Environment & Sciences / Sciences / Society

Medicine to the Mind: Acupuncture, Meditation and Psychoanalysis

Acupuncture, meditation and psychoanalysis teach us how healing the mind is essential in curing the body

by Marion Bouvier

© Marion Bouvier
© Marion Bouvier

Acupuncture, meditation and psychoanalysis are not particularly known for their similarities. Yet when one looks at the philosophy behind each of these practices, there is definitely common ground. At the root of each of them, there is the profound idea that body and mind communicate in more ways that can be seen, and that relieving a symptom does not mean addressing its long-term causes.

Acupuncture is part of Chinese medicine and has been practiced in China for more than 20 centuries[1]. It is a complete therapeutic method that consists in listening to the patient’s description of his/her symptoms and on pulse taking; based on these, the acupuncturist proposes a ‘map’ of acupuncture points most probably associated with the potential cause of the symptoms.

Acupuncture is built on the idea that there are ‘paths’ (meridians) in the body along which vital energy flows, and when some of the doors along the path become blocked, the flow is interrupted and symptoms erupt. You do not have to believe that vital energy is a thing to understand acupuncture, you can simply make the parallel with the way nerves, veins and arteries link different organs and different parts of the body together. There are around 360 acupuncture points, and many of them have been shown to correspond to nerve bundles and muscle trigger points.

The meridians used in acupuncture

The meridians used in acupuncture

The theory underlying acupuncture is much more complex than the brief summary I am giving here, and all aspects of Chinese medicine need to be thoroughly understood by the acupuncturist to be able to uncover the root cause to which the symptoms point. The role of the needles in acupuncture is not directly to cure, but rather to stimulate trigger points to bring them to the body’s and mind’s unconscious attention, and therefore to allow the root of the problem to emerge. Once it is out there, it can be faced and addressed for what it is. Sometimes this process remains largely unconscious, especially if acupuncture is used to treat conditions that are mostly externally induced, such as in the treatment of chemotherapy’s side effects for example. But for blockages that are linked principally to psychological causes, a lot of things can emerge into the conscious realm.

Let’s take a clinical case to illustrate how acupuncture works. In a case related by Jean-Marc Kespi in his book on traditional Chinese medicine[2], a 52 year-old man suffers from acute bronchitis, which is showing no sign of improvement after 3 months and many pills taken. The acupuncturist asks the man, who is usually rarely sick, whether he thinks he suffered any major injustice in the recent past. Yes, the man replies, he is a successful banker whose boss started ostracizing him two months before the bronchitis started. He also adds that the boss was “like a father” to him. Jean-Marc Kespi explains: “His lungs expressed his suffering, the unbearable injustice, all the more hurtful since it came from a paternal figure, a ‘celestial’ figure.” After the acupuncture point 22 Rn is punctured, the man is cured of bronchitis in 48 hours.

Now, if you are familiar with psychoanalysis, you have probably already identified the striking similarities in both methods.

Indeed in both cases, what matters to the physician is to look at the deep-seated causes of periodic or recurring symptoms. It is not about masking the pain with painkillers or giving a quick but short-lasting relief. It is about looking at human beings as complex individuals whose physical reactions cannot be dissociated from their psychological and emotional experiences, which makes sense because the brain is also an organ and therefore the line between body and mind is a fine one.

Front row: Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung in 1909.

Front row: Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung in 1909.

The main difference we can identify is that psychoanalysis uses language as its main tool to unearth suffering, while acupuncture relies mostly on the language of the body through its vital energy. But this is far from being a radical opposition, since, as mentioned before, a good acupuncturist will also start the consultation by listening to what the patient expresses in order to find which trigger points should be stimulated.

Furthermore, an acupuncture treatment often takes place over weeks, if not months, throughout which the patient is invited to talk about the changes that occur or the emotions that came up alongside the treatment. Psychoanalysis likewise relies on a lengthy process—arguably longer than acupuncture— during which the externalization of one’s felt experience is the very path to one’s recovery.

But what about meditation then? Isn’t it about sitting in a lotus-something pose and being silent?

