Yesterday we briefly looked at the classification of diseases and imbalances in terms of Yin and Yang and more specifically:
What type of headache did you last experience? Most people will identify with one or more of the following:
Menstrual headache (occurring at the time of a period, before, during or just after)
A hangover would normally be classified as External, Hot, Full (or possibly both Full and Empty) and Acute. Why would it be classified as such?
External – alcohol was introduce into the body from the outside,
Hot – alcohol is very heating to the liver in particular. The detoxification process forces the liver to go into over-drive which causes Heat to build up. Think of what happens to any engine or machine that is working at full capacity. It requires some kind of coolant such as water, oil, or a fan, to keep it from over heating. Otherwise it will ultimately cause damage or break down. So, too, our livers.
Full or Empty– normally when we are younger, our hangovers are Full. You would not want to put any pressure on your head such as your hand. Even the weight of a cold flannel on your forehead might be too much. But sometimes, particularly as we age, hangovers can tip over in to Full and Empty so that not only does the cold flannel help, but so too does our hand resting on the top of our forehead creating some additional pressure.
Acute – Most hangovers are acute in nature, rapid onset, with severe and sharp symptoms, followed by rapid recovery (although when you are in the midst of one it can seem never ending)
It may seem obvious to say that if you have a hangover you can correct the imbalance by not drinking so much alcohol. But for many people as they age, hangovers become worse, sometimes much worse, as time goes on. For some, they are so severe that alcohol or certain types of alcohol can no longer be tolerated. It is not uncommon for some people who love red wine to be forced to give it up in their 40’s because even one glass causes later discomfort. But this did not happen when they were younger.
So what has changed?
In order to better understand the answer to that question we need to look at the other types of headaches. The benefit of going through this exercise and examining the nature of your headache is to determine whether an underlying imbalance is occurring and to take early steps to rectify it through diet and lifestyle. We will continue to look at other types of headaches tomorrow then look at what can be done in terms of diet and lifestyle.
In the Introduction to Yin and Yang (1), we looked at the classical Chinese characters for Yin and Yang and their meanings. From there we looked at further associations and how they reflect and polarize a variety of characteristics in our lives and in nature.
Yin Yang Yin Yang
Dark Bright Contracting Expanding
Cold Hot Internal External
Shady Sunny Feminine Masculine
Night Day Downward Upward
Earth Heaven Confined Expansive
Moon Sun Defending Attacking
Chronic Acute Receding Advancing
Empty Full Receiving Projecting
Still Moving Releasing Grasping
Dense Hollow Throwing Out Acquiring
Inhale Exhale Pruning Planting
Ebb Flow Contemplative Active
Using this simple polarization system of Yin and Yang, all diseases and imbalances in our bodies can be classified accordingly. We do this in order to better understand our current disease or imbalance, to treat it appropriately, and to prevent further imbalances and diseases from occurring in the future through changes in diet and lifestyle.
The most important characteristics of disease and imbalance we look at are:
Let’s look at how this might work. Think back to the last headache you had. Now try to classify it according to the four criteria: Internal/External, Cold/Hot, Empty/Full and Chronic/Acute.
Was the headache External? Was the pain generated by something external to your body such as alcohol, trauma to the head, heat stroke, or any similar outside your body event? Or was it Internal in nature? Was it generated entirely from the inside of your body with no external stimulus?
Was the headache Hot or Cold? How did you feel in your body? Did you require extra bedclothes (you were feeling cold) or were you throwing them off (you were feeling Hot). Would you have felt better with a cold compress on your forehead (your head was feeling hot) or a warm compress (your headache was feeling cold)?
Was your headache responding to pressure such as placing your hand on your head (Empty) or would that have made it feel worse (Full)?
Was the headache externally generated, with rapid onset, and/or when it left was it fully gone (Acute)? Or was it internally generated where you regularly experience the same type of headache, and/or does it get worse as you get older (Chronic)?
Tomorrow we’ll look at the different types of headaches and what you can do to help yourself.
Yesterday I wrote that we have just tipped into the Yang phase of the moon (waxing, growing). The Yang phase of the lunar cycle signifies augmentation and expansion.
Living in synchronicity with the moon in its Yang phase would reflect expansion and extroversion in our daily lives.
