This month, I’ve been writing about balance. As beings who are immersed in the phenomenal world with seven billion others, balance tends to come and go. One of the greatest impediments to an experience of balance is our resistance to the stuff in our lives – such as situations in our immediate sphere, situations in the broader world, and our own thoughts and emotions. This resistance has a contractive effect on the body, mind, and spirit. As we close the deeper parts of ourselves, this tends to cause our energy and attention to shift to the upper and superficial aspects of the body.
One area in which this trend is most apparent is the breath. Especially when we’re stressed, the breath enters only the upper chest and our focus resides in the sense organs of our head and in our own repetitive thoughts. It’s caused by a state of vigilance, and the feeling perpetuates the vigilant state. As a most basic and fundamental intervention for balance, nearly all stressed people would benefit from shifting our focus downward.
Qigong (“chee gong”) is the ancient art of learning to perceive, cultivate, and manipulate Qi (life energy). Elements of Qigong theory and practice are present in Chinese Medicine and martial arts. Most Qigong practices are meditative, and may include slow, graceful movements, rapid forceful ones, or no outward movement at all. One’s attention is nearly always on some facet of the energetic anatomy of the body. In my opinion, the greatest gift of Qigong is a concept called the “lower dantian.”
In Qigong theory, our energetic makeup consists of a “central channel” like a vertical axis that runs from the very top of the head to the very base of the torso at the perineum. When our energy is relatively focused and consolidated in this central channel, we feel strong and centered. Along the central channel are three highly significant energy centers, called dantians. The lower dantian is located a few inches below the navel and a few inches deep (about halfway between the front and back of the body). The middle dantian is located at the level of the heart, and the upper dantian is located at the level of the eyebrows, all centered at the midline of the body.
The lower dantian is considered to be a region in which energy is stored and transformed, like a cauldron. It’s our center of gravity, and it’s the place from which movement and power are initiated in numerous Asian arts (massage, calligraphy, kung fu, tai chi). Now, it’s time for an experiment. Stand up for a moment and throw a punch in the air.
Chances are, you initiated the movement from your shoulder. I’m going to have you try it again, but this time, first get in touch with your lower dantian. Stand with a slight bend in your knees and bring your attention to your belly. Focus on a point a little below your navel, and deep at the center of your body. By scanning around in this area, you can find a point that feels most powerful and solid. Take a few breaths, imagining you’re drawing ambient energy into this point and consolidating it there. When you’re ready, try throwing another punch, but this time, let the thrust begin at the lower dantian, feel how it ripples through your pelvis, and allow the impulse to rush up and out to your fist. Do it a few times – feel the energy build in the lower abdomen like a mounting electrical charge, and then allow it to release like a bolt of lightning. Does it feel different than punching from the shoulder?
When we’re under stress, our breathing is shallow, and we’re consumed by our thoughts, this is a clear indication of energetic imbalance. Our energy needs to be anchored downward, and there are two ways to fix this. The first is to breathe naturally. By naturally, I mean the way we breathed as babies, which probably doesn’t feel natural anymore – belly breathing. Let your abdomen relax completely, and allow each breath to descend the whole way down to the pelvis, imagining you’re filling and opening this bowl, including your hips. Humans are epidemically restricted in the belly, which limits the depth of the breath and causes a massive energetic “knot” in this area which contributes to the preponderance of big bellies in our country.
The second thing to do is to focus on your lower dantian. Close your eyes and breathe into this area. As you inhale, imagine that you’re funneling energy from every direction into this point. As you exhale, imagine that the energy is being condensed into an area the size of a pearl. The more you condense energy into this point, the more grounded and powerful you’ll feel. If you make this a daily practice – breathing into your belly and focusing on your lower dantian – you’ll begin to notice that stressful events don’t throw you off the way they used to. You'll bounce back quicker, too.
If this feels good, consider living more from your lower dantian. What would it feel like to stir a bowl of food or beat eggs with the movement coming from the lower dantian? How would it feel to initiate the movement of walking from the lower dantian? How about painting, or writing, or dancing, or speaking, all from the lower dantian? Give it a try and let me know what happens.
Dr. Peter Borten
I must admit, when I’m seeing a patient for the first time and I ask what’s brought them to me, I don’t get excited when they say they want to be “more in balance.” I’m still happy to help, and I’m never bored by the human condition. It’s just that, as you might expect, tangible problems are usually a bit more interesting, and it’s easier to gauge the effectiveness of our work together.
If we can see a rash shrinking or a patient reports fewer migraines, we know we’re doing something right. If someone tells me they had one day of feeling depressed rather than seven, we’re moving in the right direction.
But, balance? It’s a harder thing to measure, and we’re always going in and out of it. And, when we do make progress on it, the thanks I get is nothing in comparison to the sobs of gratitude I get from men I’ve treated with the ancient penis-lengthening acupuncture point.
This concern about balance is a relatively recent thing. How many people do you think went to their doctor with a complaint of “feeling out of balance” 100 years ago? Probably zero. But, the fact is, the world is a dramatically different place. It’s easier to feel out of balance nowadays than ever before. With electric lights, caffeine, and shift work, it’s easier to have sleep that’s out of balance. With millions of restaurants and factory-made foods, it’s easier to have a diet that’s out of balance. With television, computers, and cell phones, it’s easier to have a mind that’s out of balance.
Just as we’ve added countless distractions and obligations that compromise our sense of life balance, one of the hurdles we face when trying to fix this problem is a tendency to believe that the solution involves adding something more – that imbalance means a lack of balance. “I need more [whatever],” we think, “then I’ll be balanced.” Even if the biggest impediment to a feeling of balance is a feeling of being too busy, we’re likely to desire more space and more free time rather than less busyness. I think most people would actually prefer to keep their busyness, because busyness makes us feel productive and engaged, yet also have more leisure.
We see happiness, too, as an additive process. “I’ll do this, and add this habit, and this romance, and this knowledge, and this skill, and this house, and these friends, and this achievement, and the sum of these acquisitions will be happiness.”
But, what if balance – and happiness – are actually our native state? What if balance is how we naturally are? Then getting there – or recognizing where we already are – would have to be a subtractive process, a process of removing whatever is getting in the way.
Briana and I do encourage people to “add” new habits to their lives for the sake of balance, like cultivating more sweetness, building meaningful rituals, integrating intelligent structure, and carving out deliberate space. But, this process should involve at least as much letting go as adding in. It should be a course of simplification, allowing us to more clearly see the activities that are tipping us one way or the other.
This week, try subtracting. Whenever you have a thought of wanting more of something – energy, time, fun, love, art projects, money, anything – ask yourself, “What could I have less of, or what could I let go of instead?” Without making your goal wrong, the idea is to see if you could arrive there through subtraction rather than addition. When you ask, “Rather than wanting more fun, what could I have less of?” perhaps your soul answers, “seriousness.” When you ask, “Instead of feeling like I need more energy, what could I let go of?” maybe your soul answers, “heaviness” or “resentment.” When you ask, “Instead of always feeling like I need to find more free time for creative endeavors, what could I remove?” perhaps your soul answers, “the idea that I’m not doing enough,” or “Facebook.” Explore it and let me know what happens.
Meanwhile, sorry fellas, but one thing you can’t have more of is that ancient penis-lengthening point, since it doesn’t exist. However, I’m sure there’s something you could let go of in order to have more self-love.
Dr. Peter Borten
After years of working with patients on their medical and psychological issues, I’ve become increasingly aware of a widespread need for guidance in overall life balance. I meet so many people who feel overwhelmed, perpetually busy, uncertain about their path, or somehow misaligned with the qualities that are most appealing to them. I don’t have time to teach “life architecture” to people one-on-one, but it’s just as well since Briana and I have found that we can teach these skills through our articles, books, and online resources, which also allows us to help a broader community.
Today I’m going to talk about planning. We cover the nitty gritty of effective planning in our other articles and our Dreambook. Now I’m going to speak to the attitude conducive to healthy planning – from the little plans that get us through each day to the bigger plans that dominate weeks, months, or years, to the big plan for our life as a whole. Given my philosophical background (as a botanist and practitioner of Chinese Medicine) I’m going borrow from the language of the natural world.
In Chinese Five Element philosophy, each of the elements – water, wood, fire, earth, and metal (air) – presides over a certain arena of our lives, and wood is the element most associated with planning. Wood is represented by all plant life. Plants are rooted in the earth and grow upward toward the sun; their lives abide by this plan and never waver. Human lives aren’t much different – we have our roots in the earth, in our material needs and our tangible foundation, and we grow and aspire toward something less tangible. That’s our version of following the plan, and the health of the wood element within us determines our success.
Each element governs a particular sense organ, and wood is related to the eyes. As such, it is closely linked to both our everyday vision and the “vision” in our mind’s eye – our ability to envision a future or a goal. There’s a lot that can get in the way of having a clear sense of our plan – fear, distraction, stagnation, grief, and all sorts of limiting beliefs about our inadequacy. Good vision – being able to see where we want to go and to understand our place in the world – is the first step to effective planning and overcoming the limitations to our growth. A plan without clear vision guiding it will inevitably involve lots of meandering.
As a healthy plant follows its plan, it stays flexible. The wind may blow it and snow may weigh on its branches, but it bends without snapping, and in this way it preserves its ability to pursue its plan. The same is true for humans: if we are rigid around every detail, such as the timeline and the specifics of how everything needs to happen, this makes us brittle – and much more apt to snap under the demands of life’s challenges. Staking everything on a detail can sideline the whole dream. Flexibility around our plan allows us to be open to new ideas and broadens our vision so that we can see new ways of succeeding. Likewise, maintaining clear vision – i.e., perspective – promotes flexibility because we’re able to view the big picture.
If our internal organs were a community, the organ associated with wood – the liver – would be considered the general. A superior general has excellent vision, composure, and a precise, long-sighted plan. He or she is decisive and courageous, and responds organically, making adjustments as the plan plays out. An inferior general can be short-sighted, arrogant, rigid, aimless, or hot-headed. What kind of general is your internal planner? Do you have a clear sense of your plan in the short and long term? Do you know when to prune a branch that’s going off in a wayward direction (an expenditure of energy that isn’t serving the plan)?
When the plan is threatened or blocked, some form of anger – the emotion associated with the wood element – is likely to arise. When anger is persistent or suppressed, this diminishes our vision. We lose perspective. We get attached to being right, to insisting that it shouldn’t be this way, to proving the injustice of it all, to blaming and getting back at someone (maybe ourselves, or the world), and we lose sight of the plan. We can’t see where we were headed; we only see the obstacle in front of us.
