Healing River – Understanding the Flow of Acupuncture

Grand Canyon of the Elwha, photo by Brett Barton

Grand Canyon of the Elwha 1985. The river roared like the jaws of death as it crashed and churned around a blind corner deep in the black walled canyon. I had descended past the point of no return – the overhanging cliffs on both sides offered no choice but to go on. My friend had disappeared ahead – to his death or delight, I did not know.  I was alone, clinging to a tiny pool of calm between the vertical rock on one side and the raging torrent, I glanced up at the sky and realized there was only one thing to do – let go into the current. So I did.

The act of letting go – of fear, feelings of limitations, and ultimately, of one’s separate sense of identity –  is the quintessential act of healing. Sometimes in my dreams, I drop the world bound identity and fly high across the universe on wings of pure light. Upon awakening though, something happens. Unconscious habit pulls me back into the ego-prison of limited identity where I get tripped up on a daily basis – by the movement of inanimate wheeled objects on asphalt (“don’t they know how to drive?”), facial muscle patterns of others (“how dare they give me that look”), the vibrations of vocal chords (“the nerve of him to say that”) – trifling things.  Until I remember – let go.

When someone seeks out my acupuncture services, my first job is to listen.  I listen to their aches and pains and then I ask a few questions about their life in order to place their concerns in context. This process is as much for them to gain self-awareness of the relevance of lifestyle factors influencing disease, as it is for me to build a bridge of friendship and trust. Building the bridge between two people is the first step to energizing the acupuncture treatment which follows. The treatment is informed by the picture I paint in my mind, the landscape containing the totality of who they are in that moment – aches and pains and energy blockages, held within that which is life affirming: the love, joy, dreams and aspirations.

One of my acupuncture teachers once, when remarking on how he works with people diagnosed with cancer said this – I look for the healthy energy within a person and find ways to support that.  I think that could be a useful model for inter-personal relationships and social justice activism in general.

Leaving aside mystical theories about different acupuncture point functions, theories of channels, and primal concepts like Yin, and Yang, my job quite simply is to help each individual plug into the source chi (energy) which vibrates at their core. The acupuncture treatment stimulates that, inviting it to move through them from head to toe, awakening the foundational chi of the body, and even the non-physical forces which transcend death (i.e. the most subtle mind), bringing them into greater awareness. The goal is not only to move the healthy energy, but to refine it and make it clear by removing the stagnation, so that it flows like the pristine waters of a wild river.

What gets in the way of a successful acupuncture treatment – or life generally? Holding on. Chi follows mind. When people settle into a treatment, I encourage them to let go of their busy planning, thinking, rehearsing mind and focus on the breath. If one is able to quiet all thought and remain in a concentrated state, free of distractions, the body and mind enter a state of subtle bliss. Knots in the energy channels begin to open, allowing refined chi to flow, clearing out blockages (disease), and bringing a sense of ease (healing). Muscles and joints relax and pain diminishes. Headaches spontaneously resolve. Deeper healing on virtually any condition begins.

Of course, new obstacles can be uncovered and the process can take time, depending upon how imbalanced the energy is.  But if we keep training our body and mind to let go, to spontaneously release tension and eventually, to pass directly through obstacles with the wisdom understanding the true nature of all things, unlimited healing is always possible, though it may not conform to our initial pre-conceived notions of what healing is.

If all this seems unnecessarily esoteric and obscure, rest assured that acupuncture still works just fine if you just take a nap – which most people seem to do eventually. See you on the river!


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