Including: four stages of wind disturbance along the spiritual path
(a special contribution by Segyu Choepel Rinpoche)
By Carolyn Chan
A grasp of the three humors: wind, bile, and phlegm, (tib. rlung, mkhrispa and badken), and their relationship to the development and functioning of the body-mind, underlies any understanding of Tibetan medicine. Good health which also includes mental and emotional wellbeing, depends on their balance, and because each person is different, the point of humoral balance varies from person to person. In western societies, the balancing of rlung has been problematic, with the modern high performance, furious paced lifestyle proving fertile spawning ground for numerous rlung disorders, many conveniently labelled “stress related”.
Over the past year I have had many chances to observe rlung disorders up close, as three of my close friends manifested symptoms and suffered terribly for many months. (Names changed to protect identity). Debra, after an unpleasant medical diagnosis, spiraled uncontrollably into anxiety, sleeplessness, panic attacks and rapid weight loss. Though her diagnosis pointed to something potentially serious, it was at a curable stage, and she planned to start treatment right away. She said she knew all this, but couldn’t seem to help herself. Then there was Linda, whose daughter had taken up a new set of friends and been in trouble twice at school. Linda like Debra, became anxious, sleepless, and full of fears that left her incapable of even simple tasks such as driving to the supermarket or clearing her mailbox. Both said they knew the root of the problem was their own minds, but neither were able to control the irrational thoughts which persisted. Ray was different, he had been experiencing a sharp stabbing pain on his right side for over a month. His doctor had sent him for a battery of medical tests and scans which turned up nothing, leaving him with the suggestion that it “must be muscular”. This was unhelpful to Ray who had been trying to sleep nights sitting up in a chair for a month. I told him about “drang rlung”, the cold abdominal wind, and though a cynic about all things esoteric, he dutifully followed instructions. After a few days his pain started to move, sometimes to his side, then to his back, till it gradually lessened and went away after another long month.
It was painful watching my friends suffer through these disorders. I learnt the big lesson that once a rLung disorder takes hold firmly, it is very difficult to displace and requires vast knowledge and understanding of the nature of rlung and its effects on the body-mind, to successfully treat at its root. My rudimentary knowledge of Tibetan medicine coupled with even less experience was not enough. I realized that while more obvious gross physical wind symptoms such as Ray’s pain, or the shrinking, drying skin and crooked arthritic joints of the elderly can be easily discerned, what is not obvious but just as painful, is the suffering of the mind caused by a rlung disorder.
It was with a view to learning more about the ubiquitous rlung disorder and its subtle effects on the body-mind that I spoke recently with Segyu Choepel Rinpoche, holder of the Tibetan Buddhist Segyu lineage of the Gelug school. Rinpoche has an extraordinarily rich, colorful background and is considered an expert in Transpersonal psychology as well as the healing traditions of his homeland, Brazil. With his deep roots in Tibetan Buddhist traditions and great personal interest and expertise in “treating holistically rather than specifically”, Rinpoche was naturally drawn to Tibetan medicine. Rinpoche is very approachable, with a warm dimpled smile and kind twinkling eyes that see everything, including the questions you really want to ask. A razor sharp intellect quickly organizes his answers into bite size pieces to be chewed and digested by novices, such as myself. While I was particularly interested in Rinpoche’s perspective on rlung disorders in western society, I had the extreme good fortune of receiving much more, as Rinpoche shared his insight and knowledge of rlung disorders commonly found on the spiritual path. Rinpoche says that while rLung disorders are found in the general population, he observed some time ago that there seems to be a disproportionately higher incidence occurring in dharma centers. It is his opinion that the reason for this is because on top of any psychological problems that may be present in an individual, Vajrayana practices may further disturb the person’s rLung, as “spiritual practices go to the core of neuroses”.
According to Rinpoche, there are four stages of wind disturbance, which can take place along the spiritual path.
1. Prior to spiritual practice.
Person recognizes their own emotional disturbance or psychological imbalance and goes to the dharma looking for solutions. The disturbance may manifest as unhappiness, depression, anger and aggression, and basic inability to deal with situations encountered in daily living. There is inability to control winds in the channels and blockages are present in their most gross form.
2. Early in spiritual practice.
Person starts dharma practice and feels different, calmer, and is happy to have found a way to calm emotional disturbances. Spiritual practices create movement of the winds, in some cases it may increase the winds. The channel blocks remain and disharmony and agitation of the winds continue. The practitioner is however learning how to calm the mind and mental afflictions so there are less bouts of anger, craving, jealousy, etc., and the wind disorder manifests at a more subtle mental level as depression, agitation, insomnia, “spaciness”, and psychological angers.
3. Seasoned spiritual practitioner.
After some time and effort in the practice, the person’s reaction to the practice is noticeable in resultant behavioral changes that have been incorporated into daily life. For example, the person has become more patient, kind, and compassionate in dealing with others, and because of these changes and knowledge gained, may even become sought after as meditation or dharma teachers. However, even with long spiritual practice that include purification practices, subtle blockages can remain. These blockages become more subtle, continuing to agitate the mind at a mental level, and the disorders above in #2 can persist in more subtle or hidden manner. It becomes difficult to eliminate these subtle blockages as due to prolonged spiritual practice the mental condition is very strong.
4. Advanced spiritual practice
Where a practitioner is very advanced in spiritual practice, blockages can still exist, but they will exist at an extremely subtle level. They will therefore be very silent and very deep blockages. At this level the only way to uproot the blocks will be through a process of transmutation to the completion stage of complete enlightenment, where the rLung flows freely and easily through the body channels (tsa), “tsalung therapy”.
Experienced Doctors of Tibetan medicine are able to identify and calm the disturbed winds of the more gross types of wind disorders, using the tools of diet, behavior, medicines and external therapies. However, as practitioners advance in spiritual practice, channel blockages can become increasingly subtle. Where subtle blockages exist, practitioners may seek Tsalung trulkhor therapy (rtsa rlung ‘khrul ‘khor), which can restore natural channel function by cleaning the channels and removing blocks. Tsalung therapy is an advanced body-mind healing practice in Tibetan Tantric yoga meditation, where by tradition, its practice is restricted to only highly qualified Tantric practitioners.
Rinpoche is of the opinion that many western doctors do not understand the nature of the disorder, and therefore do not address the winds, ending up only treating the symptoms. Doctors of Tibetan medicine who are capable of diagnosing and treating the disorders effectively, are simply not available.
I am extremely grateful to Rinpoche for sharing his views on rlung disorders on the spiritual path. I believe this insightful breakdown can be most helpful in understanding the type of wind disorder present, and the most effective therapy to be applied. It seems obvious to me, that Doctors of Tibetan medicine with their long experience of dealing with rlung, should be considered as experts in this field. They are capable of rendering invaluable assistance to people living in western societies where rlung disorders are becoming increasingly commonplace.
 Since 2003, through Juniper Foundation in California, Rinpoche has been fulfilling the instructions of his root teacher Kyabje Lati Rinpoche (1922-2010), which were to, “…focus on the west, make the essence of Mahayana Buddhism available and accessible to the people over there”.
Rinpoche recalls in 2010, his serendipitous encounter with an advertisement for the TME 3 year online course, which was just about to start. Rinpoche completed the 3-year course and is currently enrolled in the Advanced TME online course. Rinpoche speaks openly of his “pristine admiration”, for his teacher of Tibetan medicine, Dr. Pasang Y. Arya, and the ability with which he is able to “translate, update, and transmit Tibetan medicine in its true form to the west”.