~ Tinnitus ~ Acupuncture ~ Qigong ~ Tai Chi ~
|The Tao of Tinnitus
"The author explores the use of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qigong and Tai Chi in order to get rid of his ringing ear."
The Tao of Tinnitus
Tinnitus is a fairly common problem in which the sufferer's ears can "hear" sounds that aren't really there. We all get this occasionally, say when we have a cold or sometimes when we've been swimming - our ears ring. It usually clears up after a short time, but sometimes it doesn't. With Tinnitus, the sounds can be very loud - like standing next to a jet engine, or they can be soft, like air leaking from a pipe. They can be steady, constant in pitch, high or low, or they can vary, like a cricket chirruping. Tinnitus can also beat in tune with one's pulse, like a slow drum-beat.
Because of the constant nature of it, it can colour your world a sort of miserable grey and, not surprisingly, it can also trigger dark emotional responses like depression, anxiety, or just all round grumpiness. According to western medicine there is no cure for it and the best that can be done is simply help the sufferer come to terms with it, or to mask it with other, less irritating sounds.
The reason I'm writing about it is partly to record my own experience of tinnitus, and also to describe some of the interesting avenues I've explored in overcoming it. While I still get the odd bout of tinnitus, it no longer troubles me on a daily basis so I feel that to a large extent I have been successful in tackling it. I therefore want to pass on my experience for the benefit of those who might be struggling with it and looking for some advice.
Conventional Western Medicine was unable to offer me any hope of a resolution at all, so, desperate for a cure, I was forced to explore a very dodgy path of alternative treatments. Sceptics warned me that I was wasting my time, that I was simply in denial, and should just get used to the fact that I had tinnitus and get on with my life. This was not helpful. Anyway, after a broad study of what the alternative treatments were, I decided to try Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
I used a combination of acupuncture, Tai Chi and Qigong. The acupuncture was an expensive and lengthy business, but it did have a significant effect. It did not provide a miracle overnight cure, but rather a gradual easing of the condition over time. The Tai Chi and Qigong were less expensive and involved attending a weekly class, plus daily practice on my own. Qigong can be picked up to some extent from books, or off the web, but Tai Chi cannot - and you really do need to attend a class if you can find one.
I used Tai Chi and Qigong as a means of taking over from the acupuncture, and the techniques proved to be effective, enabling me to sustain a slow but steady recovery to the point where the tinnitus rarely troubles me now. I also feel much more energetic and relaxed. To be clear, I do still get the occasional "bad ear" day, but such occasions are rare now. When they do occur, I see them as a sign that I'm out of balance in other areas, usually tired and in need of some rest. That's fine by me, because at its worst every day was a bad ear day.
The sceptics now tell me that my ear was obviously going to get better on its own anyway and that the TCM was still a waste of time (and money). I have no answer for them except to say that apart from easing my tinnitus, the TCM techniques I have learned have provided other benefits as well: boosting my sense of well being, making me more relaxed and energetic. Perhaps such a rejuvenation is common in one's middle years?
I've been fortunate that for most of my life I've never felt the need to trouble the local doctor from one year to the next. On the rare occasions when I have visited his surgery, the impression I've come away with is of a man severely pressed for time and with a long queue of sick people backed out of the waiting room. Perhaps I have trouble expressing myself but under these circumstances I have found that doctors struggle to address any problems that I cannot point to, such as a swollen eye, or a nasty rash. Anything else, anything mysterious, anything that does not show changes in blood pressure or in blood and urine samples leaves them stumped. Tinnitus is a good example of this, but there are many other things I can think of: fatigue, lethargy, a whole raft of emotional problems, stress, anxiety,...
On the other hand, my experience with TCM has been mostly positive and in the future, while I'll probably return to my overworked doctor with the straight forward problems I can point to, I will not hesitate to seek the advice of TCM for the other stuff.
Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western Skepticism
TCM grew out of the philosophical aspects of Taoism, and can trace its development back some three thousand years to the "Yellow Emperor's Handbook". This book was the first to describe the Chinese concept of "Energy" or "Chi" and how it moves around the human body. I was introduced to the Chinese world view several years ago now, through my interest in the Book of Changes, or I Ching. However, in spite of my great respect for the Oriental take on life, I feel I was always guilty of viewing TCM as somewhat primitive and superstitious - at best a cheap, low tech placebo for the rural poor, while the urban rich, who could afford it, went to see a proper medical doctor. As for Qigong, or Chi Kung (same thing - different spelling), like many of us in the west, I had real problems with it on account of the dreaded "C" word (Chi or Qi). Qigong doesn't make sense without accepting the existence of Chi, and the merest hint of that word has sceptics seeing red, because they say it cannot be measured, detected or, by any means other than imaginary, be said to exist at all.
