I am not the first to say, and I will not be the last to quote Bob Duggan, my late mentor and fellow acupuncturist: “The body is wise; our symptoms are our teachers.”
The Body is Wise
To illustrate this point, let us look at a couple relatable examples: when a child scrapes her knees or you slice your finger chopping vegetables, blood moves to the wound and creates a clot, which protects it from germs and infection; meanwhile, the body repairs damaged blood vessels and grows new tissues. When someone sprains his ankle, there may be swelling or fluids around the injury that bring white blood cells to the area to promote healing. Even pain serves to heal the body by signaling the need to “lay off” the injured limb, enforcing its own prescription: rest.
Our Symptoms are our Teachers
Bob used to tell a story about the progression of a handful of seemingly unrelated symptoms he experienced. He would find himself cleaning his eyeglasses more frequently, in an attempt to keep his vision clear. In fact, he was ignoring his eyes’ message that he was tired and needed more sleep. If he didn’t get the sleep he needed, in a couple days he would start to cough. If he ignored the cough and failed to catch up on sleep, the cough would worsen and (I may be skipping a symptom or two here) his knee would start to bother him. If he let this go on, eventually his knee pain would become so bad that he would be forced to keep it elevated and eventually would have only one choice: rest until all these symptoms subsided.
It is straightforward to have the whole story, perspective included: obviously he needed to rest earlier. And indeed we are lucky to benefit from Bob’s keen and dedicated commitment to observation—for it is only through observation that he was able to piece this puzzle together, after repeated iterations of the same series of events.
In the midst of these early messages from our bodies, it is all too easy to lose perspective and miss the benign warnings, preoccupied with our schedules, obligations, and distractions. Seeing the whole story laid out makes it so plain and obvious, and yet many of us repeat our own versions of this story until we learn to listen and make a change.
Bob asserted that everyone has their own handful of symptoms that follow some pattern, and that if we pay attention to the progression, and listen to the messages at the earliest opportunity, we can avoid the most debilitating symptoms.
We think, “My allergies are acting up” (and perhaps they are)! And it is possible that if we had gotten sufficient sleep and vitamins that week and said no to the last-minute project at work, our immune systems would be strong and there would be no sneezing, itchy eyes or dry throat. What if we never felt the need to write our symptoms off like we knew and instead committed to a spirit of curiosity regarding them?
What if we do not recognize the symptoms as messages? What if we normalize those symptoms with diagnostic labels and shrug them off? What if we shirk the responsibility—and accountability—for our symptoms? What if we allow naming them to placate our appetite for deep change?
Well, that is our prerogative. And it certainly allows us to avoid that pesky business of solving forx…
However, for those of us who want to be empowered to live our best lives, to acknowledge our own roles in incubating the weaknesses or strengths of our bodies, to free ourselves from habits and behaviors that bring us down… cultivating the observer within is crucial. Our symptoms teach us how to treat our bodies right. They teach us emotional boundaries and physical limitations, and they draw us into alignment with the seasons. Our symptoms can call into sharp focus the things we need to change. (The short checklist could include diet, exercise, hydration, sleep, relationships, commitments/time management, and expectations.)
When an injury is small, healing is relatively easy and quick. When there is a more serious injury, perhaps a surgery which involves a deep incision, this process may take weeks or months to heal. Similarly, any severe injury or chronic illness may require more time, energy and other resources to heal. You may regard these comments as common sense…
In contrast to the discrete specialists of western medicine, acupuncturists look at the body systems holistically. You may see a cardiologist, a neurologist, an endocrinologist, a psychologist, a urologist and so on, and maybe no one doctor considers the sum of all your parts. Whereas, acupuncturists have the privilege (and duty) to assess the entire system as a whole and in fact understand how the various organs are communicating with each other. This gestalt understanding allows acupuncture practitioners to address the underlying imbalance so that seemingly disparate symptoms may be resolved with a cohesive treatment strategy. This theory is known as Root and Branch. By nourishing the root, all branches benefit.
Healing is not always linear, straightforward or predictable. A significant aspect of healing resides in one’s mindset. The body is wise,our symptoms are our teachers and, I will add, the mind is powerful.
The Mind is Powerful
Recently in my practice I have noticed a theme. For those patients who are experiencing symptoms that are not straightforward, many have undergone a variety of tests with their primary care physicians and other specialists. The goal, I presume, is to discover an explanation for the symptoms they are experiencing. For these patients, I observe a common thread: they are under the impression that they need to understand—on a mental level—what is going on in their bodies.
I completely support the pursuit of understanding. However, I have implored them to heed a couple points of advice:
Give yourself permission to heal without knowing the cause of the symptoms or pain.
Meditate on getting comfortable with the unknown. This may be as simple as stating aloud an affirmation such as:
I practice listening deeply to the messages my body sends to me.
I set aside all preconceived notions regarding the cause of or solution to my symptom/pain/condition. I refrain from drawing hasty conclusions.
I am willing to wade through the darkness.
I am grateful for the opportunity to temporarily turn off the analytical/striving/solving functions of my mind.
I embrace mystery as a natural part of life and commit to cultivating the observer within me.
Breathe deeply into any fear/frustration/worry that may be surfacing in the presence of these symptoms. Emotional stress taxes the body further—tying up resources and energy that could otherwise be allocated to healing.
Respond to your thoughts and your body with compassion for yourself— as much compassion as you would for a loved one.
Visualize the pain and/or symptoms transforming in whatever imagery resonates with you (melting/clearing/being surrounded with light or breath).
In this modern world there are symptoms that often go unexplained. At times even doctors and specialists may draw blood for examination or run imaging tests with the latest technology and still scratch their heads without explanation. This may be a blessing in disguise. Here is an opportunity to flex your faith, to turn your awareness inward—rather than outward—for a sense of understanding.
Perhaps there is a deep need you have overlooked: a hot bath in a quiet room, a night of carefree fun with your best friend, a day home from the office for some perspective. Run through the checklist again: diet, exercise, hydration, sleep, relationships, commitments/time management, and expectations. Is there someone you need to forgive? Is there someone you need to create distance from? Is there an impossible standard you need to laugh off? Do you need more vegetables? Maybe all you have been eating is salad and you need something heartier? Be honest with yourself.
In addition to the five points I outlined above, and the checklist of lifestyle factors, I encourage you to consider acupuncture and/or herbal medicine. Whether there is a concrete set of symptoms you are working through or you are interested in being proactive and practicing a lifestyle change, you will benefit from having a good acupuncturist on your team.