There are many ways to use this influence. It is a good time for setting new goals, making new friends or seeing more of your current friends, going out more, planting new shrubs, seeds or bulbs in your garden, buying something you love and enhancing yourself or your home, nurturing yourself with healing foods, taking up a new sport or activity and starting projects at home or at work. In expanding your life during this phase, you are working in harmony with nature.
For many this may seem incredible or even ridiculous. But before you are tempted to reject this outright, consider how the lunar cycle already affects us on earth. The tides of the earth’s oceans come in and go out in synchronicity with the moon. Think of the natural force, the magnetism, involved in influencing oceans.
Another example affecting our natural body rhythms is the female menstrual cycle. For many women their menstrual cycles are closely tied to the phases of the moon. Evidence based research supports this belief and has shown that many women do indeed get their periods at the Full Moon*. So not only does the moon affect our oceans, it is also closely linked with the timing of the creation of human life.
Even if you still don’t believe there is any energetic benefit to living in accordance with the cycle of the moon, it still may make sense from a practical point of view. Yin and Yang phases of the moon are roughly 14 days in length. The Yang phase is a period of expansion suited to the expansion of your horizon such as new goals, friends, travel, material objects and gaining a few pounds. The Yin phase is a period of contraction and introspection suited more to reflection and clearing out what is no longer working for you such as bad habits, redundant goals, material things, toxic relationships, and even losing some unwanted pounds.
This system of two weeks of clearing and introversion in theYin phase followed by two weeks of expansion and extroversion in the Yang phase is a life balancing strategy. Just as we can not, over the long term, breathe in more than we breathe out and vice versa, so to will our lives function more smoothly when periods of excess are balanced by periods of restraint. The Moon for you may simply be a marker of these phases.
* There is much evidence based research to support this statement but to be fair; there are some studies that negate it. On the whole, in both my clinical experience and in my personal life with my female friends I consider this statement to be accurate.
Additionally, the English words moon and menses (which is another word for menstruation) are linked in their etymological origins. The root of menses comes from the Latin, mensis, which means ‘month’ and is related to the Greek word mene which means ‘moon’.
Finally, and purely as an anecdotal experience, in our ascent up Mount Kilimanjaro where we climbed under a full moon, 4 out of 5 of us had our periods during the 7 day climb. None of us had lived together previously so this can not be attributed to the phenomenon of women ‘synching up’ when living under the same roof.
It is a New Moon today which lends the perfect opportunity to explore the terms Yin and Yang in the traditions of Chinese Medicine. I have seen the Yin and Yang symbol used in many different logos advertising everything from garden design companies to Chinese fast food restaurants. But what does it really mean?
The classical* Chinese characters of Yin and Yang are the starting point. The Yin character reflects the shady side of a mountain or hill and is associated with dark, cold and the shade. The Yang character reflects the sunny side of a mountain or hill and is associated with bright, hot and the sun.
From here, further associations are made. Not only is Yin relatively dark, cold and shady, but other characteristics have been attributed to Yin in a similar vein. Further attributes are nighttime, feminine, the moon, contracting, receding, empty, stillness, passive, internal, ebbing, letting go, introversion, throwing out, pruning, and chronic diseases.
Yang is associated not only with bright, hot and sunny, but additional characteristics such as daytime, masculine, the sun, expanding, advancing, full, moving, active, external, flowing, grasping, extroversion, acquiring, planting, and acute diseases.
The most import consideration at the moment is to understand that Yin and Yang are relative terms. You can not have one without the other. Within this relativity is implied that they are mutually generating and mutually consuming. One can not exist without the other, and as one grows, the other recedes. A final point to remember is that within Yin there is Yang and within Yang resides Yin.
What on earth does this mean?
If we look at the daytime sun and the nighttime moon, we can say, relative to each other, that the sun is Yang (bright, hot, daytime, sunny, and with a warmer hue) and the moon is Yin (dark, cool, nighttime, with a cooler hue). The daytime sun and nighttime moon define each other. We can not fully know the sun and daytime if there were no moon and nighttime. They are mutually generating.
At daybreak, the first light appears and the sun begins to rise. As the sun rises, the night and the moon fade. In full midday sun, the nighttime and moon have virtually vanished. At dusk, the light diminishes as the sun sets whilst darkness descends. At the mid of night, all sun’s brightness and daytime light is now virtually gone. At the mid points of day and night, the daytime sun and nighttime moon have forced each other out. They are mutually consuming.
