Eastern Medicine: An Embodied Animist Model of Health
In Ayurveda, one of the most ancient healing systems in the world, dated at approximately 6th century BC, illnesses are considered to be psycho-somatic in nature. Key to this Indian belief system is the idea that lifestyle influences the mind and triggers positive or negative reaction in the body. Similarly, ancient Chinese traditional medicine, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhist Tibetan medicine all share the principle of the need of keeping in balance with the constant change inherent to the natural world:
“ The Taoist world-view is rooted in a close observation of the patterns of change that exist within the natural world. The Taoist practitioner notices how these patterns manifest as both our internal and external terrains: as our human body, as well as mountains and rivers and forests. Taoist practice is based on coming into harmonious alignment with these elemental patterns of change.” (Reninger, 2013)[i].
In Eastern though, the individual is a universe within a universe. The microcosm and macrocosm are all related and continuously influence each other. There is an energy that binds life on earth and health exists when that energy is in balance within us and in our relationship with the outside, the environment. Our bodies are like nature, they are not considered to be solid, impenetrable forms. Given that at a molecular level we are comprised mostly of water, the body is fluid. And given that at the atomic level it is 99.99% space, it is also empty: “ a vast (and infinitely intelligent) emptiness.” (Reninger, 2013)[ii].
Asian and aboriginal cultures alike, not only acknowledge spatial embodied knowledge, they consider it key to life. Instead of refusing the external world as a disease, as did our western doctors, sensing space is considered essential to health. From this optic, sensory sensitivity is a gift since cultivating sensitivity to Qi (chi), the “life Force” energy, is necessary to be better attuned to the universe. The more capable of tapping into the subtle Qi energies, the better in sync with the universe one becomes.
Qi is an ancient concept. Approximately 8000 years ago, the Chinese developed a model of life based on two major forces in the universe – creation and reception – and how their interaction forms life. This duality was named yin-yang and is the foundation of Chinese Medicine (Suvow, 2013)[iii]. Yin and Yang are opposite aspects of the material world but they are interdependent, and the existence of one end of the spectrum presupposes the existence of the other aspect, like night and day. The idea of Yin and Yang describes the fundamental fluctuating balance of nature. Creation and reception are intertwined. Creation being the energy we create and reception dealing with the energy we receive from the environment (Suvow, 2013)[iv].
The friction between these yin-yang aspects of the world creates “Qi”. Qi is the life-force energy, the breath of life that animates all living things. In other traditions it is called prana (Tibet), ki (Japan) or shakti(India). Qi can be understood as the quantum fields our physicists refer to. According to Taoism:
”qi is the vibratory nature of phenomena — the flow and tremoring that is happening continuously at molecular, atomic and sub-atomic levels. In China, the understanding of qi is inherent in the very language. For instance: The literal translation of the Chinese character meaning “health” is “original qi.” The literal translation of the character for “vitality” is “high quality qi.” The literal translation of the character meaning “friendly” is “peaceful qi.”” (Reninger, 2013)[v]
Qi exists in the body as well as everywhere in the environment, natural or man-made. Different kinds of Qi exist:
“Within the human body there is the qi that we’re born with, called Yuan qi, or ancestral qi. The qi that we absorb during our lives from food, water, air and qigong practice is called Hou tain qi or post-natal qi. The qi that flows at the surface of the body, as a protective sheathe, is called Wei qi or protective qi. Each internal organ also has its own qi/life-force, e.g. Spleen-qi, Lung-qi, Kidney-qi.”(Reninger, 2013)[vi]
The fundamental insight of Tibetan medicine, Ayurveda, and Chinese Medicine is that balanced and free-flowing qi results in health; while stagnant or imbalanced qi leads to disease. It is considered possible to tuned in the body via the breathing and movement practices of qigong and Inner Alchemy (nutrition and other activities that change the body’s chemistry) we can:
“cultivate the capacity to perceive at all of these different levels – to feel ourselves and our world as fluid, and as spacious; as well as being filled with apparently-solid forms. As we become more adept in this way, we become aware, directly, of the vibratory nature of all-that-is. Not only do we experience our bodies as being comprised of patterns and flows of qi, but also come to understand that “emotions” and “thoughts” are also forms of energy. These insights give rise then to the potential for newly-powerful and deliciously-creative action within this tremoring world.”(Reninger, 2013)[vii]
Central to many Asian practices is breathing. Through breathing we can access our Qi and alter its qualities. Could heightened sensory processing be the mode of knowing and perceiving these different levels of Qi? Could sensory processing be balanced through breath?
Qi seems to be the medium of spatial embedded knowledge and Asian cultures developed ways to work with the body to enhance its sensory abilities. Qigong and inner alchemy are forms of energy balancing. Qigong is a type of exercise that helps us sense and move the energy within ourselves while Inner Alchemy is dealing with our chemical nature and within which different internal energies are cultivated for the purpose of improving physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health.
