Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Silent Wisdom of Winter

At the intersection of Wendover Ave. and Hill St., there is a large oak tree with a branch that extends across all three lanes of Wendover westbound. Almost at the end of this branch, and directly over the center lane of traffic, is a bird’s nest. “What in the world were they thinking?” I asked myself as I sped underneath it. I haven’t been able to get that image out of my head. I keep wondering if putting a nest there was profoundly stupid or a supreme act of faith?

No, I don’t think birds are stupid. I think they knew exactly what they were doing. Maybe any fall from a nest is potentially fatal no matter where the location. What with cats and snakes and just the force of the fall itself, learning to fly is a life and death matter, so why not go where the view is good? These rebel birds, I’ve decided are like rock climbers, living in the thrill of risking it all.

Naturally this made me think about my own life. How often am I willing to go out on a limb like that? In what ways in my life do I jump directly into something, knowing that I could land on my face in speeding traffic? It’s pretty rare these days, that’s for sure. So what is it that stops me? Fear of disappointing someone or of looking stupid? Fear of losing everything I’ve worked to create? In the face of death, which is the only thing that is truly inevitable, are these fears worth missing even one moment of the fantastic flight I could be having?

In Chinese Medicine, winter is associated with the kidneys. The kidney energy is the heavenly legacy we are born with, our genetics, who we are at the core. And fittingly, the emotion associated with Kidney is fear. Some call it fear of death, but I think it’s more about a fear of not living. Fear that we won’t be able to express who we are, that we won’t even discover who we are in the limited time we’ve been given.

But that is where the irony lies. There is nothing to know. There is no you to express. There is just life, streaming in and out of you and me and the bird in the nest and the kid down the street who you never really liked. It’s all the same stuff in different packaging. Each unique perspective contributing elegantly to the whole. Most of the time we have no idea the impact we make, so why don’t we set our intentions and quit worrying about it?

Self-knowledge is actually a misnomer. Finding yourself is more like coming home than going on a quest. Trees know that in order to grow and explore each spring, they have to pull their energy back into the ground during winter. It makes them stronger. Likewise, meditation, prayer, yoga, acupuncture or even music can be used to quiet the mind, to reconnect with that ancestral energy that has infused us with momentum since conception. If only we can manage to get our thoughts, judgments and obsessions out of the way, even for a few minutes each day, we will become settled in the wisdom that successful flight is inevitable.

The Treatment of Infertility with Chinese Medicine

The inability to conceive can be one of the most distressing times in a woman’s life. The longer she tries, the more disheartened she becomes. The stress of undergoing various diagnostic procedures and treatments can itself inhibit her ability to become pregnant and/or carry to term. For this reason, Chinese Medicine offers a wonderful alternative or complement to standard medical treatments. Chinese Medicine approaches infertility the way it approaches all medical complaints, which is through the lens of a person’s overall health.

According to the principles of Chinese Medicine, the reproductive system (or bao gong) requires three things to function smoothly:

1) There must be sufficient substance available to create an embryo. Substance here refers to the Kidney yin and blood. Think of a potter. In order to create a bowl, she first needs enough clay with which to form the bowl and the water she uses to keep the clay moist. Symptoms of deficient yin and blood are symptoms of not enough substance, not enough moisture: dry skin and hair, tight muscles, anxiety, restlessness, heart palpitations, insomnia, dizziness, visual disturbances, vaginal dryness, low back pain, night sweats and thirst. Often women with this pattern will have scanty periods or anovulatory disorders. Men with yin deficiency may have decreased sperm production. Stress can deplete the Kidney yin, and this is why often the first goal of treatments is to alleviate stress and provide relaxation.

2) There must be enough activating force to transform the yin substance into life. This activating force can be called Kidney yang and qi. For our potter, this is the movement of her hands as she shapes the clay and the motion created by the spinning wheel. Symptoms of yang deficiency are symptoms of low function or decreased metabolism and may include: fatigue, coldness, depression, inability to lose weight, loose stools, listlessness, low back pain, frequent urination, weakness of the limbs and poor appetite. Women with this pattern may have prolonged periods and they may have a low basal body temperature. They may ovulate but may not be able to create the heat (think progesterone) to be able to support fertilization and implantation. Men with yang deficiency may have poor sperm motility or even impotence. In this case, the first goal of treatment is to warm the Kidney in order to activate the function of reproduction, which is similar to stimulating hormonal response.