Having poked around the subject for a while though, I'm persuaded that the problem with Chi lies in its historical associations - not so much with traditional Chinese thought, but with the relatively modern, Western, new-age spiritual movement that latched on to its supposed "mystical" properties and have since used it to support a belief in all manner of dubious paranormal phenomenon. But we western hippy types are not alone in giving Chi a bad reputation. Another problem with it, is its association with so called "Masters", both Eastern and Western, who perform demonstrations of paranormal ability due to their apparent "mastery" of Chi. While these feats are undoubtedly impressive, and for all I know may even be genuine, they fall foul of the rational, skeptical mindset that's always on the lookout for the trick - and I'm sure all of the demonstrations I've seen on film (see You Tube "Chi Demonstrations"), could be performed just as well by a competent illusionist. The problem here is not so much the truth of the matter then, as the perception. We might be dismissing Chi simply because of it's bad reputation, not because it does not exist.
So, what is the truth concerning the "C" word? I can only speak from personal experience, and recently I have to admit I've come round to an acceptance of its existence. However, I see it more as a natural, though as yet poorly understood phenomenon, rather than a mystical super-power. One of the reasons for my "conversion" is that I've come to know some otherwise down to earth people who practice with and apparently "manipulate" Chi, internally, but who prefer not to call it by that name. They talk instead about a kind of electricity or energy that exists freely in the natural environment, and also in our bodies. Whatever its nature, they explained to me that if I did certain exercises I would begin to feel certain things - and feel them I did.
Swapping the word Chi for "electricity" might seem like a case of slippery political correctness, but it is an apt phrase, and I base that statement upon my practice with the range of mind-body exercises known collectively as Qigong. The sensations we experience in our body are highly subjective of course - sometimes real, sometimes imagined, and what to one person might be evidence of a physical manifestation of Chi, might to another simply be a case of pins and needles. By performing Qigong exercises, or by having accupuncture, we do experience some odd sensations: tingling, coolness, a spontateous flowing of "something" from our fingertips down our arms. We also experience an incredible internal heat that pumps the sweat out of us even though we're doing nothing but standing still. Whether these sensations are real or imaginary is irrelevant though and what we have to ask ourselves is this: do these mind-body exercises bring about the stated physiological and psychological responses in a human body?
And in my experience they do.
Has the existence of Chi been scientifically demonstrated?
Skeptics will say no, absolutely not, but as is often the case, the fact of the matter is less clear. We may have known about Chi in the west for a long time, but we call it something else. A good book on this subject is "The Body Electric" by Dr Robert Becker who mapped out the human electromagnetic field in the 1970's. There are no wires in the body for the passing of electrical current, more, as I understand it, a series of low resistance pathways, mostly in the sub-surface tissues, along which electrical energy finds it easier to travel. Resistance measurements suggest these pathways coincide with the acupuncture channels. Therefore, for a skeptic to say there is no basis for the ideas of Traditional Chinese Medicine in scientific fact and that "Chi" is unfounded fancy is actually not correct at all. Whatever we choose to call it, it seems there are more scientific grounds for taking it seriously and investigating it further, than for rejecting it as preposterous, as the sceptics would have us do.
I think back to my overcrowded doctor's surgery and then to the queue outside the dispensing chemist of people getting their prescription drugs and I wonder how much money might be saved if those people could be allowed instead to spend half an hour lying comfortably on a couch with some pins stuck in them. Not everyone could be helped this way of course, and the idea of allowing ordinary people some time to relax perhaps goes against the grain of Western culture, but many could be helped and indeed are in other parts of the world.
Returning to Qigong, and having established that there might be something we can loosely term bioelectricity at work, we must now stretch our imaginations a little further and accept the possibility that one can influence the flow of this energy using the intention of the mind, and that we can also increase the amount of bioelectrical potential that we can store within the body. How might this work then? Well, in the conventional view we convert the food we eat into energy, and that's all the energy we need. Then, if pressed, the western scientist will allow that the body has a natural electrical field that can be measured but, in the conventional view, this field is considered to be nothing more than a by-product of the body's function. In the traditional Chinese view, however, the body's electromagnetic field is more, and the form it takes is believed to actually influence the well being of the body itself.
