Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Today is the shortest day of the year in earth’s Northern Hemisphere. Tomorrow, the incremental lengthening of daylight in the long slow transition towards summer begins. Superficially, this reality runs counter to our experience. Here in the North American northeast, we have only just put our gardens to sleep, hauled out our winter clothing, started shovelling snow, and graced our windows with seasonal lights. It feels like winter has just begun. And yet, it is the unfolding of summer that has just begun? How can that be? The same apparent conflict between experience and reality can be found at the ‘other end’, when, it seems to us, summer has really just begun and the days are already starting to shorten (the day after June 21).
This is how the process and flow of change in nature works. The beginnings of things germinate long before they manifest enough for us to be in the full-fledged experience of them. The same thing happens in the 24 hour diurnal cycle. We think of 6 or 7 a.m. as the morning and 6 or 7 p.m. as the evening. Those are the times morning and evening are full blown; in their full expression. But the barely perceptible inklings of morning or evening, the very beginnings of morning-ness or evening-ness start many hours before the full expression arrives.
If you are really tuned in to things, you can usually feel these unfolding phases of change somewhere quite early along in the process. You may be familiar with that day in January – the temperature is way below freezing, snow abounds, we are in the depths of winter, and yet, for a moment, you catch that very first germ of Spring in the air. It can be powerful enough to inspire unbuttoning your collar and tilting your head up towards the sun, a fleeting anticipatory worshipful nod to Spring long before it’s fully abundant arrival.
Consider the Yin Yang symbol. The two small black and white dots in the centre of the curvy teardrop shapes of the opposite colour depict this germination of beginnings very well. Because it’s a frozen picture, the Yin Yang symbol appears static. In fact, the symbol portrays a dynamic mutually rhythmic back and forth interplay of transformational change from embryonic beginnings to full blown manifestation between the Yin and the Yang. In ancient Chinese cosmology, this perpetual bellows-like process is seen as a core dynamic at play in all natural processes – and across all frames of time and space, from the immediate scale of one single breathing inhalation-exhalation cycle, through the 24 hour cycle of sunrise and sunset, to the annual cycling of the seasons and up and out to the unimaginably vast expansion and contraction of the entire universe. This is our matrix. The Universe, one of my Chinese Medicine teachers reminds us, is one giant breathing mechanism. And in the grandest, most profound medical context, the degree to which you are leading a life in resonance with that mechanism, on all levels, is a profound measure of your health, on all levels. Nothing is more fundamental than this. This should be the very bedrock of any worthy healthcare framework, a ‘mission statement’ if you will.
We can use this implicit feature of the nature of change to inform how we interpret, relate to, go with and at times run the flow of our lives. Some of it is certainly out of our control with our task being to go along for the ride. This, in itself is often no small matter, no simple passive process. ‘Going with the flow’ is a big deal. Most of us actively exert varying degrees of energy-consuming resistance and habitually willed friction in opposition to even that process! And some of it is ours to actually orchestrate. Unlike most of nature (I say ‘most’ because, make no mistake, we ARE also nature, despite the characteristics which seem to generate the illusion we are not), we human beings stand alone in the exceptional degree to which exertion of our will plays a role in how we unfold. That is both and at the same time our genuinely unique opportunity for promise and for peril as human beings, a blessing and a curse. That’s the deal.
Mastery of aligning and engaging with this process is the very art of living – knowing what (substance) and when (timing) not to resist and allow and what and when to embolden with active will and assertive engagement, to move with the breath and not against it. Part of mastering the process of living life is learning to recognize, harness and even at times, execute the very germination of beginnings. Like catching a wave when body surfing, timing is nothing short of everything. It is very literally, pivotal. A moment too soon or too late and you’ve lost 90% of what the wave had to offer you, the sweet spot, the golden opportunity. On either side of that ‘continental divide’ of the timings of our lives, lies more effort, more struggle, more pain, and more suffering than is necessary. Of course, a life fully lived is a journey towards this ideal, one to which we never fully arrive, but towards which, perpetually striving and approaching is the very stuff of full engagement.
Counter to core assumptions of our dominant current culture, it is rarely ever true that things just happen out of the blue, at least not according to this ancient insight into the fundamental dynamics of change. In this context, you don’t just suddenly slip and hurt your ankle or wake up one morning to suddenly find your partner was having an affair. There is usually a long slow cumulative slide towards the point where events turn dramatically. That unfolding is rife with layers of some combination of avoidance, denial, suppression, repression, numbness and fog. In fact, the better part of our modern economy is built upon the habitual consumption of aids to support this dysfunctional relationship to change.
Let’s consider some examples of how we might radicalize, reorient and recalibrate our relationship to life, with this perspective on the dynamic of change in mind.
An argument, an affair, a deal-breaking conflict. Most often largely attributed to what one person did or said at one point in time. At best, perhaps some collaborative or mediated admission of the I-said-you-said role of both, but usually just located in that very moment of crisis or a slight stretch back into the most recent lead up phase to the crisis. In truth, the more, the deeper, the further you look, the finer and more lucid your senses, candour and honesty allow you to look, the beginnings of such things stretch further and further back until, ultimately, it even becomes almost impossible to locate the embryogenesis of relationship discord.
