As students and practitioners of Chinese Medicine, we tend to occupy a sort of borderland between mental realms.
On one side is 21st century consensus reality, with its reductionist and materialist biases. It’s telling us that what’s real is what we can isolate and measure. On the other side is the ancient perspective, long on spirits and deities and magic spells and seemingly short on hard facts.
That’s a gross over-simplification, of course, but you get the point, which is that for the most part, we in CM are in the middle: neither fully on board with the animistic worldview at the root of the medicine, nor fully willing to exclude magic and spirit from it and rely wholly on peer-reviewed research for our herbal prescriptions. We take the pulse and pay attention to intuition, but also keep a sphygmomanometer around. My feeling is that most CM folks carve out a niche from which they can communicate with both realms, ancient and modern, without committing whole hog to either one.
Looking at Chinese Medicine’s recent history in the United States, this middle ground approach seems quite strategic.
TCM, the bread and butter of Chinese Medicine on these shores, is rational enough to pass muster with materialists, while still preserving enough metaphoric and symbolic richness to make it appeal to those in search of more depth. (I’m reminded here of an off-the-cuff remark of Heiner’s in Cosmology class when he said, “Classical just means…depth!”)
Now, thanks to the efforts of the first four decades of licensed American CM practitioners, acupuncture is a household word in many parts of the country. It’s not just that we have a foot in the door of the national healthcare system–we’ve shimmied a hip in their as well and are poised to really bust a move. And my thoughts today are about how awesomely creative that move can be.
I grant I may be out of touch with the general CM climate out there. I’ve been in Portland long enough to be naturalized here, and that makes me an exotic species almost everywhere else. But one of the currents I sense in this town at least is a re-awakening to the vital roots of the medicine. Call it shamanic, animistic, Daoist–it’s that place where the medicine is alive, its ancient pulse going strong. It’s where healing comes from, before theory and protocol and all the techniques and technologies we put in place to try and stabilize, concretize, and make repeatable the magic that we’ve all experienced at least once as patients or practitioners or just plain people on our healing journey.
This movement towards the heart of the medicine is an impulse to follow in the footsteps of the sages as far as our gangly legs will carry us, perhaps even right off the edge of the abyss. To seek what they sought, through direct perception via the portal of the heart, rather than learning primarily from the scraps of writing they’ve left behind.
This ‘place’ where healing comes from is defined in part by Mircea Eliade’s “techniques of ecstasy,” i.e. those methods that allow access to non-ordinary states of consciousness. From dreams to ritual, fasting, qigong and meditation, it’s only by stepping outside of the mundane modes of perception and experience that characterize our daily lives that we are able to commune with the elements in the way that West African diviner and healer Malidoma Some suggests when he asks, “What if they [the elements of nature] are not inanimate objects, as people in the West have been taught to believe, but rather living presences?”
We know that the Chinese Five Elements, wu xing, perhaps better translated as Five Phases, refer not to objects at all but to movements.
We’re a step or two more subtle in our thinking than the strict materialists who would try and deflate the basis of our medicine with a casual mention of the periodic table. But still, elements as “living presences may be a foreign concept to many in the CM world, here or in China or anywhere else these days. It’s certainly easy to fall into the trap of believing that, because our medicine is full of interesting symbols, we should be content to play with those symbols without tracing them back to the energetic realities that underlie them.
Every symbol is the tip of an iceberg, with all those countless tons of ice waiting there below the surface of everyday reality.
Take the Five Elements; we intuit them, see signs of them, smell them, diagnose and treat based on them, but in many cases we do so without really seeing them as living forces in their own right. When we speak of wood, we are talking of a movement of qi (up and out), a season, a set of qualities and associations, yes. But we risk forgetting that there is also wood the actual vital force, in this case the energy of life itself. Wood is about LIFE FORCE, and that’s a big deal! Even our English word for the wood element’s zang organ reinforces this association: the Liver. Wood is about life! Similarly, fire is about communion with spirit, about joy and love.
Each of the elements has its themes and keywords, its associated zang-fu and color and season, but these are only fingers pointing at the moon. This is what we’re on the verge of: taking the existential plunge and starting to believe, once again, in that moon! Once we do, howls will be heard in the bright white hospital corridors. Spirit and soul are on their way back from a 200+ year holiday, and we with our needles and herbs and funny looking exercises and talk of energy and spirits and ancestors and constellations–we are poised to help usher them back in. Viva to our lineages and the treasures they hide!