IVAS Rocks!

Thank you all for a wonderful 37th annual conference!

A special thank you to Vikki Weber, executive director of IVAS (International Veterinary Acupuncture Society). It appears that I’ve finally been discovered for my unique contributions to the field of Chinese medicine. Is it strange that these enthusiastic doctors are Veterinarians, and that I’ve never treated a non-human animal? I thought so, and so did my sister-in-law! What do I know about treating canines, felines, equine, or other non-human patients? Very little, yet I was asked to give two four-hour Keynote presentations at the IVAS annual conference in San Diego in September. Why, you may ask?

Well… the local reason is that Vikki read an essay published by Golden Flower Chinese Herbs, who have sponsored my CEU classes for several years. That particular essay introduced the five systems of channels and vessels, and was re-published on this site. It discusses what I used to refer to as “the five systems of channels and  vessels,” and now call “channel complexes,” technically 經 絡 (jingluo). These jingluo provide a conceptual framework that differs from the much simpler modern clinical doctrine of zangfu (viscera and bowels) and primary channels. These channel complexes provide both theoretical and practical advantages, compared to the “standard” doctrine, and Vikki was willing to invite me as an honored guest to the IVAS conference, so her members could learn more about my thinking on Chinese medicine. Filled with enthusiasm about her invitation, I proposed another idea in addition to reworking that essay into a presentation. When I received the contract to officially secure this opportunity, I learned that I’d have to submit essays of at least 6,000 words for each topic. GULP! Well, of course, I ‘bit the bullet’ and committed to writing those essays. It was a great process, and a lot of work!

The larger reason may be that many Veterinary acupuncturist are very cool people, who have “gone to the mountain, scaled it, and seen it’s limitations.”  They’ve all been trained in (western) medicine, yet they also recognize certain systematic weaknesses of that worldview and thinking process for health care. I knew I was among “my people” after I mentioned as back ground my education before I went to acupuncture school. I told them that I’d been in a PhD program at UC Berkeley for two years, where I studied how (western) science prejudices its understanding of the world based on how it asks questions and what it takes as evidence; there was a smattering of applause and a couple hoots. Imagine! They wanted to learn about the ‘weird’ worldview I’ve cultivated during nearly two decades of learning and practicing the Neijing-style of medicine as taught by Jeffrey Yuen.

So, find an acupuncturist for your pets, and you’ll find a doctor who is working to understand the strengths and weaknesses of both western and Chinese medicine. Actually, IVAS is even somewhat broader than that, as many of its members have interests in other approaches, such as osteopathy, Ayurveda, etc. What could be better?

Yeh, so why the delay in posting this blog piece?

It’s a funny thing about the internet — once we publish something, it’s PUBLISHED. I admit, I really don’t know how to think about this opportunity. Will people download a big essay, and engage me about the ideas discussed? Will they respect my attempt to discuss challenging ideas, or simply pick at my choice of language to my target my ideas as “not Chinese,” because they’re not discussed in the TCM they learned. Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of flack for “embodied spirit,” though it’s my translation for 精 神 (jingshen), which is used extensively in Neijing. So, my ideas differ from the currently dominant doctrine. Are we going to be slaves to the historical forces that created the contemporary doctrine, assuming that newer must be better, or seek theory that is more coherent and incisive?

I’ve devoted many hundreds of hours to writing those papers, during seven months of very hard work — on top of my practice and teaching schedule early this year. They represent one attempt to discuss what I’ve learned over many years.  Am I likely to benefit by giving away that work, or am I simply forsaking the opportunity to publish those essay in some “better” venue? What is a better venue? How democratic has information become? How willing are individuals to evaluate information for themselves? For some odd reason, it didn’t make a lot of sense (to me) to post an announcement of that great event, without posting links to the papers I presented. Perhaps that’s really stupid, but it led me to on it. Instead, I focused my attention toward my primary interest, seeking  to articulate the wondrous world of classical Chinese medicine. I still don’t know the right answer to the question of how best to use this opportunity to publish my work, but I’ve decided to try something different. I’d REALLY like to hear thoughtful comments or questions from people who read these essays. Anyone interested in an Introduction to this approach to acupuncture?

