Founder’s note: This is a guest post by Cintain 昆游龍 who writes and shares about his diverse interests and clinical skills over at http://thewanderingdragon.net. You might want to pay particular attention on Wednesdays, when he posts specifically about alternative medicine.
I don’t practice Chinese Medicine.
Sure, it’s what I do for a living. My website says so, as does the shingle outside my clinic. Make an appointment, and you’ll get treatment for what ails you. And the treatment will provide relief quite frequently and effectively, or so I’m told. I have a ream of papers hanging from my wall saying that I have spent the last ten years of my life learning it. I love it. But it isn’t a “practice”. I am not a “practitioner”. Allow me to explain.
When I went to school to become a Chinese Medicine doctor, one of the courses that I was the most skeptical about was yangshengfa, which translates as “Techniques for Fostering Life”. We spent the entire time talking about proper sleep, diet, and exercise; the seasons, the movement of planets, the sun and the moon and the way they affect us were all discussed at length. I thought it was a waste of time. I wanted to learn acupuncture, herbs, the works. Gimme the stuff that heals people, I thought.
All the nonsense about diet and exercise seemed to me like useless arcana.
Who lives that way? No one. This is the real world, right? We need to adjust the paradigm, bring these techniques into the modern world where they’re useful. Right?
Maybe. Concomitantly, I had had a passion for the martial arts since long before I started studying Chinese medicine, so when I found out that my History of TCM teacher also taught martial arts at a nearby park in the mornings, I signed up. His knowledge was nothing short of encyclopaedic, and he was always interspersing his classes and lectures with references and snippets that intrigued me: classical Daoist quotes, cooking tips, stories about his calligraphy teacher, and the way to drink tea in the morning.
My martial arts practice changed. Not only did he make me reconsider and relearn everything I thought I knew, my history teacher cum martial arts instructor (now also one of my closest friends) kept changing around what we did in class, explaining that this or that qigong form was more appropriate for the season, and giving us special things to do at sunrise, sunset, or at equinoxes and solstices. The results were always interesting, and thus I kept doing whatever I was told. Autumn turned into Winter, and then into Spring, and the yangshengfa lecture passed. However, what I was doing was becoming more and more interesting.
That spring, I got sold into trying out a cleanse developed by another one of our teachers, a lay-Daoist who had been one of the founders of our school. I read the manual that he’d written and was even more intrigued by the way in which he wove together Chinese medical theories with pretty down-to-earth dietary and lifestyle advice that was coming from modern Western scientific research. It was the hardest thing ever, completing this 4-month program, but by the time I finished, I couldn’t believe the change. I felt healthier than I ever recalled feeling, lost a ton of weight, and understood some of the things that yangshengfa lecture was talking about.
It started to dawn on me that I was shoulder-deep in Chinese medicine.
Eight months into this, I injured my knee very badly and had to stop practising martial arts. I was in pain, but mostly I was conflicted. Trying to get treatment for my knee through the infinitely bureaucratic Canadian Health system would be a nightmare of paperwork and annoyance. Further, I’d seen people get orthopaedic treatment for knee injuries before, and was non-plussed by the results, to say the least. I was also in the middle of learning acupuncture techniques and convinced that TCM could heal all. (This is the “kids, don’t try this at home” part of my story)…
So, I decided to get only Chinese Medicine to treat my knee. Partly by volunteering to be the dummy for things like blood-letting and through-needling in the labs, and partly by getting treatments from both the Dean of my school and the student clinic, I pushed on. On my own, I practised what qigong and daoyin techniques I could, and gradually I entered into a long, patient relationship with my knee that lasted for another eight months. Then one day it didn’t hurt, and I realised with a mixture of concern and glee that I couldn’t remember the last time it had hurt. Without so much as a warning, I headed out to the martial arts class the next morning.
My teacher was happy to see me, and we pretty much picked it up where we left it off, with the agreement that we would stop the moment my knee started hurting. Amazingly, it didn’t. My teacher was almost as impressed as I was, but not only because of my pain-free knee. “Wow,” he said. “You really know your legs now”. I couldn’t make sense of this statement for a very long time, but I did spend a lot of time paying attention to my legs over those eight months: how my knees tracked over my feet, how I stood habitually, and what I was doing whenever it started hurting.
I had taken up the practice of standing meditation a few months before, with the commitment to do it every day, no excuses, for five years (a gift from the ever-taunting lay-daoist guy I mentioned). Yep, I had come to “know” my legs through this process, and miraculously, my knee healed. It hasn’t hurt since. Back then I realised for the first time, that I wasn’t only studying this stuff.
