Without a starting concept of health it is impossible to have a perspective on disease. I find that the lack of a notion of what the term health implies is one of the biggest stopping points in achieving it. The purpose of this article is to discuss some common obstacles which obstruct the path to health.
The first impediment to perceiving a state of health is filtering out of diseases. A good and real example of this would be when someone says that they are very healthy except for their heart. They might have had a heart attack, and are taking medication for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, but since these are “under control” they are healthy. I am not implying that a person’s state of health should be limited to or defined by disease. In fact, awareness that one does not need to be defined by their illness is a sign of health. However, the key word is awareness. An individual may dissociate from their illness either consciously or unconsciously. The former is a sign of health, the latter is itself a sign of illness. It implies a lack of ownership and responsibility, and more than likely does not foster behavior which promotes healing (if you think it is alright to have lowered cholesterol because of medication you are taking, it is unlikely that you will change your diet or lifestyle to work on it). In my experience, this disease loophole leads to almost everyone calling themselves healthy.
The second manifestation of lacking a concept of health is that people generally have no understanding of why they are sick. I might treat a person who is very tense in their nature. Their muscles are rock hard from stress, but they cannot conceive of why their neck hurts. They want a name and a reason to define their illness, but miss the fact that it simply arises out of who they are. The explanation of pathology describes a mechanism, not a cause (see Causality in Chinese Medicine – The Issues of How and Why). Similarly an individual who is obese may experience lower back pain, and neglect the fact that there are long term stressors on the region including musculo-skeletal, circulatory, and neurological. In fact, there are almost always at least several factors which add up and contribute to an illness or symptom. Without some understanding of these, it is very difficult to work towards a state of health (you cannot fix a problem if you do not know what it is).
The third manifestation of lacking a concept of health is the assignment of limited and random consequences on one’s health to unhealthy habits. A person might believe that smoking is bad for them, but not feel that it has anything to do with the numbness in the arms that they are experiencing. This is particularly true if the person has taken a medical test of some sort, and in the absence of pathology concluded that there has been no negative effect from the behavior or habit in question. Thus, a person can smoke for 30 years, but decide it has not affected them if they do not have lung cancer. Or decide that the excessive alcohol consumption has not harmed them if they do not have cirrhosis of the liver.
Even worse, is when a person stops a behavior and then determines there are no longer any health consequences. This last issue arises from the notion that there is a certain amount of time it takes to get the “bad stuff” out of the body, and that once it is out there is no longer any cause for concern. This perspective misses the functional model of Chinese medicine, which implies that there is an effect on the tissues of the body and the functioning of the organs that persists beyond the removal of the substance. If you pour paint remover onto a painted surface, the painted surface does not mend itself once the paint remover is gone. Neither does tissue magically restore itself once the damaging agent has been removed, although it will tend gradually in that direction at a rate proportionate to the overall vitality of the individual.
There is no objective or static state of health which exists, and no external standard to which a person can compare him or herself. I feel the most important idea to understand is that one’s illness arises out of who one is, and put into perspective, can be viewed as a logical consequence and extension of oneself. This does not mean that illness is one’s fault, nor does it imply that illness is negative. Illness is an inevitable part of living, and a deeper understanding of one’s relationship to it fosters empowerment. How else could it be, except that each of us has exactly the situation which is correct for us, and which is part of us? Who else could or should it be part of? Rather than trying to solve oneself, it is possible to become familiar instead, and to appreciate that all aspects of life, including our illness, are simply part of our experience and our path. I say familiar because it my experience that people are typically unfamiliar with their own experience. I may ask someone who is in pain to describe where the pain is located, and how it feels. “I don’t know, it just hurts” is a common response. I see people walk into walls and plants, or stumble because they are unaware of both their body and their surroundings, and do not have a sense of balance. Without this self-awareness, again, there is no real starting point from which to work and by which to assess change. Often, self-awareness becomes the primary issue to work on. Becoming familiar with one’s own bodily felt sense of self is one of the major components of healing, and for me is a defining quality of health. Learning about oneself is a prerequisite and part of the process of healing oneself.
Part of wellness is accepting that what we have is correct for us, and understanding that everyone has something. Both of these ideas seem to come as a surprise to people, but I think they are both true. This does not mean we should not work on ourselves, or that we should not seek help when we need it. But no amount of effort will ever result in the avoidance of symptoms and illness. And, knowing how much work it takes to deal with what you currently experience, imagine having to do it all over again if you kept on trading what you have for something else. It seems to me more efficient to intimately know and master your current situation, than to keep starting over with something new. This latter approach only arises when we lack of a concept of health which includes a view of illness as part of us. So people want to replace the broken parts, and with current technology they sometimes can. But if nothing changes internally, than we will simply recreate the same illness somewhere else.
One final idea about this is the very common assertion people make, that “I never had this before”. Of course not. No one is born manifesting all that is going to take place in their life. Life is always changing, and life has to unfold. So there is always a first time – a first time a symptom appears, a first time a symptom gets worse, a first time a symptom does not go away on its own. The assumption is that something must really be wrong, and this can often lead to the chaotic and wild pursuit of some mysterious causative factor. It is my experience that after a relatively brief time of being ill, people are likely to assume there is something wrong which requires high level investigation administered by the top doctor in the field (who, coincidently, always happens to show up nearby wherever the person lives). I was taught very clearly, and it has most definitely been my experience, that most illnesses are obvious and are exactly as they seem to be – they simply require thoughtful assessment. But without a starting point of health, it is impossible for an individual to meaningfully assess their deviation from it. The consequence is that every simple and natural event becomes a catastrophic illness, with the need for invasive investigation and treatment beyond what is actually appropriate.