Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Summer 2012

The first day of summer on the Chinese calendar this year was May 4. Summer's element is Fire. The color of the Fire element is red, its organs are the Heart and Small Intestine, its flavor is bitter (scorched) and its emotion is joy (whose negative aspect is anxiety). I am late with this brief posting, because after years of anxiety caused by being sucked dry by property I couldn't afford, I sold my house a month ago. Having unloaded a seductive but stagnant pile of steaming earth, my heart is slowly re-filling with joy. New anxieties will probably come to replace the old, but for now I am relaxing into the early summer here in central PA. I believe I'll set up the hammock tonight. I encourage you to do the same. Burn your obligations; become weightless. So what if it doesn't last? Nothing lasts. Enjoy it while it's here, is the lesson of Summer.

Change is in the wind

As the son of an English professor and a life-long lover of the bon mot, I have always tried to avoid cliches and stereotypical figures of speech. However, once I started working with bodies as an exercise therapist, it became immediately apparent how much truth there is in many well-worn phrases. As someone who has always suffered from knee problems, I can tell you, ruefully, that there is truth in the phrase "weak-kneed." Not that everyone who has weak knees is a coward, but rather that having chronic knee problems can make one physically timid, which ironically can contribute to the continuation and extension of knee problems. Urge someone with knee pain to be brave in their workouts and you'll have a good result. On another hand, people with chronic back problems frequently "don't have a leg to stand on" -- either they chronically exert themselves physically without situating their legs under them, or they frequently over-reach their boundaries and keep running when the ground has disappeared under their feet, like Wile E. Coyote. This makes them either lift with their back, not with their legs, or causes them to crash and burn, neither of which is good for spinal health.

When I started studying Chinese medicine, and especially as I have practiced it for the last 12 years, I have seen and appreciated how the Chinese have taken this technique many steps further and deeper. They have transcended words to identify and describe universal concepts, patterns or tendencies -- these descriptions include language, but also flavors, emotions, internal organs, external seasons, specific pathogens and spiritual states or emotional tendencies. Today, at the end of spring in the yang Black Dragon year 4709 on the Chinese calendar, I'd like to talk some more about the wood element and its climatic factor, wind.

Like always in Chinese descriptions of natural laws or movements, there is no right or wrong, illness or health implied in any particular substance, emotion or thought. They simply are, and can be in balance and appropriately expressed and manifested, or can be out of balance and inappropriately or destructively expressed or manifested. Wind is said to be the carrier of hundreds of diseases, but wind is also synonymous with change. The liver and gall bladder are the organs associated with the wood element, anger is the emotion, sour is the flavor and spring is the season. I have had an experience this spring which has brought all of these different aspects of wood and wind together in a way that is still making me feel awe and chagrin, but which I think is taking me further forward in my understanding of Chinese medicine, nature and myself.

Since I was about 18 years old, I have had bumps on my scalp. There were about a dozen of them, and they used to be about the size of a pea. However, in the last few years several of them got bigger and bigger. They would poke out through my hair, making me very self-conscious, especially at the swimming pool, where small children would say, "Mommy, what's that on that man's head?" They looked like cartoon bumps that are the aftermath of falling anvils, and I couldn't figure out a clever way to explain them away or disguise them. So I went to a plastic surgeon this spring, at the end of March, and had them cut out. Although the fee for this surgery was very reasonable, it was still a lot for me to pay; and although the procedure was described as minimal ("You can drive yourself home," and I did), it was a lot more traumatic than I expected. My head felt like a soccer ball that was being repaired -- lots of cutting, tugging and sewing -- when I had been expecting a kind of glorified pimple-popping. Besides the physical discomfort and wooziness, though, the biggest shock was seeing the cysts themselves after they were removed. Again, I was expecting some kind of cheesy, pimple-like goo, but instead they looked like miniature internal organs -- pinkish-grey, firm, with rubbery membranes and in some cases with skin, hair or other tissue still attached to the cyst. Sorry if I'm turning your stomach, but I bet my stomach was turned more. Especially because the sight of the cysts immediately confirmed one of my suspicions about the source of the cysts, and as it happened, it was the darkest, least flattering and least innocent of the various suspicions I had entertained.

