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Working with Chinese Medicine for many years now, I can best summarize what I do as reconnecting individuals to the true process of healing.   All too often, patients visit me with beliefs about illness and  healing that reinforces sickness, separation and dependency.  When we examine these presumptions together, there is often  a feeling of empowerment and a sigh of relief.  The subconscious resistance to healing is disarmed.

In this article, I would like  to explore 10 unexamined myths about healing and replace them with truths as understood by Chinese Medicine.

1)       Myth:  Our bodies are mechanical like cars.

Truth:  We are sentient beings, which means our consciousness, feelings and senses affect our bodies and vice versa.  If a car runs out of gas, we simply fill the tank and it gets going.  In the human body, a complex web of internal and external factors may lead a person to run out of energy and  a complex web of resources may be needed for that person to regain energy.  Chinese Medicine recognizes this and compares our bodies  to more ephemeral states of being like the weather.

2)       Myth:  Our mind, emotions and bodies are separate.

Truth:  Your feelings are reactions to the thoughts you are having and your body responds physiologically to the feelings.  This is why you are flying high when you are in love and why you fall sick when you are under lots of stress.  Chinese Medicine understands how inseparable these three factors to health are, associating feeling and thinking states with internal organs and biochemical processes.

3)       Myth:  Health is a destination.

Truth:  Health is a journey with peaks and valleys and no destination.   In Chinese Medicine, balance is emphasized.  The reason for this is because a state of balance is a state of motion and fluidity.  It is not static. The art of maintaining health is about maintaining a balanced state as we go through the ups and downs of life.  The body is perpetually adapting and changing.

4)      Myth:  Healing is something that  doctors and health professionals make happen.

Truth:  Healing is something that is happening all the time with or without a health professional.  It is a natural law of the universe, like gravity. It is your body’s constant attempt to reach homeostasis, balance and wholeness.  When you cut yourself, your body starts to heal itself with a release of chemicals,   clotting and specialized cells that repair the site–automatically.  We seek the assistance of health professionals when our illness or injury outweigh our natural ability to heal.  Often times this happens because our habits and lifestyle are inhibiting the natural healing mechanism.  Healing, however, happens all the time.  It is not manufactured by health professionals.  Healing happens best when we relax, when we sleep.  This is partly why people reach a deep state of sleep or relaxation when they receive acupuncture.  They get out of the way so that the needles and nature can take over.

5)      Myth:  We must fight illness.

Truth:  The spirit of fighting anything is a spirit of resistance, power and separation.  In contrast, Chinese Medicine understands everything as connected so there is nothing to fight.  Rather processes that help transform an existing imbalance: harmonizing, moving and strengthening are emphasized.

6)      Myth:  Health looks like the cover models of health and fitness magazines.  It is state of constant youth, vigor and strength.

Truth:  Health  is a state of  connection to our authentic self and the world.  Health is being alive to all that is and that can look like anything under the sun at any given moment.  Sadness is as much a sign of health as joy.  Bodies come in all sizes and shapes and regardless of what that looks like, if we are feeling fully alive and connected, we are in health. In Chinese Medicine, the vitality of qi (energy) and shen (spirit) are essential to health.  Those qualities have very little to do with physicality and are more associated with a quality of energy and radiance.

7)      Myth:  It is our fault we are sick.  It is not our fault that we are sick.

Truth:  Illness is not about fault.  It happens.  To everyone.  And the reasons are complex.  When we label it as bad or wrong then we start to assign fault.  Feeling completely victimized by illness is disempowering.  Feeling like we can have full control over our bodies is also disempowering when we are confronted with the truth.   We are born, we will fall ill at some points in our lives, our bodies will deteriorate, we will die.  Chinese Medicine embodies the wisdom of this acceptance, understanding that health is alignment with nature and connection.  There is also something called prenatal jing, which is the strength of our health inherited from our parents and ancestors.  The best we can do is care for what we uniquely get.  Everything that we inherit is an opportunity for healing and for growth in this lifetime.

8)      Myth: Minor aches, pains and discomforts are just a part of life and I should ignore them.