With the changing seasons, we can identify periods where the sun, relative to its seasonal cycle is stronger or weaker. It can be said that the winter sun is relatively cooler, less bright and has a shorter daytime than the summer sun. The winter sun can be said to be Yin to the summer sun’s Yang. Therefore, within Yang (the sun relative to the moon), there is Yin (the winter sun relative to the summer sun).
Similarly, if we look at the cycle of the moon, we can identify and compare a full moon to a new moon. A full moon is relatively brighter to a new moon. Therefore, within the moon’s Yin (the moon relative to the sun) there is Yang (the full moon relative to a new moon).
This is visually evident in the Yin Yang symbol. As the black swirl (which is Yin relative to the white swirl) grows, the white Yang swirl diminishes and vice versa. Similarly, if either the Yin black or Yang white shape wasn’t there, then the other shape would have no definition. One can not exist without the other. Finally, within the dark Yin there is a dot of white Yang and vice versa. This reflects that within Yin resides Yang and within Yang resides Yin.
So what does today’s New Moon mean and how can we incorporate it into our lives?
With regard to our lunar cycle, we have just tipped into the Yang phase of the moon (waxing, growing). The moon will continue in its Yang phase until it reaches its peak at the Full Moon and then tip in to the Yin lunar phase (waning moon). The Yang phase of the moon signifies augmentation and tomorrow some suggestions on how to use this influence in your daily life.
* The simplified Chinese characters do not reflect this as beautifully as the classical Chinese characters.
I remember taking this photo of Mount Kilimanjaro. We had just spent the day climbing up Mount Mawenzi which rises up opposite it. We had just stopped to take a break. At 4300 meters, the air was thin with oxygen and I was weary. As I looked across to Mount Kilimanjaro, the mountain we had set our sights on summiting, I was struck by the irony that we spent the day investing a lot of energy climbing a different mountain and ostensibly getting further away from our goal.
But I had learned the mountain climber’s adage: climb high, sleep low. By ascending to higher altitudes, the body immediately begins to acclimatize to less oxygen. The moment we reached the higher altitudes, our bodies would begin to adapt to the thinner air and continue to do so even though we would later descend. When we descended to a lower altitude to sleep, our adaptation process would continue so that our sleep would be even more oxygen rich at the lower altitude than if we hadn’t ascended first. And we would already be more efficient in our oxygen consumption for the higher altitudes to come in the following days.
Even though I knew the importance of what we were doing, I remember at that time thinking how wasteful that extra day’s climbing felt to me. Years later I can see the value of this day. Not just for the improvement in oxygen (our life force) but also because I learned on that day that I needed to bring more water with me as I ran out early in that day’s climb. This ensured that for our Kilimanjaro summit, I was better prepared, both aerobically and with sufficient water. It is only with hindsight and rest that I realized the value of this apparent backwards-step of a day.
If our full attention is given to the attainment of our goals we may never reflect on the importance of the seeming failures, backtracks, disappointments, and u-turns. We may end up missing the value and contribution these events have had on our lives and the lessons that can contribute towards achieving our dreams. It can make sense to pause and reflect on a setback and see if it may indeed be as important as progress made forwards, and an equally valuable contribution to a rich and vital life.
In the northern hemisphere we are experiencing the Vernal Equinox today. It is an opportunity to initiate or re-energize your goals. It is an ideal time to reflect on what is currently working for you, what needs to work better for you going forwards, and what is no longer appropriate for your body, mind and spirit.
Once you have an idea of where you might like to make some changes, consider first creating some space for this change. We are all blessed with the same 24 hours in the day. Many of my patients seem to fill most of these hours to the brim with work, family, and social commitments. This leaves very little room for the very changes that may make a significant difference in the quality of their lives and in the achievement of long-term goals. I encourage them to consider the following question:
If you keep following the same daily pattern, how can you expect a better result?
Before taking on new goals, consider first releasing activities that no longer make sense to you. It can be a very small change yielding a few extra hours of time per week. For the next two days, the moon is waning so it is the ideal influence for clearing out and letting go. Clear out the old, discard all that is not working, and create space to begin fresh with the New Moon on Thursday.
‘Who is ‘Doctor’ for you?
