Taoism and the three levels of illness

Within Taoism the number three often takes a central role. In acupuncture we have Jing, Qi and Shen, we also have Qi, Blood and bodily fluid. If you practice qi gong or tai chi at some point you'll hear about Earth, Heaven and Man. Even the yin yang sign actually depicts three things, the dark (yin), the light (yang), and the line that divides the two which is in constant motion. The number three seems to convey a universal truth observed in nature. With this in mind it shouldn't surprise us that we also have three levels of illness.

The first level is Physical. This doesn't just mean the symptom is physical as physical symptoms may also be present at different levels. The physical here refers more to the source of the illness and the means of treatment. For example if your knee hurts and physical therapy heals it then this condition is at the level of the physical. The root cause of this illness is purely physical and so a physical therapy such as massage will fix it.

The second level is Qi or energetic. Here again we may see a physical symptom but the root is in the Qi system. Think of your home, if the wall falls down thats a purely physical issue and involves physically rebuilding the wall. But what if the wall falls down because of a fire started by the electrical system of the house. Here we have a physical symptom but the cause is not physical. At this level treatment may involve acupuncture and qi gong, both can regulate the qi system, just like an electrician coming to your home to fix your electrics. If left unchecked the imbalance will only produce more symptoms or more fires.

If the illness does not respond to modalities associated with qi such as acupuncture and qi gong then the conditions source is at the third level, what is termed the spirit level. General advice for this level involves finding yourself a good healer and hope for the best. However, I'd like to try and shed light on what this level actually is, why it's so important and why healers and shamans were considered the only course of action.

To do this lets take a step back and look again at the Qi level, or more precisely qi. As I've mentioned in other articles in my opinion qi carries information, the Qi system is essentially a communication system, it's the middle man between the physical and the awareness. Think of the meridian system that transports qi throughout the body as a road network in a large city. If roads become blocked we have qi stagnation, further down the road where no cars can now access we have qi deficiency. A good road system works by keeping balance and free flow, the meridian system does the same thing. Another analogy could be the body is a computer its the hardware, but it doesn't work very well without the software or Qi system, the information. However the Qi system as we know it only carries the information, so where is the programmer, where is the author.

For this we need to look again at the third level of illness. For ease of understanding I'd ask you to visualise this level as a field surrounding you, it represents your consciousness, your awareness, all your memories and experiences. This field is actually far closer to who you are than the physical body we see in the mirror everyday. It's also far more powerful, the physical body is completely subservient to the field that contains it, and its method of communication is the Qi system. The Qi system or communication system is designed to interact with the information in the field, it is in essence again subservient to it. Now you see why in general acupuncture wouldn't work, it will only regulate the system not the information (I say generally as I believe acupuncture if applied correctly can effect the field, this is not due to any special qualities of acupuncture, but rather interesting qualities of Qi)

All this leads to the next question, how would a healer orShaman heal the field, or change the information? I first became interested in Shamanism in my early twenties, I had no idea twenty years later I'd be coming full circle. Shamanism is interesting because within it are a core set of beliefs and practices. Amazingly these practices were carried out by people who had no contact with each other, but came to the same conclusions. It is said that a shaman walks between worlds, able to see and influence both, however its generally considered that the other world is more powerful and many ailments arise there. Shamans will report seeing images around patients, this is sometimes done with the eyes open but more often with the eyes closed. Although nothing physical may be happening the Shaman is able to influence the images etc. At this point you may be thinking, wait a minute I thought Shamans used rattles and smoke. That topic deserves a deeper look, however for the sake of speed these objects do not have intrinsic power, they are imbued with power and this may take place over several generations. Any ability given to an object has been done so by consciousness, and this becomes the central point. The Shaman heals through consciousness, through focused awareness with an increased ability to perceive and interpret the information displayed to them by the field.

So it would seem the key to treating an illness considered to be at the third level is consciousness, or at least it's a good place to start, it's the correct doorway. From this perspective living life may hold the best course of therapy, by experiencing the world around us and living our lives fully we are actually influencing the field, everyday we are having a small but direct effect. Practices such as journeying and Wuji gong may also offer avenues for accessing and influencing this information.

Below is a video by Alberto Villoldo, he is a psychologist, medical anthropologist and author. For more than ten years he trained with shamans in Peru, interestingly the shamans of South America have the same understanding of illness and fields as the Taoist of China.