The inconvenient truth about how to learn Chinese herbal formulas

chinese_herbal_formula_puzzleToday marked the end of my journey with a group of NCNM students going through my Chinese herbs lab. As is my practice, I tried my best to offer some wisdom about how to make it through formulas class next year. For most students in the CM program at NCNM, it will be their most difficult class. So, naturally, they want to know how to get through it successfully.

You can see the question in some of their eyes – how do I do this easily? What’s the trick?

I honestly don’t have any interest in an “easy way to learn Chinese herbal formulas.” Of all the things that benefit from dig down deep, gut it out hard work, formulas might benefit the most. Your return on investment for applying yourself fully to this study will pay off BIG dividends. It’s worth it, believe me. Don’t look for a shortcut.

That said, there’s a difference between diligently applying yourself to a challenging path and suffering needlessly.

Or diligently applying yourself and then failing the class anyway. Nobody needs to deal with that. There are methods that will guide you away from this fate.

I don’t know what will do it for you – because everyone learns differently – but I can tell you what worked for me, and what works for many students I teach. It’s far from simple, but it’s honest, and it works.

Here’s a four step model – in brief – with one bonus step for the visually oriented among you

These steps will mostly be running concurrently. It’s not really a 1-2-3-4 sort of situation. Any of the steps can enhance performance with any of the other steps. Really, it’s not steps – it’s more like moves in a martial art. They build on eachother.

Step 1 – Basic data acquisition using simple charts and lists

One of the unhelpful things that new formulas learners do is attempt to learn all of the information at once. I tell my herbs lab students to use the summer between their single herbs and formulas classes to simply focus on memorizing the herbs and dosages of a list of 60 classical formulas. This helps you get used to the way formulas are set up, as well as preparing your mind to receive deeper layers of information.

I prefer the old method of simply writing the herbs and dosages over and over and over again. I write them on paper, on chalkboards, on whiteboards, with my food on the plate, with sticks and rocks outside, and so on. If I have a few minutes, I’m writing formulas.

This, of course, doesn’t work for everyone. You might prefer to use a computer based method for this basic data acquisition, or skip straight to the self testing methods. But, one way or another, you need to get that essential information into your brain. Don’t complain about it or try to get away from it. Just do it. However it works.

I recommend working on this step for 30 minutes a day starting as soon as you are done learning single Chinese herbs. This was the recommendation given to me by my teacher, and I credit it with my knowledge level at this point in my career.

Step 2 – Making the data stick using self testing methodschinese medicine central learning chinese herbs

As discussed in one of my favorite new books, Make It Stick, self testing is at the heart of effective learning. Forcing yourself to remember something that is hard to remember actually molds your brain and encodes those memories more indelibly than simply reading a list of things ever could. We all know this instinctively, but many of us fail to effectively use self-testing when we study formulas.

It can be as simple as creating a test for yourself and covering the answers as you try to remember the answers. It can be flashcards with the name of the formula on one side and the dosages on the other (don’t forget to reverse the cards and try remembering the opposite direction). It could be with a group of peers – testing one another.

However you do it, do it frequently and don’t cheat. 🙂

I recommend doing self testing on all the formulas you “know” once a week.

This means you may have to devote more time to the process as you go on, but generally you will get quicker as you iterate. Some software based flashcards use spaced repetition methods that enhance the process by relying on certain persistent features of human memory.

Step 3 – Using all your human gifts by tasting and looking at formulas while doing other studying

Of course, you know I cannot get through a post about Chinese herbs without talking about the critical importance of using your senses, like our pal Shennong did. I recommend taking no more than a 1/4 day’s dose of a formula each day when studying. Tasting formulas requires a little bit more care, because their directionality and strength may be more likely to cause side effects when you take them without having the requisite pathology. More care should be taken with formulas that use toxic medicinals, all purgative formulas and – to some extent – formulas for severe deficiency.

But, I’ve never met a formula I didn’t feel comfortable tasting.

