In Eastern medicine, body and mind have long been understood as intimately interconnected. Good health is a manifestation of smoothly flowing energy (variously described in different systems as qi, prana, wind, etc.) through the energy channels that connect the various organs. Each organ has an associated channel, which primarily affects a particular region of the body, and is associated with various emotional and spiritual qualities.
Let me give a couple of examples. The heart is associated with joy. When the energy flow to the heart is in balance, the person feels spontaneous love and compassion for every living being. When it is in excess, the person is very excited, the eyes overly bright, and the temperament agitated. In deficiency, the eyes are cloudy and the person is depressed and joyless.
The lungs are associated with grief and letting go. In energetic balance, the inevitable losses of life are experienced and accepted. Tears and sadness arise naturally and then pass, like showers giving way to sunshine. Deficiency of lung energy often arises due to repressed grief, which obstructs the lung organ, affecting voice and breathing patterns, and sometimes causing a cough or even laryngitis.
These two examples provide only an incomplete, gross simplification of a huge body of medical research and scholarship conducted over several millennia. For instance, the above descriptions focus mainly on emotions, but health in the Chinese system is also influenced by many other factors, such as genetics, exposure to pathogens, nutrition, lifestyle patterns, occupation, etc. Traditional Chinese medicine provides the basis for many related systems that have evolved in parallel in Japan, Korea, and it continues to evolve in the West today, often mingling with an array of other modern therapies, such as craniosacral therapy.
In modern times, acupuncture and Eastern medicine have only received limited acknowledgment from Western medicine, which is highly based on quantifiable research studies. While this may point more to an inability of Western research techniques to quantify elusive phenomena such as qi (life energy) or mind, this shortcoming is irrelevant to the large portion of the worlds population who have used these therapies successfully for several thousand years to meet their health needs.
One of the beauties of acupuncture is its holistic nature. A trained practitioner of Chinese medicine conducts a thorough examination of the person (in all but very superficial complaints), perhaps taking as much as an hour to deeply understand the person and how energy moves through his or her body and mind, palpating various parts of the body, checking pulses, and so forth. The treatment is then able to address the totality of that person, not simply one symptom in isolation, which is often the net effect of Western pharmaceutical therapy.
After each treatment, the person almost always feels greater mental clarity, more relaxed, and, depending on the presenting symptom, gradual improvement is often experienced for a wide variety of problems. Unfortunately, acupuncture is not magic. It will not solve all your problems.
In Western countries, there are legal restrictions on its scope of practice. For example, in Washington state where I practice, if an individual comes to me with acute undiagnosed neurological changes and several other presenting patterns, I am required to refer her or him to an allopathic physician. I can still treat the person later, but I need something in writing from a medical doctor.
And while acupuncture and other techniques such as meditation can be enormously helpful for emotional problems, they are not stand-alone treatments for serious psychological disorders, such as clinical depression, that require guidance from a trained professional in that field. Acupuncture and meditation can complement psychotherapy, often enabling individuals to decrease their medications, but only in consultation with the prescribing doctor. Psychotherapy, like Western medicine, continues to evolve, and today there are many psychotherapists who incorporate spiritual perspectives such as Buddhism in their clinical practice.
Finally, it seems appropriate to clarify some differences in how Western and Eastern medical systems view mind and brain. In Western medicine, the body is seen as the foundation for the brain, out of which mind spontaneously arises at birth. Mental illness, such as schizophrenia, is understood as an act of God or a result of genetics or environment, or some combination of all three.
Hence, treatment is heavily oriented toward a rearrangement of internal body chemistry, such as the functioning of your serotonin neurotransmitters. This is not to discount the benefit these new wonder drugs (Prozac, etc.) have had for some, but it has probably greatly led to their overuse. It glosses over the many side effects these drugs may have, and from an Eastern point of view, it does little to remove the root causes of whatever emotional imbalance led one to take these pills.
In Eastern medicine, and in particular Tibetan medicine, the mind is explicitly understood as being interrelated with the body. The mind is clear and formless, has the ability to engage with objects, and passes from one life to the next, carrying karmic vibrations or imprints that influence personality characteristics and propensities for physical and mental health, or illness, in any given life.
Karma is quite complex and easily misunderstood. It does not imply fate or determinism. In essence, it can be understood as seeing ones present body and mind as a result of past causes. Ones future body and mind will be a result of present causes. If one wishes to be happy in the future, it is important to learn how to create causes for happiness now. This is the basis of Tibetan medicine: mental purification. It is based on the observations of the Buddha, who is often described not as the founder of a religion, but as the greatest psychotherapist who ever lived, a scientist in the true spirit of investigation and experimentation.
Jordan Van Voast is a licensed acupuncturist
practicing on Capitol Hill in Seattle. After a two-year sabbatical
studying Buddhist philosophy in Dharamsala, India and volunteering
in a Tibetan medical clinic, he has returned to serve the greater
Seattle community. He can be reached at (206) 322-9363 or <http://www.mandalaacupuncture.com/>.
Venerable Thubten Chodron
Contemporary Buddhist teacher with helpful insights on a wide range of emotional problems. Many useful links including free books available by mail.
Comprehensive resource for patients, practitioners, and students.