Middleway Medicine Blog

Perfect is the Enemy of Good

by Clark Zimmerman, L.Ac.

Years ago my wife and I spent a month in Tibet.  We traveled to a sacred mountain called Mt. Kailash in the far western part of the country.   It was remarkable being in the thin air and the barren landscape of the high Tibetan plateau.  The natural beauty of the Himalayan mountains was breathtaking: bright colors adorned the temples, the people, and even the yaks as they plowed the fields.  It was all so foreign that it was almost as if we had been transported to an entirely different world.  With all of these unusual sights and experiences, the thing that stood out the most to us was the grace and apparent comfort of the Tibetan people.  When I say comfort I don’t mean that they lived comfortable lives–rather, they were comfortable in who they were.  With no mirrors or Facebook accounts, people didn’t fixate on how they looked.  The lack of dentistry meant most people past a certain age were noticeably missing teeth, and people were wrinkled and weathered by the elements.  With the constant wind and yak dung fires that provided warmth, along with the lack of showers, most people were covered with dust and smelled of smoke.  Despite all of this, the people were so kind and welcoming.  They really were comfortable in their own skin. 


  When I contrast this with so many Americans that I know, it amazes me how different our cultures are.  Though our culture is so abundant, so many of us are preoccupied with a sort of perfection that was absent in Tibet.  As we have become wealthier as a nation, we are becoming increasingly fixated on image and appearance.  Social media feeds show us a never-ending procession of perfect bodies, meals, and vacations.  They encourage us to compare our insides with everyone else’s outsides.  So many people get caught up in how to craft and maintain an image that is bigger than life.  We pursue a certain look, a perfectly manicured lawn, or a shiny car, but it doesn’t bring us more happiness.  It doesn’t improve our quality of life.  In fact, rates of anxiety and depression are increasing at an alarming rate, as are the use of the medications that treat them.  People are also spending more money in an effort to “keep up with the Jones’s.”  We are chasing a state of perfection that doesn’t exist, and we are making ourselves sick doing it.  While adults are struggling, kids are having an even harder time.  Without the reference point of a childhood before the constant messages of social media, children and young adults have been taught to believe that image is the most important thing.  How you look, how appealing the package is what gets you the most “likes.”  It’s like those Hollywood facades that they used in the old western movies:  The front is put together, but there is nothing inside the saloon. 


  So what is the solution?  As a society we need to reevaluate our priorities.  This involves finding ways to encourage substance over packaging.  People who don’t know any better are fooled by the package and the bling.  Reality stars whose claims to fame are how good of a shopper they are or how they apply their makeup, need to be turned off.   People who teach of patience and presence need to reclaim a place in our daily lives.  This involves turning off the phone or the computer once in awhile, and tuning into things that teach peace of mind.  For some, this is a good church that preaches the real gospel of love and service.  Others find it in a yoga, meditation class or a good self help book.  Wherever you find it, peace comes with the realization that none of us are perfect.  We each get to acknowledge our human flaws:  each wrinkle, pimple or bad mood.  We get to see ourselves as a true reflection of the divine, living in an imperfect body and mind.  The work involves witnessing each of our imperfections and finding a way to embrace them and using them to catalyze growth.  When we remember that life never was and never will be perfect, we get to put our energy into acceptance and growth.  In Tibet crooked teeth aren’t crooked, they’re  just teeth.

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Expanding Your Comfort Zone

by Clark Zimmerman, LAc.

Years ago, my wife and I spent some of our honeymoon in Fiji.  Most of the time we stayed in a small village called Lavena that was on the edge of a large jungle forest preserve.  Though the village had no running water or electricity, the villagers were some of the most content people we have ever met.  In so many ways Lavena was the picture perfect paradise that you dream of when you think of a tropical honeymoon getaway.  The jungle was wild and alive, the ocean was an otherworldly aqua, and the water was so clean that you could drink it straight from the creek as you swam underneath the waterfalls near the village.  However, about a week into our three-week stay, we had a rude awakening: there was a massive hatch of a tropical fly.  Suddenly flies were everywhere.  It reminded us of videos we had seen of people in impoverished areas of Africa, where the flies would cover peoples faces, crawling in their ears, mouth and eyes. All of the sudden everything we did seemed like an invitation to be covered in flies.  It was nearly too much to bear.  The locals didn’t seem to even notice.  Since they had lived with this as a part of their reality, they had developed the ability to go about their life with minimal bother.  It got me and my wife thinking about how specific our comfort range had become.

