The First-Trimester TCM Student and the Philosophical Adjustment
By Tymothy Smith
Welcome to Student Corner, Acupuncture Today's column devoted to students and continuing students of traditional Chinese medicine. There are many issues of particular interest to students of Chinese medicine, and as TCM schools become larger and the base of the student population increases, it's important to have a column devoted to our interests and concerns.
In this issue, I would like to focus on the first-semester TCM student.
When entering into a program as serious and focused as TCM, it certainly can feel overwhelming, confusing and downright intimidating. We learn a medicine that is geographically removed from our experience with the use of plants, minerals and animals - and let's not forget the insects. (It's always a wonderful experience to witness a first-semester student open his or her herb sample box to see periostracum cicadae [chan tui] and remark, "Excuse me; I think there are bugs in my box.") This is in addition to the theoretic, diagnostic and meridian systems of TCM.
That said, the adjustment most of us contend with, I feel, is more philosophical. Certainly, memorizing the names of herbs, the numbering system of channels (and for some, the names of the points), and the very concept of the Eight Parameters and Five Phases is difficult, but even more difficult is looking through a Chinese perspective on life itself.
As a third-year student, it's my pleasure to work as a teaching assistant in classes. It feels satisfying to see the inquisitive and earnest faces of the incoming students. Often, the questions I find myself answering are those pertaining to how to contextualize the medicine. In talking to a study group recently, I found myself stating that Chinese medicine (from its philosophical roots) does not a linear line of thought make. This took some time to explain. What I realized as I spoke was that this was never taught to us directly. It's simply a way of life for our teachers, not something they consider when conversing with us on the protocols and theories.
I explained that we in the West are from the Cartesian philosophical school, the linear school, with a division of body and mind. The Chinese never had this division; they never had Descartes separating the functions of the human experience. Not only is there no separation of the composite parts, but what is more pervasive is the circular philosophy inherent in everything they do.
One student asked, with focused tension, about the memorization of the flow of meridians in the body: "Will we learn this again? I don't know that I really understand it completely." I found myself smiling, because I think almost every American TCM student has asked this question during their first semester. I felt compelled at that point to discuss with the study group what I felt was the basis of the medicine. Understand that I am a third-year student - not an elder in the use of Chinese medicine, not blessed with a family lineage, but merely a struggling spirit wanting to explore and understand what to me is the most complete system of medical care in the world.
I said, "Chinese medicine is simple." I then looked out on the wonderfully earnest faces in the group and waited for that statement to sink in. "It begins with the basis of all life, the two complements from the one force, if you will. Simple, right?" They all nodded.
"This is the first circle," I said. "We then conceptually move to the second circle, which includes the first. The second circle is the further differentiation of the two primal forces, known simply as yin and yang. See?" Their faces were blank. I then realized I needed to approach this slowly and methodically. In consideration, I reasoned that this is what I would have wanted to learn. I would have appreciated a class in the metaphorical basis of Chinese thought on my entrance into this medicine.
At the end of the study group period, many students had a base understanding of the concept that this medicine is not generally linear, but always returns to its respective roots regardless of the disease or presentation. It's always a dynamic tension of the receptive and creative; always a balancing act within the change of forces of life. Perhaps I was being hard on myself to expect that everyone would walk away with a clear understanding and a direct visceral comprehension. It was then I realized that perhaps this can't be taught in its entirety. How does an Asian person communicate the basis of a character that pictographically represents what to Americans would be words (or paragraphs) of information? Further, how does an Asian person communicate to us what, for them, is the basis of their perception of reality in general?
There is a point in the educational process for the TCM student. We all hear during our first year (though we seldom think it's true) that "you will just get it." I always thought we were told that because those above me wanted to relinquish the seeming responsibility of assuaging my consternation. Now, in my third year, I feel that perhaps I am beginning to understand. We do hear the information over and over; we do come back to the essential components of health and its myriad forms of imbalance. We return again and again to the basic principles, and though as students, we always are looking for the new herb, the new application of needles or the new technique, we rest on the fact that our medicine is several thousand years older than us, and that frankly, humans don't do anything for that long that does not serve them.
That is ultimately how we, as students and practitioners of this great medicine, can relax. We can rely on the fundamentals that have remained constant through all of the changes Asian culture has endured, knowing well that these fundamentals will continue to serve us as our culture integrates the concept that the body is a unified whole, always striving for balance regardless of the circumstances. It's simply our opportunity as healers to remind the body of its birthright: radiant health.
Click here for previous articles by Tymothy Smith.