This is the first part of a two part guest article by my friend and peer, Michael Givens. Michael is also a third year student of Classical Chinese Medicine at the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, OR. He shares my fervor for the medicine and has been an inspiration to me as I seek to plumb the depths of this profession we have both chosen. I hope you will enjoy what he has to say. Please do leave your thoughts in the comments – he is a regular reader of the blog.
When I first started to study Chinese medicine (long before I became a student at NCNM), I fell instantly in love with it because it made so much sense to me. When I read the Huangdi Neijing Suwen for the first time, it was as if all the questions I had about life, my place in relation to nature and the stars, the interplay between light and shade, warmth and cold, and how life seems to exist somewhere between them all were illuminated by Huangdi, Qibo and the other sages. The cycle of the five dynamic movements in nature and how they manifest inside and out of all things, defined for me what I felt was already true; I had found a detailed system that defined the wholeness I had been searching to understand.
As I pursued my studies as a Chinese medicine student, I began to see how my initial understanding was limited and superficial, and soon, rather than being the clearest and most elegant text I had ever read, the Neijing became the most complicated. I found myself spending hour upon hour trying to draw out the inter-lapping cycles of the six confirmations, influencing each other on the right and the left through time, in the heavens and on earth, connecting to the heavenly stems and earthly branches and the five movements…I quickly became lost in the details of such an amazingly intricate systematic understanding of the nature and movement of Qi.
When I first learned about the five organs and their relations to the five “elements”, it seemed so clear; yet, as I deepened my understanding of physiology (Chinese physiology that is), simple concepts like “Fire generates Earth, Earth generates Metal, Metal generates Water” became extremely complicated. How is it, after all, that Fire descends through the malleability of Metal, physiologically, or that Metal really descends only when Fire descends? What does it mean that Water, while it resonates with the flavor of Salty, is actually reduced by Salty and strengthened by Bitter? What is at the heart of the difference between the six atmospheric conditions and the five dynamic processes and how do they interact physiologically? Questions such as these began to plague me.
Of course, this is what happens as one deepens his or her understanding of something; and, as one narrows his or her focus from the “big picture” to the minutia, the complexities of the universe become overwhelming. Yet, the beauty of Chinese medicine lies in the central view that the Chinese sages held. Rather than lose themselves in the grand picture, focusing only on the Dao or on the stars alone, and rather than (as Western science has done) lose themselves in the smaller and smaller details of the parts, the sages of Chinese medicine maintained an open view of both through using the language of symbolism and correspondences and remaining focused on processes and dynamics, functions and movements. So, though I was swimming out in the ocean of stars, and at the same time swirling amidst the tiny fragments of manifestation, by taking on this central position of the Chinese, I found a way to begin to have clarity and understanding and to flow with the movement of nature.
This is not to say that I would advocate ignoring the details and taking for granted the whole, not at all in fact; as I said earlier, the Neijing incorporates extremely detailed understandings of the very large and the very small, though there is a much stronger emphasis on the very large. What I have found is that one’s lens is what matters, regardless of what one is looking at. The lens of the Chinese medical sages allowed them to see dynamic processes and functional qualities rather than matter or manifestation. Though much of what a Chinese doctor does is to examine the symptoms and manifestations (especially in that the pulse is so very important), the treatment comes about through understanding function and movement, quality and time.
But, this is where a new confusion arises and is really what I meant by the title of this article. Chinese medicine is complicated just because it’s complicated, to be sure. But, how we are learning about Chinese medicine is also complicated. At times we are looking from a point of view of function, and at times we are looking from a point of view of materials. At times we learn of formulas and treatments that are based on an understanding of processes, and at times we learn formulas and treatments that are based on a desire to supplement matter.
How is a student of this medicine to behave? How are we to wade through this sea of complexity that so many years of history have created for us? That will be the topic of the second part of Michael’s article – to be released soon. Thanks for reading.
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.