In the same vein as my popular article 7 Life Changing Habits I learned from Chinese medicine study, I thought I would provide something a little more focused for students since we are coming up on school season. I’ve been able to obtain big ticket scholarships in a variety of disciplines ever since I realized there were scholarships. Part of that is knowing how to write a scholarship application.
There are a variety of websites out there that guide you through writing a killer scholarship app, this isn’t one of them. A couple of these habits I learned prior to starting my study of Chinese medicine, but I have since come to understand how Chinese philosophy supports and strengthens them. Most of the habits, however, I have learned through trial-and-error in my study of Chinese medicine or through my study of Confucian and Daoist educational philosophy. They are listed in no particular order.
1. Write or teach every day
#1 and #2 on this list are somewhat interdependent. The principle binding them is this: don’t take in a lot more than you put out. Although I can’t find the quote right now, I’m pretty sure that it was the philosopher Sartre who stated that you don’t know what you don’t know until you try to demonstrate what you know through writing. I think teaching provides the same checks and balances. Most of us are brilliant in our heads, most of us have our stuff memorized and ready to go. But try writing out, say, the definitions of Qi, Blood, Yin and Yang. Try to explain to your mother how the Kidney and Heart work together in the body. Not so easy.
I’ve used several methods to “get stuff out of my head.” One is this blog, obviously. I’ve used other online methods, too, such as forums. Study groups, when taken seriously, can be a great method for learning what you do and do not know. Get together with a few students at the same level of understanding and dedication as yourself and go through a list of topics, try to explain them to one another. I’ve also just used simple writing exercises to test myself. I’ll make a list of all the basic things I’ve learned in a given class, term or year either by memory or by looking over old tests, lecture notes and the like. I will then try to explain each of those concepts in writing. When I run into trouble, I research. If I’m not sure my explanation works, I run it by someone.
2. Don’t read too much
I wrote about this at length in my post about the perils of reading too much. The essential point is this: reading more doesn’t necessarily make you more well read. Paradox? Perhaps. Don’t put an emphasis on quantity, put an emphasis on quality. If you can thoroughly understand a text or otherwise incorporate it into your knowledge base, committing to memory the most relevant parts – then moving on to another book is probably fine. I want to emphasize that this exhortation includes not just reading books and other print media, but also online sources of information (except this blog, of course!), even radio and television.
I would also like to add that in the study of Classical Chinese medicine, keep as close to the Classics as you possibly can. As I’ve said elsewhere, you will inevitably have to read outside of the classics, but they should be your foundation regardless of where you are going to school. I was just taught a simple lesson on this by one of my professors. I wrote to ask him whether it is truly important to memorize the Qi and flavor of each herb – as we are not required to memorize this information in the first year of herbs. I had actually already begun the process before asking the question, but decided I would get some advice before I wasted too much time on the activity. To begin, I had been working with my beloved Bensky’s materia medica, copying the flavor and Qi onto index cards. The reply from my professor was simple, in essence, yes – memorize the flavor and Qi, using the Shennong Ben Cao Jing.
Oh, right. That book. There are differences and they are significant and I should actually learn the modern properties as well as the ancient ones. So – lesson learned.
3. Sometimes you just have to memorize
I know a lot of people who try to study just by reading through books and/or lecture notes. They feel that they have a reasonable understanding of the material. Then the tests come. Or, worse, the clients. They realize quickly that they don’t know as much as they thought they did. All of the reading, writing, spending time in nature and doing Qigong in the world isn’t going to memorize your herbs for you. Sorry.
There are a hundred memorization methods available. If you’ve had a lot of trouble memorizing things in the past, it may be helpful to look for some new techniques – asking your classmates is probably a good first step in this quest. But, really, don’t waste your time on the Internet or reading a hundred books on study techniques unless you are at an impasse. I use flashcards. High-tech, I know. I have something like 1,000 flashcards and I still use them every single day. This morning on a simply lovely walk on the Springwater Trail in Portland I was memorizing herb properties using flashcards. I know the properties for 20 herbs I didn’t know before. Whatever works for you, do it.
4. Use all your senses to study
I talked about this in my article about learning acupuncture points and again in discussing studying single Chinese herbs. But, it will work for any subject. We are sensual animals! While sometimes I’m convinced I just have a couple of eyes glued to a screen and maybe some vague ability to sense heat from my computer through my fingers – I am almost certain I have all five senses like the books say. I’m getting better and better at remembering this and using all of my abilities to learn.
