“What are you doing Earth in heaven? Tell me, what are you doing silent Earth?”
Human beings are in search of a new story. Although we are more connected to each other than ever before through advances in technology, we are a species that has become disconnected from the natural cycles and rhythms that underpin everything that we do and that we are. Climate change, species extinction, and religious wars are symptoms of a larger problem directly related to a modern human psychology that is struggling to outgrow a narrative of separateness. We believe that we are separate from nature, and also separate from our fellow human beings. This crisis of narrative is due to the fact that we do not have a story that is adequate for the consciousness of our rapidly changing world, one that accommodates human experience in the 21st century, and most importantly, one that sees the health of the natural world as vital and inseparable from our own.
When speaking of narrative, what we are really talking about is mythology. Built into the human psyche is the need for narrative, for a story to help put one in accord with the world in which one lives. Our myths are the organizing principles that help us to navigate our way through life. They run in the background of our unconscious mind, becoming the basis for judgments, motives, and actions. Joseph Campbell, the scholar and mythologist, defined mythology as “other people’s religion”. Conversely, his definition for religion was “misunderstood mythology”.
To operate in a life affirming way, myths need to serve as “an organization of imagesmetaphoric of experience, action, and fulfillment of the human spirit in the field of a given culture at a given time.” When functioning properly, myths provide the roadmap to integrate us within our society, move us through the stages of life, put us in a life affirming accord with nature, and ultimately open us to the great mystery. Until the natural world has been related to the myth, our feelings do not know how to deal with them. A myth, then, serves as the metaphorical, psychological bridge to experience.
If we look closely, we see that there are as many different mythologies as there are unique geographic areas and cultures. In our modern cosmopolitan world, however, humanity has left its enclaves, its bounded horizons. The stories that once served and united people into geographically bound “in-groups” no longer function in a life affirming way. For myths to work on a large-scale there must be an analogous experience, otherwise there is dissociation. Consequently, we find that the myths and stories that were based on the experience of the distant past, which were intended for a certain people in a certain place at a certain time, no longer effectively open and direct the energy of our lives.
The only in-group we have now is the Earth itself. In 1968, the first astronauts to the moon sent back images of a blue and green dot in the midst of blackness. In that sublime moment when for the first time human eyes, literally the eyes of the earth, looked back on itself, we could view the earth in its entirety. We were looking back at ourselves- one people on one interconnected planet without borders floating in the vastness of space. Our moon experience is a catalyst for something that we already know deep in our psyches – we are not separate from each other, and we are not separate from nature. Now we must individually and collectively assimilate this knowledge into a new story that will help us to right the ship, to integrate our experience of a single, interdependent planet into a story that we can use as a psychological roadmap to the future.
Joseph Campbell used to say that “you cannot know what the new myth will be just as you can’t know what will come to you in your dreams. Myths come out of the deep unconscious.” In the past, the shamans, poets and artists who could see the transcendent through their experiences helped cultures to find a life-affirming story, which was presented to the mind symbolically. This is still the case today, although in this time of rapid globalization and technological advancement, we are in a free-fall to the future. Without a vital, living mythology for our global community, our personal experiences must serve as the foundation for our own personal mythologies.
Myth and narrative are the most essential organizing power that we have, and this is true now more than ever. We are faced with ecological and social crisis on a global scale. Our time, this time of transition, which lacks a well-defined mythology, is forcing us to look deep within ourselves. Our challenge is to connect with our experiences in a way that inspires awe and wonder and to live from that place. We have a living, vital symbol to draw from – a view of the Earth, a single planet set against the backdrop of infinite space. It is the only place in the cosmos that we know harbors life, and it is our home. We come out of the Earth, and we depend on it for everything.
We are in a creative age, an age that is full of potential and possibility. For now, it is up to each of us individually to search for a story that opens us to this vision of the world. We can share these stories and dreams with the ones we love, and create new stories based not on our differences, but on this vision of an interconnected society working towards the health of the planet and each other’s well being.
