What is the Skin?
Yes, the skin is the body’s largest organ. And yes, there are the known physiological and anatomical aspects of the skin that are taught in biology class, and we’ve all seen those diagrams of the layers of the skin with the epidermis and hair follicles and sebaceous glands and collagen fibers, etc. But there's more . . .
How does one explain that the skin actually eats light, registers the subtle vibrations constantly emitted by the life force of the planet and can absorb colors and smells? How can one understand that the surface chemistry of your skin shifts every time your lover caresses you or you have a close call in traffic? Can we honestly grasp the fact that relationship counseling appears to be the best way to cure psoriasis? Why does the skin function as a kind of responsive antenna attuned not only to my own mental and emotional states, but also to the state of the planet and is influenced in some subtle way by the conditions of the environment?
Sure, we can talk about hormones and enzymes and nerve impulses, but does the language of the observable physical aspects of the skin come close to explaining the reality of the skin? And if I did come closer to understanding the multi-dimensional purposes of the skin, which cannot be separate from the purposes of Gaia herself, how would I now relate to wrinkles, to sunscreen or to anti-aging marketing that digs at the very core of our acceptance of ourselves as we are? And finally – and this is where Grateful Body comes in – how would I choose my skin care products?
A Different Perspective on Wrinkles
My first Chinese Medicine teacher was little, not even 5 feet in his sandals, and exceedingly old, I would guess he was pushing 100 – but who knows with these taoist dudes – maybe he was 2 or 3 hundred years old. This guy was an old-world, transplanted Chinese doctor and he was contrary and eccentric – when I first met him I went to shake his hand, but he stood there and stared at my outstretched arm like it was E.T. Perhaps he was impatient with all the odd ways of this culture, but Lee always scrambled my head and had no qualms about reminding me that I was an incurable idiot. I remember daydreaming about saying really clever things to him or getting in the last word or actually being right about something; but that wasn’t going to happen. Even though we spent almost 2 years together, I’m not sure he ever knew my name – or at least he pretended not to. He did have a special Chinese name for me when it came to my needling technique; I later learned that it roughly translated to ‘thumbless neanderthal’ or ‘barbarian hordes’ or something like that. But he did make me follow him everywhere, and I suppose that was a good sign.
Often we would sit on a bench down by the waterfront in Seattle while he ate his lunch and chain smoked. Busy people, immersed in their concerns, glided by us just like the ferries and tugs gliding through the fog and drizzle that floated out on the bay. Here were people of all class, order and genus; a cosmopolitan soup of humanity, and Lee would be intensely studying them as they walked by. Frequently, he would lean forward, point his chopsticks at them and say things like ‘super bad digestion’ or ‘kidney fire first-rate’ or ‘many liver worries’. This was old-school diagnosis, and he excelled at it. I’d watch him as he would he would study people’s faces, checking out the color and carefully scrutinizing all the lines of their face. These lines could be barely perceivable or heavily carved – it didn’t matter, he could decode their story . . . tales of organs and meridians, signs of vitality and deficiency. In his understanding, these lines, folds, creases on our face were neither good nor bad, it wasn’t better to have or not have them, they just revealed patterns of flow and habit. He would say, “Lines everywhere, on hands, on feet, in ears, on face, all reveal life story.”
Of course, another name for these lines is wrinkles. For whatever reason, I didn’t want to pay much attention to the notion of wrinkles. But being a child of the advertising age, I certainly knew they were considered a bad thing; and I do suppose that we all have been influenced by centuries of desperate efforts – by Cleopatra, by Nefertiti, Galen the Roman, Lillie Langtry, Cindy Crawford and a billion other hapless mortals – to thwart these distressing signs slowly being branded into our faces. Yet I was picking up mixed signals. On one hand, here is Lee describing great rivers of chi and energy indicated by these remarkable, branching lines on our face . . . but then, on the other hand, everywhere I turn, I’m surrounded by a world of anti-wrinkle nostrums, all screaming a much different interpretation.
The paradox is profound, the pressure intense. These lines on our face . . . are they merit badges of our journey, sculpted runes of experience, a hieroglyphic narrative of our brief and shining moment under the sun? Or are they just stupid, embarrassing wrinkles, a wretched insult to our self-image, a pitiless defilement destined to humiliate us? Certainly our values and what we hold to be important will shape our response to this fierce cultural pressure about aging and wrinkles, but I do think that if we don’t take time to consider these issues carefully, then our attention will be simply grabbed by the highest bidder. The situation reminds me of a passage from Frost, “. . . two roads diverged in a wood, and I – took the one less traveled by – and that has made all the difference.” But who knows? Perhaps Lee, sipping tea with his ancestors by now, is studying my face as I write this, grumpily declaring, “too much wind blow through head.”
The Secret of Water
Skin care products are either watery (like a toner), oily (like a body oil), or both – a mixture of both water and oil (which is a lotion). Because of this, if we’re interested in healthy skin, it could benefit us to examine both components: oil and water. In this tutorial, we will take a brief but in-depth look at water.