Although anger can consume one’s mind and life, compared to many other negative emotions, such as fear or sadness, I believe anger is preferable. Anger tends to have more drive behind it, which can be transformed into determination and purposeful action. This can only happen through the restoration of our vision. We need to regain perspective. We need to see that we’ve been blocking our own way, and then we need to commit to something more important than our anger – such as a happy and fulfilling life.
Another way to get through anger is to be like bamboo. Bamboo, in Chinese philosophy, is the quintessential expression of wood. It grows so straight, so unwavering in its commitment to its plan. It is strong, yet flexible. It bends in the wind without snapping. And it’s hollow. Whereas anger makes us clench and tighten – in our jaw, chest, stomach, or fists, for instance – bamboo’s openness inside is symbolic of an unclenched attitude. At ease with respect to its plan. When you think about your plan, feel what arises in your body. Are you clenching or at ease? If there’s clenching, let yourself experience where and how this occurs. Then stop resisting the feeling. Feel it, let it move through you. Then imagine you’re opening this area, letting it go, and allowing yourself to get back on track.
Dr. Peter Borten
When I recommend meditation to a patient, I often have to help them over several hurdles. The first is convincing them of the value in doing it. Last week, I wrote about the benefits of meditation, and there are really so many that it’s worthwhile for anyone and everyone.
The next hurdle is making the time for it. Try scheduling it (we recommend doing your scheduling in a Dreambook+Planner) into your day like you would any appointment. If community helps keep you on track, join with a friend or a meditation group. As an added benefit, it’s often easier to slip into a deep meditative state with many other meditators. Consider setting aside a corner of your home for the specific purpose of meditating. Put a comfortable chair or cushion there, and perhaps a candle, a plant, or something else that helps you feel peaceful. Don’t be daunted by the idea that it needs to take a long time. Start with just a few minutes. Or just a single minute. Or even just one breath. (You can read about a single breath meditation here.)
Finally, after deciding to do it and making time for it, the next hurdle is that it’s just too hard. Too hard to sit still, too hard to focus, too hard to not get all fidgety and jump up and run around the room yelling. I completely understand. My mind wants to chew on ideas and stay busy as much as anyone’s. So, here are three perspectives that I hope will be helpful.
1) If it feels hard, you’re doing it wrong. I’m kind of joking, but mostly serious. There is, for sure, a certain difficulty to meditation, which is why novices must almost always start with short sessions. One of the trickiest of such difficulties to argue with is the physical discomfort many of us feel from simply sitting still for a while. Isn’t it interesting how we’re able to sit relatively still for a meal or hours of work, but without anything to do, it’s torture?
So, if it feels hard because your body hurts when you meditate, then do more yoga. This is one of its core purposes – to allow the practitioner to spend long periods in seated meditation. If you have pre-existing pain, meditation may well improve it.
But what I’m really speaking to is the idea that it’s hard to do meditation. When we find ourselves thinking this way, I believe we’re out of touch with the highest purpose of meditation, which is not to attain a particular state of consciousness or master some technique.
2) Trying focusing on something. If the mind is so relentlessly bent on having a focus, give it a focus. This is one of the main purposes of mantra, which you can read about in my article, You Can’t Put the Genie Back in the Bottle. Besides mantra, you can focus on your breath, you can focus on a candle flame, you can focus on a picture of your cat, you can focus on your heart or your third eye, or on imaginary roots growing down into the earth from the soles of your feet.
3) Let the form fall away. Here’s Adyashanti again: “It is important to understand that when doing meditation, you are making a commitment to something other than your restless mind. When you first start to meditate, you notice that attention is often being held captive by focusing on some object: on thoughts, bodily sensations, emotions, memories, sounds, etc. In true meditation all objects (thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, etc.) are left to their natural functioning. This means that no effort should be made to focus on, manipulate, control, or suppress any object of awareness. In true meditation the emphasis is on being awareness – not on being aware of objects, but on resting as conscious being itself. In meditation you are not trying to change your experience; you are changing your relationship to your experience.”
It’s a funny thing to lead someone via articles to the experience of themselves as awareness when every word I write is fodder for the mind that veils this awareness. Like all words, these ones can only point the way. Here’s hoping we all get there sooner than later.
Dr. Peter Borten
Last week I wrote about the balance between movement and stillness as a core element of health, and I explained how modern humans have trended toward imbalance in two ways. On a physical level, it is common to have too much stillness and not enough movement; and on a mental level, it’s common to have too much movement and not enough stillness. That is, many, many people are physically inactive with minds that never stop. The solution to physical inactivity is to move more, and the solution to mental overactivity is meditation.
For all the resistance I’ve encountered when asking patients to exercise more, I’ve gotten double the pushback when I ask them to meditate. The mind thrives on being the center of our attention. It doesn’t want to be ignored, and it always wants something to chew on. If we try to stop or circumvent it, it gets desperate. This accounts for all the times I’ve heard, “I tried it, but I just couldn’t sit still for more than three minutes.” Couldn’t sit still for more than three minutes? What do you do at your desk and on your couch for hours every day?
I get it. If it would at least provide some sort of instant gratification, like a brain massage or a mini-orgasm, we’d make ourselves do it. Alas, it may take a little time before we perceive its benefits. But, that’s the way it is with exercise, and we get ourselves to do it, don’t we? Perhaps the difference is that the benefits of exercise are so well established and – maybe more importantly – it has the objective result of making our bodies look nicer.
Research suggests that a meditation practice can:
Can you find something in this list that appeals to you?
There are all sorts of ways to meditate, so I suggest you try a few and choose the form that is most appealing and easiest to stick with. Most meditation research in recent years has been done on practices that fall under the broad heading of “mindfulness,” which means holding our attention on whatever we’re experiencing in this moment, without trying to avoid anything, hold onto anything, or change anything. Just being in and with the present.
Much of the popularity of mindfulness practices in the West is due to the work of Dr. John Kabat-Zinn, a student of Buddhism who established a meditation center at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. His process, called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, is taught to patients with a wide range of medical issues, including severe pain and terminal illness, and has been successful at improving objective measures of health, and more importantly, improving patients’ subjective evaluation of their quality of life.
This week, I invite you to try meditating. Spend a few minutes a day simply noticing the whole of your experience – what you’re doing, what you’re feeling, what you’re thinking – as an unattached observer. Can you refrain from resisting or attempting to change the thoughts and feelings you dislike? Can you refrain from clinging to the thoughts and feelings you enjoy? See if you can approach your meditation practice without any intention of making something happen.
Dr. Peter Borten
One of the things I love about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is its ability to distill complicated problems down to simple ones. If you were to look in a textbook of TCM pathology, you’d find a list of probable causes (“etiologies”) for every disease, and before long you’d notice that there’s a fairly small number of root causes. These are things like overwork, trauma, and exposure to harsh climatic conditions. One interesting cause that comes up with great frequency is “imbalance between movement and stillness.”
Historically, this imbalance usually referred to too much movement (in the form of manual labor) and not enough stillness (rest), but in the urban centers of the modern world, we almost always see the reverse. Huge portions of our lives are spent sitting, and exercise has become optional for many. It’s an oddly unnatural trend, where physical fitness must be scheduled into our calendar and is often performed indoors on machines.
Meanwhile, there’s an opposite form of movement/stillness imbalance that’s equally unhealthy and often harder for us to remedy: while we’re more physically immobile than ever, on a mental level we’re constantly running marathons. Humans in the developed world are epidemically overworking our minds, processing huge amounts of data at breakneck speeds while managing an increasingly complex burden of stress. In the past, most people engaged in much less mental activity (i.e., movement) and had much more opportunity for mental stillness than we do today. Unfortunately, the simultaneous trend toward physical inactivity means we miss out on the calming and stabilizing effect that physical activity provides. Because uneasy minds are prone to look for more data to engage with, this can make for a vicious circle.
For optimal health and balance, we need periods of mental stillness during waking life – a deliberate practice of resting the mind that’s different from sleep. Meditation. It acts as both self-care and training. As an act of self-care, it is the quintessential fix for a mind imbalanced by excessive movement and not enough stillness – and all the health repercussions, both physical and psychological. As a form of training, it teaches us the valuable skill of shifting our awareness.
Our awareness is the broader consciousness within which the mind is contained. It’s vast. In comparison, the mind is quite tiny. But, our experience is powerfully influenced by where we focus our attention. If our attention is habitually focused on our own mind, the mind can feel like the whole world. If we just swim around in our thoughts all day, we start to believe that our thoughts are who we are, or at least a very important part of who we are.
We can’t imagine ourselves without our thoughts. But, in actuality, when we stop paying attention to the mind and “step back” from it, into our broader awareness, it’s like stepping back from an old school arcade machine where we were engrossed in a video game for a long time. We get a little perspective – the video game was just a small part of reality.
The thoughts, whether we attach to them or not, continue to stream by – just like the video game, which runs continuously in demo mode. And, lo and behold, even if we decide not to focus on them, we feel quite alright! Better than alright. We see from this perspective that our attachment to these thoughts, like our unconscious attachment to the imperiled main character in a thriller movie, makes us uneasy. Divesting our attention from the mind is therefore refreshing. Added bonus: we don’t become incapacitated or insane.
So, please try it. Sit down comfortably, close your eyes, and rather than squeezing your consciousness down to the size of a peephole that’s focused on your own thoughts, imagine that the peephole is broadening. Let your breathing deepen, but without manipulating it. Open your perception. Not only can you perceive your thoughts, you can also perceive your body. Your perception can go much bigger, but for now that’s big enough. Becoming aware of our body still counts as a break from our incessant focus on the mind.
If we’re unpracticed at shifting our attention, it can be tricky to focus on something as seemingly boring as how it feels to be in this body. The mind is sooooooo entertaining in comparison. Not just entertaining, but compelling – like a tragic news story. It screams, “You’d better pay attention to this! Your survival depends on it. Seriously!” Do you realize what a shameless liar your mind is? It’ll say anything to get your attention.
It’s hard for the body to compete, but luckily it’s equipped with the equivalent of a laser light show. It’s called your breath. You can just watch it – watch how it expands you, watch how it subsides, watch how you don’t need to do anything to make it happen. Just watch, don’t manipulate. If you find yourself clenching your awareness around a thought, go broad again, open to the perception of your body, and stay with it. Notice how your everyday consciousness is changed by this practice.
So, by now you're probably thinking, "Laser light show, my ass!" Yes, yes. That comparison was a stretch. But: (1) I'm competing with your mind. I needed to say anything to get your attention! (2) When you begin to get the hang of meditation, you will have moments that are at least as interesting and even more gratifying than a laser light show. Plus, the price of admission is free!
