Finding Happy and Healthy: Simultaneous Treatment of Mind and Body With Acupuncture
What do we do when we feel stuck in our lives? Where do we turn when we feel confused? How do we cope when we find ourselves lost and uncertain where to go? For most people, an acupuncturist is not the first person they’d think to visit with these issues. However my acupuncture practice, which is based in the Classical tradition of Chinese medicine, is filled with people seeking help and support with issues of direction and movement in their lives.
All healing is essentially a spiritual process. This is the basic point of view of Classical Chinese medicine. Medicine is seen as applied philosophy – an attempt to explain the mysteries of the world, the human body and the psyche. Medicine in general tries to explain why the body becomes unwell, and ways in which we can manipulate it to become healthy.
Classical Chinese medicine is a holistic system. Every part of the body is seen as linked to everything else. The mind always has an effect on the physical body. The body always has an effect on the mind. The spirit is seen to interpenetrate all: mind and body. I always find it fascinating how the ancient Chinese doctors described working with the mind and body together in very practical ways.
Depression, for example, can relate to a deficiency of blood, an extreme stagnation of functional energy, or phlegm accumulation in the lungs. Sometimes this occurs from an emotional shock or disappointment in the person’s life. In acupuncture treatment, the physical and humoral (blood and fluid) aspects of the body are always addressed, along with the emotional specifics.
Anxiety is often attributed to inflammation in the body, or deficiency of blood and hormonal fluids. It can come about from anything that creates heat in the body – diet, lifestyle, the emotions or another physical disease.
Physical pain is usually the result of stagnation in the blood (or stagnation of “qi” functional energy) flow in the organs and body tissues. In addition to trauma and injury, blood and qi flow can also become stagnated through faulty thought processes and insufficient emotional expression. When treating any condition of the mind and body according to Chinese medicine both aspects of the human system must be addressed.
But how about the subtler aspects of life: our sense of animation, direction, ambition, desires and sense of well-being? How does acupuncture work with these? They are not physical aspects of the body. Within Western medicine they are not even aspects of the self that can be measured or quantified. Yet we know they are real. And when we are having challenges with any of these aspects, we feel it – it can disrupt our lives a great deal.
Chinese medicine doesn’t get too arrogant about what is “real” and “unreal.” If a person feels it, it’s real. The mind can affect the body just as much as the body can affect the mind. When we say “it’s all in your head,” this is really never totally true. The head affects the rest of the body. Just as the body affects the head.
In Chinese medicine, the entirety of the human system is organized into several smaller systems. Much like is seen in Western medicine. But when a Chinese medical practitioner says “circulatory system,” we are referring to something much more expansive than the Western concept. Yes it contains all the physical aspects of the Western circulatory system – the heart, the blood vessels ect. It also relates to the “Shen” – our basic state of animation about life, our “spark,” that which interests us and moves us in the world. This is all classified under functions of the Heart and it’s associated sphere of influence throughout the body and mind.
Each of the 12 major organs in the body are said to have functions that are physical, mental, emotional and “spiritual.” To work with the Liver for example is to work with a person’s ability to regulate their direction in life in terms of vision, planning and decision-making. It also governs our ability to move through life in a smooth fashion – not too fast, not too slow, not to jerky. A balanced Liver allows us to see where we want to go, and decided how to get there. It also keeps us calm during the process of moving toward our goal. A depressed Liver is just as it sounds – jerky movements, frustration, depression, feelings of impotence or confusion or lack of creativity.
The Liver can become congested and stagnant from many things. An extremely fatty diet can congestion the functional energy of the Liver. Too much alcohol can generate heat in the Liver, consuming the blood that is stored in the Liver. Insufficient Liver blood will fail to nourish the Heart, leading to decreased circulatory function. When the Heart is malnourished, it can lead to numbness, weakness and cold limbs, but also to lack of animation about life – depression, sadness and a feeling of being lost and alienated from the world.
The process of helping a person navigate through their lives is metaphorically called “coursing the wind” by Chinese medicine. Wind is the climatic image used to represent change. The only thing that is a constant in life is change, just as the root of all health and wellbeing is predicted on movement. A common saying in Chinese medicine is “a free flowing river is always healthy.” Movement regenerates. It’s only when stagnation sets in that we get sick. Stagnation creates inflammation and pain, it consumes our blood and energy, and it dispirits us. For many people stagnation is the root of all disease.
Acupuncture by nature is movement therapy. The process of inserting a needle into an acupuncture point has an invigorating effect on the functional energy of the channel and organ associated with the point. Acupuncture moves energy, it moves blood and fluids, it also moves the mind and emotions. This is how acupuncture therapy is able to heal the body. It rebuilds tissues through invigorating blood and directing it to areas where it needs to go. It does the same thing with the mind – directing it where it needs to go, invigorating its animation and sense of direction. Incidentally, we heal faster when we are happy. We tend to get sick less, and our bodies work better. Supporting happiness, animation and well-being is one of the best healing and preventative medical practices we can do.