The following is a comprehensive interview with Jeffrey Yuen regarding his public lecture on the topic entitled “All Diseases Are Rooted In The Spirit”. By Arminta Wallace, Irish Times.
Jeffrey, before we get into the nitty-gritty of your spring lecture topic for 2012, I’d love to ask you something I’ve been wondering about for a while now. Given that you’re so busy with your work in the US, and also that you’re invited to teach all over the world, how is it that you find time to come to us in Dublin every year? After all, we’re a pretty small pin on the international map!
Well, first of all I like the Irish! And second, Paul (McCarthy of ACCM) feels I have something to contribute to the Chinese medical community in Ireland — and I enjoy doing that. I think that’s also part of my mission, to be able to be of service.
You’ve chosen a special series of topics for these Irish sessions, haven’t you?
That’s right. The channel systems. In Chinese medicine, you have a group of meridians or channels. Each channel is supposed to target a particular level of health and balance. In modern acupuncture training you don’t learn all the channel systems; Paul sees that as a deficit, so he asked me to come and teach the remaining systems. This will be the last of those sessions. It will be about the Eight Extraordinary Vessels: one of the most revered channel systems, historically, within acupuncture.
The weekend of teaching is primarily aimed at acupuncture practitioners, although of course it’s of interest to everyone who has an interest in healing. But the topic for your public lecture this year is both fascinating and controversial. “All Diseases Are Rooted In The Spirit.” Could you begin by explaining where that title comes from?
It’s a quotation from the Ling Shu. That’s a set of scroll on the subject of acupuncture, from the time of the warring states in Chinese history. Or what’s called in Western history the axial period, from 800 BC to 200 BC, when many cultures came up with a large number of philosophical ideas, independently but around the same time. It begins by saying that one should always use acupuncture rooted in the spirit. But, of course, you have to define what “spirit” means before you can start.
A very tricky business. How do you define it in this context, Jeffrey?
What is meant is the person’s point of reference at the time they come in to see the practitioner. What are they feeling in terms of their own self? That’s their spirit. Their sense of calm. Their sense of measure – also, their sense of fear. So what is their presence at the time you’re treating them? If they come in with a state of fear, it’s part of your role as a clinician to guide them out of that fear, because fear itself is going to be detrimental to the healing process.
So what you’re NOT saying, when you say, “all diseases are rooted in the spirit”, is that we all somehow cause our own illnesses?
No. It’s not like everyone’s responsible for their own disease, per se, in that they caused it. But that they do have the power to work with themselves in changing the dynamics of their lives. In other words, a great part of the solution lies within the person themselves.
What we’re talking about, then, is the individual’s capacity to heal themselves with some guidance from the practitioner — rather than the practitioner “prescribing” a course of treatment, which the person simply accepts in a passive way . . .
The important thing, really, is to not try to infer what we know about the condition on to the patient. Once you give a disease a label . . . say you have a common cold. There’s already a certain expectation that it’s going to take a certain amount of time to heal myself of this cold, and if I seek medical intervention this is the type of medication I would be given. We expect that if we get this medication, we’ll get this result. Many of us already believe that. So when we go to the doctor, they say; “You have a cold. It’s a bacterial infection. Here is a prescription for antibiotics.” As a consumer, that’s what you expect them to give you because it’s advertised on television and so on. We’ve been almost hypnotised into the process.
So what healing is all about, in that scenario, is that the clinician is the person who guides us along the way. And the knowledge that we learn in medical school corresponds to the roads that we believe people need to follow if they’re going to heal — or, in some cases, if they’re going to not heal. Because sometimes, some of these roads are going to be dead ends. We don’t see people getting better of that particular disease label.
But there are other roads. A diagnosis does not have to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s like, if I go on a tour with you I can show you the things I think you should see: but you can also wander off by yourself and follow a different path, which might be a much more interesting path for you. We don’t all need to travel on the big highway of life.
What a wonderfully liberating idea. This definition of “spirit”, then, isn’t a particularly religious definition? People don’t need to be wary of it, that it’s going to involve them in some religious subtext?
No. That’s a misconception. To me, “spirit” simply means a state of peace. Someone is spiritual — even if they’re not religious — if they’re in a state of peace. Say a patient comes in to see me. I’m trying to feel, are they at peace with their condition? Because if so, they already have a sense of what their condition means to them. So what I’m trying to do is give them guidance for how they can maintain that state of peace.
