The great Yellow Emperor of China, Huang Di, who ruled in 3000 BC, inquired of his ministers why people’s longevity was half that of those in ancient times. People once lived to be more than 100 years old, remained active and vital and did not show signs of decline now apparent at age 50. Is this due to a changing environment or is it because people have lost touch with the right way to live?
Chief physician Qi Bo responded: “In the past, people practiced the Tao, the Way of Life. They understood the principle of balance, of yin and yang, as represented by the transformation of the energies of the universe. Thus, they formulated practices such as Dao-in, an exercise combining stretching, massaging and breathing to promote energy flow, and meditation to help maintain and harmonize themselves with the universe. They ate a balanced diet at regular times, arose and retired at regular hours, avoided overstressing their bodies and minds, and refrained from overindulgence of all kinds. They maintained well-being of body and mind, thus it is not surprising that they lived more than one hundred years.”1
An operative definition of health and disease is useful to illuminate how we are looking at experience. Health is movement toward balance. Balance is movement toward ease. “Dis-ease” is movement away from balance. The concept of movement here is important to highlight the cycle of impermanence and transformation inherent in all phenomena. Contrary to the Western view of health being a state to be attained, the traditional Asian view of health is of an ongoing process of movement toward the center, toward moderation, toward balance and harmony. It is a continual positioning and repositioning in relationship to what is going on in the moment. Ease is readily experienced, or not, and so makes for a useful index for gauging balance.
A consideration of lifestyle is critical to any meaningful concept of health. By lifestyle, I mean the recognition of the importance of everything. Lifestyle is the sum total of how one lives and the consequences of those choices. This includes habits of work, recreation, movement, resting, eating, sexuality, communication and consumption, how one experiences their embodiment, social habits, environment, stimulation and stress, weather and climate, emotions, creativity and expression, attitudes and goals, thoughts and beliefs, self-view, family, friends and associates, and spiritual practice. Literally, everything one does, says, sees, hears, thinks and feels has impact.
It should be rather obvious that lifestyle is an incredibly potent factor in conditioning how we experience life. Surprisingly, rather than developing more awareness for skillful living, and consciously making wise choices, the normal tendency is to not question our lifestyle at all. Wholesale lifestyles are bought into at retail prices. When some unpleasant consequence arises, we look to others (such as massage therapists and bodyworkers) to offer a quick fix, to ameliorate the symptom. More often than not, the cause – lifestyle – is not addressed and the symptoms reoccur or take new, ever-compounding forms until imbalance is habitualized as the norm and pathology demands response. This approach to living is like driving at high speeds down a winding mountain road with one’s eyes closed, hoping for the best.
A process-based view of health is pre-eminently preventive. Typical contemporary Western health care tends to focus on eradicating symptoms rather than addressing causes, and is curative rather than preventive. According to the Taoist treatise, the Neijing Suwen (The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine), one who is wise does not wait for someone to become sick before treating them, but guides them while in good health in the art of living. “Treating an illness after it has begun is like suppressing revolt after it has broken out. If someone digs a well when thirsty, or forges weapons after becoming engaged in battle, one cannot help but ask: Are not these actions too late?”2
Skills Can Be Learned
The skills for healthful living can be learned. The first skill is learning to pay attention, learning to live in the body. Our physical bodies exist in the here and now, our minds rarely do. We can use awareness of bodily sensations and sensory perceptions to anchor and stabilize the mind. The practice is to develop the ability to simply register what is happening in the moment, without being swept away into the future or the past by fantasizing, analyzing or judging. Stay with what is experienced here and now. Feel the contact of the body against the chair on which you are sitting, register “contact”, register “weight.” Notice the physical sensation of the body breathing – here is the in-breath, here is the out-breath. In each moment, our bodies give us innumerable opportunities to be present in them. This basic skill of mindfulness is central to being able to clearly see our lifestyle and its effect on us.
Attentiveness to raw experience is a skill that can easily be developed through receiving or giving massage. Experiment with letting go of the agenda of fixing something, or even of having to accomplish something. Simply be attentive to the sensate experience of your own body and your perceptual experience of your client’s body. Allow yourself to be fully present. Take stock at the end of the session, noticing how you feel mentally, physically, emotionally and energetically. Similarly, it is valuable to encourage clients to tune in to their own experience of their body – not trying to analyze it or wanting anything to be different, but simply and clearly experiencing how they feel in each moment, and learning how to stay focused in experience. Even where the experience is painful, it is useful to learn to experience pain for what it is, to be with it and listen to it, without running away from it or trying to rub it out. Likewise, with pleasurable sensations, experience them as they arise and pass away, don’t try to hold on to them or make them different than they are.
This kind of mental clarity and grounding in present embodied experience provides a good foundation for cultivating a body wisdom as to what is beneficial and what is injurious in the daily choices one makes in living. “When internal energies are able to circulate smoothly and freely, and the energy of the mind is not scattered, but is focused and concentrated, illness and disease can be avoided.”3 Through mindfulness and reflection, it is possible to see and understand how one creates one’s own illness and how to prevent it from developing into more grave manifestations of imbalance. When one learns to pay attention, symptoms become friends rather than foes.
Acupuncturist and lecturer Giovanni Maciocia stresses the importance of not confusing symptom with cause. “It is important not to consider the presenting disharmony as the cause of disease. For instance, if a person has loose stools, tiredness and no appetite, Spleen-Qi deficiency is not the cause of disease, but simply an expression of the presenting disharmony. The cause of the disharmony itself is to be found in the person’s dietary habits, lifestyle, exercise habits, etc.”4 By looking closely to find the actual causes, it is then possible to make changes which restore balance.
People come to bodyworkers and massage therapists for numerous reasons. They may be arriving with stress that needs to be calmed, with pain that seeks to be comforted, with imbalances in want of realignment or with emotional or physical isolation that cries out to be touched. For whatever reason, they have sought help. Other than the immediate bandage we can give for their symptom, the skillful bodyworker can help empower the client with tools for identifying and working with the root causes, the myriad conditioning factors of lifestyle.
We serve our clients best by not just making them better, but encouraging them to self-investigate what is causing them to careen out of balance and to explore how to restore and maintain that harmony again. It is by resolutely investigating lifestyle that meaningful and integral change can occur. As spiritual friends, we can, through our model and through exploration, assist them in finding a sane way of living, appropriate for their constitution and circumstances. Slowing down, paying attention, reflecting – we discover our place in the Tao and we realize the importance of everything. In this way, medicine and life are essentially one.
By Barry Kapke, ACST the program director of Asian Bodyworks at San Francisco School of Massage and the founder of Insight BodyworkTM. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, February/March 2001.
Copyright 2003. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
1. Ni, Maoshing. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine. Boston: Shambhala, 1995.
2. Ni, 7.
3. Ni, 2.
4. Maciocia, Giovanni. The Foundations of Chinese Medicine. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone, 1989.
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