Interview with a Chinese Medicine Provider

My sister in-law, Heidi Warren, asked me some questions regarding my experience with alternative or complementary medicine. The themes are topical for the current crises we face, so I thought I would share.

1. What is your training? Where did you get your training? Why did you go into this field?

I studied acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine at Daoist Traditions College of Chinese Medical Arts in Asheville, NC. The program was a double-masters, and included a large portion devoted to Western pathophysiology and pharmacology. The last two years of the program included a clinical internship, working with patients in both student clinic and offsite capacities. I got into the field through my own health. I was on track to start a music therapy program, having devoted most of my life to the study of sound. I decided not to go forward with the masters, and spent a good amount of time soul-searching and somewhat confused about the trajectory of my life. A close friend had just started acupuncture school in Maryland, and suggested that I receive acupuncture. After going to a community acupuncture clinic for a few sessions, I wasn’t that impressed, nor did I experience noticeable change. However, I started to read about the theory of Chinese Medicine, and the theory of the Five-Elements, and I felt the medicine capitulated a lot that I’d come to believe. I also happened to work, at the time, at a coffee shop a floor below a community acupuncture clinic, and so I was able to engage with an acupuncturist regularly, who answered my questions. Not long after, I came to the conclusion that I could pursue this as a meaningful career, as well as one that could support me financially, while also making space to enjoy what I love, such as music, writing and art.

2. How do you define holistic health?

I define holistic health as a modality whose central approach is based in compassion. This involves commitment to understanding the individual’s health as a whole expression of their life, rather than as a collection of signs and symptoms, or that they are even “solveable”. I’ve come to accept that I cannot answer for a person “who” they are; I can only work with them to develop more efficient ways to regain that for themselves, when it has been lost, and disease ensues.

3. How do you feel acupuncture works in conjunction with traditional medicine? Or not?

Acupuncture and herbal medicine are tremendous tools that can fill in several gaps in the conventional medical approach. For instance: Western Medicine does not emphasize the importance of nutrition in health, though food is a medicine that we encounter 3-4 times every day. It is preventative medicine. At the same time, Western Med. often will not, even in medical school, emphasize this aspect of health, as it is considered moot to have a conversation with a patient about their diet. Sometimes, this is due to time constraint, sometimes there is no excuse. As a result, it does not treat digestive issues that well. Many major pharmaceuticals have long-term unseen side effects on the system, that lead to a high price for their intervention. Chinese Medicine carries the same principles regardless the modality. For acupuncture, there are points that are said to “Clear Heat”. There are also foods, herbs, movement exercises, essential oils that “clear heat”. This means that regardless the tool we are using within the auspices of the medicine, our treatment strategy remains the same. So long as the diagnosis is clear well-deduced; the treatment strategy will be effective, because it is in line with the diagnosis. The patient has heat, so you clear heat. Patient has stomach heat, or heat in the digestive system. You can send them home, after acupuncture, with lifestyle modifications such as specific changes in nutrition habits, that will reflect your strategy. After the acupuncture, they have a tool they can incorporate to emphasize what is being accomplished in the clinic, outside of the clinic.

Pain is another area that CM treats effectively, where WM’s major avenues are: pharmaceuticals that can be damaging to the liver, as well as addictive; and surgery as last resort. There is a lot of clinical evidence that supports the use of acupuncture for pain. There are ready instances where acupuncture doesn’t simply reduce or manage pain, but corrects it, showing promising results as a low-risk, virtually non-invasive intervention. With that said, WM can still do what it does best (often emergency medicine), while CM can successfully fill in the gaps, and in many cases, serving as a safety net when conventional treatment is too risky or too costly.

The last thing I’ll say about the two modalities’ complementary quality is this: I think it would be a disservice for the Western perspective to turn its interest in CM into simply trying to translate CM medical concepts into the conventional.

For instance, there is a lot of push to directly translate diagnosis and diagnostic codes. Liver Qi and Blood stasis might look like Hepatitis, or liver cirrhosis, but the diagnosis and treatment depends on the individual’s presentation. It doesn’t always directly translate and there is a nuance. WM has to be willing to accept CM as its own medicine, and this is directly reflective of people who see the world in a completely separate way. Even in fields such as neuroscience, scientists are beginning to understand that there may never be a fully unified theory on the brain, what it is, what is does. Instead, they are accepting that how the Chinese or even the French conceptualize the brain is different than the American researcher. CM describes the body as a phenomenon very differently that how it is seen in the West. In that way, it is a different language, and working together, the modalities might need to accept that there is no equivalent explanation for how a disease progresses, or even for tangible concepts.

For instance, there is no Western equivalent to the concept of “Qi”, a pivotal concept in CM theory, and the Western tendency is to reject the medicine outright. Rather, they need to be able to coexist without necessarily having to have everything equally translatable. This is where CM is very strong, as it finds paradox, contradiction, and the unknown as powerful tools for dynamically navigating an individual’s disease.

4. What advice would you give to someone who is looking to go into this field?

Primarily, it is not something you are going to understand in a short amount of time. The medicine is designed to deepen and become more embodied and dynamic the longer it is practiced.

