Monday, April 23, 2012

Yin & Yang of Healthcare

I am a martial artist and an acupuncturist - these two go hand in hand. At its essence, both martial arts and acupuncture are about interactions; between individuals, between the mind, body & spirit, between the physical and ethereal.

It is a human necessity to separate the world into smaller parts; without separation, we could not discern left from right, hot from cold, self from other.

Since this is such a fundamental part of life, it is of no surprise that we separate even our own selves into parts. It is vital to our survival that we understand the difference between our hand, head, chest, lungs, heart, etc., so that we may perceive ourselves and our condition.

The purpose of this separation is to allow us to have a different understanding for each component - the lungs are for breathing, the heart is for pumping blood, the brain is for thinking and so on.

It also helps assess appropriate dangers posed to us - we react more defensively towards objects approaching the face than we do objects approaching the arm or legs. Thinking a little bit more abstractly, things which pose danger to the body do not necessarily cause harm to our mind or soul.

A falling object could pose a threat to our body, while a tragic event more directly affects our emotions. (Just for the sake of convenience, I'll make the distinction that my interpretation of the mind "thinks" while the "soul" feels or experiences.)

Endless argument can be made regarding how we can best separate and divide the parts of a whole, but there is no absolute authority we can consult on where the mind ends and soul begins. It is forever a topic of discussion whether a mind can exist without a soul, or whether the body houses the mind and soul, etc., but that is not the discussion which I wish to make.

The inherent danger of dividing the body into such pieces or differing aspects is the danger of losing sight of the whole picture. We easily forget that this process of separating and studying parts is a product of our analysis, and that we are observing the individual parts of an entire system.

It is important to remember that we are the ones who have separated the world into physical and ethereal, within our own minds, to establish our own understanding of the world. It is only our approach and preconceived notions which form our understanding.

Without the filter of our own perspectives, there is no physical existence that is diametrically opposite to an ethereal existence. Existence is a unified whole - we simply like to separate it into its fractions so that we may hope to gain further understanding of it.

According to some native American philosophy, the term "woods" not only include the trees and plants of an area, but all the creatures and phenomena which occurs within.  This is in contrast to a more modern approach which sees the animals as separate entities which live within the woods, rather than a part of the woods themselves.

Our separation of physical and ethereal are very much like this - the distinction between the trees and animals are not inflexible - if one were hunting, one must clearly make a distinction between wood and animal to be successful, but in the case of forest preservation, saving the ecosystem is as vital as saving the trees.

So how can we apply this to our health? If we were to think of the trees of a forest as representing the physical, the tangible and rooted existence of our bodies, the animals would reflect the dynamic and more rapidly fluctuating nature of our spirit/mind/soul.

In Asian philosophy and medicine, this dichotomy is referred to as the Yin (physical) & Yang (ethereal). There are a few important things about this symbol, some obvious, some more subtle. 

The most obvious aspect that most people notice is that each aspect contains within itself some degree of the opposite aspect. Yin can be found within the Yang, and Yang can be found within the Yin. 

A bit more subtle is the realization that Yin & Yang cannot exist in isolation of one another - simply imagine a black and white Yin Yang symbol without either black or white.  The symbol ceases to exist.  What this represents is that both Yin and Yang only exist when we separate something into two different parts.

One of the origin stories of the Yin & Yang is associated with an observation made of a hill - when the sun rises, the east side of the hill was bright and well-lit (Yang = Brightness), while the west side of the hill was cast in shadow (Yin = Darkness).

If there were no hill in this story, there could be no distinction between the bright side of the hill in contrast with the shaded side.

This origin story is also useful in visualizing another characteristic of the Yin & Yang. As the sun rises high, and is directly overhead, the bright portion, the Yang, dominates. The trees and cliffs cast shade upon the ground, representing the small "dot" of Yin during an overwhelmingly Yang time.

As the sun declines to the west, the situation of the hills reverse; the west side of the hill is now lit by the setting sun, while the east side begins to darken in shadows. Once the sun has disappeared over the horizon, the land is cast in darkness, which represents the Yin. Although much darker than when the sun were up, there are still the stars and moon which provide light (Yang) during this time of Yin.

When the sun rises in the east in the following morning, the situation has come full circle and begins again. What this shows is the cyclical nature of the Yin and Yang. The reason why this aspect is often missed is because the the drawn symbol appears static.

In fact the symbol accounts for this limitation and tries to represent its dynamic nature through its distinct "S-shape" division. Rather than a straight line dividing the circle into two hemisphere, the S-shaped division creates the look of two tadpoles swimming around one another. The "tail" ends of the Yin and Yang are intended to show movement, a spiraling or swirling of both sides, perpetually switching places with one another.

Another lesser known characteristic (or perhaps most overlooked) is the fact that the Yin & Yang represents a greater whole. This seems like an obvious statement, and perhaps it is easy to see when observing the symbol, but all too often it is forgotten when applying the concept to reality.

For example...
If modernized "Western" medicine is perceived in opposition to the ancient "Eastern" medicine, much like the Yin opposite the Yang, what seems to be easily forgotten is that both sides are necessary to represent the whole symbol - in this case, representing medicine & healthcare.
That is not to say that every fad diet, reckless prescription, and health craze are particularly beneficial to one's health (as more often than not, it seems quite the opposite), but it does mean that opting for appropriate surgery is not in opposition to holistic or alternative medicine.

Simply put, it is more important to find appropriate treatment for appropriate illnesses and conditions, than to virtuously follow one doctrine over another. It seems wasteful to limit our understanding and awareness when we have such easy access to thousands of years of knowledge at our fingertips.

The most difficult thing is to determine what is appropriate, and I know that there are rarely any easy answers. Being well-informed about all applicable options is ideal, but takes a lot of effort and some education on the fundamentals of health from various perspectives.

Unfortunately, many people seem to think that they must commit to one side; western or eastern, reductionist or holistic, ancient wisdom or modern technology, when in fact, the best choice is somewhere in the middle where the 2 sides are used harmoniously.

The bias formed by committing to one side prevents us from seeing the whole picture.

This behavior may simply be hard-wired into our biology - for millennia we had to know who our enemies and allies were, and dividing the world into "us" vs "them" has been the heart of almost all major conflicts.

Clearly there are going to be differences in groups which can result in friction and turbulence, but perhaps if we recognize that we are simply two parts of a pre-existing whole, maybe we can stop dividing ourselves into quite so many arbitrary groups.

Maybe there is something wonderful/interesting/enlightening that occurs when we see the bigger picture - I don't know, but I'd like to find out.

Stephen Getz, L.Ac.    

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