Dr. Peter Borten
There is something luminous in all of us, a spark that wants to grow into an exceptional life. A life in which we have health, happiness, and meaningful success. Paradoxically, chasing this dream can lead to a life that’s somehow stressful but without a sense of accomplishment, excessively full yet somehow lacking the space and time for fun and self-care. A life that, despite our best intentions, feels far our beautiful vision – if we haven’t lost sight of that vision altogether.
We’re here to change this trend. It’s our purpose and delight to facilitate a movement of people who are awake to the gifts that surround them, who experience life as a playground, and who are driven to uplift the world while maintaining a balanced existence.
Is this really as easy as just reading about three simple steps? Honestly, no. But if you live by these three guiding principles and do the work involved, you will get there.
If you really want to live your dreams, you have to be willing to create space in your life for them. Not just a willingness, a commitment to creating space for them.
Create the space for grace. Carve out space in which you can sit in the stillness (meditation, listening, being in nature, etc.) and hear your soul. This is the most essential space you can create because it’s where inspiration, innovation, and creativity are born.
Create the space for clarity. This is the space for really tapping into what matters to you. Go through the different areas of your life, envision them at their most ideal, and write down what that looks, feels, sounds, smells, and tastes like. Taking the time to do this will enlighten you to what’s worth striving for and what’s not.
Clear out space in your mind. Clean up any places in your live where you are out of integrity so that you can move forward with lightness. Baggage weighs us down and makes it harder for us to soar toward our dreams, so cut the cords by doing the work of forgiving yourself and others for the past, making any necessary communications, and resolving all enduring conflicts.
Create space for the dream. Every day there needs to be space for the big goals to expand from closed buds into open blossoms – and that means saying no to unnecessary things that don’t enliven, delight, or move you toward your exceptional life.
Create space for self-care. You are the best asset you have and you must take care of yourself. This isn’t just a good idea, it’s your honor and obligation as a human being on a mission.
If you want to turn your dreams into reality then you must have a solid plan. And not just a solid plan, but a solid plan that you attend to regularly. The blueprint doesn’t build the house. So, set your goals, work backwards to determine the projects you need to do, and then schedule action daily.
Your consistent action toward your goals will help you build trust in yourself to do what you say you’re going to do. Then you’ll start to see momentum build in ways that you can’t even currently imagine.
Persistence is the ultimate power supplement.
Use a calendar to keep yourself on track, setting start and end times for each activity so you have a container for success for the day. If you work off a long to-do list, or a vague sense of what you need to do during the day, then you start and end the day without clear expectations and a way to actually get “done” for the day.
If you relate to your calendar with an attitude of integrity and honesty, you can be liberated, rather than restricted, by the schedule you create. Even if it’s chock-full. Planning the use of your time and being clear about what is on-purpose versus off-purpose for you also helps you create good boundaries around what is worth inviting into your life.
The last part of maintaining a structure for success is to stay on your own path. It’s easy to get distracted by the million shiny things in the world, so chose a direction from your heart and then stand behind your choice. Allowing yourself to get diverted is like pretending that you didn’t actually choose a course already. You deserve to give your dreams the gift of your own focus.
Add in Sweetness
You can accomplish things without sweetness, but it’s unlikely that you will feel fully satisfied and nourished by the experience. And, because you never know how long this journey will last, it’s doubly important that you infuse your life with sweetness all along the way.
We’re not talking about candy and ice cream, but the things that deeply satisfy your soul - to experience the world, to know and love yourself and others, to enjoy beauty, to savor life. Healthy space and structure will enable you to add time for play. Time for art. Time for movement. Time for nature. Time to connect with friends and family. Time for your community. Time to travel. These things are not frivolous. They are not to be put off until retirement. They have to be brought into your life now if you want your life to be exceptional. Put them into your structure so that you don’t skip this essential step.
We like to say that it’s almost too simple a concept for people to take it seriously. Yet the most profound truths are always simple. And this is it: The more sweetness you add to your life and the more you take the time to recognize the sweetness that’s already there, the more you will experience your life as a sweet life. A blessed life. An illuminated life. A satisfying life.
We believe that if we live our lives in a way that feels vibrant, centered, and peaceful, we will create a ripple effect into our communities, effectively changing the world as we know it. Want to live your dreams and change the world? Join the movement.
With Love and Anticipation,
Briana and Dr. Peter Borten
This month I’ve written extensively about the power of our voice in terms of psychology, energetic physiology, sociology, auditory expression, integrity, and more. In this concluding article, we’ll look at some of the more esoteric viewpoints on the voice.
Part of Tantric philosophy is the concept of energy centers of the body called chakras. The seven primary ones are located at the midline of the body, roughly at the front of the spine. They are considered to influence numerous physical, spiritual, and psychological functions. When a chakra is balanced, open, and vital, the organ functions of the associated region will be healthy, and one’s psycho-spiritual health will be good with regard to the particular correspondences of this center.
For instance, the first or “root” chakra, located near the tip of the tailbone, governs healthy function of the colon, prostate, legs, and feet. When it’s balanced, a person is said to feel a sense of security and stability. They know that their basic needs – shelter, food, water, clothing, etc. – are met. They feel grounded. When out of balance, a person may experience physical problems such as hemorrhoids, constipation, sciatica, and obesity, or psychological problems such as self-indulgence, self-centeredness, insecurity, and instability.
The chakra most relevant to our discussion on the voice is the fifth, called Vishuddha, which is located at the level of the throat. This chakra influences our voice and our voice also influences the chakra. Besides its connection with the voice, Vishuddha is traditionally associated with the thyroid, mouth, ears, larynx, cervical spine, arms and hands. It relates to communication, creativity, connection, expression, and interaction. The association of the arms and hands with this chakra makes sense in that we use them to enhance our communication through gesticulation, sign language, writing, typing, painting, etc.
Some of the ways in which malfunction of the throat chakra might be expressed include: voice problems, sore throat, neck and thyroid disorders, stagnation, obsession, lack of expression, and pride. We may sound bitter, regardless of our intention, or we may wish to speak but are unable to do so.
When the fifth chakra is open and balanced, we are able to hear what other people have to say; we are able to listen to other points of view without reacting; we take the time to approach life creatively; we like the sound of our own voice – the outward sound, our written voice, and the voice in our mind; when talking with others, we harmonize with them; we freely express the truth; we uplift with our voice and we refrain from complaining, gossiping, or degrading.
Many tantric teachers feel that the first three chakras (at the perineum, sexual organs, and navel, respectively) govern more mundane functions; the top three chakras (at the throat, the third eye, and the crown of the head, respectively) govern more spiritual functions; and the fourth chakra, at the heart, is something of a bridge between these two sets. As such, the throat chakra would be the first of the elevated energetic centers. Communication is considered the first level of physical transcendence. Purifying our communication and accessing symbols allows us to operate at a higher level of consciousness.
Whereas the consciousness associated with the first three chakras is rather individual – my survival, my sexuality, and my will – that associated with the upper three chakras becomes increasingly indistinguishable from the broader unified Consciousness that is synonymous with Spirit or God. As the first of the upper centers, the fifth chakra of communication is a kind of gateway to non-dual experience.
Author Gurudashan Kaur Khalsa wrote: “Each step upward decreases boundaries and separation. Communication can be seen as a symbolic system occupying the meeting point between the abstract and manifested idea. It formulates our thoughts into controlled physical vibrations. This creates manifestations on the physical plane. As we name the things and concepts on the physical plane, it prepares them for use by consciousness. The fifth chakra occupies a crucial place in the gateway between mind and body. It mirrors the transformative properties of fire, a medium in the transition from one dimension to another.” She claims that when we attain total purification of the voice chakra the distracting nature of the world and our senses will no longer be a problem for us, and that we will seek only knowledge that is true and beyond the limitations of time and culture.
Besides using the voice with consciousness and intention, chanting and singing are considered to help open and balance this chakra. You can try chanting the sound haang (it should have an ahh sound, so it almost rhymes with “long”), which is called the seed mantra of this chakra. You can also try the following meditation: Sit cross-legged. Lay one palm on top of the other palm, both palms facing down, and bend your elbows to hold your hands right in front of your chest, thumbs toward you. As you inhale through your nose, lift your chin up as high as it will go, then keep it there as you hold your breath for as long as you can. As you exhale, allow your chin to drop to your chest. Imagine that the breath is entering and exiting through the hollow right above your sternum. Repeat for three minutes.
I always love to hear about people’s journeys in healing and awareness. If you’ve had an interesting experience during this exploration of the voice, please feel free to share it.
Dr. Peter Borten
I’ve been writing about the Voice this month (capitalized it because it’s such a special human capacity). In Part One we looked at the potential of the voice – verbal, in writing, or otherwise – as a means of expression; in Part Two we delved into the power of sound to produce change and affect health; and in Part Three we explored how the voice can open up stagnation within and outside of us, and we saw that every use of the voice has a positive, negative, or neutral effect on us and our surroundings. Now, let’s take a look at the voice and its medium – the Word – as a tool of creation.
The late Sikh leader and Kundalini teacher, Yogi Bhajan, wrote, “The highest, most effective energy on this planet is the word. When we understand the power of the word and we apply the whole mind behind the word, then we create the word, which can create the whole world for us. One who does not know how to live to his word does not know how to live. But if you will honor the word, you will be honored in this world.”
The Word is not just a tool of creation, it’s the means through which agreements are possible, and it gives rise to the concept of integrity. When we say a person has integrity, most people understand this to mean something like honesty, or healthy morals and ethics. But, I prefer the structural definition – “a state of being whole and undivided.” As it pertains to the voice, I see integrity as being a state of undividedness between our actions and our words.
Every time we use our words to make an agreement – whether stated aloud or not, and whether we involve another person or not – it’s like planting a seed. Something is set into motion. The destination – the conditions we define in our agreement – gains a certain gravity, a magnetism that pulls us toward it. There’s a path between here and there, and we have made clear our intention to traverse that path. The destination could be as simple as wake up at 7:30, or as involved as become the president.
Within every agreement is the potential to maintain integrity (by fulfilling the contract) or to degrade it (by breaking the contract). When we keep agreements, we build trust in ourselves and we prove our trustworthiness to others. When we break them, we erode our self-trust and others’ trust in us. The word of a person who keeps nearly every agreement they make is profoundly more powerful than that of a person who says they’ll do things but rarely follows through.
