Doctor as medical sage: why the Year of Sagely Living is important

Statue of Confucius at Confucian Temple in Shanghai, China

On this blog I have discussed the ways in which Classical Chinese medicine has changed my life. Since the first day of classes at NCNM, I have been shaken to my core by this medicine. I’d like to discuss what that means to me, briefly, as a way of explaining the importance of the Year of Sagely Living project that begins this January 1, 2008.

Chinese medicine is interesting, yes. I am intellectually excited by the concepts presented in courses and texts that I encounter. I find the philosophical foundations of the medicine to be endlessly fascinating. Each day I feel my mind opened a little more by playing with the ideas therein. As my mind opens, I am increasingly able to appreciate the subtleties of other systems of knowledge and practice. Thus, the cumulative effect has been an unbelievably quick and overwhelmingly positive improvement in my understanding of the world and my place in it. However, this knowledge would be nothing if it weren’t for the way that my willingness to actually put it into practice hadn’t also been steadily strengthened. For whatever reason, it has been strengthened, and I find that the person I am today is far more likely to actually practice what he preaches than the person I was three years ago.

I am going to be a doctor. I hope also to be a scholar, in fact I think the Classics suggest that to be a great doctor I must also be a scholar. But, day in and day out, I will be treating real human beings with problems that cause them sometimes considerable distress. In a very real way, their lives may be in my hands. Scholarship will help me to understand, but I need to do more than understand. What else? Of course I will need to be able to exercise skill. In diagnosis, in treatment, in developing the doctor-patient relationship. These skills are very important to develop. Hand strength, point location and palpation, Shen management – all vital in the practice of acupuncture. Pulse and tongue observation and interpretation, full body palpation, sensory perception of the whole body, careful questioning and even more careful listening – all vital in diagnosis. The ability to quickly move from pulse to formula prescription and modification must be nearly automatic and utterly reliable. Handling difficult emotional situations, rapid response to emergencies, facile handling of the whole variety of sticky situations that arise in daily practice – all of these skills must be second nature for a good doctor. But there’s something much deeper that the Classics point to – something about the manner of life of the great physicians. I’ve talked about it before and doubtless I will again. What I note below is only one place in the canonical texts of Chinese medicine where the physician’s spiritual and mental state is emphasized as essential to their abilities.

Neijing Chapter 25 discusses the essential qualities of a great physician:

(Read a prior article on Neijing Chapter 25)

1) One must have unity of mind and spirit with undistracted focus
2) One must understand and practice the Dao of self-preservation and cultivation
3) One must be familiar with the true properties and actions of each herb
4) One must be proficient in the art of acupuncture
5) One must know the art of diagnosis

Again, I will point out the order of these aspects. Herbs, acupuncture, diagnosis – all vital. Essential! Without these, you are not a doctor of Chinese medicine. But what of the first two? These aspects are mentioned again and again in different texts, by different authors who stand in different traditions. It has been my experience that while a physician can be good only knowing the last three, their ability pales in comparison to those who take seriously the first two. It’s a tall order, to be sure… you must tirelessly pursue skill and knowledge about all aspects of Chinese medicine! But you must also rectify your LIFE. You must order your mind and spirit. This isn’t way down on the list. It’s not optional. I don’t see any way to exempt contemporary practitioners on the basis that they are contemporary. But, make no mistake, cultivating yourself alone will not make you a physician. Study is essential! The two types of activity – self cultivation and study – form an inseparable duo of education. Self cultivation both makes you more able to benefit from study and opens your mind to previously unavailable realms of understanding. Study provides the means by which you utilize your cultivation in service of humanity and itself is a form of self-cultivation when done with the appropriate attitude.

In fact, far from being exempt, I might say that it is even MORE important for contemporary practitioners to take these principles to heart. Our environment has become more toxic, our culture more distracting and potentially damaging, the typical diet is full of poison and deadens our senses, physical exercise is no longer a guaranteed feature of everyday life – everything seems bent on reducing our ability to detect the subtle and understand the profound. But there is no need to long for the past. We can overcome these deficiencies by even more diligent effort on our own part. I like to think of the modern world as a whole-self gym. It is full of places of difficulty and resistance within which we can build our muscles and strengthen our resolve. But it takes effort, it takes persistence, it takes willingness to change and most of all, it takes openness to the ideas so graciously laid out for us by thousands of people through thousands of years seeking to live a life of meaning and purpose.

The Year of Sagely Living project is an attempt to take the Classics seriously on these points in a public and community oriented fashion. The twelve categories each pertain to an essential feature of human life. Taken together, and improved in equal measure, we believe that these features build ideal physicians. I hope you will join us. Just comment on this post or any other to let us know you’d like to participate. Five future sages are already committed!


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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