The Cycle of Healing

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Overview of the cycle

Surely, there is nothing worse than being sick. Every symptom of every illness is unpleasant, often deeply so, and everyone wants the suffering to go away. Consequently, and understandably, many people have learned to use drugs to get rid of, or at least reduce, the symptoms of illness as quickly and as much as possible.

Some will get a medical name for what's wrong with them and may need to keep using the drugs, some might only need to use them temporarily, but then find the symptoms come back later, perhaps with increased intensity, or in a different form.

This happens because symptoms are our body's way of showing what it is trying to do to fix what's wrong and often when we take a drug to stop the symptoms, the price of that relief can be that we also stop the body's necessary process of self-healing.

Self-healing does usually happens, not because we make it happen, but it happens because it can, because there is a natural 'intelligence' inside the living organism that knows how to heal what's wrong.

The old ways of working with Nature involve looking to read the map of the body, including seeking to understand what it is trying to say through its symptoms, and to then treat or attend to the causes of harm and whatever it is that is obstructing that natural, self-healing 'intelligence'.

When you remove the causes of harm and support the self-healing process, you see that people have the capacity to get better from just about anything. But not everyone is ready to take that kind of journey, because it takes time, and work, and often no small amount of courage to actually trust this healing force of nature and not to fall prey to fear that the symptoms will be too much to endure and that we must get rid of them, whatever the long term cost might be.

It has been a life-long enquiry for this writer, and of course many others, to understand what we can best do to support that self-healing process and what it is that most gets in its way. What follows is part of an ongoing result from that enquiry, it should be simple and intuitive to understand, and straight-forwards to use.

What can be seen is that when a person becomes sick, but doesn't self-heal in a timely fashion, that there is always a key blockage or imbalance in one or more areas of their innate 'cycle of healing'

We are all continually moving back and forth through this cycle in our everyday lives and it is only when one or another part of it becomes stuck that our health problems don't resolve themselves. In other words, healing naturally occurs when we help to address whatever was obstructing it.

The phases of the healing cycle are firstly briefly summarised below and then talked about again in some more depth further on, they are; cleansing, activation, nourishment & relaxation


Cleansing is the essential elimination of all kinds of wastes in order to keep us healthy. Cleansing involves the liver, kidneys, bowel, lungs and skin and sometimes, for the healing cycle to move freely, it can also include those psychological or emotional matters that we need to process and release.


Activation is getting going, both physically and mentally. Activation happens continually and automatically, through the complex interplay of the nervous, endocrine and immune systems. A person engages in this part of the cycle when they physically start getting their body moving or when they mentally start 'activating' and switching on.


Nourishment includes the gloriously complex and life-giving process of absorbing, digesting and taking in those many things that we need to survive and to thrive. It intimately involves our digestive & respiratory systems but also includes our senses; seeing, hearing, touch, taste, & smell. Nourishment includes meeting our needs for air, food and water but it can also include meeting our emotional needs for growth and a sense of connection or purpose.


Relaxation is resting, sleeping and switching off. Just as cleansing must balance nourishment, so relaxation is needed to counterbalance activation. Regularly, in some way and at different times, a resting state must be experienced in every cell, tissue, organ and system of the living organism in order for it to survive, thrive and heal.

This chart is a teaching guide for students of herbal medicine. It shows how the cycle turns both ways and how, in different parts of the cycle, certain herbs can be of particular benefit to different organs or systems. It can be seen in clearer detail in a PDF here

The 'map' of the body

Even when we are sick and suffering, our body is never trying to hurt us, far from it. In truth, it unconditionally wants us to be healthy and to live on. Our body is a part of Nature as much as anything else in the Universe and it is wise to listen to it, because it is always doing its best to show us the way to health and long-life!

Old ways of healing understood that our body is like a map and that our symptoms, how we feel, show us where we are on that map. Symptoms are not incorrect signals from a badly made machine, rather they are an extraordinarily intelligent organism's way of trying to show us what is wrong and where we need to put our attention in order for the obstacles to self-healing to be removed, or at least reduced.