Truth:  Bodily discomforts, no matter how minor,  are imbalances that can be addressed for better quality of life and prevention of more serious illness.  Chinese Medicine recognizes minor discomforts as signs of imbalance.  As a society, we put up with much more discomfort than is healthy.  Some things considered “normal” or an acceptable part of life such as:  digestive distress, headaches, menstrual cramps, PMS, low energy, poor sleep, jaw clenching, muscle tension,aches and pains,  excessive worry or irritability can all be treated by Chinese Medicine.

9)  Myth:  Doctors and other health professionals are experts at knowing YOUR body.

Truth:  Doctors and health professionals are experts at knowing THE body  according to their respective systems.  You are the expert of knowing YOUR body.  You have inhabited it from the moment you were born.  You have tended to it, cared for it, lived through it, derived pain and pleasure from it.  There is no one that knows your body more than you do.   No one.  A practitioner sensitive to that will ask you about and consider all aspects of you and will understand your specific concern in the context of that.  Chinese Medical practitioners will often ask you questions that will feel completely unrelated to your symptoms but will give them lots of information.  Your relationship to your boss may have more to do with your indigestion than what you ate.

10)  Myth:  We suffer alone.

Truth:  We Heal Together

Chinese Medicine is a medicine that understands the true nature of life: relationships.  Not only is each aspect of our bodies related to one another internally, but we are connected to a larger ecosystem externally that  affects our health. In fact we are more than connected, we are inseparable from it.  We can’t disconnect, except in our own minds.  That is often when we suffer.  The truth is we are all in this together.  When you heal, we heal.

Love Letter to My Body

A few weeks ago, my 4 year old son started asking me about my age. “Mom, how old are you?”, he would ask inquisitively. In the beginning, I joked, first with the obligatory much too young number, like 27, to communicate how old I pretended I wanted to be but even as I said it, I realized it was a joke that was more habitual than funny. He furrowed his brows and asked me again, and again, and again and again for what seemed like an eternity. After a few pretend ages: 27, 6, 94 and a couple real ones: younger than your dad, more than ten times older than you, I conceded. 42, I finally said. 42? He repeated. Yeah, 42. For real. Then he was off, doing something or the other.

But later on that day, he asked again. This time, I just gave it to him straight. 42. Remember? Oh, yea, he answered, 42. Then suddenly, as if there was a glitch, mom, how old are you? 42. 42? Yea 42. Then he’s off again. After that, it seemed he would ask me this question every time he saw me. He asked me throughout the day, at home and out in public, in elevators with other people, while I was on the phone talking to someone, as soon as I picked him up at school. Mom, how old are you? I couldn’t tell why he was doing that. It felt like some mix of true curiosity, but also some testing of patience, some mischief, some game he was playing, some desire to understand numbers, time and age. After weeks of this monotonous interrogation, I didn’t care why he was asking me. I no longer heard the question. I just answered. 42. He would ask loudly in front of adults, and they would smile to themselves at what they thought was an embarrassing question. But I didn’t care. 42. I don’t have any real hang ups about my age. I don’t feel old or young. I just feel like me and if the number of 42 is attached to it, then ok.

One day, Max was draping his body over me as he often does, and he started to fondle my breast. He did this with a mischeivous smile because he knows it makes me cringe–my natural reaction to push his hand away. Despite the fact that I nursed him for 3 years, he still holds on to a nostalgic yearning to return to that time. He refers to my breasts as mama and me as mom. His first word was mama. After I pushed his hand away and gave him a stern look, he asked, Mom, how old are your mamas?

My mamas, I replied with a certain nostalgia, are 42 years old. Then he continued, Mom, how old are your hands, as he placed his hands in mine. My hands, I replied are 42 years old. Mom, he we went on, how old is your cheek as he brushed his soft hand against it. My cheeks are 42 years old. Mom, how old are your feet? My feet are 42 years old. Mom, with a giggle, how old is your butt? My butt, is 42 years old. And on and on to other body parts. Then he was off again.

