Keeping balance in these testing COVID times

In an earlier blog, I touched on the foundations of Classical Chinese medicine being rooted in the philosophy that optimum health and wellbeing depend on harmony and balance in all things. True health is believed to exist when there is equilibrium between the body, the self, and the environment.

Chinese medicine looks for patterns that reveal a rich landscape of insight into all aspects of the patient’s condition. This is distinct from the approach of western medicine, which aims to locate the organic cause of the patient’s symptoms, before moving to diagnosis of a clinical disease.

In Chinese Medicine we see the existence of four branches: Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Qi Gong and, finally, Tui Na massage and bodywork. Some might also include a fifth branch; healing through food. Each interdependent branch has its role to play. Each is embedded in the principles of balance and harmony, and each honours the truth that our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual selves are parts of an indivisible whole. Each seeks to extend beyond treating the physical body in isolation. Tui Na, for example, uses a range of techniques to soothe tired, sore, fibrotic and overworked muscles, but also applies targeted pressure to specific points, sometimes called acupressure points, ‘acupoints’ or ‘Qi-points’.

Acupoints are located along the 12 primary meridians – or invisible energetic pathways – that criss-cross the body, through and along which Qi flows. Qi is our Life Force. Qi is the same as the chemical energy we see in western medicine and is responsible for growth, reproduction, repair and our ability to fight disease. But problems with the optimum flow of Qi can lead over time to us being affected physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

In Jonathan Black’s book, ‘The Sacred History’, he alluded to this very thing when describing his first meeting with Lorna Byrne, the celebrated author of the book, ‘Angels in My Hair’:

“I discovered…that one of Lorna’s gifts is that she can see the flow of life force around the body, much as it is conceived in Chinese medicine and which they call chi. She saw a blockage in my energy flow and indicated a part of my abdomen that I should have examined by a doctor. I forgot all about this – as I say, I was busy – until a few months later I began to feel uncomfortable. It turned out I had a hernia and needed an operation.”

With all of this in mind, the aim of Chinese Medicine is to help rid the body of weakness, stagnation, and blockage. In doing so, we eliminate “dis-ease” within ourselves and maintain a state of balance and harmony.

When we think more deeply about balance and what that means, our consideration might expand to embrace the wider concept of Yin and Yang.

Yin and Yang is a way of describing the principle of duality or opposition that underpins all of creation and how we experience the Universe. Two parts that constitute wholeness. How things within the whole relate to and balance one other, and how nothing can exist entirely on its own. Interdependence once again.

So where we have feminine (Yin), we necessarily have masculine (Yang) as its opposite. Darkness and night (Yin) relative to light and day (Yang); cold (Yin) and hot (Yang); winter (Yin) and summer (Yang). We even see patterns of Yin and Yang within Yin and Yang. Ice would be Yin to the Yang of water, while water would be Yin to the Yang of steam.

Yin and Yang is everywhere, and if we look then we start to see. Yin yoga, Yang yoga. Even the different techniques used in Tui Na massage might be categorised in terms of Yin – gentle, soft and soothing – and Yang – active and dynamic with deep tissue stimulation.

Yin and Yang is fluid and never static. But too much of one or too little of another? Both states of being if left over time can threaten the delicate balance. Balance is key. Balance is everything. And so it follows that the causes of illness in Chinese medicine are broadly distinguished by how the delicate equilibrium between Yin and Yang has become compromised.

Practitioners learn to craft a picture of where the Yin and the Yang balance sits from the subtle signals their patients present to them: the sounds they make – including their pulse – and the way they make them, the way they look and smell, the colour of their skin and tongue. Practitioners’ skills become finessed as further patterns are observed, again, within the Yin and the Yang of: interior and exterior, deficiency and excess, as well as hot and cold.

With interior, we think in terms of chronic conditions, likely to have developed over time and on an emotional level, under the radar of the individual’s conscious awareness. How many of us ‘keep calm and carry on’ day by day, but all the while at the expense of honouring how we really feel? Sure, we might initially adapt and even feel quite pleased at our ability to absorb life’s curveballs. After all, modern society seems to exalt the ‘doing’ over the ‘being’.

But as I write, we are deep into mid-winter where Seasonal Affective Disorder leaves many of us with little more than fumes in the optimism tank as it is, without factoring in the third lockdown that is now well underway. Liberty – and our ability to do so many things in ways that would nourish our souls – has been necessarily curtailed with no exit strategy in sight. Yet with society as we know it having ground to a halt, our freedoms in shackles, and the majority of our school children being educated at home, many parents and teachers alike find themselves living a paradoxical reality of being called upon to do more than ever before. The same is true for all our front line workers.

