External sources have to do with things in the external environment and their effects on our bodies. Weather, temperature fluctuations, air quality, and the food that we eat all have effects on our health. In many cases, we have no control over these “external” causes of disease. However, according to Chinese thinking, if we choose to live within the cycles of nature by eating, sleeping, and behaving in accord with what is happening around us, we can maintain a healthy equilibrium.
Internal causes of disease relate more to our emotions and the way that we choose to respond to them. The “seven emotions” (joy, anger, grief, fear, love, hate, desire) and the “six needs” (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, will) are natural characteristics of the human condition. According to Taoist philosophy, if people’s emotions are balanced, and their needs are modest- health will never be endangered. For most of us, however, this is a state of being that must be learned and does not usually come easy.
Classical Chinese medicine professor Heiner Fruehauf explains that in the West, when people have an emotional imbalance we tend to label the condition as some sort of “stress”. Emotional stress, however, is usually regarded as a confounding rather than a causative factor in Western pathophysiology. This assessment is contrary to the thinking of classical Chinese medicine, which originally regarded emotional imbalance as an affliction of primary significance. Further, while ancient Chinese philosophy considered emotional sensibility as our greatest asset in the process of fulfilling our destiny, it also regarded human emotion as our chief liability due to its vast pathogenic potential.
There are many ways of coping with the unpleasant things and situations in our lives. The strategies, however, will differ from person to person. Some people “tune out” by sleeping, watching TV or using the Internet, others seek momentary pleasures in food, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and sex. Ultimately, not many of us are willing and experienced enough to fully be in the emotion, experiencing it with all of its discomforts and pain without identifying ourselves in it. Regardless of the way we try to escape the suffering, the emotions that we are suppressing have an effect on our bodies. The energies that are associated with these emotions are also suppressed creating systemic blockages and imbalances. Overtime if not properly resolved, acute emotional problems can turn into tangible physiological conditions.
Think for a moment about the damming of a river. When we put a blockage in a waterway the water behind the dam begins to collect and eventually forms a lake, flooding a huge area. While pressure behind the dam steadily increases, downstream the flow is reduced. Areas that used to receive water dry up, and we are left with an altered and unbalanced system. From the view of acupuncture, the same thing happens in our bodies. When we habitually suppress emotions to avoid suffering we create a dam, blocking the flow of qi (energy).
The resulting patterns of disharmony in our bodies depend on a person’s constitution and the ways that they have been conditioned to deal with their emotions. For example, one person who has experienced chronic grief might present in the clinic complaining of asthma, dry skin and depression, while another may experience the underlying grief as a hot temper with migraine headaches and sciatica. It is the Chinese Medicine Doctor’s job to recognize the nature of the blockage and the resulting patterns of disharmony in his/her patients. Through acupuncture and herbal therapy, the blockages can be opened. Eventually, blood and energy begin to flow again restoring the yin/yang balance and the body’s equilibrium.
More importantly, from a classical Chinese medicine perspective, this balanced state can give us the outlook needed to start working with our reactions and blockages from the inside out. Hence, we can choose to become more aware of how we react to our unique emotional suffering. The more aware we are, the easier it becomes to respond to our emotions with space and care rather than reverting to unconscious conditioned reactions.
As Joseph Goldstein notes in his book Insight Meditation- The Practice of Freedom, “An emotion is like a cloud passing through the sky. Sometimes it is fear or anger,sometimes it is happiness or love, sometimes it is compassion. But none of them ultimately constitute a self. They are what they are, each manifesting its own quality. With this understanding, we can cultivate the emotions that seem helpful, and simply let the others be, without aversion, without suppression, without identification.”
An emotion is just a transitory response to the transitory events in our lives. We all have the potential to view them as such, without creating the energetic dams that contribute to disease. However, until we arrive at this place on our own, Chinese medicine is there as a signpost to help guide the way.