The most important thing in life is energy, not the kind of energy we need to run a car, but our own personal energy: the energy we need to get through the day. We take this energy for granted, at least I do.
But then, in Kathmandu, I lost my energy. I couldn’t get up early, I couldn’t write, read or go and meet people. All I could do was sleep and watch old British comedies on Youtube (like this one). I realised how vital energy is for my life: without it I am utterly helpless.
What happened? I have a fever, but not the usual flu-type with a runny nose and other symptoms that I recognise. I’ve never come across a fever like this — not only are the symptoms unusual (hot head, cold feet, no energy) but it comes and goes like a casual visitor. It has personality.
First time it came round I dealt with it by eating a whole head of raw garlic (I chop them into little bits and swallow them like pills). An overdose of garlic is like a nuclear bomb landing in my gut. No survivors. By morning the fever was gone.
I tried to repeat the trick when the fever came back a week later but it didn’t work. Garlic can be great if you catch it early, but this fever was too insidious and I knew it was deeply embedded in me. I had to find out what it was, understand it, and not just treat the symptoms which is what western doctors do. I started looking for a Tibetan doctor. Surely there must be one in Kathmandu, capital of Nepal, where thousands of Tibetans live in exile?
What is a fever?
My view of fever was formed by the travel writer Laurens van der Post, who believed that not only were fevers a positive thing, as they force you to take a break, but they are an essential requirement for a creative breakthrough.
To explain this, I’m going to quote a writer called Steven Pressfield:
“Van der Post believed that before the brain could assimilate as permanent some fresh personal advance or breakthrough, it had to recalibrate itself chemically. That was what the fever was doing. It was physically consolidating a spiritual change.”
It’s really worth reading this article by Steven Pressberg as he goes on to illustrate this point in fascinating detail. Here are some more extracts:
“Paul had a fever. Actually it wasn’t a fever; it was more like a nervous breakdown. His Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown. I’m exaggerating a little, but you get the idea. A nervous breakdown is a writer’s form of fever. It’s how we freak out, crap out, bust out, and blow out.
“What was happening underneath it all was that Paul had made a breakthrough. He was getting better as a writer, becoming more of a pro. He had teamed up on a project with an established film-maker, and their work together was going great.
“So he freaked out…
“What is this all about?
“It’s about fear of success.
“It happens to all of us. We’re getting better and we can’t stand it. We’re approaching our dream, and it scares the hell out of us.
“That’s the way we humans roll. We’re comfortable in the Known, no matter how crappy it is or how much we hate it. When we feel ourselves entering the Unknown, even if that Unknown is way better than the Known, not to mention something we’ve have been striving for all our lives, we panic. We freak. We melt down.”
I can relate to all this. I’m going through a creative transformation with my writing, which I feel is getting better and better; I just found an Indian publisher for my Tibetan memoir; I may be on the verge of becoming what I’ve always wanted — to be a writer. But at the same time I’m worrying about money and looking for work, even though I know this will consume my energy and leave me unable to write every day (which is, in fact, the base requirement for any writer).
Am I afraid? Am I avoiding my creative destiny? Is this fever my body’s way of freaking out? I don’t know. I don’t feel afraid in the usual sense but most of what goes on in our heads is in the subconscious, and we’re not aware of it. Fear is an insidious character and I don’t understand it. All I can do is keep an open mind, not jump to conclusions — and keep writing every day.
The Tibetan Doctor
This article was supposed to be about the Tibetan doctor that I found in Kathmandu, but I’ve written almost 800 words and am only just getting to him. If I was writing this for a newspaper they would have rejected the article and sent me packing. The beauty of writing for my own blog is that I can write whatever I like and, once I get past my inner critic, I find it leading me towards the kind of creative breakthrough that I mentioned above.
I’m also writing this at the tail end of this terrible fever, a fever that has cost me two trekking trips to the Himalayas (each time I am about to go trekking, Mr Fever steps in and stops me). It’s important for my own self confidence that I can get over my energy loss and pick up the writing again (I was starting to wonder if I’d ever write or work again…that I might spend the rest of my days as an invalid).
The Tibetan doctor is called Tenzin Kunga and he works in a crowded part of Kathmandu called Chhatrapati Chowk. They don’t have an appointment system, you just go and wait your turn with the monks and other Tibetans in the queue.
Dr Tenzin Kunga in Kathmandu
Dr Kunga took my pulse, asked me two questions and said “you have fire in your belly.” For some reason I felt soothed by these words, probably because he seemed to know exactly what was wrong with me. He prescribed three packets of traditional Tibetan medicine — small, hard black balls of concentrated herbs and minerals that must be crushed and drunk with hot water. They smell musty and remind me of ancient Tibetan monasteries.
The way Tibetan doctors take the pulse is particularly interesting as they use three fingers instead of one. Each finger is reading four different pulses. They are reading 12 pulses at the same time.
I told the doctor that my main motive for coming to him was to understand what was wrong with me. He said I have “hidden heat” in my belly area and it is fueled by eating too much oily and spicy food, a diagnosis that makes perfect sense as I do eat too much fried, spicy food and I know it’s bad for me. He didn’t suggest I stop eating anything but I decided, on the spot, to drastically cut down on oily food as well as spices.
He said cheerily that western medicine only has one diagnosis for fever, whereas the Tibetan system recognises 19 different types. These include, he said, “chronic fever, extreme fever, immature fever and empty fever.” He also said that “each fever has its own distinct cause, contributory factors, symptoms and antidotes.”
I have a lot of faith in this Tibetan medical science — ever since they cured me of hepatitis in Tibet in 1987, a disease that is apparently incurable. After benefiting from it, I learned that Tibetan medicine is a complex medical system that is able to diagnose up to 80,000 different ailments. Apparently they have a listing for every disease that has been, is and will be.
I knew a bit about Tibetan medicine but my knowledge was pretty sparse. I know it is about balance — if your organs are out of balance you get ill — and I decided to write to the Good Doctor and ask him to explain some things. I was particularly keen to understand how they take a pulse. To my surprise he wrote back with a lot of very interesting detail.
This is what Dr Kunga sent to me:
“The pulse diagnosis is one of the primary diagnostic approaches according to the Tibetan science of healing.
“The physician places three fingers on the patient’s radial artery and receives signals from the 12 major internal organs. Each signal has its own depiction of a related imbalance in the body.
“It is believed that Tibetan medicine is as old as 2,500 years. Many of its concepts are similar to the Indian Ayurveda systems. The concept of five great elements, three principle energies of wind, bile and phlegm, seven bodily constituents, six tastes, twenty attributes of disorders and 17 qualities of antidotes are parallels in both systems.”
I thanked Dr Kunga, who speaks good English and learned his trade in Dharamsala, India and went over to their dispensary where I picked up my prescription and then cycled back through this chaotic but wonderful city. Now, three days later, I’m feeling much better and think I have finally got this fever on the run. Apart from anything else, I am depriving it of fuel and so the fire must eventually go out.
What about the writing and my creative breakthrough? On the one hand I don’t feel like a new person, or that much has changed, but I am writing most days and it’s becoming part of my daily routine. At the end of the day I guess that’s all that being a writer is: routine; doing it every day, just as other people go to work every day.
To find out more about Tibetan medicine you can visit the medical institute behind the clinic I describe here: http://www.men-tsee-khang.org/index2.htm