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!

A Bad Day at the Office?

Most of us spend a large part of our life at work, so what happens at work has a major influence, for better or for worse, on our health and happiness. It’s almost customary to regard work as a necessary evil that we have to put up with to pay the bills and, if we are lucky, to buy the things we want and the holidays we can look forward to. But is that enough? Can we make our work a satisfying and fulfilling experience, not something to simply endure?

Work is one of the main places of course where we come into contact with other people, and not necessarily with the kind of people we would ordinarily choose to be in contact with! This might be direct contact, if we are for instance a shop assistant, a nurse or a flight attendant, or it might be indirect, if we are a software designer, a writer or a fighter pilot. So quite often what makes the difference between an enjoyable day at work and a day that drags on interminably and leaves us drained and consoled only by the thought of the coming holiday, is other people.

Or is it? Is it not rather how we communicate with those other people, how we think about them, how we respond to them?  Other people, after all, can be miserable, depressed, irritable, unco-operative, bored, irrational, irresponsible, unreliable, contrary, lazy and inefficient. It is a jungle out there. If our happiness and well-being is to depend on the other people our work brings us into contact with, we are a hostage to fortune and no mistake! No wonder if we sometimes end up drained and fed up after a day at the office.

Other people, by and large, are out of our control. If someone won’t do what we want them to do, there is, in the final analysis, nothing we can do about it. Of course we can ask them tactfully, skilfully, kindly, we can bring to bear the full weight of the greatest communication techniques anyone ever possessed, but they still might not do what we want. Or, we can maybe try to force their hand, but that might not work either.  They may remain frustratingly outside of our control.

But what we do have control over – or rather, what we can learn to influence – is how we respond to this latest saboteur of our will. Herein lies, perhaps, the secret of a happy life, and in particular a happy work life.

What usually happens  in such a situation, is that we either get angry, or resentful, or despondent. It might be a small thing, a momentary response, something we will have forgotten all about in a few hours. But the day is often made up of such small things, and such fleeting emotions. It all adds up.

What might happen, then, if we were to gradually train ourselves to respond to people in a new, different way? If, in a way, we were to learn to take things less personally? A long time ago now, I worked as a door to door fundraiser for a third world charity. A small team of us would go out on to the streets of London in the evening, knocking on doors and looking for people to support, by a regular standing order, our work with some of the very poorest people in India. Of course we learned to recognise the signs of a house having someone in it who might be sympathetic to such a request (if you could see shelves of books, and even better, a piano, you might be on to something), but even so, occasionally we would encounter some irate individual who would start to visit a tirade upon us about charity beginning at home, the corruption of the Indian government, how people should learn to stand on their own two feet, and so on. I remember a little slogan our trainers used about such a situation, advising us to reflect that it was just “their conditioning slagging off their projection.” In other words, this sorry person’s anger was all about them and not much about us, so we should move on and leave them to it. It’s easy to get down-hearted, or maybe even angry, in such a situation, and perhaps more so from the rather more frequent polite ‘no thankyous’ we inevitably encountered. But in this situation you had to remember that all you could do was to attend to your side of the communication, and leave the person to respond as they want. I suppose it’s a bit like fishing; you can cast your bait, but you can’t make the fish bite.  (Actually what we found was that there were an encouraging number of people out there who did in fact want to do something about the suffering in the world, and who were  actually grateful to be presented with an opportunity to do so.)

So in our interactions with other people, maybe if we can just focus on our side of the fence, doing our best to communicate as effectively as possible, always realising we are dealing with a fully automatous ‘other’ who has a will of their own which cannot, ultimately, be forced to comply with ours, maybe we can save ourselves (and them) a bit of grief.

Probably to begin with we can only expect to make small changes. Maybe when that colleague fails, yet again, to do what they said they would do, we can respond not with resentment but with, say, curiosity (why are they so unreliable? We might even think about asking them!). But such apparently small changes in our response can make a big difference to our day. Emotions like anger, despair and resentment are , ultimately, rather draining. It is really these that can leave us, at the end of the working day, fed up and exhausted. It’s not other people, not the job.

