Not Guilty!

In Traditional Chinese Medicine disturbances in our emotional life are considered to be a major cause of illness. If healthy emotions are ones which are appropriate to the situation we are in, an unhealthy response is one that is not so appropriate, either excessive, inadequate, or just not fitting. Such responses if they are ongoing or habitual lead to illness.

So, for example, there are situations where it is healthy and appropriate to be angry, but if our anger is out of all proportion to the situation, or we are always angry and always on the edge of losing our temper, then not only will this be distressing to those around us, and to ourself, but also it will over time make us ill.

Traditionally, emotions which can cause problems by becoming excessive or ingrained are anger, sadness and grief, fear, excitement and pensiveness. But what about something like guilt? Guilt plays a significant role in the lives of many people, but is not mentioned in traditional lists.

What, anyway, is guilt, and how might it be a factor in our health? We might suspect that in the modern world there is some confusion about this, as ideas about what is right and wrong have changed considerably in a relatively short space of time. Guilt is a feeling we have when we have done something wrong, or rather when we have done something that we consider to be wrong. Of course, this may equally apply to something that we have not done but feel we ought to have done. Perhaps we feel remorseful, that we have let ourselves and others down. But on the other hand, it is noticeable that quite a few people seem to feel guilty when they do not seem to have done anything to be guilty about.

Some people, for instance, feel guilty if they have a rest. They feel that they ought to be doing something, almost as if they can only justify their very existence by being useful. They may drive themselves into the ground, always working and busy and useful, to the detriment of their overall health, simply because they would feel guilty if they stopped. Of course this can be a convenient failing for others – family members, co-workers or bosses – who may come to rely on the guilty person’s addiction to work and usefulness.

It is important for such a person to realise that they are being driven by this irrational guilt; it is important to acknowledge that it is not healthy, not a good thing. This might be difficult, because  it may look, both to the individual themselves and to others (especially ones with a vested interest), as if they are making a valuable contribution by being so busy.

Such a person may in fact need to learn to waste time, as shocking as that may sound! They need to learn that they do not need to justify themselves by being busy, and they may also need to learn to say ‘no’, sometimes, to family members, co-workers and bosses.

Acupuncture treatment is a good first step for such a person, if for no other reason than it involves them spending an hour or so of their time not being busy (and 20 minutes or more of that time lying down to boot!). But beyond that,  acupuncture can work at a deeper level of the psyche, helping  them  perhaps to  realise that they do not have to justify themselves by work and busy-ness, and that they need not feel guilty if, from time to time, they have periods of uselessness!

Don’t Be One Of The Worried Well

The worried well are, apparently, on the rise. In some ways this is not surprising given the frequency of headlines highlighting the way in which all sort of things can be bad for you. As I began writing this I had a quick look at the Daily Mail online health section, and had no trouble finding out that white wine drives some women crazy (not in a good way), and that rice cakes and red meat are bad for your skin. So if you do have a tendency to worry about your health, you can find plenty of things to worry about.

However, it is important to take such headlines with a pinch of salt (or it would be, except too much salt can raise your blood pressure.) A useful antidote might be the work of John P.A. Ioannidis, a professor of health research and policy at Stanford School of Medicine in the USA, who in 2005 published a paper refreshingly, entitled ‘Why Most Published Research Findings Are False’. The moral of which is, one bit of research does not prove anything; it needs to be backed up by subsequent studies (and often it isn’t.) Given also that journalists will almost inevitably simplify any research they come across in the interests of catchy headlines, so that a research paper which concludes that, say, eating too many pickled onions may be associated with an increased risk of dementia may lead to a headline ‘onions cause dementia’, we would do well to remain healthily sceptical. (Don’t worry onion eaters, I made this one up.)

But if we can’t rely on such headlines, or, if Professor Ioannidis is right, on most published research findings, what can we rely on? Can we rely on how we feel? What about the silent killer, high blood pressure? The received wisdom is that your blood pressure may be high, and you may not know it. Similarly, you may feel fine, but your cholesterol might be up. You might even be pre-diabetic. Any number of things may be going wrong inside you, and you don’t know it! Personally I’m slightly sceptical about that; I think it depends on how self-aware you are. I think someone who is deeply in tune with themselves, someone who cultivates awareness, would have a sense that something was not quite right.

Health, anyway, is more than the absence of disease. It is more than a few numbers – blood pressure, cholesterol, body-mass index etc – being in the normal range. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) we say that a healthy person is one with abundant Qi which is flowing freely, and whose spirit is bright (something you can see in their eyes). Such a person does not, for instance, catch colds very often, and when they do they recover quickly. They have a good level of energy for their time of life. They sleep well. They are supple and lithe. Also, they have a good understanding of their constitution and know how to get the best of the cards they were dealt at birth. They feel healthy. They look healthy.

Furthermore, healthy people do not worry – the term ‘worried well’ is really a contradiction in terms. Health includes emotions, and in TCM our emotional health is a major component of our overall health. And worrying is unhealthy. Well, its not unhealthy to worry if a hungry looking tiger has her eye on you, or if your car has broken down on the level crossing. But it is unhealthy to worry habitually, including worrying habitually about your health. Several ancient wisdom traditions, both eastern and western, recommend the following antidote to worry: if there is something you can do about the problem you are worrying about, then you need to stop worrying and get on and do whatever it is you can do (or at least make a firm decision that you are going to do it). If on the other hand there is nothing you can do about the problem, then worrying is not going to make any difference, so you may as well not worry.