Keynote Papers for the IVAS Conference (2011):

Living Systems of Acupuncture Channels

The World of Dao: Movement in Chinese Medicine

Exploring the Channels

Well, if I still have any readers, I’m back! It’s been a long time, and all I have is crummy excuses. I went to Portland, OR last summer for the first annual conference of the International Society for the Study of Classical Acupuncture. I enjoyed the communion with other Chinese medicine  practitioners who are trying to reach beyond the narrow bounds of modern doctrine to explore and learn from the classic texts at the roots of this great healing art and science. One thing I learned is that studying the text alone does not lead many to prioritize the five systems of channels and vessels, as I have learned from the oral lineage of interpretation of Jeffrey Yuen. I wrote an essay that discusses both the foundations and basic functions of those five system called, “Exploring the Channels.”

Enjoy it, and share your thoughts below…

Drowning in a Sea of Information

Contemporary practitioners and students of Chinese medicine face an enormous educational challenge, which has shifted somewhat over the past few decades. When I began my studies of Chinese medicine nearly three decades ago, it was difficult to find adequate information in English. Now there is A LOT of information available, and a quickly increasing number of translations of historical texts into English. One could easily read constantly for many years and barely scratch the surface.

Yet, I’ve always thought that emphasis on information suppresses insight. I think the problem with Chinese medicine at this point isn’t a lack of information, even info about the true nature of the modern version, but the lack of insight about how to practice it. Yet, so few people seem to get that we are drowning in a sea of information that practitioners are TAUGHT to STAGNATE in their minds. Such is the nature of modern TCM, which provides fixed interpretations of symptoms and signs as the MANIFESTATIONS of a dysfunction and disease, rather than learning to sort out the dynamic process of how each individual develops and embodies their health challenges.

Classical Chinese Medicine is a thinking process, rather than just a great collection of information

I believe that learning Chinese medicine should be the quest to master the process of differentiating. Classifying the manifestations of distress into patterns is only the beginning of diagnosis. We do our best diagnostic work when we look into the manifest distress to see how/why it is develops and is being perpetuated or sustained. When the person’s condition is chronic or degenerative, we ask ourselves what factors have accumulated and why. Learning that degree of differentiation can inform the practitioner  how to stimulate each individual to facilitate healing, rather than simply how to effectively control the expression of distress.

The wealth of wisdom in Chinese medicine is based on the practitioners ability to understand the embodied spirit as a responsive being focused on surviving and protecting itself. We must learn to “sort out” symptoms — to differentiate pathogenic factors from the embodied spirit’s response, and learn to support that intrinsic response without suppressing it. We have SO MUCH to learn about Chinese medicine in modern America, and almost all of it is based on first unlearning how we think we understand the nature of the world and the quest to engage it to facilitate healing.

The Archeology of Disease

People develop progressive and degenerative diseases from stagnations that accumulate within the embodied spirit. We can tolerate those accumulations for some time, but eventually they impede or obstruct “normal” physiological process. Each embodied spirit is provided with an amazingly effective collection of “storage reservoirs” that allow them to adapt and adjust to pathogenic stagnations. (Technically, those reservoirs are called luo vessels, channel divergences, and several of the eight extraordinary vessels). They allow people to “move on” with life by storing pathogenic factors, when they are unable or unwilling to resolve them. However,

This process of storing unresolved pathogenic factors is a double-edged sword.

While storing unresolved pathogenic factors facilitates the individual’s personality in going on with life in the short-term, it also renders the diseases that eventually emerge more difficult to resolve. If we can resist the temptation to suspend the challenges and discomfort our unresolved pathogenic factors present, we can avoid burdening ourselves with such an immense project in the future, because

We can’t simply balance or control those diseases into resolution!

