How We Look At Health: Eastern & Western Health Perspectives
The way we see health and illness and perceive problems in our body has a great influence on how we approach and treat our own health conditions. This ‘health perspective’ also largely determines how we relate these conditions to our lifestyle and the conscious choices we then make to maintain our body in order to avoid imbalances in the future. The deeper aspects of our culture play a significant role in this view. Our cultural perspectives give rise to some good and some not-so-good aspects in relation to health and healthcare systems. The current Modern healthcare system is largely designed to treat disease and more serious illness, something it does reasonably well, helping sick people to become less sick. On the other hand, it does little for the majority of us who occasionally suffer minor health issues and would like to attain greater levels of health, happiness, productivity and fulfillment and even to learn ways to prevent illness and disease. In our rush to help people and treat disease we generally overlook the fact that we make choices in our daily lives about how to live which has a very important impact on our health and wellbeing. We forget that the real core of Traditional Medicine was supposed to be about prevention, not treatment – which is something that Oriental Medicine understands well. This article is about how to move the focus from a ‘disease-orientated’ approach to a ‘wellness-orientated’ approach.
In the modern Western medical approach we see the body as a machine that has different parts that perform different functions, with the mind largely separated from the body (Cartesian model). This approach has been very useful in the development of pharmacological drugs, complex treatment of advanced diseases and particularly in emergency medicine. Western medicine is ‘disease-orientated’ – it targets a specific disease or symptom, usually by suppressing, attacking or in some way trying to remove the ‘problem’. Most of the latest advances in modern medicine are both high-tech and high-cost.
Chinese medicine, on the other hand, is ‘strategy-orientated’. The traditional Asian understanding of the body-mind is of a self-regulating organism operating as a whole. Symptoms are seen as signs of systemic imbalance in the body and we need to be looking at strategies to re-balance, harmonize or regulate the whole body in order for those symptoms to disappear. Health is about assisting the body to find balance. We do this by providing the best environment for our body to be healthy to recover from or avoid imbalance and disease. This preventative style medicine is about the study of how to find balance, not simply treating the results of imbalance. It is generally low-tech and low-cost.
In an integrated approach to health we use the best of both these two approaches. A general rule of thumb is to use Western medicine for emergency care and illness that demonstrates ‘organic’ damage (i.e. can be seen on a scan, or measured in the urine or blood), while we use the Eastern approach for ‘functional’ disorders with no apparent ‘organic’ cause. We can also use the language and wisdom of Chinese medicine to better understand our general imbalance and then use that information to form a strategy to reach higher levels of wellbeing. This involves personal choices and changes in our life that are aimed at making the lives of normal people happier, healthier, more fulfilled and more productive.
The two most important keys to this approach lie in:
- Regular Life – The importance of living in accordance with the natural rhythms and regular lifestyles using the Chinese clock
- Five Noble Activities – Looking more closely into the activities that are producing and regulating Qi (energy)
Rhythms and Regular Lifestyle
The physicians of ancient China strongly emphasized the importance of a ‘regular life’ and ‘living in accordance with the universe’ for maintaining health and longevity. Change is the only constant in the Daoist belief system, and this change occurs in cycles that are rhythmic and regular. This constant oscillation between positive and negative cycles is common to all living phenomena and summarized by the yin/yang symbol. Regularity forms conditional reflexes in the cerebral cortex which means your body prepares for the daily activities, including: eating and sleeping, bowel movement, etc, to maximize bodily functions.
Beginning with the regular rotation of the earth creating the cycle of day and night; the lunar cycle which creates weeks and months; the inclination of the earth as it rotates around the sun creating the seasonal cycle; the complete rotation of the earth around the sun which makes the yearly cycle; and then finally our life cycle from birth to death. These are microcosmic cycles within macrocosmic cycles. The Daoists believe humans and animals are part of these larger cycles and must live out our lives in accordance with these natural rhythms. Many people appear to have lost touch with these natural cycles, becoming entrapped in unhealthy environments and habits. Reconnecting with the wisdom contained in Daoist philosophy, rooted as it is in the observation of natural cycles, can assist us to improve the efficient working of our body/mind for greater health, happiness, more productive lives and more energy to deal with life’s challenges.
