Reading widely to learn Chinese medicine

studying_philosophy_chinese_medicineIt’s been almost four years, now, that I’ve been doing focused and formal study of Chinese medicine.  Over that time, I’ve tried many study methods.  Some of them were only useful during some specific part of my education, and still others were rejected because they didn’t work for me over the long haul.  Others did remain because of their continued usefulness and effectiveness.  In all, my efforts to constantly refine my mindset and study methods has resulted in established success and gradually increasing mastery of my field.

Lately, my bigger problem in studying acupuncture and Chinese herbs has been more subtle than a failed study method. As I discussed in a recent article, my difficulties of late have led me to an entirely reordered set of priorities and best practices.  I promised I would discuss this more. The real core of my problem has been multi-factorial, and I hope to unpack those factors as I write over the coming weeks.  Today, I’d like to reveal the single most important new practice that has helped rekindle my desire and ability to learn Chinese medicine at the deepest levels.

Unappreciated Advice

A couple of years ago, I took an experiential course at NCNM that disturbed me deeply.  I won’t go into details, but let’s just say that my personality conflicted mightily with the teacher’s and the subject matter was sensitive on many fronts.  I actually ended up with heat exhaustion, lost in the woods.  I wasn’t the only one who had difficulty with the class, just so you know.  :)  What does this have to do with my current educational revelations?  This teacher delivered some advice during that class that I rejected utterly at the time – probably mostly because of the difficulties I was experiencing then.

Almost as a side note, but in a way that you could tell he thought it was crucially important, he told us that if we want to learn Chinese medicine we need to read widely.  He seemed to imply that the best way to learn Chinese medicine was to avoid becoming neck deep buried in books about Chinese medicine.  I should note that he said this in a characteristically hyperbolic fashion, which probably also fueled my rejection of the advice.  He even went so far as to say that one should never pick up another book on Chinese medicine again, after leaving school.  :)  Whether he truly believes this or not, I don’t know.  I certainly don’t, but I’m beginning to comprehend the wisdom in what he said.

Analysis Paralysis?

I have to say that I don’t truly understand the reason why this advice matches up so well with reality.  Is it that our brains work best when they are asked to create synapses widely, across divergent places in the brain?  Is it because becoming too focused in one area violates that critically important principle of balance?  Is it simply a way to avoid student fatigue?

I do know that, at least in my case, it has something to do with my essential nature.  As I discussed recently at my personal blog,,one of the most central pieces of my personality revolves around learning.  This learning obsession does lead me to want to really understand various subjects, but it is really the process of learning itself that drives me.  Something about the particular way in which I exhibit this characteristic makes me have an insatiable need to dip my toes in diverse streams.  I simply cannot remain mono-directional for long.

I want to point out that, at least in my case, remaining balanced in other ways doesn’t seem to quench my thirst.  Yes, it’s desperately important to remain balanced throughout the various realms of your life.  You must have a social life, you must nurture your spirit, you must indulge the needs of your body, you must become emotionally healthy.  I have managed, over this four years, to achieve balance in that way.  This is no small feat, and only recently have I realized what a real triumph that is these days.

Back to the future

So, read widely.  What does this mean?  For some people, it might mean remembering to read the fiction books they so adored before starting school in Chinese medicine.  For others, it could mean reading non-fiction on various topics.  I’m willing to assume that either of these could help a person, depending on their needs.  Perhaps even reading a newspaper would be enough.  It isn’t for me.  My urge runs deeper, and I think it has more purpose than simply helping me maintain balance in some abstract way.  For me, I feel that this desire is leading me towards something that will have deep ramifications for the rest of my career and my life in general.

As I’ve discussed before, I was a Philosophy major in my undergrad years and then moved on to a Graduate degree in Applied Ethics.  At some point, I discovered that the life of an academic philosopher was not for me and at the time I couldn’t think of anything else to do with my Philosophy degrees.  Thus, I turned away from the project entirely and embraced a new type of theory, a new way of looking at the world – that emphasized and utilized by texts and practitioners of Chinese medicine.  This has been an eye opening experience and a project I feel that I am only just beginning.