Instead, resolving most chronic progressive and degenerative diseases requires the willingness to dig through the layers of “unfinished business,” and unravel the entangled accumulations we’ve stored away. Healing is very much like Archeology, though in addition to digging through the layers (and documenting them), we are faced with the challenge of resolving the pathogenic factors stored in those layers. There are no “short-cuts” for the embodied spirit — if it hasn’t finished with some aspect of life process, it’s stored away to pile up. So, if we want to heal, we may as well get out our (metaphorical) shovels and start digging!

Health Care: NOT Just a Funding Challenge

The Problem with Health Care is the Pervasive Fantasy that We Can Treat It as a Consumer Good!

Health and healing are not consumer goods. Why would one think we could treat health care as one? If consuming health care actually made people healthier, there could never be enough. Our society would have to ration it explicitly.

When policy makers consider the issue of how to distribute health care, they get carried away with economic models, and forget about the underlying issue. In economic terms, individuals pay for goods and services to achieve a desired result, yet healing doesn’t work that way. We might buy short-term control of the manifestation of distress, but that purchase undermines our ability to use that expression of distress to sort out the factors that create it.

Health and healing are a matter of cultivation. We might even consider them a life-style, but try as we might we cannot make them into consumer goods. Health comes from the inside, and suppressing the signs of physiological distress doesn’t bring it back.

We can’t buy health any more than we can buy love.

For either health or love, it may appear for a short time that one can buy it, but doing so only introduces the unquenchable thirst for more purchases. Trying to turn them into consumer goods subverts their very nature.

Health (like love) flourishes when individuals invest in it!

Health flourishes when an embodied spirit invests in its individuality, and suffers when the individual’s alignment with life wavers. Pay attention to facilitating vital function, rather than simply the desire to enjoy your experience. Make decisions based on what your embodied spirit expresses, and you will tend to grow healthier. Yet, simple as it sounds, following that injunction isn’t always easy. Sometimes people need to experience the discomfort of the healing process.

The challenge of health care is NOT financial, it’s technical. We will start conquering it when we explore how to resolve disease, rather than maintaining it by managing expression.

Human Life: It’s NOT Just Physical

Each person is an embodied spirit, who lives through interacting with the world. Those interactions are polar, as individuals take in various influences from the world and release byproducts of their life process back out to the world. Breathing is one such interaction; it provides the source of Being. Each individual’s Quest for food and drink motivate the other key physical interaction. [For more on the Chinese medical framework for understanding the vital transactions of life, see my essay “Managing the Internal Economy.”]

In addition to these physical interactions, individuals internalize and digest their experiences in life. Classical Chinese medical theory suggests that these experiential interactions are even more fundamental than physical ones in the development of each individual’s eventual challenges with disease.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words, Except When it Comes to Human Health.

Modern medical technologies are truly amazing! MRIs and CT scans generate accurate and detailed visual images of the inside of an individual patient’s body. What could be better for helping a medical practitioner diagnose a patient’s ailment and discern what treatment(s) are necessary? It’s SO obvious; it must be true. Mustn’t it?

During the past twenty years, medical researchers have done several research studies using MRIs or CT scans on the relationship between physical lesions around the spine and clinical back pain, including pains that “radiate” from the spine into the extremities. That research has uniformly shown there is AMAZINGLY poor correlation between those “obviously” related issues. That is:

  • A fairly large portion of people with apparently serious lesions (including disc bulges or herniations) had mild back pain or dysfunction.
  • Another fairly large portion of people with small lesions had severe pain, which was sometimes debilitating.
  • It’s also fairly common that people have physical lesions in one location, and pain in another. That might be on the other side, or even a different level of the spine.

What’s up with that? I don’t believe modern (western) medicine has an explanation, yet my work with classical Chinese medicine is not affected by such anomalies. Indeed, CCM theory provides a simple explanation, which involves the embodied spirit’s ability (and willingness) to adapt to various individual physical challenges. My job as a practitioner is to find ways to stimulate and facilitate that natural process. Surgeons change the physical “picture,” and they have an irresolvable problem when that physical picture doesn’t match the patient’s experience.

