The Etymology of “Disease”, And Where Floating Fits In
I’ve always been interested in words. And the mind. And health. In particular, I’ve always been interested in the hidden or lost aspects of all of them, and how we each perceive them differently. Words are like ingredients in a recipe; one person thinks to use cardamom one way, while another has the idea to use cardamom a different way, creating an entirely different culinary experience. As it is with words. And, in many ways, as it is with finding healing and balanced health.
I recently heard Dr. Gabor Maté, an addiction specialist, expert in how the mind affects the body and author of “When The Body Says No“, discuss the word “depression”. For something to be in a state of depression, he mused, suggests that something has been depressed, or pushed down:
His point was that depression is largely about a difficult experience having been pushed down, below the surface, where it doesn’t have to be consciously dealt with regularly, but where it manifests insidiously regardless, expressing itself in whatever way it has available to it, as symptoms of what we label as “depression”. He was referencing the lost meaning of the word. We’ve culturally come to automatically understand references to depression through association with its symptoms, because we are a symptoms-focused culture. It was interesting to think about it from a deeper, more definitive perspective.
I’ve been pondering how that applies to other words with the health realm that have similarly lost their more definitive meaning, and how this is all ties into floating.
“Disease” and “disorder” are two such words – one typically used for physical issues, the other mental – that our culture similarly auto-associates with their symptoms or with quickly recognizable pathologies. Heart disease, Crohn’s disease, lung disease, reflux disease. Anxiety Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. To name just a few.
If “to push down” is the lost meaning of “depression”, what are the lost meanings of these words?
Disease. Dis-ease. A deficiency of ease. Not enough ease. What else do we know this as? Stress.
Stress is, by definition, the root of dis-ease. When there is stress, there cannot be ease. And when there is ease, there cannot be stress. Culturally, we recognize this word “stress” as a bad thing. We may intellectually know that being in a heightened state of constant agitated doing, or mentally feeling extremely reactive to and exhausted by cyclical thought patterns that are self-judgemental or stressful, is unhealthy for us. But, let’s face it, most of us continue to allow that stress to run rampant in our conscious or subconscious minds, and in our nervous systems. Culturally, we operate like Formula1 drivers who think we can keep our foot on the gas and just keep on going forever without either running out of gas or the engine failing. When the gas eventually and inevitably runs out, we call it Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, scratch our heads about what possibly could have caused it, and then seek medical help for treating the symptoms of the disease. When the engine finally and inevitably fails, we call it heart disease, or maybe kidney disease, and seek medical help for the symptoms of those diseases.
Rarely do we recognize that the root of these conditions is dis-ease, a deficiency of ease, an excess of stress, and make changes to embrace a state of being that is based in ease.
Disorder. Dis-order. A lack of order. An organizational deficiency. Many “disorders” are akin to a filing system that has gone awry, as if someone has flung open the filing cabinet of the mind and strewn folders and documents all over the place, and only put half of them away properly afterwards. Anybody who has ever defragmented the hard drive on their computer will recognize some similarities between how a computer works and how our minds work. On our computers and devices, we open apps all day long, open folders, access files. Many of us just leave them all open and walk away, abandoned in an incomplete state of disarray, like the filing cabinet that a Tazmanian devil rampaged through.
When this occurs within our minds, we call it a mental health disorder. A mental health dis-order. A lack of mental order, an organizational deficiency existing in our minds, in our consciousness, in our psyche, within the very architecture of what we label as “me” or “I”. As with disease, rarely do we recognize lack of order as the root of mental health issues. Instead we pathologize, label, attribute symptoms, and assign medication to depress, or push down, those symptoms, where they won’t appear to be consciously affecting us quite as much. But no matter how much suppression, or depression, occurs, that lack of order is still there at the root of it all, like a basement where all the disorganized files and folders have been swept away in a pile, out of sight.
So what does all this have to do with floating?
Those of you who have floated know that there is no state of being at physical ease quite like floating. Your muscles relax, your tendons relax, the fascia relaxes, the tension in your skeletal frame lets go, your head drops back, the friction in your jaw dissolves away, your shoulders release, your clenched hands unfurl, your spine elongates, your legs twitch out stored tension. Unburdened by gravitational forces, temperature fluctuations, air movement on your skin, tactile senses, visual distractions or auditory inputs – any external input whatsoever on your physical body – your nervous system is able to relax and release stress in a way that really no other modality or environment on Earth can allow.
When you float, purely at a physical level, things are infinitely more at ease. When you float, it is infinitely more difficult for a state of stress, or dis-ease, to exist.
And how does this all apply to disorders, you might ask? To mental health “disorders”?
A float has been described by more than one person who has floated with us as feeling like a defragmentation of the mind. The dark, silent, undistracted, non-triggered and safe space that floating creates for an induced meditation experience is, again, unlike any other. In that space, the mind can explore itself. It becomes aware of processes and patterns that it is distracted from when out in the sensory and information bombardment of the outside world. It sees the disorder, the dis-order, the lack of organization. It looks around at those scattered files and folders, and in moments of clarity and focus, it wants to tidy up, to “defragment”. It figures out where those scattered files, those far-flung jigsaw pieces, are supposed to go. And it craves to file them away properly, and close all those running apps that the chaos of day to day life has left open in the background so you can rapidly move onto the next thing, draining memory and CPU capacity in the process.
When you float, you are able to experience the present moment more easily. This is key to processing “disorders” like PTSD. The amygdala – the brain’s fear center – deactivates, allowing thoughts and emotions that arise to be observed more fearlessly. Much of PTSD is about being rooted in and re-experiencing repeating emotional experiences of the past. By connecting with the comfortable interoceptive (internal) physical sensations of the body during a float, you are brought into the present moment, while the dis-orderly thoughts about past and anticipated future are allowed to play out without feeling triggered by fear of any present moment threat. Those thoughts are brought more into order.
At a neurological level, we see both a resolution of dis-ease and dis-order operating within the brain’s “default mode network“. Early findings from preliminary fMRI and EEG studies conducted on brains in float tanks have shown that this four-way network (the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, the precuneus, and the angular gyrus) that is thought to be the neurological basis for the self and allows for active mind-wandering during a restful state actually deactivates during a float, and a whole new “lower” level of rest is discovered. It’s deep in this state, as the brainwaves shift out of active alpha and beta and into the more relaxed and dream-like theta, delta and gamma, that the mind is able to reorganize itself. To come out of dis-order, and into a state of mental health order.
We don’t talk about floating as a “cure” for anything. Because “cures” exist within the same realms as pathologies and a symptom-centric view of health. But we’ve certainly seen that floating provides an incredibly unique environment for addressing the dis-ease and dis-order that exists at the very root of many of the physical and mental afflictions that are pervasive within our culture.
As we talk about health care in our culture, perhaps it’s time to start reclaiming some of the lost definitions of words. When you think about stress, think about dis-ease. Both the connection with physiological damage of stress and the solution of finding pathways for ease will become more readily apparent.
Similarly, when you think about mental health “disorders”, think about dis-order. The goal of finding mental health order will present itself more clearly, and will provide more of a roadmap for a journey rather than the stigmatizing sense that a diagnostic medical roadblock often produces for many people.
Stay salty my friends,
– Dan Larsen, Oly Float