Mindfulness is a common term we are hearing these days and many are interested in understanding and using it. When tapped into, it can help us to manage ourselves more positively and to navigate our world with more ease. Mindfulness makes an important contribution to the human condition, of which the human condition and its complexities have existed for thousands of years. In this time, Chinese medicine and its associated philosophy has made important contributions to understanding the human journey and, in this article, we will be discussing traditional Chinese concepts and their connection with mindfulness.
For thousands of years, the Chinese have been very good at organising information about the natural phenomena of the world within and around us. Two commonly known and fundamental concepts from the Chinese are ‘qi’ and ‘yin and yang’. Qi, is best translated by the English language as ‘life force’ or ‘energy’. It is the most basic, fundamental, and necessary substance behind all life and, it courses through it. We would not exist without it.
The five elements – water, wood, fire, earth, metal – are another group of concepts that are of great significance and where this article leads us. They describe five important ways in which ‘qi’ or, the ‘life force’ of all things, moves and acts. Although these five elements exist in their raw, material form, that is only a physical representation of something that runs much deeper through all beings and things. They are five main qualities of life itself which exhibit certain characteristics or patterns, and as they appear everywhere, they show us the common thread and interconnectedness of all things. The elements are not separate from one another as they are part of the greater whole and exist together, however, one or more of the elements can dominate over the others at different times. For example, the heat of summer is when the fire element is dominant, or the coldness of winter is when the water element is dominant. In the practice of mindfulness, all the elements play a role, yet this article discusses the role of the wood element when it comes to a practice such as this.
Mindfulness is being aware and paying attention to the present moment. Some say it is a form of meditation, and it can be, but it differs from many meditation practices in the way it can be done, anywhere, anytime and with anyone. Attending the present moment removes us from that part of our mind that is hanging out elsewhere, usually amongst the past and/or future. Thinking about our past or our future is natural, but it has the potential to be a positive, or hold us stuck anywhere but in the here and now. This article discusses where the potential of mindfulness can direct us and our life.
The qualities of the wood element, recognized in Chinese medicine, can be seen when watching how trees behave, which is where the term ‘wood element’ comes from. Trees grow, and growth means movement. Movement must also have a direction and, to have direction, there needs to be focus. Otherwise, direction can get pretty random. Trees are conscious movers. If necessary and within their means, they can literally choose their direction. For example, they may shift their focus to change the direction of their growth, to give themselves more light if circumstances have caused their source of light to become obstructed. Or, they may grow around a fixed obstacle that blocks their path. Live wood is not rigid. Trees, or even strong woody vines, deal with obstacles and respond with flexibility, to the best of their ability. Vines will even use obstacles to their advantage, because of their flexibility.
Movement is a moment to moment thing. It occurs throughout a string of moments. Time is movement, showing us moments in motion. This is where mindfulness is at. When we ‘show up’ to each moment, we can move with the moments that life presents us and because we are consciously aware within these moments, we have an opportunity for greater control in directing that movement. Being consciously aware and focused about how we would like to create moments of our choosing, or choose how we may more positively perceive and think about the moments that seem out of our control, means behaviour in life ceases to happen on default as much as it did before. On default, we react to life’s situations because we are coming from a place that’s elsewhere, usually our past and what we learnt there to cope with difficult experiences, or because of perceptions and beliefs that were essentially given to us by others. With mindfulness, we endeavour to stop responding to life out of ‘habit’. Whether it’s a physical habit or habitual thinking (usually going hand in hand), habit brings us the same things over, and over again. If it’s a positive habit, great! If it isn’t, then it may bring outcomes in life that we wish were different.
I’ve previously mentioned flexibility and movement as they go hand in hand. Flexibility can also remind us of what it’s like not to be flexible… rigid. Rigidity makes it a challenge to move. It can show up in people’s lives as being ‘stuck in their ways’. It can also be seen to manifest as having high ideals and expectations of perfectionism, with not a lot of ‘room to move’ for anything much less. This may be of themselves and/or other people. It’s not hard to see how rigidity can bring judgement towards ourselves, and others. These are just some of the many signs that the wood element is out of balance in a person. The wood element reminds us that some level of flexibility is required when approaching life, when making plans or dealing with the unexpected or unwanted, and to be kind with ourselves and others, by softening our judgement. We all ‘stuff up’ at times, but flexibility brings movement and uses obstacles to our advantage.
Finally, with movement, comes change. It is unavoidable. And with change, comes some level of transformation because when there is movement of something, it is not quite the same as it was before. An example may be something as small as moving an object from one place to another. Or it may be as profound as the movement and change that is witnessed when watching a child transform into an adult over time. The body’s intelligence has focused and directed that change. It’s no accident. It can also be seen when we move away from negative thinking and direct our thoughts and perceptions in a new direction that is of more benefit to us, and our inner and outer world transforms because of it. Natural law reminds us that nothing in the universe can ever be destroyed. Matter can only transform into something else, and thoughts show themselves to be no different.
By not attending the present moment often enough, we can do a lot of hanging out in our heads with thoughts of the past and ‘what if’s’ of the future, and reacting to life which can sometimes deliver a chaotic range of emotions such as stress, anxiety, and depression. We can apply conscious and deliberate thoughts of our choosing to any given moment in our daily lives, whether it is our personal, family or work lives, or even just being conscious of how it is we move our body or how we breath. The possibilities are endless, as are the resulting transformations. And with positive transformation, comes renewal, whether it be physically, mentally, or spiritually… or all of it. Mindfulness honours that part of ourself that is the deliberate creator of our life, a life which brings renewal and new experiences. Directing ourselves with mindful movement through many of life’s moments can take us to a place of greater stillness with more peace and calm. A tree moves, but they are also very still. As we might say, ‘be like the tree’.
N.b. In part 2 of this article, I will share further information on our inner ‘wood element’ in relation to how we can look after its health and wellbeing, through help with exercise and diet.
Bio – Emma Anderson is a Licensed Acupuncturist and Chinese Medicine Practitioner, practicing in Australia. She has experience working in multi-modality clinics, collaborating with other practitioners, as well as offering support to cancer patients as part of an integrative medicine environment, within a not-for-profit organisation. There are very few of its kind in Australia, and the cancer treatment centre has won multiple business awards.
Emma has a love for acupuncture and Chinese medicine. She has a passion for spreading the wisdom of Chinese medicine to help people gain a greater understanding of themselves and their connection to the world around them, while also offering practical advice on how to live a life that offers greater health and wellbeing. You can find her at www.cmwellness.com.au