words and paintings by Sunjae Lee, creator of one of CMC’s all time favorite posts, Guizhi tang and Miles Davis.
Practitioners of Chinese Medicine, as with any other non-artist profession, oftentimes view artistic pursuits as superfluous, a luxury to be had only after daily business is taken care of. Some view a separation between the artists of society and themselves: “Oh, I’m not artistic” is a common explanation as to why they do not engage, as if the genotype of an artist is set before birth.
As a practitioner of Oriental Medicine as well as a musician and painter, I often like to argue the opposite, both towards patients and practitioners. We are all artists whether we choose to be or not– and secondly that practicing art in some form is not a luxury but rather a necessity for everyone, especially for Oriental Medicine practitioners.
Here are 5 reasons why…
#1 – Coordination of Jing-Qi-Shen
Whether it is painting, music, quilting, or anything else, performing art (beyond the beginning stages) is a coordination on the vertical level of one’s being. We are creating with our physical body, but also expressing our emotions, and ultimately helping to form the essence of our spirit and identity. There are very few other activities that have this simultaneous coordination — and as holistic medicine practitioners, we should be engaging in activities that engage our whole being, for personal cultivation as well as improving the health of our patients.
#2 – Building manual skill and dexterity
Almost all art forms incorporate a degree of manual craftsmanship, whether it is using various fingers for different notes on a piano, or using the small muscles of the hand to position a paintbrush or other tool. The more we build our fine motor skills with our hands in general, the greater sensitivity they will have for other activities such as acupuncture.
Even for those who are primarily herbalists, manual palpation is bound to be a large part of the diagnostic process, and this process will only be increased by honing awareness into our hands for artistic activities. As we all learned in basic physiology classes, our sensory homunculus, the area of the brain that receives incoming information from the various body areas, grows larger and more defined for any regions that are used more frequently. A larger homunculus means a greater nervous system connection with your hands, and therefore greater manual sensitivity.
#3 – Connection with society
I’ve started to think of the “artistic process” in roughly 4 stages, and we can use the analogy of language to demonstrate this: 1. Basic vocabulary acquisition: We start by absorbing and memorizing. First with single words, but also sentences, phrases, ideas. 2. Imitation and styling: We learn the concept of individual “style” and shape our language and personality to imitate one or several role models.
Note that some artists stop at this halfway point. 3. Synthesis: Combining influences to create something that has not been encountered before. 4. Societal feedback: Even with an original and innovative product or personality, this means nothing if the artist has no relationship with a society which can receive, and ultimately experience new emotions through the art.
As I mentioned, most “artists” will stop at the 2nd stage, the creative ones will progress to the 3rd stage of original synthesis, and very few will get to the 4th stage of contributing to and representing larger societal impulses. However, I believe this is the most noble goal of an artist and that with dedication (we all know that at least 10 years is required) and artistic integrity, anyone should be able to achieve this.
As practitioners of Oriental Medicine, we are acutely concerned with the health of our patients, but also of larger society and being able to convey messages through art becomes relevant.
#4 – Emotional release
How many times do we counsel our patients on the importance of healthy emotions, that stagnation can result from suppressed anger, that the heart is the emperor of the body? If we truly consider emotions to be integral to our health, then we should have ways to vent negative emotions and express positive ones. This becomes doubly relevant when we are challenged by taking on the emotional burdens of our patients. Qigong, breathing exercises, art, journalling, all these things can be helpful tools in maintaining our own balance as practitioners.
#5 – We are all artists
This is the part that I’ve been alluding to the whole time. I actually don’t believe in the phrase “I’m not artistic” or “I’m not an artist”. Everyone is an artist– some just choose to ignore the artistic process in what they do. These principles can be applied to almost any human activity, so long as there is some aspect of freedom of expression (perhaps these things would be harder to argue if we were all working in a factory all day every day, for example).
The healing arts are no exception. We have a specialized vocabulary to absorb at first, a history of role models and styles to imitate, the choice to innovate and synthesize something new, and the opportunity to help society with our newfound skills. The more we accept this process in our lives in all activities, the better we will at helping our patients and society at large.