Imagine a desert – parched, changeless, seemingly without life and stretching for mile after mile in all directions. In this desert, you have the essentials: water, food, maybe even a tent and sleeping bag. Hence, you are able to survive.
Amidst the dryness and isolation, one night you dream of a river. It is flowing beneath you – vibrant, changing, nourishing. You wake with a desire to find these hidden currents that might lead you out of the barren desert, and quench your thirst.
Upon reflection, your arrival in the desert was not something immediate or even planned. It occurred over time by following wide, well-traveled paths. At each junction along the way there was a choice. Your feelings told you to go left into the dark forest, while your rational mind looked to the right at the large groomed trails and assumed despite reservations, that the well-worn path must obviously be the way. Time after time, choice after choice, the decisions led you to your current situation. The desert is the culmination of ignoring the signals from your inner compass –from your heart.
As human beings we are ingrained with a mechanism that can tune into our own sense of personal fulfillment. It is an impulse system that we feel when we tap into what it is that moves and excites us into action. When this system is ignored, we find ourselves in the desert, existing but not fully living. It is a refusal of the call.
There is always going to be some system or someone to tell you what you should be doing with your life. You “should” study business. You “should” pray to this god or that god. You “should” be married by this age. You “should not” do anything dangerous or risky.
When we look deeply, it is clear that many of these things are hard-wired into our culture and consciousness. After all, this is what we see in the media, and in the institutions that we are taught to believe in as steadfast and solid. However, unless these things align with our own impulse system, we metaphorically find ourselves in the desert –a place that T.S. Elliot called the “Wasteland”.
In the words of Joseph Campbell, “When one thinks of some reason for not going (following one’s own impulses) or has fear and remains in (security) because it is safe, the results are extremely different from what happens when one follows the call. If you refuse to go, then you are someone else’s servant. When the refusal of the call happens, there is a kind of drying up, a sense of life lost. Everything in you knows that a required adventure has been refused. If what you are following however is your own true adventure. If it is appropriate to your deep spiritual need and readiness, then magical guides will appear. Your adventure has to be coming out of your own interior. If you are ready for it, then doors will open where there were no doors before, and where there would be no doors for anyone else.”
As we work to grow and progress as individuals we must move from our center, from the inward impulses that guide and call each of us to adventure. This is a highly individualistic undertaking that takes courage-the courage to tell ourselves and those we love that we choose uncertainty over certainty, experience over comfort, and bliss over security. This is the only way to live authentically and it comes out of our own internal listening.
We must “enter the forest at its darkest point where there is no path. Where there is a way or a path, it is someone else’s path. Each human being is a unique phenomenon.” By following a path that is well traveled because it seems easy, or because we believe we “should”, we are running from our dragons- the monsters that hide and keep from us what we truly desire. The dragon stands for “thou shalt”, and what they ultimately keep from us is our unique treasure- our authenticity. By not facing these personal or societal dragons directly and reclaiming what it is that truly makes us who we are, we will inevitably find ourselves in the wasteland –living, but not fully alive.
Joseph Campbell once wrote, “ I find working for money to be the wasteland –doing something that somebody else wants instead of the thing that is the next step. I have been guided all along by a strong revulsion from any sort of action that does not correspond to the impulse of my own wish.”
The dream in the desert of the underground river is this impulse of your own wish calling out. It is always there, but often is covered by layers upon layers of sediment and sand – the rules, responsibilities, and conventions that we conform to in order to stay in the comfort of the known. Still, if we have the awareness and if our will is strong enough, we only have to dig down to find the current flowing inside of us – a nourishing aquifer of vitality that is always available if we choose to look. This is the source of our true nature -our talents and purpose. This is our authenticity.
