All living organisms are engaged, from birth until death, in the endless process of healing deviations from normal physiology. From the time of conception, someone’s terrain is under constant stress, trauma and shock from which it must repeatedly recover, returning to homoeostasis, and balanced functioning. That balance requires intricate and delicate self-healing manoeuvres.

We may ascribe this homoeostasis to the complex chemistry of living things that has evolved in the interest of species survival over the last five billion years. If we express this in a literary style, rather than in a scientific one, we can recognize that a living organism is endowed with an involuntary consciousness that is aware of thousands, or perhaps even millions of simultaneous activities going on within itself. With this awareness comes the ability to recognize which of these events are potentially dangerous to survival, and require immediate attention. This incredibly complicated and sophisticated self-healing happens usually without any input from the organism’s primary “thinking” consciousness. What we wish to do here is to pay homage to this process, and see what we can learn from this remarkable capability; hopefully it will inform our efforts to deal with the disharmonies that present themselves in our clinics. We want to do this with a humility and sense of awe that are generally absent in the prevailing medicines: both allopathic and, sadly, often alternative medicine as well. For me, the thoughts explored here represent only the dawning of recognition of what there is to learn, and how far we all must go.

Incidentally, it is interesting to note that, as far as we know, Homo sapiens is the only species able to interfere with these automatic self-righting mechanisms, ironically through Lifestyle choices misguidedly directed at ensuring survival.

Symptoms are a major factor in any disease, and the most immediate and obvious use of symptoms is to translate them into Chinese medical conditions. We can then organize these conditions into those associated with the solid-hollow organs, the Qi (True Qi deficiency), Blood (deficiency and/or stagnation), body fluid (Damp), and internal (psychological) and external (cold, heat, etc) pathogens. We can also further classify into special areas such as retained pathogens (toxins, parasites), neoplastic and Qi Wild processes. From this organization, we can assess the principal and secondary problems, and formulate/determine our management strategies in terms of immediate and long-term interventions.

However, if the thrust of our medicine is solely to eliminate symptoms, rather than to see where they lead, we will negate not only several thousand years of the most successful system of internal medicine ever conceived: we will also undermine and contravene the body’s own attempts to alert us to its imbalance through the manifestation of symptoms as messages. Symptoms inform our divinely-endowed consciousnesses that self-healing has not worked, when the stress, trauma and shock have caused damage beyond the ability of the organism to repair by itself.

Every symptom is, first of all, a message that physiology has failed, and that pathology has ensued. This seems to be where different medical systems part ways, and their agreement fails. Chinese medicine has, over the millennia, identified certain symptoms as related to certain Chinese medical conditions; these we can manage and treat. For example, Insomnia in which the patient wakes after four hours of sleep and then returns to sleep relatively easily is a Heart Blood deficiency condition. However, Insomnia wherein the patient is unable to return to sleep denotes Heart Blood stagnation. However, it is important to remember that although such conditions are manageable, it is crucial to address what circumstances brought them about in the first place. If someone is deficient in Heart Blood due to his energetic constitution or a damaging Lifestyle, these true causes must be addressed once the acute situation is under control, otherwise the patient will neither return to, nor sustain, good health.

Several years ago, a patient startled me by saying, “I never thought that I’d think of asthma as a friend. Now it really is. I was on heavy medication and frequently had to go the emergency room. It was out of control. Now I do carry an inhaler, but if it seems to bother me, I know it is because I’m getting out of control: overdoing it, not eating right or resting, not clearing an argument with family or co- workers. It truly reminds me.”

Symptoms are often much more complicated, and do not always become friendly, but this incident highlights several important aspects of acupuncture treatment. The first is that symptoms are generally ways in which the body tries to stop someone from creating greater levels of stress and illness. They can be signs from, or protection for, vital organs. Painful joints may prevent an elderly person from straining the circulatory system, for instance. Secondly, acupuncture increases awareness, and heightens the patient’s ability to view symptoms more effectively as friends and protectors. It helps someone to understand her body’s messages more clearly, and, when possible, to act appropriately to stop things from getting worse. Finally, although there will always be pain and suffering, by understanding the role of symptoms, we can learn how to make them more useful in our lives, and to relieve pain when symptoms lead to the root of the illness.

Ecology, in the sense that we are using the concept here (in Chinese medicine), involves the use of symptoms to lead us to the deepest etiological roots, and to nature’s strategies for resolving the pathological consequences.

The human body is both complicated and highly sophisticated, and the treatment or management thereof must be tailored to match this complexity. When self-healing devices fail, or when the organism seeks external help through the development of obvious, definable symptoms, it is a wake-up call for both patient and practitioner alike. We must work with, not against, the organisms we treat.