Can you apply that to worrying about your health? I think you can. There are certainly things that you can do to improve and maintain your health, although the difficulty is that there are an almost infinite number of them. So maybe you need to make a finite list of things you are going to do. It might, for a hypothetical individual, look something like this:

• Go for a run three times a week
• Don’t buy chocolate bars
• Have a regular acupuncture treatment
• Go for a walk in the countryside once a fortnight
• Have breakfast every day
• Have an ‘MOT’ with the GP once a year
• Don’t get drunk more than once a month
• Eat home cooked meals five days a week
• Go to a Tai Chi class every week

The trouble is that the fact there are more things you could do may give an opportunity to your internal worrier to take over – “maybe I should go for a run five times a week, not just three?” Or, “maybe running is bad for my knees and I should give it up?” “Maybe homeopathy is better than acupuncture?” “Maybe I should give up pickled onions?” I think you should ignore such a voice. Establish a lifestyle that you think is viable and will promote your health; it won’t be perfect, but nothing much ever is. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be reasonably healthy and realistic. Then kick worry into touch.

That all might be easier said than done. Most of us need help in maintaining our health, and some of us need help in dealing with a tendency to worry, whether about our health or anything else. At The Sean Barkes Clinic we are well placed not only to use treatments such as acupuncture and Tuina massage to promote your health, but also to use the time honoured understanding of health which is TCM to help you lead a healthy life – to help you become one of the unworried well!

When Does Dedication Become Obsession?

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, health is seen very much in terms of harmony and balance. So it should be clear that obsession, which is virtually by definition a state of imbalance, is an unhealthy place to be. Obsessional behaviour is of course quite common; the term ‘OCD’ has entered the language, and many people will describe themselves as having some obsessional traits, ranging from mild idiosyncrasies to full blown mental health problems.

But is obsession always bad? Is balance always such a good thing? Suppose you want to achieve, and not in a mediocre kind of way; perhaps you want to be an elite athlete, even an Olympic champion. Perhaps you want to be a millionaire. Maybe you want to find the cure for cancer. It’s clear that you will need to be one-pointed. Dedicated. Even, maybe, obsessed?  There might be a fine line between a healthy dedication and an unhealthy obsession, and it is not clear where that line should lie. Could one man’s dedication be another’s obsession? If you want to achieve big things, you will have to make sacrifices, but how far should you go?

For example, think of Lance Armstrong, who seemed the very image of the dedicated champion, even overcoming what looked like a fatal cancer, until it turned out that his thirst for success and glory had led him to deceive everyone. Had his dedication gone too far? Had he become obsessed with winning at all costs? If we are aiming high, how do we avoid such a mistake?

If we do find ourselves becoming a little obsessive about our goals, one question we need to ask is, are our goals big enough, are they worth dedicating ourselves to? Perhaps dedication becomes obsession when the goal we aim for is not worth the sacrifices we make along the way. If you were to dedicate your life to collecting Mars bar wrappers, for instance, giving up all your spare time to hunt through rubbish bins, this would be an obsession.

But what actually is worth dedicating ourselves to? I’ve just come out of a supermarket which seems to like to project an image of its workforce as living only to provide happy smiling excellent customer service (although the reality seems more often that the staff devote themselves to ignoring the fact that they are blocking your access to the groceries you want!) I imagine when they advertise vacancies they say they are looking for people with a passion for customer service. Does anyone really have such a passion? You could dedicate yourself to being such an employee, but when it came time to retire, or even be made redundant, what would you have to show for it all?

Perhaps more ambitiously you might devote yourself to a career, maybe in big business. You may need to demonstrate a commitment to succeed bordering on obsession, which your bosses and peers might be glad to describe as dedication. You might have to make a lot of sacrifices along the way – your relationships might suffer, as might your health. But it will be all worthwhile when you finally make it, won’t it? Or will it?

In the past people would often devote themselves to religion, perhaps becoming a monk or a nun and thus sacrificing family life, sex, possessions, even individual autonomy. Nowadays their fervour might seem more like fanatical obsession, reminiscent of the kind of thing that leads turns people into suicide bombers. In today’s world it sometimes seems that sport has taken the place of religion for many people. Some people dedicate themselves to being a fan. They might spend all their spare cash supporting a soccer team, buying replica shirts, following their team everywhere, being absolutely distraught if they lose and ecstatic if they win.  Some fans even have had their ashes scattered on the pitch of their favourite club after their demise. Is this dedication or obsession?

And what about the sporting men and women themselves? If they want to be the best, they will certainly need a prodigious degree of dedication, but as the case of Lance Armstrong illustrates, this can turn into something less than healthy. This also appears to be the case with Oscar Pistorius, someone who overcame tremendous difficulties in his pursuit of athletic excellence, but if some of the stories circulating around his trial are to be believed, turning him into a bad tempered obsessive.

