|Kiraku-An, the "Take-It-Easy Hut"|
When people ask me what I consider to be the single most important factor in maintaining health and dealing with disease, my response is simple: Attitude. On the one hand, this may be so self-evident as to not be worth saying (OF COURSE the better your attitude, the better you can handle life and everything it throws your way). On the other hand, it may sound like I’m blaming the victim (“if only your attitude were better you wouldn’t have gotten your illness in the first place”). So I’d like to take a few minutes to explain what I mean.
The fundamental core belief of traditional Chinese medicine is that in health there is flow, and in illness there is a blockage of flow. This “flow” refers to the flow of qi (energy) and blood in the body. By feeling the pulse, palpating the musculature, looking at the tongue, and asking a lot of questions, the acupuncturist diagnoses where the flow of qi and blood is blocked, and applies needles to help restore proper flow. This is why patients almost always feel better after an acupuncture session: they are nudged back towards balance, they experience less pain and discomfort, their overall sense of wellbeing increases. This unblocking and rebalancing allows the body to rise to the occasion and apply its own innate healing force to confront whatever health challenge it faces.
What are the things that can impede flow in the body? Traumatic injury certainly can, as can exposure to environmental toxins. Unhealthy foods “gunk up” the system, as do drugs and alcohol. Various diseases cause their own particular stagnations in the channels and organs. But life itself can create stagnation. Stress, worry, chaos are some of the biggest contributors. Stress causes the qi to stagnate, and over time, if the stress doesn’t let up, this qi stagnation goes deeper and turns into blood stasis, turning less energetic and more material. Eventually the blockage can manifest as a physical accumulation – a cyst or lump, or in the worst case a cancerous tumor.
There is certainly a random element in illness; you can do all the right things and still get sick. Nevertheless, it behooves us to do everything in our power to stay well or get well: eat healthy foods, avoid bad fats, exercise regularly, sleep enough, have loving relationships, a supportive community, and a rich spiritual life. But the single most important factor is your attitude, since without the positive attitude you wouldn’t do those other things in the first place!
Another way of looking at it is that the biggest culprit here is modern living. We have to pay our rent or mortgage, we have to put food on the table, we have to raise our children, go grocery shopping, pay the bills, but in order to do all those things we have to work, and that takes up most of our time, leaving precious little time for all the rest. Fitting it all into a 24-hour day and a seven-day week means we get stressed out. Getting sick on top of it all stresses us out even more. What can you do to break the cycle? Not everyone can afford a radical fix, like quitting your job or moving to Tahiti. But what you CAN do, right now, is take a deep breath, let it all the way out, take a break from whatever you’re doing, relax, get some sun on your face and fresh air in your lungs. Sit and enjoy. Maybe chat with a friend, have a glass of wine, share a simple meal. You may not be able to change how the world works, but you can change your attitude towards it.
There is a wonderful Japanese word, kiraku. Kiraku evokes a sense of leisure and enjoyment, of taking it easy and enjoying life. The word is composed of two Chinese characters: the first, ki, is the Japanese pronunciation for qi, energy or breath. The second character, raku, means enjoyment or pleasure. In its ancient form, the pictograph for raku depicts a drum and bells on a stand. So raku (actually its alternate reading, pronounced gaku) also means “music,” as well as the pleasure produced by listening to music. When your ki is raku, when your qi is flowing in a leisurely way through the channels, there is health. I imagine kiraku as the quintessential attitude of the ancient sages, enjoying an unhurried life and appreciating the qi pulsing in their own bodies and in all of nature. The kiraku attitude is the antidote to modern-day craziness. I believe that it is also the best preventative and treatment for all ills. My studio in Santa Cruz is called Kiraku-An, the “Take-It-Easy Hut” or “Qi Appreciation Hermitage*.” Maybe one day you will visit me there and together we will enjoy the music of leisurely qi. But even if not, that’s OK too. Because the beauty of kiraku is that it doesn’t require a doctor, or fancy equipment, or any money: it starts right now, right where you are, with you.
*An, “hermitage,” is an interesting character, consisting of a radical denoting a dwelling, plus a phonetic component consisting of a character meaning something like “to cover.” But a further breakdown of this component yields the image of a man, and below it the ancient Chinese character shen, originally derived from the image of two hands extending a rope, and therefore the idea of extension or expansion. And, indeed, a hermitage is a dwelling where a man sits in contemplation until he feels a sense of expansion. I prefer an alternate version of the an character, and a different interpretation: the dwelling radical is replaced with the grass radical, giving the image of a rustic thatched hut. And the character shen has long been associated in Chinese cosmology with the ninth of the twelve Earthly Branches, symbolized in the popular Chinese “zodiac” as the Monkey. So the hermitage (or at least my hermitage) is a place where a person (the human figure with arms and legs akimbo, in the middle) can ingest medicinal herbs (the grass radical on top) and enjoy the easy-going life of a monkey (the shen character, on the bottom, with its tail curving out towards the right). Or, if you prefer, the hermitage is a hut where a monkey sits down, and, expanding his consciousness, becomes a man.