Proceed with caution, and be sure you’ve followed the traditional boiling instructions. Know what you’re putting into your body. And then stop worrying about it. Let your body teach you about the medicine you will soon be giving to others.  (*Note – this goes particularly for people who have received their first year of herbal training and have access to a teacher to discuss details with.)

I recommend tasting a new formula at least once a week.shennong_flavor_combinations_chinese_herbs

I usually tell people to try to taste formulas in the same basic family (with the same “Emperor” herb, or some other shared feature) as a group, consecutively. I think this helps you to see how one herb (say Chaihu 柴胡) can behave quite differently in different formulas (say Chaihu Guizhi tang versus Si ni san). Your body is also able to get somewhat used to the type of stimulation a formula family delivers. This minimizes the rollercoaster effect that could exist otherwise.

Step 4 – Using mindmaps and programs like Devonthink to find, elaborate and work with the deep interconnections among classical Chinese herbal formulas

This is the power step for me – and the one that takes you far beyond being able to test well. See, my assumption here is that you’re not just interested in passing tests. Sure, passing tests is important, as far as it goes. But clinical efficacy and a mature professional herbalism is what I assume you want. Healing people, right?

Does it surprise you to learn that the ability to pass tests in school is not necessarily correlated with clinical success?

The thing about classical formulas – particularly when you are working with formulas from the mind of one person or a small group of closely aligned persons – is they possess a startling interconnectedness. There are principles expressed through two herbs in one formula that is replicated in another formula for an entirely different pathology. Conversely, you might find that five extremely different formulas treat the same symptom beautifully. You’ll see truths about the way herbs are used, the way they interact, and most importantly, the way they adapt.

You need tools for learning that will help you open to this.

I’ve tried many options, and two stand out. Advanced level mindmapping software and database software both fit the bill nicely. For mindmapping, I prefer aptly named “The Brain” software. It’s flexible, nodes can be connected to a potentially infinite number of other nodes, and you can store files and other information in addition to the basics.

I use Evernote for many business and simple storage uses. It’s a wonderful tool. However, for studying and working with complex information, I prefer its less sexy cousin, Devonthink Pro Office. I’ve talked a little about this software on the blog. There’s so much to say, I’m contemplating creating a course on the topic!

I don’t want to geek out too completely here, so let me be simple and finish up.

These tools are up to the task of holding tons of interconnected information. They also allow you to access that information quickly and simply no matter where you are in the world. Thus, they quickly became the backbone of my efforts to learn and relearn Chinese medicine. This may not be true for you – but finding some way to work nimbly with large amounts of complex information is a powerful key to learning Chinese herbal formulas.

I recommend people start fiddling around with these tools in their first year, putting information in there and messing around with it.

Not every tool works for every person, and it takes time, and sometimes excruciating hours transferring data, to figure out what is best for you. But the labor is worth it.

As your database/mindmap builds, you will start to realize connections.

You’ll notice two branches of a map that should be connected. You’ll allow the Devonthink artificial intelligence to point you to a document that resembles another in a way you never would have intuited. The advance in understanding and clinical efficacy that comes from working in this way can’t be overstated, in my opinion.

An important aside : the reality is that all the former steps will do the same thing as I’m talking about – only it will happen in your brain. The value of memorizing and really diving deep with this stuff is that you’ll start to benefit from the inherently interconnecting, intuiting capabilities of your mind. You don’t need the software, really. But, for me, working with an “artificial brain” like these pieces of software really allowed me to get to a new level of understanding.

chinese herbsBonus Step 5 – Use memory palace and similar methods for all or part of the above

While I’m not an avid user of the memory palace method – I do know people who have used it to great effect to learn Chinese herbal formulas. I’ve not done any writing on the topic, but Wikipedia has a good introduction to the topic.



Have you tried any of these – or other – methods to learn Chinese herbal formulas? What worked for you? What didn’t? 


About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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