Second, be open. Most of the time, you are going to learn information that appears conflicting or confusing, sometimes wrong. Being open, and absorbing the information kind of osmotically trains you to hold space for the patients and presentations that are the exception to the rule.

Third, don’t make it something it is not. Chinese Medicine is a modality based in observation, cultivated, curated, argued, compared, and organized by thousands and thousands of devoted practitioners. The medicals texts, schools and and exhaustive studies were built out of individuals who realized that to observe a patient with compassion and genuine interest, they had to become better observers in all aspects of their life. The efficacy of the medicine is contingent upon the cultivation of the practitioner. If you don’t like how Qi is conceptualized, don’t try to change it. Try to understand it see how the rest of the medicine uses it. Try to objectively observe what the medicine is “doing”, and then do that. CM isn’t about being the best. There is no best flower or leaf; everything has to contextualize. By not making CM something it is not, the practice naturally contextualizes you.

5. Do you treat cancer patients?

I don’t specifically work with cancer patients, but I have worked with them in the the clinic several times.

Though cancer might be considered a more advanced disease, the method of diagnosis and treatment protocol would remain the same regardless of the perceived severity.

6. What do you feel are the benefits of acupuncture for cancer patients?

There is a lot of evidence coming out right now showing the promise of acupuncture in oncology care. Acupuncture is exceptional in treating and managing pain, and is strong in improving psychoemotional health.

With that said, apart from the cancer itself, a cancer diagnosis and treatment can take an almost holographic toll on a patient’s life, including their mental health. In addition, they are often navigating not simply their own anxiety, but the reinforced anxiety of those in their life, who either struggle with the concept of death and dying, or have never confronted it. As a result, these patients are often managing a lot of unforeseen auxiliary factors in their healing journey.

Acupuncture, from my experience and perspective is exceptional for aiding individuals in transition. The medicine utilizes potent metaphors to observe and interact with the body and the environment. Metaphors, in my mind, are especially profound because they help us deal with death. By including two disparate or unrelated images together in a single image, you are trained to accept the unseen gap between both of them, or that space. It is hard to see how a person dies. It is easy to see how a blade of grass among others can die, but the grass remains. Cancer is often seen as an issue with cells that are unable to mature and experience apoptosis. They are children, and they want to play with more children. The cells proliferate, and there’s too much heat. In a body that understands, it can accept there are childlike aspects of the self that, due to issues or stress in pivotal life transitions, were unable to mature, and also transition and die away. In other words, this may not actually be the case, for this person with cancer, or that person. But the medicine is designed utilizing this kind of tool, and therefore by nature lends itself to reducing the intensity of that transition, or maturing process.

Therefore, I could argue that there are significant benefits in acupuncture for the cancer patient. At the end of the day, it is about the individual, and really seeing “them” – “who” they are.

7. Many people do not believe alternative medicine has any real advantages for overall health. What would you say to those people to help them understand the value of complementary health services?

Many people do not believe conventional medicine has real advantages for overall health. There are people who don’t get flu shots, who refuse vaccines. There are those who don’t take any medications. My mother doesn’t typically trust doctors, and has good reasons for doing so. She rarely takes medicines for colds, never gets a flu shot – she is someone who doesn’t anaesthetise herself or seek outside answers for her issues. This is mainly because she is someone who believes in doing whatever she can in her own power to understand and improve her situation. She’s lived her whole life in the cold and hard winters of Western MA. A few years ago she had a major hip replacement, and not only didn’t take painkillers post-surgery, she also didn’t experience pain during her recovery. Is she wrong or right? It doesn’t really matter. A good and effective medicine is one that is effective and offers results. But it’s also one that isn’t based on the whims of people’s beliefs.

However, this does not mean you can’t meet a person in the space where they believe. CM as a complementary medicine is effective and viable because it seeks to understand the context out of which the individual and their disease springs. We are seeing now that the faith we place in our experts and the answers provided by research are insufficient for the COVID-19 pandemic. What is clear is that there is this gap between crisis and alleviation. Research is a form of faith, and sometimes it proves insufficient. It takes time and innovation. But in the meantime, all we have is faith. By nature, medicine is the reorientation of worldview according to what observed is changing. Medicine is always involved in crisis. People will always encounter crises in their worldviews, or what they think is possible or is or isn’t real. The current moment feels very “unreal”. The virus might be more deadly for those who resist what is changing on a larger scale. This doesn’t go to say that if you don’t believe in CM, you’ll be effected negatively or are stupid.

Instead, it is only to point out that rarely does medicine reflect what someone doesn’t believe in terms of health. Instead, it reflects precisely what people have to accept to get better. The most profound aspect of complementary medicine is that it is not a monoculture. It is, by nature, biodiverse in its view. Researchers suggest that the yellow and very sweet bananas that are in every grocery store will, in less than a decade, become extinct. The reason purported is that despite there being dozens of banana species, the species that have been cultivated and bred for modern consumption has led to its sole reliance. Because of this monoculturing, it becomes very susceptible to disease and especially blight; not unlike how COVID-19 is operating now. In a rainforest, there may be pockets of other plants, other bananas and overall greater biodiversity. When a disease comes through, the banana’s chances of surviving are higher.

