Rhythms in Nature
We are constantly interacting with the rhythms of our natural environment.
The cycles of day and night (circadian rhythm), the four seasons (circannual rhythm), and the monthly lunar phases are the three fundamental cycles for life on Earth. We know that creatures of all kinds, from birds to insects to mammals, change their behavior based on daily, monthly and seasonal cycles.
As for those weird animals called human beings, those cycles continue to affect our physical and mental physiology, even when we try so hard to fight against them.
If you were to take in all of the biological and psychological rhythms of living things, you would perceive what in music is called a polyrhythm: a complex layering of multiple different rhythmic cycles. If the cycles are harmonious, the music is beautiful. If they are disorganized, out of sync, or at different tempos, the sound is painful.
The polyrhythm of all life on Earth is mind-bogglingly complex, so classical Chinese scientists devised a framework to see unity in the complexity. To begin to understand how our bodies interact with the rhythms we swim in at every moment, let’s start with this:
Rhythms in the environment resonate in real-time with rhythms in our body.
Human physiology uses cyclical movements all the time—when it is working well. Some cycles are daily, monthly, or seasonal. And some cycles have even smaller expressions. The circulatory system, the digestive system, respiration, hormone levels, emotional expression, temperature regulation, reproduction, you name it, all of them rely on cyclical rhythm to function well.
Blood circulation, for example, has many levels of rhythm. It thrives on a nice steady beat from the heart which cycles 60-80 times a minute. It is also influenced by the lungs, a cycle of 12-20 times per minute. It also has cycles in the constriction and dilation of blood vessels, which cycle as needed in response to the external environment and the body’s internal state. There is also compelling research that points to changes in both the cardiovascular and respiratory systems based on daily and seasonal cycles.
Emotions can also be thought of as movements: anger is a surging upward, fear sinks down, sadness disperses, joy fills. They cycle in how an emotion emerges and then fades. And they are rhythmic in how they feel in our body and mind. For example, anger is a quick, hard rhythm, while sadness is slow and soft. These are healthy rhythms for these feelings. If anger slows down but remains hard, it is resentment. If the softness or gentleness of sadness thickens and becomes heavy, it is a kind of depression. (There are other ways to get to that thing we call “depression”.)
Peristalsis in the intestines is a beautiful example of an internal rhythm. The intestines also give us a simple example of what happens with disorganized movement. The regular, coordinated rhythm of smooth muscle contracting and relaxing is how food moves from one end of the intestines to the other. If the rhythmic contraction-relaxation cycle goes off, then you get constipation or diarrhea.
This brings us to the next major principle:
Living things do better when the cycles are regular.
It’s like being a musician in a band (I love a music metaphor, if you couldn’t tell). It is a whole lot easier to play along if the beat is predictable, and it usually sounds a lot better. If the drummer is slowing down one minute and then speeding up the next, or stopping and starting off beat, the song is going to fall apart.
Pollution is like this. Unmanageable amounts of greenhouse gases, plastics, air pollutants, soil contaminants, electromagnetic radiation, noise pollution and artificial light all mess with the beat in different ways.
The more polluted our environment becomes, the more disorganized its rhythms get. When the natural rhythms become disorganized, then so to do those inner movements in our own bodies. Disorganized movement is the very definition of sickness.
This connection between humans and their environment is the heart of classical acupuncture.
Classical Acupuncture and Cycles in Nature
Two and a half thousand years ago, there was a lot going on in China. This was the “Classical Period” of Chinese culture. Laozi, Confucius and a hundred other schools of philosophy were all taking a hard look at what was working for people, and what wasn’t. The spirit of revolution was in the air, and a revolutionary idea took root:
Living things are not tossed about by supernatural forces, but are actually affected by forces of nature. These forces can be observed, studied and understood scientifically.
Philosophers and natural scientists began meticulously observing patterns in nature, trying to understand the ways that the natural world affected human affairs. Their goal, like all good scientists, was to predict the outcomes of their interventions, to try to have more agency in the ups and downs of life.
In the West, at the same time, this idea grew and eventually led people to find ways to separate themselves from these natural forces, to overcome and subsume nature. In China, at least for some, it was the opposite. The question they asked was how to align oneself with the movements of nature. They saw that the forces that create stars, that make the seasons change, that turn the planet and create snow and wind and rain, these are bigger than human beings. And they do what they do regardless of human beings. The work was then to create as little friction as possible between a person, or society, and the natural environment that they hoped to thrive in.
