Human Life: It’s NOT Just Physical

Each person is an embodied spirit (jīngshén (精神)), who lives through interacting with the world. Those interactions are polar, as individuals take in various influences from the world and release byproducts of their life process back out to the world. Breathing is one such interaction; it provides the source of being. Each individual’s quest for food and drink motivates other key physical interaction. [For more on the Chinese medical framework for understanding the vital transactions of life, see my essay “Managing the Internal Economy.”]

In addition to these physical interactions, individuals internalize and digest their experiences in life. Classical Chinese medical theory suggests that these experiential interactions are even more fundamental than physical ones in the development of each individual’s eventual challenges with disease.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words, Except When it Comes to Human Health.

Modern medical technologies are truly amazing! MRIs and CT scans generate accurate and detailed visual images of the inside of an individual patient’s body. What could be better for helping a medical practitioner diagnose a patient’s ailment and discern what treatment(s) are necessary? It’s SO obvious; it must be true. Mustn’t it?

During the past twenty years, medical researchers have done several research studies using MRIs or CT scans on the relationship between physical lesions around the spine and clinical back pain, including pains that “radiate” from the spine into the extremities. That research has uniformly shown there is AMAZINGLY poor correlation between those “obviously” related issues. That is:

  • A fairly large portion of people with apparently serious lesions (including disc bulges or herniations) had mild back pain or dysfunction.
  • Another fairly large portion of people with small lesions had severe pain, which was sometimes debilitating.
  • It’s also fairly common that people have physical lesions in one location, and pain in another. That might be on the other side, or even a different level of the spine.

What’s up with that? I don’t believe modern (western) medicine has an explanation, yet my work with classical Chinese medicine is not affected by such anomalies. Indeed, CCM theory provides a simple explanation, which involves the embodied spirit’s ability (and willingness) to adapt to various individual physical challenges. My job as a practitioner is to find ways to stimulate and facilitate that natural process. Surgeons change the physical “picture,” and they have an unsolvable problem when that physical picture doesn’t match the patient’s experience.

Please note: I’m NOT denying that physical “reality” has SOME impact on human health, I’m just saying it’s not the ENTIRE story. We can’t predict the nature of a patient’s experience, nor can we determine what therapies will prove necessary, or sometimes even helpful, by analyzing a physical picture alone.

I’ve used acupuncture and Chinese herbs to help LOTS of individuals avoid surgeries that their medical doctors had thought necessary. Many of my patients try Chinese medicine BEFORE submitting to various modern medical treatments, because the ancient therapies seek to stimulate the patient’s own healing process rather than controlling its expression of distress. It turns out that physical pictures are just that, and the embodied spirit has its own potential for healing. Perhaps medical scientists should research optimizing THAT, rather than demeaning it as placebo.