Monday, December 31, 2012

Some thoughts on the history of traditional Chinese medicine in China over the past 50 years or more

To understand the history of traditional Chinese medicine in its modern context better, I have been fortunate to have had recommended to me by a student at the Leamington Acupuncture Academy an excellent book which I have just finished reading with great interest, Chinese Medicine in Early Communist China, 1945-63:  A Medicine of Revolution by Kim Taylor (Routledge 2005). This is providing me with great insights into why my advent in China seems to be marking quite a turning-point in China’s own appreciation of its traditional medicine, specifically in relation to acupuncture.  It is certainly helping me understand a little better why what I bring represents a reconnection to an acupuncture tradition in great danger of being lost. 

I would recommend all acupuncturists to read this book.  It confirms many of my long-held beliefs about the problems surrounding modern Chinese acupuncture (TCM), and its insidious spread into the West under the illusion that it somehow represents traditional acupuncture, which it so clearly doesn’t.  Thank goodness that this is at last being recognised, not least in China.  But TCM’s invasion of the West has done much untold harm to the more traditionally based practices of acupuncture, such as five element acupuncture, one such instance being the fact that, for some reason I could never fathom, TCM practitioners always seem to want to undermine the validity of five element acupuncture.  Now, at least, I feel my own stance, staunchly defending the transmission of a long acupuncture lineage, has been vindicated by what is now being revealed about the extreme paucity of any true traditional sources in the acupuncture practised over the past 50 years or more in modern China.

My thoughts have been further strengthened by reading another important and well-researched book by Volker Scheid, Currents of Tradition in Chinese Medicine, 1626 -2006 (Eastland Press 2007).  Although concentrating almost entirely upon herbal acupuncture, with only a handful of references to acupuncture, the picture he paints is of the enormous pressures placed upon Chinese medicine over the past 50 years or more in what can be seen as a fight for its survival against the forces within China supporting the primacy of Western medicine.  Chinese medicine became a pawn in China’s attempts to work out the position it should take in relation to Western medicine, and continues to suffer from this uncertainty, whilst at the same trying to defend the importance of acknowledging its own long medical heritage.

Somehow acupuncture found its own escape route from the political turmoil within China, benefiting from the hounding and expulsion of many of its practitioners.  They took with them, often as the sole inheritors of long traditional medicine lineages, traditional practices frowned upon or misunderstood in mainland China, and were free in the West to pass on their knowledge to those eager to learn.  Amongst these, as we know, were the group in England which included JR Worsley and Dick van Buren.

Ironically, therefore, it is in the West that the precepts of traditional acupuncture found fertile ground upon which to allow its damaged roots to re-plant themselves and grow so prolifically.  It is therefore doubly ironic that it should fall to me, a Western trained five element acupuncturist, to hand the gifts which my practice has given me back to a birthplace which hardly recognises the acupuncture inheritance on which I base this practice.




Wednesday, December 19, 2012

My delight in a simple treatment

I always like to write about the satisfaction of doing what I do, and here is another confirmation of how effective a simple treatment can be.  A few needles and a transformation.

I was called to the bedside of a very old friend of mine who I had treated many years ago.  She had recently lost her partner of 50 years, and then had immediately to have surgery on both eyes for a glaucoma-induced condition.  And now she had been diagnosed with severe atrial fibrillation.  The eye surgery had left her with very blurry sight, and she was too giddy to walk by herself.

On the train to see her, I mulled over what treatment I thought I would need to give. The lovely thing about being a five element practitioner is that we have the pillars of five element treatment to call upon whatever the conditions we are faced with.  I already knew her element was Wood.  There had been no evidence of possession when I talked to her at her husband’s funeral, so that left only the AE drain, the possibility of a Husband/Wife imbalance and Entry/Exit blocks to consider.  There proved to be very little AE, just a touch on Heart Protector and Heart, drained in just a few minutes.  But a Husband/Wife imbalance was calling out loudly to me, both in her look of quiet, passive desperation, and in her pulses, which, though low on both sides, felt appreciably stronger on the right side.

