Martial Arts Training with a Master

Sometimes it’s hard to keep your feet firmly on the ground, especially when you’re  a student approaching a Master, and think you know your stuff. Certainly, that is true for the ‘physical’ martial arts. It is no less true for martial art of the spirit.

What is “martial arts of the spirit?”

Martial artists of the spirit, like their physical martial arts ‘cousins,’ train their awareness to be awake and alert. Further, both types of martial arts use their awareness to grow strong and secure in their own ground. Yet, while a usual martial artist directs that awareness to some physical acts, the martial artist of the spirit devotes his or her awareness specifically toward rooting out unconscious identification with his or her own projections of static point of view. Wow that’s a mouthful! I’ve written at some length about the process of transcending one’s ‘usual’ perception through symbolic thinking; that is a long journey, which requires considerable attention. Yet, only liberation from one’s automatically projected interpretations allows one to begin perceiving phenomena as they are, and thereby begin to discern the subtle dynamics of Dao.

In our initial training, all acupuncturists learn to categorize a patient’s overt expressions of distress into zàngfǔ syndromes, which differentiate excesses and deficiencies of various humors (blood, , fluids, and eventually yīn and yáng). While this is a start, it is far from the perfect differentiation for most patients. Let us say, for instance, that a person has many signs of dampness with overt stagnation in the abdomen, such as fatigue, a sense of heaviness, bloating after eating, digestive irregularities, etc. Does that necessarily mean this patient has spleen  deficiency with  stagnation of the middle jiāo leading to dampness (possibly secondary to food stagnation, so ask about the patient’s eating habits)? Well, it might mean that, though there are myriad other causes for blockage of an individual’s fluid system, which can then ‘back up’ into the spleen and stomach — the individual’s ongoing source of fluids through the ingestion and digestion of water and foods. One might primarily have:

  • a lung  deficiency, which inadequately disseminates  and fluids, and might specifically
    • descend inadequate fluids to the kidney and urinary bladder to differentiate and eventually eliminate waste
  • a blockage of wèi qì in:
    • the còulǐ — I’ve found this is VERY common among contemporary people, probably secondary to our local climate control and sedentary lifestyles
    • the sinews  — of course this is also fairly common, and it’s not always easy to differentiate whether the sinew blockage is primary or secondary to some internal imbalance
  • a blockage of the urinary bladder by damp-heat or cold, or
    • other blockages of the lower jiāo, such as the liver by cold

And, this is only a partial list!

But, wouldn’t these other causes overtly express themselves? They certainly might, though the expression of those ‘primary causes’ may not be any more clear than the symptoms mentioned above. In that case, the clinical doctrine of modern Chinese medicine teaches us to simply add suitable ‘imbalances’ of physiological distress registering in manifest symptoms or signs to the diagnosis. Of course, those added syndromes may or may not capture the dynamics that create that patient’s clinical expression.

But, why doesn’t the primary cause show the strongest? There are many reasons for that peculiarity, though perhaps the primary one is that the ‘primary cause’ has been (or may still be) relatively well maintained. What the heck does that mean?

Let us say, for instance, that our patient is a middle aged woman, who had a history of several urinary tract infections during her teens. She took anti-biotics for those infections, and each promptly went away. She learned to drink a lot of water, and she drinks tea, but not many other drinks. Whenever she feels mild symptoms in her lower abdomen near her urinary bladder, she drinks cranberry juice and an herbal product originally give by a practitioner whom she consulted ten years ago when she had a rare infection. Now, she doesn’t get urinary tract infections, perhaps mostly due to her care in preventing them — drinking lots of water generally helps people with a tendency toward urinary tract infections, and tea is somewhat diuretic, so at the very least drinking it helps her manage a slight excess of fluids. One may or may not believe the other remedies allow her to treat incipient infections; it doesn’t really matter, because patients who have learned to manage their ‘primary’ pathological processes abound, and this woman’s mild fluid excess was apparently managed until:

  • it has simply overwhelmed the spleen and stomach, or
  • some other factor, such as a blockage in the còulǐ, precipitates the eventual manifest stagnation

There is almost always a process, and I believe our job is to clarify it. When a practitioner can identify a patient’s specific block(s) clearly enough, then he or she can develop a treatment strategy according to the principle of ‘moving a thousand pounds with four ounces of force’ to stimulate profound transformation of the patient’s physiological process. Thereby, one can stimulate the resolution of pathology, rather than simply learning to classify the expression of distress, and working to find ways to control it. While one may find effective management for a chronic pathology, we limit our potential to participate in the profound healing of our patients when we conflate effective management with ‘cure.’ True cure entails resolution.

