The True Significance of COVID (from a TCM Perspective)
Ahmad Anthony Miles was opened in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1977. He has been a practitioner of the inner tradition of acupuncture for over 30 years. In 2015 he published Tao of Well-Being: The Transformation of Suffering into Health. He regularly conducts seminars on ancient Chinese perspectives about health and healing in Victoria, Vancouver Island, where he lives, and in England. He is a published poet, an enthusiastic cyclist and a lifetime supporter of Manchester United Football Club. He has three children and one grandson.
He has granted permission for the republication of his article on COVID from a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective:
THE TRUE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC by Ahmad Anthony Miles
I look about – and should the chosen guide Be
nothing better than a wandering cloud. I cannot
miss my way. I breathe again!
— The Prelude, William Wordsworth
As we experience the unfolding horror of a pandemic claiming thousands of lives and as we watch our response to it in terms of more or less competence on the part of governments around the world, or in terms of our own capacity to cope with self-isolation or with the deaths of family and friends, we are inevitably drawn into preoccupation with safety, economic hardship and the desire to get back to some kind of normalcy.
Understandable as all of this is, is it enough? We need to understand what is truly happening and find the language to reflect accurately what is happening, otherwise we will have learned nothing. We will perpetuate the same dynamic which brought about the pandemic in the first place. Our intention cannot be restoration of what was, but of transformation into what must be. I hope this article will be a useful contribution to this necessary process.
I will draw on the perspective of ancient Chinese medicine and my own observations as a practitioner of classical Chinese acupuncture. I will also draw on current events, especially the development of Black Lives Matter, but also the significance of ‘Trumpism’ and Brexit, and the longer term crises of climate change and the catastrophic damage to the environment all over the world..
The context or backdrop for all observation is the systematic manipulation of nature, some of which has been beneficial, but which has mainly and increasingly become controlled by the financial self-interest of ruling elites and the governments who serve them to the detriment of human and environmental health. Indigenous cultures, closely tied to natural cycles, have warned us for a long time about the dangers of this development. Overwhelming research has shown that climate change is now our greatest external threat.
Deforestation and commercial wildlife trade that follows from deforestation has heightened the risk of zoonotic diseases that can potentially cause pandemics. But Covid-19 is not just a plague-like sickness moving with lightning speed from a wet market in Wuhan across the world. Nor is it only a symptom and consequence of the unsustainable rape and destruction of Mother Earth, our Mother on whom we all depend for life. It is primarily an indication that the way we are living makes us susceptible to something like Covid-19 which could have been around for thousands of years. The rape and destruction of Mother Earth is not just something that happens around us, it is also, and equally importantly, something that happens within us. We are creating a condition of biological, mental and spiritual incoherence within ourselves. We are destroying ourselves.
The Huangdi Neiching, the oldest medical work from China, probably 2300 years old, was essentially an attempt to draw back from the detail of circumstance, to identify patterns of which these details were an expression, and to create a language to describe these patterns. The ancient Chinese wanted to understand the pattern language of the cosmos and its expression on earth.
Out of this approach came the awareness of cycles, cycles which were constant, but not rigid, and within which different emphases were understood depending on the stages of these cycles. This perspective also included what to expect if we were unable or unwilling to go with the flow of these cycles and also to go against the flow of life. Based on this approach, the particular manifestations of our time were anticipated 2300 years ago, including the consequence of respiratory illnesses in 2020.
The ancient Chinese anticipated this period in time as a transformational process of unravelling, of Hua. The process of unravelling has been complicated by climate change. As a result, nature’s ‘breath contraction’ has shortened, and the earth’s ‘breathing’ has shifted into an inappropriately outward rather than an inward direction, causing the weakening of biological coherence within us. The consequence has been respiratory disorders accompanied by joint and lower back pain actually starting in the winter of 2019/20. Together with the earth we have been unable to draw a full breath. Covid-19 is a reflection of this. If what the ancient Chinese say is true, this incoherence will then lead to an upsurge in pathologies of the heart.
Trump, Brexit and Covid-19 reflect a connected pathology in that process. Everything is unravelling with the risk of collapse and incoherence reflected in our cultures as much as in nature. It is as if our world is disintegrating before our astonished eyes. We are losing biological and cultural coherence. Trump and Brexit, as expressions of pathological unravelling, show that we have entered into dangerous waters seemingly with no compass to guide us.