The same can be said about complementary medicine. Western Medicine is a monoculture. The crisis in healthcare at this moment, you could argue, has a relationship to the fact that conventional medicine has championed itself as the singular authority on the state of the Western individual’s health – and this is further aided by its global presence, i.e. not merely of interest to the Western body. Here we have a moment where an unknown and especially virulent pathogen is significantly devastating not simply the medical worldview, but of nearly every system that supports the proliferation of the human being. Complementary medicine is significant because it, by nature, represents the biodiversity of worldview. It represents all of the perspectives, the plants if you will, that were unable to flourish, because one took the helm.

This does not mean WM is wrong, or not valuable or effective. With the current climate of the world, it does suggest that complementary medicine will be an absolutely crucial light, in a dark time. Chinese herbalists are chomping at the bit, as they are coming together to push forward formulas here in the US that were being used successfully to treat COVID-19 infections and to mitigate further spread through formulas designed to prevent transmission. The difference is that someone could continue to believe complementary medicine and Chinese medicine are bullshit. But if it saves lives, if it offers an effective avenue, medicine will continue to operate beyond what a person believes, including what is the common belief in conventional medicine. Only a medicine that evolves is one that can meet a disease that evolves.

8. Why is acupuncture controversial?

Anything that is unknown is controversial for someone. Even the things that are known are controversial for someone. A good practitioner of medicine is someone who is going to be able to operate through and beyond drama. Western doctors have patients who sue them because they look like an ex-wife, or because they used a word in the clinical setting that rubbed them the wrong way, on that day. Medicine is the place where you become very sober about how truly diverse people are. It is there that you realize to what profound extent you cannot take things personally. The person is suffering, is suffering, is suffering, is suffering. From a Chinese medical POV, it is relevant where the individual grew up, what foods they were being fed, whether or not they smoke, if they are sitting for long periods of time. But we are not gathering this information to demonize them for it. Drama would be antithetic to a healthy prognosis. Acupuncture is great because, in the simplest way of putting it, it is the gentlest way you can injure a person – you are piercing them, but without it being perceptible. When you injure another in a perceptible way, either through words, emotionally or physically, the drama turns on. The response is often worse than the original injury – yet another context for cancer.

But acupuncture bypasses that layer or level, and allows you to have a conversation with the person’s body. You then use both the acupuncture and your diagnostic skills in listening, asking, taking the pulse etc, to streamline what questions you will ask. The major issue with asking someone what is wrong is that if you ask them preemptively, they may not have anything wrong, or depending on how it’s asked, they might sense in your words that something deeper is going on inside them and suddenly they are in an emergency, and have to figure that out.

In these moments, the individual can create on the spot, the suggested disease or issue. Questions can act as placebo. Our bodies are creative, emergent, for good or ill. It’s rare for a person to simply volunteer that something is wrong with them, especially in the day-to-day. As a culture, we are shown to reject feeling, to not trust emotion, and to suppress and repress. This translates to people who will not volunteer information unless they are coerced. Elsewhere, we collectively do a good job at talking “around things” rather than addressing them directly. With that said, we typically don’t admit something is wrong until we are in a state of emergency; because at that point something fundamentally has to change about us. We have to make a choice to move forward. We have the capacity to evolve from the micro to macro; but the implications of such a dynamic change in who we are, is terrifying. It is terrifying that it could be that easy. It’s safer to be difficult, to cling to the old, to remain static and hold fast to the familiar.

This is why Chinese medicine, and especially acupuncture are exceptional tools for this kind of person, because acupuncture can bypass the need to ask the person to explain their symptom or themselves directly. Explaining a symptom directly is one that is showing in emergency. In Chinese medicine, we talk about this in the context of a “shen-to-shen” or healing presence. This is where your listening ability and ability to be present with the individual carries into the needles that you are using for treatment. You have the opportunity to move past the surface of the body where the symptom is often showing itself, and to have a direct dialogue with an interior landscape that is reflective of the effected organ system. You then spend the majority of the treatment observing what changes in the patient’s body as you penetrate. Often, the patient will volunteer their story, or the underlying contributor to the symptom. But this doesn’t always come in the form of words.

In essence, the patient has their own dramas. The practitioner’s job is to acknowledge that they are experiencing it in precisely the way they are showing it. The next step is helping to reduce the physiological attachment the body has to those stories, events, traumas, replacing them with blood flow, qi flow, whatever you want to call it. At the end of the day, we’re helping return “who” the person is to themselves. Everyday circumstances invite in new material and comparison, but once in the body, those phenomena can get stuck, stagnated or trapped, and they can compete for the space and the body’s resources. A virus acts in this way. They say that viruses aren’t quite alive. They aren’t exactly a “who”, but once they’ve penetrated the exterior of the body, they suddenly have all of the resources and environment to allow a new “who” to proliferate. The body, in this process, suddenly senses a systemic conflict; their immune system, or body authority is in doubt.

