There is really a pressing need to raise the bar on our personal understanding of the dynamics of our own health.

I don’t just mean understanding what vitamins to take or which exercises to do. I mean something much deeper. I mean aiming at the ontology of our lived experience in the relationship between our biology, our environment, and in the concepts that shape our existence, individually and collectively.

Whoa there. What exactly does that mean?

Well, let’s start with how most of us normally start out thinking of health.

Most of us were raised in the medical paradigm of Western society. We had to go through biology classes in school. In our common lexicon we refer to concepts like bacteria, DNA, lungs and kidneys. We speak of strokes and heart attacks. We know about blood pressure and cholesterol and the body mass index. We know about getting injected with vaccines and popping pills for pain or thyroid problems or menopause. Everybody knows somebody on pills.

When we go to a Chinese medical practitioner, the context is often quite different. Detailed questions are asked about appetite, bowel movements, nighttime urination, emotional issues, things that seem to have nothing to do with our back pain or our headaches. Moreover, the language is couched in terms like qi and blood, deficiency and excess, heat and cold. Western medical and scientific organizations express tolerance at best and hostility at worst to this medical art. Many, if not most, insurance companies do not pay for it.

At base, each of these approaches rests on a philosophy. (This is a bit of an overgeneralization, but it serves to illustrate a point, so bear with me.)

The Western approach to medical diagnosis and treatment, and the one in which most newspaper articles on written, is highly focused on outcome, on manifestation. It isolates and reduces a large mass of extraneous data to specific causes and accompanying treatments. Unfortunately, this tends to reduce a person to a collection of symptoms or simple dynamics. Medications are then prescribed for those symptoms.

The Chinese approach to medical diagnosis and treatment is one that, ideally, asks deeper questions about relationship. One asks how the symptoms that manifest are related to the various organs, and how those organs are functioning in relation to each other and as a whole, and to the outside environment, physical and emotional and mental. This is similar to the way a gardener sits and thinks about how the weather, the seasons, the elevation, the soil type, the plants being grown, and even the attitude of the gardener, among many other factors that simultaneously influence the health and growth of plants. It’s not easy and involves consideration of many nuances and subtleties. Sometimes it’s a matter of sitting and pondering silently rather than rushing to action.

Such a mindset is increasingly difficult in a world that demands that faster is better. And of course, who wants to spend hours in a doctor’s office, Western or Chinese? Surely speed is an indicator of efficacy. Yet in the long run, a deeper and wiser consideration of action leads to more effective action and a swifter result.

On the part of the physician, this of course indicates the necessity for time and energy spent studying the medicine, and time and energy spent relating to the person in front of him.

But the ultimate responsibility is with you, the patient, the person living in your own skin. It’s important to claim this practice as your right and responsibility for being and becoming healthy.

The cultivation and refinement of perception in your own individual consciousness is one of the most imperative actions toward understanding and taking charge of one’s health, and thus it’s one of the most imperative actions toward becoming healthy, and is especially important if you want to be free of the medical costs associated with visits to any doctor or acupuncturist.

But there is still a cost, and that is time and attention. Unfortunately this is simply seems to be too great a burden to bear for many people in the modern age.

Yet I will go out on a limb to make a forceful statement: This cost must be borne.

It must be borne because the burdens of living in a fast-paced, high-tech, modern industrial civilization has simply become too high. It becomes more and more inevitable that we will get sick, and we will get sick either because we allow ourselves to become swept up in the pace of life and thus become inured to the uncountable stresses that attack us, or just because of the sheer number of traumas and toxins, minor or major, that assault us daily on multiple levels. The world has become a toxic place. Try having a nice relaxed moment while standing at a busy intersection and you’ll know what I mean.

The society in which we lived has radically changed even from ten years ago. It is not something we humans were designed for. We lived for millennia in certain conditions that were relatively static. The last hundred years have been an evolutionary fluke.

We can adapt, but only if we apply ourselves to the task of adaptation. And if you look at the skyrocketing numbers of people suffering from chronic disease and the skyrocketing costs of health care, you might wonder just how well we are adapting.

Many of the illnesses that face us today are based, at least in part, from the lack of adaptation. We eat foods, we use chemicals, we ingest medications, we drive vehicles that have never been available until the last fifty years.

At some point, rather than pursuing or living with the next new thing, it becomes more and more crucial to reflect on the ontology of our experience. In terms of health, that means stopping. It means sitting and asking who we are as human beings in physical bodies, in relation to the world around us.

The beginnings of this can be seen in the questions asked in the standard Chinese medical interview (or, for that matter, a standard Western interview, though they tend to be less general).

Questions about appetite and bowel movement, for instance, are part of a rational question for information leading to a diagnosis, of course; but they are also questions that can and should, on a deeper level, prompt your own questioning of what is your lived experience of digestion? How does it feel to you when you place food in your mouth, taste it, chew it, feel it go down? What is the effect of that on your body, and in your life? How does that emanate outward to your relationships and interactions with those around you, and what place does this experience have in your purpose as a human alive in this world today?

If you choose to ignore such questions, then you are defaulting to whatever process or situation you happen to find yourself in at the moment; you are giving your ability to decide your own biological destiny up to the pressures of greater cultural and social forces that may not be making the best choices for you; and medically, you are accepting the commonly held wisdom that the only time you think of your health is when you get injured or sick enough to make an appointment with the doctor.

Many people do ask these questions and make these efforts, but only when they are forced to do so by medical circumstance. Then they either succumb to the assault of their illness or survive, tougher and wiser for the experience. I place no moral value on either outcome—after all, you’re not a better or worse person just because you’re sick or healthy. But I do believe that you can do better for your quality of life as a whole if you begin to contemplate such things before illness forces you to drastic action that may be too little, too late.

The contemplation of your being and the consideration of your many relationships of the universe within and around you, accompanied by wise, appropriate action, is not only the ideal, but a necessity for the cultivation of higher quality in your health and throughout all of the dimensions of your life.

Moreover, such contemplation is a revolutionary act. It is revolutionary in that it has great potential to challenge many things that you blindly accept about your health and life, and in so doing begin the process of positive change. This positive change can often mean going “against the grain” in a dynamic way, sometimes even in a way that provokes aggressive response. An example of this can be seen in the way that alcoholics who try to free themselves from their addiction often find resistance from the very people closest to them.

In a deep sense, we’re all engaged in profound efforts to free ourselves of our limitations and live lives that fulfill us as potently as possible. This is revolutionary.

We don’t need to feel like revolutionaries in order to become healthy; that’s not the point. The point is simply that the power to engage in the process of becoming healthy is inherent within each of us and is within our grasp, and thus we need to embrace this power as our birthright and to use it wisely.

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