Sometimes it takes a desert, a wasteland, to force us to listen to what we are truly called to do -to wake us up to the power of the choices that we make each day. Living in the wasteland is a life of perceived certainty, predictability, and routine. It is an attempt to protect ourselves from the fear of inevitable loss, change, failure, and uncertainty. We must choose then to approach uncertainty with fearlessness. To come to the edge of our own personal cliffs, and like a fledging bird, jump -trusting that our innate compass will carry us soaring toward our own fulfillment. This is the Hero’s Journey, and the way to an authentic life.
In traditional Chinese thinking, the roots of disharmony and disease in our bodies come from two sources: 1. External sources 2: Internal sources.
External sources have to do with things in the external environment and their effects on our bodies. Weather, temperature fluctuations, air quality, and the food that we eat all have effects on our health. In many cases, we have no control over these “external” causes of disease. However, according to Chinese thinking, if we choose to live within the cycles of nature by eating, sleeping, and behaving in accord with what is happening around us, we can maintain a healthy equilibrium.
Internal causes of disease relate more to our emotions and the way that we choose to respond to them. The “seven emotions” (joy, anger, grief, fear, love, hate, desire) and the “six needs” (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, will) are natural characteristics of the human condition. According to Taoist philosophy, if people’s emotions are balanced, and their needs are modest- health will never be endangered. For most of us, however, this is a state of being that must be learned and does not usually come easy.
Classical Chinese medicine professor Heiner Fruehauf explains that in the West, when people have an emotional imbalance we tend to label the condition as some sort of “stress”. Emotional stress, however, is usually regarded as a confounding rather than a causative factor in Western pathophysiology. This assessment is contrary to the thinking of classical Chinese medicine, which originally regarded emotional imbalance as an affliction of primary significance. Further, while ancient Chinese philosophy considered emotional sensibility as our greatest asset in the process of fulfilling our destiny, it also regarded human emotion as our chief liability due to its vast pathogenic potential.
There are many ways of coping with the unpleasant things and situations in our lives. The strategies, however, will differ from person to person. Some people “tune out” by sleeping, watching TV or using the Internet, others seek momentary pleasures in food, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and sex. Ultimately, not many of us are willing and experienced enough to fully be in the emotion, experiencing it with all of its discomforts and pain without identifying ourselves in it. Regardless of the way we try to escape the suffering, the emotions that we are suppressing have an effect on our bodies. The energies that are associated with these emotions are also suppressed creating systemic blockages and imbalances. Overtime if not properly resolved, acute emotional problems can turn into tangible physiological conditions.
Think for a moment about the damming of a river. When we put a blockage in a waterway the water behind the dam begins to collect and eventually forms a lake, flooding a huge area. While pressure behind the dam steadily increases, downstream the flow is reduced. Areas that used to receive water dry up, and we are left with an altered and unbalanced system. From the view of acupuncture, the same thing happens in our bodies. When we habitually suppress emotions to avoid suffering we create a dam, blocking the flow of qi (energy).
The resulting patterns of disharmony in our bodies depend on a person’s constitution and the ways that they have been conditioned to deal with their emotions. For example, one person who has experienced chronic grief might present in the clinic complaining of asthma, dry skin and depression, while another may experience the underlying grief as a hot temper with migraine headaches and sciatica. It is the Chinese Medicine Doctor’s job to recognize the nature of the blockage and the resulting patterns of disharmony in his/her patients. Through acupuncture and herbal therapy, the blockages can be opened. Eventually, blood and energy begin to flow again restoring the yin/yang balance and the body’s equilibrium.
More importantly, from a classical Chinese medicine perspective, this balanced state can give us the outlook needed to start working with our reactions and blockages from the inside out. Hence, we can choose to become more aware of how we react to our unique emotional suffering. The more aware we are, the easier it becomes to respond to our emotions with space and care rather than reverting to unconscious conditioned reactions.
As Joseph Goldstein notes in his book Insight Meditation- The Practice of Freedom, “An emotion is like a cloud passing through the sky. Sometimes it is fear or anger,sometimes it is happiness or love, sometimes it is compassion. But none of them ultimately constitute a self. They are what they are, each manifesting its own quality. With this understanding, we can cultivate the emotions that seem helpful, and simply let the others be, without aversion, without suppression, without identification.”