Electrical energy is not just generated by the body, it is also channelled into the body from the environment. Under normal conditions the energy flows along the acupuncture meridians which emerge from the body at its extremities - tips of fingers, toes, top of the head and the perineum. If the energy field is undistorted, then it acts as a kind of blueprint that the body's natural regenerative functions can use as a reference in repairing physical damage or fighting infection. If the blueprint is lost or distorted though, the body is thrown back upon itself and can go a little haywire - we become sick.
Through poor posture, poor diet, negative thinking, or years of nervous tension we can unconsciously impede the natural flow of energy through the acupuncture channels - just as if we sit awkwardly, we can impede the flow of blood and cause our legs to go to sleep. This has the effect of distorting our natural electromagnetic field and if these distortions become habitual and long term, things can start to break down. The other way of distorting the field has to do with external electromagnetic interference. There is no clear cut boundary to the human electromagnetic. In effect, it merges by imperceptible degrees into the electromagnetic field of the earth. Therefore the concern is that any strong local interference, such as from power lines, transformers or radio transmitters, could disrupt the body's natural field, again messing up the reference blueprint that our natural defences use for self repair.
Or so the theory goes.
But what about my tinnitus? Could the manipulation of Chi get rid of what a western medical doctor had told me was incurable?
Well, as I've already said, the answer appears to be yes.
TCM and Tinnitus
TCM is not a miracle cure for everything. It aims to put the body's natural electromagnetic field back into balance so the body knows how to repair itself. But there are some forms of damage that cannot be repaired. If we are unfortunate enough to lose a limb for example, no amount of acupuncture or qigong will make it grow back.
Our ears are delicate devices and tinnitus can be brought on by physical damage: by exposure to loud noise, by being too close to an explosion, by habitual exposure to dangerous industrial or recreational noise. It can also be brought on by poking around in the ear with a Q-tip, or through an infection introduced by a dirty finger-nail. With a damaged ear, as I understand it, TCM is as helpless as Western medicine. However, if you cannot pinpoint any such cause, if it came on suddenly and mysteriously then your tinnitus is probably the result of fatigue - in bioelectrical terms, your batteries are running down.
The body's elecromagnetic field is not a straightforward phenomenon. It divides itself into different channels, each of which provides energy for a particular bodily function. Each channel then feeds a store of energy that serves the body in different ways. One of these channels comes up from the feet and is loosely associated with the kidneys. As we age this energy can become depleted, and one of the side effects, as well as a general feeling of lethargy and exhaustion, is tinnitus.
The lesson here for the tinnitus sufferer is that although this energy can be restored, it will be lost again if we cannot identify our energy hungry habits and put an end to them. There are several reports of acupuncture having a short term effect on tinnitus: it helps, but once you stop the acupuncture, it comes back. Mine didn't however - it continued to improve, but I was careful not to go back to my old ways, and I adopted a healthy exercise regime that seems to have kept my energy levels topped up.
In TCM, the most likely culprits in the onset of tinnitus are insufficient sleep, and, for men, sexual excess (sorry guys). Now none of this will be of much comfort if you're a celibate teenager, and get ten hours sleep a night. But if you're older, say past forty and sexually active (with or without a partner) this is definitely something you need to take seriously.
I was forty five, and energy hungry, working long hours with two jobs - one that paid, the other that didn't, and I wasn't getting anywhere near enough sleep. Acupuncture, Qigong and Tai Chi were very effective in getting rid of it, but it was a long haul. The whole process took over a year and I still practice Tai Chi and Qigong every day.
What follows is an account of my story in more detail. For those of you suffering with tinnitus, there may be something in it that can help. If, however, you've never heard of tinnitus then I'm just going to sound like a whingeing hypochondriac.
My tinnitus came on suddenly in the Spring of 2006. It was mainly in my left ear, and was like the hissing of air from a leaky pipe, or like the static hiss you get when you tune a radio in between stations. Sometimes we get these odd noises when we're tired or we have a head cold, but we don't pay them much attention and they usually go away, but this didn't. Over the next few months the noise came and went a bit, but finally settled in until it was there pretty much all the time.
Some days I could only hear it in a very quiet room, or when I lay in bed at night - other days I could hear it over most of the everyday sounds, like watching TV or when driving. There seemed to be no clear pattern to the good days and the bad days, no obvious trigger, except that exposure to very loud noises like a washing machine suddenly kicking into its spin cycle, or using my petrol mower would turn a good day instantly into a bad one.
