~Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
I seem to be having the same conversation a lot these days, with different people and for different reasons. It is a conversation about patience, and about how our bodies take time to heal.
At our clinic, we see lots of patients who seek relief from some sort of chronic medical condition - insomnia, depression, low back pain, infertility, migraines, asthma. Being trained in the rigors of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western science, we focus our treatment on righting the imbalances that are causing the chronic illness, pain, or suffering - on releasing tense muscles, increasing blood flow to injured tissues, stimulating hormonal pathways. But as a practitioner of holistic medicine, Iit is also vitally important to look at the whole person - not just their physical being, but also their emotional self, their worldview, their lifestyle, the place they occupy in this world, and how their mind and their body interact.
For many patients - not all, by any means, but many - their chronic illness or condition takes a toll on their emotional health, and they find themselves asking why they are experiencing the symptoms they are, why they are being challenged in this way. This emotional strain in turn makes their physical symptoms worse, and it is a vicious cycle.
We are trained by nature of the society we live in to strive for, expect, and even demand immediate results. The typical example we see is a patient who calls to inquire about weight loss treatments. We say that acupuncture can be very helpful in stimulating metabolism, normalizing appetite and food cravings, and regulating digestion. We then mention that we will also provide lifestyle, diet, and exercise advice to complement their acupuncture treatment (true holistic medicine). In some cases, the patient then becomes frustrated, because we are recommending a process, a journey, an interactive plan...not a pill that will take the symptoms away. In other words, we are recommending healing, not a mask or a band-aid or a weight loss diet that will only end in gaining the weight back.
For many patients who are experiencing chronic ailments, it is helpful to ask why? Not in the sense of "Why is this happening to me?" but in the sense of "Why is my body doing this? What am I supposed to learn from this? What is in my power to change?"
So often, our physical ailments echo emotional turmoil, stressful situations, or spiritual chaos in our lives. The body can't focus on healing itself when our minds and spirits are trying to work through elaborate issues on their own. Also, sometimes negative emotions like grief, sadness, anger, resentment, guilt, and fear work their way out through our body's physical ailments, when we are not able - either consciously or not - to allow them to work themselves out in a mental/emotional realm.
Stress and negative emotions take their toll on our body, even when they are in fact caused by our body's own frailty or weakness (think of the vicious cycle I alluded to earlier.) When our beings are working through some issue - be it grief, or lost love, or back pain, or migraines - they are working incredibly hard, even if we don't know it. And that work takes time, and energy. It is in our best interest to recognize the hard work that our bodies and minds are doing, and to give them the time needed to truly heal...not to superficially feel better due to pain meds while the tissues underneath are still torn, not to quickly drop 20 pounds to gain it all back when we resort to our prior habits, not to teach ourselves how to smile when we really haven't sorted through what some emotional pain meant to us.
Perhaps one of the hardest things about the practice of "waiting until the mud settles" is that it is a practice of passivity. This is hard for most of us who have grown up in the US with the American mentality that hard work pays off.
I frequently have these conversations with female patients who seek treatment for unexplained infertility (which research increasing shows acupuncture to be an effective treatment for.) Women who are going through fertility treatments tend to obsess about their cycles, their fertility, their body temperature, when they are ovulating. Their minds are constantly occupied, stressed, worried, fixated on getting pregnant. And this fixated, stressed, anxious mind stresses out their system. From a Western medical perspective, it messes with the hormonal balance in the body. From an acupuncture perspective, it causes our energy to knot, to stagnate, to not flow freely. It makes the body an inhospitable place for new life.
I once watched a mentor say the following to an infertility patient: "Look, we all have a tendency to want to be active...to want to fix the situation, to right what it wrong, to take control, to do the research and try all the treatments and attack the infertility head-on. This is what we call yang behavior. In the yin and yang symbol that is at the heart of Chinese medicine, yang represents the active, expansive, moving, and fiery parts of ourselves. Yin represents the passive, the inward, the watery, the holding and containing parts of ourselves. Carrying a child is the most yin thing that any of us can do in this world. So why would we use yang behavior to achieve that end? Perhaps what is needed here is passivity, is letting yourself receive."
Can you do that? Do you have the patience to let yourself receive? Whether it is a child, or wisdom, or emotional release, or quiet acceptance that precedes necessary hard work?
Do you have the patience to wait until the mud settles and the water is clear?