When we give attention where it is needed, for example we help cleansing to happen, or we get activated, or we get the nourishment or the rest we need, the healing cycle starts turning again and the symptoms dissolve away because the intelligence of the body no longer needs to keep showing us what's wrong.

Or, sometimes it happens that the symptoms change and something else comes to light, in which case they are again showing us where we've moved to on the 'map' and where our attention needs to go next...


Stages of the Healing Cycle

What follows are some more detailed notes on each of the different stages of the healing cycle. They are written from the point of view of a practitioner who is meeting people with chronic problems but, health troubles aside, for anyone that would like to get a personal understanding of this subject, I warmly encourage you to notice how the cycle moves in your own everyday life.

For example, from when you first wake up from 'relaxation' and how you then instinctively move towards either nourishment or cleansing, or go from one to the other, and how you then start to become activated, and how this cycle turns back and forth, many times, in many different ways, from one stage to another, in the normal ebb and flow of your day. It is a lovely thing to get in tune with, you will feel your own rhythms through it, and are likely to get some useful insights into yourself along the way.



Cleansing happens on all kinds of levels in our lives, both subtle and obvious. Every time we exhale, we are cleansing by breathing out what would otherwise accumulate to become a most poisonous gas; carbon dioxide. Then we breathe in life-giving oxygen and a microcosm of another great cycle of life turns back around to nourishment again...

To live and function, all our cells must be bathed in nutrient-rich blood. Endless waves of this blood wash the goodness of nourishment on to the shore of our tissues and then wastes from those cells is carried back into the lymph and blood circulation to eventually be filtered and cleansed, via the kidneys through the bladder, and via the liver through the bowel.

Most people associate the need for cleansing with bad diets, drugs, or heavy alcohol consumption, and all those things are almost certainly going to create a burden that will eventually need to be dealt with, but also people with quite 'clean' diets and lifestyles can sometimes become blocked in this stage of their healing cycle.

Maybe this happens because the earth is like a giant goldfish bowl and we are all drinking, eating and breathing from the same underlying sources. Everything circulates, including all the things we have been doing to contaminate our precious Earth.

Maybe it happens because the need for cleansing can just as well come from holding on to emotional or mental wastes as it can from anything in the physical world...

Even if we don't know the reasons why we need cleansing, we do firstly need to know if it really is an issue, and then, if it is, what to do about it. The body is the most reliable map we can use to know where we are at, but we need to know how to read that map to get what it is trying to tell us.

Characteristic coatings on the tongue or congestion in the pulse, as talked about in some depth in the article linked below under 'further reading' can be most helpful to anyone who wants to use this knowledge in practice.

Other signs that might be reasonably connected to a need for better cleansing include, for example, such things as chronic skin problems, chronic respiratory problems, retaining fluids, stiff, sore or arthritic joints, bowel or bladder problems, a sense of heaviness & fatigue, too much holding on to negative thoughts or memories...

Sometimes people just know, they are tuned into their bodies and can intuitively feel that they need cleansing. Equally, if we are willing to trust that our hearts are intimately connected to our innate, instinctive intelligence, we can use pulse-testing to gauge if a cleansing herb is really what is needed and wanted above another kind of approach, this interesting and potentially valuable process is described in detail here

You might have already noticed how the cycle of healing chart shown above (and again linked in a clearer pdf here) has cleansing put across from the word 'courage' towards the base of the spine. This is to show how certain aspects of our emotional health are intimately connected to our physical body. This is a deep subject in itself and, near the very end of this article, there is a link to a detailed chapter on emotional healing for anyone who wants to read into this subject further.

Finally, for anyone who already knows that, sooner or later, they really are going to have to put some necessary work into the cleansing part of their own healing cycle, there is a detailed and practical article on cleansing and detoxification found here



When you look at it closely, anything that ever happens eventually involves 'activation' at some level. From each and every beat of the extraordinary muscle of the heart, to all the things that living organisms must do to obtain food, to find and keep their territory, to reproduce and ensure the survival of their species.

