Acupuncture, Balance and Harmony
Thursday 21st May 2021
If you asked me what acupuncture can do to help you, and I told you ‘it will restore you to a relative state of balance and harmony in mind, body and soul,’ what would you think? Maybe in your mind, you already live in a state of balance and harmony. Or maybe you thought acupuncture was for easing muscle pain, getting rid of headaches or helping to stop smoking? Or perhaps that ‘balance and harmony’ is a whimsical notion, impossible to obtain without trekking off into the wilderness with a spiritual teacher and a yoga mat. While that sounds lovely, I live and work in the heart of Central London. I’m very aware that ‘balance and harmony’ may seem a utopian destination in a far off place, way beyond the borders of the underground map. Wherever you live, big city, a picturesque hamlet in the Cotswolds or pretty seaside town, life knocks us off balance in so many different ways.
But what does balance even mean? Don’t our ears keep us in balance and stop us from toppling over? I’m sure you can balance your coffee when piling onto a packed commuter train at 8am. Or that you can attempt to balance your to-do list, bank account and the barrage of endless demands and ‘drama’ that life throws your way. The definition of balance (according to Google) is ‘a situation in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions.’ Which is perfect because that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. The elements.
An element is a part of something that makes a whole. Many thousands of years ago, and after many thousands of years of observing the goings-on of nature, the ancient Chinese developed the theory of the Five Elements. The theory of the Five Elements was born out of the understanding of Yin and Yang. A discussion of Yin and Yang is an entirely different conversation altogether, but for now, I’ll explain it like this. Yin and Yang are opposite but are part of the same. The ancient people of China didn’t like to separate and label. They saw everything as being part of everything else. Yin and Yang is a perfect understanding of how everything exists within everything. The distinct symbol of the Yin/Yang emblazoned on t-shirts, posters, tattoos and jewellery from markets around the world is globally recognised as a symbol of balance. It reminds us that whilst we live in a world of opposites, those opposites complement each other and cannot exist without the other. They are interconnected and make the whole picture that we see in the world around us. Dark cannot exist without light. Heat can’t exist without cold. Yin can’t exist without Yang.
So back to the elements. The theory of the five elements came about when observing the natural flow and rhythm of nature. The ancient people looked to the changing of the seasons, and after a very long time observing, they noticed that the balance of the elements in nature had to be just right for them to be able to survive. A long, dry winter would lead to stunted growth in the spring, which ultimately would lead to less food being available during the harvest time. With little food to store away for the winter months, famine and sickness would prevail. The qualities and nature of the seasons were given names and associated elements, according to the patterns they observed. When translated to English they are; Wood for Spring, Fire for Summer, Earth for late summer, Metal for Autumn and Water for Winter.
And so the balance of the seasons had to be, and still even in our world has to be just right. But how does this balance in nature translate to us as human beings?
We are all part of the natural world. We didn’t land on the planet from some distant galaxy aeons ago or all of a sudden appear intent on making the world our own. We’ve evolved over thousands of years alongside the elements of nature. Sadly some people around the world still have to battle the elements to survive. The only thing that’s different now is that we have incredible technology that shields most of us from the extremes. Air conditioning systems, dehumidifiers, central heating, plumbing and the houses that we live in protect us from the storms, rain, heat, humidity and cold of the outside. But these cycles of the elements are happening within us all the time. We have to have the right balance of heat within to keep our bodies regulated and to help the blood flow. The heat from the Fire element literally keeps us alive. Too much heat, even just a tiny bit, can finish us off. We need water to survive otherwise be become dehydrated and eventually die. The air is associated with the Metal element and the lungs, and we know what happens if that is removed. The Metal element and the Large Intestine is also responsible for getting rid of anything that our bodies don’t need. The Earth element is responsible for breaking down and digesting the food that we eat. If we have no reserves of food, then we starve. If we don’t have the right balance of nutrients and water, then we can’t grow. There is an infinite cycle of energy moving around us all the time. Hydrating, growing, warming and nourishing us, and then eliminating the things that our bodies don’t require. If this balance is out of whack, all kinds of symptoms and disease can afflict the body, mind and the spirit.
The energy, or chi, of the elements flows around our bodies through pathways in within us called ‘meridians.’ Twelve ‘superficial’ pathways are associated with the organs within us. These pathways connect each of our organs together, enabling communication at all levels. If these pathways get blocked up, the organ that it is responsible for can’t do its job properly. This will have a knock-on effect on all the other channels within us. Each of these organs has an associated element, which gives is the characteristics of its function within us.
In ancient times, this system was viewed as a small kingdom inside of, with each of the organs taking on a role not dissimilar to a central government. We’ve all seen what happens when governments don’t communicate. The Heart is seen as the ‘Supreme Controller,’ and is responsible for keeping everyone else in line and dishing out the orders. The Stomach was seen as the minister responsible for rotting and ripening the food and drink we consume, ready for the Spleen to transport what we need to every other part, and send the rest away to be sorted into waste. This scenario is better explained in our current world as being like an office with twelve workers. If one of those workers get sick or doesn’t have the energy to perform, it’s up to the rest of them to pick up the slack. But before long a couple more will get exhausted. One by one they will grow tired and frustrated, and eventually, the entire output of the team will reduce, and business will suffer. If we think about this team as the functions within the human body, this scenario would result in sickness and disease. It can take a while before the alarm bells or symptoms appear, as the team will do its best to cover for its sick colleague. Pretty soon cracks will show, and problems will arise. In the body, this could mean any sort of pain or symptom like headaches, IBS, anxiety, muscles aches and cramps, insomnia, panic attacks and so on. You’re a human being, so you must be familiar with these distress signals. In fact ultimately if the whole team end up giving up, the result could be fatal. So if the balance of the entire system is compromised, symptoms will arise and sickness will result.
Fortunately, these twelve meridians that connect the main organs within us, run at a superficial level across the body. Superficial means close to the skin, and accessible with intervention. In acupuncture, this intervention is normally with a needle. There are hundreds of specific points along these channels that can be accessed to unblock those channels and to get the energy moving and communications flowing. This intervention will help to restore balance to the whole system. When the energy is flowing as it should, the organs can do their work as they should, and symptoms can often lessen or disappear.
As mentioned before, the ancient Chinese didn’t see our physical bodies as being separate from our minds and our spirit. So, for instance, the meridian responsible for the duties of the stomach isn’t just responsible for breaking down the physical food we eat. It is also responsible for breaking down the information that comes in from the outside world, so our minds can process it and move on to the next nugget of information. It is also responsible for digesting the emotions we receive from others, so we can respond appropriately, and the spirit can feel at ease.
When our body, mind and spirit and communication as one, we could say that they are communicating in harmony with one another. Google defines harmony as ‘the quality of forming a pleasing and consistent whole.’ When we treat these aspects of us as separate, we feel unsettled, anxious and all kinds of problems can surface as different symptoms. When they are together and as one, or all present in the moment, then overall health and wellbeing can be enjoyed across all levels.
So my job as an acupuncturist is firstly to identify which of the elements needs to be supported. Then by accessing the superficial channel with tiny needles, I can unblock and move the stuck energy that is doing us no good. This movement of energy affects us at all levels in the mind, body and spirit. As a result, the energy is a little more balanced, so the parts can work together and they should. Once this is energy is better balanced, the mind, body and spirit can sit together in harmony, in-separate from each other.