My general way of seeing patients is, I tell them to come back and see me four or six weeks later. Some people say, “Well, shouldn’t I be coming back to see you, like, once a week? Or every other day?” And I would say, “Well, if you want to come and see me every other day, or once a week, it must mean that you feel the disease has a greater control over you. You feel you need the reassurance — that I’m going to tell you that you’re doing better.
The idea is that if you give yourself the chance to heal, your body does heal. But if you worry about, can I heal on time, or am I healing now, you’re creating a situation that’s making it hard for you to really heal. We can never fully understand why we heal: we can only understand how we heal. From a scientific point of view they can tell you how certain wounds are healing, and the physiological process and so forth. But why does it heal? That’s the spirit — an intrinsic way by which the body heals itself.
Jeffrey, it seems counter-intuitive to talk about people being “at peace” with their illness. More often they seem to be at war with it, or angry with it, or overwhelmed by it.
Well, that’s because their illness is a reflection of their life.
When I say “at peace”, I mean do you feel that you have a situation in your life that you can control? If you feel you can’t control it, you often seek external solutions — and that means you are potentially relegating the healing process away from yourself. According to the classic acupuncture texts, the person has the intrinsic ability to heal themselves. For example, if I have a low back pain I might be angry at that pain because it’s preventing me from going to work — preventing me from doing a lot of physical things. But it might be a relationship that I have with work that I really don’t want to go there every day. Maybe I have a lot of responsibility in my life right now that I’m bearing the weight of. So, you see, already it’s coming from a sense that I’m not at peace with my life. And so the back pain is just the body giving me the attention that I need to pay to my life. If I solve the fact that I don’t like my job, or I don’t like these responsibilities, maybe the back pain will go away — and more importantly, I’m finding a state of peace when I get rid of those things. Because those are the things that eat away at us all the time.
For example I believe that a lot of people have cancer, and that they have rid themselves of it prior to it being diagnosed. We have cancer cells all the time; and maybe during a traumatic moment in our lives, there’s a part of us that felt like we died. That’s a breeding ground for cancer to manifest. But then you pick yourself up, and something wonderful happens in your life, and that dull pain that you forgot about that you didn’t go and get checked – maybe if you had got it checked, doctors would have found cancer cells. So now you’re in a better place in your life, and a state of peace, and you go to your doctor for a regular check-up. And they find nothing.
So it may be better, for our well-being, not to know certain things?
We set ourselves up, a lot of the time. You read the paper, and the paper informs you about some type of terrible condition and all that. If you can’t stand reading it, well then you shouldn’t be reading it – because the more you read about it, the more you allow it to disempower you. A lot of people do that when they have a disease. They go on to the Internet, or read a lot about it, and a lot of times it’s putting into their minds: “These are the facts. These are the conclusions. This is the path that you have to follow”. And that doesn’t necessarily give us a good measure of peace in our lives.
In the end, what you’re saying is that to be truly effective, a healing therapy must involve some kind of personal transformation. . .
It comes back to the idea that we’re treating the self — treating the individual. But if the person is not at that time in their life where they can make some of these important changes, that’s what we’re working with. We’re always working with the individual. They may have a very serious disease, but the fact that we use the word “serious” means that already our mindset is locked on to it. Or the patient’s mindset is locked on to it. That’s the position that we have to work from.
To me, the understanding of the word “spirit” is like a breakthrough in your own consciousness. Changing the way you think about yourself and how you deal with illness. It’s not an indictment. It’s not saying that I’ve caused this illness. It’s more an invitation to think about our lives. Are we following our mission? Some people would say spirit is, what is your purpose. Is this person fulfilling their purpose? We go through life every day, we do what we do, and we’re not really feeling the sense that there is a mission out there — something that really animates the spirit and animates who we are. We’re just going through the motions.
What extraordinary practical wisdom there is in these ancient texts, Jeffrey — so long as we have someone wise, like yourself, to interpret them for us, and make them relevant to our 21st-century lives. Our society doesn’t appear to be a very wise one. I wonder what it will be called, when historians look back a thousand years from now?
Actually I think we’re at the threshold of another axial period. I think this is part of that awakening of human consciousness. There’s a change going on in the earth. You’ve probably noticed in Ireland — certainly in the States, we hardly had a winter this year. There’s a change going on, and I think that has to ripple back to the human condition. I think it’s really about an awakening of our consciousness so that we won’t be so dependent on progress, on technology — but maybe, in a small way, looking back to see what we’re capable of. Becoming independent rather than more dependent.