Acupuncture, Astrophysics, and John Denver

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), much of the language we use to describe the body and how it functions is the language of the natural world.

An image from Between Heaven and Earth, by Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold.
An image from Between Heaven and Earth, by Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold.

To better understand how TCM regards health and wellness, it’s helpful to think about your body as its own unique ecosystem. Take a moment to imagine your body as a garden that has been planted with a variety of fruits and vegetables. Think about how the ever-changing weather patterns might affect this garden – what would happen if there was a dry spell, or a down pour of rain that lasted all spring and into the beginning of the summer and actually didn’t stop until mid-July? Sound familiar?  Ha! #eastcoastsummer2013

When you hear your acupuncturist use words like “heat” or “cold” or “dampness” they aren’t actually meaning to sound…woo-woo. They are using this language because the basic underlying theories of Chinese Medicine are based on observations of the natural world. In the West, we are okay with worshiping the terrifying calculations of our favorite astrophysicists – speculations on dark matter and dark energy totally turn us on.Yet, mention the word “qi” and induce immediate eyeball rolling in your everyday left-brained Jane!

I once had a healthy skeptic of a friend who thought acupuncture was quackery, but would go bonkers over theories like “fractal cosmology.” My counter-argument (and supporting documentation, of course) nipped this disagreement in the big fat bud, since there are parts of basic TCM theory that essentially mirror the basic theories of fractal cosmology. In other words, much of the basic meridian theory is derived from observing simple phenomenon – big patterns (that you can’t help but notice) repeat themselves on a smaller scale (which you’d have to examine more carefully to notice). In the mind of the TCM practitioner, you are a small scale version of this big ol’ universe.

So, back to the garden analogy. Have you fully imagined how these varying climates could affect crop growth? Imagine a scorcha’ of a summah’ with little water and heat that can turn things crispy in a single afternoon. Now imagine that “heat” as feelings of intense anger that you haven’t released, or a viral infection that raises your temperature to 102 degrees. The way your garden would look after hot, dry weather is probably pretty similar to how you would look/feel after internalizing rage, or after dealing with a high fever. You’d probably feel depleted, dry, somewhat “aged”, and in need of  a body of water to submerge yourself – what would be better than floating in cool water and letting the residual blah leave your body, right? Water helps counteract heat/fire? Who knew??!!!

Remember Garden Song (“inch by inch, row by row”)? A bloke named David Mallet wrote it, but do you know how many people covered this song??!! Let’s put it this way. John Denver sang it on The Muppet Show!!! Must be true, right?

Inch by inch, row by row, people!
Inch by inch, row by row, people!

Actually, it’s not that simple. When you delve more deeply into TCM, you’ll see these basic theories applied in more complex ways. Pattern recognition gets tough when patterns overlay patterns. It also gets more complicated when these ideas are applied to the individual, and we all know individuals are unendingly complex and unpredictable, kind of like, well… the weather!

When I discovered the underlying philosophies of TCM, it was a big hallelujah moment for me; my whole life, I wanted to practice a medicine that recognized the physiological/spiritual/emotional…. peculiarities of individuals. I knew from a young age that one size doesn’t fit all, and if you insist it does, well – that’s one way people get sick. I didn’t want to treat all people the same way. I wanted to treat this person this way, and that person that way.

Enter Traditional Chinese Medicine; after that, the community acupuncture movement. Combine acupuncture and herbal medicine with the non-discriminatory health care model of community clinics, and whoolah! You’ve got a sanctuary of care for all people, each with their own unique set of strengths and struggles. And you’ve got one happy acupuncturist, relieved to have found a medicine that, by it’s very nature, is accepting of difference.