Even setting aside such fallen heroes, we might (rather heretically?) ask what is so good about a gold medal, or winning the premier league? How much are such things worth, really? How much is it worth sacrificing for them? How much dedication/obsession is justified in their pursuit? If you are a top-level sportsman or sportswoman you are probably surrounded by people, maybe including thousands of adoring fans, who would not even dream of asking such a question.  But as the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates is said to have pointed out, the unexamined life is not worth living.

Perhaps one aspect of the answer to these questions is indeed related to our health – in the broadest sense. We can ask ourselves if in the pursuit of our goals we are becoming healthier and, even, happier and more fulfilled. In Traditional Chinese Medicine we have the idea of a person’s destiny; this is not fate, but more like an innate potential. In a way our destiny is who we really are, so that as we gradually fulfil our destiny, we become more and more ourselves. This is a deeply satisfying experience, a humanising experience.

But what is our destiny? As with most things in life, we find out as we go along (or not!) I knew someone who in his youth wanted to be a fighter pilot, but who realised as he got older that  what he really wanted was freedom – which for him was symbolised by a fast jet racing across the sky. So as we move through life we need to be open to our goals changing, or rather be open to finding out that what we thought we wanted is not what we really want. If my friend has clung doggedly to his ambition to be a fighter pilot, maybe he would have become one, but maybe also he would have been secretly disappointed and grumpy. (But then again, for someone else, zooming across the heavens at twice the speed of sound might be part of the journey they need to make.)

From this point of view, dedicating ourselves to a goal which is (at least for the time being) congruent with our destiny will indeed lead us to a more fulfilling life. If on the other hand we find ourselves becoming grumpy, angry, miserable, difficult to live with and ill, it may be that we have become fixated on achieving something which it is not really in our interest to achieve. In such a case we need to take a deep breath and see if we can let go of that goal and follow the advice of the Sufi poet Rumi:

“Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.”

This brings us back to the idea of balance. Balance is not mediocrity; it is not a static thing. We don’t achieve it by sitting on our hands and doing nothing.  If our goals are such that striving for them indeed helps us to gradually realise our destiny, then as we struggle towards them we become more balanced, not less. We draw on energy we did not know we had, which would never have been called forth if we had not aimed high. Of course this is not plain sailing and we will indeed have days when we feel anything but harmonious, but the overall trajectory of our life is in the direction of fulfilment and equilibrium. Far from being obsessed with something which is really of little significance (like winning the premier league or becoming a millionaire!), we dedicate ourselves to something worthy of us and our destiny.

Of course we cannot do all this in splendid isolation; we need help and support. At The Sean Barkes Clinic, this is what we do; using the tools of Traditional Chinese Medicine, we help people achieve the dynamic balance that comes with fulfilling their destiny by optimising our patients’ state of health. For further details, follow this link

Athlete’s Are Not All Just Wheels and Chassis: Mastering the Ability to Heal

Injury is part of an athlete’s life; it can be a minor inconvenience, an ongoing niggle or, sometimes, a devastating blow. Injuries can be frustrating, a test of patience; athletes often do not cope very well with a period of enforced inactivity. An injury which prevents you from participating in your chosen sport for several months can even lead to depression.

So, how you respond to injury, especially serious or long term injury, is, or should be, part of what it means to be an athlete – whether professional, amateur or weekend. Consider for a moment how you might respond if someone you are close to starts to complain about your relationship with them. If you are wise you will listen to what they have to say and consider it carefully, even if your first instinct is that they are wrong. You may not agree with what they are saying, but you can’t afford to ignore them – something is up. Ignoring them, or “papering over the cracks”, is the worst thing you can do.

It’s the same thing with your relationship with your body – it is not a coincidence that the word ‘complaint’ can mean either a spoken objection or a medical problem. If you sustain an injury, it means your body is complaining and, especially if the injury is long term or recurrent, or if it is the latest in a series of apparently unrelated injuries (commonly but erroneously considered to be ‘bad luck’) you need to stop and listen. As an athlete, in fact, you need to learn to be sensitive to your body and what it is telling you, not just when you have an injury, but before you get that injury. We must learn how to know and trust our body’s healing process.

We  can take this healing process for granted, but if you stop to think about it, we have a really rather incredible ability to repair ourselves. It might be instructive to compare yourself with your car, if you have one. (An interesting question to ask may be how much do you spend on keeping your car working, versus how much you spend on keeping yourself working.)  If your car is damaged, you can’t just leave it in the garage for a few days and expect it to be mended. Sometimes it might need a bit of help from a clinician, but your body can often heal itself pretty well; if it couldn’t, our species would not have survived, medicine of any kind being a rather late human invention. What a good clinician does is to support the natural healing process where it needs it. The father of the poet W. H Auden, a doctor and professor of public health, put it well: “healing… is the intuitive art of wooing nature.”

From this point of view, the easy availability of some painkillers is a mixed blessing. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen actually slow down the healing process. Inflammation is painful, but it is also part of nature’s way of starting that process. (Of course the pain also serves nature’s purpose – it tells us we may need to stop doing what we are doing and recover, and tells us a lot about what the problem is and where it is.) This is not to say that you need to avoid all painkillers or other forms of analgesia (especially the ones without so many side effects!), but that getting into the habit of unthinkingly blocking out pain is like getting into the habit of not listening to your friends when they say things you don’t want to hear.

