How to make the transition from forced study to self-motivated study

chinese medicine study focusNow that I am in my fourth year of schooling in Classical Chinese Medicine, the “academic” pressures lessen in a number of ways.  We have a few classes outside of clinic, but they are not academically rigorous in the way that Acupuncture points and Herbal formulas classes were.  Our focus now is clinic and our Chinese medicine focused thesis.  The latter is, of course, academic – but it’s a very different thing to write a thesis than to study for and take an exam. 



Since the end of last term, I’ve been struggling to figure out whether and how much – but most of all HOW – to study without the pressure of exams.

Some of you may wonder – if no exams, why study? Every shift, I find things that I’ve forgotten or don’t know.  Every shift I realize the importance of having key information readily available in the mind.  Every shift I realize that while I know some, I *don’t* know even more.  By the end of my first shift I realized that this summer is going to be a time of profound transformation as well as intense study.  So, I’ve devised a plan and have been determining how I can dive even more deeply into the material.

There seem to be three key problems:

1.  No regular testing to act as carrot and stick leading me forward.

2.  Clinic and thesis to balance with other kinds of study.

3.  Lack of confidence in what I need to be studying because I don’t have anyone helping me to understand where I should apply my focus.

Solutions for Problem 1 : No regular testing – the need for the carrot and the stick

Even the most engaged student sometimes will need some help to get motivated.  It’s probably an artifact of our No-Child-Left-Behind like culture of education, but testing often serves as a motivational force for people.  The carrot has many facets.  There is the feeling of a job well done, the praise or relationship development with your instructor, the admiration of your colleagues (!), advancement to higher levels of learning, possible scholarship benefits and so on.  The stick likewise has many aspects, most of which are simply the reverse of the “carrot” features above.  No one can deny that, regardless of your dedication and internal sense of motivation, we are all motivated to some extent by the carrot and stick approach.

However, I’ve always maintained that in the practice of medicine and similar fields, things are different.  When I studied Philosophy, it was crucial that I remember key points, that I be able to build an appropriate argument, see flaws in logic, etc…  I had to learn the material that I was studying, sure.  But, noone’s health and wellbeing was going to be impacted by how well (or not) I learned various arguments for the existence of God.  Nobody’s ability to run around and play with their kids rested on my ability to memorize 42 logical fallacies and their refutation.

In my study of Chinese medicine, every sentence uttered by an instructor could be the key that unlocks a pathological process in a patient.  Each formula I memorize takes me one step closer to being able to quickly and elegantly devise a perfect treatment for someone who comes to our clinic.  I don’t allow that to stifle me, I also don’t have the arrogance to think that my treatment is going to be what is “saving” or “fixing” people.  But, I do see a greater human significance in what I’m studying now compared to everything I have studied before.

I suppose one could see all that I’ve just said as a further instantiation of the carrot and stick – but I think it’s more than that.  There’s also the fact that the vast majority of what I’m learning fits into a system of knowledge that is more than it seems.  It’s a method of living (see – year of Sagely living), it’s a system for rearranging myself spiritually, for learning to interact more appropriately with the world…

What does this have to do with lack of motivation?  Well, here are three tools I use to keep me motivated despite the lack of testing. I’m going to word these in such a way that I feel they can be applied to folks studying pretty much any subject that has a practical application in a similar way to medicine.

1.  Get clinical/practical

Though I’m not being tested in the traditional sense right now, every clinic shift is a test.  Will I understand how to fit the symptoms and signs into a pattern I can understand, will I be able to come up with at least a few points that would help the person, can I think of a decent formula to send them home with?  In some way, this kind of testing is even more intense than the stuff that involves pen, paper and a ticking clock in the background.

So, I dive as deeply as I can into the practical applications of what I am learning.  Further, I realize that when I leave the site of that practical application, there’s still work to be done.  After clinic shifts, I review the cases, analyze the formulas, consider alternative points and herbs,  imagine future treatments, investigate the person’s Western diagnoses and prescriptions and so on.  This is the real stuff.  At first it seemed intimidating.  But now, it’s just plain exciting.

Even more importantly, I remember that I’m dealing with human lives as I discussed above.  What I’m learning, and how well I learn it, matters.  That’s tremendously motivational.

2.  Understand what it does for you, personally

Most true professions are meant to shape the professional.  You don’t become a lawyer without examining your own life and embodying some kind of lawyer-ness.  Perhaps in the law case it would manifest in becoming very cognizant of how the law relates to you personally, learning about historical figures in the field of law and emulating them and generally making yourself into the kind of person who is a great lawyer (and also a lawyer who is a great person).  Of course, not all professions reach this lofty goal and even fewer people actually take this seriously.

In Chinese medicine, as I’ve discussed before, this is actually CRUCIAL. Self-cultivating and letting the medicine become part of us isn’t just icing on the cake – it’s the cake. What I’ve been doing is seeing how not studying this material has really been impacting me in larger ways.  I’m less likely to do my Qigong and other exercise, I’m less likely to eat well, I’m less likely to adhere to my spiritual discipline, I become a vaguely irritated person in general.  Observing this in myself has helped me to understand the deep transformation that this medicine is creating in me.  So, as a solution to the lack of motivation, I focus on the many ways that study of Chinese medicine improves me as a person.

I have created a list of five main areas that are significantly improved when I engage deeply with Chinese medicine study. I have created an “ultimate” goal for each of these, with mini-goals that act as signposts along the way.  I review these at the beginning and end of each day and allow myself to meditate on each for a couple of minutes.  This helps recharge me on a very deep level.  Quickly, as an example:

One of my “areas” is that of my physical health and well-being.  My “ultimate goal” is to be at my ideal weight, with specific strength goals that are measurable and to have an abiding sense of buoyant energy throughout my day.  One of my mini goals is a specific weight and body fat number, another is that I wake reliably at 5am with minimal grogginess.  I review these each morning when I wake (not always at 5am!!!) and when I go to sleep at night.

I allow myself to think about how my Chinese medicine study reinforces these goals (by helping me learn more about the human body, by learning about my place in the macrocosm, by deepening me in a vigorous Qigong practice, etc…) and how my doing these things reinforces my Chinese medicine study (by giving me more energy and ability to focus, by helping to ensure vigor into my elderly years, etc…)  It’s been a profound practice.

3.  Less desirable solution – focus on bigger carrots and sticks

Obviously, there are always carrots and sticks that we can use for external motivation.  The most persistent looming for me is my board exams.  I will be taking these throughout my fourth year and in the summer afterward.  It’s never too early to study for these exams and they can provide me with a basic structure.  I don’t feel that this is an ideal way to motivate myself, but sometimes it’s the only thing that works.  Certainly even post-licensure there may be similar external motivators.  Perhaps you could mention a few 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.

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