When we make an agreement with another person, the consequences of breaking that agreement may be more visible than when we break an agreement with ourselves. The other person may be angry at us, they may lose trust in us, they may not want to have a relationship with us anymore. When we break an agreement we made with ourselves – say, to work out three times a week, or to not overeat – we always let ourselves off the hook. We give ourselves an endless supply of free passes to break agreements. It’s no big deal – who am I affecting but myself? Ah, but the subconscious effects – and thus the effects on our personal power – can be devastating.
Every time we break an agreement with ourselves, we give ourselves two communications: (1) I don’t matter, and (2) I can’t be trusted to do what I say I’m going to do. These thoughts undermine our self-approval and self-worth, they limit our ability to live up to our potential, and they elicit toxic feelings such as guilt and shame. If this is a pattern for us, it’s likely that when we consider doing something really big, our mind will thwart our progress. We’ll have thoughts like, Chances are, I’m not going to follow through on this.
Beyond the loss of integrity caused by the disparity between what we said and what we did, breaking an agreement with ourselves harms our internal integrity by dividing our consciousness – we become split. The mind is forced to play both the part of the guilty party that broke the agreement and the hurt party that was disrespected. The more of such internal conflict we host in our mind, the less peaceful and powerful we are.
Conversely, when we honor the power of the voice and our word, we start to pay attention to the agreements we make, and we do our best to keep them, we gradually build an extensive history of integrity. Simultaneously, we become more selective with our word, only making agreements that we know we can keep. We hone our word into a statement of fact. We always do what we say we’re going to do, and thus, what we say, almost without exception, becomes reality.
This week I encourage you to become more conscious of the agreements you make with yourself and others. Do your best to keep them all. If you anticipate that you’ll not be able to keep an agreement, communicate this ahead of time, and come up with a workable solution with the aim of preserving trust. Don’t make excuses, just do whatever it takes to clean it up. If you’ve been breaking agreements with yourself, start by making fewer, simpler agreements. Agreements you know you can fulfill. Gradually add more, and increasingly challenging agreements, but remember that your self-trust is at stake. When you fully potentiate your Word in this way, you’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
Dr. Peter Borten
As much as I love the intricacy of human physiology and biomedicine, when I’m considering the whole health of a patient – their big picture – I like to step back and look for broad, simple patterns of imbalance. One such pattern that’s present to some extent in almost everyone is stagnation. Stagnation, whether in the form of stuck and recurrent emotions, thought loops, or impeded mobility on a physical level (often all three at once), is one of the most fundamental imbalances humans experience. All pain, on any level, is an expression of stagnation.
Stagnation can stem from a variety of processes; the most basic origin is resisting life. Whether it’s something about the world that we don’t accept, some feeling we don’t want to feel, or some thought we don’t like, we resist experiencing it, and in so doing, we cause stagnation within ourselves. While this form of stagnation is subtle to begin with (we call it “Qi stagnation” in Chinese Medicine – stuck energy), often it ultimately manifests in a more tangible way, such as a kink in our back or hardened arteries that are clogged with plaque.
Of the many possible expressions of stagnation, there’s one that’s especially relevant to our ongoing discussion on the human voice. It’s called “Plum Pit Qi.” It’s the feeling that something is stuck in your throat, like a plum pit, and it’s usually associated with stagnation that’s focused around one’s voice. A person experiencing Plum Pit Qi has likely “swallowed” or “choked back” an important communication (or a lifetime of communications) rather than speaking up.
Luckily, there are many ways to clear stagnation - whether mental, emotional, or physical – by getting energy moving. One of my favorites is through using our voice. By singing, chanting, toning, laughing, speaking the truth, or sometimes involuntarily, by crying or sighing, we can shake up the stuckness.
With Plum Pit Qi, freeing the voice can bring an instantaneous opening to our constraint. In the intense pain of childbirth, women often find greatest relief from using their voice to make deep tones. In the stagnant misery of keeping one’s past crimes or true identity hidden from the word, voicing these secrets brings immediate ease.
Because we think in words, our voice is not just a tool we use to send ideas out, it also determines the quality of the thoughts we listen to all day, and therefore, it can dramatically shape our experience. As anyone who has suffered from anxiety or depression can tell you (once they’ve begun to notice their mental chatter) the nature of our internal voice can often have a bigger impact on our quality of life than our objective circumstances.
The ability to loosen a stagnant situation with our voice is true not just for our own experience; it even works when dealing with others. If we find ourselves at an impasse, we can move the Qi (energy) by dropping some truth – or humor - in there. The tensest moment, the most static negotiations, even between world leaders on the brink of war, can be diffused by the clever use of someone’s voice.
As we begin more consciously using our voice to influence both our internal and external circumstances, we may start to perceive that there are essentially three effects it can have: positive, negative, and neutral. Internally, this means that as our experience of life passes through the mental “lens,” we tend to color this experience through the voice of our interpretations. We can put a positive spin on everything that happens, thus taking advantage of the opportunity to enhance our own experience. We can put a negative spin on what happens, thus degrading our experience. Or we can take our experience at face value, thus having a neutral effect on our experience.
Externally, this means that every communication – both verbal and nonverbal – has a positive, negative, or neutral effect on our surroundings. Every Facebook status, every tweet, every email, every comment, every word spoken has this potential. When we truly, deeply understand the implications of this idea, it’s like learning that we have the Midas touch. If we create gold all around ourselves, we get to reside in an environment that’s all the more heavenly. I urge you to remember this the next time you find yourself in an unpleasant setting and the next time you feel like complaining.
Over the coming week, consider the impact of your voice – both your mental voice and your external voice – are you enhancing or degrading your and others’ experience? Just do your best.
Dr. Peter Borten
Last week I wrote about the power of the voice, how the voice connects us and enables us to expand. Our voice is really quite a unique power, in that it gives us the ability to emanate energy in the form of sound. Sound is technically a kind of vibratory energy that flows as a mechanical wave of pressure, and it moves the things it comes into contact with. When it moves the ear drum, we perceive it as sound. When it moves the body of a string instrument, it causes a resonance in that instrument. If it moves a wine glass vigorously enough, it can cause the glass to shatter. Not only can we broadcast sound energy, we can precisely control the frequency of this broadcast. It’s really amazing, if you think about it.
As a resonant form of energy, it shouldn’t be a surprise that sound can affect human health. Persistent noise can disturb us, raising stress levels, increasing blood pressure, and disrupting sleep. Nobody likes the sound of a jackhammer or a barking dog, but even more subtle sounds, like the whirring of our refrigerator and furnace, have the potential to irritate us. I remember a night several years ago when I suddenly became hypersensitive to a humming sound in my house. Not able to track it down, I went to my breaker panel and started turning off circuits. Only after I had turned off nearly every one was the house finally silent. The next day the sound didn’t bother me anymore, but it made me aware of just how much noise pollution we’ve become accustomed to, and it made me feel for those who never get a break from this form of sensitivity.
On the other hand, different forms of sound can influence our moods in a positive way, even producing transcendent states. My mother-in-law, a nurse who owns hospices in Utah and Montana, was a pioneer in the use of music-thanatology to help dying patients feel better. Music-thanatologists use harps and their voices to produce live music in response to the patient’s state, creating sounds that are alleviate pain and emotional discomfort. Even more profound is the music’s alleged ability to assist the patient to ease into their transition out of their dying body.
Once, I was in San Francisco for an important acupuncture seminar and I came down with the flu. I felt absolutely horrendous. My chest and head were full of phlegm and my body ached like I’d just come out of the ring with Muhammad Ali. I was staying at the apartment of a classmate, and I felt kind of guilty about being so ill in her tiny space. I didn’t want to get her sick, but she was very relaxed about it. She told me that when her boyfriend came over, he’d do some sound healing on me.
Now, I’m open to pretty much any healing modality. I’ve tried some things that mainstream folks would never believe. But, honestly, the reason you don’t hear much about most fringe modalities isn’t because of a conspiracy by pharmaceutical companies to suppress them, but because they’re subtle. As it happened, I had done sound healing before. One of my former teachers was a practicing shaman, and she taught a group of us how to use our voices to direct our energy at a recipient, using certain tones to first “open” the patient’s energetic field, other tones to rectify whatever was out of balance, and then a third series of tones to “close” their field and sort of seal them up. It was really a beautiful thing to be part of, but I must admit, the effects were hard to measure. So, while I thought it was nice that my classmate’s boyfriend wanted to help, I wasn’t exactly full of optimism.
When he arrived, he had five or six didgeridoos with him. He told me to lie on the floor and he looked me over, poked around a bit, and then selected one of the didgeridoos. Next, he ceremoniously laid a towel over me. I asked him what the towel was for. “Spit,” he answered.
As I closed my eyes, he began playing the didge, aiming the end of it a few inches away from my chest. I could feel that primal earthy drone reverberating through my body, right into the floor. As he moved the instrument around, I felt as if he was breaking up and dispelling the heat and congestion in me. After a while, he selected a different didge and as he playing this one, it felt as if a different layer was being addressed. This went on for perhaps half and hour, and then he removed the drool-soaked towel and asked me how I felt. Hmmm, I thought, this was a really nice thing of him to do for me. I should probably be kind. “Good,” I replied. Wait. Good? Yes. “Good! Really good! Much better!” I exclaimed. I think I was as surprised as I was relieved. And that’s the power of healing intention mixed with resonant energy.
Meanwhile, even the scientific community has found medical uses for sound, particularly ultrasound. Ultrasound refers to sound waves in frequencies higher than our ears can perceive, and we use its vibratory power to soothe sore muscles, to break up kidney stones, and to visualize things in the body such as a growing baby. The most exciting use of ultrasound I’ve heard of recently is in the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). A key feature of AD is the presence of sticky protein fragments called amyloid beta which clump around and damage the nerve cells of the brain. In a recent study, mice were bred to develop these amyloid plaques, and as the disease progressed, they forgot the path they had previously learned to get through a maze. At this point, the researchers directed ultrasound waves at their heads, which cleared the amyloid from their brains without causing any damage, and 75 percent of the mice regained their memories!
Another effect of sound on the brain can be seen in the application of binaural beats. Binaural beats are created by playing tones in the two ears that vary slightly in their frequencies, which creates the perception of a pulsation or beat. As we listen to a binaural beat recording, the brain is gently coaxed to produce brainwaves that match the frequency difference of the two tones. Recordings are aimed at inducing specific states, such as the theta waves that signal a deep level of relaxation.
While we may not have the ability to produce ultrasound and binaural beats with our mouths, the fact is our voices have healing potential – both through the sonic energy we emanate and the ideas conveyed by our words. Hindu mantras are something of a convergence of these concepts, where the combination of the tone and its underlying meaning are thought to work together to produce a spiritual experience or therapeutic effect.