An emotion is just a transitory response to the transitory events in our lives. We all have the potential to view them as such, without creating the energetic dams that contribute to disease. However, until we arrive at this place on our own, Chinese medicine is there as a signpost to help guide the way.
Good health, and the well being we seek are inseparable from our life approach. Though we may eat properly, sleep deeply, and exercise daily, if our minds are not centered in an authentic, unique approach towards living, health and wellbeing may elude us.
To achieve health and well being, we must first find a union between our inner selves and our outer approach. This feat was once accomplished through some sort of centering philosophy or overriding cultural story that would place a person in accord with his/her society and environment. Whether we call this religion or mythology is not important. What is important is the ability of this centering principle to place our inner lives in a positive and supportive relationship with the physical, phenomenal world. In all cultures this has been achieved through the use of some sort of myth, which relies upon metaphor to achieve its purpose.
Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist and scholar, defined mythology as “An organization of images metaphoric of experience, action, and fulfillment of the human spirit in the field of a given culture at a given time… Myth makes a connection between our waking consciousness and the mystery of the universe. It gives us a map or picture of the universe and allows us to see ourselves in relationship to it.” Essentially, myths are clues to unite the forces within us.
To the untrained, myths may seem to be untrue stories, or “lies” that have no place in a rational, modern society. In truth, myths are lies when taken at face value, or when used to depict some factual, or historical event. When we look at myths in this context, we are missing the point or as Joseph Campbell would say, we are reading them as “prose instead of poetry” and mistaking the “denotation for the connotation”. Instead, we must learn to see myths as metaphors whose purpose is to create an understanding deep within ourselves –to help us to understand and move through life with grace and ease, and to put us in accord with the great mystery.
Joseph Campbell taught that due to our rapidly changing society, one that is increasingly globalized, cosmopolitan, and technologized, the myths that once kept us living in accord with our environment and our inner selves no longer have the same power and effect. He called our age “the terminal moraine of mythology”, and believed that what is required now is for each of us to develop our own “personal mythology”. These personal mythologies must come out of an individualized understanding of the world and our place in it rather than one imposed on us from others or from society at large. They must encompass our deepest dreams, longings, and desires, and give structure to how we approach all situations.
Long ago, a bit of advice was given to a young Native American at the time of his initiation: “As you go the way of life, you will see a great chasm. Jump. It is not as wide as you think.”
As we each go our unique “way of life”, we can use our personal myths as the roadmaps necessary to navigate periods of strife and for the inspiration to jump over our personal chasms. Accordingly, a good way to access our personal mythology is to look at the things we would depend on in times of crisis. What are the ideas and beliefs that would help you through the depths of loss and suffering? Conversely, what are the things that would give you the courage to re-group, and continue on your unique journey?
In our modern cosmopolitan world, personal mythologies not only come from our own experiences, but also draw from all of the world’s great traditions. When we are able to look comparatively at these traditions- these mythologies- to find the similarities, we can use them to better understand our place in the world and to find a unique approach to take in the here and now.
For example, Chinese Medicine is grounded in the philosophy and mythology of Taoism, which is based in the deep observation of nature. In the Tao Te Ching, the fundamental literature of Taoism, Lao Tse often uses the element of water as a metaphor of proper action and therefore as an approach for achieving well being. In the sixty-sixth verse of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tse metaphorically draws upon water to teach about humility, pride, and contentment:
Rivers and seas
Can rule the hundred valleys.
Because they are good at lying low
They are the lords of the valleys.
Therefore those who would be above
Must speak as if they are below.
Those who would lead
Must speak as if they are from behind.
In this way the Sage dwells above
And the people are not burdened.
Dwells in Front
And they are not hindered.
Therefore the whole world
Is delighted and unwearied.