When he left, I felt somehow reunited with my body in a way that I hadn’t been before. Like a long devoted lover that I had taken for granted. I had forgotten what we had been through, these 42 years. How she was always there for me, serving me, protecting me, keeping me company, communicating to me, allowing me to enjoy life and create and make love and give birth and hug and run and dance and swim. About how she always responded to my true needs. How she made me rest and slow down with illness and how she always recovered and was there for me no matter what abuse I put her through. I thought about times when I starved her or stuffed her, commanded her to go on without enough rest or recuperation, expected her to do without water or exercise, allowed others to abuse her, abused her myself, ingested carcinogens and intoxicants, pushed her and hated her, insulted her and expected more from her, wanted her to be different than she is. Through all this my body stayed with me, performed for me, supported me, served me, protected me, tried to guide me, tried to communicate with me and gave me pleasure. Through all this my heart beat herself, my breath kept coming and going, and my blood flowed by itself. For 42 years, without fail. Not even for one moment did my body say, enough, I give up. I have said such things at dark times, but my body carried me through.

I know one day my body will stop. My heart will stop beating and the air will cease coming in and out of me. And before that, my body may succumb to serious illness and pain. Refuse to get out of bed. Feel tired and worn out. Refuse to help me carry out what I may think I need to do. One day this loyal body will disintegrate into the earth or become ash over the oceans. This is certain.

And when that day comes, my wish is that I will continue to love, trust and be in gratitude for her. Not only for what she has given me, but for what she continues to give me. Even as she seems to be failing, I believe that she knows better than I what is best for me. Because between myself and my body, my body has always told the truth. I, however, try to hoodwink the world and myself while my body displays plain and simple truths. So basic, it is easy to miss.

To listen deeply to one’s body, like listening to anyone one loves, is to put one’s own agenda aside. And that is not an easy task. Too often I was deafened by my agendas for what my body is supposed to look like and feel like. How she’s supposed to move through the world. What she’s supposed to withstand without complaining and how she’s supposed to perform. With so much on my agenda, it was difficult to hear what my body was actually feeling, actually communicating to me. When I didn’t listen to my body when she needed rest or nourishment, I ended up in pain and turmoil. When I didn’t listen to my body when she bristled at something my intellect couldn’t comprehend or when her heart quickened for someone or something she desired, I experienced regret. When I couldn’t hear her limits on things that pleasured me or hear her yearnings for things that would fulfill and nourish me, I fell ill.

When it is time to lay down and die, my body will tell me to let go. I pray that I will listen quietly and surrender. And have the courage let go of the fine companion that has seen me through the trials of this life so that my spirit can finally soar with trust and gratitude. Thank you thank you to the one so close to me I almost missed her. And thank you to the silly and wise little one who emerged from her to remind me of my mortality.

My eyebrows and temper come from my father. My round face and smile from my mother. And theirs, theirs came from those before them, many many many a time earlier. Passed down, mixed up. My poetic sensibility can be traced to my birth land my forced logic from the land I grew up in. My easy reverence for all things natural and supernatural, dirt and spirits, come from my maternal animist ancestors and my simulataneous rejection of these things come from my Catholic upbringing, relatively recently acquired form Western colonization as adopted on my paternal side. The coming together of my mother and father is almost the quintessential marriage of the feminine and masculine, the yin and yang. My mother, peasant from animist ancestors, uneducated, irrational, nature based feminine and my father, brought up with Western education, Catholic religion, capitalist rationale. Animism was deemed as nonsense, superceded by the more “rational” belief in heaven and hell. In me, I would like to say that both sides exist peacefully and balanced but for most of my life, I felt at war with myself as I struggled to understand my conflicting desires and predispositions.
These predispositions, as reflected in my body, gave me a propensity towards high blood pressure from my father and schizophrenia from my mother. These are physical descriptions and diagnoses of what has been handed down to me in all ways known and unknown, from my parents. Is it possible to separate the physical from everything else that has informed us, created us, influenced us as human beings? Is poetry no less in my body? Heaven and hell in my bones?
Illness and imbalance in the body gives us the opportunity to look deeper into the roots of where they spring. Deeper can mean the underlying tendency towards anger beneath an inflated high blood pressure number, and, even deeper, the tendency towards anger and war and aggression from generations and generations of people struggling for survival. All of it, all of it lives in our bodies. All of it, all of it can be healed and released, backwards through generations of ancestors before us and forwards through our offspring. When we discover in our bodies the worlds that live there, the worlds before us that created the blood running through our veins and the generations that will physically spring from our bodies, we can experience our inseparable nature. It is then that the understanding of deep healing for us as individuals is so important, perhaps the most important thing we can affect. Healing in the form of liberation from suffering. This type of healing is what breaks the karmic chain of suffering, not only for us as individuals, not only for our own family lineage but for everyone involved. And everyone involved, just so happens to be everyone.

