Chinese Medicine and the Creative Arts: More than a Luxury

When I was working as a chemical engineer after college I had a boss who was fiercely brilliant and inventive. He was over 50 but had the mental flexibility of a teenager, and was armed with the knowledge base of a PhD who had decades of real world experience. Observing his process taught me the value of maintaining a constant curiosity about one’s surroundings, as well as the importance of having an adaptable mindset in the learning process. He was a fascinating character, having hobbies as varied as his technological areas of expertise. He enjoyed fishing, the ancient game of go (he was a childhood star), gourmet cooking, competitive tennis, and other interests too numerous to list.

One day, during one of his spontaneous pep talks, he told me in a thick Korean accent, “Whatever you do, it’s important to do your best because you’ll always learn something. No matter what it is, if you get really good at it, then you can become good at anything”. This statement rang true to me and shed some light on my experiences with creative pursuits and the commonalities that most learning experiences share. Everything informs everything else in a unique way.

As a student of Chinese medicine and naturopathy I’ve found that my learning process has been invaluably informed by my experience in other pursuits such as martial arts, music, and more recently, painting and calligraphy.

Just to briefly mention the obvious– the first benefit of having creative pursuits is simply having the outlet to offset the stresses of school. In a setting where the left brain, information-absorbing mode predominates, it makes sense that some right brain, creative output is necessary to maintain some balance. Many creative pursuits also directly facilitate relaxation via intentional movement and breathing, which then feeds back into the ability to study.

But in addition to these general benefits, I’ve found that each hobby I’ve pursued has contributed to my study process in unexpected ways. For example, the process of learning new music and committing it to memory helped me establish a memorization technique that works great for me– a specific protocol for rhythmic repetition and visualization.

I grew up playing violin and piano from kindergarten, then picked up saxophone in middle school, and upright bass in highschool. I learned that in order to memorize a piece of music, I needed to allow my mind to rest on a few things at one time, and be able to maintain a steady rhythm of recalling back the information. This rhythm would imprint the music into memory while also serving as a diagnostic tool. When the steady rhythm was broken, it indicated that was a spot that I needed to focus more on.

I use this method all the time when studying new information. If I can’t recall it in a steady, rhythmic fashion, I don’t really know it well enough.

Sometimes I will take a chunk of new information and repeat it on a loop in my mind at a steady tempo, and then on a larger scale, repeat those loops at a steady rhythm as well. I’ve found that in whatever setting of learning, the phenomenon of rhythmic regularity (or at the least, rhythmic awareness) can be a very valuable tool in engaging one’s being.

Rhythm and repetition were key components as I learned Taekwon Do growing up as well.  To progress to the next rank we had patterns that we performed during testing ceremonies in front of our instructors as well as friends and family. To pass, one had to execute these patterns at the very minimum with the right moves but ideally with a steady and graceful rhythm. From these tests I learned the value of rehearsal in the learning process. Learning a single pattern to this extent would require meticulous repetition over weeks or months.

Taekwon Do also taught me, among other things, the value of relaxation. When I first started training I marveled at the upper ranking students–how strong they kicked, how many boards they broke, how high they jumped. At the time it seemed to be all about gaining strength and speed. What I didn’t learn until much later was the yin component to this equation– Greater strength and speed requires greater relaxation. After 10 years of training, as I prepared for my fourth degree black belt test in college, I found myself starting all over again with the most basic punch, realizing all the different areas of tension I had been holding up until that point.

I believe this applies to the learning process as well–anytime there is a great feat of energy expenditure there must be a corresponding degree of relaxation.

In a physically or emotionally tense state, I find that I can barely do any studying, whereas some of my greatest learning comes when I am completely relaxed and in the flow. It is in these states that free associations can be made and visualizations spontaneously arise, which to me are some of the most helpful tools when learning new information. Painting and calligraphy have also helped my studies in this way. I picked up both in my third year at NCNM and they have sparked a fire in my visual imagination that I didn’t know existed.

Much of the material that we learn at NCNM is rich with imagery, whether it is depicting the different energies of the seasons or the subtle energy flows throughout the body. Associating the words in class to images in my mind (which sometimes then manifest as paintings) is helping me to gain a more visceral relationship to the material. I’ve found that calligraphy in particular has provided a bounty of advantages when it comes to studying Chinese medicine– not the least of which is just getting a little more familiarity with important characters and phrases. Although I am an absolute novice in terms of actual technique, this doesn’t prevent me from feeling a real bond with certain characters, almost as if they are people with whom I interact. Having this extra association has proved helpful as many of these key characters are repeated in different contexts within the classics.

On a more subtle level, the act of calligraphy also seems advantageous as a future acupuncturist in terms of the act of cultivating qi.

Oftentimes after spending some time practicing calligraphy, I find my hand coursing with blood, tingling with qi–the amount usually corresponds to how relaxed and how coordinated I am throughout my body. Generally, if I don’t have good posture, a deep and slow breath, or a focused mind, my calligraphy goes from looking amateurish to downright nauseating. Words from our school’s founder, Heiner Fruehaf, ring true regarding calligraphy and painting: “the brush doesn’t lie.” It is a direct indication of one’s inner state and therefore a priceless method of self calibration.