Next week we’ll explore how words figure into this equation. Until then, I encourage you to tune in to the sounds around you and feel how they affect you. Do certain people’s voices feel different to you than others’, and if so, can you tell if it’s due to the timbre – the tonal quality – or the significance of their words, or something beneath the words themselves? If you’re feeling less than optimal, are you able to tune in to an unpleasant bodily sensation and then sing or tone into this part of your body? What do deep tones do? What do high tones do? Are you able to shift the sensation in some way? I’d love to hear your feedback. ;)
Dr. Peter Borten
If you have a young daughter and you support female empowerment, chances are the topic of The Little Mermaid has come up in your conversations with other parents. In case you never saw the Disney version, it’s a 1989 film about a young mermaid with a beautiful voice who is always singing. One day, she sees a handsome human prince and decides she wants legs instead of a fish tail, so she can go chase after him. The evil Sea Witch makes a deal with her: if she gives up her voice, she can have legs. However, while mute, she has to get the prince to kiss her – or she will lose her voice and freedom forever.
It was inevitable that our daughter would watch it eventually, and when she did (it’s been a dozen times now) we wanted to help her see the silliness in the movie’s messages. Of course, we wanted her to know that you don’t need to sacrifice a core part of yourself in order to receive someone’s love. And that having at least one good talk is usually a worthwhile step before getting married – especially if you’re not the same species. But the big thing for us was the main character’s willingness to give away something that’s been suppressed in females for centuries: her voice.
To me, our voice is one of our most special powers. Not only do we use it – verbally or otherwise – to make our wishes known, it’s our primary tool for personal expression. Expression is one of the main ways in which we expand. And expansion is, I believe, a key element of true health. Through expression, we expand both within ourselves and beyond ourselves.
Through expression we also share useful ideas. It’s how we teach, and how the many evolve through the evolution of the individual. It’s how we collaborate. We need voices in order to join our minds and generate works that are greater than the sum of our many parts.
We use our voices to express our inspiration and to inspire others. Words change lives. When I consider the many words that have changed mine – words from my teachers, friends, and family, words from books and TED talks, and words that have arisen in my own mind – I sometimes wonder about their origin. The words that have the greatest impact on my consciousness, how often did they originate from a source other than the one that’s speaking to me? Perhaps they began with an ancient human in the throes of inspiration, from whom they have been passed along, voice to voice, creating a chain of illumination along the way, over hundreds of years.
And finally, more simply and sometimes more profound than any ideas we might convey, are the pleasing sounds we use our voices to create. Like the mermaid.
This week, I encourage you to take a few moments to ask yourself, “What would it look like if I were to fully embrace the power of my voice?”
Dr. Peter Borten
This morning I felt a slight pang of sadness when my seven-year-old daughter told me, “Clocks are boring.” She was looking at a silver ladybug on a chain. The ladybug’s wings could be spread apart to reveal the face of a clock. In the back were an array of gears spinning back and forth. To me, it was beautiful on multiple levels.
To think, this was once a bunch of iron, nickel, zinc, and silver ore, hidden in rocks far beneath the earth. Humans dug tunnels deep into the ground using drills they built from other mining operations and explosives they developed through a brilliant understanding of chemistry. They located and removed the right stones and used heat and chemicals to extract and refine the metals. Someone designed the clock and had an understanding of how to use tiny gears to keep track of time. They had the gears, springs, and little screws all formed to the right shapes and sizes from these metals.
There was also a glass case to protect the face, made by melting sand and pouring it into a mold someone created. The face was made from porcelain, which came from white clay that someone dug out of the ground and someone else shaped, glazed with special pigmenting minerals, and fired in a super-hot kiln. Even the chain was made from an amalgam of metals from different mines in different locations, melted together, extruded into a fine thread, and formed into hundreds of interlocking loops with a minuscule clasp containing an even more minuscule spring.
Without even getting to every facet of this clock, we could guess that perhaps a hundred or more people were involved in its creation, literally turning rock and dirt into functional art, which a seven-year-old child could then regard as “boring.”
Don’t hate my daughter, please. She’s a wonderful person. She learned this form of shallowness from adults, myself included. Adults caught in what I call the “human data stream.” As kids are socialized and become familiar with the things and ideas around them, they learn to engage with their surroundings at a shallower level. They see a clock and put it in the category with all other clocks. Part of the mind thinks, “Clock. I’ve seen clocks before. Not much to be gained by further investigation.”
Given the massive flow of information we are exposed to, we do this partly as an efficiency tactic. How can we process 100 Facebook statuses, 75 text messages, 50 tweets, 10 Youtube videos, 40 emails, dozens of tasks, and all the other incoming data, and still go deep? The human data stream has always existed, as has our tendency to go shallow with familiar data, but television made it worse, and pocket computers (we still call them “phones” – how quaint) made it much worse.
Do you know how foie gras is made? A duck or goose is force-fed through a pipe, four pounds of grain a day. As a result, its liver becomes a fatty mass 10 times its usual size. It’s an unnatural delicacy. Well, I think our addiction to the human data stream makes the mind like foie gras – a bloated mass that has difficulty engaging with anything deeply. It makes us impatient, unconscious, anxious, and shallow. When we’re swept up in the stream, we’re missing out on the richness and peace of now.
How do we get out of it? Well, most of us can’t get out of it completely, because, for one, we need to engage with it to do our work, and for two, we don’t want to abandon it since it’s not entirely bad. The healthy solution for a duck, after all, isn’t no food, it’s less food.
So, we ought to disengage from the food pipe (data stream) and deliberately practice being patient and going deep. For me, this means engaging with my nine-month-old baby, who can spend an hour happily examining and sucking on her big sister’s dirty shoe. Or playing my guitar. Or throwing a Frisbee with my seven-year-old. Or looking at the stars. Or creating art. Or dancing with my friends. Or feeling how my body breathes. Or embracing my wife for a long, long time. Or seeing how fascinated I can be by everyday objects.
The good news, since I know you’re looking at a computer right now, and you’ll probably keep looking at it for a while, is that the time you spend going deep and slowing down is like medicine. A few minutes of depth can undo hours on the pipe.
What depth can you find in a clock? How much can you see in a single square inch of your lawn? What do you feel in your body when people speak to you? How does the air taste in this room?
I encourage you this week to slow down and find depth. Tell me what happens.
Dr. Peter Borten
Have you felt the weather shift recently? One of the things I love about chinese five element philosophy is the concept of five seasons. The time of the transition to the fifth season - late summer - varies a bit from place to place, but it's happened here in the Mountain West. The nights have taken on a certain crispness, and even though we still have plenty of hot days ahead of us, we've moved from the Fire season to the Earth season.
Spring (ruled by the Wood element in Chinese philosophy) is the beginning of the expansive portion of the year. We are released from winter's grip and new life emerges everywhere. In summer, this expansion reaches its peak. Flowers are open everywhere, our pores are open from the heat, and communion - between pollinators and flowers, between sun-drunk humans - is in the air.
The Earth season, late summer, is the pivot, the threshold between summer's expansion and the contraction that will begin in the fall. It's like the pause between a deep inhale and the exhale. Have you ever focused on this timeless moment between filling and emptying your lungs? There's a specialness there - a gap between thoughts, a respite from action - that's worth savoring. And so is this pivotal fifth season.
Before we send our kids back to school, before we close our windows, before we cover the grill and take in the lawn furniture, the trajectory of Nature at this time prompts us to pause in the stillness of our center. We've drawn in close to the sun, we've grown, and now we're meant to harvest, digest, and celebrate what we've been through before turning inward and letting it go. So, before you start shopping for backpacks and pencils and jackets, I encourage you to take the next week or so to center yourself, imagine you are intentionally aligning with the natural world, and relish the expansive journey of the past spring and summer.
Dr. Peter Borten
I’ll never forget the early years of our first spa when I began doing interviews to hire a team of employees. It was momentous because it signified a certain measure of success, and it was challenging to be for the first time on the employer’s side of the table – especially when most of the interviewees were older than me. I quickly learned that it was never worth it to hire someone who wasn’t quite right with the hope they would change. As my interviewing skills developed, I started asking more questions such as, “What do you see as your biggest weakness when it comes to doing this job?” Can you guess what the most common answer was?
“I’m a perfectionist.”
I’m pretty sure this must be in the Cliff’s Notes for “How to Knock Their Socks Off in a Job Interview.”
For a long time, I thought this was sort of a garbage answer – a way for someone to appear that they had no faults. The worst case scenario they seemed to be presenting was that they’d care too much, or do too good of a job. It was especially questionable when I could see from their résumé that any English teacher would beg to differ on the perfect part.
But, I have come to see how true it is that perfectionism can be a genuine weakness – and not just at work. Perfectionism can cause major delays, anxiety, heartache, and relationship strain. Even if a perfectionist is able to deem a project completed, there’s endless possibility for further scrutiny. Almost always, there is no perfect. The vision of the perfectionist is tuned to see flaws.
When I was designing our first business cards for The Dragontree, I spent days agonizing over fonts, layout, wording, and colors. It consumed me. When I was done I thought it was perfect. Everything was just as it should be, never to be touched again.
Until I was staring at it a month later and decided it needed to be tweaked: a new font would be more perfect. A few months after that I decided the logo wasn’t right. Then the word spacing needed improvement. Finally, it was really perfect. Until I was shocked to discover that I hadn’t capitalized all the words that I thought should be capitalized. Upon further consideration, I decided that maybe it had a kinder, softer look if the words weren’t capitalized. Wait, no, it was better the previous way.
The first couple times we changed it I felt like my heart was being ripped out – I thought I made it perfect! Not only had I failed, but probably everyone who saw the cards in their imperfect state thought we were laughably unprofessional. It was painful to recognize that even after days of scrutiny, my creation wasn’t flawless. And the pain came specifically because I had so much of my self-worth wrapped up in an unattainable illusion called perfection.
We’ve changed that business card so much over the years that it doesn’t even resemble the first “perfect” card. But I wouldn’t have known what needed to be tweaked without putting it out there and finding out.
Over the years, I saw how much more valuable qualities such as efficiency and positivity were to the success of my business. If I really wanted to succeed at shifting a million people’s consciousness toward peace, perfectionism was a major impediment. And this suddenly bled into the rest of my life as I realized that not only would my copy and my spa never be perfect, but also, my body would never be perfect, my house would never be perfect, and my parenting would never be perfect. And, guess what? I relaxed. I became one of those people whose consciousness was shifted toward peace. Things were light again, and fun, like when I was a kid, only better.
Instead of tormenting myself with the goal of perfect, I resolved to do my best, put it out there, and welcome the next evolution.
