As a physician my work and calling is healing. Trained in Chinese medicine (TCM), I am grateful to practice medicine from a metaphorical, yet also effective and sustainable paradigm. The unique advantage of practicing medicine with a metaphorical foundation is that it allows us to comprehensively assess the health, disease pattern and recovery for any system, be it a human being, a community, an ecosystem, or the planet. It also allows us to see how all facets of a system affect one another. None is more relevant for our current global crisis than how humans affect the environment and vice versa.
A planetary, nature-centered medicine offering an overarching philosophy to make emotional-spiritual progress, rather than just material technological progress, is key to restoring security and sanity on Earth — among peoples, among ecosystems.
Science and Western medicine do not offer us sufficient tools for wellness, the necessary emotional-spiritual succor crucial for changing the progress of rampant capitalism and the objectification of Nature.
TCM shows us how we can change individually and collectively — what qualities need to be bolstered and which reduced — in order to restore even a modicum of balance to our destructive, self-defeating habits.
Chinese medicine, with its Taoist roots, joins human nature with the natural world, from which we are inseparable and wholly dependent for our survival, health, and long-term fulfilment.
TCM integrates our physical, emotional, and soulful-spiritual lives in an inextricable bond with the cycles of nature. This cycle is the Five Elements, also called the Five Phases, which in turn is rooted in Yin-Yang theory. The Five Elements and Yin-Yang theory — forming the metaphorical framework of TCM — comprise an insightful and comprehensive, elaborate yet simple, window through which to understand and cultivate personal health as well as planetary healing.
They offer insight for how to rebalance the perverse, imperialistic Western ideology of endless production and reductive materialism, supposed comfort and security, superiority, denial of toxicity, and excessive short-term pleasure-seeking, all of which are right now leading the way to environmental collapse.
Yin and Yang, as dark and light, respectively, are a model for balance. Chinese medicine, as founded on this model, is therefore a medicine whose foundation is balance, specifically a balance with the natural world.
What better healing system for our day and age than one that recognises humanity as an inextricable part of nature, that seeks to learn from and respect nature as a model for our own integrity and peace, and teaches how to do this, rather than one that primarily seeks to conquer and use nature?
Western medicine and its scientific underpinnings, while indispensible in ways, lacks the wisdom of a fundamental respect for the whole — an inherent philosophy and mythology of sustainability, a self-regulating system of checks and balances in harmony with natural law, replete with practical lifestyle guidance to do better in everyday life and with our own inner lives.
Ironically, science and its objectification and literal study of nature too often distract us from a heartfelt experience of nature.
No wonder our natural world is teetering on the edge of collapse by our own hands! When we intellectualise nature and our bodies, when we study them scientifically and rely on this information to be the “truth,” we think we are complete, arrogantly complete and all-knowing. Yet knowledge is not experience, a felt-sense of the world, nor is knowledge the depth of wisdom.
When we can experience our bodies through our feelings, and feel ourselves in relationship with nature, we reclaim our creative unconscious, our intuition as a somatic experiencing of the world.
Many have glimpsed and felt this inner ecosystem, this inner wildness, through sacred plant medicines. This experience is distinctly humbling, equally or more important than logistical knowing.
There are means to make this wisdom last, extend into daily living, grounded action. To experience the world through our senses activates our “hearts,” our emotional faculty, through which we connect with the world.
This is a different kind of truth, one that informs us that we are part of the body of the Earth, and not its discoverer or master through intellect. To embrace our bodies — to feel and realise the cornucopia of our bodies — is to embrace nature and the Earth. It is to embrace our deep hearts, all the 5 Elements — our joys and griefs, our pain and pleasure as the fullness of Spring’s birth, Summer’s fruition, Autumn’s descent and sadness, and Winter’s death, to be reborn in Spring — as all 5 Elements.
While photographs of the Earth from outer space and artful capturings of nature further our appreciation of it, these images also subtly further our distance from nature. Nature and wholeness take on the air of fantasy and fairy tale, something always out there, cyber-realities, rather than in-person, hands-on, in vivo experience.
Furthermore, a felt experience of wholeness requires not just knowledge, but more importantly, inner emotional and spiritual work — a breaking open of our hearts to feel and care about the world, a reverence for nature in line with that of the world’s many indigenous cultures. While these cultures may be steeped in unrealistic mythologies and beliefs, what many scientific critics miss in their criticism of these “supernatural” beliefs is that they serve a vital, very real function for sustainability, humility, and balance with nature – one we are lacking in this day and age.
We need a renaissance of this sort of respect that flies in the face of science and reason’s arrogant disregard for traditional wisdom. While technically inaccurate, these religions, spiritualities, and cultural beliefs never pushed humanity and countless other species to the brink of extinction through environmental change, a distinction which trumps much of the success of modern science and its technological creations.
HEARTBREAK AS HEALER
Our own bodies are extensions of the body of the Earth. We are made of Earth’s minerals, water, and other nutrients, as well as the atoms of supernovas long extinguished.
A transcendent, soulful experience of ourselves allows us to imagine and to feel our own bodies as interconnected parts of a larger whole, one world.
It is precisely this heartfelt, emotional-spiritual faculty that must be bolstered in order to unite us as one and to forge in us the resolve and humble co-operation to take the enduring logistical steps towards creating sustainability in our communities and all together on the planet.
Yet this unity, this “love of light” (Yang), must also embrace a “love of darkness” (Yin).
We must embrace Yin as much or more than Yang.
Practically, this means that we grieve and feel the pain of the world and ourselves as much, or even more so, as we do pleasure.
We must feel remorse. We must allow ourselves the space to feel sad and ashamed. When these deep feeling states are denied, we end up with chronic apathy and despondency — perverted, unfertile Yin states dead to rebirth because the spark of passion (defined here as the active embrace and experience of pain and hardship) is missing from being buried in denial.
