Working With The Yuan-Source Level: Resonance and the Extraordinary Vessels
By Nicholas Sieben, LAc
How do we stay fresh with our medicine? As healers, how do we balance our medical selves with creative artistry? Chinese Medicine is not a fixed dogmatic entity, but a living system, reliant on a mysterious force called "resonance." To be effective, there must be the "flow of life" in our work. We must create constant resonance between ourselves and the patient, between ourselves and the medicine, and with our intentions towards healing and change.
We can think of it like this: as healers, we are vessels that hold onto the intention to heal. The medical tradition we practice is the tool - the vehicle that carries us. The relationship we create with our patient is the bridge. We can't travel to the patient without a bridge. We can't travel at all without a vehicle to take us there. Once across the bridge, the patient must invite us through the door, agreeing to let us in. We must have an effective way to knock on the door and a type of energy to carry us through it. We must reach out and be received. This is resonance.
I find it helpful to embrace many different healing traditions. This keeps things fresh within my work as an acupuncturist; it also frequently helps illuminate the process of healing in general. A tradition of Peruvian Shamanism, transmitted by medical anthropologist Alberto Villoldo, describes the human system as levels of energetic consciousness, much like the classics of Chinese Medicine. To communicate effectively with each level (the body, mind, soul and spirit), says Villoldo, one must use different vehicles. The level of the body can be reached through the physical/molecular; the mind by language and words; the soul through ritual, myth and art; the spirit through pure energy.
The question I begin to ask myself as a healer is: what level of a particular patient's being am I trying to reach, and what are the most effective ways to communicate with this level? Some of us believe there is only one level to a human being: the body. To these people, this discussion doesn't much matter. But for those of us who do believe in various levels of being, there is a benefit inquiring into different methods of communication with our patients.
Discussion of various human energetic levels is built into Chinese Medicine. The Chinese medical classics describe three energetic levels within the body. They call these levels Wei, Ying and Yuan. Wei Qi is the most superficial, instinctual energy of the body: that which flows through the surface of our bodies, protecting us. Ying Qi is the qi of the interior, relating to the emotions and the conscious mind. Ying Qi is the energy that continually nourishes and replenishes us on a daily basis. Yuan Qi is the energy of the constitution, which creates and supports every aspect of our being, including our physical and spiritual evolution.
The Ling Shu describes ways in which different levels of the body can be accessed, both via acupuncture channel systems, as well as through specific needles and techniques used to stimulate them.
When treating a patient, we have to find the door: the way in. When we've found it, we need an effective way to "knock." Then the patient can receive our message, and if proper resonance has been created, they can open the door and "qi" (relationship) can be established. However, the process of unlocking the different energetic levels of the body goes beyond simply inserting a needle into a point on the body with a particular technique.
I'm sure all of us have known the clinical experience when resonance has not established. Simply needling a point doesn't establish resonance. We could be knocking on the wrong door, or using the wrong method. Or, possibly we haven't even built the bridge yet. We are basically shouting our intentions across the river, hoping the patient will hear us. Maybe they do hear us, and they are eagerly waiting for us to find our way to them; or maybe they just think we are a crazy person with no manners and a lack of skill. I'm sure most of us have also had the experience of knocking on the wrong door. We can be met with a very negative response, or more likely no response at all.
This discussion about creating resonance is perhaps most applicable to acupuncture channels that utilize the energetic level of Yuan Qi: the Extraordinary Vessels and Divergent Channels. The energetic level associated with "the source."
For many of us, it's not easy to create instant resonance on a deep level with our patients. As healers we must meditate on the question: what is resonance? How can my intention reach out from me as a healer to touch another person. How can my touch allow the person to open up and receive my intention?
When we are trying to contact a very deep energetic level in our patients, we must find a way to invite ourselves and the patient to "vibrate" at the same frequency. The frequency we both vibrate must be at this deep Yuan level. This can be more mysterious and complicated than we think. The Yuan-level lies below the level of conscious awareness in the body. It is the reservoir of deep, unconscious physiology and pathology. As the Nan Jing states, the channels associated with the Yuan-level, the Extraordinary Vessels, lie "beyond the reach of the 12 Primary Channels." We cannot get to this level of energy through our everyday consciousness. We must find another way to get into the mysterious level of "the source."
