In the tradition of acupuncture, one of the most common algorithms used in practice, can be stated as follows:
[If there is] flow, no pain
[If there is] pain, no flow
That is to say, if acupuncture is a way of treating, exploring, understanding and regulating flows in the body, and there is pain, then it serves as an important signal that some essential flow has slowed or stopped. This algorithm can be stated in simple terms, but, like many of the sayings that have come down to us in English translation, from the original terse Chinese phrase, it packs a huge amount of meaning into a small, easily remembered, phrase.
Importantly, Chinese medicine understands the body to be dynamic, not just a lump of flesh with some blood running around it, but undergoing constant change everywhere. In fact, the task apportioned to each body is to maintain a particular configuration (which in the West we might call our “genetic blueprint”) by continually taking in nourishment, continually transforming every cell in the body, and continually eliminating waste, in a never-ending, dynamic process of creation, transformation, destruction, and elimination that in its totality maintains the appearance of a single, continuous physical being present in the world.
While there are continuous flows everywhere, in every part of the body, some of them gather and flow together in patterns that might be likened to streams and rivers, and it is here, at these larger channel flows, that acupuncture does its work.
Long ago the channels of the body were described and named in the early Chinese medicine classics, with names that described their character and “depth” and which named the organ of which they were a part. This is of interest, too, because the organs described in Chinese medicine, for example Heart, Spleen, Stomach, make reference to the physical organs that the English words heart, spleen and stomach (say) refer to, but do not see them as discrete and separate from one another.
One of the important sets of metaphors at the time the earliest Chinese medicine classics were written, were the bureaucratic departments which administered the empire, and which successfully knit a disparate bunch of villages and towns into a single nation. In the same way, an organ, in Chinese medicine, is likened to a “department” with a specific set of functions, which it administers from a central location, but monitors and controls throughout the body. To do this, it uses the channels, and at least one of the channels is a direct extension of the organ, connecting the organ to all the other organs (which are also “departments” which centrally administer different sets of functions) via the channel systems which are their infrastructure for networking, transporting and communicating with one another.
Obviously, a breakdown of flow is a breakdown of communication, an interruption in supply and distribution somewhere, and spells suffering and deprivation somewhere in the nation (that is the body), and pain is the distress signal that is sent up to alert the body to the existence of the problem. And pain, as a signal, is designed to be impossible to ignore. It bloody well hurts!
Unfortunately, pain does not usually come with a set of instructions. Sometimes it is easy enough to work out where it is coming from and what can be done to relieve it, but very often it is like the distress of a tiny baby, which we cannot ignore, but cannot figure out how to relieve either. We can try this, and try that, but if we have not restored movement and flow in the place where it had stopped, we have not answered the distress signal. And so we start spreading our search for relief further and further.
In an acupuncture clinic, pain is one of the commonest problems we see. There are many types of pain, and many patterns. Sometimes it is acute, sometimes chronic. Sometimes it is worsened by rest, sometimes it is worsened by activity. Sometimes it is sharp, sometimes it is dull. Sometimes it is located at a pinpoint, sometimes it spreads everywhere. We ask a lot of questions to try to determine what is happening within the flows of the body, what flow is interrupted, what channel is not reaching everywhere, what distribution is not happening, and then apply the best of our training, tools and skills to restoring the flow, and thereby alleviating the pain. And, tolerably often, we are able to help.