Take care of yourself – you never know when the world will need you.
– Rabbi Hillel, Jewish religious leader, associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud
I first came to Portia Lee (6931 Stockton Avenue, El Cerrito, CA 94530, 510.799.8788) in May of 2012, seeking relief from sciatica, which I had been suffering from since my first pregnancy 15 years ago. I was drawn to her focus on women’s health, including menstrual disorders, menopause, infertility, and prenatal and postnatal care. My sciatica has been under control ever since my visit, and I continue to see Portia for a number of physical ailments, which she has successfully treated or kept in check. More importantly, her compassion for her patients is the main reason I remain an enthusiastic patient.
Compassion and working with people
That deep compassion, nurtured when she was young, led her to where she is now. While her parents – her mother is a 4th generation Chinese and her father grew up in the Philippines – were not traditional, as a child Portia adopted her maternal grandmother’s use of herbs and herb-infused soups to treat illness and soon began creating concoctions with herbs and other plants. Although interested in acupuncture, having been treated as a teenager, she instead earned her degree in English literature and settled in Paris, working with students and professors as the cultural program director at the American University of Paris. “I knew I wanted to work with people,” she recalled.
After six years, however, Portia began researching acupuncture programs. When she returned to the States and began coursework toward her graduate degree at the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco, she said, “I knew this was it – it was really resonating with me.” She received her MS in traditional Chinese Medicine and apprenticed for many years under Dr. Robert Johns, whom she credits for having enriched her practice.
Portia has been practicing acupuncture for 14 years, starting out in a chiropractor’s office after earning her license and then working with homeless people at drug rehabilitation clinics in San Francisco. She began her private practice on the side until she established her business in El Cerrito nine years ago. “What impassions me about my work is the people,” Portia said. “I feel that my work has very little to do with me and everything to do with my patients. I can be there, be open and listen, and somehow reflect in a positive way.”
Many of Portia’s clients deal with infertility or pain, each requiring different processes and treatments. Regardless of the case, Portia said, “What I hope to do is to bring about more self-awareness in a person. It’s something I’m constantly cultivating in myself as best as I can.” While we often don’t have control over many aspects of our lives, she countered, sometimes we can be empowered to believe that change is possible and thus shift things in a positive way. “Acupuncture needles are, perhaps, one way to do that,” Portia explained. “I think of them as a medium for creating positive energy, positive change in a small way that has a ripple effect.”
With acupuncture and the philosophy of Chinese medicine predicated on yin and yang, Portia hopes to help shift that state of being for patients who are dealing with imbalance in their lives or are in a state of discomfort. “I observe how events in life balance themselves out and everything is relative to each other – with varying degrees,” she said. “Understanding the philosophy has been very helpful to me because I work with balancing yin and yang and recognize it more in everyday events.”
Portia shared with me a Zen tale about a farmer and his son whose horse has run off. When a neighbor says to the farmer, “I’m so sorry, that’s awful,” the farmer responds, “”Well, maybe. We’ll see.” When the horse returns with a herd of horses, the neighbor exclaims how lucky the farmer is, but the farmer responds, “We’ll see. It could be good or bad.” The next day the farmer’s son breaks his leg while riding one of the horses. The neighbor gives his condolences to the farmer, and the farmer responds, “Well, we’ll see. It could be good or bad.” The following day the army comes to the farmer’s house to enlist his son, but his son’s broken leg prevents him from being conscripted. “Things ebb and flow,” Portia concluded. “You can never tell whether an event, which may at first seem awful, may lead to an opportunity that might have never arisen.”
Finding balance in her own life
When she was in her twenties, Portia was a human version of the Eveready Bunny – she was always in motion. Before she left for Paris, her co-workers at the local public broadcasting station KQED wrote in her going-away card such sentiments as “I hope you slow down enough to actually be able to see some things,” Portia related and laughed. Her first acupuncturist warned her against pushing herself to the point of exhaustion. “I was the type of person who worked really hard, pushed really hard,” she recalled. Studying and becoming a practitioner of Chinese medicine changed Portia’s life and her outlook on her life. “Chinese medicine has made me a healthier person,” she said. “It has – hopefully – given me longevity because I’ve had to slow down to become more self-aware.”
Portia pointed out that our society is very yang – we are too focused on achieving and how much we can get done. “But you can’t do that without rest and recovery,” she insisted. In the past 14 years, she has learned to literally lie down and recuperate and reenergize, and just as important, not feel guilty about it. “In my work, I can’t be exhausted,” she said. “I need to rest and eat to replenish and refuel in order to be present and aware for people.”
For relaxation, Portia practices chi gong, which literally means life energy cultivation and is a form of standing meditation that helps harness “the infinite energy on this earth” to rebuild and restore oneself. Chi is the yang aspect of blood and gives the blood the ability to circulate through the body. “It’s often translated as energy, although that’s not its direct translation,” she explained. She and her husband also exercise together and check in with one another.
I asked Portia for advice on how we can take care of ourselves outside of acupuncture visits. She advocates self-care in the form of a healthful diet, exercise, rest – both nighttime sleep and daytime nap – and time for oneself and family and friends. Portia counsels her patients to practice moderation, which all comes back to seeking self-awareness and balance. With dieting, for example, she points out that what we want and what we can’t have is merely an illusion. “If we can strip that illusion, we can advance from a state of deprivation to a state of empowerment,” she asserted. “The majority of people know what’s good for us and what’s not good for us. In a healthy state, we should be able to tolerate a little bit of everything. Being too restrictive can be just as unhealthy as allowing yourself anything you want. Again, it’s a matter of balance.”
Portia also entreats us to not take things too seriously. “Don’t worry about the past or the future – be in the moment,” she advised. “If you’re in the moment, everything is actually okay at this time.”
Portia’s optimism is uplifting. “As I age, I really feel like almost anything we want is really possible,” she said. “Not that we always have control over everything, but we do have more power over how our lives manifest and present than we give ourselves credit for.” Thus, an attitude of believing that anything’s possible opens the door for changes to any condition or situation. “It’s important to have that possibility,” Portia declared. “When you come to see somebody [for treatment], it’s possible to feel better. For prognoses, it can be true or it cannot be true; it can never be 100 percent.” Therefore, one must always foster hope.
In the end, it’s Portia’s heart – her compassion – that helps her patients to heal. She is an admirer of Gabor Maté, MD, a Hungarian-born Canadian physician whose body of work supports his belief in the connection between mind and body health. Maté, who specializes in the study and treatment of addiction, has shed light on patterns seen in certain diseases and painful conditions. He has noted that our culture is very addictive. “We’re all so similar in that way,” Portia pointed out, having come to that conclusion while working at the drug rehabilitation clinics. “Our society tends to think that if you’re a workaholic that’s a good trait, whereas if you’re a drug addict, that’s really bad,” she said, shaking her head. “We’re all human,” Portia said simply. “There’s very little difference when it really comes down to it. We need the compassion, understanding, and humanity in all of us.” Amen to that.