3) There must be open channels. In Chinese Medicine, qi, blood, yin and yang all flow through pathways (think rivers and streams) in the body. In order for the reproductive system to function well, these pathways must be open and free from obstruction. The potter’s wheel must turn smoothly and consistently. If the wheel becomes unbalanced, the bowl will become too misshapen and eventually collapse. Usually, the first pathological change that can lead to blockage in the channels is the stagnation of qi. Qi is the life-force that circulates through the channels and allows our body to function. It’s circulation can become impeded by emotional trauma or prolonged frustration, lack of exercise, or physical trauma. When the qi is stagnant, we may see functional obstructions like irregular periods, breast distention and pelvic pain. At this stage Western medical tests typically show no cause for infertility. However, because smooth qi circulation is needed for proper blood circulation, long-term stagnation of qi can lead to stagnation of blood. Once this happens, physical changes can be seen, ranging from blood clots in the menstrual flow to closed fallopian tubes and uterine fibroids. Men with these conditions may be more prone to headaches, digestive problems and may show abnormal sperm morphology (or shape). Acupuncture and herbal medicine combined can often help to facilitate the return of smooth circulation to the qi and blood.

Most women and men who come for treatment of infertility have a combination of the above patterns, making treatment quite complex. However, using these basic principles to treat infertility with acupuncture and herbs has been shown to be very effective, both with and without the kinds of powerful drug protocols required by more standard approaches. Of course, every person will respond in her own way, depending on their constitution, age, health status and willingness to follow the prescribed course of treatment. The length of treatment will vary depending on the diagnosis, but your practitioner should be able to tell you what to expect at the outset. For some people, radical lifestyle changes are required. Chinese medicine may not be able to overcome the effects of competing in marathons, or working 80 hours per week. These activities simply expend too much qi and yin to create the quiet and nourishing atmosphere a healthy embryo requires.
While no method of treatment is suitable for everyone, Chinese medicine offers most patients a logical place to begin the treatment of infertility. It is relatively noninvasive, often effective and very safe. In contrast to patients who use standard care alone and are often left feeling frazzled and exhausted, those using Chinese Medicine report a sense of improved overall well-being and improvement in physical symptoms whether or not they eventually conceive.

Redefining Vacation

My mother and some of my friends who grew up in North Carolina recall that it was commonplace for families to take at least two weeks, often a month or a whole summer and go to the beach every year. Of course an annual retreat for relaxation and rejuvenation is routine in Europe; businesses there will commonly shut down for the month of August. Unfortunately, in our youthful American enthusiasm for getting ahead, we have forgotten the value of balancing productivity with plain old rest and relaxation.

Even when we do take “downtime” our consumer-driven culture has managed to make us feel as though we need special clothing or herbs or scents to relax correctly.  And as far as I can tell, vacation has become a myth…some fantasy for the future that we use to justify working too hard now.  The people I know with salaried positions or who own their own businesses often accrue more vacation hours than their responsibilities could ever allow them to actually use. So what if your benefit package includes 5 weeks of vacation a year, if you never actually feel that the company could live without you for that long?  Even if you do decide to take time off, you often decide in the end that it’s just too much work. By the time you prepare yourself to leave and then work late catching up once you return, that week at the beach  feels more like a hassle than a getaway.

Then there are the people who work in  blue collar  jobs who can barely go to a doctor’s appointment without threat of being fired.  With the threat of plant closures and downsizing, many of us are left feeling as though we must sacrifice all other parts of our lives in order to stay employed.

And yet,  as trite as the new age jargon makes it sound, balancing work and play really is crucial for our health and wellbeing. In medical literature, psychosocial stress is accepted as a significant risk factor for heart attack and stroke. Giving our central nervous system a break by slowing down both physical and mental activity allows our entire system to function more smoothly. Digestion and sleep are improved, our immune system can respond appropriately and we become able to think more clearly.

With rest, our brain can become more creative, seeing solutions that simply weren’t there before.  Athletes know that optimum performance comes when you are able to get in “the zone” when your body is doing what it needs to without your brain having to think through the motions. Other work is the same way. We all have access to brilliance, but being able to focus that “knowing” into our work requires that we periodically take a step back and do nothing, just as an athlete would stop training and rest before a big competition.