Acupuncture works in the interstices, because by nature it is creating outlet where outlet has closed. The body is covered in outlets, or portals, whether the pores, mouth, nose, ears etc. But there are autonomic dramas that are based in survival mechanisms that marshal the major areas of the body to shut down, when there has been perceived invasion and compromise. These are fear, anger, grief, worry and even joy. These are the faultlines, the climates, the seasons, the altitudes, and the material earth. Acupuncture bypasses the dramas that are compromising these major influences in times of crisis. We are unable to ask the earth directly why it hurts. This is too great and complex a question, and too complex an answer. The earth has its own agency. Acupuncture penetrates the individual and says “You are here,” when the winds of change and crisis are too dynamic to navigate. It’s a way for the body to social distance from itself when your body believes change is so painful, you’d rather die. Politics are the global disease. Qi is the human being beyond the political. Complementary or alternative medicine is the needle. Acupuncture regulates the necessary and inevitable change of worldview.

Contemplations on disease in Brooke Holmes’ Symptom and the Subject

“One of the hardest things to see in medicine is the disease itself. We can best understand it as a cluster of effects to be referred to as a specific phusis that is endowed with a specific dunamis, that is, a capacity to act and to suffer in a predictable way…”

“…What a symptom refers to depends largely on the questions posed to it. That is, symptoms enable physicians to see a range of obscure things depending on whether they are interested in what is happening inside a given body at a given moment.; in the probable outcome of the disease, or in securing evidence for a general claim–diagnosis, prognosis and proof, respectively…”

“…I stress the symptom’s polyvalence in part as a reminder that fifth- and fourth-century medical writing exhibits considerable heterogeneity. At the same time, though, that polyvalence attests the complexity of what I take to be the common object of these writings — the physical body. That is, the different questions posed to the symptom reflect the different angles these writers take on that body. Emerging through a cluster of phenomena and ideas, the physical body is at once a hidden space of bones, sinews and joints, hollows and channels; a mixture of stuffs with different capacities to act and suffer; dense but labile flesh; and a principle of growth and flourishing. It is precisely because it is so complex that it fosters so many divergent narratives within its broader intellectual and cultural milieu, narratives that transform the conditions under which human nature can be imagined.” (Holmes, pg. 124-6)

In other words, how we encounter disease depends largely on the extent to which we question what we observe. When we lose consensus, when we have too myriad of observations — we lend too much toward opinion, and this is a realm of judgment, misunderstanding, prejudice and demonization — it is immunological; Conversely, when we are too linear or one-dimensional in perspective, too subjective, no cure or reliable intervention can be had because the only body that matters will be our own, and our individual symptom is a drama staged and witnessed only by ourselves. This develops resistance to “being observed” and we then become the only ones privy to the meaning of the disease. As a world full of divergent perspectives on ways of being, including what constitutes not simply a disease or a symptom — but a body — we are prone to not only an inability for consensus on what a living, healthy human being might look like; but we become fixated on what we never want it to look like. We’ve developed a global witness of the body whose parts fight among their own shadows, and not a single one of us can observe another in their light. As Plato said: “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”

Said another way, none of us can agree upon what we’re looking at, in terms of life, and our fallback is to question whether the other is living at all. Our fallback is to mistake one another as a symptom, which by nature is innumerable and this inhibits consensus regarding what we know to be a living, breathing body. There is no prognosis for a body that’s already declared itself to be dead, which is one that can only see its symptom.

Perspectives For More Embodied Health and Wellbeing

I read an article recently that discusses smarter work ethic, and it is based on Elon Musk’s 3-step approaches toward problem solving and a theory called “First principles thinking”. I found the concepts helpful and decided to apply them to understanding health.

I have long been interested in the concept of “what is health”. With exhausting debates regarding the clearly broken healthcare system in the US, it is pretty easy to overlook more fundamental concepts regarding who we are, what we need and want, and especially what we consider to be healthy living.

Without looking at the question “what is health?”, without taking time to understand and define it for ourselves, I would argue, it is going to add to a lot of misinformation and frustration regarding maintaining wellbeing.

In the article, the author posits that the “first principles thinking” asks you to “identify and define your current assumptions”. He gives the examples, “Growing my business will cost a lot of money” or “I have to struggle and starve to be a successful artist”.

Further he says, “Though most of our life we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do, with slight variations.” He suggests that this kind of reasoning doesn’t clarify, but may be adding to our complex issues. For the purposes of this article, I want to apply this to health.

Health is problem that we are consistently trying to identify, simplify and clarify. We are consistently, both collectively and individually trying to remain well, even if we are not evidently using language that is health-specific.

We do this, by associating wellbeing with what others, or the majority, consider to be wellbeing. The founding principles of the US Constitution, for instance, delineates that of all inalieanable rights, the most important are the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. All three of these are holographic aspects of what I might call health.

Musk says “It is important to view knowledge as a sort of semantic tree. Make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get to the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.” I really like this metaphor and want to apply it to health.