Go deep enough and that day in blazing hot and passionate August when you felt that first homeopathic chill will be seen for what it was. In relationships, and particularly if life is lived with fully reflective engagement, a shift from gross awareness to subtle awareness emerges, and the perception of the beginnings of things clarifies. If we are healing and growing fully, all of our senses, feelings, and authentic intuitions (an important qualification because there are, indeed, counterfeit intuitions!) open up wide. And catching the early whiffs of discord, the very beginnings of things enables us to put our relationship to the test right then and there. If both partners can handle facing the beginnings of such things with loving, vulnerable care and engagement, the growth of discord and a pathological expression of the Yin Yang dynamic will be averted. Course correcting at the leading edge of things shifts the relationship into a healthy, rich and rewarding version of the Yin Yang dynamic (or even possibly, if it’s the right thing to do, to leave it and move on).
Let’s be very clear. Yin Yang does not care. It’s dynamic will express itself regardless of our choices. From a Yin Yang perspective, a heart attack, cancer or even Donald Trump are perfect responses to the full set of movements in play. It is up to us to care and to master our navigation of the dynamic.
Some forms of medicine are most useful with the endgame. When things have gone far. Beyond thresholds into advanced stages of disease where heroic measures are what is appropriate and what is needed. That is the territory where often (but not always, it’s not clear cut) modern biomedicine is most appropriate. It is certainly where modern biomedicine is strongest (and indeed, life saving). The -ectomies and -otomies, the replacements and death-defying hookups. This is the medical equivalent of the realm of divorce. Drastic measures for drastic times.
Some forms of medicine are most useful in the earlier and intermediate unfoldings of things – when our bodies are most certainly telling us to pay attention, through all the implicit wisdom, signs, symptoms and compensations they offer us. That is often (again, not always) where Chinese Medicine is the tool chest of choice (or should be). In such stages, the inherent wisdom of a body-mind-spirit we can barely understand is still essentially intact – what is needed often is to get what is in the way out of the way and an appropriate course correction underway.
Collectively, our medical system and individually, our personal lives, are overwhelmingly oriented towards the endgame – when crisis level dysfunction erupts and heroic measures are required. Certainly there is awareness and talk of preventative medicine and wellness but this conversation is very much in its infancy. The much needed recalibration of both our healthcare system and our personal lives lies ahead of us in strategies and perspectives we have barely begun to understand, develop and embrace. For example, as an acupuncturist, I am still much more often than not, a last attempt by a patient to seek resolution to a problem. “You’re my last hope” is a refrain I hear almost daily. In a sane healthcare system that understood the nature of change, my services would most often be one of the first attempts at rectification.
III. Preparing for Major Life Transitions
The majority of my patients fall into the 40 to 55 age bracket. For those with children, this typically means 5 to 15 years away from the kids fully leaving home. For those with routine jobs, this means 10 to 20 years from ‘retirement’. Big life junctures are appearing on the horizon – the empty nest, and the end of 9 to 5 commuter work patterns with varying degrees of soul-level imprisonment, depending on the details. We are all very much encouraged to plan for later stages of life in the financial realm (pensions, investments, college funds, etc). But comparatively, far less attention is paid to other domains of our lives that are certainly of equal, if not greater importance.
Engagement with the nature of change, the ebbs and flows, the very beginnings of things would have us actively seeding the transition to empty nest and ‘retirement’ 10-15 years before those junctures arrive in their full bloom. This should include candid consideration of who and what we want to be in that next phase of life. Thanks to longer life spans, this phase of life can easily be another 25 to 30 years. That seeding might involve something like learning a second language, learning a new skill, beginning a particular spiritual path or seeking and engaging in particular relationships.
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Mastering our relationship to these principles is no small matter. These are the hard learned principles of a life fully lived, acquired and embodied over a lifetime of engaged living, replete with mistakes, missteps, failures, successes, inspirations and disappointments, and nothing less than that.
The day after December 21, when each progressive day becomes longer, even though we feel deeply in the throes of winter, summer has begun! Translating that understanding and all of it’s implications profoundly into our lives is the highest practice of medicine, where the ‘standard of care’ radically reorients from short-term comfort into long-term transformation.
At that level, we must surrender our preoccupations with short-term cause and effect thinking and seek resonance with the dynamic of the grand breathing mechanisms that animate our matrix. We must perpetually fine-tune our capacity to enlist the magical paradox of surrender to and engagement with the grand process of change.
A Cautionary Note: I realize this post can all be read and interpreted as a cold-hearted assertion that ‘everything is our fault’. Please avoid the polarizing temptation within yourself to read it that way. It’s very true that so much is way beyond our control and influence in this life and there is so much mystery we can never understand or anticipate. None of that is excluded from the picture I’ve painted here. At least that’s not been my intention.