You’ll save yourself so much time, energy, and despair if you allow yourself to let things go, be human, and be perfectly imperfect – just like everyone else. The amount you can accomplish when you are focused on striking a reasonable balance between efficiency and your best in this moment is astounding. If you are making sandwiches for homeless people but you’ll only hand out ones that are perfect, maybe you’ll give away five sandwiches instead of 100. You’ll do better work in the world as soon as you accept that a pretty good sandwich works just fine for a hungry belly.
Do you find yourself in perfection paralysis? What can you do this week to move past perfect and allow for evolution?
When it comes to beauty, we’ve all gotten some mixed messages. The pursuit of personal beauty is often regarded as shallow or frivolous. Millions of people love looking at magazines devoted to fashion and beauty, but consider them a “guilty” pleasure. Several of my patients have told me they have a certain amount of shame around spending money to look prettier. And many of us have a strong admiration for expensive art and jewelry but would consider it an indulgence to buy such things.
Certainly there’s an extreme end of vanity that’s unhealthy, and of course the acquisition of objects of beauty shouldn’t be the primary focus of one’s life, but I believe it’s deeply healthy to recognize, admire, and surround ourselves with beauty. So, if you’re someone with hang-ups around beauty, I invite you to examine and revise your programming.
Taking time to notice beauty is, at its core, an expression of gratitude. And it’s one of the easiest ways to enhance your life. Put a vase of flowers or a lovely piece of art in a room and something tangible changes.
Besides noticing and acquiring things of beauty, the human soul desires to create beauty. Whether through music, poetry, dance, or art, we have an innate drive to tap into that spark that gives us life and to express it in a beautiful way. We can even simultaneously create beauty and relish the beauty we’re creating.
Since the dawn of human craftsmanship, we have enjoyed turning utilitarian objects into things of beauty. For instance, the recent excavation of a cemetery in Jordan turned up a cosmetic box from the sixteenth century BC that was carved into the shape of a fish with striking detail. A more ordinary box would have served the same purpose, with no need for painstaking handiwork. But something in the human spirit inspires us to put the same loving care into our creations that Mother Nature puts into hers. Our inspiration is instilled in the design and thus the design evokes inspiration.
Such adornment reveals the human perception of enhancing a thing’s value by adorning it. A plain unadorned item becomes something special when we put a decoration on it. More than anywhere else, this can be seen historically in our spiritual objects and temples. It’s a thing we do to show our appreciation for the spiritual sphere of our lives, and perhaps there’s a belief that the Divine will come and linger more readily around our beautiful creations because, by taking the time to make them beautiful, we have invited in a certain holiness.
In his book, Beauty, philosopher Roger Scruton explains that beauty was the overt purpose of art, music, and poetry for centuries, but, “At some time during the aftermath of modernism, beauty ceased to receive those tributes. Art increasingly aimed to disturb, subvert, or transgress moral certainties, and it was not beauty but originality—however achieved and at whatever moral cost—that won the prizes. Indeed, there arose a widespread suspicion of beauty as next in line to kitsch—something too sweet and inoffensive for the serious modern artist to pursue.”
Luckily, the spurning of beauty was a trend limited mostly to art and film, but modernism brought a certain utilitarian quality to many facets of our lives. That phase had its time, and now I believe people are coming back to the open appreciation of beauty as a personal, spiritual, and cultural experience.
This week I encourage you to do at least one thing to beautify your life. If you like art, one of the most direct ways to encourage the creation of art as a legitimate career is to buy a piece of art you love. It’s one of the purest purchases you could ever make. If don’t need more art, pick a flower and put it in a glass. Save a rock from a beach or river and place it in your space, to display not just the prettiness of the rock, but the memory of the beautiful setting in which you found it. And when you look in the mirror, be sure to appreciate the gorgeous reflection you see.
Dr. Peter Borten
I have written so much about what and how to eat, so I thought I’d say a few words about what we might do before and after a meal to enhance the experience.
First, the before-meals recommendations:
After you eat:
Give these easy practices a try. I believe that even if your food choices aren’t always excellent, you’ll be much better off if you observe these simple acts. Let me know what happens.
Be well ,
Dr. Peter Borten
Anniversaries have been coming up a lot recently. Besides The Dragontree’s anniversary this month and my upcoming wedding anniversary, numerous friends are experiencing the anniversaries of both happy and sad occasions – quitting booze, a parent passing away, moving to their dream location, having children, beginning a new job, and more. It’s fascinating that as the time of year of a significant past event approaches, the emotions of that event come back to us, even without our consciously bringing it to mind. Sometimes an event that lasted ten minutes affects us for a whole month, every year.
The important happenings usually occur without any intention of the groove they’ll cut in our calendar and the resonance they’ll spread into future years. But what would happen if we deliberately created anniversary-worthy events for the specific purpose of instilling our future with the positive echoes of these events?
I encourage you to participate in this experiment with me.
As I wrote this, I realized the whole thing might feel contrived. It’s the spontaneous powerful events that really matter, right? Well, that’s what we tell ourselves. We tend to believe that life’s magical moments can’t be called up at will. But who’s in charge of our experience, anyway? Why wait and hope for good things?
Why not practice creating our own magic and see what happens? I believe that the more we consciously forge positive experiences and intentionally anchor ourselves in them, the more authentic they will come to feel, and over time we will shift our everyday consciousness in a sweet and lasting way.
Meet you next year for the commemoration of what you’re about to do,
Dr. Peter Borten
It’s hard to believe it was 12 years ago that my 23-year-old girlfriend opened a spa. About a year earlier, she had been fired from the spa where she and I had worked and met, for telling the owners one too many times how they could improve the place. They replied (not unkindly), “If you think you can do it better, go do it.” And then, to (almost) everyone’s amazement, she did.
Running and growing The Dragontree has challenged us like nothing else. It reminds me of the story of the Oo-aa bird. An anthropologist had heard of the legendary African bird and was curious as to the origin of its name. So, she spoke to some indigenous people in the bird’s native habitat, and they told her, “You must see the bird’s egg. Then you will understand its name.” After months of searching, they happened upon an Oo-aa bird in the act of laying an egg, and much to the anthropologist’s surprise, the egg was a golden cube. As the egg came out, the bird shrieked, “Oooooooooo!!” and then finally, “Aaaaaah!”
What Briana initially envisioned as a place for people to get massages and facials has become so much more – an educational organization, a publisher, an outlet for our creative expression and personal missions, a forum for dozens of talented healers to practice their art, a maker of health and body care products . . . It’s been not unlike birthing multiple cubical golden eggs. They can hurt like heck on the way out, but ultimately every expansion yields a new treasure.
The greatest of these treasures is the people we have connected to through The Dragontree. To celebrate you during our anniversary month, we’ll be having Champagne Weekends and $12 standalone foot baths all month long. We'll also have weekly giveaways, both in the spas and online, culminating in the award of a 12 month Habits of Harmony membership to one lucky client.
I’m looking forward to the day when I’m writing, “It’s hard to believe it was 25 years ago that my 23-year-old girlfriend opened this spa.” Thanks so much for being part of our dream.
Dr. Peter Borten
As it warms up and clothing becomes minimal, many of us are thinking even more than usual about our abdomen. I believe a big part of why we feel a well-toned abdomen is attractive is because it’s such a challenge. At a time when more than a third of Americans have a large reservoir of fat here, visible abdominal muscles seem to convey extremely hard work, good genes, self-restraint … or an eating disorder.
If you’re someone whose abdomen isn’t what you’d like it to be, first figure out why you want it to be different. Is it about how you look to others? Is it about your health? Is it both?
Even without a washboard for a belly, you can be vibrantly healthy. In fact, an abdomen that is overly hard – due to tightness of the abdominal muscles – is not ideal. Numerous traditional Asian arts of healing and fitness, such as qi gong, kung fu, shiatsu, and tai chi, emphasize building a strong yet soft abdomen for optimal health and sensitivity. When the belly is rigid, we tend to breathe more shallowly, rather than deeply into the abdomen; we may experience digestive irregularity or constipation; we may have lower back pain; and women may have more painful periods.
The issue of abdominal sensitivity is way outside most Westerners’ box, but Eastern traditions consider this region to be like a pond that registers – as “ripples on the surface” – subtleties in our thoughts and emotions and otherwise imperceptible signals from the people and environment around us. The next time you’re in a tense conversation, keep a portion of your attention on your belly and see what you notice. Perpetually tight abdominal muscles, or the habit of continuously sucking in your stomach, makes this form of perception difficult. If our attention were more down in our belly than up in our head, we’d be more sensitive, peaceful, and grounded.
So, although I don't advocate developing a rigid abdomen, I do think building a strong abdomen is great idea, and I believe it's important not to accumulate excessive fat in this area. Abdominal obesity, also known as central obesity, visceral obesity, or visceral adiposity, is the accumulation of fat around the belly. This is often referred to as the “apple shape” – as opposed to the “pear shape” that comes from fat deposited more in the hips and buttocks. The apple/pear distinction was created to help people understand that one body shape – the apple – is associated with a number of health risks. In my opinion, it’s not been that helpful, because most people with abdominal obesity aren’t shaped like apples, and many of them probably think they’re pears.
Pictures depicting people with an apple superimposed over them seem to imply that the torso should be spherical in order to conform to the apple shape. But the central part of central obesity refers to fat that is mainly deposited around the center of the entire body – meaning about the level of the navel.
The key is to compare the waist circumference to the hip circumference. The waist measurement is taken at what would be the narrowest place on a lean person – or about one inch above the belly button. The hip measurement is taken at the widest place at the buttocks/hips – roughly at the level of the top of the pubic bone (just above the genitals). Technically, this should be measured in centimeters, using a non-stretchy measuring tape, being sure to keep it even (parallel to the floor) when measuring. After you take your measurement (or better yet, have someone else do it for you), the waist number is divided by the hip number. The result – known as the waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) – is one useful measure of general health.
In women, a number around 0.7 is ideal and men should shoot for a WHR of about 0.85. A higher number is what gives the so-called apple shape. Even a WHR that’s elevated by just a few tenths may put you at greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, reduced fertility, asthma, Alzheimer’s disease, and diabetes. The pear shape, by the way – which should actually reduce the WHR – has no such negative health correlations (although, if a pear-shaped person is obese, the obesity itself still carries increased risks).