There was an immediate change in her once I had cleared the H/W; her colour became less drawn and she said that her palpitations had died won.  She lay back, closed her eyes and looked more at peace.  I searched for other blocks, and found a II/III (SI/Ht) block.  For good measure, I also did a VI/VII (HP/GB) block, even though it was not clear from the pulses.  But the history of trauma surrounding her eye surgery made me think that I should do this, particularly as I never rely solely on my pulse readings to diagnose blocks.

I then needed to do something to strengthen her spirit so that the H/W did not recur, which was possible in view of all that she had to deal with.  I had to decide between Ki 24 (a resuscitation point for the spirit after great trauma) or CV 14 (with its direct effect upon the Heart), and opted for CV 14 to help her Heart.  I finished the treatment with the source points of Wood.  I used no moxa for any of the points, because she has slightly raised BP.  As I left her to sleep, she said, “I feel a lot better, Nora.”

The next day she phoned me to say that she felt completely different, much more optimistic and less despairing.  Her eyesight was clearer, she no longer had palpitations, she had climbed the stairs without becoming breathless, and was steady enough on her feet to go for her first walk unaided.

Here again is the list of points I used:

  • AE drain
  • H/W
  • CV 14
  • II-III block
  • VI-VII block
  • VII 40, VIII 3
All in all I could not ask for more from one treatment.  How I love doing what I do!


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Five element thought for the day – some pointers I use to help trace an element’s signature

Last week I had a very heartening day up at the Acupuncture Academy, the new college in Leamington, getting my first glimpse of a new group of students there, all eager to learn. 

One of the things I told them was not to worry about feeling that there is any quick way to develop the complex skills required to distinguish those much-emphasized sensory signs the elements imprint on all of us.  When I first started my studies, I think I was very optimistic about how easily I would perceive these, imagining that by the end of our three-year course I would be well on the way to assessing accurately all the four aspects of colour, sound, smell and emotion.  

I was to find that this was far from the case, so far, indeed, that it was only after quite a few years of practice that I at long last began to understand what a rancid smell was, or honed my  assessment of Earth’s colour, yellow.  And just when I thought I had “got” one manifestation, I would find all my previous learning confounded by discovering that my patient’s rather bright red face was nothing at all to do with Fire, but was either Wood or Earth out of balance.  In the case of Wood, I eventually worked out that it was its imbalance which was throwing its child, Fire, out of balance and creating the red colour, and in the case of Earth, the red was coming from problems handed down to it by its mother.  Fire, I have found, never imprints a constant high red colour on those of its element.  Its reddish tinges come and go, as it flickers, but they never remain a constant imprint.

Now that I have recognised for myself how difficult it is accurately to perceive the elements’ sensory signals, I realise how important it is for those new to five element acupuncture not to rely too heavily on sensory impressions which may well be leading them astray.  Instead, I try to emphasize all the many other ways the elements reveal themselves, and share with them the observations I have accumulated over the years to help fill out what I lack in sensory awareness.  For example, I have now developed for myself a list of the small variations in facial expression which help me pinpoint an element more clearly.  I give these below as an aide for others.

Wood:  Look at the eyes (perhaps obviously enough since Wood is to do with vision in every sense).  Its eyes have a direct, often challenging look as though demanding a response from me.  A secondary point may also be very tight neck muscles around the mouth or neck.

Fire:  Look for the smile lines around the eyes. All elements smile when they are happy, or want to pretend they are happy, but only in Fire do the smile lines around the eyes stay in place long after the smile has faded.  I can feel this in myself.  I love warming my own Heart up by smiling, often doing this when I am on my own as my own personal comfort blanket.  I now recognise Fire by those smile lines indicating that a smile is trying to force its way through.

Earth:  The mouth:  often slightly open, or if not open, then looking as if it would like to open, as though appealing for food.

Metal: The eyes, like Wood, but with a completely different look.  They are not trying to set up any relationship with me, as Wood’s eyes try to do, but even when looking at me seem to be looking past me as though into the far distance.

