Today I want to talk a bit about our immune systems. As a person who has survived several serious illnesses, I’ve come to the realization that human beings have four immune systems:
- Physical Immune System
- Intellectual Immune System
- Emotional Immune System
- Spiritual Immune System
In order to ward off and/or overcome illness, each of these needs to be functioning in top shape.
Full disclosure: I’m not a doctor or a medical professional. Heck, I don’t even own a lab coat. What I’m sharing with you today is not medical advice.
The human immune system has been both a marvel and a mystery to doctors for centuries. Each of us is equipped with a complex and interactive system of defenders that can identify, isolate, and destroy harmful invaders. Even more fascinating is that it is an adaptive system that can learn from its past history of infections and even failures.
This physical immune system is the first of our four immune systems. Our body identifies harmful pathogens, tries to prevent them from replicating and spreading — especially into our brain — and then battles with them until it can return to equilibrium.
Researchers have already shown that there are a bunch of fairly simple things we can do to keep our body’s immune system strong. For example, eating a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, exercising, sleeping enough to allow our body to reset, and perhaps taking certain supplements.
This is step one in any plan to prevent illness. And if you are already ill, you definitely gotta stop smoking, stop drinking, and don’t supersize anything until you’re healthy again.
Less discussed is the intellectual immune system. No, I’m not talking about the blood/brain barrier. I’m talking about humans’ unique ability to solve problems by using our noodle. When you’re up against the possibility of getting sick, or you actually are sick, your mind will work overtime to try to come up with solutions.
I want to separate mind chatter (worry and fear) from the logical, rational, analytical mind which is focused on getting answers to help us avoid or overcome illness.
Even though I call this the intellectual immune system, you don’t need an advanced degree to access it. All you need is curiosity and determination. The world is full of information and thanks to the internet it’s all available to you in ways that would amaze previous generations.
The key to maximizing your intellectual immune system is to sort the wheat from the chaff. Anyone who’s ever Googled any illness knows that among the millions of results shown in the search page are scores or bogus, odd, and patently false statements.
The key is to have a strong B.S. meter. Always, always, check the source. I index towards major research institutions, actual doctors, and peer-reviewed papers. But hey, I gotta tell you, I also look at the fringe. Sometimes, although rarely, the most important findings come from the most unexpected sources. But here’s my bottom line: even if I think someone out of left field is writing about something that looks interesting or even promising, I always disqualify them if they are trying to make a profit.
Searching for answers and sorting through information is the function of the intellectual immune system. I’m not advocating self-diagnosis or self-medication, but no doctor has all the information. The more informed you are, the better partner you can be with your health care professional.
OK, still with me?
Next comes the emotional immune system.
Ooh, this one is a tricky SOB. Why? Because when facing a crisis, most of us tend to fall into the negative emotions. And this is crucial to realize. I have interviewed dozens of doctors over the years and I always ask them: what is the key to recovering from illness? They all say that after getting a proper medical diagnosis and treatment, it’s the mindset of the patient that matters most.
You have to want to heal. You have to believe you can heal.
Buddhists contend that our thoughts, words, and actions all shape our reality. If our thoughts are based in fear, we can literally drain our physical immune system of crucial energy–just like leaving the lights on in your car all night will drain your battery.
I’m not making this up. Scientists have now proven that there is a mind/body connection.
Specifically, I want to talk about the role of negative emotions.
I know it’s easy to fall into fear. Coronavirus news surrounds us these days, there’s no cure or vaccine, and the culprit is invisible.
But your emotions still have a big role to play in all this. And the more positive you are, the more the mind/body connection can work in your favor.
I wrote in a previous blog post about a Buddhist friend who had been given a heartbreaking diagnosis. Together we sought out a wise elder in our community for guidance. “My doctor told me that people with this condition only have a 12% survival rate,” he said dejectedly. The Buddhist elder looked him straight in the eye and exclaimed, “Then determine that you’ll be one of the 12% who survive!” My friend said it felt like a lightning bolt had gone through his body. “Yes! I will be one of the 12%!” he replied, now filled with conviction.
Imagine how this impacted his body’s immune system.
Here are some things I find helpful when I’m trying to battle the darkness of fear and ramp up my emotional immune system:
-Laugh. There’s a reason they say laughter is the best medicine. And it’s not just because they didn’t have universal health care.I love old comedies, but find whatever tickles your funny bone.
-Be helpful. Get out of your own shit and be of service to someone else. Call a friend, help a neighbor, pick up some trash. It’s not about recognition, it’s about firing up those endorphins and building karmic brownie points.
-Be grateful. Having appreciation is a powerful stimulus to change your outlook. Start with being alive and work upwards from there. I’m grateful for so many things, organizations, and people in my life. From Buddha to dairy-free Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Gratitude is my secret weapon against hopelessness and depression.
-Have more sex. Medical professionals know that sex stimulates a bunch of good things in your body and spirit.
The last immune system is the spiritual immune system.
Yes, I’m gonna get all spiritual on you for a moment. But hang on, there’s a practical reason, I promise.
I believe the purpose of any spiritual philosophy or practice is to give hope. Whether we are talking about organized religion, the work of mystics like Kahlil Gibran, the teachings of the Buddha, etc., if you have a life-affirming philosophy you are more likely to be able to support your body’s immune system.
This spiritual immune system is like an invisible force that binds the other three immune systems together. It’s the glue that gives your life meaning and purpose.
If you don’t have a spiritual practise in your life, now’s a pretty good time to look for one. My friend says having a spiritual foundation can mean the difference between living your life in black and white vs. living in technicolor.
I’m a longtime Buddhist and I’ve found the philosophy, practice, and community of SGI Nichiren Buddhism to be of profound value in my life. You can see a video about how my Buddhist practice helped save my grandfather’s life here.
Whatever spiritual foundation you choose, I hope yours is life-affirming and based on mutual respect and acceptance. As I’ve written in the past, I believe the purpose of life is to become happy. By strengthening your four immune systems you have the best chance of staying healthy and knocking down not only any illness that comes your way, but also any other kind of obstacle — be it in physical, emotional, financial, professional, or personal.
Wishing you total success and fulfillment.
Stay safe, stay healthy, and fire up your four immune systems!
The Career Buddha