Another way in which we are different from cars is that we are so much more complex; we are an organism, not a machine. Our body is a miraculous network of inter-relationships, and our idea of how it works is usually hopelessly simplistic. So if we have a recurrent or chronic injury in a particular area, say the Achilles tendon, we need to realise that our Achilles is not something which exists in isolation from the rest of us. The healing process, for instance, relies on the appropriate nutrients being transported effectively around the body so that damaged tissues at the extremities can start to heal. If our circulatory system is not tip-top (one clue might be a propensity to cold feet and/or cold hands) then our tendon injury will not heal as fast as it would otherwise. Obviously, you can make the same kind of case for other organ systems; a weakness in one area has effects on everything. Our digestive system needs to be good at absorbing nutrients; our kidneys need to be good at expelling waste products; our lungs need to be good at getting oxygen in, and so on. In fact a problem with any of the organ systems will inevitably have an impact on our injury – whether we get it in the first place, how quickly it heals, whether it recurs. Recurring or chronic injury is probably telling us that there is a weakness somewhere, and not just in the site of the injury.

Another difference between you and your car is that you have a mind, a soul, consciousness, or whatever you want to call it. Responding to injury is not just a matter for purely physical processes in your body. In fact one might doubt whether there are such things as purely physical processes in human beings, in that emotional and cognitive aspects of our being have such significant impacts on healing. If you doubt this, you only have to consider the placebo effect. Fifty years ago many medical professionals might have doubted that such a thing existed, but nowadays it is such a recognised medical fact that all new treatments are compared against placebos to measure how effective they are. In fact, the idea that mind and body are separate entities is an idea which is a few hundred years out of date. Mind effects body, body effects mind. Mind and body are perhaps better thought of as two aspects of the same reality, with a very blurred boundary between the two.

What this means for an athlete is, of course, that mental factors affect not only athletic performance, but recovery from injury. As already mentioned, long term injuries can be mentally challenging, so that in the treatment and management of such injuries we need to include ways of supporting ourselves mentally and emotionally.

What this all means is that as athletes we need an holistic approach to our body and its injuries, not a mechanistic one. We need to develop our understanding of and sensitivity to our body, heed the messages it gives us, and promote health, healing and performance in a way which does not seek to over-ride nature, but work with it.

Proper acupuncture draws upon a substantial and sophisticated understanding of human health, developed over millennia, called Traditional Chinese Medicine. An acupuncturist who uses the technique within this traditional context, (rather than as an adjunctive technique tacked on to modern medicine after a couple of weekends training – check this link for more on this distinction), can help an athlete’s body-mind regain the balance that once existed before the injury began. They can therefore help facilitate improved athletic performance both physically and mentally.

In contrast to more modern mechanical approaches, the outcome of the treatment process is thus not just the absence of injury but also more energy, improved mental state, better sleep and, ultimately, improved performance. These are the outcomes we love to watch with our athlete patients at The Sean Barkes Clinic.

Demystifying Chinese Medicine – Yin and Yang

If you know anything at all about Chinese Medicine, or about the classical Chinese culture that it grew out of, it is probably the words Yin and Yang. The T’iai Chi Tu symbol, depicting the way Yin and Yang harmonise with each other, appears frequently. I even knew an accountant who had it on his business card! I guess balance is important in accounting too!

Yin and Yang are indeed key concepts in Chinese Medicine, but what do they really mean? Is it just a lot of mystical hot air?

The concepts originate in the observation that many aspects of the natural world are bipolar, they have two opposite poles. Day and night. Hot and cold. Up and down. Earth and sky. Winter and summer.  This is something so obvious it can be overlooked. Yang corresponds to daytime and therefore to warmth, light and movement. Yin is night-time, cold, dark, still. By extension, Yang is energy and consciousness, Yin is matter and substance.

In human life too the same thing is observed: inhaling and exhaling, systole and diastole, waking and sleeping, talking and being quiet, working and relaxing,  we move between opposites all of the time. The ancient Chinese, however, developed this apparently banal observation into a rather sophisticated philosophy of life which encompasses not just medicine but everything from martial arts to flower arranging.

When applied to medicine, this leads to the crucial idea, somewhat similar to the rather neglected western medical notion of homeostasis, that health involves maintaining balance. If Yin and Yang are harmonised in our body, in our mind, in our life, we are healthy people. Lose this balance for some reason, and illness results. The balance is not a static one, however; as the T’ai Chi Tu illustrates, Yin and Yang are inter-dependent, fluidly transforming into each other in the same way as day gradually gives way to night. A healthy person moves from Yin to Yang and back again in harmony with their environment.

Still, that is all a bit vague perhaps. It becomes more concrete when we start to apply it to specific aspects of the human being. For example, consider the blood. The Yang aspect of the blood is its movement; the Yin aspect is the actual substance of the blood, what it is made up of.  Clearly we need both; the blood needs to circulate and flow freely, and it needs to contain enough oxygen and other nutrients. If the Yang of the blood is lacking, we may have circulation problems such as Raynaud’s disease. If the blood is Yin deficient, we may, for instance, have anaemia.

