Health messages 


The Health of Ivan Ilych

by Jonathan D. Simon, D.C.

If you sit on a bench and watch people walk by, you may notice an array of poor postures, uneven gaits, clenched jaws, forward-curling shoulders, patterns of structural imperfection and associated tension at wide variance from what is anatomically possible for our species at its best. If you could look inside the minds of these people passing, you might see a corresponding array of nonstructural tensions, as they work ceaselessly to hold off the threats and challenges surrounding them. There is no assailant visible, perhaps, but so many of these ordinary people are under assault: they might have been born into it or have grown used to it and so do not notice, but the very breadth of their knowledge assaults them, the disharmony and busyness of their city, the complex requirements of post-modern life.

Unlike people born into the simpler rhythms of a rapidly vanishing life, our people—though arguably better off in many ways—carry a world view which, even in leisure, rarely if ever allows for repose. They are not attached to the land, they do not make things with their hands, they do not witness birth or death (except as sensationalized through media); they sense that we are fabricated, not really born, to fit into a dwarfing steel-concrete-glass-plastic-synthetic environment whose seeming indestructability (how would you go about taking down the Citicorp Center?) throws up the disturbing illusion of immortality: death, banned from the room, whispers outside the door; pathetic clumps of green and patrolled parks show Nature reduced to little islands in our self-important sea.

People notice diseases, they notice bad knees, they notice wrinkles, they notice pain. They do not notice their balance, their gait, their breathing. They do not notice their fundamental fears, the ever-present psychological assailants. These, unlike disease symptoms, are constants, and we tend to notice change. It is no wonder then that so much attention has been focused on diseases, on the things that go wrong with a person's body, and so little on the things that are wrong, have been wrong throughout all or much of the person's life.

Tolstoy told the story, in "The Death of Ivan Ilych," of a man whose life had been "most ordinary and therefore most terrible." His life, molded to fit the standards of normality and respectability, was wrong, but this did not occur to him until he was almost through the battle with the disease—affecting some organ or other, it was never clear which one—that ended his life. With their detachment, condescension, and futile ministerings, the doctors appear simultaneously offensive and ridiculous, but who else's counsel is there for Ivan Ilych to follow? If we could only have intercepted him as a younger man—urbane, practical, competitive, upwardly mobile. If we could have seen the tension in his scalenes, his TMJ, the lack of fullness
in his breathing. If we could have noticed the rigidity of his posture, how his weight did not flow through his body to the Earth when he walked. And then if we could have dared to diagnose the detachment, the defense, the unacknowledged confusion really, in his eyes, in his smile, in the tenor of his voice.

What could we--as "alternative" healthcare providers—have done to help him? Could we have touched certain points to relieve the stress stored in the meninges; moved certain bones, released certain muscles to restore ease and fluidity to his structure; pumped cerebrospinal fluid to support his nervous system? Then, though he had not yet one sign of disease, nor reason for concern, could we have founded his recovery upon a restoration of trust, a recognition of how closed he had become and a willingness to reopen? Could we have freed him to see—or imagine, for it may not be a literal truth—the graciousness of the Earth upon which he stood and into which he would one day die; and would this vision have helped the weight flow through his body when he walked, so that he would not always be straining, tense in self-protection and competition? Could we have treated Ivan Ilych and taught him, in the days before anything had gone wrong? In Tolstoy's story, it took death to teach him, and terrible agonizing pain. If the doctors had kept Ivan Ilych alive, or even spared him his pain, he would never have come to see what was wrong with him. He would never have seen that his body was breaking down because he had withheld it from life.

Working with the body is so important because a tense body is like a padlock on the spirit, and will not allow a person the freedom and repose to overcome the anxiety which, in all likelihood, brought that body to its state of tension in the first place. What even Tolstoy could not guess was that Ivan Ilych's body also was betraying him, just as he was betraying it, long before he fell ill. Its unacknowledged torques and tensions must have limited him, not just physically but in character and spirit—harassing him, undermining his energy, his openness, his courage, replacing these with the quiet desperation that led him inexorably to choose his "ordinary" life from among the pre-fab models of his culture.

Not every person passing your bench is an Ivan Ilych. But who among us may not soon enough die in a hospital, fighting death or anaesthetized into submission, unaware of the graciousness of the Earth?


Acupuncture is an ancient and effective approach to the healing arts which has been used successfully for centuries by millions of people in Asia. It incorporates the concepts of Taoism and the relationship between human beings and their surroundings. It can impart a more holistic perspective to trying to solve health problems. It is a natural and gentle way to trigger one's own ability to cope with the variety of physical, emotional and psychological stressors which have led to symptoms of illness.

Everyone can benefit from the balancing effects of acupuncture, whether it be to help ward off the flu or to alleviate more chronic problems such as asthma or pain syndromes. It can be especially helpful in treating people with a high sensitivity to drugs, including children, the elderly, and pregnant or menopausal women.