THE PHENOMENON OF WATER
The existence of water is a wonder, a subject both vast and mysterious; water is a living liquid crystal. Since the body is mostly water, I was thinking that it might be interesting to examine just a few details of water as it pertains to the topic of skin care. Certainly, the skin needs water – proper hydration – but let’s look deep into the process so we can understand why and how appropriate skin care products can help the skin.
THE BODY RATIONS WATER
The body intelligence supervises the distribution of available water to the various parts of the body according to an inherent and instinctual set of priorities. Brain, heart and liver always come first, secondary organs and systems are ordered here and there on this ‘priority of distribution’ list, and finally, the skin, limbs, toes and fingers are somewhere near the bottom of this list. In other words, if the body doesn’t have enough water, functions low on the list can suffer. This is one of the reasons that you always find it written that drinking enough water is essential for healthy skin.
THE SKIN AND OUR HABITS
We understand that the body uses water, and lots of it, for carrying out ALL bodily functions. Diverse processes such as digestion, elimination, respiration, movement; even processes such as thinking, feeling and sensation all require and use water as the main physical component for the proper fulfilling of these functions. So when synthetic, de-vitalized and unnatural ingredients are introduced into the body either orally or dermally, extraordinary amounts of the body’s water reserve are required to safely process, detoxify and eliminate these substances from the body. Given the body’s propensity for rationing water, this is one of the reasons why influences like a poor diet, smoking, using industrial skin care products, etc. contribute to unhealthy skin.
The skin can receive water topically. If the water component within a skin care product is carried by and surrounded by biologically appropriate ingredients, skin cells can successfully uptake essential hydration. The presence of even small amounts of certain chemicals not read as food by the body can block or interfere with this essential process of hydrating the skin cell.
FROM SIMPLE TO COMPLEX
As water begins its journey into and through the body, it follows a curiously esoteric biochemical pathway. It is said that there are 33 different structural levels or manifestations of water as it is introduced into and gradually becomes the body. What started as the simple presence of H2O is alchemically transformed into a variety of intricate but delicate fluids, each evolving to become more structurally complex than the previous. First to form are the simpler bodily fluids such as tears, saliva, synovial liquids and sweat but they gradually become more complex, turning into fluids like sebum, digestive acids and lymph. Then on to bile, glandular secretions; evolving to blood, serum, intracellular fluids and finally to the higher levels of complexity, the cerebrospinal fluid, and then, the liquid composition of the egg and sperm. The mysterious and fascinating aspect of this journey is that every fluid, regardless of its level, was and has been every fluid that manifested before it. In other words, our lymph fluid (for example), was previously saliva (and all fluids below the lymph level) and still contains traces of the structural molecular aspects of everything before it. Think of the fluid in the egg from the ovaries – in its journey to becoming an egg – in fact, was previously blood, was sweat, was tears . . . was secretions from the pineal and pituitary, has been your cerebrospinal fluid. This highest fluid contains the emotional and mental imprint of all our experiences. Each one of us is a unique expression of water!
How is this relevant to skin care? First, it should convince us that the body is a highly intelligent manifestation of existence. Second, that, beyond observable physical manifestations, we know very, very little of its actual workings. And third, that at the least, we should strive to feed the body, even topically, substances that are in cooperation with this intelligence. In this context, cooperation means the symbiotic process of mutual support. The proper partner for this mutual support is whole and wholesome plants. In general, it doesn’t mean targeted cellular manipulation via synthetic molecular structures (this is the domain of the industrial skin care industry, a child of the chemical and pharmaceutical industry).
As mentioned above, water is a living, flowing, liquid crystal. The crystal lattices of water arrange and stack the H2O’s of itself in orderly, repeating patterns and formations. This non-randomness is what makes it a crystal. And being ‘in formation’ then, is what allows water to be a carrier of in-formation. The water phase of our products carry the in-formation inherent to the plant used. In the case of Grateful Body, being a pure botanical product, this information is usually in the form of the many secondary metabolites found in plant sources (for instance, the flavonoids, the nutrition carrying pigments, and the various terpenoids). This activity is why Grateful Body products have such a positive and healing effect on the skin.
Our Take on Aging
It was in Rio, looking down a side street in Copacabana, that I got my first big shock regarding unnatural aging. All I did was look down the street. An indelible snapshot sketched itself on my nerves; the tempo, the rhythm, the sensual beat of people walking, shopping, talking, eating. Here was visceral proof that the pace of American life – my life – is relentless and furious. I mean these people, all of them, were moving through their day at about half our speed. My friend was patient with me, she had seen this before with Americans, she knew it would take several days for this unmindful velocity to drain out my feet.
Later, back home in California, I approached my Capoeira mestre with my current worries. I had studied this Brazilian martial art for many years and was at the time feeling low and dejected. Mestre, a decade older than me, is kind but resolute, a fighter raised in the raw back alleys of Bahia, tempered by the healing music and rhythm of Capoeira. A master musician, his heart is as big as his country. “I’m old and slow,” I moaned, “these young people are leaping over my head like fleas! I don’t know if I can continue my study.” Mestre chuckled and put his bear arm around my shoulders. “Let’s take a walk,” he said. He said there was a secret and that it was simple. “Young people are strong and quick, so us old ones must be sneaky!” His face was one big contagious grin as he said this.