Please note: I’m NOT denying that physical “reality” has SOME impact on human health, I’m just saying it’s not the ENTIRE story. We can’t predict the nature of a patient’s experience, nor can we determine what therapies will prove necessary, from a physical picture alone.

I’ve used acupuncture and Chinese herbs to help LOTS of individuals avoid surgeries that their medical doctors had thought necessary. Many of my patients try Chinese medicine BEFORE submitting to various modern medical treatments, because the ancient therapies seek to stimulate the patient’s own healing process rather than controlling its expression of distress. It turns out that physical pictures are just that, and the embodied spirit has its own potential for healing. Perhaps medical scientists should research optimizing THAT, rather than demeaning it as placebo.

Is it a Fairy Tale?

The conceptual model of physical “reality” articulated by modern scientific medicine is powerful and compelling. It appeals to our naïve experience of living in, and learning to manipulate, a mechanistic physical world that submits to our control according to fixed “laws of nature.” The ideas of scientific medicine are deeply satisfying to many, especially relative to their fear of suffering and/or untimely demise. Yet, we KNOW from our experience that the universe is not entirely physical and mechanistic, especially the universe of human experience. [My essay on the Sengai Scroll discusses the limitations of physical models of “reality” relative to the clinical practice of Chinese medicine.]

Each individual is a complex transducer between physical and spiritual “realities.” Physical and spiritual factors influence each other in myriad ways. The study of that relationship lay at the core of the classic text Lingshu (The Spiritual Pivot); the title refers to the deepest link between an individuated spirit and its physical embodiment. Lingshu and Suwen (Simple Questions) together comprise the fundamental Chinese medical classic Neijing (Inner Classic). My practice of Chinese medicine and the story of healing discussed on this site are primarily based on Neijing, as I’ve learned the key principles from Jeffrey Yuen.

I find the story inspired by my practice of classical Chinese medicine compelling, even when it differs dramatically from the more widely held scientific story about the “physical realities” of life. Yet, I’m also clear that it’s just my STORY.

From my classical Chinese perspective, modern (western) medicine focuses on:

  • descriptions of the physical nature of disease
  • the search for the proximal and precipitating cause
  • dramatic rescues through (externally) controlling a “broken” body

In contrast, classical Chinese medicine focuses on:

  • descriptions of the individual’s experience of disease
  • the search for multiple contributing causes, both external and internal
  • finding ways to stimulate and facilitate the embodied spirit to realize its natural potential to heal

The CCM Story, based on the Neijing (Inner Classic), Consists of a Few Key Principles:

  • The apparent decline of aging is due to accumulations that block the free expression of an individual’s vitality.
  • Those accumulations primarily consist of external and internal pathogenic factors, which have been suspended and stored in the body:
    • External pathogenic factors arise from the individual’s failure to adapt and effectively respond to changes presented by the environment. Neijing refers to this as “perverse wind.”
    • Internal pathogenic factors consist of the individual’s failure to resolve emotional conflicts.
  • Unresolved pathogenic factors stagnate, and thereby impede the free flow of vital physiological function (qi) and blood.
  • When the embodied spirit is no longer willing or able to suspend unresolved pathogenic factors, they are overtly expressed in symptoms or signs of disease.
  • True healing comes from the inside, and is available to ANYONE (regardless of disease manifestation) who resolves previously suspended pathogenic factors. That resolution generally involves both transformation and release or expulsion of previously accumulated pathogenic factors.
  • Suppressing or controlling the embodied spirit’s expression of distress doesn’t facilitate healing; those efforts simply displace distress from one place to another.

Which story is true and which is a fairy tale, intended to keep one’s inner child from being frightened in the middle of the night? Who among us knows for sure? While we’re discerning the truth among these stories, I’ll keep sharing mine on this site — its different and hopeful, by asking individuals to take responsibility (physiologically) for their lives. I believe that a free exchange of ideas will help us find truth.