I waited until the late Summer before going to see the local GP. A quick examination revealed a plug of wax in the offending ear and I was hopeful that after washing it out, the noise would go, but it didn't. I was stuffed: it seemed there was nothing more that could be done. The GP shrugged and diagnosed "tinnitus". He said he could refer me to a specialist but that in his experience it wasn't really worth it, that I'd be better off just getting used to it.
The real nature of the problem
On the up-side, it wasn't life-threatening - just annoying - but I refused to believe that such an apparently common thing could not be cured. However, the internet revealed the situation to be (almost) hopeless. What particularly upset me were the "miracle cures". When you see these - all sorts of weird devices and sounds on CD's - all at exorbitant prices, you know you've tapped into one of those grey "snake-oil" areas. Look up "baldness" and you'll get a similar crop of "miracle cures". Well, I could live with being bald, I thought, but tinnitus: well that was a different matter altogether!
The condition seemed to worsen throughout the summer and winter of 2006. The noise wasn't so loud that I couldn't hear anything else, but it was noticeable over most of the sounds I encountered during a normal day, and my main worry was that it was going to get worse and worse. Then, strangely, I'd get a good day when I could barely hear the tinnitus, and I'd think I was getting better, but the following day it would be back again, seemingly louder than before.
Western medicine will glibly blame exposure to noise. The doctor jokingly suggested that I'd probably been to too many rock concerts in my youth. Well - at the risk of sounding like a bit of a bore, this wasn't true - I'd always been keen to heed the warnings, because I didn't want to develop tinnitus in later life. Ha! But anyway, I still wondered about noise. My day job involved working in a lab where there was a fairly constant buzz and rumble of extractors and cooling fans. These sounds were occasionally irritating, more so now that I was looking to blame them for causing the tinnitus. So I went through a phase of sitting in the lab with ear defenders on - but it didn't make any difference, and the Health and Safety guys looked at me as if I'd gone mad when they came to measure the noise levels, because they barely registered on the equipment. So, in my case, noise didn't look like being the primary cause then. Granted, once you've got tinnitus, exposure to loud noises will irritate it, but the real cause lies elsewhere. The real cause is fatigue.
I worked a fairly standard forty hour week, and I'd journey home each evening to take up my unpaid "real" job of writing. I'd work late into the night, most nights, and I'd usually unwind, as I wrote, to the accompaniment of a glass of wine, so when I did retire I'd only get a few hours kip before (if you'll pardon me) having to empty my bladder. I didn't have a stressful lifestyle, or a stressful job, but even from an early age I've been prone to nervous tension, the occasional bout of irrational anxiety in situations most of you will find innocuous, and not surprisingly I was pretty tired all of the time.
I won't go into the sex bit in any personal detail and shall leave it to your imagination - except to say I don't think it was a major factor in my own case. Anyway, the theory goes that sperm takes a lot of the available energy in a man's body. If sperm is lost (during sex) the body immediately sets about making some more, consuming vast amounts of energy in the process. To a young man this is neither here nor there and he can have as much sex as his circumstances and good fortune allow, but to an older man it's different and he needs to ration himself a bit more. In TCM there's actually a chart that indicates the maximum number of ejaculations a man should have in a given period, depending on his age - if you're over forty it's about once a week or every ten days. This might seem a bit over the top but it's something you do need to be aware of.
Measuring the tinnitus
I began a study of the tinnitus and came up with a measurement system, so I could tell how bad a day it had been. I defined three simple levels:
Level 3, I represented with a smiley face and this scored a 25, because I reckoned I only noticed it about a quarter, or 25%, of the time. Level 3 was fine - I could live my whole life at level three and not complain about it.
Level 2 was a straight faced "smiley", and this scored 50% because I reckoned I'd been aware of it about half the time. Occasionally irritating, level 2 is not a good place to be, but it doesn't make you feel ill, make you consider giving up your job, or cause you to fear for your sanity.
Then came level 1, which was a "bad ear day", a miserable frowning "smiley" which scored a 75%. Level 1 was maddening. Level one was enough to have me going to bed in the early evening so I could cut the day short and escape the infernal racket. Level 1 I could not live with for very long at all and it made me adamant that I was going to find a way to cure it.
Thus began a daily chart on which I logged my scores, to see if the condition was getting worse or if it was stable. Every month I'd take an average and to my relief, the condition seemed to be fairly stable - between 55 and 60%.
