The First-Semester TCM Student and the Philosophical Adjustment, Part 2
By Tymothy Smith
Welcome to the second installment of Student Corner, Acupuncture Today's column devoted to current and lifelong students of Chinese medicine. In my last column, I talked about the philosophical dilemma of the American TCM student - the adjustment we go through in our pursuit of information and knowledge, with the goal of benefiting the health and wellness of our patients.
In this installment, I would like to continue to explore what it is to be an American studying a medicine with its mythological and philosophical roots in a far-off land and with an altogether different experience of life in many ways. I further would like to explore how I see the cyclic process of the seasons as it relates to the student (and teacher), and how this benefits our exploration, if we are mindful of the processes of nature.
When I began my education, I was attracted to TCM, as many of us are, through Daoism and the venerable teachers Lao Tzu and Chuang Tsu. I had a rather romantic notion of what acupuncturists are, how they operate and how they see the world. Namely, I imagined the medicine embodied by the prototypical Lao Shi, the old man or woman, steeped in the relative dynamics of life and subsequently of the human drama with all its myriad difficulties, ready to impart (shaktipat, as it is known in the vedic tradition) into me all the secrets of the past 3,000 years. I was to spin in the qi of knowledge and Wu Wei, the Great Release I had read with such fervor as a young man. When I entered TCM school, however, this was not the case, and as many of us have noted, it was actually more like studying in a Western hospital than along a river bank with a bag of sacred herbs in our napsack.
This was most disconcerting. I was sincerely hoping to learn of the patterns of life, the contraction and expansion of the micro and macro systems. What I learned, however, was that nothing is what it seems, and the Chinese are a complex and fascinating people. Perhaps my experience is different than others in that I primarily have had Chinese teachers (and with all the language difficulties and cultural missteps, I would not change the path that I am on), but this was not the case a year ago.
In the fall, we are instructed by nature to begin the Metal phase, to begin to recollect, to set our stores with mindfulness for the Water element of winter, where we will be asked to go within and find what we need, rather than the external acquisition of the passing summer. This is a time of both letting go and returning to what is important. With fall approaching, I am reminded of the transition I witnessed in myself in my journey through the convoluted halls of the nature of healing.
When the foundation of your culture is the negation of variables as is ours, it is most confounding to balance this to a culture based on addition, the continued advancement and inclusion principle. I could not for the life of me find an explanation of the dynamics of basis of acupuncture's healing mechanism. The Chinese simply are not interested in why. With each growing question, I became more convinced that I would not learn through school what I most desperately wanted to learn: how to heal. I read the books, memorized the charts and tried with extreme fortitude to gain a concept of Chinese medicine, but I could not find what healing is; rather, I found definitions of illness and the processes of treatments to address each respective dysfunction.
What I realized is that much like the seasons, I was not observing the patients who came through our clinic - not merely the ones who were experiencing a shift in consciousness (whether physical or spiritual), but the ones who were not. This began when I started my internship and I was alone with the patient in the treatment room, with no teacher to guide (or distract) the intake or the needling.
Just before my first internship, I was instructed to recite a Physician's Prayer. It is a prayer of the deepest intention. With this prayer, I realized that it is namely that: the deepest intention that elicits healing. Whether that is in ancient China or 21st-century America, you have to want it.
The Physician's Prayer is this: Bring to me, with this first patient, who I am to treat in my career.
I was instructed to say this prayer for a week prior to seeing my first patient, and then to note who stepped through my door. Further, I was told that, in effect, this would symbolically be the person I would be treating in all my subsequent treatments. There is only one first, and if we aren't mindful, it can pass us by with its sweetness and instruction. I wasn't going to let that happen. I readied myself that September to let go the summers of my past and begin the journey into the fall of my future.
My patient was not a wind-heat patient; no, life is far too direct for that. She was a middle-aged, well-dressed entrepreneur who recently had been in a severe car accident, which injured her spine to the effect that she could not function regardless of the narcotics forced upon her.
I smile because I have mentioned this prayer to many other students, and every time, the results are similar. This Healer's Path is not for the weak or the undisciplined. Our patients are simply in too great a need for a lack of focus from any of us. Ultimately, this is what my Chinese teachers are teaching me. It's not about them, but they understand, as do I, that qi (which may be a code word for "function") truly is the interaction between two people who come together for an agreed intention. When these are brought into alignment, it doesn't matter what you call it - Dao, Noble Path, etc. - the effect is the same. What is remarkable is that as the patients heal, so do we; we have to, as we are asked to bridge the past and also to question it. Ultimately, it is life itself that is our teacher, if we are simply patient enough to learn.
Click here for previous articles by Tymothy Smith.