Examples All Around Us: An Analogous Understanding of TCM Concepts
By Walt Wojak, DC, LAc, Dipl.Ac. (NCCAOM)
One of the most challenging aspects of studying traditional Chinese medicine for us in the West is to understand just how the Law of the 5 Elements and the 8 Principles work in practical application with our patients and their varied conditions.
This has to do with how we think about reality. Our "ducks-in-a-row, break-it-down-to-its-smallest-component" mentality seems to be the very antithesis of oriental "interconnected-whole-that-is-yet-unique-and-constantly-changing" philosophy. In other words, even our way of perceiving the universe is different.
When I was in public school, we were taught that Western civilization stood at the pinnacle of knowledge, and that is was just a matter of time before the very mysteries of the cosmos would be unfolded. Further, we were led to assume that other cultures didn't have the benefit of modern science to understand the "true" nature of things and therefore developed some unscientific "notions" to explain the phenomena called life. They simply adopted a metaphoric way of thinking. Now, this was not only quite an intellectual hurdle; it resulted in a prejudice that has only come to light for me in the subsequent years of actual practice.
Total immersion into the TCM paradigm began for me as a matter of professional discipline as well as personal integrity. How could I do justice to TCM and my patients if I didn't "live out" what I was advocating? Almost dying of congestive heart failure and the subsequent "road to recovery," a.k.a. TCM, also set my feet to the fire. Five years later, I find that not only does my TCM treatment approach work better; I understand what's going on around me. TCM does a far better job in terms of predicting and appreciating the actions and activities of our electromagnetic universe than our common Western mechanical mindset. Through it, I "see" the interactions known as "living" with greater clarity.
We who have studied and practiced TCM in the West have all "honed our instincts" to some degree or another. Indeed, most of the truly poignant meanings in life are known in this way. But it is difficult for us to put this "intuitive understanding" into words, especially when trying to discuss this meaningfully with our patients. Frankly, any intuitive element has been fairly driven out of health care, having been deemed "unscientific" by Western medicine. Yet in spite of this concerted effort, those folks that make up our clientele still respect it. This may explain the ascendancy of complementary/alternative health care, a "gut-level" appreciation. It is therefore important for us to find a way to express it.
When the Western ear hears "You have a head wind," or "You have a cold," the literal translation immediately butts up against a parochial understanding that dictates head colds and sinus conditions are caused by bacterial and viral infections. This has been inculcated into us for the last 150 years as "the germ theory." However, it ignores some logical facts that have not been adequately addressed by the scientific community, such as: If the bacteria caused the infection, then why is streptococcus or staphylococcus commonly found in the mucosa of apparently healthy individuals? And how is it that one person exposed to some virus won't get sick, while some others do? And of those others, why may one be only mildly ill while another becomes bedridden?
This is where the Western "one-cause" logic breaks down, because it must grudgingly recognized that the individual's "health" or "vitality" is playing a decisive role. Yet this "health" factor is so complicated and unique to the individual, as to defy "one-cause" quantification. Our "break-it-down-to-its-smallest-component" focus has become a barrier; a wall behind which cognitive Western reason cannot see beyond. It also has been used as an intractable fortress that has allowed Western "smug" egocentricity to survive critical scrutiny.
Pardon me for digressing a bit. This has been covered before, both here and in other publications. It is part of the dialogue between knowledge and ignorance; the very examination of our assumptions and preconceptions -- in other words, the piercing of our prevalent American mindset, which tends to swallow popular information without deliberate examination.
The universe in which we exist and participate is electromagnetic in nature. An oversimplification would be that everything is made of energy -- energy in different forms. Matter has been described as condensed or congealed energy, again in different forms and textures. But the basic, bottom-line fact, is it's all energy. The Chinese somehow recognized this centuries ago, and they called this energy "qi." Now the previous observations that modern science has made over the last 200 years are the same conclusions the ancients began to write about over the last 3,000 years. Their insights came from careful scrutiny, due consideration and a discreet distillation as treatments were tried and the results were recorded, only to be tried and recorded again and again over the length of three millennia. We call this approach "trial-and-error." And from this process, they drew these "modern" conclusions.
