THOUGHTS ON ACUPUNCTURE, BODYWORK, AND HEALING EMOTIONAL TRAUMA
There’s an old Cheech and Chong comedy routine called “Acupuncture” that features Tommy Chong as a traditional Chinese acupuncturist treating new patient Cheech Martin. The latter complains of chronic headache. He’s tried everything from hypnosis to yoga, standing on his head to Quaaludes and cocaine, he tells “Dr.” Chong. Nothing gets rid of the pain.
Have you heard of Ying-Yang? Doctor Chong asks his new patient. Well, I’m going to stick this needle in your ying-yang. You’ll feel much better!
After he inserts various needles, the patient is soon writhing in pain, which turns out to be the critical moment to discuss payment. As Dr. Chong explains, “needles go in free, $150 to take out.”
It’s a silly routine, as to be expected from these two. In truth, acupuncture is not generally painful. In fact, it is popularly known as an effective treatment for physical pain. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), acupuncture in controlled clinical trials has been proven effective for low back pain, facial pain, headache, knee pain, neck pain, dental pain, rheumatoid arthritis, sciatica, tennis elbow and other conditions.
What may be less well known is that acupuncture and related treatments used in Traditional East Asian Medicine can also be effective treatment for psychological pain. This includes by WHO’s criteria clinical depression, (including depressive neurosis and depression following stroke). The National Institutes of Health reports acupuncture can also be effective treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
In some cases, acupuncture may even be helpful in providing support for healing early childhood traumas, including sexual abuse. Consider the experience of Anna Dolopo, LAc, a Laguna Hills, California-based acupuncturist, who has written publicly about how as a small child she was sexually abused by her father. As she writes in her essay, “The Opposite of Fear is Willpower,” “Though it really helped to talk about the abuse with a professional therapist in my college and post-graduate years, my real healing began when Chinese medicine stepped in and helped me take a genuine look inside myself.”
From the perspective of Chinese medicine, she explains, sexuality is “strongly associated” with the kidneys, which provide the “Jing Qi” or essential, deepest energy in the human system. “Jing Qi is stored in the kidneys,” she writes. “The emotions of the kidneys are fear and willpower. When the energy of the kidneys is weak, a person lives more in fear and acts with less determination than that of a person with stronger Kidney Qi.”
Accordingly, kidney energy can be depleted in various ways, such as through poor diet or using physical energy in excess. Living in a fearful or abusive environment can also deplete kidney energy. “History of sexual abuse left untreated can create fertile ground for a pattern of a Kidney Qi dysfunction to manifest,” says Dolopo. “I had so many health issues with my kidney energy and the symptoms were so clear to understand that if I did not learn how to extinguish the fear, I was only going to live a life with compromised Kidney Qi.”
The impact of the medicine on her life was great enough to influence Dolobno’s decision to pursue professional study in the field. “Chinese medicine strengthened my Kidney Qi and I have lived with much stronger will power than when I had grown up in fear,” she writes. “I encourage all men and women who have been sexually abused to come in for treatments.”
Similarly, in The Obsidian Mirror (Seal Press, 1998), writer Louise Wisechild describes how therapeutic bodywork was particularly helpful in decoding and interpreting her body’s many messages and cues to buried memories of early sexual abuse. Combined with writing and therapy, Wisechild was able to gradually reconstruct her inner story, laying the groundwork for progress in healing these wounds from childhood.
For Portland, Oregon, Reiki practitioner Sonia Connolly, LMT, author of the book, Wellspring of Compassion: Self-Care for Sensitive People Healing from Trauma, Wisechild’s experience was a turning point in her own healing. “When I started to remember the abuse I’d endured as a child, I tried traditional psychotherapy to get help, but soon turned to bodywork instead, inspired by Louise Wisechild’s The Obsidian Mirror,” explains Connolly on her website.
“Through receiving gentle, respectful, skilled touch, I learned how to connect with my body, my breath, and my own truth,” says Connolly, “I learned to sit with the feelings and memories rather than running away, and to ask quiet questions rather than shout fierce judgments at myself. Gradually I reclaimed a sense of peace and inner guidance, and the panic and despair receded.”
It is not easy to heal from early childhood emotional trauma and abuse, especially sexual abuse. In addressing such issues, however it is done, there can be a natural ebb and flow to the therapeutic experience as traumatic feelings and memories emerge and the work of healing proceeds. Indeed, confronting a painful past can at times bring up agitation, despair, confusion, and tears. It’s difficult especially when memories may be fragmented or buried. However, such “healing crises” are often a prelude to an eventual better feeling, as repressed feelings are released and the body’s energy starts to move and get stronger.
Is Forgiveness Necessary?
In Dolopo’s story, the healing process eventually led to a personal decision to forgive her father. Of course, no one has the right to make that particular decision but her. However, I don’t agree generally that victims of sexual abuse or rape are under any particular obligation, as a precondition for their own healing, to forgive someone who perpetrated criminal behavior against them.
By “forgiveness” many people likely are just striving to find some peace of mind in how they think about someone who has hurt them. They want to move on with their lives and not be stuck in anger or resentment over past injustices. This is understandable. Lingering anger and hatred at past bad treatment can make people unhappy or even physically sick. Bottling up difficult feelings is not particularly conducive to a harmonious state of health.
