When I first encountered Chinese medicine thirty-eight years ago, I was a passionate twenty-six year old environmental activist, feminist, and aspiring poet. I was living in a chronic state of frustration and upset about the deteriorating health of the planet, the stubborn resistance of human beings to change, and the isolation of speaking out when the collective won’t listen to what you have to say.
When I decided to shift my focus from political action to healing, I was motivated by self-preservation. I knew that I needed to find a different way to channel my rage and despair or I was destined to get sick.
But I was also driven by a desire to discover another, more effective way to initiate and cultivate change.
Through my exploration of Chinese medicine and Eastern philosophy, I came to see that inner work is the necessary first step in any transformational process. Without a shift in my own consciousness, no real change could manifest in my outer life.
I believed traditional Chinese medicine could help me accomplish my goals. Through its honoring of the yin and the divine Feminine (the receptive, the still, the deeply embodied aspects of life), its recognition of the subtle non-quantifiable aspects of our being (qi or soul dimension), its respect for the innate preciousness of Nature, I felt that bringing this medicine to the West would help people reconnect with the soul wisdom of their own bodies and of the natural world.
Beyond these qualities, it was the emphasis in Chinese medicine on relationship that touched me.
At the core of this medicine is the understanding that none of us can heal alone. Healing from this perspective is not about fixing isolated symptoms or trying to keep the suffering of other beings at bay so we can feel ok. Chinese medicine presupposes a unified world. Healing is about wholeness, about restoring connections that have been severed – between Heaven and Earth, mind and body, between our selves and other human beings as well as with animals, the Elements – Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, and Metal – and the Spirits of the world around us.
Practiced as it was originally intended, our medicine is about integrity – the interconnectedness of all beings.
This value is why, in the face of the violence at Standing Rock perpetrated against peaceful indigenous people attempting to protect their right to clean water, in the face of proposals to build walls to keep “outsiders” out of our country, to force people to officially register their religious faith in violation of our constitutional right to religious freedom, in the face of the reductionist profit-driven research of the pharmaceutical industry, in the face of the intentional disregard of courteous language and righteous action in our leadership …
I am coming to the conclusion that now, more than ever, healing must move beyond the limits of the personal to include the body politic. At this time on the planet, none of us can heal alone.
So, I return to the place where I began this journey, to my original commitment to activism in the outer world. But today, I bring with me the ancient wisdom of the Elements. I bring the insights of my teachers and mentors, the courageous real-life healing and growth of my patients, and the wisdom of the many named and un-named alchemists who have been exploring transformational processes for the past many thousand years.
With these principles as my guides, I step back on the path and know it for the first time – not as militant confrontation or hopeless desperation, or even hopeful idealism – but simply as daily practice because this is what healing looks like now.
Water: “The highest form of goodness is like water. Water knows how to benefit all things without striving. It stays in places loathed by men. Therefore, it comes near the Tao … in making a move know how to choose the right moment.” Taoist poet and sage, Lao Tzu
Wood: “Times of growth are best with difficulties. They resemble a first birth. But these difficulties arise from the very profusion of all that is struggling to attain form. Everything is in motion; therefore, if one perseveres there is a prospect of great success in spite of the existing danger. When it is a man’s fate to undertake such new beginnings, everything is still unformed and dark. Hence he must hold back, because any premature move might bring disaster. Likewise, it is very important not to remain alone; in order to overcome the chaos he needs helpers. This is not to say, however, that he himself should look on passively at what is happening. He must lend his hand and participate with inspiration and guidance.” The I Ching or Chinese Book of Changes
Fire: “When we really communicate with one another, compassion will spread and increase; but if we are too busy, then there is not time for kind words. It is easier to have goals and ambitions than to open one’s heart.” Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi, Zen White Plum lineage
Earth: “Under every rock of discomfort is concealed an opportunity to become like God … when we seek comfort before transformation, we’ll never truly be at ease.” Kabbalist Rav Michael Berg
Metal: “The prophets have wondered to themselves ‘how long should we keep pounding this cold iron? How long do we have to whisper into an empty cage?’ So don’t be timid. Load the ship and set out. No one knows for certain whether the vessel will sink or reach the harbor. Just don’t be one of those merchants who won’t risk the ocean.” Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi
Today, I know that the journey both begins and continues when I am able to turn the light of consciousness around and make a place of peace for the spirit in my own heart.