Interview — Empowering the Self to Confront Illness

jeffrey-yuen-chineseIt’s 10 am in New York, and Jeffrey Yuen answers the phone at the Chinatown Wellness Centre on Walker Street. “Did Paul (McCarthy of ACCM in Ireland) put you up to this?” he asks, laughing.  Well, yes he did. But to be honest it’s always good to talk to Master Yuen — who always has something interesting, challenging and often — literally — life-changing to say.  This year, his weekend workshop on Chinese Medical Aromatherapy at the Royal Marine Hotel in Dun Laoghaire — plus his public lecture on the topic of “Empowering the Self to Confront Illness” — promises to be fascinating from start to finish.

I begin by asking him to introduce the seminar on essential oils and explain how they are viewed in Chinese medicine.

“The idea of essential oils is that you apply them topically, but they get under the skin and then become systemic in your body,” he says. “Odour is a form of what some people call vibrational medicine. Colour, smell, taste — all of those things can have an effect on brain chemistry, and thus on certain brain centres. What I’ll be doing is, basically, integrating essential oils as a medium by which you practice Chinese medicine. “We have a tendency in the West to be very physical and substance-based — if I take this particular medicine it’s going to have this particular effect. Whereas when you smell, it sets into motion something that’s going to materialise. It’s not tangible yet, but will become substantiated. The presence of it creates a reality. That’s what vibrational medicine really is. How can I put something into motion, or create the design of that motion so that eventually it becomes manifest?”

This is not by any means a new field of medicine. On the contrary, it’s a very old one.

“The idea of using oils on the body is often associated with religious traditions. All religions burn resins, be it in a Catholic Church where they’re burning myrrh or frankincense, or the Buddhists burning sandalwood. So it definitely enhances one’s sense of emotional wellbeing. There are Buddhist texts which speak about making different types of incense, and the idea that a particular aroma or combination of aromas is going to have an impact on an emotional or spiritual level. And if that happens, the physical level will have to follow. “Chinese herbal textbooks also talk about using oils and applying them at an acupuncture point. Say, when someone gets carsick  — or if they have a headache — they might take some peppermint oil and rub it on their forehead. So essential oils have been used quite extensively and quite specifically, rather than to make the ambience of a massage feel better, just because you have something that’s nicely scented.”

And it’s not just to treat headaches or carsickness, either.  Can’t essential oils also help with illnesses such as high blood pressure?

“When I teach western aromatherapists, I tell them you can have oils that have the effect of dilating or constricting the vascular system. If you are able to relax the blood vessels then it helps to bring down blood pressure – and certain chemical compositions are able to do that.  But in Chinese medicine they differentiate which is more appropriate by treating the individual. It’s not like saying ‘Which oils bring down blood pressure?’ I can reel off a bunch of oils that would do that, but it really comes back to treating the individual. “Take relaxing oils. Now, lavender will relax you. But some people don’t like the smell of lavender — so they’re going to feel annoyed if you put lavender on them. Camomile is very relaxing too, but some people don’t like the smell of it. And some people are even allergic because it is related to the ragweed family and can provoke a skin reaction.”

Chinese medicine talks about the effect of essential oils on the psyche.  Can he explain a little about what is meant by that?

“In Chinese medicine they talk about eight different types of mood that aromas can induce. Some plans have a woody smell, as if you were walking through the woods. A musty smell would be from plants that grow in a shaded environment, so they absorb a lot more water. Some, obviously, have a floral scent —  and all of these are supposed to produce an effect. “So, for example, the floral oils would be analogous to someone feeling more beautiful, or feeling OK about themselves. In fact we often think of giving flowers to someone as a celebration of some beautiful event in their lives. Or sometimes even a tragic event. At a funeral, the flowers represent the beauty of the person who existed.  The flower represents the last manifestation of the plant; when you reach your point of fruition the petals will fall, and one moves on.

“Now, some people will say that’s just symbolic — and so, culture by culture, it’s going to  be very different. That might be true. But in my experience, a lot of times it’s universal. We can look at different cultures, look at different ways that people live. But all of us, as humans, suffer from the same emotions. Whether it’s a celebration of someone’s birthday, or grieving for someone who has passed away, the human condition is quite universal.”

With this universality in mind we move to talk about Jeffrey’s 2013 public lecture in Dublin. The topic is “Empowering the Self to Confront Illness”. Why has he chosen to speak about this particular subject this year?

“I’ve been coming to Dublin and doing these talks for a number of years, and last time we touched upon this. But this talk is bringing it to a level of finality. I’ve been practising medicine for 35 years already – and, you know, medicine focuses so much on the disease process. One thing about Chinese medicine that can be thought of either as a curse or a blessing is that when you see a Chinese medical practitioner, they always believe you have other options.

