When the wind works against us

Originally uploaded by chinkon

One month ago I sat on a glider rocker in the bedroom of a 90 year old client. I had just taken his pulse, and put some needles in to alleviate his back pain and shortness of breath. I was taking a few minutes to watch the sparrows and chickadees at the generously stocked feeders outside the window before writing my treatment notes.

The sun shone so brightly, I could barely look directly at the snowy landscape for the glare. I was about to turn my eyes back into the room when, just outside the window, beneath the suet and the sunflower seeds I saw a patch of dull yellow grass. Given a few months time it would be renewed again, becoming green, lush and plump with the rains that are April’s promise. And with that comforting thought, I turned again to thoughts of my client, and his relationship with the coming spring. Maybe he would get out on the rider mower again, releasing that pungent but sweet, just-cut aroma to mingle with the sea-salt air blowing in from the nearby cove.

It was quite possible, however, that he would not. Unlike the spinning earth, whose sun-bound rotation promises spring, my client’s physical fluidity and cohesion turns upon the unpredictable axis of aging, from which departures can be swift or slow, gentle or painful. Not knowing accompanies each of us, as friend or foe. The challenge my client would face as spring lurched forward, would be finding the shifting rhythms of his own life-giving fluids. Even as they move with the primordial rhythms of nature–oceans, forests, planets, moon and stars–they also trace a lone trajectory of waning vitality. Some activities, such as riding on a gas-fueled lawn mower, may generate more fire than is safe for his small internal sea. The same is true for each of us. The flow of our internal sea –were we to freeze it in time at any given moment like a snapshot–would consist of a precise wave-form. Perhaps the greatest task of aging is learning with each passing moment how better to gage the quality and resonance of our own internal sea, and with a combination of acceptance and intention, learning how to ride that precise wave-form rather than be taken under by it.

We surfers have an ally in acupuncture. Acupuncture, a non-verbal education in fluid dynamics, schools us in how not to fall off the ride that is right now. It reorients each of us to our own central cores, so that the essence of our experience embodies who we are. The trick is carrying that sense of being in the flow of one’s life out of the treatment room and into the cacophony of modern American existence, which includes for many older adults a long-list of medications for a long-list of ailments that are often not envisioned as a whole (except by specialists in Chinese medicine).

I returned again to visit my 90 year old client yesterday, four weeks after I mused about him on his riding mower. In that time all the snow in the field outside his house had melted, leaving a dull carpet of rough, yellow grass. This time it was not just chickadees and sparrows at the generously stocked feeders but robins and a blackbird, too. The wind blew strongly against the house, and a squirrel climbed onto a ledge outside the window and scratched the glass. He actually seemed to want to come inside, standing on hind legs, front paws scratching. His belly was white, his gray cheek was turned against the glass, and the black iris of his eye darted around.

Wind. It stirs inside us, too. Sometimes it’s a light breeze that motivates us to clean closets and drawers and sometimes it’s a tornado, stirring a rock slide of stones inside our gallbladders. I’ve been experiencing the former, while my 90 year old client got the latter. 10 days ago he suffered a severe pain in the right lower quadrant of his abdomen. After he waited on a gurney in the ER for 14 hours, a doctor said,

“Stones, your gallbladder is full of stones.”

After some debate about the wisdom of operating on a 90 year old man, the surgery was done. He was discharged the next day, and 10 days later, I could not find his liver or kidney pulse without pushing deep to the bone of his wrist. He said his hips were hurting him, a pattern I’ve seen often repeated: the removal of the gallbladder took only the most solid form of the problem out of the body. The energetic problem remained in the meridian, knocking about like an old tin can.

We are all such vast seas of fluid. It’s the water content of our bodies that makes our cells semi-conductors, piezo-electric communicators speaking a vibratory language of signals our western science does not comprehend. And the truth is, neither do we acupuncturists. As I feel for that variable alteration–whether it’s a softness or a hardness, a moistness or a dryness, an openness or a stickiness– that makes a spot on the skin a living, breathing acupuncture point, I am acknowledging that I don’t know, that the only intelligence that matters here is the intelligence of the client’s meridian system, to which I must give my deepest attention, despite the fact that my intellect can not articulate or communicate what it is that I am looking for. I’m only looking for that moment when I know I have arrived. It is not a “what” that I look for, because the “what” changes and can be different things at different times. It’s more of a “what-when” that I’m looking for, a “right here right now” to use the famous words of Ram Dass. Once I have found the acupuncture point (or the acupuncture point disclosed itself to me), and I insert the needle, I direct my awareness to the tip of the needle and figuratively “aim” at the center of that wave-form, looking for that confirmational tug of Qi.

Meridian medicine requires attention to wave-forms that are constantly in flux. Therefore, it is imperative that I make up every treatment as I go along. Of course traditional or classical point combinations are the places I start. But the true art and science of acupuncture lies like a fox in the grass, a shadow of the moment, to be discovered or not. That fleeting opening that appears out of nowhere, if only for a moment before slipping again into the closed places of our habituated lives is what we acupuncturists look for, a new science of the body and medicine of the soul starts in those openings.

Yesterday, as I touched the body of my 90 year old client, seeking under the light touch of the index finger of my left hand, that special quality of liveness in the points, I was struck by the lack of what I sought. The meridians of the lower legs in particular were like oily asphalt highways–slippery, soft and hard all at the same time. But there was no traffic. No palpable wave-form open to the surf-board needle to carry a message to the center of the sea. I felt that my client’s recovery from surgery, despite the dismissal from his doctor’s care, was not nearly complete. His family members thought his recovery was quick, uneventful and complete. I struggled with how to articulate my findings to the family. I wanted to caution them to allow for more recovery, to encourage them to recognize the toll that had been taken on his overall health and the need to proceed slowly but steadily towards revitalization. At the same time I didn’t want to make it sound too dire.

Perhaps the best way to have explained it would have been to have turned to that rough carpet of grass, it’s liveliness still dormant deep in its roots, awaiting the spring showers and spring winds that will supply the necessary water but keep it from pooling unduly. We all need the same thing. Older adults more than younger, and older adults after surgery even more. We need to cultivate fluidity without flooding. We need golden elixirs in the form of nourishing broths, deep sleep and the pulsing wave forms of the meridians. We need clean water, refreshing breezes and the warmth of the sun.

As I began giving my 90 year old client with the asphalt-like legs an acupuncture treatment, the wind was howling. We were clearly on the cusp of renewal on this small finger of coastal Maine. I put my intention into every needle: may this needle carry the resonant chord of the season into the channels of your body, let it ring true like a harmonic overtone, bringing the rejuvenation of the spring into your body, your consciousness and your heart.

Today it is raining. Tonight I will make soup.