Grief is an emotion that has been forced upon many of us over the past year and in Chinese medicine, the organ associated with the emotion of grief is the Lung. I recall a lady who, on learning of the association between the two, went on to reflect on how her unexpressed grief since the loss of her mother had left her with years of recurrent chest infections.

Worry too, is a constant in many of our lives during the pandemic. Worry for our health and what the future holds; our employment, our finances and what the future holds. Worry is associated with the Spleen in Chinese medicine, the Yin organ whose Yang partner is the Stomach. Is it any surprise then that worry often interferes with our digestion?

In these testing COVID times, it is doubly important that we allow ourselves the time and the space to express how we feel. To ourselves and to each other.

By contrast, exterior conditions might be considered more in terms of sudden, acute, pathogenic disease invading the body from the outside environment – COVID-19 being the obvious example.

If an individual’s Bodily Substances – for example, their Blood and Qi – are lacking, or the Yin Yang balance within their organs is underactive, this might be thought of as deficiency. We think in terms of lethargy, weakness, fatigue, disturbed sleep, dry skin and hair, pallor, and a tendency to feel the cold as some indicators.

Excess on the other hand, could manifest as bodily aches and pains, abdominal bloat, chest pains, heavy breathing, a loud and shouty voice, even emotional outbursts such as anger. After all, it is the Liver that is associated with the emotion of anger, and which houses the Blood. According to Chinese medicine, Blood collects in our Liver while we sleep, with the Liver’s optimum time within the 24-hour cycle of the 12 Primary Meridians lying between 1am and 3am.  

Where hot and cold patterns of imbalance are concerned, Chinese Medicine views heat in terms of either: actual excess Yang function within the body that’s usually acute in nature (think heat, thirst, fever, sore throat) or a lack of Yin in the delicate balance that creates the false appearance of too much Yang. This tends to be chronic, associated with hot flushes and night sweats in the absence of fever, constipation, dry skin, mouth and lips along with insomnia.

Meanwhile, cold is regarded as either: deficient Yang – again, chronic in nature – creating the illusion of Yin excess (a feeling of coldness and wanting to sleep excessively, no thirst but with a preference for warm drinks, tiredness, paleness, oedema) or an actual excess of Yin, which is acute, and typically associated with coldness, aches, stiff joints and sharp stomach pain. 

The differences appear to be subtle, but they are distinct. And there exists yet a further and final elusive level in the practice of Classical Chinese medicine. It is where the lofty heights of the “Penetrating Divine Illumination” might be reached after a lifetime of dedicated practice. It cannot be taught and as Ted K. Kaptchuk, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, describes in his book, ‘The Web That Has No Weaver’,

“The Penetrating Divine Illumination starts as an assessment and instantaneously becomes intervention. The Penetrating Divine Illumination is the magic of soul meeting soul, Spirit reflecting Spirit…

…The Penetrating Divine Illumination is the highest form of the Yin and Yang of healing. I used to watch it when I worked with my first teacher. Just from being and talking with Dr. Hong, most patients encountered within themselves a depth of humanity deeper than the difficulty or tragedy of any illness. Authenticity and integrity were experienced. The Qi shifted. The Spirit was touched. No matter how broken or isolated a person before the appointment, a meeting with Dr. Hong was an opportunity for both an expression and a recognition of his or her most genuine humanity.”

Such a beautiful description evokes wafts of Master Shifu level skill. And while an acupuncture or Tui Na treatment, or perhaps even a Qi Gong session might not be so transcendental, each is undoubtedly an exercise in keeping balance. Foreign holidays could well be off the cards in 2021 and so, even after strict lockdown restrictions eventually lift, it might be apposite for us to look into alternative ways to achieve our much needed R&R.

Time spent getting a massage, as the saying goes, is never time wasted. Even more so, if the outcome of a recent experiment seen in the BBC’s broadcast – ‘The Truth About Boosting Your Immune System’ – is anything to go by; 60 minutes of massage saw a 20% increase in the recipient’s lymphocyte T-cell count. In today’s testing COVID times, that’s not to be sniffed at. With Tui Na massage also able to keep our Qi flowing freely, our wellbeing balanced, and our muscles knot-free zones, what better way is there to contribute towards honouring ourselves not just in body, but in mind, in soul and in spirit?

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