Once broken down into basic principles, the article says, you can begin to create new insightful solutions, from scratch. The article is further anchored in research regarding the first principles theory, but also a psychological concept called “functional fixedness”. This is the “tendency to fixate on the typical use of an object or one of its parts. When we’re faced with complex problems, we default to thinking like everybody else.”

By identifying basic assumptions, breaking them down into basic truths, and creating new solutions, we have the capacity to “uncover” solutions to our health issues.

Functional fixedness, the research says, tends to overlook four types of features possessed by a problem object (parts, material, shape and size) because of the functions closely associated with the object and its parts. To overcome functional fixedness, the research says, to add new information about the object or the problem (elaborate) or reinterpreting old information, a process called “re-encoding”.

I would like to apply these concepts to health, and specifically to what we consider disease, as disease is often the “problem” we associate with health.

Identify and define current assumptions:

What are the fundamental assumptions we have about disease? Perhaps the most fundamental of assumptions about disease is that they are too complex to understand individually. We require a specialist, we require a medicine, we require an expert to sort it out. The term “Complex”, for instance has its origins in psychoanalysis via Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. A complex is a “core pattern” of emotions, memories and perceptions and wishes in the personal unconscious organized around a common theme, such as power or status. By nature, even our languaging reflects an assumption around disease processes as not being simple to sort it. We tend to consider ourselves complex, with complex needs, feelings and beliefs.

Disease, applied to these theories, is related to assumptions regarding what we consider to be healthy and what we consider is unhealthy. I want to take this further and create a semantic tree to help us understand more fundamental principles regarding what health is.

The Roots: What are the roots of health?

When a person gets sick, whatever the condition, they want to know why. They want to “know”. I want to suggest that behind this more fundamentally is wanting to “connect”. The person is disconnected from a process occurring in their body; it has lost its context, and is diverting attention from what they consider to be “themselves”. The person rarely wants to know it all. When they have the “flu”, they don’t really want to know if it could be a more insidious condition. They want to know enough that they can move on with their lives, to solve the discrepancy and return to regular programming. Musk contextualizes his theories in thinking and problem solving and “knowing”. I would like to applied this to health and disease and suggest that the roots of health are embedded in a loss of knowing. The basic principle associated with the roots of our health is embedded in knowing what is happening.

Further, when the person doesn’t know what is happening, they are dealing with a loss of recognition. When this happens, disease often takes the form of “Self vs Other”. The basic assumption regarding disease here is that when the person doesn’t recognize something that is happening in themselves, they retreat to this way of thinking about their health.

But, sticking to the basic assumption, Self vs. Other is not a root issue; it is a branch issue. Recognition is experiencing and just “knowing”. “Self vs Other” indicates analogy, as Musk indicated. Our basic assumption when we get sick is to break it down into an issue between yourself and something outside of you. Other is an analogy for Self, but it is not quite like self.

Recognition, and what I am calling the roots or fundamental principles of health, is beneath and beyond needing to know “what”. Recognition is experiencing and feeling nourished by the knowing. It is experiencing and being nourished by knowing that you are.

Let’s look to the branch to clarify the roots of health.

Branches: What are the branches of health?

This, I would suggest, is actually where disease begins. This is when recognition fails. Maybe we are unable to recognize, maybe we recognize too much, or we compromise what we innately recognize.

We want to know “what” specifics, or we specifically don’t want to know: We want to know the why, who, what, where” regarding disease. “Where is it located, why is this happening to me? When will it end, when will I get cancer, if all of the men in my family got cancer?”

We have a blindspot, we cannot locate an internal sense of recognition in a new encounter. This is where we tend to first get lost or confused, as the situation challenges our sense of recognition.

“Is health health? Is health love, friendship, community, spirit?”

Rather than asking the question “what is health”, we tend to replace this programming with “What could be the cause of the disease, now?” Is it bacteria this time, a virus, is it cancer, is it mental, is it terminal, did I get this from the children I was around who were sick?”

This is level of reasoning by analogy. This is copying what other people do, with slight variations. This kind of thinking or knowing is nearly endless and constitutes the bulk of disease. This is building knowledge and solving problems based in prior assumptions. They are the “best” practices approved by majority. We tend to all exist in a level of negotiating what is collectively considered healthy being. Conventional Medicine practices are based in this kind of reasoning. You are reasoning with yourself, “Could this symptom be this?”

Western doctors are trained to sort through all of the possible conditions that your complex of symptoms might indicate, according to past literature and empirical experience. However, the limitation of this kind of thinking is that you become susceptible to the assumptions regarding what disease and therefore what health can look like. It is embedded in compromising what you recognize to be self-evident, and what you consider to be innately nourishing by the exchange.

The branches are where we are voluntarily willing to compromise the fundamental sense of connection/knowing. Sometimes, you let the other person speak, you let others be, and you do not involve yourself. This is the space that fills the person with the most breadth and volume as an individual, but it has the possibility of distending, branches that can start to draw too much from the root, and the tree can only grow so wide. It grows high, but its sensitive to wind.

Too many branches, too many compromises, the tree might live a long time, but what you’re able to see or have access to minimizes. This means that it will be harder to really know what wellbeing is for you.