Here’s something interesting . . . if you think the men you know are dogs because they drool when they see an hourglass-shaped woman, it may actually be more biological rather than a simple matter of social conditioning. A low WHR in a woman generally correlates with healthy estrogen levels and fertility. So, men may be unconsciously responding to signals of the reproductive health of the women they’re attracted to. But even if you don’t care about attracting women, being super fertile, or having a washboard stomach, consider this: Life insurance companies may be some of the best judges of death risk – their money rides it, after all. And nowadays they always include a WHR measurement in their physical exam for insurance coverage.
If you're determined to have your dream abdomen this summer, or you just want an abdomen that's healthy, here are some things to keep in mind:
1) You can’t focus weight loss on your abdomen. Sorry. Lots of abdominal exercises won’t do it. If you have a flabby belly, you need to lose weight. If comes off your whole body pretty evenly. You can use abdominal exercises to strengthen your core, which is a fine idea, but compared to almost any other exercise, they are a terrible way to burn calories. Instead, stick to these basics of weight loss: Do aerobic exercise – especially interval training, do strength training and build muscle, eat more fiber (vegetables and/or beans at every meal), cut out sweeteners and flour, get at least 7 hours of sleep a night, stop eating before you feel full, stay conscious during the eating process, never allow yourself to feelguilty about what and how you're eating (even if you believe it's not good for you, eat slowly, and always savor your food. Plus, remember to drink half the number of pounds you weigh as ounces of non-iced water over the course of each day.
2) You may not be aware of them, but many, many people have “knots” (myofascial trigger points) in their abdominal muscles, which can contribute to a bizarre array of pain patterns (throughout the abdomen, up toward the chest, into the back, down to the groin) and can disturb breathing, digestion, menstruation, and our ability to deeply relax. Chronic, low grade abdominal tension can make us feel like we’re never completely at ease.
There are a number of ways we develop muscular tension, but one of the most common is by doing a bunch of abdominal exercises – often with poor form – after not having worked this area for a long time. Like, we suddenly get inspired to do 200 crunches to make up for 3 years of not exercising. Don’t do it. As with any form of exercise, start light and build up slowly.
Once you already have abdominal trigger points, the best way to deal with them is to get abdominal massage and abdominal trigger point acupuncture. Between treatments lie with a lacrosse ball under your belly and spend a minute or two with the ball on each tender point while trying to fully allow it to sink into your body.
The side benefits of releasing abdominal trigger points are often profound. I’ve had people burst into tears, breathe a massive sigh of relief, and even – get this – sometimes experience an immediate improvement in the look of the abdomen. You might think tight abs are a good thing, but if they’re perpetually contracted and they’re under a thick layer of fat, it will just make your belly protrude more. When the muscles are released, the tummy flattens. I can’t guarantee this will happen – or that it will be dramatic – but the point is, it’s work worth doing.
3) Think of the abdominal muscles like any other muscle group. If you’ve done resistance training, you know that it’s not a good idea to work the same muscle group every day. Muscles need rest to recover and grow stronger. But for some reason, even people who only work out other muscle groups once or twice a week often don’t abide by this rule when it comes to the abs – they do an intense abdominal workout every day. As with other muscles, you’ll get the most benefit – and spare yourself some effort in the meantime – if you only do your crunches (or other abdominal workout) two or three times a week.
4) Speaking of which, stop sucking your stomach in habitually. It restricts your abdomen, makes your breathing shallow, keeps you tense, inhibits good digestive flow, squelches your power, contributes to trigger points, can cause gastric reflux (heartburn), and gives you hairy palms. Ok, so maybe not hairy palms. Let your belly be soft and relaxed. If you can’t fit into your pants without sucking in your stomach, you need different pants. If you don’t like it, do the work to lose the fat. Sorry, but there’s no way around it.
5) When doing crunches or sit-ups, always start the movement by pushing your lower back against the floor and squeezing your belly button toward your spine. Initiate a slow curling up from this place. Don’t use your legs or neck to help you. Better yet, ditch the crunches altogether and choose abdominal exercises that are easier on your lower back, such as plank pose resting on your forearms and toes (if this isn't hard enough, extend one arm and the opposite leg).
6) When working out, don’t use a weight belt unless you’re lifting very heavy weight or you have a back problem that requires it. Otherwise, it allows your abdominal muscles to slack off.
7) Pay attention to how you stand. Is there a big arch in your lower back? If so, you’re letting your core be lazy. Keep it engaged. Tuck your tailbone slightly and engage your abdomen. Imagine you’re lifting your ribcage and dropping your pelvis to make more space in this area. Besides being better for your back and better for your abs in the long run, this is pretty much the fastest way to look better.
8) Just in case some of your bulging abdomen is due to bloating: Remember to eat slowly and don't talk with your mouth full (when we eat fast, we swallow a lot of air, which actually accounts for most of our gas). Gum can also contribute to swallowing air – plus it makes you look like a cow chewing its cud – so reduce it, unless you have some medical need for gum. Avoid sugar-free treats that are sweetened with sugar alcohols – especially maltitol – because they give you nasty gas. Reduce your consumption of fizzy drinks, and make sure they don’t have sugar or corn syrup in them. If you get gas from veggies and beans, try a digestive enzyme complex with your meals. Don’t overeat. Figure out if you have any food sensitivities (you may need the help of a naturally oriented healthcare practitioner) and avoid these foods. Try chewing some fennel or caraway seeds after meals. If you have gas that doesn't respond to these approaches, try several activated charcoal capsules or the mild drug simethicone.
Finally, be patient. Losing belly fat is usually not a fast process. You can do it. Get a friend to join you.
Dr. Peter Borten
This month I’ve been writing about Qi – the Chinese concept of energy that’s central to practices such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, martial arts, feng shui, and has parallels in numerous other cultures. (You can read Part One and Part Two, which cover the nature of energy and the profound changeability of the human body.) In learning about Qi, having someone cause your Qi to move and coalesce through acupuncture can be invaluable. But you don’t need another person in order to have an experience of Qi; Qi-based arts such as feng shui and qi gong can help you perceive the energy around and within you.
Feng shui (pronounced “fung shway”) means wind and water, the two main flowing forces in the natural world. It is the art of evaluating, structuring, and utilizing spaces in a way that ensures the most harmonious flow of Qi through and around them, for the benefit of their occupants. Thousands of years ago, it was used to orient buildings favorably with regard to the celestial bodies. Over time, it developed into many different schools of thought with innumerable principles governing how buildings and civic infrastructure should be shaped, how they should be oriented with regard to the surrounding landscape, and how they should be decorated. The basic idea is that if the Qi in a living space is optimized, the lives of the inhabitants of the space will work better.
While I appreciate the centuries of investigation that made feng shui the detailed science it is, in my opinion what’s most vital about it are the fundamental ideas on which it is based: we are surrounded by Qi, we can learn to perceive this Qi, and the flow of Qi around and within us has an impact on our lives. If you’re interested in delving into Feng Shui, there are many good books available (I like Nancy SantoPietro’s Feng Shui: Harmony by Design), but I encourage you to hone and follow your own senses. This will do you more good than any particular rules, especially if you’re interested in developing your perception of Qi. Feng shui can be simple and organic, and it’s a fun and practical way to gain a firsthand feel for Qi.
As an exercise, take a slow walk through your living space and see what you pick up. Rather than thinking of yourself as an interior designer, start by considering how wind and water would flow through the space. Feel for where the Qi moves most swiftly, and where it tends not to go. Our living space should feel neither stagnant nor tumultuous.
Consider the following questions – and what might be done to remedy these situations:
There are specific feng shui tools for correcting these things, but you can make many improvements by just using your intuition. Each of the different schools of feng shui has its own nuances, and in my opinion, some of the rules and symbolism are of questionable value, but the following basic principles are most universal and feel right to me:
I realize these lists may leave you with more questions, but I encourage you to try “feeling out” your own responses and solutions before looking them up in a book. And, rather than automatically accepting the symbolic meanings of these various scenarios and interventions, do some experimentation. Tune in and see what you perceive.
Wishing you a space that fully supports you,
Dr. Peter Borten
In last week’s article, I explained the traditional Asian concept of Qi (pronounced “chee”) – the energy of which our body, mind, and everything else in the universe is composed. Qi is an idea shared by most East and Southeast Asian cultures, and is nearly equivalent to the Indian/yogic concept of prana.
Previously, we looked at how physicists are arriving at a parallel understanding of the fundamental makeup of the world: we are essentially oscillations of energy and lots of empty space. From a health perspective, this opens many possibilities, such as the potential to change – and to do so rapidly.
This seems even more feasible when we consider how quickly, thoroughly, and continuously the body demolishes and replenishes itself. We exchange all of our atoms for new ones at an incredibly fast pace. Ninety-eight percent of the atoms in our body are replaced each year. In other words, ninety-eight percent of the body you think of as relatively unchanging – the same aches and pains, the same bum knee – will be literally gone in a year, replaced with new atoms in the same configuration, for better or worse.
To put a number on the magnitude of atom exchange happening here, the human body contains about 7x1027 atoms. [1,2] That’s a seven followed by twenty-seven zeros. It’s about seven hundred thousand times the total estimated number of stars in the universe. This is neither speculative nor cutting edge science – most of the research was done in the 1950s and it has been verified many times since. [3,4,5]
Despite the perpetual replenishment of our atoms, we are often unable to alter the process of re-manifesting the same physical problems perpetually. If there is a continuous supply of new atoms for all our tissues, the instructions for the construction of the body must be getting degraded as we age.
What if we could intervene in this process, reminding our body of the proper structural and cellular orientation of healthy joints, elastic skin, functional organs, and strong bones? What if we could instruct the body to change course – to stop losing its hair and regrow what was lost? Though most forms of healing take on this task to some degree, acupuncture, Qi Gong, yoga, meditation, and certain other modalities are especially suited to intervening at this level because they often deal more explicitly with Qi/energy. I believe the most potent intervention occurs by changing one’s thoughts and emotions in relation to the issue at hand. Even if these modalities don’t succeed at directly modifying the body, they may work indirectly by modifying the mind.
Acupuncture is based on the idea that a person’s Qi can be accessed and manipulated through a series of pathways just beneath the skin. These pathways, called meridians, vessels, or channels, cover the body and penetrate the interior to connect with our organs. Along the meridians are located hundreds of distinct points (called acupoints), each of which has a particular set of actions on the mind, body, and soul. Stimulating an acupoint by pressing it, heating it, or sticking a needle in it can have an effect on an individual’s entire network of Qi.
Each acupoint also has a name, most of which are rather poetic and can be interpreted in numerous ways. The twelve main meridians are named for the organs they are most closely associated with (e.g., Stomach, Liver, Heart), and the points on a given meridian can be thought of as having some effect on the organ the meridian is named for. But, because there are profuse interconnections between meridians, it is possible to affect virtually any part of the body with any point.
