Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Just a bowl of medicine soup?

I am grateful to one of my Nanning students, Huang Jing, for the following, acute observation about the challenges facing those who work in busy acupuncture clinics where they are asked to treat many patients, and who want in some way to move on to treat with five element acupuncture.  Her email has prompted me to think carefully how I can help my students over in China to make the transition to five element acupuncture without endangering their livelihoods.

“With Five Element Acupuncture I could only see 4 - 5 patients in any half-day, and with today’s demand on outpatient service, this is far too little, and I will never be able to treat all the patients… I need to see about 28 patients in half a day.” 

And then she goes on to say, “However I see that in this way we are seeing a lot more patients, but we can only treat the very surface of their problems.  We have not got the time to trace or to understand where their problems have actually come from.  In the times we are living in now especially, people are carrying around huge emotional burdens, and their physical problems are often caused by these internal problems.  We really ought to be giving our patients not just a bowl of medicine soup, but we should also find a way to give them some spiritual nourishment.”

It is quite understandable that practitioners who may work in a system based on the need to treat a lot of people as quickly as possible find it difficult to move to five element acupuncture, where we accentuate the need to develop a long-standing one-to-one relationship with our patients.  These two approaches to practice, the one, the “bowl of medicine soup” approach, and the other the “spiritual nourishment” approach, appear to be irreconcilable, but I do not think they are.  There are certainly ways of adapting what I do in my everyday London practice to what is needed in a busy outpatients’ clinic, as some of my fellow practitioners have proved when they worked in the stressful conditions in Sri Lanka after the floods treating as many patients as my Nanning student is asked to treat.  It is now my task to work out the best way to help my students adapt their practice.

In this context, I find it interesting that my translation work on Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée’s 101 Key Concepts of Chinese Medicine has strengthened my understanding that the “bowls of medicine soup” of the original pioneers of acupuncture, some 2000 years ago, contained as their most important ingredient that of “spiritual nourishment”.  The two, the physical and the spiritual, were always regarded as an indissoluble whole. The sad thing is that this has got so thoroughly lost in modern TCM, and particularly in those places where living conditions demand a high turnover of patients.  It is as though patients’ spirits have become irrelevant to the restoration of health.  It is little wonder, then, that my Chinese students are amazed at the speed of improvement when using five element acupuncture as compared with their current acupuncture practices.

Here it is useful to look at what we do at our first treatment, during which we always drain Aggressive Energy.  This is a quick and effective way of drawing out any negative energy which may be polluting the elements, and is probably worth 10 treatments from other forms of acupuncture, where this sapping away at the elements’ strength remains undetected and untreated.  And the same, if not more so, can be said of those important blocks to treatment, husband-wife and possession.  From that point of view, I see five element acupuncture as providing a surprising short-cut to a return to health which it is not always recognised as offering.   

At the start of practice, as with every other kind of acupuncture, a fledgling practitioner will obviously require time to develop the skill to give effective treatment, and in five element acupuncture you can’t look up a formula of points which TCM likes to do.  But you can certainly get quicker and quicker at doing an AE drain, and the nature of this treatment (needles in the back for some period of time) gives the practitioner more time to talk to the patient.  So in that way, when I was in Nanning, and was asked to treat many patients in a way very unlike that of the leisurely time I grant myself for my initial diagnosis with my London patients, I learnt very quickly to move on to the AE drain after perhaps only 10 minutes or so.  Here my knowledge of the elements came to my aid, because I would try to focus my questioning on those areas which I thought would probably be the most important for that particular patient.  And I was surprised at how easy it was to home in on certain areas of emotional distress very quickly, all the more so because the patients were only too keen to accompany me into areas of their life which nobody had shown any interest in exploring with them before.

Of course I have many years of experience at diagnosing the elements to draw upon, but I was delighted to see how quickly my students homed in on the different elements and with what surprising accuracy.  Here their deep-seated knowledge of the elements, so engrained in them since childhood, comes to their aid, and, coupled with their keenness to learn, makes my task all the easier.  The question now is how to guide them to make the transition from a formulaic approach to treatment to the more individually-focused five element treatments, whilst dispelling some of their natural fear at having to learn such a different approach.

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