I was fourteen years old at the pool wearing my first bikini. It was light purple and white striped with just enough padding to make me look like I had some semblance of breasts. I was days away from beginning my first day of public high school and already swimming in the discomfort of vulnerability. That day at the pool, a friend commented that I was starting to look “chunky.” I was 5’3 and 107 lbs.
The concept of my imperfection kept me locked in a chokehold throughout adolescence. I no longer felt safe in my body. I quickly realised that as a woman in American culture, my outer beauty was means to acceptance and power. I vacated my inner experience, recklessly escaping the sadness I felt at any cost. Experiencing life from the outside in, I watched a girl starve and self sabotage, in defiance of the self-love and understanding she most longed for.
I share this part of my story as it contains the most essential seed to my understanding of illness and the path to health. Daoist philosophy never separates illness from the emotional experience that contributed to its inception. As a Chinese medicine student and practitioner, I’m always struck by the number of classical texts that affirm disease as the inflation and stagnation of unresolved emotions, or in other words, unfelt feelings.
This is true in my experience. By my early twenties, I was in the throes of chronic gastrointestinal disease and experienced the kind of physical pain that made death feel like a good option. In the ensuing decade, I burned through more doctors, medical bills, holistic health practitioners, alternative therapies, supplements, and diets than I want to admit. If you’ve faced chronic illness, you know the drill. It’s endless.
Buddhism calls this kind of endlessness to human suffering “Samsara,” sanskrit for wandering aimlessly in circuitous existence. In my mid-twenties I began practicing Vajrayana, a Buddhist tradition that offers a path into the direct experience of unconstructed reality beyond theoretical understanding. For the first time, my outlook flipped inward. I began to understand the inseparability of body and mind. I felt how my thoughts and emotions shaped the reality in my gut and how deeply entrenched these psycho-emotional patterns were.
Modern medical science is exploding with research on the mind-gut-immune connection. We now know that a healthy microbiome may be the driving force to preventing and treating myriad modern diseases. What’s pertinent to emphasise is the role the gut plays in regulating our mind, body, and spirit. Assimilating the outer environment into itself and what impedes, blocks or slows down this process. We are constantly in the dynamic play of external-internal interchange. When is one actually separate from the other?
I realised that I could not think, solve, or control my way out of pain. I had become an expert at finding solutions to protect myself from what might hurt me versus embracing the physiological reactivity in my body as my most powerful ally. It wasn’t until I was willing to feel the fear, disillusionment, and longing cramped into the quiet corners of my body that my symptoms started to shift. I had to let go of concepts and trust nature’s intuitive process.
As I sit here, embracing this world and all of its complexity in my body, I feel humbled to know that healing is not a battle. To fight, numb, or “other” the pain we feel in our bodies and the world is to dishonour our most powerful portal for individual and collective healing. What I’ve shared about my journey is not to say that dietary wisdom, lifestyle choices, and sound medical advice don’t play a huge part in self healing and transformation. They do, and I’m passionate about all of these avenues professionally. But more important than any supplement or medical expertise is the ability to rest into the reservoirs of our infinitely intelligent bodies, with the kind of deep listening and presence we would offer a child who is lost and confused before her first day of high school.
To learn more about Mackenzie’s work and journey, follow @mackbhall.