May 2011

I am forty years old and people often compliment me for looking younger than my age. I used to appreciate these compliments but not think much about them, nor did I think about my age. But recently I have developed a new morning routine: looking for gray hairs. I feel annoyed when I see them, and pluck them out one by one. After completing my cull, I feel relief and satisfaction, and even a bit vindictive. The traitors have been rooted out of the army. “Am I getting old?” a little voice is asking. I managed to ignore it until I saw a recent photo of my hand and my daughter’s little hand together, the contrast made a twitch in the pit of my gut. Aging… yes, it’s definitely happening. So, what do you do when you realize that?

Even though aging is not an illness, people resist it, dislike it and want to get rid of it. I remember once a patient of mine talked about how much improvement in her general health she noticed after coming to have acupuncture treatment regularly. And she said that people complimented her for looking younger and she also felt the same herself: more energy, more bounce and more resilience. I told her that Chinese Medicine was very good for helping people maintain good health and delay aging, and she asked me half jokingly, “Can you help me not to get old then?” I wished that I could say yes. I wished that a remedy that would give people eternal youth existed. But the truth is no. We are all getting older every day.

So what can I, as a Chinese medicine practitioner, do to help when people are aging? There is a famous phrase in the Chinese Medicine classics: “The superior doctors treat the disease before it happens.” This talks about how superior doctors detect the patterns and signs that tend to lead to illness and help patients to change them before they actualize into dis-eases. Because aging is not something we cure — it is never going to go away, so the question is how we live with it, how we live a happy and high quality life despite of it. Finding out the “stories” that the body is telling us about the aging, and the stories our mind makes about aging are truly the first steps of treating the root problems. My daily pulling out white hair seems innocent and harmless, yet it is a sign that shows several things. First, physically, more hair graying is the indicator of weakened Kidney Essence and/or Liver Blood — which is the “story” that my body tells me through the symptoms. Second, my feeling of annoyance of seeing them and the impulse of eradicating them are signs of resistance of aging process, which may eventually become another source of stress and suffering. To treat the root of this dis-ease, I need to first listen to the story that my body is telling me. In Chinese medicine, this “story” consists of various signs and symptoms and often points to a particular pattern of imbalance of my systems. I can prescribe myself herbal medicine that deals with the imbalance such as strengthening my Kidney Essence and Liver Blood to delay the process of hair graying.

And, more importantly, I also need to check out the “story” that my mind tells through the signs of my emotional reactions and behaviors to see what it really tries to convey. Because without dealing with that, the emotional stress can become another main factor to cause the imbalance of the systems. I see aging as a “problem”, and I simply don’t want to deal with it. I resist it. I try to ignore its existence. Just as resisting pain makes you tense and makes pain worse, resisting the fact that you are aging can only create more anxiety, which affects your quality of life. You always have to be careful not to let that monster out of the closet. I see people do many things that distract themselves from facing the monster: obsessive intake of vitamins and supplements, excessive exercising, Botox, plastic surgeries, hormonal treatments, etc. Some people also engage in activities — such as overwork, high risk sports, or excessive sex — which provide them with a false sense of comfort that they can still do what they used to do in their twenties. So a big part of things you do are to deny that you are aging; just like me plucking out the grey hairs. This temporary relief of the fear of aging often costs you your real health and leads to aging even faster. And aside from the problems of over-expending physical energy, the mental anxiety and worry become another stress factor that will speed up the aging process.

Besides general resistance to aging, often we have our specific stories about aging as well. When I see my white hair, my first response is “Oh, my! Look at how being a parent have affected me! When my daughter grows up, I am going to be so old and will not have energy to play with her!” When I pull out my white hair, I am telling myself that I am still in control and I can stop myself from getting old. This is comforting, but obviously delusional. Once I am aware of the story I am making, I become connected with the emotion that’s associated with the story. I am worried that taking care of my child prevents me from taking care of myself, and I am afraid that I will be like my parents who always complained about feeling tired and didn’t have enough energy to play with me as I was growing up. When my deep emotions are brought to light, it is much easier for me to accept the fact of my aging even though I still don’t like it. Acceptance always helps to create a space where we can face the truth rather than let ourselves be blinded by our fear. More importantly, knowing about the fear gives me some constructive ideas about how to make different choice so that I can actually change the consequences that I don’t like — in my case, I need to pay attention to take better care of myself, and free myself from worries and self-pity so that I can have time and energy to have fun with my daughter.

To summarize how Chinese medicine can help you with aging related issues: we listen to the stories that both your body and mind tell us. We find out which systems are not functioning optimally, either too weak or out of balance, we use herbs and acupuncture to strengthen them and restore the balance. We also help you to become aware of the stories that you make about aging. Once the stories are brought to awareness, they often lose the power of sapping your energy or blocking the energy flow. Then you can choose what to act and feel instead of letting the stories dictate your feelings and behaviours.

On a different note, aging happens to everyone physically. But it doesn’t have to happen to one’s spirit. When I see a lady in her seventies dancing waltz, an old gentleman learning a new language, parents playing with their babies, people going to help out others… I see enthusiasm, curiosity, love and compassion, I don’t see aging. Maybe there is an elixir of eternal youth after all…