Acupuncture is not a typical career choice. High school seniors don’t go to job fairs and hang out at the Chinese medicine table. So we are often asked:
“How did you get into acupuncture?”
In the beginning, I answered the way I had heard other practitioners answer. I had migraines. I was working as a copywriter, long days sitting hunched over a laptop, not particularly fulfilled, not particularly engaged. Every Friday afternoon, I got a headache that put me out until Saturday morning. My taiji teacher offered to treat me in his clinic. I had never heard of acupuncture, but I trusted him. After a year of seeing him and becoming increasingly fascinated by what was happening there, I wanted to learn how to treat myself, and thought that maybe I could help others as well.
Many years later, as I started to understand it better, I saw how wrong this story was. It is the apparent answer. It is the series of events, the things. But in truth, my coming to this work is more like a string being tuned. A string makes an excellent sound within a narrow range. Too low and the string gets slack. Too high and it snaps. It has a range, undoubtedly, but there is a sweet spot where it sings. So too for human beings. Each person is capable of doing a lot of different things with their life, but there are relatively few pursuits that will really help them grow and thrive.
Now the way you tune a string to that sweet spot is by holding it close to another thing that is vibrating at the pitch are you tuning to. The practice of acupuncture is that other thing for me. From one perspective it was luck that I stumbled across it. But I think it is more accurate to say the as I tuned myself in other ways, acupuncture and I came closer together until we met.
(For the big picture, taiji is like the whole orchestra of nature playing a symphony, while acupuncture pauses to help me tune so that I can join in too.)
Photo by Kael Bloom on Unsplash
Medicine has tools, but what medicine is is the thinking behind how we use the tools.
In the modern Western medical tradition, the tools are pharmaceuticals, surgery, physiotherapy, psychotherapy, diet and nutritional supplements (and perhaps osteopathy). In the Chinese medical tradition, we have needles and moxibustion, herbs, diet, movement and breath exercises, and mental disposition.
All of these tools are fantastically useful, for the right person, in the right time and place. The practice of medicine is about using the tools skilfully, and this has two sides. First is the technical aspect: picking up a tool and using it safely and with accuracy to achieve the full extent of what is possible with that specific tool. Second is the way the practitioner thinks: how they approach a problem, their value system, the purpose of their work.
The founders of Neijing medicine thought of health care as ecology and adopted needles and moxibustion as their preferred tools to do this ecological work.
They looked at the human body and saw ecosystems.
Medicine, therefore, is ecological restoration. Underlying this perspective is the fact that human beings are living things, like all other living things, and are governed by the same dynamics that govern birth, growth, aging and death in an other ecosystem. A human being as a whole as well as the various parts within a human being.
The dynamics that govern life and death have distinct patterns and rules. These are the basis of Neijing medicine. Understand the rules. Follow that which nurtures life when you can. Accept that which brings death when you must.
Photo by Majharul Islam on Unsplash
My professional focus is on medicine and health care, but I spend a lot of time thinking about the philosophy behind East Asian medicine, so I’ve given some thought to the implications for other fields.
The central principle of the Neijing is not just that humans thrive when connected with nature. Western culture has caught on to this already and is doing interesting things by interacting with nature with respect and reverence. Examples are biophilic design, biomimicry, renewable energy and smart grids, green roofs and pollinator gardens in cities, earthship architecture, permaculture. These and many others are integrating nature with the man-made world, with positive results that are crucial as climate change shows us how badly we need a healthier relationship with our planet.
The Neijing extends its analysis to see that the cycles of life are as important as the life itself. It is not enough to be in relationship with nature, we need a dynamic relationship.
To be connected to and integrated with the natural world, we have to be responsive to it, individually and collectively.
In the medical context, this means that a physician takes into consideration not only the patient’s condition, but also their context. Spatially and temporally. Treatment in summer is different from treatment in winter. Timing matters. Life does not grow at any time and all the time. It grows a specific moments when the environmental conditions support that growth. This might affect the timing of certain surgeries, or cycling of medications. It does not apply to every intervention (a burst appendix is a burst appendix at any time of year, and the solution is always the same), but it is an important lesson for how medicine supports a person’s underlying matrix of physiology in treating chronic and recurrent illnesses.
Outside of medicine, this kind of thinking suggests buildings that change in response to weather conditions and seasonal cycles, perhaps even walls that behave more like skin with pores that open and close. Energy systems might involve patterns of use and storage that shift seasonally, which is required for solar anyway (a fact that to me suggests we should listen up and get on board with the rest of the universe). In business there are many examples, from cycles of production quieting in winter and booming in summer, to considerations of how a company interacts within the larger context of life on this planet. All life thrives on the same dynamics, unfortunately, many people in the past few generations have been confused about what thriving actually looks and feels like.
Beyond structural and systemic applications, a lot of the lessons from the Neijing play out in the thinking of individuals. How we dress, how we eat, how we exercise, how we think and feel. We can be attuned to and responsive to the larger natural dynamics on any given day, letting go of the fixed behaviors that create the sense of self: “I have sugar cravings”, “I do intermittent fasting”, “I eat these foods and not those foods”, “I go to the gym every day”, “I do not like exercise”, “I have pain”, “I have anxiety”.
All of these are features of a moment, a moment in time and in space. In the next moment, nature may change, providing you with the invitation to change with it. But it is not “choice” in the way we usually think about choice. I do not believe you can choose to not have sugar cravings any more than you can choose to not have pain. Dealing with these things requires work on the mind and the body that realigns it with the conditions that support life. Some of that work is medicine (external intervention) and some of that work is cultivation (internal direction).
Medicine at the highest level, according to the Neijing, is an intervention that allows you freedom to do inner work. It serves to relieve pain, heal physical and emotional scars, remove toxicities, and undo the many kinds of injury that the world does to us. In this way, it creates the space within you to cultivate an ability to feel changes in the world around you, and then to cultivate the capacity to allow nature to resonate in yourself.
When I was first getting acupuncture for migraines, the results were really minor. This had nothing to do with the skill of the acupuncturist. Every day I went to work at a job I did not enjoy. When I got home, most of the time I smoked and watched TV, and stayed up late, as if waiting for that sense of fulfillment to arrive.
Acupuncture treatment was just a moment for me, once a week, for 30 minutes. It was overwhelmed and undone by the other moments in my week. I now understand that acupuncture—actually the school of medicine that selected acupuncture as its tool of choice—is a way of living in dynamic relationship with the world one moves through every day. The Neijing repeats this over and over, and I am finally starting to listen.