Thursday, May 29, 2014

Returning the spirit to acupuncture in China

(Article submitted to the Acupuncturist, the newsletter of the British Acupuncture Council)

We are used to thinking of the transmission of traditional Chinese medicine as being a form of one-way traffic passing from East to West, but somewhat to my initial surprise, I have become a key factor in its journey in the opposite direction, from West to East.  Specifically, it has become my task to take the first steps in helping five element acupuncture build a bridge back to its land of birth, China.

Over the years China has made many different, often contradictory attempts to try to integrate its traditional form of medicine within the framework of Western medicine or to find ways of making Western medicine fit within it.  It has never been quite clear whether it should view it as a powerful indigenous medical system on a par with, or even superior to, Western medicine, or as a more primitive branch of medicine which Western medicine had in many ways superseded.  This uncertainty has hovered over China’s at times almost schizophrenic approach to its traditional medicine, and is one of the reasons for the confusion which this still causes, not only in China but to practitioners of Chinese medicine round the world.   In other words, can Chinese traditional medicine be viewed as a stand-alone, intellectually coherent form of medicine based on more than 2000 years of continuous practice, or has the appearance of Western medicine in the past 100 years or so demoted it to an inferior, ancillary role?

It will be obvious from my writings and my teachings that I am utterly convinced of the former, but sadly I am not sure how far my view is shared by many of its practitioners either in China or the rest of the world.

Through a series of what could seem to have been coincidences, but I regard now as clearly defined steps along a path which has guided me throughout my long association with acupuncture, I was led to meet Professor Liu Lihong at the Rothenburg conference in Germany a few years ago, together with his very good friend and translator, Heiner Fruehauf.  Liu Lihong is described as being “arguably the most important Chinese medicine scholar of the younger generation in present-day China.  His controversial book Sikao zhongyi (Contemplating Chinese Medicine) became an instant bestseller when it was first published in 2003.  Since then, it has attracted a larger and wider circle of readers than any other Chinese medicine book in modern times.  His book represents the first treatise written in the People’s Republic of China that dares to openly discuss the shortcomings of the government-sponsored system of TCM education in China, which informed the evolution of TCM around the globe.”

I was then invited by him to give a seminar on five element acupuncture to acupuncturists at his research institute in Nanning in South China in November 2011, the first of five seminars I have given there to a growing number of acupuncturists.  At my last visit in April, Professor Liu, who is himself a scholar of the classics, when introducing me to the class of 70 acupuncturists, said, “The seed of five element acupuncture is a very pure seed.  I think it originates directly from our original classic Lingshu, “Rooted in Spirit” (Chapter 8 of Lingshu), or “Discourse on the law of needling” (Chapter 72 of Suwen). That is to say it fits easily within the Neijing. It is therefore not created from nothing.  It has its origin in the far-distant past and has a long history.  The seed which underlies its practice is very pure.  For many good reasons, this seed has now returned to its homeland and started to germinate.  In Nora’s words, its roots have started to penetrate downwards.”

I have been invited to give a keynote lecture on “Returning the spirit to acupuncture in China” at the BAcC conference on 26 September 2014, when I will be describing in greater detail the process by which the roots of five element acupuncture are being encouraged to grow steadily stronger in China.



Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The spacing of treatments: an art in itself

I have just spent a happy few days in Berlin with two very dedicated German five element acupuncturists, Christian and Thomas.  This was very stimulating, both culturally, because I saw more of Berlin on this, my second visit, and from an acupuncture point of view, as it always is. 

It was during a day spent looking at patients together that I was made aware once more of the importance of the question of the spacing of treatments as representing an essential, but often overlooked, aspect of how we help our patients.

I don’t think that we pay enough attention to this in the normal course of events.  At the start of a patient’s treatment I expect we all tend to give them a number of weekly treatments, normally something like six or so, and then we tend to space treatments more widely from once every 2-3 weeks to monthly and eventually to once a season and less.  It is what happens as we move further on in treatment that problems can arise.  I was made aware of this again by one of the questions I was asked.  How was the practitioner to deal with a patient who, he said, “insisted” on weekly treatments whilst also maintaining that treatment was not helping him in any way. 

We have various ways of assessing the effect of treatment.  There are our own observations as to whether we notice any changes or not, and then there are the patient’s own assessments of how treatment is going.  Usually these two sets of observations will coincide.  Problems only start when the two differ, as for example if the practitioner notices how much better the patient looks, or the changes he/she is making to their life, and yet the patient him/herself says that there has been no change at all.  We cannot try to persuade the patient by saying things like, “but you seem to be walking better” or, “you have not been talking about your family problems as much”, because that is denying the patient the right to make their own assessment of what they consider constitutes improvement.  On the other hand, we may be concerned that the patient is choosing not to acknowledge that there have been changes for other reasons.  These may include such things as a fear that we are “giving up” on them, or, more subtly, as part of some kind of a hidden power struggle between the patient and us.  Some people can be unconsciously reluctant to accept the help of others.