Water:  Again the eyes, but here it is the movement of the eyes which is revealing.  They have nothing like the stillness of Metal’s eyes or the forcefulness behind Wood’s gaze.   Instead they seem to flicker, dart around, as though constantly on the move, ready to perceive danger and avoid it.

If all else fails, and you are not at all sure which element your patient is, then see whether the rather basic signposts I have listed above help you.  I have found them to be a remarkably accurate way of supplementing what my senses are unable to tell me.  And as you move on in your practice, you will also find your own pointers to add to this list – maybe a characteristic way of walking, or talking, holding a hand out for pulses to be taken or settling on the treatment couch.  Since everything we do is the work of the elements within us, every part of body and soul will be showing characteristic pointers to our guardian element.  We just need to be patient enough and give ourselves the time needed to develop our own individual stock of diagnostic pointers.

I still find it fascinating that each patient I see teaches me just a little more about the elements, and this learning will never stop since we are all unique manifestations of the interplay of the elements within us.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Back from China!

I return, humbled.  We take so much for granted in our five element acupuncture in the West. The word “spirit” is so deeply entrenched in our thinking that we can hardly visualize our work without this deep aspect of ourselves imbuing all that we do.  This is so far from the modern Chinese view of acupuncture that it has taken me my three visits to understand the breath of change which I bring with me.  Now, though, it is quite clear to me that what China’s traditional medicine so desperately needs is to regain its spiritual roots, something so sadly suppressed over the past 30 years or more.  And the prime mover in all this is my host, Liu Lihong.  It is for this that they feel that what I have to offer is so badly needed over there.

So I taught and I talked for three weeks.  We supervised the treatment of over 60 patients (this time mainly given by the acupuncturists who had come to our previous seminars rather than by Mei and me).  I then gave two large seminars, one to 250 students at a traditional medicine college in Nanning and another to a large conference in Chengdu in a hall packed with 300 people with another 200 or so watching by video link.  The difference in atmosphere compared with last year’s conference was quite marked.  Then I was talking as a rather lone voice, not exactly in the wilderness, but certainly to an audience many of whom were unfamiliar with any concept of five element acupuncture.  This year, I felt as though I was amongst friends all eager to learn more.

And so many do!  All are asking where they can learn.  And there are so few of us to do the teaching!  This is a challenge indeed, both for my Chinese hosts, who have difficulty in restricting the numbers to a reasonable amount, even to fit into the rooms available, and a great challenge for me, too.  The only way we can see to meet such a demand will be to for me to devise some form of distance-learning based upon the Mandarin version of my Handbook, which was again handed out to everybody in their conference packs.  We will also need to encourage the kind of self-instruction or working together in small groups which the original pioneers of acupuncture in this country in the 1950s had as their only source of tuition.  I told them that JR and his group of fellow explorers had to make do with the few weeks of instruction a year then available to nourish their curiosity, and had to go off afterwards and explore for themselves what they had learnt.  The rest of their learning was up to their own experimentation and determination.  This is, after all, how JR came to develop his own insights into the role of the CF, Dick van Buren his theories about stems and branches and Mary Austin to devise her own five element approach.  I encouraged everybody to be brave enough to act as pioneers for five element acupuncture’s return to China.

Luckily for us they start from so much higher a level of understanding of the concept of the elements than any Western person has to begin with, for the elements are bred into them, as real to them as their life’s blood, and they can quote verbatim and from memory from the Su Wen and the Nei Jing.  The majority of those coming to the seminars are practising, well-qualified acupuncturists, trained to a much higher technical standard, I felt, than many practitioners over here (no need to remind any of them of point positions or point names).  They were therefore much, much quicker at making the slight adaptations to their techniques, such as pulse taking or needling, demanded by changing to a five element approach.

Plans are well in hand already for my return in April, this time accompanied by both Mei Long and Guy Caplan.  The student group will now expand from the 50 we taught this time to a further 50, making 100 students in all.  Of these some of the original group will be ready to start teaching the new learners what they have learnt.  And so the circle widens.

Now I need to get over my jet lag and start working on a more schematized distance-learning approach which will eventually be available for downloading by those in China.  Quite a stimulating project to come back to!