How do practitioners learn to discern key blocks, so they can develop strategies to stimulate their patients to resolve their diseases rather than maintaining them?

It’s a process, though it begins by setting aside the projections we all learned from the contemporary clinical doctrine of Chinese medicine. Those ideas aren’t ‘wrong,’ though the diagnostic process of differentiating the (already) manifest expression of distress is inherently limited. Pathologies grow and develop; the first thing to remember is that each human life is tasked with survival, and they find many different ways to fulfill that imperative. Each individual compensates and adapts to various challenges, adjusting to circumstances and events to secure the basic requirements of life. While a person with the manifest symptoms listed above appears to have a spleen  deficiency with  stagnation in the middle jiāo, that is only where their distress manifests. Although it is certainly overwhelmed, the spleen may not even be deficient; when the ‘core’ block is cleared, the spleen’s adequate function may be restored without any further attention.

If the manifesting channel (or zàngfǔ) is not the source of one’s pathology, as for the spleen in this example, treating it will become an ongoing process of management. Sometimes, such strategies don’t work at all, and at best they provide temporary relief, until they stop working. This is the most common scenario when one treats the manifesting expression of an individual’s pathology, rather than identifying and addressing its roots (etiology) and pathological process.

So, this process of differentiating an individual’s dynamics comes down to letting go of projections, and that brings us back to ‘martial arts of the spirit.’ When one brings fixed projections, based in modern TCM, any other Chinese medical doctrine, or most especially modern ‘scientific worldview’ to the study of Neijing, one either:

  • misses many of the classic’s most subtle and profound teachings, or
  • simply gets confused — tumbled and disoriented, like being thrown for a triple somersault with two twists.

Most often, people experience a combination of both, when confronted with the ‘jumble’ of ideas and concepts in Neijing. As the clinical science of Chinese medicine grew and developed, there was a massive proliferation of information, but the breadth and depth of its classical source faded. Each school of thought chose to emphasize those portions of doctrine from “the classic” that support their approach, regardless of the context of those ideas. Thus, Neijing became the source of many contrary doctrines, and its deeper stream of coherent inquiry was largely lost in the confusion.

How might we ‘reclaim’ the classic texts of Neijing? Well, that process certainly starts with considerable study. Neijing study presents many challenges, because their tapestries of chapters were sacred texts rather than textbooks. They were intended as poetic inspiration for those who had already received teachings through personal instruction; the texts by themselves were never meant to provide systematic instruction. Perhaps seeking lineage instruction could help one decipher the texts of Neijing, and thereby uncover more of their practical application.

But, how can we evaluate the legitimacy of a purported ‘lineage’? This is a BIG challenge, though there may be several clues:

  • cogency and philosophical depth, especially concerning the nature of life in health and disease, which may be challenging to find due to:
  • an element of ‘martial arts of the spirit’ to stimulate one to transform one’s point of view, rather than just adding new doctrine
  • clinical efficacy
  • finding one’s teachings in the texts, especially being able to identify some of the many ‘conundrums’ in Neijing

Unfortunately, one cannot evaluate a purported lineage based on doctrine alone, as the classic includes so many contrary ideas. Very different schools of thought could develop with different emphasis, yet still both be based on Neijing. However, one distinctive feature of Neijing-style Chinese medicine is the use of the entire channel complexes, beyond the primary channels as conduits to the zàngfǔ. Perhaps the best measure of a lineage is to work diligently with its teachings, and then study Neijing. If one’s experience informs and elucidates the texts in ways that provide practical value for practitioners, then at least that individual has found value in his or her lineage.

A Key Question: Why aren’t there more people at Jeffrey Yuen’s classes?

Lilly Moon, M.D. posed that question, when I met her a few weeks ago at Jeffrey Yuen’s class in the Bay Area. She has been his student for a few years, is very stimulated by his teachings, and seems to wonder why they haven’t taken over the entire profession. While Jeffrey is well known and widely respected, he doesn’t draw large crowds like some teachers, especially ones who give very specific instructions on how to treat, either for specific conditions or more general instruction that is easy to apply clinically. So, it might be that other teachers just make their instruction easier to apply, so they attract more participants, but I think it’s more than that.

Jeffrey Yuen teaches Chinese medicine as martial arts of the spirit, and he does it so smoothly that many participants aren’t completely aware they’ve been sent reeling many times during a lecture, until they emerge feeling somewhat overwhelmed and confused. Everyone responds differently to his classes. Some participants are very stimulated, follow him avidly, and each receives surprisingly individual teachings within the context of his seminars. Jeffrey teaches broad principles of many historical ideas and approaches to Chinese medicine, and generally doesn’t explain how it all fits together. He teaches how to develop strategies for treating patients, based on identifying their personal blocks, rather than protocols for treating patients with particularly disease expressions. While this may seem a subtle difference, his classes leave his students A LOT of work learning to apply them clinically. Doing that work to integrate and apply the teachings is how to make them one’s own.