In the Buddhist tradition this really rather radical way of approaching life finds its culmination in a person known as a Bodhisattva (an’ Enlightenment being’). Such a person lives only to ease the suffering and pain in the world, and his or her days are devoted to that end. You can imagine that that might be frustrating or dispiriting, but the Bodhisattva has trained themselves to respond not with anger, or despair, or even pity. Consequently, they are known for their energy. Indeed their activity to them is ‘lila’, which means ‘play’. They have the spontaneity of a playful child.

It’s not easy to be like that, but as the Chinese say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. That step involves us recognising that it is not other people who wear us out, get us down, frustrate us and make our job, sometimes, a misery. It is ourselves.

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

Mind, Body and What?

Sometimes when we want to make it clear that we are referring to a human being in their totality, we might use phrases like ‘body and soul’ or ‘mind, body and spirit’. But what do these words mean? We may think we know what a body is, and we may even think we know what a mind is (although we might find ourselves having a bit of difficulty if pushed to define it), but what about words like ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’? Surely these are candidates for the vaguest words in the English language, and indeed one might suspect that they are sometimes used by people who have a vested interest in keeping things nicely vague.

In fact the English words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ both have their origins in ancient words meaning ‘breath’, reflecting the observation  that someone who is breathing is alive, whilst someone who is not breathing is dead. A dead person may look the same as they did when alive, except that they are no longer breathing, so one can understand how people would have correlated the breath with the apparently departed essence of the deceased, their soul or spirit. Belief in an afterlife of some form or other often rests on the belief that there is something essential within us that animates our body during life and then leaves at death. The rise of materialistic philosophy means that, perhaps, fewer people believe in life after death or in the existence of an immaterial essence within us. ‘Soul’ and ‘spirit’ are not part of the (official) vocabulary of western science or medicine.

So perhaps these days it would be better to just talk of ‘mind and body’. But on the other hand, maybe there are important, even crucial, aspects of human beings which the phrase ‘mind and body’ does not grasp. To begin with, one of the common ways the word ‘spirit’ is used, as for example in the phrase ‘fighting spirit’, is to denote something like enthusiasm, vigour, liveliness; we may say of someone that they are a spirited individual, or that they are high spirited. In this sense spirit seems to be used to indicate how alive someone is. A healthy person is one whose body functions smoothly, who is of sound mind, but also one who is quite simply very alive. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, a clinician will assess the health of a patient’s spirit by, among other things, noticing their eyes (‘the windows of the soul’ as the English phrase has it); someone with a healthy spirit has sparkling, lively eyes, whereas someone whose spirit is impaired may have dull, lifeless eyes.

Similarly, the word ‘soul’ may still have some value. Think of how it is used to talk about music, and how we might say of someone that they are ‘soulless’. A work of art may be the product of great technique, but if it has ‘no soul’, it will not touch us; a person may say all the right things, but if he or she seems soulless, we will not trust them.

The reality is that the human being is a complex and marvellous thing, and the phrase ‘mind and body’ just does not do enough to capture him or her. In particular if we are considering things like health and well-being, it is crucial that we do not focus solely on the body or even solely on the body and mind (especially if we want to think of the mind as simply a bunch of physical processes in the brain.) We may also need to ask, how is our spirit? What is the condition of our soul?

Spirit and soul in this understanding are not ‘things’. Experiments such as the one conducted at the start of the twentieth century to try to weigh the soul by weighing a person just before and just after death (when the soul, presumably, will have flown) are of course wholly misguided. Spirit and soul are not things to be measured. There is not a spirit inside us in the way there is a pituitary gland inside us. These are words which are not to be taken too literally.

In fact, it is best not to take even the phrase ‘mind and body’ too literally, if by that we mean the mind is one kind of thing and the body another. Where does mind end and body begin? Since the influential French philosopher Rene Descartes in the seventeenth century, westerners have tended to think of the body as a physical thing, a machine, inside of which is something else – mind, soul or spirit – the ‘ghost in the machine’. Modern science may have eroded this dualistic way of thinking at least to an extent, but it might be instructive to look at how Traditional Chinese Medicine views the individual, for it has no place for such dualism. Here a person is composed of ‘three treasures’ – Jing, Qi and Shen. Shen, often translated as ‘spirit’ or ‘mind’, is nevertheless not wholly immaterial but simply a more refined form of Qi, just as Jing or ‘essence’ is a more condensed form of Qi. In other words the three treasures are all Qi, which is neither wholly material nor wholly immaterial.

