By: Peter Geller
Whether you swear by conventional medicine or prefer a more holistic approach to health care, how soon do you typically think of acting on your concerns? The moment you sense something isn’t right? After a few days or weeks of waiting for things to clear up on their own? When you’re suffering so intensely you can barely function or even get out of bed?
Whatever your answer, you probably appreciate that early intervention is preferable to waiting till you reach a breaking point. It’s true that most acute illnesses and imbalances resolve on their own, so sitting on the sidelines for a few days, while refraining from foods and activities that are likely to aggravate your condition, is not usually a bad strategy. (All bets are off, of course, if deferring help for even a few days means waiting until you’re deathly ill.)
But even if you are inclined to act at the first hint of feeling unwell, have you ever thought of intervening before the appearance of any symptoms at all? Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has. Maybe you have as well--by taking Vitamin C or echinacea in the winter to keep yourself from catching cold, by making sure you get enough rest and good nutrition to keep your immune system from falling prey to easy illness, or by wearing an appropriate sunscreen to protect against prolonged exposure to harmful ultraviolet rays.
Any steps taken before illness even begins to manifest, when there may be just slight imbalances that could eventually turn into serious illnesses or chronic conditions if left unchecked, count as preventive medicine. And preventive measures that strive to maintain dynamic balance in all areas of an individual’s life—measures applied in refined and subtle ways that have evolved over centuries of observation and clinical experience—form a cornerstone of traditional medicine.
In TCM, treating illness—obviously necessary when it does arise—is actually considered the lowest form of medical practice. A higher calling for traditional physicians is to keep patients from getting ill in the first place. This idea can be traced to the very origins of Chinese medicine. The Ling Shu (The Spiritual Pivot), a foundational Chinese medical classic dating back more than two millennia, puts it this way: “The superior physician treats that which is not yet ill. The inferior physician treats that which is already ill.”
But the ladder of TCM practice doesn’t end at the second step. On the next rung, TCM endeavors to promote longevity—not as in just hanging on for decades in a failing, perhaps artificially supported body, but as in living a healthy, vibrant, wisdom-filled life. In Chinese tradition, this model would commonly envision many generations of a family thriving together under one roof—though specific longevity practices really fall within the province of Taoist self-cultivation. Disciplines such as t’ai chi and qi gong that cultivate one’s qi (“chee”), the vital force governing health, longevity, and all body functions, originated in the same monastic communities that developed much of the traditional medicine we know today.
Achieving a vital longevity might require the skill of a “superior” physician who knows how to treat “that which is not yet ill,” but it would certainly call for the full participation of the person seeking an extended life span. That would mean first and foremost adhering to a balanced lifestyle—healthy diet with moderate intake, work not carried to excess, sufficient rest and sleep, proper exercise, free flow of all emotions without either denying or getting stuck in them, appropriate sexual activity, and other such considerations. And it would also mean engaging one or more of the the qi-nourishing practices mentioned above.
Now here’s another question. At whatever stage you normally decide to address a health concern, once you make the decision to do so—be it through self-care or by visiting your favorite practitioner—what exactly do you hope the intervention will accomplish? Getting rid of the most egregious symptoms so you can go back to work, curing a defined disease, correcting a persistent imbalance to keep illnesses away, or perhaps affecting some major shift in your health status—a shift that would allow you to enjoy a renewed, or even brand-new, sense of well-being and vitality?
No one would likely prefer symptom elimination over curing the ailment or rebalancing the disharmony that’s generating the symptoms. And if you could really make a life-changing shift in your underlying health and thereby reinvigorate your entire life, what (other than fear of such dramatic change) would keep you from wanting that the most?
In TCM, the very highest form of practice goes beyond longevity and into what has been called nourishing virtue, or nourishing destiny. “Virtue” in this sense does not really refer to any external code of behavior or someone else’s idea of what constitutes good conduct. And “destiny” doesn’t mean a preordained set of events determined before you were born and over which you have no influence. These terms pertain instead to cultivation of one’s highest character, expansion of consciousness, and fulfillment of the life plan determined by one’s inner guidance—by what Chinese medicine calls the heart-spirit (not the same as the heart organ).
What a skilled physician indeed who not only could help patients feel better, get over illnesses, balance their energies to keep sickness ever at bay, or even extend their life spans, but who could also help them realize and cultivate their true purpose for being in this life! Not every traditional physician has such skill, but at least that is the highest aspiration of the medicine.
What a contrast to the system of disease management that characterizes so much of modern medicine today!