Chinese Medicine
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An Outsider to Your Medicine: On Practicing Chinese Medicine

I am in a rare place in my life (as a primarily stay-at-home-mom) where I can spend time pondering my career path and calling in medicine. For a few months now, I have wondered if I will every truly understand one side of the medicine that I practice: East Asian medicine (a term I like to use for acupuncture and Chinese medicine).

The answer deep inside me is a resounding NO. I will never really understand East Asian medicine. Because I am not of the culture from which the medicine is derived.

It’s not of my ancestral line. And I haven’t been immersed in any aspect of Asian culture.

I’d love to work at a hospital in China. I’d love to study the Classics with a knowledgeable teacher. I’d love to dedicate many years to learn a lineage of Qi Gong. I could read all the books and go to all the conferences and do all the things and get all the degrees…and I’d still never really know Chinese medicine.

I can live with that. I accept that I can do the best I can as a practitioner in this medicine. Without a doubt I feel that undergoing Chinese medicine training was the ideal path for me.

Questioning

But still…there is a deep question underneath it all which I wasn’t anticipating: Am I missing out on something, or ignoring, the cultural connection to the healing path and herbalism within my own ancestral line?

More and more I’ve been hearing people say that the word and concept of Chakras are being culturally appropriated. I would not be surprised to see conversations about the cultural appropriation of Chinese medicine, too. That gives me a lot to think about. I feel a sense of responsibility to figure this all out. To learn more about cultural appropriation in general, and to research the origins of white people administering acupuncture and Chinese medicine.

I have my own opinions about Chakras, but I don’t know where I stand with East Asian medicine. It’s complicated and too close to home. I can’t separate my own experience from the greater context of white supremacy and the profiting off of other culture’s property. But honestly my main hang up is that I just don’t feel like I have the time or brain power to stay abreast of these issues. Man, that makes me feel so guilty, like I’m being irresponsible.

Guilt aside, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.

Recently I heard some very interesting things from the Mythic Medicine podcasts from Amber Magnolia Hill about the power of reclaiming our own healing heritage.

If any of you know her work, then you know how connected she is to working with your genealogy and ancestry, and talks to many inspiring guests about these topics like the mothering line and so much more. Amber’s insight and her poignant interviews are like a breath of fresh air for my current state of trying to integrate who I am at this point of my life.

All that I’ve read about the power of connecting to our ancestry has made me really REALLY wonder why my path as a healer has taken me outside European and Western traditions. Why did I get into East Asian medicine to begin with? What am I missing from within my own traditions? 

After much thought, two truths have come to me:

  1. I AM connected to my European and Western ancestry, motherline and healing traditions after all. I can feel a connection the land of my ancestors, the potency of Western earth-based spirituality, wounding as a woman in this culture (from patriarchy, monotheism, and reductionist thinking), and I have for a long time (ah…it’s an interesting but long story for another post).
  2. I have had a connection to the body and the Earth that is very much in accordance with East Asian medicine, and have had that for a long time, too (what this post is about).

Acupuncture Bent?

I love acupuncture and Chinese medicine. Sounds cliche, but it truly is an amazingly rich and functional medical system which works for me. I love how Chinese medical principles and diagnostics integrates herbalism and the hands-on physical and energetic medicine of acupuncture. I am a body person and I love that I spend so much time palpating people and listening to their body.

Yes, I am gushing. But I love it all. I often feel like I’ve been pointed in this direction for a long time, even though I didn’t know what acupuncture was until I was 19 years old.

My attention was and still is held in the tip of a pin or needle. When I am doing acupuncture or shiatsu, I can see and feel the teeny tiniest point of focus. For as long as I can remember I’ve always been this way.

Once I went to a kids birthday party and some of the adult attendants were looking at a super small play packaged food for a play house. There was a play box of food that was about less than a half inch tall. I picked it up and started to read the print on the minuscule label, and everyone in the vicinity was shocked that I could see the print, let alone easily read it. Turns out nobody else could even see it well enough to read a single word, even my husband Rob who has  better than 20/20 vision.

That was a big realization for me. I had no idea that that level of seeing small was atypical.

I can go small with my perception. I can focus deeply. I can see things other people can’t. This is one way in which the technical aspects of acupuncture and I strongly resonate. Fellow East Asian medicine practitioners will have their own unique ways in which they resonate with the technical aspects of this medicine; this just happens to be one of mine.

Another this is that when I was a kid, I kept a stick pin in the hem of my shirt. It was my tool. Throughout the day I would take it out and touch things with it. Pick at things. Fix things. Feel things through the needle. My favorite thing to do with it was to clean the dried residue between the letters on everyones toothbrushes (gross, but totally me).

I also loved to use the pin to make designs on leaves and fruit (especially bananas). I had forgotten this until it flooded back to me in acupuncture school. We first needled fruit before needling our classmates. When I was needling the orange I felt such a distinct body memory, then after class I recalled the pins I used to carry around with me.

Around the age of 8-10 my friend Melissa and I would play this game called “planting roses” on the inside of our forearms. We would use our fingertips and nails to rake the soil, plant seeds, cover them, and water them. We had three distinct rows which we “tended”. The skin would turn bright pink in the spots where the seeds were planted, which we said was the rose blooming. Those three rows were acupuncture channels (Lung, Pericardium and Heart) and we were essentially doing acupressure and shiatsu to our Arm Yin meridians.