I've read that it's not a good idea to keep a log of your tinnitus because it makes you concentrate on it, and that in turn can make it seem worse than it really is. While I agree with this to a certain extent, I should emphasise that my log was just a quick assessment, usually in the morning - asking myself how good or bad the previous day had been. Then the book was closed and I just got with my day. Later on, I was glad of the record because, as things improved, it was easier to see the results on paper and this in itself boosted my morale and maintained my resolve to carry on with the "cure".
At the time of writing, after some eighteen months since beginning to tackle it, I'm now down to around 35%, which means my life consists of mostly good days instead of mostly bad.
The TCM Sessions
Of all the nonsense I'd read on the internet the "nonsense" of TCM seemed the most plausible, and least expensive option, so I contacted a local practitioner. He was a Chinese doctor, trained in western medicine, but who specialised in TCM.
The sessions were weekly, lasted between thirty and forty minutes and they cost me £25.00 a time. I went regularly for seven months. Now, you're thinking to yourself that that's a lot of money - nearly enough to buy one of those weird tinnitus-cure gadgets you see advertised on the internet, and you're right. The difference is though, you're only paying a little at a time, and if you decide it's not working, you can cut your losses and stop going long before it's cost you a fortune.
My first consultation was in February 2007. The TCM doctor checked my pulse on both wrists, examined my tongue and generally weighed me up, apparently by the look, feel and the "smell" of me. He went into some detail about family history, explored other issues of lifestyle that I didn't think were related, and then began to suggest symptoms I'd forgotten to mention such as an embarrassing habit of breaking out into a drenching sweat for no apparent reason. I was given herbal remedies, a vigorous massage of my back and neck, and a form of acupressure on the sides of my head. The herbs were Er Long Zuo Chi Wan and Long Dan Zie Gan Wan. I kept this up for about 3 weeks but without any noticeable benefit. Then the doctor said we should try acupuncture.
If you've not had acupuncture [as I hadn't] you might be nervous about it [as I was]. I discovered the pins used are not really pins at all - they are more like fine wires - and the doctor explained they are not pushed in very far - from 1 to 3 mm, depending on the location. There was a slight pricking sensation as they went in, but so long as you can relax this is hardly noticeable. Once the pins are in the sensation is more like the gentle pressure of a finger or some other blunt instrument held against the skin.
In my case the "pins" were applied to my shins, the backs of my hands, sides of the neck, the mandibles, and the top of my head. I had no knowledge of the so called meridian system at that time and therefore no idea of the reasoning behind the doctor's choice in these locations. The combined sensation was really peculiar, but not unpleasant - in fact, after a while, I looked forward to my sessions because of their relaxing effect. The pins were left in place for about 20 minutes, while I lay comfortably on my back. The only clothes I had to take off were my shoes. The doctor was a pleasant, chatty gentleman, not long in the UK and he spoke in very broken English, a language he was studying. He was the first doctor I've ever met who did not treat me like a lump of meat.
On the first occasion I think I'd been expecting a miracle, but the ears were still ringing when the pins came out and I was disappointed, thinking they'd had no effect at all. However, on the way home, after that first session, I began to feel really strange - very tired, and like I'd had an electric shock. I arrived home stunned, and feeling "heavy". The closest thing I could liken it to was, years before, when I'd been in a car accident - a sudden jarring smash that I'd walked away from apparently unscathed - but the day after I felt like I'd been run over by a truck. Then there was an occasion in my foolish youth when I'd nearly killed myself buggering about with mains electricity - I'd got away with just a warning jolt but I remembered the sensation of an electrically triggered muscular spasm. That evening I was in bed at nine and I slept like I'd been drugged, but I woke up next morning feeling fresher than I'd done in years. Unfortunately the ear was still ringing.
Perhaps understandably then I approached my next session with some trepidation. The doctor explained that my reaction had been normal - being plugged into the mains, he said, was not a bad analogy. My body wasn't used to it, but it wouldn't react so dramatically next time. This was indeed the case, and the following sessions were quite straight forward. After each session thereafter, I always felt deeply relaxed and refreshed.
With few exceptions, the TCM sessions stuck to a regular format: After a quick examination of tongue and pulse, I would have twenty minutes of acupuncture, twenty minutes of massage around the back and neck, then the usual herbs and I'd be on my way. The few exceptions involved a process called candling - sticking a lighted, hollow candle in my ear. Though again I found the candling to be relaxing, I could not say it had any effect on my tinnitus.
I kept all of this up for 7 months, which cost around £700 in the end - a lot of money? Well, all things are relative, and it depends how much you're earning. It was about the price of a holiday, or a decent computer. But the important thing is: did it work?