It is no accident that at the same time as the pandemic strikes our respiratory process, Black Lives Matter emerges whose slogan has become the dying words of George Floyd, “I can’t breathe”. The reason why the issue of racism towards people of colour and police brutality and persecution of people of colour has emerged so strongly at this time is because it is tapping into the larger deeper dynamic of incoherence and unsustainability at all levels of human life. ‘I can’t breathe’ is what is happening to us as a species and a planet. ‘I can’t breathe’ characterises what life is like for millions of people, not only in terms of their environment but also in terms of their state of mind and the worlds in which they live.
The argument about the use of masking during the pandemic has centred on its preventative value in terms of the virus or on the right not to be dictated to by governmental and medical authorities. The real issue about the mask is that it is one more experience, one more symbol, of a deep underlying malaise, a claustrophobia in the culture – I can’t breathe. Being masked is a restriction of breathing. Perhaps if we can see it in this light rather than dogfighting with conspiracy theories and civil liberties we might get somewhere. We have to describe what is happening more appropriately, we have to find the language, the code through which we can clearly recognise the dilemma, and which is also a key to open the door to the garden we need to inhabit as opposed to the desert offered by mainstream culture and its political-economic elites. Black Lives Matter is a manifestation of coherence arising during this period of unravelling, part of a potential new stage of development, part of what the ancient Chinese called the Shen, the light, an ‘inspiration’ that can help overcome the devastation of the lungs and the heart caused by Covid-19.
I have been a practitioner of the inner tradition of classical acupuncture for over 30 years. What I have come to realise, through my patients, is that while all suffering is felt personally, it is noticeable that there are patterns shared by all. I believe that a good part of the psychological, emotional and physical symptoms that I witness on a daily basis are in fact a deep, unconscious, awareness on the part of many that something is profoundly wrong with the way we live. Because we do not recognise what is happening to us, we do not have the language to describe it. As a result we fall back onto the specifics of the suffering we are going through. In reality we are manifesting the deep and dangerous malaise at the core of our modern way of life.
In May 1730 a merchant ship was sailing from Beirut in Lebanon to Marseille in France. At the time nobody knew that the ship was carrying what was then called the oriental plague, and when the ship reached Marseille, the city experienced the most virulent plague in its history. Before it arrived in Marseille, the ship was meant to dock en route in Cagliari in Sardinia. Before it docked, the viceroy of Sardinia had a dream. In the dream he dreamed he was infected with plague and spread the plague throughout Sardinia. Because the dream was so powerful and clear, and against all national and international protocol, against all protests from officials and merchants, he threatened to sink the ship with cannon shot if it attempted to dock in Sardinia.
In a state of unconsciousness, during sleep, the viceroy had some form of communication with the plague. It surfaced into consciousness when he awoke. Is it possible that, like the viceroy, we are in some form of communication with all that is wrong about our life on earth, and we are manifesting it as psychological, emotional and physical symptoms, but which we have been unable to bring into consciousness? Are we at a stage in our planetary life where awareness is starting to poke through into our consciousness?
The issue for the ancient Chinese would not be the pandemic, but the lack of biological coherence within us that opened us up to something like Covid-19 at this time. That biological incoherence is due to the way we understand ourselves and our role within the life of the planet, a way that is in total contradiction to what is required of us not only at this stage of the cycle but throughout the seasonal cycle..
One of the key issues that interferes with our capacity to ‘go with the flow’ of the planet and the universe is the inability to understand the significance of seasonal cycles and of rest. In one of the oldest wisdom classics, the IChing, the authors state:
“In Winter the life energy, symbolised by thunder, the Arousing, is still underground. Movement is just at its beginning, therefore it must be strengthened by rest so that it will not be dissipated by being used prematurely. This principle, that is, of allowing energy that is renewing itself to be reinforced by rest, applies to all similar situations. The return of health after illness, the return of understanding after an estrangement: everything must be treated tenderly and with care at the beginning, so that the return may lead to a flowering.”
Even during the self-isolation imposed by Covid-19 many have seen it as an opportunity to do this and to do that, zooming with friends, family and colleagues, still maintaining a level of activity, thinking, focus, of agendas commensurate with preCovid life. Of course, there are many situations where we are required to act, no matter what. There is nothing wrong with that per se, but seldom does it seem that people have included the most significant option, that is, to rest, to do nothing, to stop when they can, to ‘breathe’.
Mother Nature has required us to stop, to allow that deeper ‘winter ‘ breath to help generate healthier patterns. It is important to realise the difficulty we have in doing that, just to be. This is not a criticism of activity, just an observation of the difficulty we face in just being. If anything should grab our attention at this time, it is this difficulty.