How do we as acupuncturists get over this difficulty?  If the relationship between our patient and us has been well-grounded from the start, there should be no problem, as the patient’s strengthened energies give them sufficient support gradually to do without our help.  But if something in this relationship has tilted it towards over-dependence on us or otherwise distorted it, it may become more difficult to hand control back to the patient.  We may, for example, allow our patients to contact us too often between treatments by phone or now increasingly by email, something I was guilty of in the early days of my practice, because I felt I always had to be there to help my patients whenever they needed me.   This can make it all too easy to blur the necessary lines of separation between patient and practitioner which make a healthy relationship possible.   

We must never forget that our aim must always be to reach a point where we step back and treatment is no longer needed, the point where patients are now able to maintain balance by themselves.  If we are having difficulties with working out how gradually to space out treatments for patients we can see require less treatment, we should examine our relationship with them to see if we have encouraged on over-reliance on us, and, if so, start gently to take steps to encourage the patient to greater independence.   Of course, as with everything relating to our patients, our approach to each one will be different, and must be adapted to their individual needs.  With one patient treatments may remain weekly for much longer than with another.  At each stage we have to assess whether our relationship to our patient is adapting flexibly to that patient’s needs, and not depend upon a fixed formula for the spacing of appointments.


Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Chinese learn to hug each other

Today’s newspaper yielded yet another interesting snippet.  An article from the New York Times International Weekly had the intriguing title “Chinese unwind with a hug and a song”.  Apparently the Chinese are “finally learning to hug each other” - although, from my own experience in China, they already know how to hug with great enjoyment.

Or perhaps it is just that I have met those who have spent time looking at the elements, and have had their interest in emotional responses stimulated by being told to observe what each element offers.  Most Chinese, this article appears to indicate, “have been slow to embrace the embrace”.  Liu Lihong told the class I was teaching that “we need more Fire here”.  In the case of hugs, it is probably more Earth that is needed, since I think hugging is much more a response to one of the Earth element’s needs, which is to draw people close to them.

The article said that “recently it seems like everyone is hugging.  Friends are hugging. Family members are hugging…. The tables are turning….. Schools are now conducting classes in emotional intelligence.  For homework, children have been assigned to hug their parents.”

This trend towards learning to be unafraid to show emotions may be part of the reason why my Chinese five-element students are so keen to learn all about the emotional manifestations of the elements, and enjoy doing exercises which help train them in learning to detect emotions both in themselves and in their patients.

A new plan to counter antibiotic-resistant infections - opening ward windows!

We all know the dangers caused by the over-use of antibiotics, and the resistance to them which encourages the spread of disease.  There is an article in today’s Observer newspaper which epitomizes for me how far our modern treatment of illness has divorced us from the natural world.  It starts with the strong statement:  “Wards in British hospitals need to be redesigned to provide defences against the spread of deadly, antibiotic-resistant superbugs. That is the stark warning of scientists, who said last week that the danger now posed by drug-resistant infections had reached crisis level.”

So what are the proposals these same scientists put forward to help our hospitals do this?  Among these, believe it or not, is one that hospital wards should have “large, openable windows”.  …”We are talking about returning hospital wards to the type we had 100 years ago.”….

This sent me back to look at a chapter in my book Keepers of the Soul in which I discuss what I call “the medicalized society” we now live in.  And I wrote, with rare prescience,.”…we show as little regard for the environment in which all these terrifying interventions take place, the frightening machines, the lack of natural air, even the ban on plants and flowers in the hospital wards of the most sick, as if such harmless, natural and beautiful things bring with them a greater chance of disease than dealing with the high incidence of hospital-induced infections.”

Let us hope that the design of new hospitals will now include windows which open to allow nature inside to help patients’ lungs breathe and bugs to escape.  

Monday, May 5, 2014

A patient's comments

Over the years I have become used to patients telling me things after treatment such as “now I feel more myself again”, or “I know now who I am”.  Yesterday I had another heart-warming example of five element acupuncture’s ability to reach to the very heart of our needs as human beings when a five element acupuncturist colleague of min, Audley Burnett, told me how moved he had been when a patient described the effect of treatment in these words:  “I feel as if I’ve come into myself.

I think that is such a lovely way of saying what we would all want to feel:  that we have “come into ourselves”.  And how moving that what five element acupuncture can do is help our patients achieve that.  In so doing it also helps its practitioners achieve much the same thing, but by a different route, that of the therapist.  When I feel a treatment I have given has helped my patient, I feel more fully myself.