I was posed this question by a Taoist priest in 2008. He was encouraging me to reflect on my roles both as an acupuncturist and herbal medicine practitioner as well as an individual and patient.
Who would I first consult if I was unwell? I ran through various scenarios in my head in order to answer this question: What if I felt blue? What if blue descended to black and I was having difficulty hanging on to my own life? What if I had a sore knee for no reason? What if my knee was injured due to a fall? What if I was coming down with a cold? What if my back was chronically aching? What if I found a lump in my breast?
Each question provoked a different emotional and sometimes physical response. As the scenarios played in my mind some invoked a practical, matter-of-fact response and others reduced me to fear and nausea. One thing became very apparent. I did not think clearly in the grips of fear and nausea. In those scenarios, I found myself quickly trying to deflect my anxiety on to another, seemingly wiser one, or at least, a calmer one.
Then it occurred to me that normally I AM the calmer, wiser one in all matters pertaining to me. No one knows me better than I know myself. No one can better factor in all my complexities since no one knows them like I do. And I am increasingly concerned that, when so many practitioners are overworked, no one will spend as much time researching all the options available to me, than me.
It is for this reason I believe that for any imbalances in my physical, emotional and spiritual health, I am ‘Doctor’ for me. My consultants may end up being surgeons, reflexologists, oncologists, acupuncturists, nutritionists, ayurvedic or herbal medicine practitioners, my local GP, psychotherapists or any of a number of allopathic or complementary practitioners. But I believe that it is my responsibility to pause, reflect, research, consult my consultants, and then determine the best course of action for me.
It was so much easier for me to answer this question in relatively good health. It gave me the time and space to run through available options and try to imagine and intuit what I would do. This was a highly personal reflective process. The course of action that I concluded I’d take may not make sense for anyone else but me. This was my thought process, my reflections and my journey.
However, I do believe that for all of us, it is worth taking the time now, in relative good health, in the absence of fear or urgency, to answer this question:
Who is ‘Doctor’ for you?
My passion for Chinese Medicine has been growing since the day I began my studies. It is the only love affair I have ever experienced where the initial heady excitement hasn’t waned. I have learned over the years to try and keep myself in check when I am with people who don’t yet know and love this system of healing. Although I try to contain my enthusiasm, I fear some of my friends will tell you that I still fail miserably in this regard.
The more I learn and the more I practice, the more I continue to be surprised on the upside. Even when I have absolutely no expectation that a classical theory will work I am so often surprised by the results when I just have a go anyway. And this is how my enthusiasm for classical Chinese Medicine in the Taoist traditions continues to grow. It always delivers.
However it is worth noting that in my early studies there were times where I would disagree with a principle or think, ‘this doesn’t add up’. Although my passion didn’t wane, I did think, ‘here is the exception to the rule’ and planned to accept it as such. It is much like when you discover your new perfect love doesn’t pick up his socks. It’s disappointing, sure, but the rest is so good that you are able to put it aside.
What I didn’t anticipate is that over time, I would realize that the classical paradigm was indeed correct in all these cases and that it was my knowledge, experience and understanding that had to catch up. I was simply unable to appreciate the complexities of the alchemy at that time and as such discounted it as untrue when it was, in fact, true.
Discovering that my lack of experience was without exception the reason for my confusion, I now have a strategy in place. When something that is written in a classical text doesn’t seem to reflect my current experience or beliefs, I now put a ‘pause’ on it in order to reflect further.
When this happens, my favourite game is to ask myself the following question; ‘Even though I believe that our universe doesn’t work this way, if it did, how would it show up?’ or ‘Even though I believe that our physical bodies don’t work this way, if they did, what would be the result or benefit?’
Pausing to reflect in this way often generated answers to these questions or at least germinated a seed that would later grow into greater understanding.
Chinese Medicine in the Taoist tradition is more like alchemy. It is beautiful and simple and, at the same time, enigmatic and complex. It is likely that going forward I will be writing about our environment, health and healing approaches that are completely at odds with current popular beliefs but I urge you not to lose heart.
If this happens, consider taking a pause before rejecting it outright. Simply store it and save it for later. Just like climbing a circular staircase, we may end up revisiting the same view several times as we go around and around. But as we go around each time, we will see the same material from a different angle. It is from these different vantage points that our understanding will grow and so too will our perspective.