In fact, meditation goes far beyond a simple silent relaxation, and in many ways its technique is linked to acupuncture and psychoanalysis. Meditation has many variants depending on the philosophy and/or spirituality within which it grew, so I will talk more specifically about the type of meditation practiced in Yoga, although it also applies to many currents of oriental meditation.

Whether one meditates sitting in specific poses or simply lying on the floor, the idea behind it is to expand one’s consciousness to include a perception of reality that goes beyond its immediate physical perception. In meditation, one looks at all thoughts and emotions going through his/her brain without trying to control them, to influence them, or to analyze them. This is a difficult exercise that requires training and a relaxed body and mind, but once you allow yourself to let your thoughts wander around without ‘seizing’ them with your mind, it is very liberating. It is also a process that allows one to dig deep within one’s psyche by paradoxically shutting off the voice that constantly orders us around in our daily lives.

So how is this all connected to the other two techniques previously discussed? The philosophy underpinning (yoga) meditation states that there are 7 major chakras—or energy centers— that govern some functions of our beings. For example the 3rd chakra is located at the solar plexus and corresponds to the digestive and metabolic system. It is also linked to dynamism and will power, therefore blockages at this level can manifest themselves through a sense of confusion, powerlessness, fear and anxiety.

The 7 chackras © Yogafly.com

The 7 chackras © Yogafly.com

When one goes into a meditative state, they make an intuitive, primal, connection to their own chakras; this in turn can inform the conscious self, once the meditation session ends, of whether certain blockages exist. It is basically a way to let one’s body speak for oneself, which is why we can relate it to acupuncture and psychoanalysis. The whole concept of chakras and of flows of energy within the body also echoes Chinese medicine’s definition of acupuncture points and meridians.

Similarly, it is also not a method focusing on short-term therapeutic benefits. If you think you should start meditation to magically cure yourself whenever you have a cold, you will be disappointed. However, it can help you identify some underlying issues that lead you to be repeatedly sick. Besides, meditation is about being in the present, which is also what connects it to psychoanalysis and acupuncture—almost paradoxically so. Indeed, in psychoanalysis a lot of the events that the patient talks about may belong to the past, or he/she may express anxiety towards the future. But by allowing oneself to talk—to let out— these emotions connected to times that were or that could be, one also learns to experience the present moment, and therefore to live each instant for what it is rather than with the burden of re-occurring or anticipated emotions.

Likewise, meditation helps us focus on experiencing the time being, without rushing ahead or retreating to the dark recesses of our brains. And acupuncture can have a similar effect, since it reminds our bodies to face and let go of past traumas so that we can be fully ourselves in the present.

Human beings are complex creatures whose bodies and minds are constantly put to the test by the experience of living. Of course I believe that western medicine has made an invaluable contribution to people’s health and that it remains fundamental to cure us from powerful viruses, deadly bacteria, as well as to treat and prevent many diseases. But I also think that western medicine can walk hand in hand with other therapeutic treatments that focus on long-term benefits and that look at the body in conjunction with the mind.

There is no need for opposition or competition between these different disciplines. There is also no need to stigmatize those who use them: it is not because someone goes to see a psychoanalyst that they are any crazier than someone who just takes pills every time they are sick, on the contrary. Paying attention to the general well being of our bodies and minds, and being ready to address long-term imbalances within ourselves—from slight sleep problems to problematic skin conditions and anxiety crises— is important. It is a proof of self-respect and it is often part of a desire to realize one’s full potential. It can also greatly improve our behavior towards others and help us realize our unique potential to contribute to the world we live in. I find it courageous to treat oneself well, more than to pretend that there is never anything wrong, or to suppress pain and suffer in silence when there are other options available.

Notes

[1] The first mention of acupuncture in Chinese archives dates back to Sima Qian in his historial compilation Shiji, written in the Ist century BC.

[2] Kespi, Jean-Marc, L’Homme et ses symboles en médecine traditionnelle, 2002, Albin Michel

Picture sources

Human body meridians: Wikimedia Commons

7 chakras: Yogafly http://www.yogafly.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/HiRes.jpg

Hall, Freud and Jung in front of Clark University: Wikimedia Commons

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