The ancient Taoists also emphasised what they called non-doing or non-being only because the overall tendency of the culture was identity through doing – “I do, therefore I am’ – which is as true today as it was then. This tendency dominates modern awareness. We think our lives only have meaning when we are engaged with our agendas, our thoughts, our actions. For many the ‘thought’ or challenge to do nothing is almost unbearable. We are losing the capacity to just be, to breathe fully. ‘I can’t breathe’. The ancient Chinese were not opposed to doing. But they asked the question – how do we do ‘doing’? Their emphasis was to go into what I call the ‘meeting place’ with life, and let life direct the doing. That requires a focus on the heart rather than the brain – something I explore in later paragraphs. It is as if we our using our breath to push our boat along, rather than using what is given us naturally, that is, the wind, to fill our sails and move us where we need to go. No wonder we are exhausted and can’t breathe when we think it’s all up to us rather than up to life. We have lost confidence in life.
More importantly, the more energy we pour into the world outside of us, the less we have for the world inside of us. Everything is about getting the balance, and we have no balance in terms of inner/outer. The ancient Taoist, Zhuangzi said “Heaven is inside, human is outside” meaning the outside should reflect the reality of what is within us, namely a truly human reality.
Energy is warmth. We are not warming what is deep within us, within our hearts, within our souls. Through our identification with what is outside us, especially our thinking, we are over-warming what is external. The consequence is a development of internal cold which injures the heart causing major heart issues in all modern societies. Injury to the heart not only manifests as heart organ issues, but also conditions such as depression, anxiety, catastrophic thinking, despair, lack of joy, inertia, difficulty connecting with others, lack of intimacy and empathy, abuse and cruelty.
The ancients talk about the heart as the supreme controller who rules through love and understanding – wise love. What they mean by that is that everything must be governed by love and understanding – the organs, the bones, the blood, the nervous system, the lymphatic system, every cell in the body and the mind. In fact when they talk about the heart they also mean the mind. When the heart is disturbed, the mind is disturbed. Human attention and intention has to be, first and foremost, a
contribution to the strengthening and nourishment of the heart. Our hearts are at the centre of our existential crisis and also the means by which transformation can occur. When the mind and the thinking are guided by the heart, then all that is human can manifest.
More than that, the heart, in its truest sense, is the mechanism within us that is closest to the indefinable mystery of life, to the source of life. The very first point of the heart meridian is called ‘Utmost Source’ – closest to the source. In the Neijng, the most ancient medical work from China it says, “The Heart is the rooting of life, the place where changes are made by the spirits”. The ‘spirits’, the Shen, are what bring meaning to life.
The heart is also the leader, the conductor of the orchestra, that which organises everything within us, makes sure that everything is OK. If it gets damaged by too much focus on external stimuli, too much warmth being leaked outwards instead of supporting what is within, it will lose its coherence and its necessary leadership, and we will lose our own coherence as individuals and as a species, as a culture. We are designed to work with nature outside and within us. Nature within is, at the core, is the heart. We are doing the exact opposite. War, environmental devastation, Trump, Brexit and Covid are symptoms of this gradual incoherence at the centre of the heart.
It is pretty much like the intensive long-term extraction of oil from the earth. The oil is part of a deep nourishment of and contribution to the biological coherence of the earth, warming the earth. Instead we extract the oil and burn it into the atmosphere, the major cause of climate change, overheating the environment. Ecological catastrophe, heart illness and psychological and emotional distress all go hand in hand..
Xunzi, a Confucian writing in 5th century BCE, described how the inability to follow what he called ’true principles’ would inevitably produce a state of anxiety and terror, because we would not be aligned with life itself, but working against it.
The cyclical patterns identified by the ancient Chinese are losing their coherence because of the way we relate to nature and to ourselves. It should be obvious, for example that the autumn, which is a time when nature is turning inward, retreating down into the core as days grow colder and shorter, is also a time for us to retreat and reflect, as if on a pilgrimage to the source. Not only that, our minds are not as active, engaged or clear as they might be in the spring when all is coming alive again.
Yet we start the school year in our educational system in the autumn when everything in nature is shutting down. We demand that students, teachers and parents push the other way into more of a spring-like approach. According to the ancient Chinese the lung is the organ associated with the autumn. When we move against the natural cycle, we injure it. In the autumn we risk injuring the lungs. It is no accident that the autumn is an epidemic of lung-related illnesses, flus, bronchial problems of all kinds consuming our children, teachers and parents. We are committed to the opposite of what nature requires because we do not realise that we are part of nature.