Indicator Symptoms: A Patient’s Best Friend

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Symptoms are the embodied spirit’s gesture to communicate its distress. They are intended to get the individual to focus his or her conscious awareness toward discerning the nature and causes of that distress. Though symptoms seem to be afflictions (to the personality), they are NOT themselves the problem. They are only the “finger pointing at the moon.”

In this case, the “moon” is the blockage (to the natural and intrinsic flow of physiological function) that is causing the distress in the first place. Sometimes this is an acute blockage (as from an injury), but much more frequently these blockages accumulate over time — in the “closets” of one’s life. The incipient accumulation of unresolved pathogenic factors leads to the wide array of progressive and degenerative diseases that generally emerge as people age.

By the time many people seek help, their embodied spirits are typically screaming so loudly with unbearable symptoms that individuals simply feel the need to control their discomfort. However, telling the embodied spirit to “SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP” doesn’t change the underlying blockage in any way!

Instead of directly quieting the messenger, classical Chinese medicine teaches us to stimulate the embodied spirit to release its attachment to (and entanglement with) the pathogenic factors that have been causing distress. As the natural and intrinsic flow of vital process (which we call “qi” in Chinese medicine) improves, the intensity of symptoms automatically decreases. Treatments that suppress symptoms serve the personality, and ones that stimulate or facilitate the (underlying) flow of vital physiological process serve the embodied spirit!

What are Indicator Symptoms?

The symptoms that come from chronic, progressive, or degenerative diseases are rooted in the (previous) accumulation of unresolved pathogenic factors. While the embodied spirit is willing and able to simply suspend those unresolved stagnations in a “closet,” the individual accumulates it in “dormancy.” In psychological terms, this process is called either suppression or repression, depending on the specifics of the individual’s avoidance strategy.

When the embodied spirit is no long willing or able to suspend the individual’s unresolved pathogenic process, it emerges in overt expression. The symptoms that people experience in such cases signal the blockages that had long been accumulating, but had also been held “dormant” to allow the person to “go on” with life. When the symptoms emerge, the embodied spirit is announcing that the person must tend to the vital issues supporting the blockages causing those symptoms.

Frequently such symptoms (and even clinical signs like hypertension, which are not usually felt by patients) respond to lifestyle choices. When the individual makes choices that support his or her vital process to flow more smoothly, the symptoms and signs diminish; when those choices challenge flow the symptoms increase. Thus, the person’s symptoms become “teachers” concerning the wisdom of various lifestyle choices. Rather than suppressing (and even demonizing) symptoms, patients can use them to learn how to grow healthier.

I first wrote about using indicator symptoms in treating people with chronic degenerative diseases more than three years ago.

The Philosopher’s Stone Hasn’t Disappeared…

It has simply changed venue. Steven wrote a regular column called “The Philosopher’s Stone” for Acupuncture Today from April, 2006 through April 2009. That opportunity allowed me to work on the challenging process of articulating the nature of classical Chinese medicine, by sharing my thoughts regularly with the profession. Those short essays include many concepts from classical and historical Chinese medicine that didn’t fit into the modern clinical doctrine. Like its mythological namesake, that series of essays was intended to transform the narrow “physical” perspective of modern TCM into a richer and more profound version of Chinese medicine inspired by classical and historical wisdom.

While my relationship with AT eventually ended over editorial differences, the work to articulate important classical and historical approaches to Chinese medicine continues to grow. During the past two years, I’ve taught seminars on Waike (External Medicine) and Digestion through the Professional Education Program of Golden Flower Chinese Herbs. I’ll be teaching a weekend seminar on the channel divergences and distinctions (commonly called the “divergent channels”) in Albuquerque, NM on Sept. 12 & 13.

Thank you for joining me on this new site, and enjoy uncovering the wonders of classical and historical Chinese medicine.