As soon as we get out of bed we are moving towards activation. Every time we make an effort to do anything; exercise, work, solve a problem, hold a conversation, our energy is in this phase. Our immune systems are driven by it, our endocrine systems depend on it, our nerves are fuelled by it.

We gauge the level of our vitality, our 'life-force' by how strong and by how long we can get activated, both physically and mentally. Conversely, the universal symptom of anyone who has become sick for any length of time is fatigue. Their vitality is reduced, it is harder for them to get up and going, to get activated.

Activation, regaining vitality, coming back to life, is always going to be a part of any healing journey but it is incredibly important to get the timing of it right.

So much of health care, in all fields, revolves around doing things or taking things to get 'up and going' again but, if the cycle of healing is actually primarily caught in needing cleansing, or nourishment, or rest, then even if there is a temporary return of vitality from pushing upwards, the person will eventually get sicker in the long run because they are not meeting one of these primary needs.

It is not hard to tell when a person is blocked in the activation stage and it can be assumed to be an issue if they have been unwell for any length of time. However, getting the timing right of when to focus on it is a matter of being open to looking at the 'map' and listening to what the body is saying it most needs to correct what's wrong.

So, when the timing is right in any journey of healing, there comes a point when a person will need to motivate themselves, or maybe receive a nudge from someone else, to get back into exercising their body or their brain, to build back up their fitness, to strengthen their reserve of energy so they do not sink back into sickness but rather they heal, become vital, strong, and well.

However, equally, when it can be seen that it is really another part of the healing cycle that needs attention, it may be most wise to take a break from exercise or to stop pushing themselves in other ways, at least for a while.

Truly, understanding this one point alone, in the context of the Cycle of Healing, can make or break the success of the healing journey. Anyone can quite easily understand this point in theory, that there is a time to get activated and a time to rest to get well, but many people struggle to bring this old wisdom into practice. Their responsibilities, their cultural conditioning, their self-drive, can make it very difficult for them to stop pushing themselves...

Most people with chronic illnesses learn this lesson the hard way, and who can blame them, no-one wants to be sick, we all want to do the things we love, but illness is a great teacher of wisdom. Such as the wisdom to know when to give yourself permission to rest. The wisdom to trust that you will always be able to get fit and active again, so long as you have your health.

The healing cycle chart shows activation a little further up on the spine, connected to where the adrenals live and where the organs of digestion; the stomach, the pancreas and the liver reside. This is where the 'fire in the belly' comes from and, when it is time to support this part of the healing cycle, there are a number of exceptionally helpful herbs that work in this area. Medicines that support immunity, improve digestion, stimulate the nerves, effect hormones etc.

You can see the word 'change' linked across from 'activation' on the chart above. Activation is like a 'fire' that transforms energy into matter and matter into energy. It exists in all kinds of ways physically and, just as importantly, there are many ways in which this 'fire' relates to our emotional health, in how we deal with anger, frustration and guilt, with things we don't like and with areas where we need to make changes in our lives, and so in our health. Again, this particularly gnarly subject is discussed in more depth in the chapter on emotional healing linked at the end.



Like all stages of the cycle of healing, nourishment is essential to life on all kinds of levels. We can only survive for 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water or 3 weeks without food.

Every living thing needs food for energy and to repair damage and regenerate itself. Life is an incredibly complex structure of interwoven parts, the lack of just one essential ingredient can bring it all tumbling down.

Most people instinctively give their primary attention to the area of nourishment when their health is poor. They think about what it is that they have been eating that might be making them worse, or they think about what they can eat or take to get better.

To better know when a lack of nourishment is the core issue, it can be most helpful to get familiar with how nice and pink a tongue should look, and how balanced and well a pulse should feel. The tongue is the beginning of the digestive system, the pulse is the echo of the heart, and they are both parts that are good at showing the whole.

Other useful signs to look for on the 'map' of the body are in the nails and hair becoming weak and brittle or in the skin losing its resilience and wearing thin.

