Image by Szilárd Szabó
Have you ever had the experience of visiting your doctor because you didn't feel well only to be told there was nothing wrong with you or that you were "perfectly healthy"? Perhaps you were given this information after a battery of tests or after a routine physical exam. In either case, you left the office still wondering why you didn't feel well. Was it all in your head?
"If I am so fine," you asked yourself, "why do I feel so bad?" Perhaps you were told that the doctor wanted to keep an eye on things and that you should return for another office visit in a few months. "Keeping an eye on things" meant your doctor wanted to make sure you had not gone from "healthy" to "unhealthy," in an effort to ensure that any disease was identified and treated at its earliest detectable stage.
It's Not Just You!
This kind of experience is quite common, because our Western medical model is not equipped to deal with the disease process prior to the diagnosis of an identifiable disease. That is because the Western model IS a disease model: physicians treat disease.
When you know "something is wrong" and no disease is obvious, you can be left with a feeling of bewilderment. What can you do? What are the options?
Whatever is causing you to feel bad, to feel out of balance, is reflected by your body in ways you can learn to observe. Each kind of imbalance you experience has certain characteristics. You may, for example, have imbalances that can be characterized by the idea of coldness -- cold feet and hands, always feeling cold even in a warm room, feeling emotionally cold, etc. Or you may experience the opposite characteristic, too much heat. This can manifest as rashes, infections, fevers, even hot flashes, irritability and anger. It is possible to have both excess cold and excess heat -- you can alternate between cold chills and a fever, or have cold hands and feet but also have a hot heartburn from an overly acid stomach.
For you to be able to understand the nature of your imbalances, two things need to happen. You have to develop a conceptual way of looking at yourself, and then you have to know what to look for.
What we see is determined not only by where we look, but also by the questions we ask. Legend has it that the local residents who lived on the tip of South America had a truly unique experience. These "natives" literally could not see the ships of the early explorers approaching. They had no concept that a ship even existed. Not until the explorers got out of the ship and onto the land were they seen.
Some of the concepts we describe may feel as unfamiliar to you as the ships were to the "natives." However, once you "see" them you can immediately apply them to understanding what's happening in your own body.
What Is Happening?
Using concepts from Eastern medicine, primarily Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, there are five interrelated ideas that can help you understand what is happening in your body prior to the onset of disease:
- The concept of qualities: how certain qualities such as hot and cold, dry and wet, and light and heavy impact your health.
- The relationship between qualities and balance: imbalances can be created by "too much" or "too little" of any quality. For example, "too much" heat can lead to inflammation.
- The interaction of matter and energy: the transformation of matter into energy and vice versa is constantly occurring in every human being. Food, for example, is a form of matter we ingest to create energy. Exercise converts more matter into energy. Lack of exercise can lead to weight gain.
- The nature of body type or constitution: each person is a unique expression of body type, mind and consciousness. This uniqueness is expressed at the physical, emotional/mental and spiritual levels, together referred to as one's constitution.
- How constitution is affected by qualities: "too much" or "too little" of any quality affects all levels of our basic constitution. Too much heat, for example, can make one physically hot, mentally and emotionally agitated, and spiritually exhausted.
Western medicine focuses on the physical, what we call matter. Eastern medicine, in contrast, focuses on life force energy and how that energy is used in ways that either foster or prevent illness. "Life force energy" is energy that sustains all life, and without which life does not exist. It consists of many types of energies, which taken together we call the "life force." The interaction of this subtle life force energy and matter creates patterns of health and illness, and these patterns are reflected by our bodies in specific markings.
The Shift in Paradigm
For us Westerners, this approach may be new and radical, not to mention fun and exciting. In the East, however, it is ancient wisdom. These concepts have been used in India for thousands of years and in China and Japan for almost that long.
This moment in the history of medicine is exciting. We believe that healthcare is at the cusp of a new era and is in the midst of a paradigm shift to new ways of viewing health as a reflection of the relationship of all parts of an individual -- our bodies, emotions, intellect, energy and spirit. The new paradigm has not completely emerged, but we submit that the shift will incorporate the best that medicine from both the West and East have to offer. And it will enable a person to assume some personal responsibility for managing his/her own health in order to create and maintain a healthier lifestyle.
Here in the West, healthcare is largely based on technology and the body is viewed in a mechanistic way. Disease is usually assumed to be the result of some sort of outside interference, which ranges all the way from "catching the latest bug" to identifying bacteria, viruses,and microorganisms that are linked to specific conditions. While we are aware of unique individual differences, our Western system of medicine cannot anticipate or explain those differences.
In Eastern medicine the sources of health and illness are rooted in how we perceive and experience life -- the way we live, including the way we think, feel, act and eat -- the way we use our life force. These individual differences are viewed in relationship to individual constitution and to the concept of balance. While we recognize that external pathogens can make us ill, the emphasis is on examining the way an individual responds to the external, including invasion by external pathogens that cause all kinds of infections and illnesses. Two people may be exposed to the same disease. One remains well while the other becomes sick. Why is this the case? Many say that one has a stronger immune system than the other. However, Eastern medicine, particularly Ayurveda, goes beyond that to explain why one person is stronger and the other is weaker.
