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James Clelland

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Writing and the power of pork saucies

In my day job as a scientist, I’ve become intrigued by what some people can achieve simply by using the power of their mind. I have a friend, for instance, who claims she defeated her malignant melanoma by a combination of meditation, diet and exercise. Now, my scientific training tells me this is hogwash, but she’s been clear for over fifteen years, and now guides others to deal with cancer for the Cancer Association of Australia. What is going on here? What exactly happens when you meditate, or do trance dancing or other new age stuff? Is it all just gobbledegook or is there something in this that we should all harness for whatever purpose we chose?

And before going on, let me declare my interests. I started with Ayurvedic meditation over ten years ago, have visited Buddhist retreats, non-denominational retreats where you pay to garden in the rain for a week, and have flirted with Transcendental Meditation. I also eat mostly and fruit vegetables – apart from a soft spot for pork sausages, a seriously big soft spot – and am thinking of going “raw” – not including pork saucies – having been taught the method recently at a retreat in Australia. Well, at least my right brain is in some sort of balance with that scientific left side, I suppose. So what has meditation given me? If nothing else, I get two sessions of twenty minutes peace and quiet each day, and that’s got to be worth something. There is a sense that it’s made me calmer but I’ve also got ten years older in the last ten years so that’s a factor too. So, in summary, I’m a sceptic who meditates. Take it or leave it.

It’s a cliché that you can make yourself sick or well, but the truth of this can be illustrated by a couple of stories. I read of a clinical trial recently which tested pain assessment. Volunteers had a drip inserted and were also attached to a torque on their lower legs, and as it squeezed them, they were asked to assess the level of pain, from one to a hundred. The average assessment was in the sixties. Some were given pain killers without their knowledge before being subjected to the same level of torque, and then asked to reassess the pain level. It dipped a little to just below sixty. Then, here’s the interesting bit, the subjects were then TOLD they were being given a pain killer – and lo and behold, without anything else changing, the pain assessment was less than 40. What’s going on here? Nothing except the expectation of pain relief! The power of the mind had kicked in and made people feel genuinely less pain.

Is this why some people survive what they are told are fatal cancers, like my friend in Oz? Is this why those who don’t worry about smoking cigarettes for forty years don’t die so often from lung cancer as those who worry – worry themselves sick? – about this potentially fatal habit? And is this why placebo works sometimes?

Placebo is, of course, nothing whatever, except a fake tablet. But it leads to the patient feeling that something is being done to help them, and thus increases expectations of wellness which – ta-ra! – brings about improvement in health. AND almost every trial of a potential new drug is assessed against placebo – and during these lengthy trials, no one knows whether they are receiving the drug or placebo. So, almost every drug on the market is there simply because it is better than nothing – a sobering thought! Some doctors will need reminding of this fact, especially when a patient says they will try alternative mind-power treatments for their condition. Prescription drugs have their place, for sure, and not everyone will be healed without conventional treatment, but simple mind power has its place, a proud place too.

What has this got to do with writing? I’m not sure, but I find anything that cleanses my mind helps my writing, and that can be exercise, meditation, or simply avoiding the latest tragedy on the news or radio before writing. A clean and clear mind is as necessary to my writing as to my health.

One writer who used mind power in an interesting way was John Updike, author of Couples and the wonderful series about Rabbit Angstrom. In his autobiography he wrote that he was terrified to speak in front of people and suffered bad eczema and – dreadful for someone expected to speak in public, he stammered. He created what he termed the “Freedom of the Mask” and adopted another personality, John Updike, Famous Author, distinct from himself, whenever he had to speak in public. Behind the mask hid the real John Updike, scratching and stammering but safe from public scrutiny, while the Famous Author spoke without eczema or a stammer. Quite some mind trick, hey?

So, excuse me, I’m off to continue being between novels, a la Kate, to work for a living, using mind power alone, with just a wee assist from two pork saucies.



Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Kathryn</a>
    April 11th, 2011 @16:30 #

    Such a lovely piece! As someone with SLE (lupus) i fully wholeheartedly absolutely agree, and know that 1. pain can be lessened simply by willing it so. 2. a happy and peaceful mind helps with keeping your body in good working order. and 3. pork is the best food in the whole entire world.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">James Clelland</a>
    James Clelland
    April 12th, 2011 @17:27 #

    Ha-ha and thanks for the kind words, Helen and glad you enjoyed this piece of fun with serious undertones. Sorry about the SLE, not lekker. My friend in Jozi had a spontaneous remission some time ago after years of cortisone treatment and is still clear. Fingers and mind crossed for you. x

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    April 12th, 2011 @21:52 #

    Dear James, I am very flattered to be confused with beauteous Kathryn-Kitty, and agree with her in liking this very much. And strangely, I fully intended writing a comment saying very similar things about FMS, the chief symptom of which is pain that is non-responsive to painkillers, but highly responsive to mind power. (Jeez, we could form a support group here -- writers with incurable illnesses -- Wii.) However, as a vegetarian I have to clap my hands over my eyes at Kitty's No 3 statement, altho you did trigger terrible nostalgic yearning for pork saucis, dammit.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">James Clelland</a>
    James Clelland
    April 13th, 2011 @18:01 #

    Oops, I'm just so used to you saying nice things, Helen. Sorry, Kitty! And personally I think that writing is an incurable disease (or obcession maybe) but one I like having very much and will keep, thank you.


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