Acupuncture, Mental Health & the Internal Teacher
The acupuncture channels act like an internal teachers. As an acupuncturist, not only do I work with the channels to adjust and strengthen the body’s physiology. I also stimulate the channels to excite and awaken “the internal teacher” within my patients.
I attended a class over the weekend taught by my longtime teacher. He said classically the Small Intestine acupuncture channel was used to treat mental health. In modern acupuncture the Heart channel is more commonly used for this. Yet in the Chinese acupuncture medical classic (Ling Shu: “Spiritual Pivot”, chapter 22) the Small Intestine channel was designated as the first area of intervention for treatment of Manic Depressive-like conditions.
The Small Intestine channel has always been amongst my favorites. Just last week I kept saying to myself “it is the channel of learning.” It contains within it two major acupuncture points that “open the portals of perception”: much like we’d say psychedelics do. It helps us see the world and our lives differently. Treatment of mental illness, as many psychedelics are modernly being used for, requires a change in perspective. As Einstein famously said: the consciousness that has created a disease cannot be the same consciousness that cures it.
During the past two years I embarked on several psychedelic healing journeys with the Quechuan shamans in the jungle of Ecuador. The “medicine” I took was Ayahuasca: “the vine of death.” This psychedelic vine took me deep into my “ shadow” (subconscious) where I was able to engage with many hidden aspects within myself. The aftereffects of the plant journey spread into my New York City life, ultimately altering how I thought about myself. The end result of the journey was empowering, but the process was messy. I had to face myself, and clear years of unprocessed trauma and toxic emotion. In the end, it was very healing and absolutely worth it!
Some say deep healing of mental health states (beyond merely suppression) requires a similar journey into the subconscious “shadow.” This is why many psychedelic “spirit” plants are now being used to help guide people out of their “nightmares,” into a state of empowerment. They do so by changing perception to alter consciousness.
Arguably, it is the Small Intestine’s acupuncture channel that does this in Chinese medicine.
In addition to “opening the portals of perception,” the Small Intestine channel also treats the “healing crisis”: the dark night of the soul when a condition “flares” as it is trying to reach resolution.
However, there are often times where are person isn’t ready to go into the depths of themselves. They are depleted, overwhelmed and even weak. They just need the intensity of their symptoms to go away. The therapeutic strategy thus becomes suppression the symptoms to soothe, ease and bring about temporary relief.
There is an energetically “deeper” acupuncture channel called the Triple Heater which addresses conditions when they are flaring, yet the person lacks the fortitude and resources to deal with it. The Triple Heater channel attempts to suppress a condition and quickly eliminate its symptoms due to the person’s delicacy. This is often a common and necessary strategy for conditions that have become chronic and debilitating.
The Small Intestine channel however is ideal for a person who possesses fortitude, vitality and the resources to face their “shadow”: their repressions and unresolved issues.
The art of medicine is understanding where a person lives within their own process of healing. If they are not yet ready to face their “shadow,” it is best to suppress the symptoms and take some time to build their fortitude and strength. However if a person is strong and relatively ready to face themselves, the Small Intestine can help guide them through their healing journey.
Even “deeper” within the energetic terrain of the body lies the Gallbladder channel. Classically this channel is seen to be used “late” in a person’s life when they are forced to decide what they want to take into their next life. That which cannot be worked out or resolved in this life becomes the “seed” of one’s next incarnation, say the ancient Taoists. Or this unfinished business gets passed onto subsequent generations. To use the Gallbladder is empowering a person to decide that they are ready to resolve their unfinished business now! It is amongst the most powerful of all the acupuncture channels.
The Taoists say we cannot “run” from our destiny, nor can we run from ourselves. They will always find us. There is no way out. Even suicide they say, which is related to the Gallbladder channel (there is a point on the side of the chest which treats suicidal ideation: opening up awareness that our unresolved issues will follow us into the next life, so it’s best to face them now) will not free us from our issues.
I have always seen acupuncture as “empowerment” therapy. It strengthens the body. But it also strengthens the will and expands consciousness. It helps us become the hero within our own life journey.
The acupuncture points and channels are located upon our own body. Acupuncture doesn’t give anything foreign or external to a person; it merely awakens and excites that which is already a part of us. It helps us learn to treat ourselves. It shows us our own strength (and nobility as the Tibetan Buddhists might say).
