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It’s All About Balance Folks

When I completed my training in acupuncture 2 years ago, I believed I had absorbed everything I needed to know about traditional Chinese medicine.

My interest was in learning to treat pain and other health conditions using techniques which facilitate self-healing, and with acupuncture, I was satisfied that I had found an effective means.

Truth be told, the rest of traditional Chinese medicine seemed irrelevant and outdated. After all, modern scientific explanations of acupuncture’s mechanisms of action had (in my mind) supplanted the ancient notions of “blocked Qi” and “imbalances of yin and yang” as causes of illness. How could I put any stock in such concepts that were neither quantifiable nor amenable to proper scientific investigation?

But in my focus on memorizing acupuncture point locations and learning proper needling technique, all the while working to reconcile my new knowledge with modern science, I had failed to grasp the philosophical underpinnings of the material I was learning.

Six months ago I became enlightened. In preparation for a lecture series I was to deliver on acupuncture, I began to research its history in depth. And as I learned more about the principles of ancient Chinese medicine, I found great wisdom which resonated with me.

Understand that Chinese medicine did not arise as a discipline unto itself, but rather as part of a broader attempt to explain the natural order of the universe and man’s place in that order. And what the ancient Chinese observed and were impressed with, was a world of rhythmic cycles and dynamically balanced opposites (e.g. day and night, summer and winter, male and female, etc). Man was considered to be a microcosm of the macrocosm of the universe and as such, it followed that balance was essential to health. Taoist influence featured heavily in the foundations of Chinese medicine, and being in harmony with the Tao (the “way”) meant living in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Consider the following passage from the historic text, “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine”, in which the legendary “Yellow Emperor” Huang di seeks counsel from his wise court minister Qi bo:

Huang di: “I have heard that in the days of old everyone lived 100 years without showing signs of aging. In our time, however, people age prematurely, living only 50 years. Is this due to a change in the environment, or is it because people have lost the correct way of life?”

“Qi Bo: “In the past, people practiced the Tao, the Way of Life. They understood the principle of balance, of yin and yang…They ate a balanced diet at regular times, arose and retired at regular hours, avoided overstressing their bodies and their minds, and refrained from indulgence of all kinds. They maintained well-being of body and mind; thus it is not surprising that they lived over one hundred years.”

“These days, people have changed their way of life. They drink wine as though it were water, indulge excessively in destructive activities, drain their body’s essence and deplete their Qi… Seeking emotional excitement and momentary pleasures, people disregard the natural rhythm and order of the universe. They fail to regulate their diet and lifestyle and sleep improperly. So it is not surprising that they look old at 50 and die sooner.”

Incredibly, these words were written over 2000 years ago, yet remain as applicable today as when they were first set down in print.

Balance is indeed critical to health. Modern life is complex and fast paced and most of us find ourselves feeling out of balance at some point. Too often we try to correct, not by moving closer to our centers, but by offsetting our stress with something equally extreme in the opposite realm. Too much work-> Play harder or squeeze more out of our days by sleeping less, exercising more (or less), eating more, buying expensive toys, taking vacations we can’t afford, or self-medicating to relax. The results are sleep deprivation (with its negative effects on immune system and mood), overuse injuries (from over-exercising), obesity, financial stress, stress related ailments such as headaches, drug and alcohol dependence, etc. All too often, we feel as though we live our lives on teeter totters, see-sawing back and forth, chasing the elusive balance while actually getting farther and farther from equilibrium.

It may surprise you to know that acupuncture was originally employed primarily to maintain balanced health (i.e. either in a preventive fashion or utilized very early in the course of an illness as opposed to using it to treat advanced illness). The ancients believed that acupuncture worked by restoring normal flow of Qi (vital energy) in the body. It was understood however that this could only be effective if the imbalance in Qi flow was not chronic and severe, and if destructive lifestyle factors were corrected in conjunction with treatment.

Even with a modern interpretation of acupuncture’s mechanisms of action, it is obvious that acupuncture is much less likely to be successful in the treatment of an ailment without correction of precipitating factors or lifestyle habits that contributed to the malady. As an example, acupuncture can be quite effective for tennis elbow pain, but long range success depends on modifying the precipitating activity, along with stretching and strengthening the involved muscle.

So what role can ancient Chinese philosophy play in the world of modern medicine?

Advances in Western medicine over the past 100 years have been nothing short of miraculous, and modern diagnostics, innovative pharmaceuticals, and high tech interventions have saved countless lives. We owe this to the scientific revolution and more specifically to the scientific method of investigation.

But therein lies both the strength and weakness of Western medicine; as it has become increasingly wed to technology, the human aspect of medicine has gotten pushed aside, while our increasing faith in the powers of pharmacotherapy and medical science has taken us (patients and physicians alike) farther and farther away from notions of self-healing and personal responsibility for health.

And so it is that the observational wisdom of the ancient Chinese philosophers can help to bring us “back to our centers”, where we feel grounded and in charge of our own wellbeing.

Eastern and Western medical traditions reside on opposite sides of the same coin and both have relevance and value.

In the end, it’s not about which discipline is best for your health, it’s all about balance folks.


Michael D. Martin, M.D.