This really interests me because Rose medicine enters the Heart and Pericardium. Of course roses would bloom there!

Oh my gosh, I was doing acupuncture play all along. Herbal medicine and plants entered my play as well…also for another post;)

Dreams

My dear friend Suzanne, who I’ve know for a long time, reminded me a few years ago of a dream I had and told her while I was 7. She was the keeper of this dream for so long, and when she told me about it I was floored.

I dreamt that I was outside my house when a Chinese woman came up to me and had a submarine sandwich for both of us. As she handed one to me she said, “eat this under your wealth”. She crawled under her truck and started eating her sandwich. She lived in her truck, she was a traveler. Then she looked at me in a loving and supportive way and said “hong chung mai hua“. 

Truth be told I have NO idea what this dream really means. And the Chinese she spoke to my seven-year-old self doesn’t mean anything (I asked Chinese speakers about it when I was at OCOM).

However, the stand out impression from the dream is the deep support and knowing of the woman. And when she gave me the sandwich I felt as if I was being passed something valuable. It was a transference. 

There was another supportive dream I had about a year ago.

I entered a massive auditorium. My class was graduating from Acupuncture school and the ceramony was held in North Carolina where an herbal conference is held. It was filled to the brim with people. As I entered and walked down the wide central stairs, I was surprised by all the people who were there specifically for me, cheering me on.

First there were lawmakers from congress. Two elderly congressmen looking very appreciative and reverent, one of whom was holding a photo of a third gentleman. The third guy in the photo was a part of their laws making cabinet in the past. The three men always dreamt of a day when healthcare would support vital health and caring for the aged, and today it was happening.

I continued walked down, deeper into the huge room. There were beloved herbalists and they were there to congratulate me as a former student. I was so touched at how genuine and supportive everyone was. I kept on walking down the steps for what seemed like all evening, the whole while groups of people where clapping, cheering, standing for me, of all people.

At last I reached the bottom of the huge auditorium. Everything became silent as I stood still in que. I was adorned with a black clock and a graduation hat, then escorted to a line of Chinese teachers, masters, physicians, lineage keepers. They shook my hand, hugged me or gave me special wishes, and I was given my diploma. I felt like they believed in me and I had their deepest blessing. 

This dream was so reassuring. It came at a good time and helped me feel like I was indeed on the right path by being in this medicine. It ignited a sense of appreciation of the of support, knowledge and skills I had to practice my medicine with full trust and confidence. I was 7 months pregnant with my second child and I was beginning to disengage with my work life, ready (but with grief) to put working with clients and patients on hold while I was rising little humans.

This dream said,”don’t forget this medicine! This is your path! You have what you need to do this medicine!”.

The fact that the Chinese medicine faculty were at the bottom of the auditorium shows me that East Asian medicine is a foundation of my experience as a healer. It was an invitation and initiation further into owning this part of my healer self. (There are many other elements of this dream to parse out, like the 3 elderly law makers??)

Interestingly, a few hours after I had this dream I randomly ran into someone I graduated with from OCOM almost 4 years prior in apart of town neither of us go to (she didn’t even live in Portland anymore). Not only did we graduate together, we stood right next to each other during the ceremony.

Paradigm Spread

Amber Magnolia Hill has a fabulous interview with Stephen Harrod Buhner on the Medicine Stories Podcast (as all her interviews are). Buhner has a unique perspective of ecological co-existence with nature and weaves it into his writings. He writes extensively about plant intelligence and medical herbalism and I would say his numerous books on intuitive herbalism, Herbal Antivirals, Herbal Antibiotics and Healing Lyme are classics.

At the end of the interview, Buhner talks about “herbal lineage, the march of generations, and young folks as the torch-bearers for the future of herbalism” (quoted from Amber’s show notes). He describes it as such:

“…we [the herbalists from Buhner’s generation] carry a certain lineage within ourselves which is important to pass on. Then when people like you [talking to Amber] encounter it, they can feel there’s something in it that calls to the depths of them, that same journey itself is then necessary to be taken.

“To be transformed in that way so that after our generation is gone, we’re already starting to die off, then you yourself can pass it on to other generations.

“It’s like a great relay race of the soul. But you’re also holders of a new paradigm. The more that paradigm spreads, the greater chance all of us have to endure as a people. ”

This passage rang true for me as I was beginning to express my questioning about following a path of East Asian medicine and not just a path of Western herbalism. I’ve caught the threads of Eastern medicine. It’s a spreading paradigm as Buhner speaks of, no doubt. I’m grasping its threads and pulling it into my being the best I can, where I can consciously and spiritually integrate it, and be a bearer of it’s gleanings.

A Universal Way of Looking at the World

Much of Chinese medicine is based on Daoism. It is a way that ancient people looked at the world around them. I have little knowledge of the system of Daoism, and it’s impossible to sum this system of thought and spirituality to a single quip. But my from very limited view, it’s not too different from what Buhner describes in his work as becoming one with the Earth, seeing the world through the Earths’ eyes. There is no separation between us and the Earth, the Universe and the elements throughout.

The take away from my contemplation about this topic is that in it’s core, I think that East Asian medicine is a language or expression of the Earth itself. It is one way of looking at how the world works. At this core level, the healing traditions within my own ancestral line, which is essentially Earth-based spirituality of ancient Europe, has more in common with East Asian medicine than I thought. Perhaps practicing under this license brings me closer to my ancestral roots after all.

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