As with the blood, so with any aspect of our being; we can speak of the Yin and Yang of the digestive system or of the kidneys; of the food that we eat and of our daily routine; of our constitution and of our temperament; of our body weight and of our body temperature. Ill health from this perspective starts to arise when, at some level of our being, we start to get out of balance. Maybe this initial disharmony begins in our emotional life or with poor eating habits; maybe it begins with an adventitious infection or with overdoing it at work. To begin with we can probably cope but, if we do not take steps to put things right, eventually our ability to self-regulate can be overwhelmed and imbalance starts to take root, and this has a knock on effect throughout our system.

To take an example, suppose we get into the habit of working late into the evening and not getting enough sleep. Maybe we use caffeine or some other stimulant to keep this up. After a few months of this we start becoming irritable and edgy, but we choose to ignore this. As well as not giving our self sufficient time to rest, we now find that the quality of the sleep we do get is not so great. Alarm bells are ringing, but we are choosing to ignore them!

As time goes by, our palms are becoming sweaty, and we have lost weight; we have a bit of a dry mouth a lot of the time, and a tickly cough. Sometimes at night we feel our heart fluttering, which finally wakes us up to the fact that we ought to get some help.

From the classical Chinese perspective, we have been giving the Yin side of our nature a bit of a hammering. When we should have been relaxed or asleep (Yin) we have been awake and active (Yang). To achieve this we have been using a Yang stimulant (caffeine) at the time of day when Yang should be taking a back seat.

So we end up without enough Yin. We are undernourished and over tired. Since Yin is related to stillness and calm, we are edgy and nervous. Sweaty palms, insomnia, weight loss, a dry mouth and a tickly cough are all classic signs of Yin deficiency, as are heart palpitations that happen in the evening. A practitioner of Chinese medicine will probably consider that the Yin deficiency relates especially to the kidneys, lungs and heart.

To restore health we clearly need to make some changes to our lifestyle; in particular we need to nourish the Yin by giving ourselves time to rest, perhaps by learning (again) to simply be for a bit, without so much doing (if we have been overworking because we need the money, this may be challenging, but not as challenging as what will be happening further on down the road if we don’t take ourselves in hand!). We may also need some treatment to help us; in Traditional Chinese Medicine this may be some acupuncture to calm the mind and nourish the Yin of the heart, kidneys and lungs, maybe also some herbal Yin tonics, and some advice on foods we can eat to nourish the Yin. Qigong or meditation are also a good idea.

Now the human being is a complex thing, and most health problems are not a straightforward case of Yin deficiency or Yang deficiency – or of Yin or Yang excess for that matter. Often the picture is complex and it takes some skill to fathom the ways in which Yin and Yang are out of kilter. There may, for instance, be Yin deficiency in one part of our system and Yang deficiency in another part. It becomes more complex still when we consider that one of the principal characteristics of Yin and Yang is that they transform into each other, as the day passes into night and an arthritic finger joint becomes hot and painfully inflamed if exposed to cold weather.

The human being is an incredibly complex system of inter-relationships and balances, and a big part of the art of healing is for the clinician to perceive just where the fundamental disharmony lies, so that when this is rectified by the appropriate treatment everything else falls into place and we start feeling ourselves again. One of the characteristics of this traditional Chinese medical approach is thus that it looks to treat the disharmony at the root of our problem, rather than just giving symptomatic relief which is not likely to successful in the long run; either our symptoms will return, or new ones will take their place.

What Counts As Success?

I‘ve noticed a few stories in the press recently of highly successful people coming to unfortunate ends. There was a top executive at a Swiss insurance firm who apparently committed suicide due to the stress he was under at work. The other  week a student intern at a US bank in London was found dead at home, and although the cause of death is as yet not known, questions have been raised about the working hours of young people in such positions. And the chief executive of Lloyds bank was forced to take 6 weeks off a few months ago because of extreme exhaustion.

Of course most of us might not so far up the ladder as some of these people, but their stories raise pertinent questions for all of us. One of these questions is, how do we measure value in our life? What counts as success?

Our answer may be to do with happiness, family, enjoyment, health, love and so on, but these are  things that cannot be quantified. Whereas our bank account and salary (if we have one) can. We might not be always too sure how happy or fulfilled we are, but a big number on our payslip is there in black and white. And a big number means we can buy things. Buying things, especially expensive things, can bring a beguiling sense of achievement and satisfaction. If we can do this, we must really be somebody. Our life must have value. Thus it can be tempting to find value in money.

This in fact is one of the central myths we live by these days; the myth that money is what brings value to our lives. If you have a lot of it, people will treat you as if you are worth something. If you have no money, you may feel worthless. Many of us would deny we live by such a myth, but its hold on us can be all the stronger because we do not recognise it, and do not want to recognise it. After all, it is drummed into us night and day by advertising, politicians, and much of the media.

Rejecting this myth, however, and finding a better way of valuing ourselves and others, does not mean we have to go to the other extreme. Money is clearly not the root of all evil; it gives you the ability to do a great deal of good. The most effective altruists in history, the individuals who have done the most good for others, are, according to the philosopher of altruism Peter Singer, no other than Bill Gates and his wife, and Warren Buffet, billionaires all. Money is clearly neither good nor bad, it depends on what you use it for (and how you get it!) A better way of measuring value, therefore, may be in terms not of what we have, or what we get, but in terms of what we give. This provides us with a neat way of turning the myth on its head.

