Symptoms as Messages: A Window into the Mind of a Chinese Medicine Practitioner

The clinic has been bustling with lots of healing here at Watershed Wellness.

It is incredible to watch people transform both inside and out. It has caused me joy and pause for reflection and consideration – why I do the work that I do? What are the most important things for me to return to day after day? What are the anchors of my clinical practice?

In my lineage there are many truisms, axioms, some would even call them mantras, that are repeated and repeated over and over to help us learn as students and ultimately clinicians. In fact, this is true for all of Chinese medicine (as well as specific lineages). I am devoting the next few blog posts to this; over the next few months I will share some of these axioms with you all, because they are a hallmark and provide insight into the way I approach treatment in clinic.

We’ll begin with an important one – “Symptoms as Messages”

I will devote the greater part of my entire life to considering the significance of the often repeated phrase that each symptom is a message. The teaching of symptoms as messages instills within each practitioner an ability to make contact with our own lives and the lives of our patients.

The examination of symptoms as messages affords us the opportunity to look at the truth of the body’s inherent nature – its rightful holistic and animistic place within the spectrum of “disease” and “health.”

This teaching of symptoms as messages is not only a profound shift in awareness for many; it disproves the objectification of the body so often clouding the consciousness of Western Culture.

No longer are ailments and dis-eases of the body separated from each of us as individuals, they are included and accounted for in lived experience. What I mean is, when we consider symptoms as messages we don’t objectify our very own bodies – saying, “Why is my body doing this to me?” As if the body is separate from ourselves?

Truly wrestling with the implications and influence of this teaching has changed my practice over the years. I used to think that it meant that every symptom was trying to tell us something about the person – or that it was speaking about the energetic to physical continuum of disease – and that was it!

Reflection on the teaching of symptoms as messages points us toward increasing our proficiency in the language that the body speaks to us.

Symptoms are the body’s language. Rather than simply looking toward the manifestation of pathology as something that the body is doing to us – or further, doing incorrectly – when we understand symptoms as messages we assume the inherent healing capacity within the body for health and healing and from there, seek to understand, to uncover the root of the symptom.

As clinicians, this is imperative! Otherwise we are only treating symptoms! And who wants that? Treating only symptoms goes against the core directive of Chinese medicine which is to treat not only branch (symptom) but the root (etiology) of disease. Often times this leads us back to a specific moment wherein a physiological process was stymied or obstructed.

The body, by producing a symptom, says, “look here” and points in the direction of the impeded dynamic.

For example, a patient has a phlegmy cough that is copious and productive – the body in its inherent wisdom, points us toward the lungs. You’re thinking, of course, but here is where it gets exciting. Instead of trying to cool or disinhibit the lung from coughing, we instead are going to seek to understand the dynamic that created the cough in the first place.

In this way, as practitioners we walk ourselves through the symptom; to be able to perceive the restorative dynamic that underlies the “pathological” manifestation. We then see through pathology into physiology and perceive clearly how to meet the patient where they are.

Our patients come to us; we come to each other, perfectly, in our states of dis-ease.

It is not our charge as Chinese medical practitioners to fix anything, but to engender the already inherent capacity of the body and of the vital force of life. This is how we fulfill our oath as practitioners, when we pledge that we will be “devoted to the task of saving the sacred spark of life in every creature that still carries it.”

It is from the body’s resolute determination and movement toward health and ontological expression that any symptom manifests.

These points of contact, these expressions, are where the body speaks to us, in symptoms as messages. I would love to hear your thoughts after reading this – does this resonate with how you look at your body, or this is a new perspective?

Please let me know if you have questions or responses to this post, or if you are interested in working together in clinic and have questions, do not hesitate to reach out.

Written by Melinda Wheeler, LAc


My care is personalized and tailored to each individual. Through my studies and training, I have developed many techniques and tools to treat anyone, no matter their ailment or injury. Whether you have identified symptoms of physical pain, emotional instability, or you aren’t quite able to put your finger on any form of dis-ease, but you want to try acupuncture and/or Chinese medicine, come and see what we can accomplish together for the betterment and evolution of your well being!