Since I was a student, I’ve found gardening as a great way to explain acupuncture. When you start tending your outdoor space after a long winter, you need a vision of the beautiful, fully in-bloom garden. Then, you assess the state of the plot. What needs to happen for growth to occur in the spring and summer? The rocks need to be cleared, old plants and weeds removed, the soil turned. This all happens before we plant the first seed, before the growth begins.

When a new client comes to my office with pain, insomnia, infertility, or any other issues, we work together to assess the landscape of his or her body, mind, and spirit. As with gardening, the first step is to reach beyond the symptoms to see what the patient would look like in perfect health and balance. What fertilizes and nourishes the whole person? What is working? What’s going well in life?

Then, it’s time to explore the presenting symptoms. What is stuck? Is there pain? How do you sleep? How are your emotions affecting your physical body? How can we work together to get things moving? The answers to these questions and others are the basis for identifying and removing blocks—the rocks and weeds in the gardening analogy—and nourishing the whole person as he or she moves toward wellness.

As an example, let’s look at a patient who suffers from chronic back pain. A common mistake is to assume that all back pain should be treated the same. My first job is to dig beyond the pain symptoms themselves and inquire as to when the pain started, how long it has been there, and if it radiates? Are there other symptoms associated with the pain, like insomnia or nausea? How does this pain make you feel—frustrated, sad, or something else? And how does it affect your life?

By seeking to understand the symptoms in context with the whole person, my treatment strategy will be personalized. Just as with gardening, this first treatment is where we clear the rocks and the weeds so that the flowers can bloom.

After the clearing, it’s time to plant the seeds, fertilize, water, and tend the garden (body, mind, spirit). And this is where healing happens.