The Rhythm of Life

When I take pulses I see large, vivid and warm-colored, moving, complex three-dimensional images. Sometimes, I hear sound or even organized pitches; the pulse is the music of the body, perhaps the most profound music of all. For many years I kept this to myself, then a few years ago I began to paint them. They became useful teaching tools in discussions about medicine (my other love), as it’s almost impossible to convey the feeling and texture of pulses in words. More recently they’ve become healing tools around the world; looking at the paintings can produce a resonance in the body of the viewer that is profoundly calming.

I painted these works with natural mineral pigments from different locations in Australia. The dot painting techniques are borrowed from the Australian Aborigines (the oldest living art tradition in the world). These artists paint the absence of separation between the viewer and the viewer’s vision of the world. They celebrate that the number of ways of seeing is limitless. In my pulse paintings, these techniques enable the pulses to move, to occupy and release space, to be timeless, formless, substantial and palpable all at once. The pulse appears as a microcosm of the human landscape, timeless and boundless, imbued with rhythm, full of life.
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In the art of Chinese Medicine, the diagnosis of an illness is made by placing three fingers on the patient’s wrist and feeling extremely subtle shifts in the vibrations created by the movement of blood in the radial artery.  This highly sophisticated technique is the subject of many books both ancient and modern (including my own), but the experience of the immense depth and breadth of information available in the pulse defies the written word.  Contained in the pulse are not only reflections of intricate organ function and the communication between organs, but the patient’s entire emotional history and their orientation to the rest of humanity.  The pulses are a map of the human psyche both individual and collective, and its relationship to Earth and to the Divine.  On a macrocosmic level the pulses tell of the past, present and future, the origins of the universe, and the breadth of all consciousness.  A window into the soul, the spirit, the corporeal body, the Mind, the mindbody, they tell of relationships broken and yet to be made, of dreams unconquered and ambitions met.  They are a human divining rod, a map of humanity, a portal to the Oneness.

The pulses at the wrist are felt at several depths located by altering finger pressure.  These depths range from barely touching the surface of the skin, to pressing into the bone, the radius itself, occluding the flow of blood.  The information gathered from the pulse varies with gradations of pressure in this range.  At the same time, the practitioner casts their attention on several other factors: the width of the pulse at these various levels, the way the rate and texture of one pulse changes or responds to varying pressure in neighboring positions.  

The pulse reveals the status of both the physical and psychological realms.  The top third of the pulse gives a clear reading of the status of outward Qi (energy or lifeforce), the commodity of the immune system and the quality of interactions with the outside world.  The middle third of the depth of the pulse gives a reading on the inward Qi, the emotional life and some organ function.  The lower third tells of constitutional Qi, deeper issues, those of the deep organs, the status of deep health, and Destiny.  

The word Destiny in Chinese Medicine refers to the blueprint bestowed by Heaven, the way in which our lives will play out in order to realize our highest potential.  

All illnesses, all diseases originate in the failure of Qi to move unimpeded.  In the moment just after death, the entire body is present and intact; the blood, the fluids, the organs, the musculature, the brain, etc., are all present but the body has no lifeforce, no Qi.  The lifeforce has left the body.  The other extreme might be a marathon runner on an adrenaline high—too much Qi is moving and the lifeforce is being spent too quickly.  In the simplest terms, the practitioner is assessing the freedom and readiness of Qi to flow.  

The pulses can be said to occupy six positions.  The three fingers on the right wrist detect Qi that is flowing through the Lungs, the Spleen alongside the Pancreas, and the Kidneys together with the adrenal glands.  The three fingers on the left wrist detect Qi that is flowing through the Heart, Liver, and Kidneys and hormones.  By probing at different depths, the practitioner can determine which organ energetics are affected and which channels may be chosen to return the patient to a state of balance and free flow.  

The height of the pulses in the wrist indicate the amount of Yang Qi (moving Qi) that organ is expressing.  A middle position right wrist pulse that is very high indicates the Stomach is expressing too much movement.  There may be gastric reflux, gas and bloating, intestinal distress, or worry and over-thinking.   

The width of the pulses at these various levels indicate the quantity of mediumship available.  The width of the pulse at the moderate level indicates the quantity of Blood in circulation.  Width at the superficial level of the pulse indicates the quantity of fluid available to the immune system.  Width at the deepest level tells the practitioner whether the patient has become depleted at the level of deep resources such as hormones.  A narrow pulse in the left rear position might indicate a hormonal deficiency or the cause of a patient’s insomnia or anxiety.  

The tempo of a pulse indicates whether the body is coming to terms with a pathogen.  Cold food, cold water, viruses, depression, etc., cause the pulse to slow down.  Bacteria, garlic, hot spices, alcohol, rage, etc., cause the pulse to be rapid.  

The pulses also have textures.  These are seen in the light of pathology and in the light of healing.  These include slippery (indicating phlegm, mucus or swellings, or an active digestive tract or pregnancy), choppy (indicating a shortage of blood or fluids, or internal effort), tight (indicating either cold, or an attempt to restrain expenditure of a depleted resource, or determination and grit) and over 25 others described in the second century Pulse Classic by Wang Shu He (and in my own book, The Art of Pulse Diagnosis).  

The practitioner presses on certain pulses at particular depths and tests the response of that stimulus in the pulse at adjacent positions.  This analysis reveals the efficiency of the communication between organs.  The Spleen must provide the Lungs with Qi, the Liver must foster Heart Qi, just to name a couple.  

By listening intently to the height, width, length, tempo and texture of the pulse at each of the three depths of each of the three positions, and then by analyzing the communication between organs, the practitioner is able to diagnose the location and nature of blockages in the flow of Qi and determine the most appropriate treatment.  

The practitioner is also, by virtue of their clear intention, able to begin to guide the Qi back into balance by gently coaxing the pulses to interact in a coherent way.  Hence, the pulse arena is one of change and healing.  


© 2017 Ann Cecil-Sterman