana, which separates you from your thoughts, allowing you to isolate and eliminate them… the same way Sarno did with back pain.
Harris’s book may be way over my head. His main thesis is that your concept of self is an illusion. In fact, all there is in consciousness, and we are all just living in it. The “I” that you think you are — living behind your eyeballs, like a driver of your body — isn’t real. And once you practice mindful meditation, you will at some point enter a state that is entirely thought-free — where the self is gone, and all there is, is consciousness. The analogy he borrows is that of a theatergoer, immersed in a film, realizing he is only watching a movie. That is when the self dissolves, I suppose. It’s pretty out there.
I don’t get it either, but I know this: meditation is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. but I do it because of the science, not because of the appeal. The idea of trying to STOP your thoughts is harder than bench pressing a Volvo. It’s like trying to perform an exercise with muscles you don’t have. Growing these muscles, now, is mental.
The idea sounds crazy. Why would I want to stop thinking? But we know this: we lie awake at night, and thoughts race through our brain in a perpetual freeway of anxiety. And we try to shut them off. With Ambien, with wine, with music, with niche porn from faraway countries. Harris applies eastern practices to western hell — forcing you to face these thoughts head on, and smite them one by one.
Years before, I tried to learn (or rather, relearn over and over) to meditate. But actually, all I had done was sat with my eyes closed, thinking. Harris’s book is designed to pull you out of that thought whirlpool. The only obstacle is that wet mass you call a brain.
I cannot describe the method expertly, for I am a novice. At times it works. But even then, it may only be a tool that puts off anxiety — until the anxiety returns.
Fact is, anxiety works for me — it gets me working. But it’s not such a bad thing to know that you can get away from it — or from your own worst enemy — which is often you.
Even more, when your spine and brain are back under your control, that’s a great thing too.
[Note: I tried to get Sam Harris on Redeye to discuss the book, but he said he was busy. Lost in thought, perhaps.]