That our physical markings reflect the condition of our health may seem a bit radical to some. However, we apply this approach when we look for clues about the condition of a building. There are markings on a building that reveal it needs repair: i.e., peeling paint, wet carpeting, buckled flooring, dampness around plumbing fixtures, drips and leaks. All these are symptoms that there is too much of one quality -- wetness. If the owner pays attention, finds the source of the wetness and cuts off the source, in addition to making needed repairs caused by damage from wetness, the building will remain in good condition. Different markings on a building could suggest just the opposite set of problems -- dry rot, cracked dry walls, blistered siding. All these markings relate to another quality -- dryness. Problems in any building can result from too much wetness or too much dryness. Both are relative terms. It is hard to pin down an exact meaning for "too much." However, when you see a building that is in disrepair, it does not take a giant leap of imagination to realize that significant underlying causes are present.
We can see this same principle applying to the flow of electricity. When there is an excessive amount of electricity flowing to a given piece of equipment, the equipment can become overheated, short-out, or even catch fire. If, on the other hand, there is too little flow of electricity, lights can brown-out and equipment cannot operate correctly. The same processes occur with the flow of life force energy in our bodies.
Qualities and Cause and Effect
Most of the time we make lifestyle choices about what we do, think or eat without any particular awareness of the effect those choices have on our health. All of our reactions have certain qualities. Let us look again at the qualities of hot and cold. If we feel too hot, we instinctively look for ways to cool ourselves. When too cold, we look for something to warm us. If we are cool and we want to be colder, we look for something with cooler attributes, perhaps replacing a fan with an air conditioner. In general, we search for like qualities to increase a certain state, in this case to increase coldness. We look for opposite qualities to decrease that state, as in replacing coldness with its opposite, warmth. At any moment we can ask ourselves how we are feeling, cold or warm, and make adjustments to maintain comfort. In this way, we can look at every experience as encompassing associated attributes. Cold is associated with constriction, condensation, tension, tightness, heaviness, slowness. Warmth creates expansion, dryness, relaxation.
In Eastern medicine, an excessive amount of any quality is identified as a cause of imbalance, and prolonged imbalances lead to onset of the disease process. Traditionally, certain qualities have been examined for their impact on a person's health. These qualities are listed below. There may well be other qualities that you find helpful. Traditional qualities that have been used for thousands of years are presented as pairs of opposites:
These qualities are present around you, and you experience them all the time, at every level of your being -- body, mind and consciousness. Any action, thought or event that increases or decreases a given quality has an effect on you. If you eat a large Thanksgiving meal of heavy foods, you will feel heavy, dull and static. You will probably want to take a nap rather than to exercise. If you eat many heavy meals, you will become heavier, perhaps even obese. To lose weight, you will eat foods of the opposite quality, which are light, dry foods. Similarly, any form of agitation will increase feelings of being agitated. Agitation involves the quality of mobility and can come from many sources -- your mind running in circles, emotional upsets, too much travel, constant physical movement, bodily restlessness, too much light and gas producing food (such as beans), even too much wind (start checking out whether you are more restless on windy days). To lessen feelings of agitation, of what we would call excessive mobility, you can review what in your life is increasing mobility and begin making changes to bring about the opposite effect. For example, you might learn to control your mind through relaxation techniques, change your form of exercise to a more calming type, eat heavier, non-gaseous producing foods, stay out of excessive wind, etc.
When you start viewing what happens to your body, mind or consciousness from the perspectives of qualities, you begin to have a handle on what you need to do to bring that quality under control, to bring it into balance. You begin tuning into your natural biorhythms and learn to do this moment-to-moment, daily, or seasonally. When you begin to remove the cause, you begin to remove its effects.
Copyright 2001. Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Blue Dolphin Publishing. www.bluedolphinpublishing.com
My Doctor Says I'm Fine? So Why Do I Feel So Bad?,
by Margaret Smith Peet, ND and Shoshana Zimmerman, ND.
My Doctor Says I'm Fine ... So Why Do I Feel So Bad is about the processes that create imbalances in our bodies and how to identify them between the time of true health and the onset of disease. Five interrelated concepts from Eastern medicine describe these processes. How constitution is affected by qualities: "too much" or "too little" of any quality affects all levels of our basic constitution.
About the Authors
Margaret Smith Peet, ND, (right) is a naturopathic doctor with a specialty in Ayurveda. She was a full-time student of Dr. Vasant Lad at the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque. In addition, Dr. Peet has studied extensively in the areas of T'ai Chi, Chinese Herbal Medicine, and Shiatsu. Dr. Peet lives in Maine.
Shoshana Zimmerman, ND, (left) is a naturopathic doctor with a specialty in Ayurveda. After early years in the Peace Corps and in the business world, she turned to Ayurveda as her main career focus. Dr. Zimmerman spent a number of years studying with Dr. Vasant Lad at the Ayurveda Institute in Albuquerque. She maintains a private practice in California.