So how do we integrate rest and relaxation into our lives with the kinds of intense schedules we have created for ourselves?  I recently discovered a solution that I’m calling the “mini-vacation.” Rather than try to plan the perfect getaway, I simply take a day off every so often. When that day rolls around, I simply do whatever I want. Recently, I decided to spend the day with my daughter and just be with her. Without the usual pressure of feeling like something else needed to get done, we had a glorious time. Even though being with a two year old is often exhausting, I felt refreshed at the end of that day and more in love with her than ever.

On other days, when I take her to her usual babysitter, I intentionally do not plan to run all my errands that day, or to catch up on anything that feels like an obligation. My mini-vacation is a day of pure presence, of listening to what inspires me in the moment. I might spend the day leisurely reading or seeing movies or having a nice lunch with friends. Sometimes I might even do research or clean out my file drawers, but it doesn’t feel like work because the only rule I impose on this day is that I don’t schedule anything (except maybe a massage!).  Instead, I just allow myself to do whatever it is I feel like doing that day.

As a result, I find myself looking forward to this day off as if it were a trip to the beach. Unlike a trip to the beach, however, my mini-vacation has only minimal impact on my schedule, it isn’t expensive, I don’t have to pack, and when it’s all over, I’m not disappointed because I can already see the next such adventure scheduled on my calendar! As the day approaches, I’m always excited by the prospect of what I might make of the day. And once it’s over, I feel grateful and re-energized about my work. This is not to say that I won’t schedule a beach trip this summer as well–I really do believe that we need extended time away from work periodically. But these mini-vacations work beautifully to keep me from wearing myself thin the rest of the year. Even if we aren’t able to truly “balance” work and play, at least we ought to have a time-out every once in a while to reconnect to our own brilliance.

Encouraging Creativity with Acupuncture

Each of us is creative. Each of us has something of beauty to share with the world. That something may or may not be  traditionally artistic–we may paint or sing, or we may instead bring a new dimension to mothering or cooking or project management. Each of us longs to contribute something inspirational to others. So what stops us? Fear, self-doubt, lack of recognition of our talents, or maybe we’re just too busy. We’re so caught up in the petty details of what needs to be done next, that we become oblivious to the calls of the external world, asking for our greatness.

How did the rose ever open its heart and give to this world all of its beauty?
It felt the encouragement of light against its being,
otherwise we all remain too frightened.
–Hafiz (14th century poet)

This  “encouragement of light” is the connection we feel when we are quiet. A connection with God, with source, with each other, with the universe. It’s the reminder that we are at once a tiny speck amongst millions of others and a powerful force capable of changing the world. It’s this sense of connection that allows us to give up egotistical concerns about the perfection of our petals or the depth of our color and simply open our hearts.

As an acupuncturist, I feel that one of my most important tasks is to try to provide the space in which people can quiet their minds enough to feel their own essential wholeness. People often say,  “I’m not reacting to little things the way I used to,” or “I just feel at peace after I leave here.”  From such peace, whole worlds can be created. From such peace, the obstacles to self-expression can be lifted.

In Chinese Medicine, we speak about restoring the natural “flow of qi.” When “qi” or energy becomes blocked, things hurt, we get frustrated and we often can’t see past the physical or emotional place we are in now. Getting the qi moving allows us to glimpse into that other world in which anything is possible. The realization that just a few stainless steel needles can provide some relief from suffering illustrates the miraculous capability we have to heal ourselves in an instant.

It’s not that acupuncture, per se, helps you lose the weight, become pregnant or paint a more satisfying picture. But receiving acupuncture can be one way to find that still point from which the solution can emerge. The more you can experience that profound peace, that sense that all is right with the world (or even better, that all is right with you), the less tolerant you become of the things in your life that leave you feeling not right. Whether it’s an unhealthy relationship, an addiction or job stress, the more you connect with the healthy part of yourself, the less willing you are to put up with these drains on your energy. As people progress with acupuncture treatment, they find themselves making small changes (or sometimes big ones) in their lifestyle that allow them to pursue interests they forgotten about. They begin to imagine themselves in situations they had always considered out of reach. They begin to blossom.