The Environment, The Body and Health
As we saw in earlier chapters, for a highly sensitive person, the self starts from sensing the outside not necessarily from within the body. As we saw in chapter 3, sensory processing integration is related to how we interpret signals from space and the environment. The “natural’ or physical environment is important to consider because it’s qualities change the characteristics of our sensory inputs. It provides us with the sensorial nutrients we need to exist on a chemical, emotional, physical, social and spiritual plane. These planes are the basis on which the mind and body move us towards health. Food, air, water, nature and energy are all external forces that help us exist and interact with our senses. These idea are essential to Asian health traditions.
In Tibetan medicine and Ayurveda, a person is seen as a unique individual made up of five primary elements. These elements are ether (space), air, fire, water and earth. Just as in nature, we too have these five elements in us. When any of these elements are imbalanced in the environment, they will in turn have an influence on us. The foods we eat and the weather are just two examples of the influence of these elements.
Tibetan medicine is a believe system that considers that everything in the universe (both animate and inanimate) are composed of five elements (earth, water, fire, air and space). The elements influence the quality of growth and supplement life:
“At a functional level, the earth element act as a foundation for the rest of the body while facilitating the nature of hard and solid to flesh and bone, and sense of smell (olfactory sense); water element helps in binding and forming fluid (blood, serum, etc.) and facilitating sense of taste (gustatory sense); fire element helps in generating heat, maturing organs, providing complexion and radiance and facilitating visual sense; air element generates breathing, skin and sense of touch (tactile sense); and space element provide a condition for the body to grow, orifice through which the life sustaining essence can flow and facilitates aural sense.” (Gyal, 2006, p. 30)[viii]
The combination of the five elements gives birth to three different types of energies, which form the body. The “long” maintains the function of movement (both physical and mental), “Tripa” maintains heat of the body (controls digestion and metabolism heat) and facilitates emotions of courage and determination. “Badkan” maintains the structure of the body, facilitates stability of mind and patience and is responsible for the lymphatic function. (gyal, 2006, p.31)[ix]
An individual’s nature is a mixture of the five elements and the three energies, which can be combined in 7 different natures. Each of these natures has a specific physical structure, perception and way of thinking which creates the personality. This could suggest that highly sensitive children are a particular combination of these energies, a combination that make them more sensitive to subtlety.
The three energies maintain physical and mental health as long as they are balanced. Imbalances, in the form of decrease, increase or disturbance of the elements due to improper diet, behaviors, seasonal changes or external influences lead to physical or mental disorder and begin to harm the body both physically and mentally.
Given these other approaches to health, it seems logical that the separation from the natural environment as well as between the mind and body, that modern western medicine and culture have created, could be at the source of the problems many highly sensitive children face. Given that their sensory system is much more sensitive than most and as such they get overwhelmed by lesser amounts of toxicity, the imbalances in the environment created by our culture are dangerous to their physical and mental health. But other elements affect our health, food being a very important one.
In the East, relationship to food is also directly related to the environment. According to Tibetan Medicine, the consumption of food and drinks sustains life, which in itself is the basic foundation of Sousa-Rigpa or healing (Men-Tsee-Khang, 2009)[x]. Some foods and drinks are important to maintain and protect health and the body. But certain foods and drinks can cause physical and mental disorders due to its reaction against particular space, time and an individual’s elemental nature. To discover the positive and negative effects of foods and drinks, our ancestors would continuously investigate and experiment with their diet. They invented their own specific dietary habit based on their experience of surviving in a particular region (Gyal, 2006, p.20)[xi] They would identify which foods and drinks maintain health, treat an imbalance or act as a precaution against disease.
These health models are very useful as they acknowledge the complexity of health and are much more suited to understand highly sensitive people health than the western systems of thought. These belief systems understood long ago that the environment influences what goes on inside the body and how we are behaving in the world. Our environment is composed of many things: the “natural” or physical environment, the air we breathe, our dwellings, our food, etc. But the environment also includes our social life, the people we interact with and the quality of these interactions.
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[viii] Gyal, Y., & Namdul, T (2006). Tibetan Medical Dietary Book: Vol. – I, Potency & Preparation of Vegetables. Dharamsala, India: Men-Tsee-Khang.
[ix] Gyal, Y., & Namdul, T (2006). Tibetan Medical Dietary Book: Vol. – I, Potency & Preparation of Vegetables. Dharamsala, India: Men-Tsee-Khang.
[x] Men-Tsee-Khang. (2009). Fundamentals of Tibetan medicine, 4th Revised Edition. New Delhi, India: Men-Tsee-Khang.
[xi] Gyal, Y., & Namdul, T (2006). Tibetan Medical Dietary Book: Vol. – I, Potency & Preparation of Vegetables. Dharamsala, India: Men-Tsee-Khang.