The sages of Chinese medicine stood facing South


I hope this reflection will be useful to all those Chinese medicine students out there who struggle with figuring out what TYPE of Chinese medicine to practice…

Today, on a walk I was taught an important lesson by some late migrating geese. In the late summer and autumn, we get a whole lot of geese flying overhead in my neighborhood. We live pretty close to a couple of wildlife refuges, one being specifically devoted to waterfowl. In general, in Portland, the autumn is always accompanied by the resonant, melodic sound of Canadian geese fleeing Canada. It’s one of those things that is commonplace, yet never seems to lose its magic. I’ve noticed a lot of things in Autumn are like that – the leaves turning, the miracle of the harvest, the start of formal schooling and so on.

Anyway, today I had one of those magic moments – fog bank just rolled in, walking on a hill in clear view of the setting full moon and the rising sun reflecting pink and crimson off of morning clouds. Mushrooms bursting from beneath damp fallen leaves. People out, coffee in hand, walking overly excited dogs. That nestled place between Lung and Large Intestine time – things cracking forth, but the calm and presence of the early morning still laying on its soothing balm. Very nice.

Then there were the geese. There were seven or eight of them, so just a paltry flock. There was some confusion (not uncommon) where they seemed to be trying to figure out which way to go. Now, I know enough about geese to know that just because they seem to be flying North doesn’t mean they’re lost – often they’re just heading to a feeding or resting ground. It’s the larger direction that matters, not my little snapshot views. But, that doesn’t matter for my story. There was some confusion in the sky, and about half started heading clearly North, the other half clearly South. One goose was caught – she flew North, she flew South, she started calling loudly – she seemed pretty distressed by the whole thing.

Finally, she broke South – doing double time to catch up with her chosen group and they continued off into the distance. As I watched them cruise, I got a series of images as I faced South – the direction that all Sages must face, the direction that helps us make sense of so much Chinese medicine physiology and pathology. Mostly, I just got a sense of great peace, of openness, of newness and warmth and a bright future. I thought – good choice, little goose.

Now, I’ve been particularly prone to reading signs in everything these last few weeks, so pardon me. But, the whole drama (!) seemed curiously familiar. I think it might seem familiar to some of you, as well.

At NCNM, I was introduced to a wide variety of schools of thought regarding medicine – herbalism in particular. Without getting too much into it, let’s just say that people can get a little spirited about what they see as the “truth” of the matter. I certainly have been guilty of this. As students, I think we were looking for something to hold on to. Something to call our own – or rather – something to say, “This is right, this is true and I know it, I subscribe to it.” Some way to make sense of the seemingly insurmountable task of learning a medicine that is thousands of years old and must be translated into what we have available in contemporary times.***

I’ve sometimes felt torn because of my particular proclivities and the wrinkles and folds of my personal situation. I had moments when I didn’t want to practice medicine at all. It seemed too impossible to figure out what was right – the clinical stage didn’t clarify things any better than the classroom and I just felt totally overwhelmed. I had moments where I wanted to have a time travel machine and visit Han dynasty and ask Zhang Zhongjing what the whole deal was really about. There were also times when I felt pretty confident, pretty sure, and even a little fanatical about what I was learning. Those times were always followed by a lesson (pride precedes a fall, afterall).

In the last month, things have settled out. I felt very much like that goose for the last year or so, and I’ve started flying in a particular direction. It hasn’t been without its consequences. Moving towards one thing almost always means leaving another behind. Some good goose friends had to be parted from, on some level. I only have so much time and attention. I have had to repeatedly remind myself that the direction I’m turning away from is not WRONG, just different. Demonizing people who think differently from we do only serves to make us demons in the eyes of others. It never serves the quest for knowledge and healing.

You know? Darnit if I don’t feel just like I felt on that hilltop watching those geese disappear. Warmth, openness, a surge of energy, signs from all over God and Creation. It’s not that the other way is wrong, it’s just that this way is right. It leads to more, not less. It opens me into an endless realm of possibility and sweetness. I have already seen the results in my acupuncture, in my herbal prescriptions, in my presence with my patients, and in my bank account.

So, to any of you who are feeling this – particularly you students – take heart. You will find your way. Sit quietly with yourself, go on walks, get treatment, sing songs, talk to animals and go through your rebirth. Getting born is rarely pain-free, but it always opens into a whole universe of experience that was previously unavailable to you. I promise.

***Note : I’m not saying that ancient medicine isn’t directly relevant to contemporary times and people. Please. I’m just saying that some of the things they had available, we don’t have available – or very nearly (Fulonggan, for one – Sheng Fuzi for another – there are legal implications for some acupuncture techniques). Further, while there is truly nothing new under the sun – people do have a different way of living, eating, and even dying today and we would be idiots not to at least consider that fact sometimes, even if we are just “treating what we see,” and even if we are (correctly) not taking into account Western disease names and categories, etc…

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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