And the answer is Yes.
According to the chart I kept the effect was immediate, though slight. Consecutive months showed a steady improvement until after six months of treatment I was down to around the 40% mark. But the improvement in the tinnitus was not the only thing I noticed. Throughout the Summer of 2007, I felt incredibly more energetic, and about a decade younger.
But I had to pack it in. It came down to money really, plus the abiding scepticism of my good lady who insisted it was all in the mind anyway, and that £100 a month could be better spent elsewhere. Admittedly, I had hoped for faster cure. I was growing increasingly frustrated by the routine nature of my TCM sessions and the slow progress. Sure, I was improving slightly, but at this rate I was going to be broke before I got close to being free of tinnitus. If I could have afforded to keep going, then I would have done so. The difference it made to my sense of well being was profound, but in the real world, as the tinnitus subsided, the TCM sessions began to feel more like a delicious luxury than a necessity.
I asked the doctor's advice and he said that tinnitus was a stubborn thing to shift, but that we were heading in the right direction, and why didn't I consider taking up Tai Chi as well - that regular practice might speed things up. The doctor practised it himself and looked very well off it. I found a local class and enrolled in August 2007. They taught the traditional Chen style, beginning with a fourteen week introductory course, and I was hooked from the beginning.
Tai Chi for Health
Like Yoga, to some extent it is possible to gain benefit from Tai Chi without considering or "believing in" the "internal" energies involved, but without them Tai Chi is just a form of dancing. We're talking about Chi again, though at the class I attended, "Chi" was rarely mentioned. Instead, it was glossed over or loosely defined as a kind of "electricity" or "energy" and we were taught that whatever "it" was, it was important to have it circulating correctly, just as it was important to have good circulation of the blood and the lymph.
The Tai Chi moves, or "form", encourage this circulation as well as developing a heightened sense of balance and improving one's flexibility or suppleness. The "energy aspects" are also specifically targeted or boosted by special exercises known collectively as Qigong. Qigong and Tai Chi are usually taught together as one coherent system. Tai Chi was developed during a troubled period of China's history when isolated agricultural communities were vulnerable to hoards of raiding bandits. It was a highly effective means of self defence, and each of the individual moves has an application in protecting oneself from a would be attacker. In their original form, these moves are rather uncompromising and designed to inflict severe injury. In short Tai Chi breaks bones and smashes heads. It's therefore not the ideal sport for full contact sparring, except the highly specific form known as push hands.
The elements of posture, energy and physique one develops from practising these moves renders them beneficial either from the fighting angle, or from the health angle. Most of us in the west, practice for our health. We carry out the moves slowly and with a mind for their correctness. When, as beginners, we hit upon the correct way of moving, the correct posture or whatever, we are rewarded with a physical sensation that is unlike any other I have ever experienced.
There are thousands of Qigong forms, and to the uninitiated, it's difficult to know where to start, but they all combine the breath with gentle movement, or static postures, and an inner sense of "energy" flow. Qigong aims at increasing a practitioner's internal energy.
The Qigong styles I was introduced to through my Tai Chi classes were the 18 form Shibashi, and the 8 Piece Brocade. I attended a seminar on the 8 Piece Brocade in October 2007, and of the two, it was this one that I personally found much easier to get into the "feel" of. It's also easier to remember a sequence of 8 postures than 18. It was while carrying out this sequence of simple moves that I began to feel something of my own electricity - either imagined or otherwise.
Another static Qigong posture that was taught was "standing like a tree", a position I found incredibly difficult to hold for more than a few minutes without breaking into a sweat, but which again I found to be ultimately very beneficial indeed.
Interestingly the TCM doctor did not entirely approve of Qigong, warning me that it produced too much "heat" - in the TCM sense, and that this could make things worse for me in the short term. I was puzzled by this, as I'd been sure the acupuncture and the herbs he'd been prescribing had been aimed at increasing my own internal energy - that my flagging reserves were the cause of the tinnitus. So what was wrong with an exercise designed to do the same thing? Unfortunately, he was right though, and immediately upon beginning to practice Qigong, I recorded a slight worsening of the tinnitus. Anyway, for good or ill, the time had come for me to part company with the doctor. This was a difficult thing to do as I'd come to know him quite well by this time, and enjoyed our conversations, enjoyed also walking out of his clinic and feeling like I was floating - but my good lady had by now already issued various ultimatums, and I simply couldn't keep it up. To be fair, 7 months had been a long time - a fair shot at it, I thought, and with some success.
