Although the following article is geared specifically towards people who are learning Chinese medicine, I believe the principle applies to learners of any practice. Let me know in the comments if you disagree!
For today’s focus on the profession of Chinese medicine, I thought I would address a common problem I have struggled with in my study. When first coming into this profession, I knew practically nothing about it. I had some vague understanding of Yin and Yang, maybe some comprehension of the five elements, I knew that it involved both herbs and acupuncture – but that’s about all. After the start of my first year, I became a voracious consumer of all things Chinese medicine. One of my professors, Heiner Fruehauf, gave out a rather long recommended reading list and although it wasn’t mandated that we read every book – I immediately WANTED to do so. I have to admit that sometimes I wouldn’t finish a book before I began reading another, and every course would extend my already unwieldy reading list.
This habit didn’t diminish in my second year- in fact, I simply branched out to include non Chinese medicine books on my list. Everything from business to blogging to physics to vegan cooking is represented! This habit however, has been deflated by something I read recently that resonated with me quite deeply.
In the book Learning to Be A Sage: Selections from the Conversations of Master Chu, Arranged Topically (one of my current favorites) I read the following:
“First of all, Chu advised, the reader should delimit his curriculum. With the proliferation of printing, books had become widely available … Thus there developed among readers, hoping to cover as many texts as possible, a tendency to jump from one to another. Of course, the result was that readers absorbed little or nothing of what they read.”
Yup, sounds familiar. 😀 Although I feel that I gain a basic understanding of what the author is trying to get across, this really shouldn’t be the point of my – or anyone’s – study. For me, the study of medicine isn’t built on the back of absorption of as many facts and theories as possible. It is to find a sound theory that results in effective practice that resonates with me, personally – and to learn it as deeply as I can. I do believe it is good to read broadly – I mainly use periodicals for this purpose – but the bulk of my reading time is devoted to trying to sink into the foundational literature of the system in which I am most interested.
What is Master Chu’s* solution? Let’s hear from the man himself:
“In reading, the greatest failing is to strive for quantity.” Further, “Don’t value quantity, value only your familiarity with what you’ve read.”
In general, I agree with Master Chu’s educational philosophy. In a nutshell, he thinks one should dwell with the classics, one at a time, until one feels they have a deep understanding of the information therein. This understanding should bear fruit in a number of ways, by producing one’s own unique interpretation of the text, by enabling one to put the texts into practice and by producing an excellent moral character and spiritual strength in the reader. Although Master Chu was discussing Confucian texts, not medical ones, the same certainly holds for us in our profession.
So, how does one put this into practice today?
- Ask your most trusted professors/masters/practitioners for a short list of the texts they consider to be foundational in the field. Some of these may be classics, some of them may be more contemporary. Use this list as a guideline.
- If the classical texts of Chinese medicine are not included on that list, include them. If too many books by Maciocia are on that list, omit them (*acknowledges cheap shot*).
- If you have solicited multiple lists and the result is an unwieldy list, discuss with professors or peers which are absolutely foundational and which are important but not critical.
- Don’t speed read the foundational texts of your field. The very thought is ridiculous. While speed reading may be an excellent way to blow through information of little depth (your DVD player manual, for instance) it is nothing short of a breach of student and professional ethics to do so with information that will inform your practice as a physician.
- Read those foundational texts many times with great concentration and with an aim to uncover the deep secrets that inevitably lie between the words. When you feel that you can adequately explain the text to your teacher (whether you do so or not) consider this to be the most basic level of understanding. Then seek to go deeper. Make the text part of you.
- Because you will doubtless have to read many other Chinese medicine books in your education, seek always to see where the information in them is a departure from or is in conflict with what you have learned from this foundational material and seek to understand what this means.
If you manage to do this over the course of your education you will be better prepared for a lifelong career of excellent clinical practice and deep scholarship than most people who graduate from American institutions of Chinese medicine. A final thought – sometimes reading literature far outside your field can spur a creative thought process that bears fruit. I wouldn’t recommend that a person read ONLY Chinese medical literature but it is my belief that if you want to be a serious practitioner and scholar, it should make up the bulk of your reading.
* Note: This is in the Wade-Giles system of romanization, I believe the Pin Yin system would spell his name Zhu Xi.