Money, therefore, would seem to be value neutral – it’s what we do with it that counts. However, in practice our relationship with money is not that simple. Where money is concerned we might have to admit that we are not rational animals. What we are in part, possibly, are greedy animals. That might sound a bit harsh; we don’t like to think of ourselves as a greedy guts, but in fact we are expected to be greedy – it might even be that our economy depends on our being greedy! Greed is the norm, we don’t even notice it at work in our lives. We’ve got 30 TV channels, but we want 40. And maybe a bigger TV to watch them on. We’ve got a perfectly nice house, but we want a bigger one. In a better neighbourhood. We’ve got a perfectly delightful handbag, but we want a new one. We’re bored with our car, we want a change. All perfectly normal responses in our world. So what is extravagant or unheard of for one generation becomes the norm for the next. To keep on upgrading in this way we need money. What used to be a luxury is now something we cannot live without (or so we think.) We need more money so we can spend more.

One consequence of such an approach to life is that we are never satisfied or content, and if that is the case then perhaps we are not really happy either. There is a nice Buddhist story about a disagreement between the Buddha and a king as to who was the happier. The king insisted that he was happier – he had great riches and power after all, several wives and plenty of elephants! But the Buddha, who had not very much at all in the way of possessions, asked him whether he could just sit down in a simple room and be happy for an hour. The king thought he could do that. Two hours then? Probably. How about all day? The king hesitated. The Buddha pointed out that he could sit still all day and be perfectly happy. So who was really the happy one?

Happiness and health, moreover, are closely related. We should perhaps beware of a life dominated by greed, including socially acceptable greed, for it can damage our health. Perhaps like the chief exec of Lloyds we can end up working ourselves into the ground to be ‘successful’, only to find that ‘success’ has made us ill. Once we start skipping meals, or eating whilst we work, once we start working late and missing sleep, once we start using up energy we do not really have, we are asking for trouble. Acupuncturists like me see a lot of people with problems as diverse as migraines, IBS, insomnia and panic attacks which often seem to be at least in part due to what they are doing to themselves in the name of ‘success’. Of course if you are young and have a strong constitution, you can get away with such things for a while, but even then you risk setting up bad habits which will take their toll later on in life.

More subtly, the sense of lack, the gnawing emptiness at the centre of greed that is never really filled by the big salary and expensive purchases, may itself be a cause of ill-health. Perhaps it is a factor in the widespread modern mental health problems such as depression and anxiety; maybe it is also connected with digestive problems and eating disorders, as we unconsciously try to fill up the gap with food, recognising that we need nourishment, but not recognising quite what kind of nourishment we need.

This is not to say that we should sit around like a cabbage, achieving nothing. Achievement is important, but it is a question of what counts as achievement. A big number on a bank statement or a new wide-screen TV don’t count. Driving ourselves to try to fill up the emptiness at the heart of greed is the problem. Achievement should come as the more or less natural expression of the things in us which are the opposite of greed – things like love, inspiration and compassion. In short, a life characterised by a giving of ourselves rather than one by taking for ourselves.

Achievement and Non-Achievement: the Middle Way to Better Health

One of the high street banks has an advert all over the place at the moment claiming its goal is to help us with our goals. This might strike one as unlikely, but at least it reminds us that this is the time of year when we might want to be thinking about our goals for the future year (and years), about what we want to achieve in our life.

Some people are of course more goal-orientated than others, but I think everyone has goals – even if they have widely differing ways of relating to those goals. Sometimes, perhaps, our goals are not very conscious, and it may serve us well to see if we can make them a bit more conscious. What are we trying to achieve? What really motivates us? Where do we want to be in a year’s time, ten years’ time…? Some people even approach this question by thinking about what they would like said about them at their funeral. Sometimes as we mature we need to clarify what we want to achieve, as opposed, perhaps, to what we may think other people expect us to achieve.

On the other hand, maybe sometimes we can become over-focused on some of our goals. I remember in my early twenties walking the Pennine Way long distance footpath. I had two weeks to cover about 250 miles, and it turned out to be two weeks of heat wave (older readers may remember those). So I walked through some of the most beautiful countryside in England (and a bit of Scotland, where it rained.) but I was so focused on getting to the next camp-site, not getting lost on the way, not getting dehydrated etc., that maybe I did not appreciate the countryside so much. Such an experience becomes a metaphor for how I sometimes live life (if I am not careful), and as a metaphor maybe it applies to a lot of people in our society.

If we live in such a driven, goal-orientated way, not only do we miss some of the most rewarding bits of being human, we can in the end make ourselves ill. For one thing we can start to over-reach ourselves energetically, using up inner resources that we do not replenish sufficiently, perhaps working long hours, not always eating well or giving ourselves time to eat (and digest) well, doing without sleep and so on. Sooner or later this will have consequences for our health. If we are young and have a strong constitution we can get away with such a lifestyle for a while, but as we get a bit older, or if we are not blessed with such a strong constitution, we will burn ourselves out, whether this results in migraine headaches, high blood pressure, chronic fatigue syndrome or something else. Of course we may tell ourselves that we don’t have time to be ill, pop a pill to take away the symptoms, and keep going, or we may rush back into the fray after illness without giving ourselves time to recover properly; but we only store up trouble for ourselves for later- eventually we will have time to get ill, whether we like it or not.