Recently, I had the blessing of meeting and studying under a calligraphy master in Korea, who promised to teach me as long as I learn the proper foundational technique which I had skipped over in my avarice to learn new characters. I spent 2-3 hours a day for 5 weeks, practicing just one horizontal brushstroke, which was admittedly very complex due to subtle twists and turns of the brush at each end of the stroke.
By the end I graduated to vertical brushstrokes, and he gave me a list of 8 characters to practice and show him when I returned in the winter.

When I returned and showed him my characters, I was confident that he would be impressed with my progress and see how much effort I put in. Instead he asked me if I had practiced at all, and then showed me the right way to do it again. Indeed, I saw that my so-called progress was essentially nothing and that without his guidance, I had lost the techniques I had learned over the summer. This was a great lesson for me, especially during a time in my life when there is great pressure to have the air of expertise.

I’m learning through calligraphy that no matter how skilled I feel at any point, I should be open to starting over completely from scratch and embracing the beginners mind in order to progress.

These are just some of the ways in which artistic pursuits have positively influenced my journey as new student of Chinese medicine. Looking to the future, I know that these experiences will be crucial as I transition from a student to a practitioner as well. As with any other field, but perhaps more so than conventional medicine, Chinese medicine seems to marked by a diversity of schools and philosophies. Some practitioners are strictly TCM, some are more bodywork-oriented, some practice Japanese style, some rely heavily on certain medical classics but not others, et cetera.

At our school, every single faculty member practices in a completely unique way and I imagine the situation is no different elsewhere.

Thus some creativity must be used to synthesize a unique clinical approach, or even just a coherent approach, considering that the basic medical classics now and then contradict each other. This context and feeling is very similar to my ongoing journey as a jazz musician– a music in which there are numerous contradictory schools of thought in terms of style. Swing, bebop, post-bop, free jazz, fusion, are all categories of jazz but are stylistically incompatible with each other, easily demonstrated if you were to assemble a group with one player from each style.

I’ve found that to grow as a musician, the best approach for me is to employ “relative absolutes.”

I try to be open to many musical truths while honing in on the truths that I find to be most compelling even when they are contradictory; I love Charlie Parker and Albert Ayler equally even though they play the saxophone with a completely different set of rules. In a field like Chinese medicine in this day and age, where it is rare for a student to learn strictly from one lineage or mentor, it seems that I have to take a similar approach; learning as much as possible from the doctors around me without being closed to others due to philosophical conflict.

My favorite era in jazz is the 1960’s, when players had the technical facility of the post-bop era but the desire to experiment and break free from that same technique. I find the music from that decade as compared to others most beautifully portrays the ability of the human spirit to transcend, recognizing limitations and growing beyond them. In the same way perhaps an important aspect of all artistic pursuits might be described as learning technique and, in the process of synthesizing an original approach, breaking free from technique. We are learning the notes and scales and styles of Chinese medicine at this point, but soon we will be confronted with the reality that we must produce a coherent, effective, and unique method of healing that goes beyond what we are taught in school.

Finally, being an artist has taught me important lessons in business and self promotion.

At this point I’ve had almost a decade of experience in organizing events such as concerts and exhibitions. I taught myself how to build a website and how to make fliers that are simple yet compelling. Through many failures I’ve learned about the importance of factors such as timing, location, and advertising to the success of a concert. The tools that I use to attract people to my artistic events are the same ones that I will be leveraging as a doctor as soon as I graduate.

I wish that I had the ability to articulate the deeper aspects of why I believe it’s important to pursue the creative arts, the more visceral feelings that propelled me to write this article in the first place.  I’ve laid out what I believe to be plausible arguments as to why one should take up these pursuits, but there’s no way to convey the actual feeling of how similar it is to hold a calligraphy brush and an acupuncture needle, or the particular “alchemical transformations” (as we say in school) that occur in one’s body when performing music regularly.

Regardless, it is my hope for both our profession as well as society in general that the creative arts will be integrated with other pursuits in a way that supports anyone’s creativity in any context. Everyone is an artist, whether they’d like to admit it or not- some just don’t recognize or neglect their art. Even the most seemingly dry pursuits can be approached from creative ways; the possibility for creative synthesis is everywhere, not just in some places. Given this, it makes even more sense that a profession like ours would benefit from a healthy dose of right brained activity.

Of course, there is always the danger that taking on too many hobbies will spread one too thin and prevent mastery of any one thing, as the old “jack of all trades, master of none” saying goes.

This other end of the spectrum is clearly just as, if not more counterproductive to the ultimate goal of deepening as a scholar/practitioner, compared to the student who doesn’t take on any creative pursuits. To this I have two responses.

First, it seems to be far more common for students and practitioners (people in general, really) to abandon what creative pursuits they once had when they were younger, than it is for them to be spread too thin because of creative pursuits- so this is generally less of a concern.

Second, this integrative approach is indeed challenging, one that requires feats of organization, adaptability, and focus in order to not fall victim to mediocrity in all areas, but that’s it is worth every bit of extra effort and will pay dividends not just as a practitioner of Chinese Medicine but in one’s quality of life in general.


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About Sunjae Lee

Sunjae Lee graduated from NCNM with a dual degree in Naturopathy and Oriental Medicine and currently practices in Seoul, Korea at a clinic for foreigners in the Itaewon neighborhood, Create Wellness Center. In his free time he also practices Oriental brush painting and jazz saxophone-- find out more at his personal website, Fermata Wellness

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