When I first moved to Vancouver Island from Scotland in 1995, I experienced what I felt was a lack of a complete breath as we moved through the seasons. The winter is longer in Scotland than it is on Vancouver Island. It seemed as if the winters were too short and before I had had a chance to go to depth within myself, which the winter encourages, I was having to get out there again into the dynamic thrust of the spring, not getting the full breath.
Understanding more about ancient Chinese thought, I realised that our culture itself doesn’t allow us the deep contraction into our depths, but is always demanding we cut it short in terms of the next expansion, constantly moving the energy upwards and outwards into a spring pattern. This naturally produces a speeding-up overheated process which causes distress. Everything is about speed. Social media have got us ‘hot-wired’ to speed. ‘I can’t breathe’.
In one of the most influential philosophical works to come out of ancient China, the Tao Te Ching, a question is asked, “Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?” (Chapter 15). In the authentic life right action arises by itself. In other words, if we can create a space for the mud to settle, knowing what to do, to think, will require no effort because we are agreeing to give life itself the opportunity to direct us. We are choosing to be in relationship with life, with our own nature. And life, if we let it, will produce unexpected gifts and all that we truly need.
Our current way of living is based on a deep distrust of ourselves, of life itself. Even birth is less of a life expression and is now more of a medical procedure. We have lost confidence in our capacity to ‘know’, because we have been assuming we are in charge of life as opposed to being in relationship with life. We are constantly out of step with our own natural rhythms, and this is reflected in all walks of life.
Life is a mystery. We have no idea what will happen next. If life is a mystery, then does it not make sense to position ourselves first and foremost in relationship to that mystery? Once we acknowledge that mystery, then life can emerge from within us, no longer trapped by our thoughts, our minds.
Our wisdom is in our blood, not in our heads. We seem to have been designed to manifest that wisdom without any manipulation on our part. Our bodies are miracles of relationship, organisation and purpose without any conscious intervention on our part. Part of the delight of life is the discovery that we can know without knowing that we know! We are, from the get-go, beautiful, mysterious, noble and sacred beings. Let us be those beings rather than settling for less. True health occurs when we join with existence itself. Illness occurs when we think we are in charge of everything.
The ancient Chinese stressed that what is important is not what is happening, but how we relate to what is happening. Can we start to trust ourselves again? Can we understand that everything is process, relationship, something in between? Can we gradually let go of the reins which we’ve been holding on to out of a deep and terrible fear? Those reins have nothing to do with our lives. They are only the means to imprison ourselves and to make us sick. Our world of technological miracles has not managed to reduce the epidemic proportions of sickness and distress that we currently suffer.
Covid-19 gives us the opportunity to change our patterns; to focus on a process of living more closely and intelligently with nature; of generating economies based more on contribution than extraction; of education that is empowering as opposed to controlling; designing environments, urban environments that support and express the human spirit, community and communion; to understand the need for rest and not doing; to recognise our sicknesses and stresses more as feedback about being out of alignment with ourselves and one another, with life. And the way through is through emphasising the primacy of the heart.
The ancient Chinese stressed that it is important to go with the flow of the times. The fact that life is going through an unraveling cycle does not have to be negative. One of the wonderful messages from the British Columbian and Canadian governments during Covid-19 has been ‘Show kindness’. The Chinese also stressed that as this cycle continues, keep your eyes peeled for the shen, the light, which is emerging out of this unraveling. It could be large developments which are inspiring such as Black Lives Matter, European commitment to a greener economy, or small developments such as discovering your neighbours and your neighbourhood, or even that you really like to smell roses. Dial down the noise and spend more time listening as you sit on the park bench in the park that you’ve discovered afresh. Do less and more will get done. Let the mud settle and wait for the right action to appear.
I understand that there is hardship at this time. We have to help one another and make sure our governments support us – that is what they are there for. Perhaps our greatest contribution to the health and well-being of our communities is our attention to our inner life, our state of mind, and to trust, which is a decision, that if we can let life sort things out, life will sort things out. Life will show us the way and we can act on that guidance. Our minds, which should be our servants, have become our gaolers. I appeal to everyone to step outside the prison of our own making, to let go of the reins, dial down the noise and give life a chance to sort things out. We can do it. We can start to breathe again.