Stubbornness, Rigidity and Aging: Acupuncture for Youth and Happiness
Happiness is one of the greatest contributors to our health. I don’t necessarily mean a blissful or “dream-come-true” happiness. Rather, a sense of contentment, connectedness and ease of being. The feeling as if everything is alright. A sense of joy that is unconditional, not based on any particular circumstance – more like a “joy of being” type of happiness.
It’s shocking to realize how many people do not live in this state of contentment, joy or happiness. This realization is one of the basic tenets of Buddhism – the many ways in which we suffer, feel discontented and even alienated. We continually strive for happiness, yet most of our strivings somehow cause us even more suffering. The Buddhists teach that we must learn to find true happiness – beyond our own agenda; something unconditional and open-hearted.
Many of the patients I see in my acupuncture clinic come to me for issues around happiness. Some involve physical ailments and discomforts, yet many others relate to psychic or emotional pain: social difficulties, self-esteem issues, disappointments, fears, anxieties, even despair.
My last article discussed the pain that comes from having a “closed heart”: the inability to connect, or control one’s emotions. (The Painful Inability to Connect: Treating Depression with Acupuncture). In this article I will explore the issues of stubbornness and indifference, which can cause just as much pain and difficulty in a person’s life.
In Chinese medicine, the Heart is given very high regard. To the ancient Chinese, the Heart is considered the seat of consciousness. Within consciousness, the Heart and Brain have a very close relationship. The Heart is the home of the spirit: that which creates conscious awareness. The Brain is a depository of experiences, which program our impressions of the world.
The awareness of the Heart is seen as very pure and immediate: unconditional. The Brain is more tainted: it perceives things according to the past, and projects ideas into the future. Most of us live much of our conscious lives from our Brains: highly focused on the past or projecting into the future. According to the Buddhists however, happiness lives in the present moment, which we can only reach when we see the world through the unconditionality of the Heart.
Rigidity and stubbornness – in seeing and behaving – occurs when we prioritize perceiving through the Brain instead of the Heart. We only see things through the eyes of our past. This can cause life to become dull, predictable and very controlled. Our Brains do their best to keep things in our lives always the same – they make the past recur again and again in the present. It does this to promote sanity. Yet, this can also limit our experience of the world, causing us to see things in a very limited way. According to modern Chinese medical thinkers, rigidity in thinking is the root cause of aging. When we don’t allow anything new into our lives, this stagnates our thoughts, but also has a major effect on the blood – creating a thickening of the blood, heat (hypertension) and all sorts of physical and emotional pain.
To the ancient Chinese, the mind, emotions and physical body are not separate. They are always influencing one other. Our thoughts and emotions have a very strong resonance with our blood chemistry. The blood (via the Heart) is what keeps the Brain healthy and young. Yet, if our thoughts (and emotions) become stagnant, over-heated or toxic, this will create disease in both the blood as well as the brain chemistry of the body. To the ancient Chinese, the mind and emotions are primary to the health of the body. If we want to live happy, healthy lives, we must work with our thoughts and emotions.
Chinese medicine sees the human body in a much more expansive way than we do in the West. The ancient Chinese observed how the workings of the energy within our own bodies has an effect on the energy outside of us. This can be difficult for us Westerners to understand. Even though we experience it every minute of our lives. There is nothing mystical about this. We have the power to attract or repel various people and situations to or away from us, simply based on our energetic makeup. This fact is best to understood as an aspect of the body’s Triple Heater system.
Biologically level, the Triple Heater is the system that manages all metabolism in the body: metabolism of fluids as well as the body’s vital (functional) energy. It is kind of a master regulator of all aspects of metabolic function: respiration, digestion and elimination. It is similar to the modern Western idea of the endocrine system, which uses chemical messengers to regulate all aspects of body function.
The Triple Heater brings many areas of the body together so they can work in harmony. It is kind of like the system of linkage and communication between the different organ systems of the body. The Triple Heater is rooted in the deepest aspects of the body: the Kidneys. It also connects to the digestive system and reaches up into the Lungs. The Triple Heater affects digestive metabolism, water metabolism, immunity, and the hormonal system of the body. It has has a major impact on perception, learning and personality.
On a more subtle level, the Triple Heater regulates our energetic relationship with the social world and the environment. The ancient Chinese medical classics say the Triple Heater “controls the qi” in the body. “Qi” is sometimes translated as energy, vital energy, or functional energy. It is the energetic force that makes things happen in the body. An aspect of qi is the air we breathe: it is the energy that comes from the outside world into our bodies. This is probably the most tangible aspect of qi. Yet qi works in a multitude of ways. My acupuncture teacher taught that qi is akin to “relationship.” Life is based on relationships.