There are many different approaches to selecting acupoints for treatment. Usually, this is based on their names, actions, and the meridians they occur on. Often, we select acupoints by utilizing mirroring systems and microsystems, which highlights the intelligence of our Qi system and the holographic nature of our being – wherein every part reflects the whole.
In microsystems, the whole body is transposed onto a smaller body part, such as the ear, scalp, a limb, or the abdomen. This smaller micro-region can be used to treat issues anywhere in the body-mind. The ear microsystem is probably the most widely used in acupuncture. Microsystem diagrams often depict a homunculus – a picture of the human body superimposed onto the treatment region and altered in scale to show how the different parts of the body correspond with points on the treatment region.
Microsystems can be of great value in healthcare. In an acupuncture treatment, a few microsystem points can be easily added to enhance its effectiveness. And if a treatment needs to be done quickly or in a public setting, microsystem points can often be accessed without removing any clothing.
In the limb microsystems shown below, the arm and leg reflect the rest of the body. We can also use just the lower portion of each extremity – from the elbow down or from the knee down – to represent the whole body. Then we can look at an even smaller portion – just the hand and foot – and these are microsystems of the whole body also.  (Many people are familiar with these microsystems as hand and foot reflexology.) Each of the bones of the hand and foot is itself a microsystem of the body. And finally, each bone of each finger and toe is again a representation of the whole body. One could theoretically address any part of the body with any one of these bones. There are at least 102 microsystems on the body. 
If we include the correspondences lent by mirroring syö0stems, we can see that virtually any part of the body can be used to treat any other part (although, in practice, we choose the points with the strongest correspondence that elicit the most immediate favorable change). In mirroring systems, a problem on one side of the body can be treated in the same relative place on the opposite side of the body. Each arm reflects the other arm, and each leg reflects the other leg. So, a sore spot an inch below one elbow can be treated with a point an inch below the other elbow.
Also, each arm mirrors either leg, and each leg mirrors either arm. Thus, the same pain below the elbow can also be treated with a point below the knee. The top of the body reflects the bottom of the body and the bottom reflects the top – so the head can be used to treat the pelvis (or the feet), and vice versa. The front reflects the back and the back reflects the front. It is all a simple matter of balance.
An interesting note (seen in the diagrams above) is that most of the mirroring and microsystems work “upside down” as well as “right side up.” This factor adds another level of versatility to treatment and reinforces the interconnectedness of our many parts. Thus, the same pain below the elbow could be treated with a point below or above the other elbow or either leg.
These systems are utilized by seasoned acupuncturists in a highly sophisticated way, but even when applied in a simple fashion by novices, they are often very effective. I sometimes give patients a brief lesson in self-treatment so they can do their own health maintenance. While these strategies can be applied to any kind of health imbalance, they tend to work best for issues that have a specific location (as opposed to, say, insomnia), and are most immediately effective for pain.
A simple approach to treatment involves selecting a limb to work on; choosing a location along that limb that corresponds to the area you wish to treat; pressing firmly in that area, feeling around the whole circumference of the limb, to find a tender point. Meanwhile, see if you can perceive any change in the problem area while pressing and/or massaging any tender points you find. In the case of the pain below the elbow, you could quickly feel above and below the opposite elbow and above and below both knees (pressing all the way around the limb). Chances are, you’d find one or more tender spots which, when pressed on, alleviate the elbow pain.
After finding a treatment point that helps, try moving the problem area and using your breath to “breathe into” the problem area while firmly massaging the area you found. The combination of stimulating the acupoint and mobilizing the target area helps to connect these two parts and direct the action of the massage to the affected part.
I sometimes have knee pain while walking, so if it arises, I feel all around both elbows while continuing to walk. When I find a tender point, I press it quite firmly. (Since I’m continuing to walk, the affected area is already being mobilized.) I can always find a point that makes the pain better, and within a minute or so, it’s gone completely. This network is so fascinating and useful, I think it should be part of everyone’s basic instruction on the workings of the body.
Give it a try and drop us a line to tell us about your experience!
Dr. Peter Borten
Note: We incorrectly linked to this article in our June 15th newsletter. The correct link is here: Understanding and Utilizing Your Body’s Energy Networks.
When someone asks me to explain Chinese medicine, I start by saying that without Qi, there is no Chinese medicine. (Qi – “chee” – used to be written as “chi” or “ch’i.”) Qi is often translated as “vital energy.” Really, it’s the stuff the universe is made of. When Qi is densely packed, we perceive it as solid matter. In diffuse form, Qi manifests as less tangible things, like gases, heat, and smells.
Chinese philosopher Zhang Zai (1020-1077) wrote, “The Great Void [the space that contains everything] consists of Qi. Qi condenses to become the myriad things. Things, of necessity, disintegrate and return to the Great Void. If Qi condenses, its visibility becomes effective and physical form appears. Every birth is a condensation, every death a dispersal. Birth is not a gain, death not a loss.”
In the context of health, Qi is used mostly to refer to the energy that animates us – which is called Human Qi (Ren Qi). Human Qi can be subdivided into a number of different types based on its functions. Qi is used to as a general term to express one’s overall state of vitality, our total energy, or True Qi (Zhen Qi). A healthy person can be said to have an abundance of Qi or strong Qi. A weak or ill person may likely have a deficiency of Qi and/or stagnation of Qi. Disease factors in the body are referred to as Pathogenic Qi (Xie Qi). The overall capacity of the immune system is referred to as our Righteous Qi (Zheng Qi), which circulates at the surface of the body as our Defensive Qi (Wei Qi). The vital essence (oxygen) we extract through breathing is known as Clear Qi (Qing Qi), Great Qi (Da Qi) or Heavenly Qi (Tian Qi). The food we eat also contains energy, which is called Food Qi (Gu Qi).
Qi has a diverse range of definitions – including breath, air, ether, vapor, spirit, vitality, flow, scent, and matter. No single English word can unite all these ideas, but “energy” works better than any other word I can think of, especially if we consider that energy and matter are one. The ancient Chinese didn’t differentiate the two, and ever since Einstein came up with his famous equation to express this idea (E=mc2) the West has been catching up.
While everything is composed of Qi, differences in quality, configuration, and density yield different substances and phenomena. Likewise, all atoms are made up of the same basic subatomic particles (electrons, protons, and neutrons), but different configurations of these particles may result in gold, carbon, or oxygen, and combinations of atoms give us an infinite array of living and nonliving, visible and invisible things. If we look deeper into subatomic particles, superstring theory tell us they’re not really “particles” in the usual sense, but more like vibrating strands of energy. Strands of different lengths give us different kinds of matter, similar to how the different strings on a guitar produce different tones. In the same way, people are Qi and rocks are Qi – Qi of different qualities and configurations, but ultimately the same basic stuff.
Science is able to explain most mechanisms of the human body and disease, but it lacks an overarching explanation of life itself and the intelligence through which everything works as a unified whole. Perhaps such a task would be less elusive if Qi were part of the vocabulary of science. Beyond the ways in which it informs the practice of Chinese medicine, Qi theory can be of great value in broadening our understanding of health and life itself. It can also help us feel more connected to the world.
Qi theory becomes even more scientifically plausible when we consider some well-established facts of “solid” matter. Every atom consists of a tiny nucleus, made up of protons and neutrons. Surrounding this, and accounting for essentially the entire volume of the atom, is a negatively charged “cloud,” occupied by one or more electrons. The electrons themselves are referred to as “point particles” – they don’t really have any volume, but simply give a negative electrical charge to the region they occupy.
If an atom were blown up to the size of a football stadium, the nucleus (the only part of the atom with any significant mass) would be the size of a marble at the center of the field. This means that for every marble-sized nucleus, there is a region of negatively-charged empty space surrounding it, proportional to the size of a football stadium. Therefore, atoms, the things that comprise all matter, are over 99.9999999999999% empty space. And the parts that aren’t empty space - the particles - aren’t really particles, but vibrating strands of energy. So, there you have it.
If everything is essentially empty space, why can’t we walk through walls? As I see it, there are three main reasons. First, in the same way that the same poles of two magnets will repel each other, the negative charges of the electron clouds of the atoms of your body repel the negative charges of the atoms of the wall. This prevents one thing from moving through another. Actually, physicists tell us that whenever two objects come into contact, there is no “real” contact. That is, the negative charges of the surface atoms repel each other and will not allow them, on an atomic level, to actually touch. Even in the case of a wrecking ball smashing into a building or a knife cutting into an apple, the atoms’ charges just push one another out of the way.
The second reason you can’t walk through a wall is that even though you’re mostly empty space and the wall is, too, because of the way your atoms and the wall’s atoms are packed together, there’s no room for anything else there. It’s true that it’s mostly empty space, but it’s also true that it’s empty space occupied by energy.
Finally there’s this: you can’t walk through a wall because you don’t believe it’s possible. No matter how much you convince yourself of Qi and how everything is mostly empty space, chances are you have some extremely deep “agreements” with yourself and the world about the basic laws of reality. You’ve seen solid objects collide way too many times. The mind is almost incapable of allowing a different outcome – of allowing itself to be wrong about such a fundamental thing.
This is also why we so rarely witness miracles, why so much of the “paranormal” is relegated to New Age bookstores and cable television specials. When we experience something that conflicts with our very deepest beliefs about the world, the mind instantly reinterprets it in a way that doesn’t conflict with anything.
Speaking of which, while apprenticing under a senior acupuncturist early in my career, I treated a man who had undergone intensive training as a Native American shaman. The culmination of his training was that he and all his comrades had to jump through the skin of a very large drum. All I can tell you is that he lived to recount this story and he didn’t strike me as delusional, a druggie, or a liar. When we start to open to the possibility that any and all of our beliefs could be wrong, that we really don’t know anything for absolute certain, the world shows us things that push our mental envelope.
It may help loosen the envelope to know that natural phenomena already “break the rules.” Back to things passing through other things, we’re far more permeable than we believe. For instance, as our sun burns through the process of nuclear fusion, it continuously emits tiny particles called neutrinos, and about one million billion (1,000,000,000,000,000) of them pass through our body every second.
So what? The reason I have discussed this energetic matrix at such length is because if this is what we are – 99.9999999999999% empty space with a little bit of vibrating energy – it makes the prospect of altering the body through subtle means more plausible. What, after all, do we need to change but a little energy and lots of empty space? Not only should change be possible, but the timeline required should be much shorter than we would expect through conventional medicine.
This, my friends, we will explore in coming weeks. Until then, try walking through a few walls and report your results in the comments section below.
Dr. Peter Borten