Using Devonthink to learn and write about the Chinese herbal formula Ling Gui Zhu Gan Tang

This article is a bit of a dork odyssey, being how it relates to the use of a computer database program to organize highly specialized information related to Chinese herbal formulas.  That will either attract or repulse you – I hope the former!

I have something of an obsession with database programs.  Of course, it’s not really about the program. It’s about manipulating information in interesting ways. It is about actively participating in the creation of an ever complex and rich extended mind.

I want to make something very, very clear at the outset, however. I’m not talking about having a computer attached to me all the time. I’m not talking about abandoning books, traditional memorization techniques, human interaction or anything of the kind. What’s interesting is that as my involvement with the reorganization of my Chinese medicine information is progressing, my Qigong, medititation and prayer practices are all becoming easier. I think this is a similar phenomenon that many have experienced when fully implementing GTD. It’s the feeling you get when you organize your basement or purge a bunch of old files. Space! Openness! Freedom. That’s the real goal – not having a shiny database.IMG_3864.JPG

Ling Gui Zhu Gan Tang – my favorite formula

I have used Ling Gui Zhu Gan Tang (or Fuling Guizhi Baizhu Gancao Tang) more than any other formula, hands down. I combine it with just about everything, and all of my patients have ended up on it (or one of its variants) at some point. Why? Well, I don’t know. I hypothesized the other day that it has to do where I live – we’ve got a whole lot of Water Qi floating around Portland – maybe that’s contributing to a shoddy water metabolism in Portlanders? Anyway – I wanted to see how Devonthink could help me write an article about this formula.

A brief aside : my old blog writing habits… transformed

For those of you who do not blog, you probably don’t even really know how this thing happens. The simple explanation is this – I have a program (WordPress) installed on a server (Laughing Squid) that manages all the data that is used to create the pages (articles and so on) that you see here on Chinese Medicine Central. I can access this program and its databases in many, many ways. The most frequent part I need to access is the main administration panel, where I can moderate comments, write blog posts, edit blog posts and alter the blog’s appearance with just a few clicks. Up until very recently, I used this interface (on the web) for all of my blog post writing. The other major way that blog posts are written is in what is called an “offline editor.” This is simply a program that runs on my Macbook that is used only to manage blog posts – none of the design elements or comment moderation or anything like that.

I recently started using Ecto as an offline editor. Why? Lots of reasons that I don’t need to go into in this post – let it suffice to say that I find using an offline editor to increase my productivity in general and make me feel more like a “writer” and less like a “person who is constantly on the freaking Internet.” So, that’s one good change. To be honest, it hasn’t changed my experience of blogging that much, yet. But, enter Devonthink.

I spent about 8 hours doing the initial learning and setting up of my DT database. Mostly, this involved taking all the folders from my little stacks in the Finder and putting them in Devonthink “groups.” Now, this was actually quite complicated in some situations and it is frankly not done. For instance, as Mike Reynolds pointed out in his comment on my last post, Devonthink doesn’t read into some file types – notably Excel and Powerpoint. Thus, these have to be converted to PDF and made searchable. That entire process takes about 90 seconds per file (I’m sure there are ways to automate it). There are also a lot of things that can be done to one’s information to make it more accessible to Devonthink’s artificial intelligence. For instance, I’m doing a lot of breaking up of files to make them more focused (taking my huge formulas charts and turning them into individual formulas files in rich text format).

During this process, as I said in my last article, I started to become very excited about the information I have on my computer. I remembered classes I had long forgotten. My mind was jogged about a couple of key statements said by this or that professor. I suddenly had an insight into a patient that I have been struggling with. I became quite engaged with learning more about the issue that this particular patient is facing, and did a quick search in Devonthink – uncovering a WEALTH of information I didn’t remember I had. This made me think about writing an article about that patient, so I created a Devonthink “group” for that purpose, and started subdividing the folder into the various stages of blogging workflow.

Which brings me back to my point – Devonthink has done what Ecto alone could not do. It has made me feel like a writer again. More than that, it has reminded me of the excitement of learning to be a scholar. I find myself excited to research. I have folders for my projects that are quickly subdivided and everything I find gets dumped in there – I am particularly impressed with how easy and fun it makes web research. Now, I have developed a whole new work flow for blog writing that combines the power of Ecto and Devonthink and leverages all of the amazing information on my computer and the even vaster sea available on the Internet. I am no longer stymied by a research project or a particularly hard blog article – it may take time – but I know I have a structure to hold me while I move through the process. It’s amazing.

Back to Ling Gui Zhu Gan Tang!

So – I just wanted to write a simple article on this incredible Chinese medicine herbal formula while also exploring Devonthink. First, I wanted to get some basic information about the formula. I pulled the basic information out of the quick reference chart I use almost every day in clinic. Because I know that the artificial intelligence works best when information is more discrete, I put the herbs/dosages, pulse, common signs and symptoms, TCM understanding, Classical quotes, related formulas and clinical notes all into separate rich text files. This took me about 3 minutes, and I will never have to do it again. I expect I will do this, over time, with all of the formulas. Now, because I haven’t done it for all of the formulas, the potential of Devonthink is not fully exploited. It cannot show me the maximum interconnections because not all of the data is entered.

However, when I highlighted the file with the dosages in it, I was quickly shown all of the charts I’ve created where this formula appears, as well as all of my notes from Arnaud Versluys where he mentioned the formula. It even picked up where I had written the formula name a little differently (saying Linggui Zhugan Tang, for instance) though it saw those files as being less related. It also took me to a document I created in a class with Heiner Fruehauf where he talked about his use of this formula. I hadn’t even remembered him talking about it! I’d better give you some of this information, or I might have a revolt on my hands. Unfortunately, I’m not able to divulge everything I have in my database about this formula – as some of it was given in the context of discipleship. I’m sure all of you have information like that – how wonderful would it be to be able to connect that information with all of the other information you have on your computer. I mean, for me, being able to quickly cross reference the TCM information with the stuff I get from Arnaud, Heiner and my other great teachers is just invaluable.

Basic information about LGZGT (all contained in my initial DB, found with about 5 seconds of searching)

Fuling 12g (4 liang) : In the Tangye Jing, Fuling is the water herb of the earth (sweet) class. In the Shennong Bencao Jing, is said to be sweet and neutral. Note: for Fuling and all other herbs, much more information from the Classics emerged. I may expand on this brief exposition in the future, but this is enough information for demonstration purposes.

Guizhi 9g (3 liang, bark removed) : In the Tangye Jing, Guizhi is the wood herb of the wood (pungent) class. In the SNBCJ it is said to be pungent and warm.

Baizhu 6g (2 liang) : In the Tangye Jing, Baizhu is the earth herb of the water (bitter) class.

Gancao 6g (2 liang) : In the Tangye Jing, Gancao is the wood herb of the earth (sweet) class.

In the system of pulse diagnosis I learned, we would think about this formula when we saw a tight pulse in the chi positions, particularly on the left hand and we may see a thin, slippery rolling up pulse in the cun positions. We might also see a depressed quality in the cun positions, which some people might think of as either deep or soggy, or even absent. Obviously, the pulse is a complicated thing and everyone seems to have their own opinions – this is simply what I look for.

Shanghan Lun line about the formula (only English included here for brevity)

“When, in cold damage, after vomiting or precipitation, there is counterflow fullness below the heart, the qi surges upward to the chest, the person experiences dizzy head upon standing, and the pulse is sunken and tight, if sweating is promoted, the channels will be stirred and there will be quivering and trembling then Fuling Guizhi Baizhu Gancao Tang governs.” (roughly taken from the Wiseman Mitchell Ye version).

General clinical manifestations outside of what is stated in the line

This is actually where my Devonthink research started to break down. This is less a fault of the software and more a fault of how badly I’ve organized my information up until now. Much is trapped in audio, or combined all in a single document (difficult for the AI of Devonthink, and also not readily searched by any application I’ve found), my clinic notes are scattered all over God and creation and I keep far, far too much swimming in my head when it comes to this kind of thing. All of that being said, some information came forward in my search through my database.

In general, we will find people to have some kind of accumulation of water – usually in the throat or lungs. They may have a chronic cough, or just a constant tickle in the throat. Some even just wake up with a little phlegm. They will also often have a sensation of fullness in the chest, but vague. They will also often have palpitations, a general sensation of being “off balance” or even dizzy. Many of these clients, I’ve found, are overweight or have a hard time regulating their weight. Now, some of these clinical manifestations demand additional herbs. If there is a significant cough, for instance, we would probably add Ganjiang + Wuweizi.

This article is already ridiculously long. However, let it suffice to say that I found many documents I had downloaded from the internet or scanned from books at the library – all pertaining to this formula or one of its variants. Again, as I further uncover, digitize, clarify and organize my vast library of data not only will I have the great experience of reengaging with that material but I will make it easier to access and more accessible to the AI of Devonthink.

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.

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