Most major spiritual teachers say we are happiest when we are able to “go with the flow.” Change is a constant in life. Nothing stays the same. It’s hard to predict when change will occur. It’s easy to feel vulnerable or frustrated in the face of change. This can cause major suffering. Our ability to adjust to change is based on the flexibility of our qi, as it is regulated by our Triple Heater systems.
When the Triple Heater system is dysfunctional, this can manifest in a state of “stubbornness” or “rigidity.” This creates difficulty in dealing with basic changes and fluctuations of life. It can lead to a tendency to either isolate or want to fight with everything (and everyone). Stubborn rigidity of the Triple Heater can also lead to a sense of being in a bubble or a cage. The world is experienced as a difficult place to live in, creating constant stress, disappointment and even dismay.
A further weakening of the Triple Heater system can lead to a sense of “indifference.” This is a state where we just don’t care anymore. We want things our own way, and don’t think about the wishes or feelings of others. It’s not that we don’t want to be caring and compassionate; it just doesn’t occur to us to think of others. Even when others are suffering, we can’t see it; we are already too caught up in our own stubborn idea of how things should be. We inevitably create constant tension within and all around us.
The selfish, oblivious, rigid person who seems to always be “in his own world” may be annoying for us to be around. But it is even more painful to be that person. They often feel a victim themselves, as if its them against the world. Or, as if nothing ever goes their way, and no one cares about them.
The “closed heart” syndrome discussed in my prior article manifests an inability to control our own sense of suffering – it overwhelms us. Or, the suffering can become so great that we lose our ability to express it. It becomes stuck inside of us, with no outlet. We lose our capacity to express.
The stubborn indifference of the Triple Heater is the opposite syndrome. We become unable to feel the suffering of others. We just can’t grasp what others feel or what they want. We are only able to think of ourselves. It’s like there’s a big shield around us. We can’t let anyone in. We become like an island, disconnected and alienated from others.
The Triple Heater is a vast network in the body. It’s disease manifestations can be just as vast. It can create dysfunction in social life, but also in our spiritual or personal relationships. It can be tremendously painful to feel cut off from other people – isolated and unable to connect. It can be just as bad to feel cut off from God (or spirit, or whatever we wish to call it).
The Triple Heater connects to the Lungs – the breath – which is seen by the ancient Chinese as our main connection to the world of spirit. The Lungs also connect us to the world of the unseen: time and space. When we feel things in our life are continually going wrong, out of synch or not connecting – this is a problem with our Triple Heater system as it relates to the Lungs. It feels as if we cannot get in-step with the rest of the world – everything is a fight; nothing flows easily.
When the Triple Heater’s relationship to the Kidneys is dysfunctional, it can cause difficulty in our relationship with ourselves, leading to personality disorders. Our personality can become so rigid and fixed that even we cannot control it. It begins to run our lives, tormenting us. Rather than using our personality to create abundance and success in life, it seems to control us, creating a barrier to free expression.
We all have personalities, which color the way we see the world. Yet, when the Triple Heater is in a state of rigidity, our personality becomes so fixed we cannot see any other way of being. It’s as if we become stuck inside ourselves – a prisoner to our own nature.
Problems with the Triple Heater can range from annoying and frustrating to alienating and despairing. To not be able to flow with the rest of the world creates a lot of annoyance. It can also be exhausting. As if we always have the wind blowing in our faces, rather than at our backs helping us along.
But to not care, and not be able to feel the pain and needs of others: this can create despair and alienation. We are social beings. To feel happy, we need to feel connected. We need relationship: to other people, to our world, environment and to the world of spirit. When this gets cut off, or when we inhibit it through stubbornness, rigidity or indifference, we will start to wither.
Relationship provides nourishment and hydration to our body and mind. It is qi-energy that animates us. We breathe it in through our Lungs – into our Kidneys to fan the flames of our immune fire. It sparks our digestion, making us hungry for life. It spreads through the Lungs and Heart throughout the body to make us feel excited, happy and content. It also spreads the fluids of the body to hydrate the skin, keep the organs moist and allow constant rebuilding of tissues. Free-flowing relationship keeps us young and healthy. Rigidity is what makes us age. It inhibits free flow of qi, blood and fluids, causing the tissues of the body to become starved and dry.
When people ask me what they can do to improve their health, I say they can work on their relationships. Work first and foremost on the ability to be happy and content. We must work on our Triple Heater systems first and foremost – the ability to ingest and digest the world. The major part of this process is to learn to become softer, more flexible, more empathetic.