Chinese Clock – Time Biology
Now we understand the basic concept of regularity and how it is related to health, we can recognize the need to establish rhythms to affect the larger cycles. The best way to influence the larger cycle (life cycle) is to start with the smallest cycle – the daily cycle. The Daoists believe that man and nature are one, that we are a reflection of the larger universe and that there is regular movement of Qi and Blood in the human body. Qi is constantly moving in the body and is influenced by the movement of celestial bodies, such as the Sun and the Moon that also influence the tides and the growth and maturation of plants. This forms an essential guide to establish rhythms and regularity in a 24-hour daily cycle to maximize health and longevity.
24-HOUR QI CYCLE:
Traditional Chinese Medicine recognizes that as well as the organs and channels having particular physiological functions, each of your organs also governs a spiritual and emotional resource. Accordingly, as the energy moves into the different channels at appointed times in the day, we have the opportunity to maximize the benefits of each organ and channel system and the consequent benefits for health, both physical and emotional. For example, each morning, when the Qi is in the Metal and Earth element, you have a window of opportunity to start shaping your life. Metal is about embracing the new by letting go of old conditioning. Then as the day moves on into Earth energy at 7am, our focus shifts towards creating strength through nourishment and operating as a balanced individual in the ‘here-and-now’. So, depending on what you do between 5:00 and 9:00am, you can either be passive, or you can take charge and shape the day ahead and your destiny. One of the best ways to do this is to rise with the rising sun, do a body–mind–spirit workout during the Metal element and Large Intestine time (5:00–7:00am) and then have a Qi and Blood building breakfast during the Earth element and Stomach time (7:00-9:00am).
“One who is good at preserving life gets up and goes to bed at a timetable adjusted to different seasons, and maintains a strict regimen in daily life.”
Sun Simiao 581-682 AD
The Five Noble Activities – Breathing, Resting, Eating, Exercise and Thinking
As we move towards a ‘wellness-orientated’ approach to health we need to focus on the self-regulating nature of the body and draw a connection between our levels of Qi, and how that determines the result of everything we do in our daily lives. Balance, health and energy become the core of our happiness and success. We need to examine the activities in our daily life that produce and/or regulate Qi. Preventative Asian health is about realizing the full potential of each one of these activities:
Breathing – The nutrition provided by air through breathing is considered by Daoists even more vital to health and longevity than that provided by food and water through digestion – we can survive for weeks without food, but only minutes without air. Breathing is considered to be the bridge between mind and body. In the Orient, breathing is regarded as a science. China has its Qi Gong and India has Pranayama.
Resting – Sleeping and resting (meditation) is considered the great regulator of the central nervous system. What time to rest; how to rest; what position to lie in; how long to rest for; what time to wake up all contribute to maximizing the benefits of rest.
Eating – Food provides direct nutrition and energy for the body. In Asia, food is a science as well as a communal pleasure. Food is traditionally combined to maximize the digestive function and, when we have some basic knowledge of the actions of food, we can use food to regulate our imbalances.
Exercise – ‘The used door-hinge never rusts’. Likewise, regular movement and exercise is vital for your mind and body to regulate Qi. How much exercise; what type of exercise; when to exercise are all important parts of a healthy daily regime.
Thinking – We can all relate to the how emotions affect energy, and the Daoists believed that emotional and psychological factors are important causes of illness. Cultivating morality, not being greedy, minimizing worry are all related to our Qi. One should aim for a peaceful state of mind that naturally comes from a balanced state.
The focus of this preventative style of thinking is to start taking more responsibility for our own health. Relying on good health insurance is not a productive mindset to live out your true potential. This is about finding time-honoured, low-tech, low-cost positive interventions to higher states of health and wellness. This kind of positive lifestyle is based on routines that include: exercise, meditation, Qi-training, goal setting, healthy diet, and beneficial sexual and work/life practices. In this way the organs will have abundant Qi and function most efficiently and you will feel great physically, spiritually and emotionally. Learn to look more internally, rather than externally, for answers. Focus on what is good for you rather than avoiding what is bad for you!
“Don’t believe me or not believe me, try it for yourself”