It is in this concept that we must take note of the very nature of the universe.
Energy expresses itself in two forms: potential and kinetic. Potential energy is energy in a stored or static state (not moving or expending), but with the potential of release. A charged but unused battery; a rock perched on a peak, poised to fall; a balloon filled to the verge of bursting ... all are examples of potential energy. Kinetic energy is expressed or active energy; energy in action. The battery hooked up to a lamp, giving light; the rock that rolls down the hill; the balloon bursting. It is here that we must start, for even material items (matter) have energetic states of being. They are interactive.
Contrary to reductionist Western thinking, nothing in reality exists apart from its environment. The very nature of existence is by how something is relating to its surroundings. The rock that warms in the sun. The water that freezes in the frigid night. The puddle that evaporates in the desert. The dew that collects on the cool glass. The leaf that is blown about in the wind. Tthe cicada that drones in the dank summer twilight. Nothing is truly unaffected by what is going on around it. It is in this interaction, the dynamic of two entities, forces, things acting with and upon each other, that we concern ourselves with.
As all TCM practitioners immediately recognize, each example I gave is pointing to one of the six external pathogenic factors: heat, cold, dry, damp, wind and summer heat. These environmental states or forces have been related to an organ channel/pathway or system: Heart, Kidney, Lung, Spleen and Liver. The ancient Chinese observed a certain consistency of reaction within these systems within an individual when that individual appeared weak, damaged or impaired. Even when others about them (who were healthy) were unaffected, those afflicted manifested repeatable (and therefore observable) "patterns" of illness. It was the consistency of these stricken folks, with these recognizable weaknesses, reacting to these external factors, that became the foundation for these "patterns," as we call them in TCM.
What I hypothesize now is not something new. What I hope is new is to explain these interactions and their relationships in a way that can bridge the gap between East and West. That is what I will define as "harmonic resonance." That energy, in various forms (heat, cold, damp, dry, wind and summer heat) and transmitted through various mediums (air/wind, water/damp, light/heat,/dry), has a specific "signature": a consistent way of showing itself that, once recognized, can be described or qualified. This is what is being revealed all around us, through these actions in creation. When appreciated in the framework of energy/energies that have a vibrational pattern or consistency, we can then say that TCM/acupuncture is not merely metaphoric, but an allegorical, yet accurate way of describing our electromagnetic reality.
When I was a boy, my brothers and I used to amuse ourselves by playing in the kitchen with many of the items my mom used to recycle, such as empty plastic bowls, milk bottles, and aluminum foil pie plates. One of the things I discovered was that if I held the pie plate close to my mouth while speaking (actually yelling), it would sometimes rattle. As a kid interested in science, I experimented with changing my volume, then different words. Finally, I fell upon changing the pitch; sliding up and down the scale. Sure enough, at one particular note, the pie plate rattled in resonance with my voice. When I asked my science teacher about it, he explained to me that is the way some singers shatter glass: by hitting a note/pitch that causes the crystal lattice (how the molecules are linked together) to vibrate. The structure was sensitive to that particular cycle of vibration. The sound (at a particular frequency), carried through the air (the medium), corresponded to the molecular vibration pattern of the substance (the glass), magnifying the effect (the rattling).
It is from this fact that I propose we understand TCM/Five-Element interaction; that the various external pathogenic factors (heat, cold, dry, damp, wind and summer heat) have a vibratory signature that somehow resonates within sensitive, predisposed individuals, especially when their bioenergetical systems are out of balance. Whether due to extreme external factors, or to weak internal deficiencies, certain organ/energy pathways react to these exterior conditions; the liver to wind (chaotic, variable energy that actually contacts the skin, thus carrying these other factors into the body), the heart to high temperatures, the spleen to damp, the lungs to dry, and the kidneys to cold.
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