We might want to ask ourselves just why we are pushing ourselves so hard. It might of course be something as simple as plain greed – maybe we want to make a lot of money – but it might also be coming from some hidden guilt or even self-hatred – we feel we are not good enough as we are; we continually need to prove ourselves. Or maybe it is insecurity – we don’t want to be left out or left behind. Sometimes these motivations are mixed up or confused with our responsibilities and desire to help others. In Traditional Chinese Medicine emotions like guilt and fear can themselves be a cause of ill-health, and allowing ourselves to be driven by them only feeds them and strengthens their grip on us.

There is a difference between this kind of driven life, which at root involves repeated acts of unkindness to ourselves, a sort of inner tyranny, and a life of a person who  achieves a lot out of the sheer exuberance of loving what they are doing. Being driven is not the same as being inspired; it’s the former that can do us harm; although even the inspired person may need to make sure they look after themselves in terms of diet, sleep, rest and relaxation etc.

On the other hand, the opposite of the driven life is the life lacking in goals and achievement – the aimless. As mentioned above, everyone has goals, because everyone at root wants to be happy. But what happens when, maybe, we become discouraged by our failures, when our fear of failure leads us to abandon our goals before we have really tried to achieve them. Sometimes we may be setting ourselves impossibly difficult goals, so that we are set up to fail. Or if our goals are necessarily difficult of attainment, we need interim or short term goals which we can achieve. For instance, if we want to be a millionaire, we may need a shorter term goal of making our first £10,000. If our goal is to run a marathon, we might need first of all to be able to run a mile! As the Chinese say, ‘the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’  This is important because self-confidence and self-esteem may in part depend on our ability to achieve our goals. When we do run that mile or make that £10,000, we need to be able to feel satisfied and encouraged, not dispirited in the face of the more distant goal.

Apathy and feeling dispirited can also can lead to illness. In Traditional Chinese Medicine one of the common causes of health problems lies in ‘stagnation’, when what the Chinese refer to as ‘Qi’ stops flowing as freely as it should. This can happen if we as it were deny our goals. In classical Chinese thought every person has a ‘destiny’ – not indeed something that we are fated to experience, but rather a direction in which our life naturally unfolds. Someone living their destiny is someone who is, as we say in English, ‘coming into their own’, someone who is as it were becoming more fully who they really are. If for some reason we are avoiding moving in this direction, which is to say trying to realise our real goals,  we will feel stuck, we will stagnate, and eventually this will manifest physically in a wide range of symptoms, and unless we get back to trying to actualise our destiny these symptoms will gradually get worse until in the end we may become seriously ill.

Of course the driven person no less than the apathetic person may be avoiding their destiny. Buddhists speak of two kinds of laziness – the laziness of laziness (plain laziness!) and the laziness of busy-ness, when we avoid the important thing by keeping busy, even by becoming highly successful in something that does not in the end matter all that much.

So, if that bank I mentioned really wants to help us achieve our goals in 2013, what it needs to do is to help us to become clear about what they are, help us to make sure that if our ultimate goals are distant that we also have more short term goals which we can realistically reach, stepping stones along the way so to speak. It also needs to help us not to become too fixated and obsessed by our goals, so that if we achieve them we achieve them at the expense of other things which really are more important. We need to be striving to achieve things in our life, but that striving needs to have a certain lightness to it, even some playfulness perhaps. We may or may not reach the end of the metaphorical long distance footpath, but we need to appreciate the scenery en route, not to mention the company of our fellow travellers.

It’s because of my age! Age, exercise and attitude

I often hear people say “its because of my  age” or “well, I’m getting on a bit, you see” and “I’m not as young as I used to be”. Usually, this is in reference to physical ability and the fact that they can’t do what they used to be able to when they were younger. This is the language of passivity, relinquishing responsibility and fatalism.

Over a 25 year career of teaching martial arts of one guise or another and the last 15 years in holistic healthcare, I’ve realised that the reason for this increasing inability to do the things they used to be able to do has very little to do with age and more to do with habit. This realisation has come through watching thousands of people, their attitudes and their lifestyle habits.

I’ve noticed that there are people that do experience this decline in physical ability and some that don’t, given similar ages. I hear you say, “ah, but it’s all down to genetics, isn’t it”. That’s a fatalistic attitude that doesn’t really bear up to closer examination. When you compare these two broad groups of people there is something else that is obvious: one group has made exercise a habit and one has made inactivity a habit. If you don’t use it you lose it.

The more you say it to yourself, the more it affects your daily habits of inactivity, the less physically able you are and the more you say “see! As I get older it gets worse!”. A self-fulfilling prophecy.

The trouble is, as time goes on, it gets harder to turn things round…not impossible, just harder!

If he can do, you can do it!

Exercise, and tough exercise, I’ll add, is easy for me. Is it because of some fortunate genetic predisposition or is it because I’ve exercised virtually everyday since being a child? I’ll leave you to decide.