A few practitioners become agitated and upset by Jeffrey Yuen’s teachings, and many of these question the legitimacy of his lineage and teachings. After all there is now such a vast literature of Chinese medicine to study, including both exhaustive textbooks and myriad case studies to illustrate various theories and key differentiations. Why should we even consider a lineage important? Some people, imbued with our contemporary egalitarian standards, demean the idea of personal transmission of lineage teachings in learning Chinese medicine; instead, they seem to believe all teachings are available simply by buying and studying books (or even watching DVDs). Many others come to a few of his classes, and seem to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the teachings; they simply don’t choose to devote the time and energy to work with them.

So Lilly, I guess that after finishing professional school and passing licensing exams, most practitioners just want to practice. They want specific tools that will help them practice more effectively, rather than a life long journey of martial arts of the spirit. I suppose most practitioners are satisfied with the modern clinical doctrine, based on differentiating syndromes of the zàngfǔ and then treating them with the primary channels. Why not? It’s what we’ve all been taught.

Teaching the Soul of Classical Chinese Medicine

Give a man a fish to feed him for a day; teach him to fish to feed him for a lifetime!

I’m committed to sharing the wealth of classical Chinese medicine, which I’ve been able to learn through the generous teachings of Jeffrey Yuen. Yet, Jeffrey doesn’t make it easy – The sage is not humane (Dao De Jing, verse 5). Or, in contemporary vernacular – it’s cruel to be kind! Jeffrey is inspired in his teaching, though he’s also assiduously “low key” about the value of his teachings. His teaching style expresses to me that the key to realizing the wealth of Chinese medicine lay in learning to “sort out” the subtle and dynamic factors that guide each patient’s life, and thus discern accurate and inspired treatment strategies.

Patients present their practitioners with lessons and complexities, which certainly don’t come emblazoned on their foreheads. Practitioners are challenged to identify the specific nature and location of pathogenic factors, and differentiate them from the embodied spirit’s intrinsic responses to sustain life. Modern TCM teaches us to classify the manifestations of a patient’s distress, but provides little guidance for unwinding that individual’s entanglement in habituated dysfunction. We’ve been taught to simply treat whatever imbalances the patient manifests. However…

Symptoms and signs express the embodied spirit’s struggle to maintain life in the face of “pathogenic factors” that challenge it.

They exhibit the combined influences of pathogenic factors and the embodied spirit’s reaction it them! I’ve found that the best therapies focus on resolving pathogenic factors, without compromising the individual’s vitality. Indeed, they often stimulate and facilitate the embodied spirit’s intrinsic responsiveness to allow it to function more freely. Can one teach others the inspiration to sort out the entangled nature of a patient’s symptoms and signs, and the willingness to trust the embodied spirit in its sometimes violent efforts to expel factors that have been blocking its healing? Probably not, but Jeffrey and I reach out to participants in our seminars and try…

Try what? In the end, we each have to come from our strengths. Jeffrey has nearly boundless experience, learning through direct contact since he was a toddler from masters who embodied strong currents of classical Chinese medicine. I’ll never match the depth and variety of that experience, but I do have one experience that may be valuable to practitioners and students who want to learn from his enigmatic teachings. I’ve had the experience of having to figure out the mysteries of classical Chinese medicine as an adult. While Jeffrey shares the dynamic and responsive world he sees and challenges his students to awaken to that reality, my seminars provide a little more step-by-step guidance, as I:

  • share my thinking process, and how it’s inspired by specific images and theories of CCM
  • engage participants to entertain the CCM (especially the NeijingInner Classic) thinking process
  • describe how I work through the evaluation of a patient to devise a treatment strategy

I provide lecture notes, because I want participants to engage the ideas and thinking process of classical Chinese medicine while I’m presenting them rather than trying to scribble down a lot of unfamiliar theory and information. I invite questions, because I know the challenge of working through the systematic limitations of modern TCM. I’ve written essays to give perspective participants (and others) the chance to read and “chew on” the perspective of classical Chinese medicine that I’ve learned and cultivated — before they come to a seminar. After attending a seminar, participants will be invited to participate in an online discussion to help them implement those teachings.

Check out the new link in the upper right corner of every page — Scheduled Classes. I’m currently talking with three seminar sponsors, including Golden Flower Chinese Herbs — gracious sponsors of my seminars for the past two years, and hope to have more links there soon!

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.