Instructions for Life

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Does sickness live permanently on the bad end of the good-versus-evil spectrum? Or is it possible to be sick in a way that serves self, humanity or even cosmic interests? These are questions I’m continually pondering as I analyze the meaning of symptoms in myself or others, or when I feel the utter unfairness of that hammer-swing of disease diagnosis as it falls upon someone I know or love and cherish.

Whether it’s a viral cold, a heavy malaise with uncontrollable crying, wounded veterans, shattered minds, diabetes, or any other experience of the suffering that comes with this physical, social, cultural, tribal experience–is it important what we make of our symptoms? Does it matter if we see sin, redemption or unworthiness in our frail, human dance between wellness and disordered chaos? What if we truly had joyful hearts, would disease be unable to enter? So say the ancient Chinese sage-healers.

Maybe disease truly is an accident of nature, for which we can never be held accountable, except in our ability to let go gracefully of the smoke and mirrors that constitutes what we think of as our “health.” What if absence of disease were merely an anteroom, a fun house chamber of ignorance out of which we step at some point, into the room with the sign on the door that says simply,


Diagnosis is usually seen as the bad-news end of the health spectrum, just a step or two or three from the point at which we fall off the measuring charts into no body. Death. Is there any other way to look at it? I ask you again, do you think there can be a purpose in illness that serves some higher good? A purpose which would put illness somewhere other than the dreaded end of the spectrum. If we could find ways to put illness into the life-building, life-affirming, heart-expanding end of that spectrum, why would we hesitate? And indeed people do it all the time.

The phoenix rises from the ashes. We are cleansed in some primordial way necessary to our unique circumstances as a body on earth, weighed down as each of us are by the ancestors who came before us by the fire of sickness, while the intentionality of our recovery reaches back to the generations who have gone before, healing the past. Even when nothing rises, not the phoenix, not inspiration, or intention or any sense of purpose whatsoever, even then, when illness consumes us and we have nothing but a moment in which to be fully and utterly dying–even then, isn’t it perfect? How can such an experience be good or evil? It is what it is.

In the Chinese Medicine paradigm, relationships determine relative placement on any bipolar spectrum we could possible dream of. In relation to midnight, dusk is bright. In relation to noon, dusk is dark. So goes the first lesson of Yin and Yang encountered by the student of Chinese Medicine. We are repeatedly asked in our training to consider what we are considering in relation to a host of other phenomenon, theory, and experience. Nothing is. Everything becomes–the more you consider it, the more it becomes. It becomes what it is, not something set in stone but something relative, changeable, inspired by the trickery of the moment, which can do nothing but change, minute by minute.

Dr. Sharon Moalem has written a book called Survival of the Sickest: A Medical Maverick Discovers Why We Need Disease. In it he looks at the evolutionary advantages of certain diseases. He started with a question based on personal experience of hemochromatosis. He wondered why evolution hadn’t long ago weeded out this iron-loading disease in classic survival of the fittest fashion? The answer he found, in short, was that whatever will kill you later but gives you an advantage now (and for long enough for you to reproduce) will stay in the gene pool.

The idea that disease can serve an evolutionary purpose reveals how little we know about health and sickness, or more generally about what is lucky or unlucky in a universe that continually surprises us with its interrelated flows of energy, potential and change.

Consider a little book called Zen Shorts. It was written by Jon J. Muth. I read it to my children. In it, Stillwater, the Panda, tells Michael, a child, a story about good luck and bad luck and how it’s not easy to tell the difference when you take a longitudinal view of how one seemingly good-luck event can have repercussions down the road that are decidedly bad-luck, and vice versa, and on and on into perpetuity. The seemingly bad may ultimately cause more good, while the seemingly good may ultimately lead to more bad. Panda takes things in stride, and like Michael, we realize we understand less than we thought about how our lives have unfolded, or will unfold. And we may question the good/bad values we have placed on our experiences.

In the story that Stillwater tells Michael, a farmer’s lone horse runs away. The neighbors come and say,

Such bad luck!

The farmer says,


The next day the horse returns leading 3 wild horses home. The neighbors again:

Such good luck!

The farmer has the same reply.


Later in the story the farmer’s son rides one of the wild horses, is thrown off and breaks his leg (Bad luck? Maybe). The next day the army comes to gather all the young men for war but the farmer’s son is passed over because of the broken leg (the neighbor’s rejoice in the farmer’s good luck).

Is it bad luck to be sick? If we take a longitudinal view of experience over time what could come from being sick that may not in fact be all that bad? Let’s consider one group of people we commonly see in acupuncture offices. They have a long history of problems. The problems are diverse clinical or subclinical functional issues that have not risen to the macro/visible level of organic disease as contemplated by the technology in our hospitals and MD offices. When that’s the case, and there isn’t a pill or a surgery to fix it, even the most reluctant will often seek care from a different kind of practitioner. Most of these folks would say to me (if I asked),

Hell, yes! It’s bad luck to be sick! No one can figure out what’s wrong with me. I’m not myself, I can’t do what I used to do, I’m hurting, this, this and this is wrong, and they make me feel like I’m crazy!