So instead of ‘body, mind and spirit’ we could talk of Jing, Qi and Shen, which in some ways is less misleading, since it does not depend on what turns out to be a false distinction between the material and the immaterial. But the main thing is that, whatever expression we use, we do not take it too literally, and we do not use it to exclude, ignore or forget about any aspect of that marvellous and complex phenomenon, the human being.

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.

Real Healers

A long term patient of mine that consulted me regularly for acupuncture little snippet you sent me, entitled “Touched by an Angel”. I not sure where it came from but feel it may have been an article from the Mail on Sunday. It read as follows:

“To carry on from last week’s column about facialist Vaishaly Patel, I am so excited to tell you all about John Tsagaris who works at the Vaishaly salon and is one of the most profound healers I have ever encountered. John spent many years training in the art of traditional Chinese medicine in both the UK and the Far East His treatments incorporate reiki, Zen shiatsu (a more dynamic, vigorous form of the ancient acupressure massage) and acupuncture, along with psychotherapy, and believe me, with these skills he can transform your life and consciousness.
On meeting John one can feel overwhelmed. His presence is one of purity and light. His gaze feels as though he is looking right into your soul. I believe that this angel truly cares about who you are and how you feel. How refreshing! As he guided me into his tranquil white room I felt a sense of safety. The session began with us going over my medical history. John then checked my pulse and examined my tongue which, in China, are both benchmarks of health. More notes were gathered, including details of my diet, menstrual cycle and energy levels.
Then the massage began. Now this is no wishy-washy feather touch, but a firm, sometimes painful acupressure. The back, particularly, is given a thorough going-over — pressure points are stimulated and muscles are eased. The massage is another of John’s diagnostic tools, as the way the body reacts to touch gives signals to internal health. All the while his gentle, reassuring voice talked me through the blockages he felt in my body and explained his intention to release them and free me from the years of feeling pent-up. I felt a true shift as he worked on my neck and back, as if I was stretching my wings and my head was becoming unglued from my shoulders. Space was being created.
Then it was time for acupuncture. Needles were inserted painlessly into my skin to stimulate liver and kidney function and to detoxify and strengthen my blood. Warming cups were placed over the needles to aid the process (this also feels very comforting). While the needles did their job, John began his reiki healing, placing his hand on my heart chakra. All became still and I felt a rare moment of total ease in my own skin. Then he said, ‘I need to tell you something. You are not alone. I feel a man is walking with you throughout everything.’ Immediately, thoughts of my dear daddy who passed away seven years ago filled my head. John continued, This man has been through lots of grief in his life and knows what you go through… He passed away at 42.’ All of a sudden the floodgates opened. My brother died of cancer at 42 and we had never been close in life, which is something I have always felt guilty about because I feel I was not there for him. In my mind I was not the best sister in the world but the fact that my brother was still looking out for me released a surge of emotion. I had not told John anything about my family history, so there was no way he could have known about my brother. I was happy but in floods of tears when John explained that, occasionally, he has a deep intuition that presents itself when the release of the emotion related to it will help his patient.
Angels come into your life to reveal, surprise and amaze, and I’m so thankful to have met one.”

As you might imagine I was very flattered that she thought highly of me. However, I felt the need to a couple of things in response.

I make great efforts to convince folk of their ability to heal themselves and give them the tools, rather than allowing them to fall under the illusion that it is me doing the healing for them. This way, they become self-sufficient and self-empowered; able to continue themselves without a reliance on a third party. Nowadays, I do this primarily though teaching the ancient art of T’ai Chi.

In many ways, the situation referred to in the article is the antithesis of my healing philosophy. In this case example, there is a high risk that the client becomes co-dependent. In my opinion, this is the worst possible outcome for all concerned. I am sure that Derren Brown might have a thing or two to say about the article as well!