However, my own thought is that when therapists, ministers, or healthcare practitioners elevate “forgiveness” to a necessary stage in the healing process, they implicitly risk imposing moral notions on victims. We have to ask: Is it really not possible for a victim of sexual abuse to find healing without being compelled to forgive the abuser? Rather than forgiveness per se, perhaps what victims of sexual or other abuse need first is to rebel emotionally against what happened, to find healing on their own terms unencumbered by demands or expectations of others rooted in traditional morality. Genuine forgiveness if it is given should flow naturally from a person’s own heart, from their ability to recognize their own needs, not because a therapist or other “authority figure” tells them it’s necessary.
Wang Fangyi Emotional Healing
With this in mind, I listened with interest recently to the National College of Natural Medicine’s (NCNM) True Nature Radio show on an emotional healing system based on the ideas of a Confucian educator from northern China named Wang Fangyi, who died in 1937.
The Wang Fangyi program encourages introspection as a means to achieve health, using silent retreats in which participants are encouraged to reflect on their lives at a deeper level. The aim is to help people move out of a state where the mind’s chatter is always in charge, thus facilitating a more embodied awareness of feelings or ingrained ways of thinking they may hold.
“When we carry emotions in our body that are not cleared, they create a toxicity in the body,” explains Tamara Staudt, ND, LAc, who in 2011 organized the first American retreat based on Wany Fengyi principles. “There’s an energetic shift in the body, which can then eventually manifest on the physical level, even as disease in later stages. So that holding of emotion will create an energetic restriction in the body that is played out eventually on the physical level.”
As host Heiner Fruehauf, PhD, LAc, remarked in this 2012 program, the Wang Fengyi retreat encourages a “radical willingness to surrender one’s own defense mechanisms, surrender your picture of the world” in order to dissolve these energetic restrictions and any emotional or physical pain they create. The idea is that good health resonates with developing compassion, love, humility, the capacity to learn from others, and to take personal responsibility and not blame others for your problems.
The Wang Fengyi program shows that concepts and ideas rooted in traditional Chinese medicine are not insensitive to the emotional challenges facing modern people, including those in the West. Listening to the radio discussion a few questions come to mind, however. For example, what exactly does Dr. Fruehauf mean when he suggests participants in thinking about their problems should avoid blame at all costs? Is taking self-responsibility and placing blame for past mistreatment on others somehow a mutually exclusive proposition?
It’s my observation that a more common problem for those who endured childhood mistreatment is that blame is misdirected. Victims of abuse often blame themselves for problems they didn’t create (think of the child who unwittingly blames himself for his mother’s or father’s alcoholism). But the larger challenge remains: What does a person do with any blame or resentment he or she feels? If someone wants to let go of long-standing resentments or painful feelings, however, they must first acknowledge or express them, recognize their legitimacy. I imagine those who promote the Wang Fengyi program would not disagree?
In fact, says Dr. Staudt, emotional healing doesn’t have to mean sugarcoating the past. Still, she asks participants to ponder what is positive in their family story that might be overlooked. “As I look back, what can I be grateful for?” she asks. “Maybe even though they’re [the parents] abusive, they sacrificed tremendously to put food on the table, or whatever it was. But what happens is that [when] people open to that as a possibility, suddenly they begin seeing parts of their parents they had never seen…. We might miss where our parents truly did have love, whether or not they were capable of expressing it, or whether or not they expressed it in ways that we could really feel it or see it or know it at that time. So it’s really about coming into self-responsibility for your experience now, and going back and finding where the good in this person was.”
Certainly everyone’s story is flavored with its own uniquely individual challenges and issues. Certainly also any searching evaluation of one’s family story that leads to new insights, improved health, and lessening of stress is desirable. That said, must emotional healing necessarily involve manipulating one’s thinking toward seeing the good in someone who maybe was, to put it bluntly, not so good? Is it always necessary to find “gratitude” somewhere in looking back at influential people in a person’s life, no matter what the real story was or what may have been endured? Maybe gratitude instead can now be found simply in the fact that an individual has become the type of person who, unlike earlier generations in their family, does not abuse or exploit others?
Emotional healing should help us learn to trust our own feelings, the latter of which for many adults was often sacrificed at an early age upon the altar of the mistreatment or neglect they endured. Of course, it’s rare that any therapy truly overcomes every issue stemming from trauma or unmet childhood needs. If therapeutic endeavors can at least allow us better access to our feelings, a better capacity to express ourselves consciously and creatively, to no longer suffer passively as victims to the past or present, then the path is good.
One of the ideas I like from the writer Alice Miller is that therapists should act more as “enlightened witnesses” and less as “educators” to a person involved in healing. The Wang Fengyi program emphasizes going to the root of a problem and releasing it in a physical way, which seems right. In a YouTube video of a Wang Fengyi meeting in China the process appears almost like a type of primal therapy, with people talking and telling stories and having physical reactions: laughing, crying, and more. It’s easy to understand how expressing deep feelings in such a group setting is therapeutic.
In this sense, the program may provide the kind of enlightened witness experience that gives people support as they look within. This may also be why the group experience of 12-step programs works for some people, too, regardless of any specific concepts or ideology involved. As well, this might be another way in which massage therapists, acupuncturists, and bodywork specialists help people. Beyond their clinical expertise, their good relationship and presence with patients and clients becomes a type of enlightened witness experience to those who in treatment find themselves releasing emotions, especially traumatic feelings, or are otherwise working on healing past traumas.
These are just some thoughts and observations I have on these complex and important topics.