Strategy in Chinese Medicine: Timing and Momentum, pt. 1

This week I’d like to introduce a vital concept from the world of Classical Chinese military strategy, namely that of timing and momentum.  In the Chinese military classic The Art of War, Sun Zi states:

“When a falcon strike breaks the body of its prey, it is because of timing. When torrential water tosses boulders, it is because of momentum.”

In everything we do, whether using acupuncture, herbs, tui na, or even speaking with a patient, following this concept is what allows us to accomplish great things on behalf of our patients, while not following it will lead to frustration and lack of results. Let’s break this into two subjects and cover them individually.


In the current culture of TCM, the evidence-based protocol is king. A hypothetical example: “On 6-14/09 Patient K. was diagnosed with asthma. UB-13, UB-23, Ding Chuan, and Lu-9 were needled with reinforcing method for 30 minutes. Treatment was repeated daily for 7 days. Upon re-evaluation patient’s spirometer performance increased 15%. Therefore, this protocol is useful in treating asthma. ” This is how case studies are presented to us in our primary textbooks. This is also the primary research method in Chinese TCM hospitals presently, thus making it the perceived superior method of research and treatment amongst the standardized professional Chinese medicine community in the West.

However, this method has an ocean of problems, chiefly that it doesn’t work very well when replicated in clinic. Leaving alone for now the problem of misunderstanding what particular points/methods/herbs/formulas really do, it also neglects the necessity of meeting the patient exactly where they are at that very moment. This is what I mean by timing.

No matter how effective a formula or protocol has been in the past, if applied to the wrong situation it will not only not be effective, it may actually make the situation worse.

The importance of accurate diagnosis cannot be overstated. As a clinician, it’s the heart of your job to figure exactly what is going on with the patient in front of you at that moment, work out specifically what needs to be done, and apply it correctly. It’s no good giving a patient Gui Zhi Tang because they have a “Wind-Cold Invasion” when in fact the disease has moved on to a deeper level and the patient now needs Xiao Chai Hu Tang. You may have been needling St-36 and Sp-3 for the past three visits and seeing improvement in the patient’s digestive condition, but continuing to needle it would be a huge mistake if this week they’re having back spasms and can’t walk.

Timing in Acupuncture

The image of a falcon crashing into its prey from a steep dive at a hundred miles per hour is an accurate description of how effective doing the exact right thing at the exact right time is. However if we imagine the situation from the reverse angle, we can imagine the falcon arriving at the wrong time and completely missing its intended target. As the Lingshu says: “At the moment the energy arrives, [the physician] does not stray even by a hair; and if he is unaware of it, no results are produced. Therefore it is necessary to discern the arriving and departing movements of energy in order to intervene in time. The mediocre physician ignores this rule; the skilled physician respects it.”

This is a good time to clear up a common misconception among acupuncturists about this “arrival of energy”, usually referred to as De Qi. The commonly held belief is that De Qi is when the patient experiences a jolt or shocking sensation. This is held to be the sign that things are working and that now the patient should be left to relax with needles in for twenty minutes or so in order to allow the Ying Qi to make a full circuit through the body.

What the text is actually referring to when it talks about the arrival of Qi is the moment of regulation, the specific and clearly perceivable moment when the channel imbalance has been corrected. The higher level of perceiving this moment of regulation relies upon the acupuncturists ability to experience the unseen energy of the patient, a subject I don’t feel currently qualified to address. However the lower method (one that can be used by everyone fairly easily) is to monitor the state of channel balance via the Renying-Cunkuo pulse method where the very moment of balance can be felt by comparing the strength of the pulse at Renying St-9 and Cunkuo Lu-9 while needling the affected channels.  The timing for this is so delicate and vital that the Lingshu says: “When needling, if the energy does not arrive, the number of needles is insignificant. If the energy arrives, stop needling.”

This timing is important not only for good results, but also for avoiding bad ones. You can imagine the falcon missing its target so badly that it crashes into the ground face-first. This is a very real possibility in everything we do. Contrary to popular belief, the Lingshu makes very clear many times throughout its text that the patient can be significantly harmed by incorrect acupuncture technique. To wit:

“Needling presents two risks:

  1. Not removing the needle once it has reached the affected zone, which may cause the loss of Jing
  2. Removing the needle as soon as it reaches the affected zone, which may cause the Xie Qi to return.

The loss of Jing exacerbates the illness with nervous exhaustion, and the return of Xie Qi is the origin of abscesses and ulcerations.”

Our primary concerns for harming the patient in our schooling are things like puncturing the pleura, the peritoneum, or an organ. However, the Lingshu rarely talks about physical damage due to incorrect needling and instead frequently cites examples of energetically-caused damage from doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, including different forms of insanity and even death. Clearly, the acupuncture needle is a powerful tool, one that must be treated with the same respect as a sharp knife or sword.

My point here isn’t to scare people, but rather to insist that if we are going to use any tool in the pursuit of altering the health of  another person for a fee it’s our responsibility to be very very good at what we do and to not mistakenly believe that we can get away with following a protocol cookbook. Our practice of a natural and holistic medicine in no way lessens our responsibility to practice safely and effectively to the utmost of our abilities and the ability of our medicine. Acupuncture is capable of a lot, and the Neijing repeatedly talks about it in the context of treating very serious illness. However, it only works when you do it correctly.

Next week in this column we’ll discuss timing in herbology. If you want to talk more, please leave a comment or drop by the Chinese Medicine Central Community Forum.

See you Wednesday.



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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