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Acupuncture Today
April, 2006, Vol. 07, Issue 04
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Adventures With Captain X

By Felice Dunas, PhD

While lecturing in Viet Nam last year, I ran into a great story that begs retelling. Walking down a commotion-filled back street of Hanoi with a Malaysian friend, I smelled moxa. On one side of the narrow street, in a store typical of northern Vietnamese standards (five feet wide and 10 to 15 feet deep), I saw an elderly gentleman standing next to several shelves of aluminum pipe and holding a hand-rolled moxa cigar up to his left 3H 17 (Triple Heater 17).

After one of those excited multilingual conversations during which no one understands anything, I followed the old man to the back of the store and up two flights of stairs. The damp, rotting wood stairway led to a small florescent-lit room with a torn vinyl floor, peeling wallpaper and several pieces of elaborate, uncomfortable Chinese furniture crammed too close together. Into this middle-class Vietnamese livingroom "Captain X" called to his three daughters, wife and mother-in-law. Before I knew it five women, one large plate of cut papaya, my Malaysian friend and I sat down to look through worn, handwritten texts on Vietnamese acupuncture. His grandmother taught him little bits of acupuncture, and he continued his studies on his own. He showed me points I have never seen and applications I would never have considered. His daughters translated as we discussed the use of moxa for pulling heat out of the Liver channel, clearing the eyes and moxa to cool the stomach with food poisoning. Captain X was 65 and had not yet needed glasses thanks to the moxa stick he put to his neck each week, the act I witnessed as I walked by.

Captain X had been trained in Russia as an engineer for the North Vietnamese Army. He was proud to speak of his training in Russia, his allegiance to his country and his inherited Chinese furniture. Through this simple man I found a sophisticated and entirely different form of Oriental medicine than I had ever encountered. He will never share his painstakingly handwritten books, the unique practices he had learned would not be passed down through him - and yet, his life testified to a brilliant and effective set of theories and practices entirely unique to my previous training.

Pulling out a plastic garbage bag filled with loose moxa, Captain X squatted on the floor. He rolled each cigar inside a leaf of unknown species with the manual dexterity of a teenager, moving his fingers faster than my eyes could follow. He then tied each with an orange thread, clipped the ends and handed 10 cigars to me along with a glowing, toothless smile.

I left with a deeper understanding of the scope and capabilities of Oriental medicine, knowledge of an entirely different body and auricular point system than my Japanese, Korean, Chinese or even Vietnamese teachers had ever taught me, the e-mail addresses of excited adolescent girls who promised to write, and 10 of the most beautiful moxa sticks ever made in the history of the world.

Oriental medicine changes everywhere it goes and through every new generation and century while maintaining efficacy. There is no reason to think that the old ways are the only ways because the new ways, be they 1,000, 400 or 20 years old, from a tiny village in Indonesia or a university in Shanghai, also work. They do different things - sometimes better, sometimes not. The most effective route to a cure may be ancient, new, from a tradition you have not yet learned, or something you put spontaneously together that is unique and entirely customized. Your current work may contradict your foundational training and still produce results. I have done things that would make the teachers I apprenticed with rise from their graves and yell at me - but they worked. The defining feature in what makes this art/science form valuable is that it is rooted in a timeless truth that continues to find expression through the skill and intuition of practitioners, no matter their culture, training or generation.

My teachers have told me that Chinese needling technique works, for the most part, on the premise of "no pain, no gain." If there is no sensation of chi for the patient, the treatment is ineffectual. Acupuncturists who practice Chinese technique intentionally manipulate needles well beyond the comfort zone of most Americans. In Japan, the opposite is true. If the patient even feels needle insertion, the treatment is less effective. If the patient experiences pain upon the rising of chi, you may as well pack up and go home, because no benefit will come from the work. The Chinese practitioner fails if the patient feels nothing; the Japanese practitioner fails if the patient feels anything. Same patient; same syndromes. Go figure.

OM is an expression of organic evolution through the centuries. Like a river, this medicine meanders through centuries, picking up contradictions and idiosyncrasies. It is a living, breathing body of knowledge whose potential continues to expand.

Can we make mistakes when we practice? Of course. Should we adhere to the teachings passed to us? Absolutely. It is said that for the first 20 years of practice, one is to stay close to the books your teachers work from. Daily, you should investigate cases and see what the great authors of our profession have said that would apply. After that first 20 years, however, it is time to give the books to your students and practice from a different place inside of yourself; a place of intuition and meditation. Once you have mastered the science, it is time to become an artist. Treatments are to come through you rather than from you. They express color and music. The points you needle become friends, serving as a bridge between your teacher's wisdom and your student's hunger to learn. As we practice, we become part of a great movement in life, an outlet for the healing process itself. It is an honor and challenge not to be taken lightly.

Do you have a difficult case or pressing concern that no one has been able to address? Are you blindsided when patients try to manipulate you? Write me at . Perhaps I can help.

Click here for more information about Felice Dunas, PhD.


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