What seems like a long time ago, I was teaching in a medical school course that introduced medical students to different philosophies of healing. A person I later got to know and become friends with, a medicine man in the Cherokee tradition named Hawk Littlejohn, gave a lecture on how he understood his approach to compare with conventional allopathic medicine. He talked about understanding illness as a loss of balance between primary forces. I’m not sure how much I remember from his talk and how much I later learned – having been stimulated to read and study Native American healing and shamanism by his talk. But I remember how struck I was that he had a vision of forces at work and this allowed him to see illness in patterns that made a kind of logical sense and that could then be addressed by repairing or nurturing what was unwell. Allopathic medicine really has no particularly useful understanding like that – except in it is comparatively primitive understanding of “eat well and exercise”. Even with that more holistic view-point there is little to connect it with what most doctors do when confronted with illness. In the Cherokee way, what is done is quite directly related to what the understanding of the nature of the imbalance is. I later went on to study Chinese Medicine that shares many of the virtues of pattern recognition with Native American healing.
In Chinese medicine the primal forces are fire, earth, metal, water and wood. These are not to be taken literally – they are words that reflect a kind of energy and there are understood to be relationships between the forces that are complex but follow certain patterns that can be seen as refinements of the two basic forces – yin and yang: cold and hot, contracted and expansive, night and day – etcetera. I have loved being shown this way of understanding because i feel it has helped me understand a lot of illness in such a way as to help people change things in their life that are interfering with a healthy rhythm and cycles of change.
One particular aspect of balance that I may have had some difficulty with is the image that balance is about being centered. I love the mindfulness inspired imperative to stay over your own two feet for example. Don’t let guilt about things in your past or worry about tomorrow get in the way of listening to the now. Don’t let anxiety about what you are going to do to help another get in the way of taking care of yourself. Personal boundaries allow us to put a bubble around ourselves that is healthy and keeps us in the present.
But there may be an aspect of this sense of balance that has gotten in my own way and perhaps in yours. As I walk through my day, I note that worrisome thoughts often present themselves and that I have a very strong instinct to return to balance by going the other way. I work with many people with a history of trauma and this is a strong pattern I have observed in them as well.I think the word repression works here as a way to describe this self protecting instinct about unpleasant thoughts and memories. From this same work I have learned that this avoidance strategy keeps us where we are and prevents us from working forward. Resistance prevents release. I think we need to go through the pain to get to the other side. Asking probing questions about the unpleasant thoughts sometimes opens up a way of understanding that lessens the pain. A wise and compassionate guide can help make the journey possible with less suffering. So balance is good but there are times when it is best to push through.
To your health.