Mind/Body/Spirit Special

Dobrin says about 15 percent of the church's 300 members believe in God. But he is happy living life without the big fella. "To me, any phenomenon is subject to scientific method," says Dobrin. "If God comes and shakes my hand, would I believe in God? Of course."

During a service, a woman goes up to the podium and reads a poem—so short in length that she feels the need to read it twice. Dobrin gets back up, makes a joke, the people laugh. Then, with no scripture to fall back on, no parables to read, no prayers to chant, Dobrin poses the weekly "question." Today, it's "What helps you decide between what is fact and what is fiction?" He fiddles with a remote, turning on more music to accompany the churning minds as they mull over the question.

After a few minutes, Rachel Coen, a representative of the media-watchdog group FAIR, goes up to the podium and begins the "platform" of the day. She talks about the consolidation of the media and the loss of stories about the common man in favor of those about business-imposed decisions. After 30 minutes of hearing how Ted Turner, Disney and Viacom are the devil—or at least as close you could come to being the devil in a Godless world—the floor is open for questions. An elderly woman raises her hand.

"The reason why I came here," she says, "is because I want to know what I can do about the pornography on television. Victoria's Secret makes beautiful lingerie. But the commercials are like pornography. I don't want my husband watching pornography during primetime."

What a conundrum. She's referring to the Victoria's Secret "Angel" campaign, of course. And there are no angels in Ethical Humanism.

The Sound and the Fury: Life Beyond Tinnitus
by Laura Conaway

By the time Ines Rodrigo walked into Dr. James Weisberg's office at SUNY Stony Brook in April 1998, her ears had been ringing for five years.

Sounding like a kettle perpetually ready to come off the stove, the whistling began when Rodrigo lived in San Diego. "I thought maybe it was because I had a cold," says Rodrigo, a genteel mother of two adult sons who now lives in West Sayville. "I let it go for a month and didn't pay it any attention. But one day I noticed it was very, very loud and very strong."

She went to see her doctor in California, who examined her ears and announced there was nothing physically wrong with them. Like some 50 million other people in the United States, Rodrigo had tinnitus, a chronic condition with no single known cause and no easy cures. Those who suffer it say that even in silent places they hear everything from ringing and roars to chirps and clicks. This inner cacophony can begin the instant they wake and not subside until the moment they fall sleep—if they're lucky enough to drop off.

For some, tinnitus is merely an annoyance, but for others it's constant torture that leads to insomnia, depression and anxiety. Rodrigo's tinnitus came with panic attacks that made it difficult for her to do ordinary tasks like driving. Once it starts, tinnitus rarely goes away. When Rodrigo moved across the country to Long Island, the whistling came with her.

Doctors said the best they could do for her was to prescribe anti-depressants. Rodrigo refused to take drugs, because she didn't want to deal with side effects and because she preferred to fight the condition on her own. Knowing she might never get rid of tinnitus, she set about learning how to live with it.

Her first real lessons came at the hands of Weisberg, a psychologist who specializes in helping people deal with chronic pain and lifelong afflictions like tinnitus. Weisberg says much of his work hinges on teaching people to control their fight-or-flight mechanism, the body's natural response to fear or pain.

If you're walking in the woods and you see a scary animal, your central nervous system sends up a signal that you need to either put up your dukes or hightail it out of there. With chronic pain or nagging conditions like tinnitus, Weisberg says, the trick is to realize you're not actually in danger. "What we have to train people to do is to recognize that their pain at that moment, or their symptoms at that moment, are not life-threatening," he says. "It's not the grizzly bear."

For someone like Rodrigo, taming the fight-or-flight reflex means learning to stay calm despite the constant whistling in her ears. Using a combination of soothing images and frequent biofeedback sessions with Weisberg, Rodrigo has learned how to lower her heart rate, regulate her breathing and reduce her muscle tension—techniques that lessen her awareness of the tinnitus. The sound doesn't stop, but the irritation recedes. "Dr. Weisberg told me how to relax," she says. "And with relaxation, that helps."

On a recent Tuesday night, Weisberg hooked Rodrigo up to some gee-whiz sensors for a demonstration. The idea was for her to watch a computer monitor that would tell her how close she was to reaching her goal and receiving some positive reinforcement. If she relaxed enough, classical music would flow out of the speakers. If she strayed too far toward tension, the Bach would stop. "To me, the test is being able to do it under stress," Weisberg says. "It's wonderful to be able to do it in here, when the lights are low. But can you do it in a car, or on the grocery line? Can you do it on demand?"

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