We must allow ourselves and one another the permission to honour these Yin aspects of life which are not active, always producing, shiny, and happy.
These Yin feelings, corresponding with the Autumn and Winter seasons of the Five Elements, slow us and draw us down and inward to take toll of what we are doing. They are necessary to change our hearts, to change our ways in order to act with more wisdom and integrity. They give us the hidden, transformative, re-birthed inner power to make ourselves more available to help profoundly heal our broken world — to become medicine for our times. Without death there is no rebirth, and a figurative emotional death celebrated in the Yin Phase is not the sort of fun and entertainment we are used to. Our constant pursuit and glorification of fun are therefore another problem. Without a full embrace of these stigmatised, Yin emotions and their shadowed abodes, our actions lack the breadth of appreciation and care necessary to act “for seven generations to come.”
We have lost our physical and heartfelt connection to the natural world, experiencing the whole of nature and cosmos in our own bodies. We need to feel the whole world in our hearts again.
This is an Earth-based spirituality. It is what fundamentally heals the many symptoms of our collective disease.
We can begin by appreciating what we love and tending to the places our hearts have been broken and ignored by us and by modern society generally.
In this way we heal and experience change and rebirth, with the integration that comes from an equal regard for Yin (rest, retreat, inner life, nourishment, decline, sadness, fear, and fulfillment) as for Yang (activity, extroversion, expenditure of energy, growth and progress, fun, happiness, and joy).
We would do well to remember how to celebrate and honour life’s downturns as well as its upturns, its darkness as well as light. We’d have better quality fun this way. It is what might allow the light of our species to hang around longer than currently projected.
In sum, to embrace our Yin natures involves precisely the breaking open of our hearts needed to reconnect us to nature and one another, and to protect the cycles of life, death, and rebirth that all together sustain the web of life. Life is actually more fun, more real this way. We become wild inside (rejoining the passionate cycle of life) and medicine for our times when we allow our hearts to break via acknowledging the painful state of our world, as well as that of our personal lives.
Paradoxically, our transcendent, soulful-spiritual natures can be experienced immanently (in and from our bodies), unveiled from our own bodies, when we allow our hearts to break open. This way our hearts become “as wide as the world.”
This sacred heartbreak is not only the way to a grounded, enriching spirituality but also a path to deeply caring for one another and for nature — an Earth and body-centred spirituality.
Lasting cure comes from addressing the roots of disease.
Even more lasting cure derives from horizontally addressing the pervasive memes that create these same imbalances. I cannot help but turn my gaze to the state of the world and the underlying factors responsible for imbalance and disease … GMOs, pesticides, nuclear pollution, untested and toxic chemicals of all kinds, corrupt governments and policy-making, and global warming compromise our baseline of health. They injure the quality of our food supply, poison our soils and waterways and the air we breathe, and preclude other life forms from an inalienable right to wellness. This fundamental injury to the body of the Earth, to each of us, to our collective medicine chest, cannot be ignored and is our collective task to turn around.
We must heal the system from which we derive nourishment if we want to better our own health.
We cannot focus on and take care of only ourselves. each of us, in some way, is called to chip-in to safeguard and replenish the natural world and our connection with it.
We do this through what and how much we buy, how much we pollute and conserve, the intimacy we cultivate with nature, our work, our activism, and how compassionately we embrace and process our challenging emotions. All this is holistic activism rooted in the nature-respecting balance of Yin and Yang and its Five Elements.
Among the natural remedies I utiliSe in my practice are food, herbs, and clean air. When the nutritional value and bioactive integrity of these raw materials are compromised, I am handicapped and my patients are deprived of the wellness they deserve. To fight for the integrity and preservation of high quality food and herbs — our plant and animal kingdoms — is to fight for all our collective health.
It is not enough anymore to simply treat patients in the small world of private practice when our natural resources are in peril. For this reason I have employed TCM to assess planetary healing. This has meant devoting much more (unpaid) time to becoming an activist, a warrior for the Earth, an active masculine protector (Yang) in service of the Divine feminine (Yin), which is harmonious natural order consistent with Yin-Yang theory and common sense.
Nature, after all, is a repository of healing elixirs, our treasure chest of natural plant, animal, and mineral remedies, both for the ways they help us when we ingest them as well as for the ineffable beauty they offer us just being in their presence.
They gift us mental clarity, inspiration, metaphorical wisdom, and emotional healing.
They offer us unique beauty and awe, the fascination and wonder we find happening upon, say, bugs doing a dance on a log or watching a snake, dappled sunlight, or moon rays on a lake do their thing.
They allow us the sanity of humility, a perspective on our personal hardships, incalculable emotional-spiritual healing when we feel ourselves part of experiences mysteriously restorative, awesomely beyond yet inclusive of our individual selves.
For nature to survive, for humanity to survive, we must now all be activists, planetary healers born out of a deep love and desire to foster and protect all that nurtures and sustains us.
It is normal and second-natured to be concerned, saddened, afraid, and outraged for the modern-day injury to the body of the Earth and its wisdom traditions, on which we are all dependent. Modern science and policy-making, with their reductionist and corporation-corrupted bents, are too focused on material survival, (if even ineffectively) not taking into account the more subtle yet no less crucial and profound ways that we need nature wild and pristine for our physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness and survival.
Even though we might be able to grow food in laboratories or make meat from machines for convenience and profit, or because we despoiled their natural habitats beyond repair, I will miss the integrity of the land, air, and food-growing methods that connect me, and all of us, to a heritage of honour and grounded sanity. For me, a world devoid of nature as we know it is not a world worth surviving.