Contacting the Yuan-level via the Extraordinary Vessels is different than needling Primary Channel points associated with "the source" like the Yuan-source points, Bladder Shu points or Mu points. These post-natal points are manifestations of "the source" as they are brought out to the Wei and Ying levels of qi and blood by the Triple Heater. They are not the true "source," but manifestations of it. They can be seen as reflections of the "source," playing out in our everyday lives. To contact the actual "source" via the Extraordinary Vessels is a much deeper, more mysterious experience.
A teacher of mine used to say, "in the treatment room, you must perform the treatment on the patient before you even put one needle into their body." I was intrigued by this statement. A lot of this teacher's message was about embodiment of intention. She was very focused on "building the bridge" to the patient. Like many Chinese Qi Gong practices, the practitioner must find a way to embody the images they are invoking. As with the "Five Animal Frolics" Qi Gong forms of Hua Tuo, when we practice the "Tiger" form, we are not just going through the motions; we are invoking the energy and spirit of the tiger. We are contacting this archetypal energy within our own being and bringing it out to the surface. In a way, we are contacting an aspect of "the source" within us and bringing it out into the world. This image of arousing the "source" and bringing it to the surface resonates with a description of another channel system that conducts Yuan qi in the body: the Divergent Channels. They are channels that "reach out" from the deepest aspect of our beings to the surface. However, like the Source points and Bladder Shu, the Divergent Channels are still satellites from "the source," not the actual "source" itself.
We must come to understand the different levels within our own bodies, how to access them, and how to bring them to the surface to contact and connect with others. I recall the very best healers I've worked with. My memories of them are not so much about what methods they used to heal me. I have stronger memories about the relationships that were created, partly through the medicine they used, but also through their relationship to the medicine: how they embodied it.
What do I mean by "relationship to the medicine"? Relationship is Qi. The healer uses his or her qi to communicate and connect with the patient. When the qi is received, there is resonance and exchange. A connection is made. This, in my experience is the point where healing occurs.
I recall attending a weekend retreat given by a famous Buddhist teacher. During the retreat, during my downtime, I saw an "energy-healer" for a session. She used a pendulum to measure the chakras of her clients. She said every person she'd seen that week attending the retreat had chakras that were spinning opposite their normal direction. I asked her why. She thought the teacher had such strong resonance, that her presence was healing those around her. A mysterious change was obviously occurring.
Another striking example of healing-resonance occurred with an acupuncturist I worked with for many of my formative years. I can still recall the feeling of her office, and the sense of sacredness she seemed to create around her. Even though, on the surface she was just a well-mannered, well-dressed, upper-middle class lady with a very organized medical practice, there was something very special about her that allowed me to open up and trust her. Somehow, as a 20-something boy, I felt like I was going to church when I visited her. I felt she saw the best within me, much of which I hadn't been able to see by myself. Working with her unlocked and freed-up aspects of myself I had neither awareness nor access to. For years afterwards I tried to figure out how she created this sense of sacredness.
Another experience was when I was in acupuncture school. Our teacher was a man most of us had strong reverence for. While in palpation class, I recall my teacher feeling my pulses. I had the distinct feeling that something inside of me was reaching up and out of myself, communicating something very deep to my teacher. After that, I began a several-year healing relationship with this teacher where I experienced some of the greatest transformation of my life. Later, I came to feel that it was my Divergent Channels that were communicating that day, beyond my level of consciousness, to a healer who had capacity to receive and understand my message.
It takes resonance for these "magical" healing events to occur; they happen on a deep unconscious level, beyond conscious mental control.
Our chosen medical system is one way to channel healing intention; it becomes our method of creating relationship and resonance. At a simpler level, it is really our basic humanity that connects us to others. The Buddhist teacher I mentioned spoke with tremendous compassion and identification with her audience; you couldn't help but see your own humanity reflected in her. My acupuncturist channeled a great deal of motherly love towards me which opened my heart, inviting me to reveal myself to her. My teacher had an energy of wisdom and unconditional acceptance about him, as if he could really see me, without judgment, embracing all that he saw. These people embodied aspects of their own humanity, causing these aspects of my own humanity to begin to vibrate and awaken.
The experiences I describe above can be rare and special. It is the sign of a true master who can establish resonance merely through their touch, speech or presence. The rest of us may need skills and methods: "training wheels" in the beginning. We need to understand where the "door" is and the proper way to "knock" on it. Of course, underlying everything is our intention. Without this, we can't even get started. But it is worthwhile to figure out what to do if and when we do get across the bridge.