Keep Sending Love Out

Last week, a dear patient of mine came in for his weekly appointment. After he slowly and carefully dismounted from his tricycle,named Suzy Q, he greeted me in his customary way: with a fistful of handpicked wildflowers, a focused, warm smile and a two handed handshake. He carefully cupped his large cold hands over mine and stared straight into my eyes as if to say, yes, there you are. Each time, my heart swells with gratitude and I am reminded of times gone by, times that I’ve only heard of or seen in the movies.

That day, when we sat down to talk, I asked him my customary question: How are you? And he answered with his customary answer: Will do. We then share a sweet, knowing laugh. Today after our little opening dance a heavy quiet fell over his face. I sat silently, waiting to hear what he might say. He looked at me, his face sincere, serious and bewildered and asked, Thuy, what do you do with a broken heart? The question stilled me. I cocked my head and furrowed my eyebrows as if I needed to listen harder to actually hear or understand what he had asked. He looked out the window and said, My heart is so broken by the world. Sometimes I don’t know what to do, how to carry on. Then his eyes found mine again and again he inquired very seriously, Thuy, what do you do?

I stared back into the gentle eyes of this 90 year old African American man. He has lived more than twice my lifetime and has seen more than I can even begin to imagine. He is an accomplished and influential poet and writer, and a revolutionary for love. He sat there, so humbly, so interested, so vulnerable, telling me about his broken heart and sincerely seeking my input. Without any mention of the very recent news on the Trayvon Martin case and Zimmerman verdict, both of us understood the extra weight that pressed on his heart, on his brow.

What do you do with a broken heart? My eyes lowered as I searched inside myself. The sincerity of his inquiry demanded an answer. As incapable and small as I felt, I reached for something because I felt honored by his desire to know what I, myself do. Without much thinking, these words emerged from somewhere inside me: I let my heart break until there is nothing left and then I look upon other things, positive things, to mend it back together.

He listened quietly and intently to my words, nodding his head and lowering his gaze. But he did not respond. He just listened. And it seemed to me that he was slightly disappointed in what I had to say.

There was no more said on the topic and I directed him towards the acupuncture room where I gave him a treatment that consisted of grieving and heart supporting points. I did not see him after his treatment as I was preoccupied with another patient, but I thought about his question for the rest of the day. I wondered what I could’ve said better or more sincere. I wondered what he was really asking me.

The next day, I recieved an email from him thanking me for the treatment and stating that he felt good all day. I was touched to receive his simple email. And then, suddenly, I knew the answer to his quesiton.

What do you do with a broken heart? You share it. This is the value of community. When your heart breaks to pieces, when you don’t know how to carry on, you share it with others. I thought about the Zimmerman verdict, about how comforted I felt by all the personal and touching sharings I found on Facebook. I felt that the sharing in and of itself healed something for us all. There is something so profoundly moving, simple, powerful and healing about sharing hurt, bewilderment and fear, simply as they are, before they become outrage, before they become strategies, before they become justifications and illnesses. There is something bold and brave about the simple act of feeling what is in the heart and sharing it, as it is. One heart touches another and another and another and the community is quietly, yet clearly, transformed. Love. Compassion. Wisdom.

When My Sister, When

“…One way I know, among the many, is to

Keep sending love out, so

Keep sending love out

To where the heart clutches and the soul sings

Where the heart clutches and the soul sings

Keep Sending love out

Send it into the lighted dark, over the fog swept sea

Send it where it may die a dusty death

Send it where there may not be an echo, no return

Send love, that drug of madness, the poet’s bane, some fool’s delight

Send it where there may not be an echo, no return

Send it where it has never been, a new address,

Keep sending, sending, sending….”