Aside from feeling tired and run down, a person who is lacking nourishment might not be presenting with acute, alarming symptoms, they simply may not be healing from some illness or injury and are now stuck with a chronic problem.

Many herbs throughout history have been prized for their ability to help nourish an ailing system. Sometimes it is because these herbs are rich in nutrients and micro-elements, sometimes it is because they help the body itself to extract more goodness from its environment and diet.

Food is usually the key part of the 'medicine' needed to heal a lack of nourishment but, for many people, it is not so simple as just having more of it! In the modern world, many people are eating foods that are too chemically altered, too denatured of goodness, or unsuited to their constitutional needs (something that is discussed in more depth in the nutrition section in the individual articles on each of the constitutions as introduced here)

Further to that, the two biggest issues that come up in practice are people eating too much sugar, discussed in the article on the metabolic syndrome found here, or eating foods that their immune systems are reacting against, discussed in the article on allergy and intolerance found here

Any person on any kind of healing journey will eventually need to pay attention to their nourishment. Maybe it will be the most important 'work' at the beginning, maybe it will come up later.

When anyone needs to focus on their nourishment, one of the very best steps is to develop the practice of asking, in an open-hearted manner, 'what do I really feel like eating today?' The effect of doing this can be quite transformative, both from the intuitive food choices that people start making, as well as the self-care and nourishing kindness that this kind of work embodies.

You've heard the saying 'man cannot live by bread alone'. Nourishment includes food, but it is not just that. We also take in the world through our senses; our eyes, ears, smell, taste and touch. Put a person in an environment where nothing changes, where there is no food for the senses, and their mind and body will wither.

Equally, we humans are tribal creatures. The worst punishment we can give to someone is to put them into solitary confinement, to banish them from our tribe. We need the company of each other or we become deeply unwell.

As we go into the parts of the spine that relate to the chest; the heart and lungs, the healing cycle chart shows the word 'love' directly across from nourishment.

It is not easy to define what love is, but we can say that it is not something found in a pill or bottle and that, if a person is lonely or lacking connection, then their healing journey must include an awareness of this and a willingness to at least come to terms with it in a way that brings healing. Again, more on this equally important subject in the section on emotional healing linked at the end.



Relaxation is a crucially important part of the cycle of healing and, just as much as the other three stages, a lack of it has the ability to completely stop the process of self-healing. However, it can also be seen that fewer people realise they have an issue in this area than any other.

People keep going, they adapt to being over-stressed and under-rested. They see others in the same groove and think it must be normal to not have time to relax, especially when people equate how successful their lives are with how busy they are.

Every cell, every tissue and every organ need to regularly rest. Activation must be balanced by relaxation or things soon wear out or become unwell. The ultimate relaxation is, of course, going to sleep and every living thing in nature, from trees to insects to birds to mammals must regularly sleep, or perish!

Along with cleansing, relaxation is the most common area that needs the initial steps in the healing journey and, when it is what's needed, and its needs are met, the effect on the self-healing process can be profound.

How a person might know that this is the key area that needs the primary attention is probably more about being honest and aware than needing to rely on any particular physical signs. People know when they are not getting enough rest. If you want to bring someone else's attention to this area it can help to ask a question such as 'give yourself a score out of 10 for rest and relaxation?'

When help with this stage is needed, depending on the person, their constitution, and how they are being affected, there are some marvellously supportive herbs from Nature that, for example, help to relax the muscles, the gut, the lungs, the nerves, and the heart.

Along with help from Nature, the right 'steps' to get the healing cycle turning again might include something as simple as going to bed earlier, or going back to doing something that they know always used to relax them...

The steps to relax that will work are usually not hard to find but it is not always easy for a person to get into the right mind-set to actually take them. People who are stressed and tired and who have accumulated 'sleep-debt' and 'rest-debt' often have an aversion to doing the exact thing that they most need to get well. Why is this?

It is because they are both tired and 'wired' and, when they stop being so wired, at least at first and at least for a while, they are likely going to feel more tired.