What I have found in my years as a clinician is that modern humans under-perform their potential massively due to self-limiting beliefs and their image of self. I believe, based upon personal experience, research and watching others, that by changing one’s image of self this massive potential can be unleashed.

The trouble is, most want a quick and easy route. Many quick-fix methods are proclaimed but I believe they achieve more commercial success than any healing of significance. I think the secret to releasing this potential involves some or all of the following:

• A desire for better and a clear mental construct of what this actually entails
• Self-analysis to achieve self-understanding
• Smart thinking
• A clear plan with specific and achievable milestones
• A belief that the ultimate goal can be achieved or, at the very least, moved towards
• Determination and single-mindedness and the willingness to suffer in the short-term in order to reach long-term goals
• Hard, hard work

…I am sure there are probably other useful components.

Anyone who feels that the path to healing is easy is deluded, in my opinion. Having said that, the path I propose above can be extremely rewarding both in the outcome and the process. It’s a bit like the feeling of a hard work out: it burns and its tough…but there is something quite delicious about it!

Anyway, thank you to my loyal patient for thinking about me.

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.

‘Fighting’ cancer or other life-thereatening diseases

I was just reading a Telegraph article today entitled “Socialising with others ‘can help fight cancer'”. The headline led me to ‘put pen to paper’.

From my clinical experience, one of the most prevalent causes of disease, whether it be a bad back or whether it be heart disease, is the unconscious refusal or inability to freely and honestly express ourselves as we truly are. The most common example of this is in the work we choose to engage in to earn a living.

The whole idea of recovering from a life-threatening disease, like cancer, being a ‘fight’, I find difficult to get my mind round. My appreciation of disease processes is clearly influenced by my style of medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) with its range of therapeutic techniques, such as acupuncture. TCM is holistic in its approach to healthcare. Holism states that body and mind are inextricably linked so what happens to one will have an inevitable knock-on effect on the function of the other. Holism understands that disease is not some random, chance occurrence that we have little or no control over. Even geneticists attribute only 25% of our state of health to our inheritance. My own personal experience of scrutinising my state of health, and intermittent fall from good health over the years, has yielded a clear connection between this and my thought processes. Scrutinising the health of thousands of others in my professional capacity, and studying research and the clinical experience of others far more experienced and talented than me, has corroborated my conclusions.

Gradually, modern medicine is starting to fully appreciate the huge influence our state of mind has on our health. This is really well summarised in Adrian Leader’s book “Why do People get Ill?” Literally, we are what we think. It is becoming increasingly evident that our thought processes create our diseases, whether they involve physical or mental symptoms, or both. We can say that our heart condition has been brought on by working intensely under stressful circumstances for a prolonged period of time, but what thought processes have led us to work like this in the first place. For example, if during our upbringing, we have thought, for whatever reason, that we needed to ‘achieve’ in order to gain ‘acceptance’ or ‘love’ from our parents, then this might have trained the habit of ‘flogging’ ourselves in our work life.

Holistic healthcare is about helping each individual bring their unconscious motivations into conscious awareness whilst using tried and tested techniques to facilitate recovery from the current disease-state. We do this by stimulating the body’s own, already amazingly well-equipped self-preservation systems. When an individual understands their disease process as part of who they are, they see that there can be no ‘fight’ against cancer because the cancer is a part of them. There is no external ‘enemy’ to fight. They have literally created their circumstances by their thoughts words and deeds in their life to date. Therefore, the only long-term, sustainable solution is through new thoughts, words and deeds. So, in my mind, self-understanding is the key. As far as I can see, achieving self-understanding is a process, often long and arduous, which is why we are often well-advised to seek external help when experiencing a life-threatening disease state.

The word ‘fight’ often implies a struggle. Because of the negative connotations this idea holds, this is just likely to make the process of recovery that much more difficult. So, I believe that our best chance of survival is to embrace the symptoms we are suffering as messages sent from deep inside us as an aid to reaching fullness. This way we can utilise the healing power of love, love of our self and the people around us and of life. Being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness is probably one of the best wake-up calls we will ever get in helping us to express ourselves as we truly are. So let’s embrace it. Or, as the motif on one of the Tai Chi students in my class says: “make tea, not war!”