You can follow the template I use in the article I mentioned above, or find your own way. Just sit down for five minutes, consider the topic you are studying, and let your mind free. How many different ways could you engage your sight in study? Smell? Taste? It might not be possible for every subject to use every sense, but I bet the possibilities are wider than you imagine right now. Give it a try.
5. Keep the channels flowing, keep the Qi and blood flourishing
This is where the 7 Habits I describe in the article I mentioned at the beginning of this post really come into play. Doing Qigong, stimulating panacea points and drinking beneficial herbal teas will all contribute to strong study habits and retention of information. Paying regular visits to a Chinese medicine physician will also help you greatly – I credit it with a good portion of my continuing success. Adopting a balanced and fully nourishing diet can only strengthen your Qi and give you the energy you need for long study sessions.
6. Be utterly dedicated to what you’re doing
This may seem a little out of place, but it is vital. No number of study tips, no amount of daily cultivation, no fancy gadgets or expensive books can possibly begin to help you learn any subject – particularly one as difficult as Chinese medicine – if you aren’t fully dedicated to study. Are you sure you want to be studying what you are studying? If it is Chinese medicine, ask yourself some of the following questions.
Are you prepared for a lifetime of study? Do you understand what goes into running a successful acupuncture practice or are you willing to learn? Do you actually want to treat people using the principles of this medicine? All of these may sound like silly questions – but I am amazed by how many CM students I meet who haven’t ever thought about the reality of seeing patients day in and day out, treating them using this medicine. Granted, some people go into CM school for some purpose other than clinical practice – but I assume the majority of us do want to treat patients. Really think about this.
If you do want to do this and you feel you are at the place in your life where you can devote yourself to beginning the digestion of thousands of years of theoretical and empirical knowledge – then do it. Don’t do it halfway. You will just frustrate yourself and water down the profession. Be willing to put in long hours of study, be willing to wade through sometimes dry details, be willing to open yourself to what your professors are offering.
I am not saying that you need to throw your life to the wind and hole up in a shack with a stack of books. I have a family. I like to go to movies sometimes. I cook. I garden. I take trips. But I don’t party, I don’t drink, I don’t play video games, I don’t watch television. When I have time where I don’t have family time, I mostly study. I gave up those things not because I think they are evil but because they were contrary to my desire to study as much as possible. I think this is the right choice. Disagree? Discuss in the comments.
7. Don’t study too far ahead
This pointer only works if you have excellent professors and trust them to guide you correctly. I know that the majority of my professors have a good handle on the way that Chinese medicine is best learned. This is a hopelessly Confucian view on my part, I know, but hear me out.
Sometimes my eagerness to learn everything now gets the best of me. I’m sure you don’t have that problem, right? Regardless – the impulse to study ahead sometimes overcomes me. It walks hand in hand with the beast that goads me to read every book I come across. Because I do read quickly, and tend to comprehend faster than average I am always enticed to take in ever more material.
This works when you’re studying some subjects, but I’d like to argue that it doesn’t work for Chinese medicine – at least not in the beginning. The curriculum is (hopefully) set up in a particular way, set to evoke a particular response. While I could have studied formulas this summer – buying the text and trying to understand what I can – I decided to instead devote that time to fully comprehending what has already been laid out for me.
Thus, the single herbs property study I mentioned above. There is no way I could have really learned everything that was laid before me last year, so instead of diving ahead with no guidance from my esteemed professors I am going to simply digest and redigest what they have already graciously provided. It’s more than enough, trust me.
8. Test what you learn, within reason
Whatever you are learning, it has some intersection with the real world. Put it in the real world and see how it works. Experiment! Of course you should be safe and smart – don’t start drinking the results of chemical reactions just to see if they are caustic, for instance. But go watch physics in the real world. Watch forest creatures and analyze their behavior using what you learned in zoology class. Launch a small home business and test out those marketing principles you’re learning in the world.
For Chinese medicine students, this is absolutely vital. Make herb teas, for the love of God, and drink them. Drink them! I’m utterly shocked how many students have never tasted Huang Lian. You are going to prescribe that to your patients and you don’t know what it tastes like? That should be grounds for sanctions! Test the points on yourself, within safe limits, and see how they make you feel. Try to observe the five elements and the balance of Yin and Yang in the natural world and in human relationships. You can think of more ways to do this, I am sure.
These habits have made me into the student I am today. I’m not perfect, I don’t get every scholarship I apply for, I don’t ace every test – but I’m a good student and I’m getting better every day. Discuss your tips and experiences in the comments.
About Eric Grey
Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.