Traveling to undeveloped countries makes you truly realize how spoiled most of us are in the United States.  We live in homes with running water and electricity; we heat and cool our rooms and our cars; we eat food that suits our particular tastes; we sleep in comfy beds; we bathe and wear scents to cover our odor; we wear headphones to hear what we want to hear and earplugs to block the things we don’t want to hear.  We control just about every aspect of our environment to make life as comfortable as possible.  Most of the time this makes life easier.  But what happens when we can’t control our surroundings?  For most of us, if something feels uncomfortable, we fixate on whatever isn’t just right.  A picnic becomes too hot to enjoy; a walk in the snow becomes too cold;  food is too spicy or unappetizingly bland; too much noise or silence can overwhelm us.  We have narrowed our range of comfort to a point where almost everything feels uncomfortable.  It makes me wonder sometimes if all of these comforts are more of a blessing or a curse.  I am not suggesting that you disconnect your air conditioning, but just as you stretch your muscles to keep them flexible, it is a helpful exercise to stretch your comfort zone from time to time.  Stretching your comfort zone can be helpful in a few important ways.  It can make you more appreciative of all the comfort you enjoy.  It is like when you go backpacking and sleep on the hard, cold ground and eat instant food.  When you get home your bed feels like heaven and a simple meal can taste like a gourmet feast.  It can also help you maintain resilience so you are better able to withstand times when things aren’t as comfortable. 

No matter how much you try to control your environment, things periodically will not go according to plan.  If you don’t occasionally practice being uncomfortable, the slightest deviation in your day can ruin an otherwise beautiful moment.  You can do this by letting yourself get a little hot or cold, fasting part of the day or getting up extra early and watching the sunrise.  Just ask yourself what discomfort you are the most adverse to and lean into it once in a while.  The benefits will most likely outweigh the cost.

It took a while, but my wife and I finally settled into the flies in Fiji.  Once we stopped complaining about them, we figured out times when we could go out when they weren’t as thick.  Then after a few days, they thinned out and became much less noticeable.  In the end, we thanked the flies as reminders to keep continuing to expand our comfort zones.

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What You Resist, Persists

by Ryder Johanson, L.Ac.

Social awareness of depression is at an all-time high right now. I think the growing willingness of people to openly discuss their own struggles is a huge development in the emotional intelligence of our society.  As an acupuncturist, I look at depression through the lens of Chinese Five-Element philosophy. 

Of the Five-Element personality types, the Water type is the most likely to struggle with depression. Waters are deeply introspective and have an amazing capacity for finding meaning and wisdom in life. Waters like to take their time and go with the flow, prioritizing comfort over efficiency. Waters can talk eloquently for hours about philosophical and other topics of real substance, but might not be too interested in small talk. Many of our most beloved artists have been Water types: Kurt Cobain, Stevie Nicks, Janis Joplin, Peter Fonda, Robert De Niro, Ernest Hemingway.

While Waters are great at going deep and being introspective, that approach can get them stuck when it comes to painful memories. They can end up hiding and isolating themselves, overwhelmed with despair.  Fear is the emotion associated with the Water element. Waters are great at seeing everything that could possibly go wrong, but that fear of what might go wrong often paralyzes them and prevents them from moving forward. According to the Chinese Five-Element perspective, the Water personality needs to learn to have courage to overcome fear and move forward. That sort of approach is the strength of the Wood element.

The Wood personality is fearless—she picks a path and just goes for it. She’s not afraid of taking a misstep because she knows she can handle whatever arises. Woods can be great friends and coaches for Waters, giving them that inspiration to get out there and a plan of action for success. Many people who’ve lost a ton of weight with radical changes in their diet and exercise habits are Waters who have been coached up by Woods.

But very often there ends up being a difficult event that comes up—the loss of a loved one, a breakup, a stressful situation at work—that brings up those old feelings of fear, shame, and inadequacy. And then the Water spirals back into depression and their old coping mechanisms—food, alcohol, drugs, escapism, whatever.

So what’s the alternative if we don’t want to spend the rest of our lives running or numbing ourselves from our painful emotions? Are we just supposed to dwell on them and wallow in misery? Isn’t that what’s causing the problem?

I don’t think so—at least not anymore. When I first got into meditation and eventually Chinese medicine, I saw my spiritual practice as a way of conquering my emotions and finding peace through discipline. But in that struggle with my emotions, they just seemed to get bigger and bigger and harder to avoid.

I’m pretty stubborn, but it eventually started to dawn on me that maybe the way to true peace is through accepting my emotions rather than trying to push them away. And it turns out many spiritual teachers and psychologists (and my wife) have been saying this for a long time—I just wasn’t ready to hear it. Carl Jung maybe said it best when he said, “What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size.”

Water needs the support of Earth in order to find courage—and the biggest strength of the Earth element is compassion. Real transformation happens for Waters when they develop the ability to have compassion, understanding, and forgiveness for themselves. That way they can choose a path forward and not beat up on themselves too much when they take a wrong step.

Seeking help from some sort of therapist or counselor is so important for people suffering from depression. It’s easy for people suffering from depression (especially men) to think they understand their problem and what to do about it—they think just need to have the discipline to do the right things they need to do.

But the main reason why a therapist or counselor is so helpful isn’t because they’re going to tell you what to do—it’s because they’re going to show you compassion. Yes, they’re going to offer you compassion, but they’re also going to show you what compassion looks like. And ideally that compassion becomes infectious—you start to believe that not only are you deserving of compassion from others, you’re deserving of compassion from yourself. I’ve found it’s a lot easier to move forward when you’re not always cutting yourself down.

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