Among other things, the Chinese say that the liver's qi rises to the vertex of the skull -- this usually is associated with things like headaches, vertigo and high blood pressure -- excess or un-anchored yang qi flying chaotically upward, in Chinese terms, or "liver yang rising." However, the liver is also harmed by excess dampness, and my cysts were very clearly pathologically damp in nature. Dampness in the liver is caused by consuming excess fats, sugars, medications or, as in my case, alcohol. Everyone in my family is a drinker, and I started in earnest when I was about 16. Although several of my relatives were pretty clearly alcoholics, and although I quit drinking entirely for a couple of years in my mid-twenties in response to dear friends who accused me of being an abusive drunk (they were right), I have been a pretty dedicated drinker for the last 35 years. In the last 9 years, since leaving the city I loved out of a sense of duty to my family, and after intimately watching three of those family members die, I will freely confess that I was drinking too much, and I was drinking inappropriately. I was never drunk at work or in situations that put myself or my family at risk, but I had a hangover many, many mornings, and I knew that I was drinking without joy and at an unsustainable rate.

I want to make clear: I will defend the right of people to live and die in whatever way they see fit -- I am not making an addict's confession, nor am I judging anyone else or myself for their habits and lifestyle, self-destructive or otherwise, past or future. I think laws of prohibition and philosophies of self-denial cause a lot more harm than good. I would rather describe things in universal terms, offer my own example, and let others make their own judgments and decisions. If some of you judge me harshly and others cut me lots of slack, neither really matters much to me -- what is important to me is understanding how things work and making personal judgments based on that understanding.

Curiously, alcohol is said to move blood, and obviously blood needs to move for life to continue; but after awhile, alcohol creates changes to tissues and blood vessels, literally pickling them, and this hardening limits the movement of blood and qi and makes the body less resilient and the spirit less flexible. None of us will make it out of this world alive, but we do have some choices about how we spend our time, whether we age gracefully or not, and how we die. At this point in my life, with three young sons, a young wife, many interesting patients ahead of me, and lots of happy party time behind me, I am much more interested in living longer than in trying to have a party every day.

Faced with the evidence that was hidden under my scalp, I first had to say, "Whew! Thank goodness my liver was smart enough to divert all that dampness away from itself and up to my scalp, where I would notice it but not be harmed by it!" And then had to follow up with, "Gee, maybe I better not push my luck that my liver will be able to continue doing that." And finally followed THAT up with, "Maybe I've had enough to drink." It's been a bit over a month and, except for about half an hour at dinner time, I can honestly say I don't miss alcohol one bit. I'm a little disappointed that I don't spring out of bed every morning more bushy-tailed and bright-eyed, and my wife's glass of Pinot Noir smells really good sometimes, but I am relieved to no longer be pickling my guts and hardening my habits.

Life is long and life is short. I want to enjoy it as much as I can, but I don't want to overstay my welcome at any party. Sometimes to remain in balance we have to change in little ways, and sometimes we have to change in big ways. Sometimes what is a small change for one person is an enormous change for someone else. Sometimes what is an enormous change at one time of life is a small change for another time of life. It is the easiest (and most unkind and useless) thing in the world to look at someone and say, "Well, if they only changed that they'd be much better off." And it is the hardest thing in the world to look at ourselves and say, "Holy cow! It's time to change this!" It's hard to know sometimes what the right thing is to do, but sometimes we're lucky and get confirmation from the inside and the outside that the changes we are making are necessary and worthwhile.

I think part of why we die is because our lives change out from under us and we're not able to keep up. None of us can see the future, but sometimes you can see the road just up ahead. I would feel really bad and embarrassed if I saw clearly that the road ahead was turning but I insisted on following my predetermined path right off a cliff. I'm grateful for the wind that blows me, even though sometimes it blows me off course (in a frustrating way) and sometimes on (in an embarrassing way).

Movement is life; stillness is death. I'd rather be moving and embarrassed than still and cool.