In the branch level, you might tend to a lot of confusing messaging regarding your health. You might get colds easily, you might rely too much on what others tell you is a good practice. “What should I take for when I have a random spasm in my leg? What should I take if the bottom of my foot feels cold? What should I do when the soup is too hot? What should I do if my tooth hurts?” Suddenly, you’re on 10 supplements, or a medication that defines you, because it embeds itself in constantly negotiating your relationship with the group, another, or with the specialist.

This is the level of chronic pain. Your body is not very clear about what it is experiencing, and that give and take is something that tends to wander in the body in its loud confusion. You are aware that you are in pain, but you don’t quite know why. This is often emphasized more when you are under stress; work, relationships and generally being out in the world.

The more pronounced the pain, the more the root is being replaced by the branch. In acute stages, where pain is extreme, it is testament to how compromising of who we are for what we collectively agree health looks like. This is embedded in empathy. It is painful to know that there is suffering in the world, whether in our family or social group, or world. The more painful it is for you, the more it conveys how your root is being compromised. Over time, we are more willing to submit to chronic states of disease, to hold each other even when it’s toxic, because the thinking that involves reasoning by analogy, says that connection means suffering and sacrifice. Without regulation, we are willing to cut out pounds of flesh for one another as testament to how much we care, how much we are willing to reveal our humanity to be relevant in the group. A root conversation is one that doesn’t need to prove that you are, especially to yourself. This is not bad or evil, it is tragic. Tragedy defines our current medical models. Even the comedies are tragic. When someone like Chris Farley died, we couldn’t quite sort out the fact that his whole persona was built upon self-deprecation. We laughed not because he was funny, but because it was tragic to a degree that clarified we didn’t have it as bad as him.

You can see how, in this level, disease can “look” like anything. It is a maladaptive way of thinking to consider that all cancer has similar appearances. It is our societal way of looking to another when someone is suffering and saying, “Do you know what is happening here?” We then combine our past experiences to construct what we think is happening in them. But at the root of cancer, is the same root as the common cold. Our basic assumptions can actually prevent the individual who is suffering from getting better. When the person with cancer suddenly feels great, decides they want to stop treatment and want to go on a drive across the country or travel the world, we say, “No, Mary, you’re sick. Your condition is serious. You need to take this seriously. You need x” This can complicate the possibility for the person to heal, because it is based in not in the roots of health, but instead what we collectively feel as anxiety regarding the individual’s own agency regarding their life, and our inability to return to them who they are.

Leaves: What are the leaves of health?

What are the leaves of health? Looking at leaves, these provide the tree with the most immediate protection from over-consumption of external influences, like moisture and light. Moisture is the past, light is the the future. The extension of our resources too far-in-advance can sever nourishment to the root.

The leaves are the most diverse appearing in the concept of health, but really they represent adaptability. The leaves give you the optionsthat reflect the healthy kind of diversity that is represented in nature. They are, by nature, preventative. They carry the day-to-day into the moment.

This means that you are not meant to spend exorbitant energy on maximizing them, or even focusing on them. The leaves are sort of checks and balances and they are in the realm of “How to”. No matter where you go, you encounter “information”, and that information demonstrates “what it is” by what it is doing. You do yoga by going to yoga. You do meditation by doing meditation. The tree is a tree by being a tree. It doesn’t innately help you to know that a tree is a tree. No single individual’s way of doing something is completely knowable, recognizable, or can constitute the entire method of keeping well. The tree metaphor isn’t suggesting that you should go be a tree; cut off your arms and replace them with branches and leaves. These act as inspiration, ways of thinking, and are resistant to habituation, as they are always changing. Habituation happens most often in the branch level. The leaves change enough, such that they are hard to track longer than the impression they give you.

The leaves, ultimately, help you change up the recognition and the “what”, the roots and branches respectively, but they aren’t immediately able to answer your health concern. They are there to acknowledge that there is a health concern. They are there to be witness with their signatures of constant nature of change, from the deepest levels of being, to the most superficial.

In this level we are not exactly “connecting” – connecting would involve give and take, negotiation and compromise; more akin to the branches. This is the level of “I’m thinking about”, as well as the level of thought. It is trying on a new face and seeing how it fits. When the weather changes, we are being offered the possibility of a new face, to be someone else for a change. When the weather changes drastically, it spells a face that collectively and drastically needs a makeover.

Without roots, the leaves will not provide you with a lasting health benefit. Without branches, comparison to what has been done in one’s experience, the leaves break off easily, or cannot even manifest.

This would translate as always trying a diet but never sticking to it, or going to an acupuncturist once a month and expecting it to cure cancer. This would be wanting to feel better, but eating a cupcake with your peppermint tea. The leaves of a tree can only grow to a certain shape and size. This means that you cannot embody all of the leaves, all of the time. The seasons are a testament to being adaptable in terms of what is really authentic and recognizable to you. They are how the natural world shows you how they are choosing to fundamentally change. They are not interested in negotiating what nature should look like. Nature doesn’t doubt, nor does it resist change. It utilizes change.