When physicians got a hold of these theories, a new approach to medicine was created. They started writing down their ideas in the early Han dynasty, about 100 BCE. Their study of the ways human health resonated with natural cycles gave birth to the granddaddy classic of East Asian medicine: the 黃帝內經 Huangdi Neijing.
The Neijing is not the only classical text in East Asian medicine, but it is the oldest surviving medical text that continues to support and influence the way acupuncture and herbal medicine is practiced, even up to modern times.
The heart and soul of acupuncture is coded into the sparse characters of the Neijing.
It was the manual for a new approach to medicine, which used metal needles and moxibustion to harmonize the rhythms in our physiology with the rhythms in nature.
And yet, today acupuncture does not look like it did then. And if we are to believe what the Neijing authors claimed to successfully treat, acupuncture today is also not as effective as it could be.
Over the centuries, other ideas began to influence the way medicine was practiced. In China, acupuncture became devalued and the medical community believed it to be based on superstition. (Japanese practice is a totally different story.) Ultimately, acupuncture was expelled from the Imperial Medical Offices in 1822.
For centuries, medicine was herbal medicine. When acupuncture came back into fashion in the mid-20th century, the Neijing was no longer guiding how acupuncturists used their tools. In standardized acupuncture practice, climate, season, time of day, sometimes even the basic principles of yin and yang, are ignored. Even when it is looking closely at the “whole” patient, it ignores the world the patient moves through.
Why Bring It Back Now?
This moment in history is a transition. For hundreds of years, the most powerful and influential people in the world have shared one kind of relationship to nature: Nature is a resource to be used to make human lives easier. Nature does not have agency of its own; it does not have value of its own; it is expendable; and humanity is both independent and superior to everything else on Earth.
This relationship (plus greed, selfishness and all the rest) has brought our world, with us on it, to a fork in the road. The choices we make over the next 100 years will very likely define the future of our species. If you think this sounds a bit much, I don’t blame you. It is, but it is also true. The question of the 21st century is:
How will we relate to our environment?
At this moment, there are disorganized movements all over in society, politics, commerce, and ecosystems around the world. The authors of the Neijing studied disorganized movements like these as the key to understanding how a disease develops. They looked into the principles behind the manifestations and symptoms, and they found ways to harmonize humans with the rhythms of the natural world. Strategies for harmony between humanity and the natural environment are exactly what we need right now.
Times like the Chinese classical period are incredibly rare. I think (hope) that we are at the beginning of a similar period of life-saving innovation sparked by the catastrophe of climate change. It only makes sense to look back to the works of people who asked the same questions we are asking. The Neijing is the syncretic wisdom of generations of such people.
Neither they nor I are saying our world should be like the China they lived in. It’s the underlying principles that we are both after. As the Neijing says, the manifestations of a problem are infinite, but the principle behind them is simple. Power, or skill, comes from knowing the principle.
A Theory of Everything
The Neijing offers us a unifying framework to understand phenomena at different levels—in the natural environment, in culture, in politics, in medicine, in engineering, and so on—through the lens of rhythmic cycles or movements. It usually uses the language of the four seasons to organize types of movement: spring is an upward rising movement, summer is expression and outward manifestation, autumn is descending, and winter is contracting and inward. There is also the centering or balancing movement.
Up, down, out, in, center. Incredibly simple and also fundamental to every living thing.
At any given moment, a living thing is doing one of these five movements. In a healthy system, the movements of all living things in that system create a harmonious polyrhythm. (Pro tip: probably the easiest way to know if a polyrhythm is harmonious is by observing the trees in that system.)
The philosophy that underpins most Western scientific disciplines is excellent at separating a things and events into their smallest parts. Because of that, we have achieved incredible things in science, engineering and medicine. We are now even looking to things like gene editing, which manipulates the tiniest parts of biology, one piece at a time.
Those achievements came at the cost of the whole. We lost sight of the interactions between parts and the way the parts can be seen as one.
Classical acupuncture is the balance to that. It approaches every illness, injury and imbalance with this oneness in mind. It is uniquely suited to address our health and promote wellness in the age of climate change.
The generations of scholar-physicians who wrote the Neijing understood something vital about human beings: an individual’s mental and physical health is immediately and fundamentally linked to the health of their environment. Where they then took this idea may help us find solutions to get through the chaos that lies ahead.
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Photo by Kenrick Mills on Unsplash