I kept up the Tai Chi (Qigong and all), acting on instinct, and feeling that this was something my body wanted or needed me to do. So, I ended the TCM in September 2007 and for the next few months the tinnitus stabilised a few points up at around 42%. Then I began to practice the Tai Chi and Qigong very seriously. I attended class once a week, but practice at home for at least thirty minutes a day, every day, without fail. The Tai Chi I was learning was a relatively modern short form designed for beginners by Master Liming Yue of the Manchester based Tai Chi Centre - just 11 moves, and I picked these up slowly over the autumn and winter of 2007/2008. In the main though, my private practice consisted of Qigong.
I would begin each session with the warm-up routines I'd learned for the Tai Chi form, then do the 8 piece Brocade, usually followed by a session of standing like a tree for as long as I could. Alternatively, I would perform a set of moving exercises, also part of the Chen Style repertoire, called "Silk Reeling" . Finally if I felt like it, I'd finish off with a bit of revision on the Tai Chi form, then do the warm down exercises, another form of Qigong that supposedly settles the imaginary "electricity" to the Dan Tien - a point (imaginary or otherwise) a couple of inches below the belly button.
In Tai Chi we try to think of the Dan Tien as our energy source, a bit like a rechargeable battery, also as our centre of gravity and that any moves we make are driven by a twisting or a spiralling of energy that begins in the Dan Tien. Under normal conditions it draws charge from the food we eat and from the environment, passing it along the acupuncture channels but if these become blocked, the flow of energy is impeded. Practising the 8 piece brocade aims to relax and free up these channels, lowering the resistance, and improving the charge going to the Dan Tien.
One possible problem with Qigong practice is that to the western mind, an exercise set implies sweating and straining. This is exactly the opposite of what we want though. In practising the 8 piece brocade, we might begin to sweat, because it does raise a tremendous heat apparently from nowhere, but putting strain or "effort" into the moves is wrong - we need to relax as much as possible. Breath and intention are central to any Qigong practice. The theory tells us that energy follows the mind's intention and its movement or flow is encouraged by the breath. One's focus then is naturally upon the Dan Tien, which we try to develop an imaginary feel for, and this comes with practice. As we perform the movements, we synchronise them to the natural flow of our breath, tending to push as we breathe out, and pull as we breath in. Breathing is slow and relaxed, tending to be deep, the diaphragm extending down as we breathe in - the belly pushing out, and relaxing to normal as we breathe out.
In tree standing, the focus again is on the Dan Tien and the breath. The postures in tree standing vary but the style I was taught simply involve holding the arms out in front of the body, or above the head. When beginning it seems impossible that anyone can hold these postures for 10 or 20 minutes - but with patience and practice it is possible. The point of all this escaped me at first and it seemed little more than a sort of sadomasochism. It was excruciating holding my arms up even for five minutes, but after a while, incredible though it may sound, the weight of one's arms eventually seems to disappear and it is as if they are suspended by invisible threads. But the more interesting thing, obviously, for me, was that after a few months of regular practice, the tinnitus began to improve again. As with the acupuncture, the improvement was a gradual thing, but taken over a period of six months, it was significant to the point where I can say that, in the main, it simply doesn't bother me any more.
By March of 2008 my tinnitus levels were down to about 35% - based on my rough smiley chart. Bad ear days still occurred - but only about once a fortnight, as opposed to several times a week, when I set out in 2006. I also felt much brighter, more positive in my outlook and significantly more energetic. Needless to say, my view of TCM has changed completely from early scepticism (but what the hell I've nothing to lose) to one of respect.
It will not cure everything. Sometimes our bodies get themselves into such a mess we need the drastic intervention of powerful pharmaceuticals, antibiotics or urgent surgery. But there are also a lot of conditions western medicine seems to shrug its shoulders at because they're not life threatening - "merely" irritating to the sufferer. These conditions can be both physical and emotional and in my view are symptomatic of a deeper malaise, one that western medicine will never get at because it's too focussed on attacking the symptoms with pharmaceuticals, rather than understanding the underlying cause. With TCM things work the other way around. If the nature of the imbalance can be identified and addressed, the symptoms will disappear on their own. Even, it seems, the apparently incurable ones like tinnitus.
Advice to Tinnitus Sufferers
My advice, if you're suffering from tinnitus is first of all see your local GP, if you haven't already done so, if only to check for damage and to have the condition confirmed. If you're lucky (or unlucky - depending on your point of view) you may be referred to a specialist at the hospital. From then on you can expect a lot of appointments, a lot of poking about in your ear, a lot of literature on tinnitus support groups, but no cure. It's up to you whether you want to venture down this path or not - depends if you like hospital waiting rooms, I suppose.