During the fall and the winter, the leaves show their true colors, and they break off and drift away, compost for others. They are, by nature, related to vestigial evolutionary states of being where we could not distinguish or recognize self. This left us susceptible to participating in creation, but not quite being able to observe it long enough to be in the joy of it; or to gather the full image to contain the image. Human beings want to preserve. But the leaves are a testament to knowing that nothing really can be preserved, even the root. Research tells us that leaves change color in the fall, because the trees are producing chemicals that are toxic to parasitic insects that would compromise their structures before the first frost. But I like to think that the trees are purging all of the things that the world told them they had to be while it changed. The trees welcome the fall and winter because its a time that everyone sheds their masks, and lets go of what is painful and toxic.

Growth without consciousness can look like pain. Pain without consciousness can look like violence.

Being, without growth, there is no recognition – the parts of the whole are unable to regularly nourish themselves.

thought has being and is associated with the leaves; but an idea has breadth and corresponds more to the branch.

way is akin to the root, and it really is only fundamental to you, and cannot be compared and mimicked and embodied by anyone or thing other than yourself. By nature, they resemble the root, through gesture, through a signature, but they are not roots. Like roots, they draw you towards your inquiry, but what you think you recognize does not necessarily equal what your root needs. Sometimes a walnut looks like a brain, and it may be said to nourish the brain, and it might in certain circumstances; but this is not guaranteed for you. Roots guarantee what you recognize is what you need, if you recognize it at all.

This means that in the process of disease, if you do not recognize what is happening, you are communicating to yourself that you have accepted the need to change fundamentally, but along the way you developed doubt regarding the new programming system.

You then tried to sort out the discrepancy in the branches, and they are manifested in all of these knots that bind what you believe to be true about yourself and others. You start to create more anchored assumptions in your idea of what is possible, and the tree can only grow a certain way. Fewer birds want to hang on your perches. You provide only so much shade, and your branches grow dry, unable to foster biodiverse soil. You develop molds, or a parasitic caterpillar hangs in your branches.

Examples of leaves of health:

      • Health: Eating well, exercise, behavioral practices, yoga and meditation, connection.

      • Love: What attracts partner, what trust looks like, how connection feels.

      • Friendships and community: How to attract tribe and people who make you grow and help you feel comfortable and heal, community building, setting community goals, common interests.

      • Spirit: personal practice, internal clarity, communication with unseen, more foundational components of nature and self.

You might notice that “health” is listed under the leaves of health. Health as a concept is itself redundant. This is often why people tend to disregard health, or don’t tend to take care of their health until it becomes an issue, because health can look like anything; but what is fundamentally healthy for you remains in the level of recognizing it when you’re experiencing it. It can’t be told to you, and it is not something that really can be compromised. If it is compromised, it changes you, fundamentally.

This, of course, is why you have the consistent possibility to change yourself fundamentally. But this comes at the cost of clarity. This is why I am including health among the “leaves” of health, because it is often beneficial to understand when thoughts regarding what is healthy are innately malleable.

Sometimes disease is our way of temporarily forgoing clarity, so that we can restructure what we assume to be true about who we are, from the ground up. Sometimes your leg is bum because you want yourself to walk differently, because you know you are not the same person you used to be. Part of you still believes you are. How might you sort out the part of yourself that is still in doubt of what you’ve already decided to fundamentally change? You can find inspiration in the leaves, you can change colors, you can let birds spend some time in your branches, but they are going to feel like distractions and external pressures that add to the weight of who you are. When we are in the process of fundamentally changing from the root, we become susceptible to structural fractures, falls in our ego, falls in our body—the change is not gradual, but dramatic, and the more dramatic, the more painful. One day, the evergreen turns bright orange.

A further extrapolation of this, is the vein on the leaf. The veins of the leaf resemble the branches, they contain features that carry over from the “what” of veins in the body, the branches of trees, the rivers. What health is, can look like anything – this is the ultimate gift that changes the appearance of the natural world, and informs us regarding what is possible. It is a reminder that health does change, disease can change, even when it appears it is hopeless. Health changes but it doesn’t tell you how to change.

The major discrepancy regarding our languaging of “Self vs Other” is that it lumps all other things other than self into a vague and threatening possibility. Cancer is one of the most clear expressions of this. Not only do you have the threat of the Other at the border, it now has form and is borrowing from the structural integrity of who you are. It resembles you, but you don’t fully believe it’s happening. It is a part of yourself, a promise that you once made regarding who you wanted to be and it was never fulfilled or denied, but it’s held onto your changing identity. It’s remained the same. It is a part of yourself that is familiar but you no longer recognize. It is one that has potentially been isolated for too long from the rest of who you are, and it starves for connection and community, to be included in all the rest of the cells, the millions of little landscapes within you.

The other major discrepancy with the Self vs Other language, is that it is embedded in the fundamental assumption that other phenomena don’t have their own agency. To call a bacteria evil, or to consider a virus or parasite disgusting, and emphasizing the need to eradicate them, from the flea to the mosquito to the bird to another human, suggests that we are denying that other living things have their own agency.

