I want to tell you about strange things that can happen once you have practiced Chinese medicine for awhile. It can start early in your practice, but these "beyond textbook" experiences are built into the system, expand with additional years of practice and are why being part of a multi-generational chain of physicians inherently makes you a better one.
Lifetimes allow Chinese medicine to express itself through your soul and speak to you in languages newbies don't hear. But for every newbie reading this, your future, and perhaps your present, may include confusing, nonsensical and soul-drenched insights, too.
I was lecturing at Emperor's College discussing having cured a patient using a specific technique when a student interrupted me mid-sentence. "You don't cure patients," he snapped. "You support them in healing themselves. It's their chi! All you do is move it with acupuncture and supplement it with herbs."
Academically he's right. Needles arouse chi, and herbs, moxa, diet, chi gung, etc., augment chi.
"You can help your patient's body heal itself, but I also heal my patients," I bounced back. Experience tells me that the longer you do this work, the more you do the healing, or more accurately, the healing comes because you are the conduit.
Chinese medicine is art and science. The beginning is science; the memorization, research and listening, the great books, noble teachers and mind-expanding theories. We are to study our professional ancestors diligently for 20 years, it has been written. But once the medicine has you, once you are immersed and committed and mature in the science, the art emerges.
This is a private subject. Writing about it is vulnerable and controversial. I'm setting myself up for criticism by you and fellow readers in sharing my mystical experiences. I've chosen to be frank because doing so honors your work, especially if you find yourself on a different path than your books and teachers.
What is the value of being a only a great technician when it's historically recognized that we must become more than that to achieve greatness? Anyway, please be kind in your evaluation of this article. Exposing myself risks my reputation. That said, here is what has happened to me.
After a few decades, it seemed that my favorite points became my partners in formulating treatments. We started having conversations. I could rely on them to tell me what they wanted to do for patients. They would say things like, "Let's needle the left side and see if that's enough. Maybe we don't need to do this bilaterally." So I would needle one side and we would see how the treatment went and if we needed to needle the other. "We" is the operative word.
Sometimes I would ask points to do things they don't traditionally do. Will Stomach 40 regulate fluids specifically around the axillary lymph nodes on the patient's right side? Will Liver 4 do the work of Bladder 26 because the patient is too injured to be turned over? I know it's crazy. But my powerful friends often went with it and sometimes traditional point function went out the window.
Then I stopped being the brains behind treatment plans altogether. I remember being really sick with the flu. Someone had to put food on the table, so I went to work anyway. With no ability to think through fever, I recall putting my fingers on my patient's pulses and saying, "You had better tell me what to do because there is no way I can determine a treatment plan right now."
I am not sure who "you" was, but somebody had to tell me. And somebody did. I listened and stuck needles in weird places. None of it made sense. I was terrified because logic and training were nowhere in site, but I was too sick to do anything else.
After a particularly strange treatment during which I devoted a ridiculous amount of time sticking needles into my patient's right foot, he arose ecstatic. "I had forgotten to tell you that I had surgery on that foot when I was a child. It has hurt my entire life until today. Now, for the first time ever I am pain free!" He hugged me and danced away. Hmm!
After that, I got out of the way to let the art of our medicine take over my practice. I still studied the classics, but treatments told me what would be best and points said how they wanted to be used, even if they chose jobs for themselves that had nothing to do with their classic descriptions. Honestly, who am I to argue with an acupuncture point?
The bodies of my patients turned into canvases. Treatment designs became beautiful colors and I felt like I was painting pictures with needles. I stood back from the table and watched treatments like I would a sunset.
Another example of art emerging came when I first performed what I call a "circle treatment." I felt I was supposed to disperse severely congested chi with circles of points on the abdomen, chest and pelvis. How nervous I was!
How could I break with medical theory and devise a new "thing"? How could I utilize a technique no one had taught me and that was unrelated to any theoretical construct in our repertoire? It's been probably 25 years since circles started telling me when they needed to be included. I don't argue because they do amazing things for patients with intense pain, acute diverticulitis, gallbladder attacks, etc.
I've started using my hands to move chi over a body's landscape as a cowboy herds cattle over a prairie. I wave them over a patient, pushing and pulling chi so it migrates. Inflammation dissipates, stagnation disperses, and pain eases within minutes. I do it before needles to prepare a pain-distracted body for deeper work. I know it's unconventional, but it just showed up one day and I went with it.
Am I being a bad teacher by telling you that I break the rules? The truth is, no one ever talks about this ... so I am. That's why I write this column – to talk about stuff no one else does.
My teachers had weird things happening in their practices, too, even if they didn't reveal their secrets. But one of my teachers proudly admits how his results are the best because he puts spiritual chi into every point. This evolution is built into the system and if you stick around long enough, it shows up. It's not a fluke and if it's happening in your practice, you aren't alone. (Not that your experience will look like mine. And I am NOT suggesting you try anything I have mentioned above. It's organic for each of us.)
These aren't quirks we choose. I think we are chosen for them. The magnificent, primordial wind of yin/yang designates our hands as the place from which the art will blow. If it hasn't started yet, you can look forward to it. If it has, welcome to a unique club. You only enter by having committed your life to a sacred path.
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