Given all this background, Grateful Body has advice for natural and unnatural aging. For the former: use our products. For the second one, for unnatural aging, here is our counsel:
- If you have dry skin, you must sing. You can start in the bathroom but eventually must graduate to other rooms of the house. Dancing in the rain is a plus, so is writing poetry with your eyes closed. Every now and then, make a mess, then go outside and giggle.
- If you have oily skin, pretend that birds are calling specifically to you. Answer them. Reach your arms to the sky and spin around 3 times before doing the dishes. If there are dust bunnies under your bed, count them carefully, then make yourself some tea. Make wishes. Keep flowers in your bedroom.
- If you have sensitive skin, skipping is excellent, so is telling a good joke. Throw things indiscriminately out the window – you can retrieve them later. In the morning, alone in your bedroom, close the door and dance in your underwear, OMG, Ginger Rodgers!! Wave merrily to the neighbor you’ve been avoiding. And, every other Tuesday, wear mismatched clothes.
- For all skin types, give a few of your neighborhood trees names (you can use your favorite Beatles songs as a guide). When the wind blows, realize that it is trying to play with you. Have a room where spiders are allowed. Take baths with candles. Keep a certain type of smile on your face so that people think that you’re up to something. And finally, look in the mirror, take a pinch full of your cheek, and say, “Thank you, old friend!”
Plants Are Our Teachers
One of my first mentors gave me some good advice almost thirty years ago. He was what one might call a ‘barefoot healer’ and he had some very unique qualities. When we started spending time together, I noticed he always wore this exquisitely beautiful and mysterious pendant around his neck. I felt that it must carry some very deep meaning for him. One day, I expressed admiration for it and without a moment’s hesitation, he took it off and slipped it modestly over my head. ‘It’s yours now’ he said quietly and walked away as if nothing had happened. So you had to be careful not to admire anything he had, for he would simply give it to you – right then and there. It was a powerful lesson, to see that people can be incredibly giving and unattached.
We spent a lot of time in the wild – Mt. Shasta, Big Sur, exploring Maui’s volcanoes, the San Juan Islands and Cascades, wandering through forest, dunes and upcountry – he had a puzzling knack for knowing where the hidden places of power were. ‘Dale and glade’ he would say, and as we walked he would grab my arm, ssshhh me and vigorously whisper, ‘listen!’ Sure enough, something there, some plant, some magic had passed under my radar, but not his. So, with his patience and understanding for my apparently endless ignorance, I started on my path of listening.
Well, back to his good advice, which, by the way, I still hold dear to my heart. I had observed that he knew plants and was familiar with much of their medicinal and healing qualities. Yet, he wasn’t interested in any sort of classifying mentality, he didn’t exhibit what one might call a ‘trained scientist’ attitude towards plants. His attitude was more in the direction of ‘hey, meet some of my good friends!’ This touched my heart – for I had never bought into the ‘dominion over all things’ nonsense. When I asked how could I learn this relationship, this benevolent rapport with plants, here was his advice . . . ‘Always have 10 good friends.’ That was it.
So, from then on, I began to look for plants to befriend, always knowing that his advice gave me a simple way to start my study. I’ll always remember my first one – watercress! For years, I would look for her wherever I went (actually, I still do!). She was my secret lover and taught me the wily ways of the semi-aquatic, peppery-tasting, bio-indicator of clean water. Gratefully, over the decades, I’ve befriended a fair amount of incredible, awesome, mysterious plants and this has helped me in the delightful job of formulating Grateful Body products. But as in our human relationships, there always seems to be a handful of old friends who never fade passively into the past. St. John’s, Clary Sage and Yarrow come to mind, but I do want to briefly mention my good and kind companion who always stays in my heart and mind – Helichrysum.
There’s an interesting thing Helichrysum has in common with the enigmatic mentor I’ve been telling you about. He went by a few different names; now in his 90′s, I heard recently that he has a new one – I don’t know why. My mystical plant friend is no different. Call her Helichrysum, Everlasting or Immortelle, or even ‘super-magic healing flower.’ (personally, I call her Heli-Girl – I think she likes it!). Well, I could go on and on about her, but I know without a doubt that Helichrysum’s very presence in our lives reveals a great loving passion for us poor, reckless bipeds. She is so healing, so giving, so dexterous, I mean this girl is all over the map. Anti-inflammatory yet heals emotional aches; regenerating skin cells while opening the heart; reducing pain while sending subtle hints about our connectedness; for her it’s natural to be simultaneously healing the skin and the spirit. Talk about multi-talented!
With all sincerity, I say it in as many ways as I can . . . this is a gift. And trying not to sound like I’m preaching, I will also say this . . . nothing man-made from the laboratory could possibly match this. Nature is intelligent and magnanimous and we are not separate from her. By the way, I try to slip Helichrysum into as many products as I can. But her biggest presence is in our moisturizers. Perhaps you already use them. If not, give one a try and meet my best friend!