“Sometimes I wish I was a Western medical doctor, because then I could tell my patients — ‘Well, you have this condition and there’s nothing we can do for you’. Worse, if I’m arrogant enough I might say ‘You have only three months to live’. Chinese medicine would never say something like that. And as a result, we’re always under pressure to find new options for patients — always forced to be optimistic. Which is a good thing for the patients, but puts a lot of pressure on the practitioner.

“So I’ve been shifting my focus. I get invited to do a lot of teaching, and most of it is: ‘How do you treat high blood pressure?’ Or: ‘How do you treat diabetes?’ Or, most commonly, ‘How do you treat cancer?’  Which is the topic many people invite me to teach.

“But medicine is based on pathology, whereas wellness is based on the individual.  So instead of talking about diseases and their pathology, I’m more interested in talking about the patient themselves and how they’re cultivating wellness — replacing discussion of the disease with discussion of the individual. What can I do to make myself feel stronger, and more empowered by the things I do for myself rather than the actual medicine that I’m using?

“This has been my focus lately.  I can offer my patients a lot of healing modalities — herbs, acupuncture and all that — and most of my patients would probably agree that I do this stuff with them as well. But I feel I haven’t been doing enough of it, and that has put a lot of pressure on me. So I’m going into a semi-retirement mode in order to reflect on these things, and ask how can I better serve the people I treat.”

Looked at from this perspective the healing process begins, not with “doing” something or “taking” some medicine or “getting” some treatment, but with stopping, listening, reflecting.

“When a person is diagnosed with a medical condition, there can be a lot of confusion over whether to go this route or that route. Rather than ask what is the right or the wrong treatment, I think it’s better to simply say, ‘Well, which treatment would give me a better sense of peace?’ Sometimes we have to choose, not between right and wrong, but what brings you better peace of mind. We tend to be a very litigious culture. We fight this. We fight that. We make adversaries of ourselves as well as the world.”

“It’s like, if someone says something nasty to me am I going to keep arguing with them, or am I going to say: ‘Well, maybe if I don’t argue I’ll be in a better state of peace’. If someone cuts me over when I’m driving, am I going to go chasing them, honking them because they did a wrong thing? OK, they did wrong and I was right. But it’s better to be in a state of peace than to be right. If I’m at peace right now, I can go out and get hit by a car — but at least I die at peace.”

What specific themes will he touch on in his Dublin talk?

“What I intend to do in this particular talk is reflect on the experience of my years of practice and seeing those people who, I believe, heal. They’ve learned to forgive themselves  — or forgive others. Forgiveness is a very big part of the picture. That’s probably the one most people have the hardest time with; to forgive someone for having wronged you. Or, maybe, forgiving ourselves. “Things like having faith, having trust — that’s also a big part of the healing process. Because if you’re doubtful about what you’re doing with your medical treatments, then you’re already sabotaging yourself. I see it in my patients. They come in and they’re already projecting into the future: is something going to turn for the worse? I think they’re trying to prepare themselves for that.  But once you do that, you set into motion that possibility — that it will go worse.

“That’s why faith — trust — is such a big part of it. This is not about positive thinking. If you have positive thinking, you must also have negative thinking — and every time you have a negative thought, you’re trying to transmute it into a positive one. So there you are already in a state of dis-ease with yourself.”

It sounds like a challenging, but also an inspiring process — for both patient and clinician.

“It involves the person searching within themselves and seeing where can they find this empowerment. So first, really, it’s a confrontation with fear. If you have a chronic degenerative disease, or a disease that in western medicine is considered terminal, you should be afraid. The person should cry and feel the pain of that. But the important thing is that they need to know that they’re gonna make it.

“It is a difficult thing. But from all my years of working with people, I’ve seen how people have changed. So it brings to me the sense of being with them and trying to help them along the way. It only becomes difficult it I’m invested in the outcome. If I’m invested in the fact that they have to get better, then I have failed them — because I should be invested in them at this time without really caring about the outcome.

“I’m more like a cheerleader nowadays than an actual clinician. Whatever my patients feel, I want to bring them to a place where they can feel good about themselves. Giving them the motivation, the impetus, whatever I can do to offer them the spark that they know they can do this themselves.

“I sometimes ask my patients, ‘Do you like yourself so much that you could say to someone, ‘Be like me?’ I don’t mean in a narcissistic way. But if you can’t be comfortable being yourself, how can you heal yourself?”