Just like spring, fall is a season of change. And yet, fall can create more apprehension in people than spring ever does. I think it’s because in spring, you have the glorious warm and sunny months of summer to look forward to, while in autumn, you can’t ignore the fact that the icy claws of winter are steadily approaching. There is also the fact that spring heralds the near-end of a long school year, the satisfactory completion of a grade, or the anticipation of a summer trip, whereas in fall, you know that there is nothing but work ahead of you, dotted only with brief breaks for the often stress-filled family holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Whether you personally prefer spring or fall, change is the common denominator in both of these seasons, and there is no organism on earth which enjoys change. A changing environment requires greater mental effort, as you attempt to understand the shifting variables around you, and it means a greater expenditure of physical energy as you attempt to modify that environment to make yourself comfortable again. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said, “The only constant in life is change”, and we are wise if we can internalize this thought and learn to embrace change rather than resist it.
Aside from the typical changes in fall that we all know are coming, such as the changing colour of leaves, and the gradual dropping of temperature, I have had to adjust to some personal changes in my life this fall. My older son has begun learning to drive – a stress-inducing event if ever there was one – and he has also started classes at the local college. I have quietly observed these changes on my horizon for years, and yet physically adjusting to them over the past few weeks has still been distracting and unnerving at times. Just as it can be unnerving to suddenly notice the growing profusion of grey hair at your temples, or the proliferation of wrinkles under your eyes. Age is another predictable change which creates emotional potholes for us to navigate around and through.
Just as the superficial parts of our bodies change with age, our internal organs are changing too, which is why diabetes, cancer, and memory problems become more likely as we travel down our life’s path. But although Western medicine views these health problems in static terms – you either have diabetes or you don’t – Chinese medicine takes a more subtle and shifting view which is more in tune with the world around us. While a Western medical doctor might tell you that you have diabetes, in Chinese medicine, you may be given the diagnosis of yin deficiency, or spleen weakness. A “deficiency” or a “weakness” implies that correction is still possible, but a definitive diagnosis of diabetes from a Western doctor is stated as an unchanging fact. This is not to say that all cases of diabetes can be reversed, just that Chinese medicine is more nimble and better able to register subtle changes in your body, much like our skin can register the gentle shifts of weather in spring and fall, and encourage us to either put on a coat or take it off.
For example, if you ate a couple of large slices of pepperoni pizza the night before, the large dose of white flour and high-fat cheese may very well have slightly weakened your spleen over the course of the night. A well-trained Chinese doctor would probably be able to detect this by taking your pulse and might advise you to take some herbs to strengthen your spleen for the next few days to counteract these effects. Even if a Western doctor were to take a blood sample or check your blood pressure on both days, it is unlikely that he would notice any difference, and he certainly wouldn’t give you much advice other than to try to avoid eating high-fat food in the future.
Many people approach Chinese medicine from the Western state of mind and assume that a diagnosis given to them by a Chinese doctor three years ago, will still naturally apply to them today. But a Chinese doctor knows that many things can change over the course of a few years and would prefer to take your pulse again. This is why you shouldn’t assume that the Chinese herbs given to you last month will still work equally effectively now, or be puzzled if they produce side effects that they didn’t before. Even if the herbs were appropriate for your condition in the past, if you have been taking them consistently, then it is very likely that your body has changed slightly since then. If you continue to take the same herbs even after your condition has changed, then you could push your body out of balance.
For example, a condition such as “liver congestion” is not a life-long sentence. You can have a bit of congestion in your liver, successfully purge it, and then be fine for months or even years. Continual use of liver purging herbs is not necessary and may eventually cause your spleen or kidneys to weaken. In the same way, if your spleen is weak and you continue to take spleen strengthening herbs for months or even years without a break, you will more likely than not develop some liver congestion. Some people may find these changes confusing or a cause for panic. It can seem like you are in a never-ending series of crises, with first one organ weakening and then another, if you don’t change your herbal formula as your body shifts. But it is merely like a change in the weather. If it is hot and humid out, you shouldn’t keep piling on winter jackets. Likewise, if your liver is congested, you shouldn’t continue to take heavy spleen-strengthening or blood-strengthening herbs.
The key, of course, is to learn the signs of our bodies just as we have learned to notice the changes in the sky. A white sky means rain is coming, and a grey sky usually signals a thunderstorm; the darker the sky, the more powerful the storm. In the same way, a white tongue coating with toothmarks on the sides indicates that your spleen is weak. A thickened tongue coating, with hints of yellow means that not only is your spleen weak, but you now have a damp-heat condition as well. These are different situations requiring different treatments.
Your body shifts and changes just like the days and seasons of our outside world. Even if you don’t take any herbs, your diet and your mood can also cause organ distress, or create a space for healing. This is why you needn’t assume that a diagnosis in Chinese medicine defines you, just like you should never assume that the weather in London, England is always rainy. As my family and I noticed on a recent trip there, it seems you can best describe the weather as changeable. The weather you see in the morning can be completely different from the weather in which you drive home. To quote Heraclitus again: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” We should keep this in mind as we attempt to heal our changeable bodies and navigate our changeable lives.
About the author: Rebecca Wong has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.