November 25, 2009

As of this writing, there’s been a lot of intense discussion about H1N1, also known as swine flu. There’s a great deal of differing opinion, of information and misinformation, regarding the incidence and effects of H1N1, and the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. It’s difficult to say what’s accurate and what’s appropriate. So, to be frank, I’m not going to try; that’s not what this article is about. I think the wisest choice is the middle road: Remain open to all sides of the story, but carefully assess the available information and judge its appropriateness to your own situation, and make your choices accordingly.

The point of this article is something entirely different. I assert that swine flu, or any disease, expresses and reflects meaning, and exploring and understanding the meaning of epidemic diseases can help you make clearer health choices in the face of media or social pressure, and can help you to lead better, healthier lives.

The fundamental guiding concept at Acupuncture Ecology is that health is best understood ecologically—in other words, as a set of relationships that connect many separate things in one great whole. You do have to study the trees, and the individual plants and animals and birds in the forest, but you also have to see the whole forest. It can be very complex and very simple at the same time.

In terms of health, we see this as the dictum that any one symptom usually has more than one cause. If your shoulder is hurting, it may be because you injured it in a bad fall twenty years ago, added onto the fact that you spend long hours typing at a desk, and you have some deficiency in your heart causing your general circulation to be sluggish, and you don’t eat the right foods to help your body’s energy. All of these things can add up to something that looks very simple, but really isn’t.

Eliminating symptoms is one thing, healing the whole ecology is another. You could get a shot or rub in some cream to get rid of the pain for a little while, but that doesn’t necessarily resolve the underlying problems.

While a shoulder pain may be easy to shrug off (no pun intended), the ecological principle becomes more crucial in more serious diseases, such as adult-onset diabetes, where it’s quite obvious, both to Chinese and Western medicine that, that the accumulation of many years of poor habits on multiple dimensions have led to poor health.

How does this relate to H1N1? It’s very simple: Flu viruses do not exist in a vacuum. Like your shoulder pain, they are the result of many overlapping causes. To treat H1N1, or any specific disease, merely in an extremely targeted way may, while eliminating the virus, leave a whole host of other problems unresolved. That approach excludes the whole ecology behind the disease’s existence, and this leaves the door open for other diseases to step into the gap.

It’s one thing to keep bailing water out of the boat. It’s another to recognize that there’s a leak in the boat.

This is not an argument for or against vaccination. Rather, it’s an invitation for you to ask yourself what you are doing by getting the vaccine, or generally, by treating swine flu as swine flu—i.e. by seeing disease as something that exists as a monstrous independent entity, separate from the whole.

Let’s use an analogy: Wildfires. Many fires have made the news lately, and they’re certainly recognized as being very destructive. Since the 1940’s, there have been public media campaigns in the US, for instance Smokey the Bear, who have endorsed near-total suppression of forest fires.

The problem is that this turned out to be a bad idea. Suppressing too many small fires leads to a buildup of dry wood and brush, making it even easier for large fires to develop and to rage completely out of control, thus causing far more destruction than they would have otherwise. Ecologists nowadays realize the importance of a more nuanced approach, of controlled burns in certain areas; and, moreover, recognize that fire has beneficial effects to the wildlife, for instance by returning nutrients to the soil.

Some historians have even noted, in contradiction to the conventional idea of the pristine wilderness sparsely populated by Natives prior to the arrival of Europeans in America, that the entire landscape was radically transformed on a regular basis by the Natives—through fire. According to permaculturist Toby Hemenway,

Early European colonists wrote that from Maine to Florida, Native American settlements were surrounded by clearings of a few to hundreds of acres. Virginia was speckled with an estimated 300,000 acres of cornfields, some a thousand acres in extent. Major valleys, from the Shenandoah to the Ohio, out to Oregon’s Willamette and those on both sides of the Sierras, were maintained as open parkland by burning. The midwestern prairies, we are learning, were preserved in their treeless beauty more by human-set fires than by lightning. Upland forests in the East, the Rockies, and the Northwest were burned every few years to remove undergrowth and enhance game and food-plant habitat.

Fire, then, despite the fact that it rapidly destroys, has been used in a healthy manner to benefit the ecology.

There’s a clear analogy here to disease. Disease, like fire, is usually thought of as a purely destructive force.

Is it? I propose that the answer is no.

What, then, is the meaning and purpose of epidemic diseases?

Diseases operate according to natural principles, playing their part, in their own way, to restore balance. Diseases merely act as agents of chaos, in the constant interplay between order and chaos. This is not a value judgment or a moral discussion or an anthropomorphization. These things operate on the same principle as anabolism and catabolism in the human body—one a force that builds up, one a force that breaks down, both of which can and must occur constantly in order for life to continue. An overemphasis on catabolism, the process that breaks things down, and you might develop a disease like osteoporosis, where your bones become too brittle. On the other side, many bodybuilders take anabolic steroids to dramatically increase their muscle mass.

The point is that these disease-causing microbes act in a way to break things down. Disease is not the only example: Decay is another form of the chaos principle. Decomposition is usually not well thought of, but it’s important to note that it’s absolutely critical to life on earth. If nothing that died decomposed, if nothing break down into component parts, then the world would be filled with undecomposed bodies of plants and animals, not to mention urine and feces, rather than the rich, fertile, healthy soil from which we all came. Of course, these same microorganisms can cause problems when they try to decompose what’s still trying to live, for instance in the case of a wound that’s become gangrenous (blood poisoning).

