Treating the “Myth of Illness”

Following are excerpts from Tuesday, May 29, 2007, The Irish Times, LifeFeatures section. It is an interview of Jeffrey Yuen, 88th generation Daoist priest and practitioners of Classical Chinese Medicine, by Arminta Wallace.

Humanity’s attitude to healing is startlingly ambivalent. We’re fond of a quick fix, but suspicious of people who describe themselves as “Healers”. We cling to our prescription drugs of choice,even when tests suggest they’re better avoided. Few of us-especially those who’ve spent any time in hospitals recently – believe in miracles. Fewer still, despite the accumulated evidence of years of research from cognitive psychology and neuroscience, imagine that we can do anything much to heal ourselves.

Jeffrey Yuen, however, has no doubts about the latter. Why I (the interviewer) ask him, is the focus on spirit (the subject of his talk in Ireland) when he’s primarily concerned with healing the body? “The Chinese medical classics say that all diseases involve the spirit, so to heal them, you must go all the way down, or up to the spirit level. The problem then is that everyone tries to define ‘spirit’. Which is a somewhat elusive concept. There are alot of traditions that talk about ‘spiritual growth’ and ‘spiritual development’. But the question is: what exactly are you trying to develop?”

One of the most basic ideas which needs to be teased out, Yuen explains, is the relationship between illness and its polar opposite, wellness. “First of all,” he says, “we need to confront the myth of illness. We tend to construct a belief system around what a disease basically consists of; and then we buy into this belief. We expect that if we have this disease, then certain things should emerge from the disease process. So, in a way, what we’re really doing is validating the disease. In the healing process, on the other hand, what we need to do is validate how we feel when healing occurs.”

Among his many other qualifications, Yuen is an ordained Daoist priest who defines “spirit” as, quite simply freedom. “It’s about a sense of liberating ourselves. If I focus on the disease, I’m not doing that. I’m really trying to find out who I am with this disease, rather than who I can become when the disease begins to heal.”

This applies, he insists, even – perhaps especially – to life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, which often come with a large label marked “scary”. “Think of the physiological process which someone undergoes when they’re afraid”, he says. “At a very acute level that’s called anaphylactic shock – and you can die from that. So just imagine someone having this on a vew slow scale. That means you could die from the fear of cancer rather than the cancer itself. If a person is not afraid, it will help them. Some people say this is a placebo effect – but even if it is placebo, it shows the power of the mind.”

Which is of course, precisely what conventional medicine, with its emphasis on physical healing processes tends to shy away from. “It should be something we seek to nurture,” Yuen insists. “How do we change the mindset of someone who is ill? If you change the consciousness, you can change the condition.”

Yuen takes a relaxed approach to the conventional/alternative debate, treating his clients with traditional Chinese medicine alongside their own medications if that’s what they feel most comfortable with. “It’s not up to me to put down something they believe in”, he says. “That doesn’t help any patient. Healing is about having faith in what you’re doing regardless of what someone else may or may not believe.”

“The famous Daoist statement is that flowing water never decays”, Yuen says. “This is the dynamic of life. So when you work with an individual, you try to see what aspect of their life has stopped – where they’ve become stuck. The pathways that help us to understand these movements are the acupuncture pathways”.

If Yuen had one piece of wisdom to offer the public at large, what would it be? “There are no incurable diseases, only incurable people.”

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