–Adam David Miller

Freely vs. Free

Before I started this blog, I posted this on my Berkeley Community Acupuncture Facebook link.  It was received very positively and so I’d like to repost here:

Today, after receiving acupuncture during my donation based shift, a patient asked me why I was “giving away” such amazing treatments for free. Don’t you value your skills? She asked. Don’t you want to demand that others value your skills too? Don’t you want them to show you respect by paying you what you are worth? Then she saw my perplexed expression and then added, oh, I see you are trying to fix the world. You are trying to help people in need because they are lacking. That is good of you. She waited for a response but I was speechless. There was so much off in what she said to me that I didn’t know where to start, so instead, I tipped my head slightly as to nod. She smiled, deposited $5 into our money box and left. I’ve been thinking about what she said ever since.
I do what I do and there is no amount of money that anyone could give me to make me feel that it is an adequate match to what I have to offer. Not $5, not $5000. Because what I have to offer is not quantifiable. What I have to offer is myself and it not only reflects in my practice of Chinese Medicine but how I run my business. It is what has evolved over my 16 years of thinking about medicine and health and how I would like to affect and be affected by the world I live in. It is a reflection of my understanding of health and our connections with one another. My practice reflects my faith in abundance, trust, and connection that is possible in the world that we live in and my faith in the profound healing capabilities of Chinese Medicine. I am taken by its simplicity, its gentleness, its humbleness, its accessibility, its profound depth, its quiet healing. I am heartened (especially in this day and age) to be able provide an environment where 5 complete strangers can lie down side by side to nap, relax and heal together, no strings attached. And I am amazed that day after day, people do come to do just that. That is trust. That is healing.
From this understanding, value and worth take on very different perspectives. It is only because of my understanding of the profound value of what I do that I offer it up freely. Not for free, freely. I am not doing this to fix a broken world or to give to people in need. The world is not broken, what people may or may not need is beyond my comprehension. I am simply doing this because it is the most natural expression of who I’ve become and of who I am.

Surrender

A few days ago, I held my son as he was sedated for emergency surgery. I felt his grip on me soften, his body surrender and his being recede into an unknown place. He became so unbearably helpless. My heart hurt as I watched the nurse push his small, listless body off to surgery.

The anesthesiologist had talked to me before putting him under. She carefully laid out the risks before me and then reassured me that it would be highly unlikely–the possibility of death. I responded the way any other parent would have responded. With a nod of the head and a tightening of the gut. There may have been a choice, but really, it was out of my hands. I don’t have control over much at all. The only thing left to do was to trust.

Risks. We all think we want to know about risks so that we can make informed decisions. Because the belief is, it’s a numbers game. We think if we can weigh, measure and monitor pros and cons, risks and advantages, than that intense perpetual fear of not knowing, of something going wrong, of loss, of death, of being abandoned, can be held at bay. This sort of rational decision making is spear headed by the intellect. The intellect trying to control the perceived chaos of another realm, the emotions–the borderless realm of the immeasurable and irrational. It was explained to me that there was no other recourse except to go to surgery. And to go to surgery, one must administer anesthesia. There was no other way.

I sat listening first to the surgeon, then to the anesthesiologist, feeling myself become uncontrollably pulled towards the momentum of what they had laid out, their authority, their beliefs, how things just naturally go in a place like that. In my arms, I held my son, who had already received an IV drip of morphine, his warm body relaxed but so different in ungraspable ways, his lack of fight, unfamiliar to me. He too, against his will, going along with the momentum of the moment.

I sat feeling the dissonance between my own intellect and the confusing ball of emotion inside the pit of my stomach. With two persons, presenting rational competency in front of me, I found myself instinctively holding back my tears to match their rationale. I started posing questions. Is this really necessary? Is there another way? Is anesthesia really innocuous? Can’t you leave him intact? My questions were met with controlled exasperation. M’am, the surgeon responded, I’ve been doing this for over 40 years, trust me. And I thought, yeah, you’ve been cutting people for over 40 years, it’s all you know. You wouldn’t know about alternatives. But instead of responding in that fashion, I decided to do what he asked of me. I decided to trust him. Because in that moment, I knew that the plain truth is that no matter the amount of information I receive, my son was suffering and I felt incapable of helping him. I was scared and I wanted help.

It is when we are faced with the intensity of these emotions, fear, the suffering of our loved ones and our own, that the truth of our human frailty (not our ideologies, not our critiques and judgements, not our highfalutin ideas about what the best choices are) is revealed. Then we choose how to navigate our impulses between exerting more control over the situation or surrendering. This impulse to control fear often comes in the form of intellectualization–searching for more information, critiqueing, finding distraction and suppressing our emotional, instinctive gut responses to the situation. Often times, we hold on more and more tightly to the illusion of control by any and all means and only surrender when it becomes absolutely clear that we exert minimal control. We don’t want to feel small and weak in the grand orchestration of life, as small and as weak as an innocent babe being wheeled off to surgery. I decided to surrender. So, when he was wheeled off to surgery, I walked back to the waiting area and cried.