To all those out there who think they are past it, imagine, pushing a car with its handbrake off from a stationary position. It takes a whole load of effort to get the damn thing started. But, you know, because of the laws of physics, that once it gets rolling, it will require much less effort indeed to keep it rolling.

With that analogy in mind, get that human car out on the road, whatever it’s state, and start it rolling. All it needs is the right attitude and belief. And how do I know it’ll work for you? Well, because I’ve seen people turn things round…even elderly people. Who are you going to be?

The Myth of Getting ‘Old’

Having spent the last 15 years observing what makes one 80 year old ‘old’ and another ‘young’ and indeed witnessing the transformation of some ‘old’ ones into ‘young’ ones, I’ve been pretty humbled.  I never cease to be amazed by human potential. Through a gradual process of mental reflection, dietary and lifestyle changes and therapy, some have been able to turn their circumstances around by realising they had more control over how they felt than they realised and that they had succumbed to the popular myth about age.

Many of our patients are content merely with the removal of pain from their arthritic joints. Some, however, realise that they have become what they have through their choices and actions. They then make different choices and experience different outcomes as a result.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to old people. These same processes occur in younger age. At the time of writing, I’m 43 and setting myself physical and mental goals that my contemporaries have clearly convinced themselves they can’t achieve. Of course, they can achieve them!They just need to engage in the lifestyle that supports their achievement. They’ve succumbed, like the majority, to societal norms and assumptions that say “you’re getting old now and so you’re going to be weaker, have poorer health and generally start going downhill”

Of course, age does play a significant role in our wellbeing. The older we get, the more time we have had to practice the habits that have determined our health in the first place. In turning things round, it might be a slower process because of this. You’ve been letting yourself go over a longer period of time. However, change you certainly can!

Our minds are far stronger than most of us are willing to admit. One just needs to watch a few episodes of Derren Brown to get an idea of this. Countless studies on the placebo affect also provide fascinating food for thought. Even ignoring the obvious dietary, exercise and lifestyle choices that are proven to affect our health, our minds can convince us into high or low levels of physical and mental performance or health states. So, its not enough to just regulate our diet, and lifestyle. We have to train our minds too. Good health is not a matter of luck, its crafted! I’m  reminded of what Gary Player is noted for having said: “It’s funny, the more I practice the luckier I seem to get”.

And that’s not even considering the amazing folk with significant, life-limiting circumstances who still remain positive.  Like Chris Moon, 49 at the time of writing, the ultra runner who had one leg and one arm blown off by a land mine, then ran the London marathon within a year of the incident!!! Check him out at:

Geneticists estimate that our genes are responsible for about 15% of our health outcomes. The other 85% is down to our lifestyle. In other words, the choices we make in life have the largest effect on our health, by far.

So, check out your self-limiting beliefs, engage in some positive thinking training, and start releasing your latent potential now. Commit to a programme of regular exercise, whether it includes Tai Chi, running, squash or whatever. And guess what, once you’ve got over that initial inertia that inevitably exists when you’ve been inactive for so long, its really enjoyable and feels great! Go get some…you’re more than you think you are!

Business Strategy, Life Strategy and Health

Here’s one for the business people amongst our clientele.

Steven Covey says in his book ‘The 7 habits of highly successful people’: “Begin with the end in mind”

For many years, I flew by the seat of my pants in business. It has served me well but more through luck than judgement.

I think one of the problems with unplanned business activities is that it creates lack of clarity: lack of clarity for the business owner, lack of clarity for the people he or she works with (internal staff or external contractors) and lack of clarity for the client.

Lack of clarity leads to confusion, confusion leads to anxiety and anxiety leads to suffering…something which I am acutely sensitive to in my trade! Of course, this suffering is very likely to express itself in our state of health at some point.

So, for everything we do, business or otherwise we need to make clear in our own mind the following:

  1. What we are trying to achieve e.g. boosting sales, brand exposure, entering new markets
  2. Why we are trying to achieve it. Understanding this is key to maintaining the motivation necessary to complete the course. No point, no persistence!
  3. What we expect to get out of it…what’s the payoff for us (not always financial, although that’s clearly important in business)? e.g. for me, my business is a way of expressing myself freely and honestly, expressing my values, the chance to express myself in public, meet people, build relationships and speak to and learn from other people
  4. What resources will be required to achieve the goal (not forgetting to impute a cost for your own time!): the opportunity cost of not pursuing alternative projects
  5. What sort of challenges we are likely to face on the way and what can we do to mitigate their effect e.g. legal risks, re-negotiating financing, staff turnover
  6. Finally, by prioritising projects according to some kind of risk-reward ratio: what we are likely to get out of it for what level of investment and what likelihood of success.

We are all busy people and, as business people, we probably have multiple projects we’d like to engage in, but with a finite amount of time in which to complete them. Running through the rational process I have outlined can help us keep sane by prioritising projects, knowing that we are spending our time wisely.

This also needs to be a process we go through in our private lives, albeit maybe less formally, so that at the end of each year we can assess what we had hoped to achieve against what we have actually achieved whilst being able to explain which factors have affected the outcome, positive or negative.

So, let’s all make a pact with each other to make sure that for each bead of sweat that rolls off our brow, we have considered how worthwhile it’s going to be.