Thursday, September 14, 2017

An Epidemic of Dampness

Damp is one of the five pathogens in Chinese medicine, and we are currently experiencing an epidemic of dampness in the West. This epidemic is spreading to the rest of the world as our wealth and influence spread. Not only are many of the most vexing modern medical issues damp in nature (obesity, addiction, diabetes), but so are many of modern medicine's main treatments (antibiotics, steroids, antidepressants). Further complicating matters, in general terms dampness is all the good stuff -- fats, sugar, alcohol and other proofs that God loves us and wants us to be happy. The final confusing factors are that dampness can act as a solvent to move other dampness, dampness can act as "coarse" or "emergency" yin, and dampness can sometimes save your life so that you can try again tomorrow.

Damp is associated with the Earth element -- that is, with this plane of existence right here that we live on and in. The Earth element is associated with digestion and thought, with boundaries and turf, with home and hearth and material possessions. When it is in balance, we have enough to eat, enough to think about and healthy boundaries. When it is out of balance we have obsession and hoarding; codependency and emotional trespass; alienation and circular thinking that rationalizes and justifies counter-productive or destructive habits. Its two-sided nature is part of what makes dampness so confounding, but really it boils down to one thing: accepting the limits of the physical world.

Many people mistake the concept of "body/mind/spirit" with the concept of "mind over matter." This is a complete misunderstanding -- they almost mean the opposite of each other. Body/mind/spirit medicine includes the idea that, if our body is sick or hurt, it is trying to communicate something to our minds and spirits. "Mind over matter" says that the mind can overcome anything, including the body's physical limitations and physical wisdom -- if you are sick you don't have to listen to your body because you can think the problem away. In fact, contained within this idea are the seeds of the current epidemic of dampness in the West. Our civilization is based on reason, logic and science. That's fine, as far as it goes, but we keep trying to make reason, logic and science go too far, to places they don't belong and can't help. Describing  love as a purely biochemical phenomenon, for instance, or inserting poison into food plants in order to kill pests. Obviously, reason, logic and science are all of the mind, and if our society places reason, logic and science above all other approaches for understanding existence, we are by definition over-balanced toward the mind. In other words (in Chinese, or body/mind/spirit terms), our civilization is over-balanced toward the Earth element, which results in obsession and hoarding, codependency and emotional trespass, alienation and circular thinking that rationalizes and justifies counter-productive or destructive habits. Going a step further, our logic-above-all civilization and its main philosophical concept, "mind over matter," leads its adherents directly to obesity, diabetes and addiction.

In the old days in China, only the wealthiest people could afford education and unlimited access to sugar, fats and alcohol, so dampness was mostly only a problem for the richest. In early 21st century America, though, EVERYONE has access to damp foods, and most of have been to school. The problem with dampness/earth is that it accumulates. Whether you are talking about the hoarder's newspapers and wrapping paper, the diabetic's sugar and insulin or the obsessive thinker's routines, accumulations take good stuff (newspapers! sugar! routine!) and turn it gradually into swamps that prevent forward progress. It is ironic that many of today's worst healthcare issues are "self-created." That is, a lifetime of drinking too much alcohol makes you an alcoholic with a fatty liver who dies of alcohol-induced cirrhosis. A lifetime of eating too much junk food with too little exercise makes you a diabetic whose illness causes you to have to strictly curtail your enjoyment of the foods that got you into your predicament. Usually obsessives are just left the hell alone, because their internal swamp is so impenetrable that an outsider can't find his way through, much less lead the person to a better place. When the obsessive's routine is, inevitably, broken by external factors he frequently is paralysed, unable to move forward except along the familiar pathway. Just like the drunk and the diabetic, the only way he knows is the way that got him in trouble in the first place. This is the seductive power of dampness -- even though, say, shooting heroin is dangerous, illegal and expensive, and even though the addict knows it causes way more harm than good, dampness accumulates in the body and mind and encourages further accumulation by its nature. The junkie's body suffers until he gets a fix, and then the new heroin acts as a solvent to temporarily move the stagnation of the old heroin out of the way. The mind then rationalizes and justifies the body's experience and both mind and body conspire to say, "Dampness is good!" even when it is plainly killing you. So our body's appetites and our mind's rationalizations lead us into the swamp, and until we decide to acknowledge that the mosquitoes are really bad, the weather sucks and you can't grow much there, our bodies and minds continue to tell us the swamp is where we're meant to be.

"SO WHAT'S THE ANSWER, TREY?" I hear you exasperatedly shouting at your computer. First of all, pure self-denial is not the answer -- anorexia and other self-denying compulsions are simply another face of the Earth element gone awry, and the teetotaler who would scold a grieving father for drinking to his dead son's memory is cruel and unrealistic about the potential healing power of that glass of whisky. The Earth is here for us to live on and enjoy. However, it has limits, and we have limits. This is not a flaw, any more than the fact that everything poops, breathes and dies is a flaw. Recognizing limitations, accepting them and learning to thrive within them is the lesson of the Earth. The positive Earth image would be of cultivation. You plan a project, plant the seeds, care for the crop and harvest the bounty when the plan comes to fruition. Activity that is repeatedly undertaken that never results in a crop is probably not going anywhere. This doesn't mean you should never get drunk, overeat or indulge in aimless wondering, but it does mean that periodically you should check to see if anything is coming of your efforts or if you are just spinning your wheels in the mud.

Unfortunately, acting on the Earth element in the physical sphere is and always has been ultimately about labor. The Earth time of year is late summer, or harvest time. For agrarian cultures, the harvest is the busiest time of year, with work from sunup to sundown. In our modern, work-averse culture, you could hardly offer a less appealing cure. The saving grace is that the harvest is about joyful labor -- the more work there is, the better supplied you'll be in the coming winter, and the more variety and abundance of food you'll enjoy. We have become so far separated from nature that most of us never think about "the harvest;" it sounds quaint, provincial, old-fashioned. If we want something, we go on the Mighty Internet (created by brain power), order something from Amazon (created by brain power) and wait expectantly for our package to arrive. "The harvest" has nothing to do with it. Moreover, the Mighty Internet allows us to live almost completely separated from Nature and from each other. This allows us to have sweet, sweet instant gratification of our earthly desires, but causes big problems in the long run. Amazon destroys decent paying retail jobs and turns retail clerks into warehouse wage slaves, barely able to make ends meet and anxiously awaiting the arrival of the thinking machines that will take their jobs. And all those FedEx flights and UPS truck trips contribute to climate change, which is changing living conditions on this actual, physical planet where we live. You know, the Earth. So in return for avoiding work and receiving instant gratification we contribute to the destruction of our home world. "It seemed like a good idea at the time," may well end up being the whiny excuse for how humans made the Earth uninhabitable.

Some "visionaries" say we have to colonize the stars if we intend to survive as a species. This is one of those far-fetched ideas that really cerebral people come up with, like the multiverse, when their education, experience and imagination fail to point out a simpler possibility. That is, when their heads are in the stars and their feet aren't on the ground. The problem with the idea of interstellar colonization is that we are sure to do the same thing to every other "earth" we inhabit. If we can't learn to respect the physical and to accept its limits here on our home planet, the universe is probably better off if we just go ahead and die off. Something better may or may not come along to replace us, but the prospect of humankind continuing on its current path and creating a legacy as "the greedy planet-destroying species" would be a tough pill to swallow. All because we couldn't curb our appetites and didn't want to work.