Post surgery and back by his side, I looked around me at all the monitors with their flashing lights and numbers, the endless chirping and beeping of various machines, the too sterile floors and sheets and surfaces, the shuffling about of uniformed nurses, some with face masks. Amidst it all my warm, delicate vulnerable babe–breathing, sleeping. Everything around him seemed to be saying, dont worry, you wont die, we’ve got it covered. And he seemed to be saying, yeh, sure–his breath leaving and coming with abandon, surrendering to everything around him and beyond.

I’ve been thinking about this blog for a long time. I’d start and then stop. My words often felt forced. My expertise, questionable. I wanted to write about health because it seemed the logical thing to write about; I’ve been practicing Chinese Medicine for 13 years now, running a community based clinic for 7. On busy weeks, I see well over 60 people per week. Over the years, the number of acupuncture treatments I’ve administered is probably in the tens of thousands. I’ve supervised and mentored other acupuncturists, taught classes, started up various clinics, assisted countless people with Chinese medicine.

Last week, I attended the graduation ceremony of my beloved office manager and watched her receive the piece of official paper I received 13 years earlier, a diploma for Masters of Science of Tradtional Oriental Medicine. As I sat in the audience, listening to speeches filled with encouragement, I thought about the last 13 years of my life practicing Chinese Medicine. I was taken aback by the feeling inside me that it is still so new. That I am still a beginner, no expert. That it feels exponentially more vast and mysterious than it did to me the first day of school 16 some odd years ago. That on most days, I still don’t know if I know what I’m doing. I wondered how many other seasoned practioners felt as I did or if I was just especially slow at mastery. I wondered what I’d been really up to these past 13 years.

As I was thinking, the ceremony came to a close and all acupucturists were asked to stand and recite the Acupuncturist Oath with the graduating class. I stood and spoke these words:

I promise to follow the way of the Great
Physician, to live in harmony with nature,
and to teach my patients to do the same.

I will strive to maintain a clear mind and
hold myself to the highest standards.

I shall look upon those who are in grief as
though I myself have been afflicted, and I
will respond with empathy.

I shall develop an attitude of compassion,
of benevolence, and of care for all
patients, regardless of their particular
circumstances.

I promise to perform my responsibilities
carefully, thoughtfully, and to the best of
my ability.

Above all, I will maintain a peaceful
presence and an open heart.

Tears had welled up in my throat as I uttered the last lines. I had come to realize what I had been doing all this time. In all these years, I had been trying, without knowing it, to figure out how to abide by the promise I made many (possibly countless) years ago. What does it mean to follow the way of the Great Physician, to live in harmony with nature? How does one maintain a clear mind and what is a clear mind and what are the highest standards? What is true empathy? What is the true meaning and practice of compassion and benevolence? What are my responsibilities? And above all, what is it really to maintain a peaceful presence and an open heart?

13 years ago, I was unable to pose these simple questions, much less to fathom their profound depths. At that time, I thought the meaning was clear and intuitive: stay calm, be nice, be professional–peace, compassion, responsible, right? Not quite.

Through living, practicing and serving– always with a flame of inquiry inside me–I’ve come to understand that a peaceful presence is the ability to accept (not put up with, not accept in order to change) everything the way it is and an open heart is to accept (not try to imagine) that it is always changing. If everything is always changing, life is unending death and birth. Understanding and accepting this (not merely intellectually, but with the whole of our being as integrated into our day to day lives) allows us to live in harmony with nature (everything is nature), and in living in harmony with nature, our natural selves emerge spontaneously. Peaceful presence and an open heart is the letting go of everything we think we know to experience what is here each moment. It is living the perpetual I don’t know and is, perhaps, the opposite of what experts do.

This blog is about what I’ve discovered about health and life through practicing Chinese Medicine. It is not meant merely as an intellectual, philosophical discussion, but at the heart of this is a sincere intent to bridge and integrate spiritual (for lack of a better word) awareness with health and day to day living.

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