It may have been an important part of my process to turn away from that kind of work, but now it is time for me to embrace it again.  I can’t say why, I can’t say how deep or wide I’m going to have to go.  I can say that I’ve been explicitly working with this for the last two weeks, and I have never felt more excited about Chinese medicine despite not having cracked the Shang Han Lun or Neijing for weeks.  :)

What I hope to gain

It may take me a while to figure out how, exactly, to integrate these new insights into my life.  I certainly don’t want to do anything that will accelerate any feelings of overwhelm.  I also don’t want to jeopardize my Chinese medicine educational progress.  I’m not exactly sure how my more Western philosophical study will support and inform the work I’m doing in Chinese medicine.  Will it be an explicit melding of disciplines?  Will Western philosophy simply become a side hobby, populating my side table with heavy tomes?

I do know this.  In my experience thus far, there is a basic lack of ability to think deeply about Chinese medicine among Chinese medicine students and practitioners as a whole.  I am fortunate to go to a school where this is not so much the case.  We have many great students and professors to interact with and learn from here at NCNM.  But, even in these hallowed halls, there is a problem.  Folks haven’t been taught to learn how to think, they are all too eager to accept the simplest explanation for something without challenging it.  Some would say that a more “Western” conception of thinking has no place in study of Chinese medicine.  I say that’s a cop out.

While I do believe that one’s ability to work with intuition is critical to the practice of acupuncture and Chinese herbs, indeed to work with human beings on a medical level at all, I also believe that we should not abandon our intellect.  Of course we must also learn the philosophical methods of the ancient Chinese.  When reading the Neijing, for instance, we must not think it makes sense to apply the rules of formal logic.  When confronted with a patient’s total landscape, we must not reduce it to empirically verifiable points of data.  What I’m talking about is a quality of thought.  A questing spirit.  An ability to think very clearly about the matter at hand.

So, what I hope to gain is just that.  As I’ve been working with texts and other materials in my reintroduction to Western philosophy, I’ve noticed all of those gifts returning to me.  I find my ability even to memorize formulas is enhanced.  My willingness to dive deeply into the most complex theories of Chinese medicine is increased.  Even my subtler faculties – intuition and empathy – seem heightened.  We’ll see if this continues.

Preliminary discourse on methods

I’m in no position to return to a formal, institutionalized study of Philosophy.  So, I must use the methods of other lifelong learners.  I’ve been searching far and wide for ways to engage with Philosophical material again.  In this search, I’ve learned a new respect for the power of the Internet.  What follows is a preliminary list of the ways that I’m learning Philosophy again.  I’ll go into more detail in the future – why?  Because this information is useful to anyone, not just someone who wants to study Philosophy without being in college.  :)  All of the resources I am listing can be used to study almost any subject.

  1. Online courses and lectures : I discussed the availability of online course materials in this post about studying Chinese language.  I have done a lot of research and have more information to add to that general survey.
  2. Read and discuss :  At least in Philosophy, the crux of the work is simply to read texts, seek to understand them, and discuss your understanding with others.  These others don’t have to be experts, they just have to be willing to go the distance as you have.  To this end, I am in the process of resurrecting an ancient online collaboration with friends from Grad school in Philosophy.  I won’t reveal more now, but I will talk about it sometime after the first of the year.  For the purposes of this post, it’s simply important to note that finding like minded individuals to work with the relevant subject material is an important way to dig into any topic.
  3. Public lectures : I have bookmarked the event calendars for all of my local colleges and Universities.  Institutions of higher learning are constantly inviting interesting people to speak, or encouraging public speaking by their own faculty.  When I was an undergraduate, I almost never took advantage of this fantastic resource – now I wish I had.
  4. Taking courses at an online or brick-and-mortar college or University : While I won’t be using this method right now, to avoid overwhelm, it is something I will keep in mind.  You can often audit courses at colleges and Universities, or take courses without being admitted for a degree program.  You can also take advantage of many schools’ distance learning programs – even at large and prestigious schools.  Finally, you can work on a degree at a very slow pace – even one course a semester.
  5. Seeking out mentorship : In my case, I do hope to find a “working Philosopher” who would be willing to evaluate my work.  In Philosophy, you don’t really know what you know until you write down what you think you know and have someone who really knows tell you what you DON’T know.  You know?  So, I’m contacting respected professors and seeing what I can work out in the way of an apprenticeship.  This method might work for others in other fields.

I know this is a monster of a post and it risks being extremely boring to my fair readers.  What do you say?  Did this post strike a chord?  Have you come to a similar realization?  How have you solved a similar problem?  Have any other methods for lifelong learners?

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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.

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