I recall a teacher of mine saying we cannot transmit to our patients cultivation that we currently lack. We cannot expect another person to reveal their Extraordinary Channels to us if we haven't already cultivated relationship with our own. How can we help our patients deal with aspects of their humanity, issues the Extraordinary Vessels deal with, if we haven't already explored our own?
Entering the Yuan-level via the Extraordinary Vessels is entering the mystery of our being. The Extraordinary Vessels deal with the biggest mysteries of life - birth, growth and death. They are channels that relate to existential concerns; reservoirs of deep issues, containing the "blueprint" of our being, our "destiny" and our basic animation about life. They are the deepest energetic channels in our bodies, and arguably the most challenging to access and work with.
The Divergent Channels are also Yuan-level entities. They are described in the Nei Jing as our relationship with "the qi of Heaven." I often interpret this statement as relationship to our basic vulnerability as human beings living on Earth. As humans, we are constantly subject to changes in the external and internal world. The Divergent Channels are the way our constitutions (Yuan Qi) respond to the stresses and challenges of human life.
Yuan-level channel systems relate to the big questions in life, our deepest feelings, and most profound changes. The image of King Lear standing on the heath in the middle of a hurricane, shouting at the heavens: that's sometimes an image I associate with the Divergent Channels. Whereas Hamlet pondering his very existence is an image I'd associate with the Extraordinary Vessels.
King Lear cannot reconcile with how life has treated him. He is having a difficult time accepting responsibility for his present state. He is feeling intense existential fear and suffering from degeneration of his mind and body. For all of his suffering, he is blaming heaven, unable to harmonize with the changes it has brought to him. His deep existential howl is emanating from the depths of his being, having a rather dramatic exchange with "the wind." This is a very good Divergent Channel image: yuan qi - our own constitutional energy, connecting to wei qi - the energy of "heaven."
Hamlet, having undergone a trauma, has become painfully aware of his own existence. He is stuck in time, questioning his place in the universe; his destiny. He doesn't know how to mobilize his yang qi into action. He has sunk into a state of confusion, depression and bitterness. He even questions whether he should remain alive, unsure about the meaning of life itself. He's arguably overwhelmed by the destiny given to him as a prince, and unsure how to move forward with the challenges presented to him, in relation to his family, his duty and his own self-preservation. Hamlet is a very good image of the Extraordinary Vessels, especially the Wei Vessels as they are impacting Chong Mai, Ren Mai and Du Mai.
Sooner or later all of us must examine our Extraordinary Vessels and Divergent Channels. Life demands it. We all come face to face with ourselves eventually. Many of us try to run away. But, Taoist philosophy says, we cannot run forever; we will eventually catch up to ourselves. Remember, most Eastern philosophical and religious systems believe in reincarnation. Even in death there is no escape: we will just come back and be faced with the same old unresolved stuff.
The material contained in the Extraordinary Vessels and Divergent Channels are often what most of us try our best to hide. Much of this material we also hide from ourselves. The Divergent Channels and Qiao Vessels show that this "hidden," unconscious material can reveal itself through posture and behavior. The Wei Vessels show that such deep existential issues are likely to emerge during major transitions in life, during life's "rites of passage."
When studying the Divergent Channels and Extraordinary Vessels, the Chinese medical classics are a good way to start. It's sometimes easiest to begin with commentaries about the classics, written by scholars we respect, people who have devoted their lives to unraveling the mysteries of the ancient texts.
Most descriptions of acupuncture channels are both medical and philosophical. Studying the channels is an inquiry into our basic humanity. The images themselves can be healing, illuminating; awakening aspects of ourselves. Studying the classics can be a powerful "spiritual" cultivation process, as the classical texts themselves were given the designation of Jing: Nei Jing, Nan Jing, Ja Yu Jing: the same designation given to sacred religious texts. They hold deep, profound insights about human life, growth and death.
According to Villoldo's Shamanistic tradition of healing, words resonate with the mind; mythological images, prevalent in classical Chinese Medicine, resonate with the soul. To reach the spirit, however, one must connect with the pure energy of the essential "archetypes," potentially through acupuncture or qi gong treatment and practice. If we want to reach "the source" via Chinese medicine, we must work with the channels that resonate with this level: the Extraordinary Vessels.
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