I’ve been hearing a lot about salmon lately. First it was a BBC Discovery DVD I watched with my 4-year-old niece this summer. It told the story of the Pacific salmon which journeyed from their birthplaces in small freshwater streams out to the depths of the Pacific Ocean, and then returned, against all odds, to the very same stream where they were born, in order to lay their eggs. Only one in two thousand salmon make it back to do their spawning successfully. Immediately after they lay their eggs, they die. Talk about having a purpose! The salmon are very clear.

The things that struck me were that the salmon lived most of their lives in the sea, and then at some point, they follow an inner guide toward their original birthplace. They are each headed toward their inevitable death. If they are one of the lucky in each two thousand, they will actually reach their destination and reproduce. But the vast majority become food for bears, wolves, birds, bugs, worms, and other forest animals. (The DVD explained how the salmon thus provide the most significant source of nitrogen for the entire Pacific Northwest region of the United States and southwestern Canada.) This doesn’t stop them from using all of their remaining life force and energy to struggle upstream toward their destiny, facing infinite challenges along the way.

The second time I heard about them was on a David Whyte CD I purchased in August. He lives on Whidbey Island in Washington, and wrote a poem, called “Song for the Salmon”, about all the ways in which he had not thought about the salmon. The act of writing that poem ended up being a pivotal moment of reconnection with his personal destiny of pursuing the life of a professional poet:

And I am ready like the young salmon

To leave his river, blessed with hunger;

For a great journey on the drawing tide.

He talks about it on the CD as an example of how only when we sit down to contemplate all the ways in which we are lost, all the ways in which we have put ourselves in exile, all the ways we feel disconnected from our world – only then can we reconnect with it. Only then can we be carried out on the current of the true journey of our lives, the journey that would also bring us home.

And then the salmon returned this weekend as a central image in John Beaulieu’s two-day workshop for us at CIIS. John is another great example (like Martha Beck) of someone who has combined solid science and work of the rational mind, with mysticism and imagery from ancient cultures. He opened his class by saying that while he studies the biomolecular effects of sound on the cells in our body, there is no reason to believe that modern scientists are any “smarter” than the alchemists of the Middle Ages or the shamans of the Amazon, who observed similar effects but simply had different ways of measuring and communicating their knowledge.

John’s therapeutic work with sound is based on the Austrian physician and scientist Hans Selye’s theory of stress. He gave us these new definitions:

– STRESS is a neutral term which simply means “adaptation to change”

– DISTRESS is a failure to adapt to change, resulting in the physiologic effects of activation of the sympathetic nervous system and triggering the immune response.

Over time, prolonged distress – prolonged failure to adapt to change – becomes crisis and illness. The longer we hold out and fail to adapt to change, the higher our levels of distress.

– EUSTRESS is a state of heightened consciousness created through adaptation, resulting in the physiologic effects of opiate release (the “runner’s high” feeling).

One person’s distress is another person’s eustress, depending on how each person deals with the situation. Music and sound (and other therapeutic modalities) train the nervous system to accept change and be more flexible, thus enhancing our ability to adapt to change and convert distress to eustress.

Paradoxically, in this model, John says that stress is itself the fountain of youth, as each time we face a change that we must adapt to, we have the opportunity to successfully adapt and experience eustress (or euphoria). Our only real security is in adaptation, not rigidity.

In a two-day journey exploring ancient symbols and mathematical ratios that are replicated in the architecture of ancient Greece, in the proportions of the human body, and in the intervals of musical notes, we arrived at the salmon. John told us that a group of conservationists in the Pacific Northwest once tried to dam a river in order to reduce the strength of the current against which the salmon would have to swim, thinking that if they made it “easier” for the salmon to get upstream, they would be more likely to make it. Reduce the challenge, and increase the probability of success, right?


That year, fewer salmon actually made it upstream to reproduce. Why? The surprising result of a biologist’s analysis was that the salmon actually need to struggle against a strong current in order to make it upstream. The eddy currents formed by strong waterfalls form vortexes underwater – imagine the way water drains out of a bathtub, with a place in the center of the spiral that is still. The salmon need to find the center of a vortex through which to ascend – literally, they get airborne – to the next level. If the waterfalls are not strong enough, and vortexes are not formed, then they cannot ascend. It’s not through pure “muscling” and “jumping” that the salmon get out of the water. They need to face the challenge, struggle against it until they find the still point in the center, and then, effortlessly they ascend to the next level (or get caught in the mouth of a hungry bear, but that’s another story), where they swim along easily for awhile until it’s time to ascend the next waterfall.

John kept coming back to this as his metaphor for human life. The story of our life – its quality or its nature – is determined by how we adapt and change. Music and sound are just one modality that he uses to help the patient access their own still point by creating new neural pathways and allowing the brain to “practice” adapting to change. He has done scientific experiments showing that musical sound vibrations have direct cellular effects, including stimulation of the release of nitric oxide, an important mediator of health in the vascular, nervous, and immune systems of the body.

Meditation, marijuana, LSD, alcohol, chocolate, music, yoga, running, the Internet, workaholism, fake smiling – all of these are ways that humans attempt to adapt to change in our lives. They are all strategies for facing stress – depending on the person, these strategies can result either in distress (failure to adapt) or eustress (successful adaptation). There is no single answer for everyone. Beyond the basic level of functioning, the only person who can define these as distress or eustress is the patient themselves. The definition of mental health or well-being is simply being skilled in constantly creating adaptation to change without harming self or others. If we were to embrace John’s mantra for life, “Adapt and change, adapt and change,” and learn from the salmon, we’d swim toward the next challenge, knowing that it will not only beef up our “change muscles”, but also be the only chance for us to find the still point in the center that may shoot us into the air…and make us fly.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  I’m off to find the center of my next vortex.