I’ve been working with a patient for several months who grapples with a very severe autoimmune condition. We are constantly moving back and forth between the Triple Heater and Small Intestine channels throughout our treatment journey. There are times where he is just not able to deal with the challenges in his life (and body). This is when we use the Triple Heater to quiet the symptoms and give him relief. We then focus on building his energy and blood so he can become strong. Eventually his body starts creating detox symptoms which are coming not from weakness, but from his acquired strength. This is when we utilize the Small Intestine channel to “rid (ride?) the wind” so as to create resolution for his “inner demons.” As I explain to him, we are detoxing him bit by bit, slowly. And whenever it becomes too much, we stop, put the issues back into hiding and continue building his strength.
“Wind” is the metaphor commonly used in Chinese medicine to describe chaotic movement within the body and mind. Wind can relate to external challenges like virus or bacteria, but also to neurological and psychological upheaval. Whenever we feel a sense of chaos or movement that we cannot manage in our bodies, minds and lives this is seen as “wind.”
Wind can blow us off balance, but it can also be utilized to “dry up dampness” (stagnation, stickiness and rot) in our bodies, minds and lives. Wind can also be used to give us motion and movement into the future. Chinese herbal medicine teaches however that in order to effectively deal with “wind” we need adequate blood. There is a saying in herbal medicine: “move blood to expel wind.” Blood in Chinese medicine is not only the physical substance, it is also the mediumship for the spirit and mind. Adequate blood means having enough nourishment and mediumship for the spirit to be free so it can powerfully guide us. Adequate blood is also necessary for a calm, stable mind.
The Confucians taught to deal with our emotions requires a strong, stable mind which they associate with the Spleen and Stomach organ systems. The Spleen provides the “qi” (transformative energy) for digestion and metabolism, but also for processing of mental material. A strong mind (and therefore strong Spleen) allows the capacity to have reflection and mindfulness so we can work through any mental material, even that which has been sublimated due to its traumatic nature.
Deep trauma is classified as “blood” and/or “phlegm” stasis. The mind and its experiences becomes stuck, causing either conscious (via the blood) or unconscious haunting (via fluids: phlegm) which agitate and unsettle us. To work with blood and phlegm stasis often requires the “Heart” and its “Yang” penetrating capacity to break through strong stagnations.
The Small Intestine is the chief partner to the Heart. It is often seen as its outer envoy: the way in which the Heart is able to extend its “Yang” penetration into the outer aspects of our lives. It is through the Small Intestine acupuncture channel that the Heart’s energy is able to penetrate into the eyes, ears, head, spine and glandular system.
To face the deep, hidden, “haunting” aspects of ourselves therefore requires adequate blood and qi that can be utilized by the Heart (via the Small Intestine).
The acupuncture channel I most like to use to strongly build blood and qi within the body is called “Chong Mai,” which my teacher says gives access to the “blueprint” of the body. Chong Mai reaches deeply into ourselves to not only excite our rebuilding capacity; it also reminds us who we are on a very deep, essential level. Chong Mai very quickly builds blood in the body. It also “harmonizes the Kidneys and Heart” to connect the spirit to the willpower so we can embrace who we are and express it courageously.
We can only face our “demons” when we’ve become strong enough, and willing to do so. Until then, we must nourish the blood, calm the spirit-mind and “extinguish the wind.” To extinguish wind can be likened to soothing symptoms and making them go away. This strategy doesn’t heal or resolve the underlying issue, but it buys us time and relief while we are becoming strong.
We must honor and follow the wishes of the body. Often when the body becomes strong enough it will attempt a “healing crisis”: a detoxification release. The Small Intestine channel is my “go-to” ally in dealing with this process. Just as the Small Intestine has points to awaken consciousness and fortify strength, it also has points to calm and clear a detoxification.
The point SI-4 on the wrist, SI-8 on the elbow, SI-15 on the back of the neck and SI-11 on the scapula are especially powerful to clear detoxification symptoms that may emerge as flu-like, muscular or skin problems. The points SI-1, SI-2 and SI-3 on the hand, as well as SI-18 on the face are effective in dealing with neurological issues that may be the result of a “healing crisis.” The points SI-3 and SI-7 on the arm are especially powerful when the detox agitates the mind and emotions, potentially causing obsessive, obsessive-compulsive, manic (and/or manic-depressive) or sleep disturbances. These two points are said to “calm,” “clear” and “stabilize” the spirit-disposition, making them especially useful when a healing crisis is causing personality disorders or “acting out” behavior.
I find the Small Intestine acupuncture channel effective due to its ability to both promote a change in consciousness, as well as help clear and stabilize the effects of facing and letting go of our demons, repressions and “shadow.” If this channel has the proper support of blood and qi then it will have the power to penetrate through our stagnations and stickiness, bringing us into a new state of mind.