An example of 'wired and tired' is a person who has not had enough sleep, has eaten a high sugar breakfast whilst taking in some aggravating news about the world and who is now stuck in traffic listening to manic radio personalities whilst drinking a caffeinated beverage. They are already feeling tense, edgy, wired, and the stresses of the day's work haven't even begun.

If such a person's health is not good, and they aren't getting better because of a lack of rest, then being 'wired' is a long way away from what they need to get well, but the payoff is that it lets them stay in the 'activated' phase, and they can keep going.

When a person starts to relax and rest, they typically feel more tired because they are getting less wired. Many people have this experience when they go on holiday, or maybe to a smaller extent on the weekends. However, if a health problem has developed and one of its main causes is a lack of rest then weekends and vacations may not be enough. They may need to use herbs, get to bed earlier, adopt relaxing habits etc. to turn their health around and, if and when they start such a journey, it is very important that they are prepared to feel worse before they get better or they can think they are on the wrong path...

It is quite normal to initially feel more tired, even though they are getting more rest. If a person knows to expect this, and rides it out, they can be 100% sure that this stage will pass and then, as their troubles and symptoms start melting away, the force of self-healing will be visible in action.

Note in the healing cycle chart, that the relaxation phase is shown at the top of the spine, where the nerves between our mind and body form a bridge. You can see that the word that is connected to this phase is 'peace', something we all need and want, even if some of us are looking for it in some strange places!

There is a need for wisdom, for maturity, to understand what peace is and how we can find it within. A wisdom to trust the process of relaxation, to allow the innate intelligence to heal the body in sleep and rest, rather than trying to do things to cheat nature and keep going regardless. Again, the emotional healing chapter linked at the end goes into this further.

Spinning the cycle

Anyone who has lost their health needs to go on a journey of healing and the most important question is most often simply where to begin? What is the best, first step to becoming well?

This is where understanding the Cycle of Healing can give great insight. Reading the map of the body, listening to what it is trying to say to show us where we are most blocked, can help us to make the right first step to release the self-healing process from what was obstructing it.

Many good things then tend to soon follow and one of the most common signs that the person is on the right track is that they have an increase in energy, vitality. As more energy is released and becomes available for healing, the Cycle continues to move more easily by itself.

Some attention to the 'terrain' of the life is almost always required early on in the healing journey. Something, for example, like a more cleansing or nourishing diet, or in the patterns of exercise, rest and relaxation, will be needed for the Cycle of Healing to become unblocked. I call this 'the work' and ask my patients to think of this commitment to their own health as the second step on their healing journey and to let Nature help them with the first step, through one of our ancient allies to health; herbs.

The cycle of healing chart, again linked here may already be able to suggest one or more such herbal allies to help with that first step. Likewise, if you already know your constitution from the 'working it out' section here, you might find one or more herbs that especially resonate with your inner nature by looking at the constitutional medicines chart found here

Taking the right first steps will see things start to change in a positive direction. Then there may or may not be a requirement for different herbs or different types of 'work' but, in any case, it is notable, especially after that vital first shift happens, how the cycle keeps turning more and more by itself, without our needing to do too much to make it happen. People go through different phases in their healing journey until finally, they are no longer sick, and there are no more worrying, lingering symptoms.


Further reading

Some time ago I wrote another article on the cycle of healing for the herbalist's magazine Avena. It is not the same as this one but there will of course be some repetition. The article is in PDF format and is a copy of how it was when it was printed, it's here

Tongue & Pulse Diagnosis

Anyone who wants to learn more about the old ways of healing, perhaps so they can better help people in their family or community, may find much of value in learning how to study the tongue and feel the pulse of themselves or another. These are deep arts but, with practice, truly anyone can learn them. The chapter on this subject starts here

Emotional Healing

As mentioned several times above, there is another whole section on emotional health and healing for each of the constitutions. This is detailed work and it contains an extensive caution about there being an absence of 'fix-it' solutions but it may be of much value to some, it starts here

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!





© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd