Frustrations as a practitioner and lifelong student of Chinese medicine

problems_learning_chinese_medicine.jpgI’ve been working with students explicitly for about a year now, teaching at NCNM. I think I will be continuing to do this, as the activity suits me and it also forces me to keep studying. I find that I want to teach about learning a lot, even though I do like teaching about herbs and other explicitly Chinese medicine related concepts. I think this is because while there are a lot of ways to get information about herbs and Chinese herbal traditions, there aren’t a lot of people talking about learning.

My students seem hungry for guidance, reassurance and anecdotes related to my path in learning Chinese medicine. When I look at the most popular posts on this blog, they are posts that point to that layer of experience. Thinking on this, I realize that there’s just not a lot of resources out there for people who want to learn about learning. In college, you may end up in some basic “study skills” course, and then are asked to seek out “tutoring” if you are having trouble absorbing the material. The same essential approach is in operation at NCNM, and likely at most schools around the country. While nobody ever teaches anyone how to learn most effectively, we’re all expected to know it, and if we don’t – we’re remedial.

So, we look for others’ stories. We listen to how people we admire learned things. When that information is not divulged readily, students will ask for it. But only if they get the sense that there is a willingness to discuss this all-important topic. I hope to make myself ready to take those questions, I hope to give stories that are helpful.

A student recently expressed frustration at their progress in learning Classical Chinese medicine. This is a first year student, very bright, with the world of Chinese medicine absolutely open and available to him. The problem he is having is similar to one I experienced as a first-year student. Simply, there’s just too much to learn. There is a seemingly endless field of modalities, philosophies, skills, bodies of knowledge – with a concurrently endless pit of internal work to be done. How to do this in four years? How to do this in a way that sets one up for future study, that opens one to a lifetime of deep, real Chinese medicine learning. It’s a painful question, and I empathized deeply with the student ask he spoke with me.

As we talked, I was reminded of a number of students who have spoken with me about similar topics over the last year. There seems to be a basic confusion about the whole process of learning. I’ve read a lot of texts and had a lot of experiences that might help clarify the confusion, but I haven’t been able to distill a simple message that I can communicate to people asking these types of questions. I’m still working on it. However, re-reading one of my favorite books, Wake Up To Your Life: Discovering the Buddhist Path of Attention (Ken McLeod) I ran across a very useful distinction that, I think, speaks to this issue.

In the book (p 59), Ken is discussing the problems that arise when people are beginning a formal meditation practice. In instructing his own students, he tries to orient them around a fourfold understanding:

  1. The purpose of the practice : this is why we do what we do
  2. The method of the practice : this is what we do to to achieve that purpose
  3. The effects of the practice : these are experiences that arise in the day to day effort of practicing the method
  4. The results of the practice : these are the long-term achievements that come about through diligent practice of the method – despite some days of negative results

He uses the example of running for exercise to illustrate his point. But one could just as easily apply it to learning Chinese medicine. To be fair, the topic “learning Chinese medicine” is much too broad (and thus part of the frustration I’m seeing in students) so let’s restrict it a bit.

Let’s say I am an aspiring (and/or practicing) herbalist. Let’s say that I have discovered that the essence of learning herbalism is to take the time to deeply know herbs – using a method that my teacher has revealed to me. This method consists of walking through several levels of understanding, beginning with direct sensory perception, progressing through ascertaining “community data” as present in texts like Bensky, through coming to understand these herbs in relationship to other herbs (in formulas and combinations) and all the way to seeing the effects of these herbs on patients.

The purpose of this method is to become an excellent herbalist. To be an excellent herbalist means to be able to prescribe Chinese herbal formulas in a way that is efficient, effective and satisfies some internally derived standard of achievement. That is just one way of describing excellence, surely it has some variation from person to person – but being relatively efficient (thus not taking 10 hours to write a formulas) and definitely effective (the sky’s the limit here) must be present.

So, the purpose and the method are established. It’s the final two elements where things get sticky.

If you sit down to use this method, you’re going to have good days and bad days. Sometimes the Qi is going to flow, you’re going to effortlessly know an herb and feel naturally excited about herbalism and your ability to practice Chinese medicine. Other times it’s going to feel boring, contrived, pointless and you will feel insecure about your student loans, your family’s perception of what you’re doing and your impending entry into clinic. These are the effects of practicing the method – sometimes great effects, sometimes not so great. But one MUST NOT confuse these ups and downs for the RESULTS of practicing the method. You’re not as incredible as you think on your good days, and certainly not as hopeless as you think on the bad ones.

Look at your progress over time. The results are an increasing mastery of the various aspects of herbalism, increasing ability to place your attention on the study at hand and an overall rising in your confidence with regards to Chinese medicine. Being aware that this is a process, that the effects from day to day are not reflective of the overall RESULTS, will do a lot to help you maintain some level of sanity as you learn. Another thing I like about this model is that it places attention on the need for a clear purpose and an overt method. The former doesn’t need to be the same as someone else’s and the latter doesn’t need to be set in stone. But YOU need to be clear about YOUR purpose, YOUR method.

I guess, overall, I think all four elements are deficient in me and my students. I think they’re pretty deficient in our culture overall. So, spend some time thinking about this. With regards to your learning of Chinese medicine (whether you are a brand new student or a long-term practitioner or anything in between) ask yourself:

  1. What is my purpose? It’s probably best to restrict this to specific areas of learning – but it may be helpful for some people to have one, overarching purpose. Probably you will have several nesting
    sets. Write them down.
  2. What is my method? Perhaps it has been taught to you. Perhaps you have to build one yourself – just try something, test it out, and refine it. It could be as simple as “Memorize and recall 5 formulas a day,” or as complicated as the herbal learning method I hinted at above. Perhaps it relies on learning Chinese and slowly translating Classical texts. More than anything, I want to emphasize that your professors are PROBABLY NOT GIVING YOU A METHOD. So don’t rely on them to do so. It’s just not the way things are, now.
  3. What are the effects I experience? It might be helpful to keep a practice diary. Note the good days, the bad days, and the variations. Be very careful not to become too attached to any one particular practice session. Do your practice, and go on with your life.
  4. What are the expected and realized results of practice? If you don’t have a teacher to help you figure out the results, again, you may need to posit some yourself. Where do you expect to be in a year, in two? In four? In ten? Who are your models? As you go, be as objective as possible in assessing your progress. Are you seeing results? Why or why not?

I’d love to hear from folks about their purpose, method, effects and results. This is a pretty raw blog post, I just pumped it out here after doing my daily reading. Do you see problems with what I’m saying? What are they? I always welcome opportunities to refine my own thinking!


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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