Acupuncture ensues. Shifting happens. Lifestyle choices are examined and changed. Diet improves. Exercise is up, smoking is down. People start to get better. Way better. Was the sickness bad luck or was it “a lucky break,” something that led to a better alignment of internal resources? Dr. Moalem’s work supports some classical Chinese Medicine principles–if you’re willing to take his work and put it in the context of a different paradigm. The Chinese Medicine principles are:

  • The role of environmental factors (including lifestyle, climactic and toxic influences) on the development of disease.
  • The concept of latency and the Extraordinary vessels.
  • The Chinese Medical Consciousness of Interrelatedness between systems within the human body, between humans (social systems) and between humans and environmental systems.

It takes a lot of work to understand Chinese Medicine; the education is rigorous and often times seemed merciless in both its redundancy and its tendency to undergo a sort of collapse into paradox the deeper we thought we, as students, would get into “understanding.” After working as a full time acupuncturist for a decade, I think the brilliance of Chinese Medicine isn’t that it’s hard to understand and an intellectual challenge but in it’s return again and again to the paradoxical, to the fact that disease unfolds as strangely as humans develop, with unique twists and subplots that we do not, and perhaps will not, understand completely. The brilliance of Chinese Medicine is in standing in the light of the unknown we are not frozen like deer in the headlights. Instead we move through not knowing, reaching for another layer of the unfolding, and another and another. Chinese Medicine gives us ways to interpret human experience of health and disease in the face of the paradoxical. Through listening to the pulse, palpating the abdomen, the meridians, feeling the thump-thump of an acupuncture point grasping a needle acupuncturists are given an opportunity to follow the trail that an illness makes across a body. No two trails are alike. Western medical diagnostics may register the same diseases on many different people. But the thump-thump tells an acupuncturist only about this person, in this moment, and what expands or contracts her health right now.

In Survival of the Sickest, Dr. Moaolem discusses the link between the rapid climate change of the historical era known as the Younger Dryas, during which the temperatures dropped drastically over a short period of time, and diabetes. Being really cold for a long period of time may have favored people with diabetes, allowing them to live long enough to reproduce. He discusses the probability that excess iron in the blood as in hemochromotosis favored male survival during the plague. When the body has chronically high iron levels, it initiates a selective iron lock-down, keeping iron away from certain cells, including macrophages. Without iron, macrophages were actually more effective immune system cells, all because iron actually feeds the plague. Who knew?

The book also looks at high cholesterol as a climactic response to low sunlight (cholesterol is important in the manufacturing of Vitamin D). It looks at the evolution not only of humans, but of viruses, which we tend to think of as things we are engaged with in battle. Dr. Moalem posits that much of our DNA is actually viral in nature. Read the book! It’s cool.

Dr. Moalem points out that the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is an outgrowth of our battle mentality and suggests that knowing how evolution changes things can teach us to develop health strategies based on meeting evolutionary needs of the bugs. In other words, the natural evolution of bugs favors survival and reproduction of the bugs. This is the evolutionary goal of all creatures great and small. So what if we find ways to influence that evolution away from methods of ensuring pathogen survival that are harmful to humans? Can you say win/win? This is an astounding, refreshing, radical idea for science, and at the same time completely resonant with the concept in Chinese Medicine of external causes of disease (climactic, toxic, and lifestyle). The approach to an externally-contracted disease in Chinese medicine is to release it, drain it, or change it. It can be a longer process than the big pharmaceutical hammer of some drugs but it will not make super-bugs that are resistant to treatment down the road.

A friend of mine, Michael Kelly, has done a video called Leading from the Emerging Future. You can look at it here. (Sorry, haven’t figured out how to actually paste the video here…). The idea is that the rapid growth of technology is in a state of discordance with the tendencies of humans to become entrenched in the familiar. We are habitualized beings. The risk is that we will not adapt. We will be outpaced by ourselves and lose harmonic resonance with the earth. Michael urges us to learn the art of change as if our lives depended on it. If we do not lead from the emerging future, we will be done in by it.

Perhaps this is the key to finding the heart of sickness as it impacts individuals, families, friendship networks, towns, whole cultures, our planet. Sickness asks something different of us. We cannot go about our business in the same way anymore. We are challenged to lead from that which emerges rather than from our habits. When we or someone we love is sick we feel the edge of darkness, it breaths on our necks and we walk in it. When my father was dying in his last days he called out in semi-delirium,

I don’t have the instructions. Where are the instructions!

In Chinese Medicine the extraordinary vessels (EV) have the ability to make latent an influence, experience, or toxic phenomena that would overwhelm the primary channels were it not siphoned off through the EVs. This ability is the point of connection between genetics and Chinese Medicine. I have inherited my father’s call for instructions. But my gifts are different than his. He was a social scientist. Statistics, norms and deviations were his comfort foods. For me, the walk in the dark is it’s own reward. I am willing to stand in the emerging future without instructions. Statistics mean nothing in the face of one illness. Because in the face of every illness are the eyes of a magnificent soul. As for norms and deviants, it’s all in the perspective. It’s never solid or absolute. One person’s normal is another person’s craziness. Like the walk I took in the woods with June 30 years ago I am willing to go forward without sight, to feel my way like a galactic octopus through the experience of sickness in the community that is mine, that is me, and us. Survival of the sickest isn’t just about genetic advantages of diseases. Survival of the sickest is also about practicing the art of leading from the emerging future. It does not come with instructions.