Since the Sage does not contend
No one can contend with the Sage.
It is not important what your personal mythology is, as long as it provides you with a unique compass that facilitates a harmonious relationship between your inner self and your outer approach. This is the journey that will allow you to live like the Sage – healthy, humble, fully alive, and attuned to the world around you.
In darkness, I wake to my 5:30 AM alarm. My dreams, flush with face shots and arching powder turns are suddenly interrupted and replaced by a gnawing feeling of grogginess and fatigue. It’s snowing outside and is poised to be a special day on the mountain. In the cold and darkness it feels odd to be up and active so early. Still, I rise and try to sharpen my senses with some caffeinated green tea.
Here in Tahoe this is part of life- the norm. We wake early, caffeinate, work hard, ski harder, and then go to bed late before doing it all again the next day. After days of this, sometimes I find myself exhausted. But if the conditions are good, I force myself to be out on the mountain day after powder-filled day.
As a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), I know that deep down this very active mountain lifestyle that we consider normal can be out of balance with the rhythm and energy of the winter season. Being rooted in nature, TCM offers a valuable guide for recapturing the cadence of winter so that we can respond appropriately to the energy of the season without depleting ourselves.
During the cold of winter, plants submerge their lifeblood into their roots, animals thicken their hides and hibernate, and water hardens into ice. Chinese Medicine tells us that what happens in the natural world around us is mirrored within ourselves. Hence, even though we like to think we are separate and unique, we human beings don’t exist apart from the energy of our natural environment.
In TCM, winter is ruled by the water element, which is associated with the kidneys, bladder, and adrenal glands. It also corresponds to the bones, the lower back, and the knees. According to TCM philosophy, the kidneys are considered the source of all energy (qi) within the body. They store the reserve qi so that it can be used in times of stress and change, to heal, prevent illness, and to age gracefully. During the winter months it is important to nurture and nourish our kidney qi as winter is the time when this energy can be most easily depleted.
I like to think of kidney qi as a trust fund that we are endowed with at birth. The goal is to preserve the principle, so we can live comfortably off of the interest. As we age, it is natural for the kidney qi to be depleted. However, when we will ourselves to do too much, (waking early, over exercising, exposing ourselves to cold, and sleeping too little) we disrupt the natural balance in our body and consequently, the kidney qi decreases rapidly. In clinic, I see the consequences of winter overexertion all the time. It presents as back strain, insomnia, fatigue, cold extremities, low libido, and weak immunity. Hence, many of my patients are depleting their trust funds too quickly.
To be in accord with winter, it is necessary to focus on the yin principle –one of becoming more receptive, introspective, and storage oriented. This also means rest, conservation, and reflection. Our bodies instinctively want to express these fundamental principles, and are actually doing so despite our best effort to push forward. Accordingly, it is important to listen and act upon what the season and our bodies are saying. For most of us, this means slowing down, sleeping more, and modifying what we put into our bodies.
In terms of a winter diet, warm hearty soups, whole grains, and roasted nuts are suited for cold days. Dried foods, small dark beans, seaweeds, occasional organic meat, and steamed seasonal greens fortify the kidneys. In general, it is appropriate to cook foods longer, at lower temperatures and with less water. This type of diet will keep our reserves full while allowing us to exert ourselves outside with minimal depletion.
Winter is a time of quiescence and stasis, yet beneath the surface is the hidden energy of gestation and germination that will bring forth renewal in spring. Nevertheless, a complete renewal will only happen if we put ourselves in harmony with the season now. We can still get outside and do the things we love in the Sierra, while at the same time making sure that we are truly taking care of ourselves.
So taking my own advice, my alarm clock is now set an hour later. I rise with the sun and not a minute before. I have also started going to bed an hour earlier. My days on the mountain are still beautiful and I am no longer plagued by fatigue.
Always pay attention to what is happening in nature and put yourself in accord with it. Your body and your skiing will thank you!