This is embedded in the branch level. When we get stuck in thinking processes that use reasoning by analogy, we are in danger of creating analogies that only relate to our own selves. This means that if another’s life, their desires, their freedom and individual pursuit of happiness do not resemble our own, we begin to build branches specifically to shield us, to create boundaries that keep them from infringing upon our lives. If the branches are too thick, and the canopy too dense, it starts to prevent fauna, even of our tree’s own ilk and network from growing and thriving. We become just a creeping, invading species that wreaks havoc on the system. You are choice without loyalty to change and loyalty to growth.

Without challenging assumptions regarding our health and what we accept in terms of what disease is and should look like,when you experience a condition, it might develop away from the thought or leaves of health, into ideas about health. This will grow into assumptions regarding the trajectory of your life, and will bend more toward the limiting mortality. Once an idea has access to the root, it informs the structure what is possible. Health chooses to be open-ended. It chooses to bloom when the time is right.


Look to the fundamental assumption of health: That it is too complex to sort out.

    • Is it a root issue?

    • Is it a branch issue?

    • Is it a leaf issue?

By nature, loss or compromise of health is a root issue. It deals with a loss of connection. When you are not in a state of ease, it suggests a confusion of experience. The other levels attempt to sort out the exact location of the doubt. When we simply cannot face the doubt we have about whether we are loved, connected, whether we recognize the source of the suffering, this is pain.

By nature, the treatment for pain is connecting with what you recognize in yourself, even if it is difficult. Giving up something that you recognize is compromising the root of yourself, i.e. the fundamental assumptions you have about what it is like for you to be well, has the capacity to create new roots, without the need for new branches and other compromises and new thoughts. When the root is compromised, the other two levels tend toward dampness and confusion.

Heat, inflammation, stress and general unease have their source in the loss of the root, and in dampness and confusion. When dampness reaches the level of the leaf, being and wellness feel too complex to sort out. At this level, there is no answer that we hear from others or that we give ourselves feels sufficient. This could look like arthritis, fibromyalgia, xenophobia, or chronic conditions, often involving physical or psychological or emotional pain that are vaguein nature.

What level of health are you operating from?

To overcome our fixedness, the research and the natural world tell us to add new information regarding the object of our health inquiry. What parts of the world around you, and those in your life are like the cold you have, or the pain you feel? Elaborate to yourself or to another what feels painful. Chances are, there is a lot of dissonance and disconnection because we don’t have the full image of who the person is, of who we are, even to ourselves. To overcome our fixedness, we are called to “reinterpret old information”. What kinds of stories have you told yourself are rooted in painful periods of your life, what kinds of symptoms relate to the person you were then? How can they be reinterpreted to reflect the person you are now?

“Functional fixedness, the research says, tends to overlook four types of features possessed by a problem object (parts, material, shape and size) because of the functions closely associated with the object and its parts.”

What does your disease reveal about what you overlook about yourself? What are the parts of your life that you have overlooked to be the way you are? What qualities, the material fabric of your life, have been compromised to be who you are? Where does your disease reveal you are bulging, where are the leakages in who you are? Where are you inconsistencies in how you feel about living? It is not innately bad that have cake with your peppermint tea. Where are you overlooking your dimensions? What is the scope of who you are? Do you eat like you are eating for two? Do you feel pain that is beyond what can be felt for one person? Where are you only seeing part of the image of who you are? Do you ever give yourself a break?

Do you ever consider that roots can look like branches? Why do you keep treating yourself like a leaf, when you’re really a root?


Morning Coffee

Mid-morning and I bring my mom a bowl of pistachios on round metal tray and coffee for us to share. She’s still laying on her back in her bed, with her knees up to relieve her hips, and her arms are bent, holding her cup precariously, as if it’s going to spill. She says she hasn’t had someone bring her breakfast in bed since Ken died, and I watch as she carries the white ceramic cup to her lips, and the dark liquid disappears to visible teeth curled corners as a stream of small stories slip, and she prompts if I remember summers when I was a kid at the rental cabin in Salisbury with Tim and Jeremy. Her hair is yellow and gray, and her eyes slink at the top, but are powder blue and sparkle while she tells me how grateful she is for her life, the big family she’s always wanted and her church community. The pistachios crumble easily in my teeth, but I taste salt when pulling the shells apart with them. I watch as her vision seems to look further than where we are in her mermaid green carpeted room, and I am keeping my composure as she describes my when I was an infant, and how my limbs were stiff and I just couldn’t seem to relax. She said the doctors didn’t know what to do with me, or how to treat me because they weren’t sure what drug my biological mother had been addicted to at the time of my birth. I look away from her eyes, and the spilling coffee to a brown primitive wallboard that holds a comforter on a two foot dowel, and painted below is an idiom of home, crafted by hands grateful as her own. A steady and quiet stream of tears emerge hidden in my heavying eyes, as her grin turns to an unexpected soberness as she recounts how I’d just scream and scream, and the only thing that calmed me were the sing songs she sung day in and out. I sip the bitter and hot water, and I feel an electric and cold alarm in my chest when I realize I see the bottom of the ceramic cup and that morning coffee will end.