As an acupuncturist and a gluten-free mom raising a gluten-free child, I have wondered quite a bit about gluten from the perspective of Chinese medicine. Of course, Chinese medicine has no monolithic perspective on gluten intolerance. But I enjoy this sort of cross-cultural musings, and reflecting on commonalities among different aspects of my own experience. Nothing much came of my musings, until…
…today, while riding a stationery bike at the YMCA, while simultaneously reading a book (I know! Terrible multitasking!), the point of connection occurred to me suddenly and without warning (and me on a bike without a pen): Wu, which translates as non-being is the point of connection between Chinese medicine and gluten intolerance.
If you haven’t snorted, rolled your eyes and left his post (post-haste), bear with me while I try to tease this little insight out into the light of (a now dwindling and snowy) day.
Gluten is a protein in certain foods that makes the food puff up, swell and become sticky. It’s a primary ingredient in all mass-produced baked goods–breads, crackers, muffins, cookies, pies, etc. as well as an ingredient in many unexpected places: vinegar, salad dressing, soy sauce, and others. In metaphorical psychology it is kin to egotistical and arrogant thinking, to a “puffed up” view of one’s own self-importance.
You have to have a little perspective on Wu (non-being), if you’re going to follow this strange correspondence all the way there. As I understand it non-being (Wu) is a fundamental underlying principle of Chinese ontology, which informs both Chinese philosophy and Chinese medicine. Ontology is the study of being. In the ancient text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says
All things in the world come into being from Being (Yu); and Being comes into being from Non-being (Wu).
(Chapter 40). I read something quite funny the other day about the Neo-Taoists (many of whom thought Confucius a greater sage than Lao Tzu or Chuang Tzu). This is from “A Short History of Chinese Philosophy” by Fung Yu-Lan, a book I bought back in 1978 or 1979 when my high school boyfriend, Jeffrey, and I used to go to Samuel Weiser’s bookstore in New York City. Years later, after Jeffrey and I lost touch we simultaneously graduated from acupuncture schools on different coasts. It was a number of years later when we learned of our similar paths. Here Fung Yu-Lan is quoting the Shih-shuo Hsin-yu (Chapter 4):
Wang Pi [226-249], when young, once went to see P’ei Hui. [P’ei] Hui asked him why, since Wu [Non-being] is fundamental for all things, Confucius did not speak about it, whereas Lao Tzu expounded this idea without stopping. To this Wang Pi answered: “The sage [Confucius] identified himself with Wu [Non-being] and realized that it could not be made the subject of instruction, with the result that he felt compelled to deal only with Yu [Being]. But Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu had not yet completely left the sphere of Yu [Being], with the result that they constantly spoke of their own deficiencies.
Fung Yu-Lan adds, “This explanation reflects the idea expressed by Lao Tzu that “he who knows does not speak; he who speaks does not know.” (Lao-tzu, ch. 56).”
But what does this have to do with gluten intolerance? Gluten intolerance is growing like wildfire. It’s almost as if this near epidemic is a canary in the coal mine, warning us of a major weakness in our microcosmic system (the body) and in our macrocosmic system (American culture). We’re too full. We need more space, more emptiness, less puffed-up-ness in our lives. One of the basic healing principles of Taoist-informed acupuncture is that proper insertion of the right needles allows a person to recede from the complicated, often messed-up experience of being, and to journey, if only for a short time, into that realm of Being and Non-being. Just as Lao Tzu said, “reversing is the movement of the Tao,” so too is going backwards to one’s source energy a movement which will heal.
Abstaining from gluten–that which fills, expands, makes sticky and full–can be a similar reverse movement towards an emptiness that is resonant with the deepest origins of being–Being, and deeper still with the origins of Being in Non-Being. This is an idea that is also resonant with the school of thought in Chinese Medicine which arose sometime during the Jin/Yuan Dynasties (1115-1368 A.D.) with the Treatise of the Spleen and Stomach by Li Gong Yuan, in which the origin of disease is believed to lie in deficiencies of these organs. It’s also resonant with current nutritional wisdom in which fruits and vegetables are the key to health, and with another fact established by Western medicine: The single dietary feature proven to be linked with a long life is merely the low calorie diet; In other words, if you experience a little less fullness, you will live a little longer.
There is an acupuncture point a few inches from and on either side of the navel called Tianshu (translated as Celestial or Spiritual Pivot). This name (and location of the point at the center of the body) reflects the cosmology underlying Chinese Medicine in which the person is the conduit or meeting point between heaven and earth. The relationship between person-heaven-earth is not just a theoretical construct but something that is embodied in the structure and functioning of the meridian system, of which Tianshu, the Celestial Pivot is a part. The human body is a map not only of personal experiences and relationships but of cosmic ones as well.
Could the growing prevalence of gluten intolerance (including but not limited to celiac disease) be a symptom of something out of balance not only in the afflicted guts of so many individuals but also in the relationship of all humans with heaven and earth? Is there a connection between gluten intolerance and global warming, massive pollution, depleted uranium and an overall lack of respect for the living planet on which we live? If there is (and I believe so) then until we are comfortable as a society with reversing these deadly trends (reversing is the movement of tao), then what we eat and how our individual digestive systems react to what we eat, will be the least of our planetary survival concerns.