Between the dietary advice of the program, the cooking tips and the exercise and meditation, and my knee, I was actually “doing” Chinese Medicine pretty much all the time.
The last two years of my Chinese Medicine schooling I remember as a constant struggle to learn as much as I could from my acupuncture teacher, a man whose technique and scholarship are beyond compare and who a lot of the people at my school were intimidated by. He was cryptic and annoying; he replied to questions with questions, and was remarkably strict when reviewing our treatments at the student clinic.
I admire him to this day; at the time all I wanted was to be as good as he insisted everyone studying at his school should be. I expected being grilled and put on the spot (which happened many times); I expected being ridiculed (which he saved for a particularly special occasion). What I didn’t expect was what he said to me when I graduated:
“the person who achieves academic excellence in this field is not the one who reads the most books or has the most perfect technique, but the one who best embodies its principles in all aspects of their life”.
I was floored.
I still practice daoyin a few times per week, and standing meditation every day (eight years and going on strong!). What I’ve learned hasn’t been so much the result of what I’ve read or absorbed from the books or the lectures, the continuing education seminars or workshops, but how these things come into play while I’m actually doing them in the clinic, and how much they make sense to me in my own body, in my own life. Sometimes, helping out another person is mediated by needles and herbs; other times, some dietary and lifestyle advice will do. I carry my needles everywhere I go (a bit of a drag when I fly in airplanes these days), and regardless of whether I actually do anything, I observe almost every interaction through “Chinese Medicine” eyes.
I don’t think that any of my teachers explained it to me in as many words, but I learned from them and these experiences that a lot of people who study TCM in the West do so through the “let’s get the useful part” approach I described earlier. However, I think that the real value of Chinese Medicine is that it has an orientation, a guideline, that goes beyond just clearing symptoms and curing ills.
There is a way of doing this that implies a deeper commitment, an acceptance of the principles of this science/art/practice into one’s life that allows better understanding.
Sun Simiao (孫思邈), the seventh-century hermit who is nowadays considered “the Ruler of Medicine” in China, had this thing about Chinese Medicine being more than just a concern with offering treatments for specific diseases with a set of proven remedies. Rather, he postulated that “Great Physicians” were those who understood the relationship between the Universe and the human body through their own embodied experience. He advised, in his text “Great Physician’s Professional Practice” (大醫習業 da yi xi ye) that, in addition to learning exhaustively about acupuncture, moxibustion, pulse diagnosis, herbs and formulae, the “Great Physician” should know omen-reading, the calendar, numerology, astrology, and the yijing.
As if this weren’t enough, Master Sun advised his reader to “wade through the General Literature” and thus learn poetry, history, philosophy, Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. Other chapters of the encyclopaedic Essential Prescriptions for Every Emergency worth a Thousand Gold (備急千金要方, bei ji qian jin yao fang) – which contains the “Great Physician” admonitions – give advice on physical and sexual cultivation, both intended for the medical practitioner to apply in his or her daily life as a way to “treat disease before it arises”.
Quoth master Sun: “if a person’s virtue in actions is not abundant, even if they constantly take elixirs of jade and pills of gold, they will be unable to extend their longevity”.
For me, taking up Chinese Medicine as a life-path was a very long process, one which is still very much in progress.
However, I’ve recently come to the realisation that I am not interested in a “professional practice” that presents TCM as a product for easy consumption. I think of myself not so much as a practitioner of a technique, but rather as a living example of it. How well I am able to mediate that exemplary nature with “real, everyday life” is the more compelling question, and one which I find new answers for every day.
I have written elsewhere about my proclivity to become involved in other people’s processes; the truth is that, in the role of the healer, we cannot enter an exchange with a patient without being changed ourselves. Sun Simiao points the way: inasmuch as we become insightful about these theories and techniques (as they become embodied realities), we can become able to spot and realign the disharmonies that are at the root of others’ discomfort. We do this, again quoting from Master Sun, first by subtle means (exercise, spiritual practice, meditation, sex, and breathing); then by modifying and adjusting diet, and only as a last result through interventions like acupuncture, moxibustion, and medicinals.
We embody Chinese Medicine in order to practice it for the benefit of others. This is why I say that I don’t “practice” Chinese Medicine. I live it, and in so doing attempt to inform others about what it can do for them, and for us all.
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.