Chaos plays an important role in this world, and in our lives.

The question of what meaning epidemic diseases have to us is a question of what chaos is extant in our lives, individually and collectively, as well as how we respond to chaos, what we’re vulnerable to, and how we can change if it challenges us.

Disease is not a good or a bad thing. Rather, it’s the injection of a chaotic foe to our bodies. It’s a challenge to our existing state of physiological order. Like any good adversary, it can show you where you’re weak, and why, and it can help you become stronger and healthier. Or, it can simply reflect the vulnerabilities and influences of certain people in certain times and places.

In other words … sometimes you need to get sick. Or, at least, sometimes it takes getting sick to understand some things about yourself, your health, your life, or to realize that the conditions in which you live are not optimal. This can apply individually, for instance if you’re overworking and not getting enough rest and not eating good foods, clearly you’re a better candidate for getting sick, but you may not realize it until illness brings to to a screeching halt.

This applies collectively and in a broad way in society as well. Bubonic plague, for instance, swept through Europe several times in the Middle Ages, in a set of events known as the Black Death. Eventually it was discovered that it was caused by bacteria carried by rats. But rats, like H1N1, do not exist in a vacuum. The question is, what sort of living conditions existed to encourage a large concentration of diseased rats?

Cholera is another example. Cholera outbreaks were once considered to be caused by breathing “bad air,” a folk echo (though erroneous) of ancient and sophisticated ideas about elemental influences on the body. A physician named John Snow, one of the pioneers of modern epidemiology, methodically tracked down the source of cholera to contaminated drinking water. So this again is about the question of what sort of living conditions cause cholera-infested sewage-contaminated drinking water to be ingested by large portions of the population.

These sort of ecological questions are the ones that need to be asked, or at least kept in mind, when you confront the question of infectious disease. It is important to understand that when you’re waging war against this illness or that illness, you miss out on the big picture.

In other words, if you keep having to dodge cars, it might help if you took a look around to see that you’re in the middle of the highway.

The question is, why are we here? It’s both a practical question and an existential one.

Unfortunately, the complexity of disease is usually simplified, in public discourse, into two things:

  1. Aah! A disease!
  2. Here’s the vaccine! (Or: Here’s the cure!)

To my mind, this can be very useful within its limited scope, but in a general sense, is not only not that useful, but disempowering for most people. This story leaves us all at the mercy of a mysterious and terrifying virus that threatens to strike anyone at any time, with the only recourse being limited-supply vaccines and medications. It taxes the medical bureaucracy and infrastructure, both stresses and empowers the government and pharmaceutical corporations, and leaves the rest of us wandering around aimlessly.

An approach that sets vaccines and other specific medical treatments into their appropriate places within a broader ecological context, is superior.

This ecological approach begins and ends with awareness of the whole. It involves the totality of forces in play: not just the biochemistry and biological identity of H1N1, but the environment in which it lives. A virus is a seed; it grows in soil that it likes, it dies in soil that it doesn’t. What constitutes good soil for a flu virus? What are the factors influence a person’s resistance to epidemic disease, and how does the virus, and the person, relate to things such as:

  • Exposure to the elements
  • Sanitation and clean living conditions
  • Water, shelter, food
  • Cultural practices
  • Physical activity
  • Lifestyle practices such as smoking
  • Emotional habits
  • Social support and affirmation
  • Sleep cycles
  • Diet and eating habits
  • Leisure and pleasure in life
  • Spiritual and religious practice

The virus is, in short, part of the great life cycle of the world; and in each of us individually, the virus will affect us more, or less, based on whether or not it fits into our life cycle, our rhythms, our energy, our strengths and weaknesses.

Of course, unless you’re a professional researcher, you’re not likely to be studying the virus in depth. But these principles can be explored within your own experience: your own body, your family, your local community are your constant laboratory. You’ll begin to see that colds and flus are not just separate entities; they reflect and exploit the ecology of our own vulnerabilities and pathologies, and that’s why they can manifest differently in different people, and in different populations.

In the final analysis, the admonition of the ancient Greek Oracle at Delphi, “Know thyself,” is the best advice. In deepening your understanding of yourself and your surroundings in all dimensions, you begin to discern what meaning health, and disease, have in your life, and you begin to transfer this understanding outward to the lives of others.

This search for meaning is not just a way to feel better about yourself in the face of the supposedly relentless, implacable assault of disease. It is to understand that when disease assaults us, it is our responsibility, individually and collectively. It is our responsibility to understand how we have caused disease or to understand why we are vulnerable. It is our responsibility to deal with the challenges that disease presents, in a mature and conscientious way. And, it is our responsibility to aim, always, to restore balance with respect to the whole ecology of things.

As a final note, it’s worth considering that, despite the modern reputation of Chinese medicine as something that primarily treats chronic illness, historically it was used to treat infectious disease. One of the earliest surviving texts on herbal medicine, in wide use today, the Shang han lun, was a treatise on treating epidemic diseases, from mild ones to severe conditions such as typhoid fever.

And, it’s interesting to note that Tamiflu, one of the primary drugs to treat swine flu, is derived from an herb—star anise, which has enjoyed a long tradition of usage in Chinese herbal medicine!

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