Alternatively, consult a practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine to see what their diagnosis is, and to ask about herbs, massage and acupuncture - or whatever they recommend to re-balance your system. One thing I didn't do, and which I recommend, is to ask up front how long they think the treatment will take - so you know what you're in for. It sounds stupid but I was too polite to ask.
At the same time, consider taking up Tai Chi, as well as the 8 Brocades Qigong, and Tree standing, also known as Zhan Zhuang (pronounced jam jong). Although the practitioner I saw was wary about Qigong, and the practice did at first seem to be working against the acupuncture, continued practice did eventually yield significant results (and for a fraction of the cost).
The other things you can do for yourself are:
1) Record the levels of tinnitus so you have a baseline against which to measure subsequent improvements.
2) Remember you're not suffering from tinnitus - that's just a symptom. What you're most likely suffering from is fatigue, so make sure you get plenty of sleep - at least eight hours - more if you can manage it.
3) Avoid large drinks late at night - alcoholic or otherwise - or anything that's going to get you up in the small hours to relieve your bladder and disturb your sleep.
4) And gentlemen, if you're over forty, you really have to limit your ejaculations, assisted or DIY, to no more than once a week. Read Mantak Chia's "Multi Orgasmic Man" for further information and some very interesting alternatives.
(Obviously, Ladies don't need to worry about this aspect.)
5) Take up Tai Chi and Qigong - I had good results with the 8 Brocades, Tree Standing and Chen Style Silk Reeling. But you need to persevere - it will take you a year at least, so be prepared.
Tinnitus is a worrying condition because it throws us back on ourselves a bit. No one else is going to sort this out for you, so you have to take responsibility for improving the condition of your own body, its balance and its well-being. Tai Chi and Qigong are the tools that enabled me to do just that.
I highly recommend them.
Books and DVD's on Tai Chi and Qigong
There are of course many books on the subject of Qigong, and Tai Chi - search Amazon and you'll see what I mean - but in my experience there are very few good ones - I know because I've ended up buying a good many of them. Western authors tend to get hung up too quickly on the mystical or the paranormal side of it - and though I admit I'm a bit of a mystic myself, when it comes to what ails you I think you need to be a bit more down to earth. Forget "astral travel" and just give me something that can help me pass my day with more of a spring in my step!
Qigong forms tend to involve static postures that you hold while focusing on the breath and to some extent you might be successful in picking these up from illustrated books, DVDs or off the Internet. But by far the best way is to attend a class. Having said this, quite late on in my practice, I became aware of a book called "The Way of Energy" by Lam Kam Chuen. By strange coincidence, this book covered both the 8 Brocade and Tree Standing that I'd been learning in class. I thought this book was very well written, beautifully and appropriately illustrated and above all informative. This is a very rare exception, and learning from this book is possibly even better than attending a class with an instructor who isn't as well informed.
As for Tai Chi, its forms involve complex and highly dynamic moves which you simply cannot learn from a book, or an instructional DVD. You need to follow a real live person, preferably one who knows what they're doing. The books and DVD's can then help you with your home practice and background studies. My advice in the first place then is to find a Tai Chi class and give it a try. Inquire first of all to make sure that Qigong is integral to the practice - not all instructors teach it, but in my opinion, without it, Tai Chi is simply a form of dancing. The 8 Brocades and Tree Standing are common to all styles of Tai Chi, though there may be subtle differences in the way they're taught - this doesn't matter. I'm learning Chen Style, which is not as common in the UK as other styles - you're more likely to encounter Yang Style, but don't get hung up on the names - they're all highly respected as health systems.
A final word on the mystical side: Many forms of Qigong are banned in China as the authorities tighten up on anything that has even the faintest whiff of "cultishness" or "witchcraft" about it. The Falun Gong system is perhaps the most well known of the proscribed forms, but there are others. The only forms of Qigong that have gained the approval of the authorities are those that have proven health benefits. The 8 Brocades, the 18 form Shibashi and Tree Standing are considered such, and all are widely and openly practice in China, so there's no need to worry about the spiritual stuff if you're a sceptical westerner - just try if for a bit and see what happens.
I think you'll be impressed!
The Body Electric - Dr Robert Becker
The Way of Energy - Lam Kam Chuen
The Multi-Orgasmic Man - Mantak Chia
Copyright © M Graeme 2008