What brings you here?

When you go to your doctor or primary care provider, what is it that you are typically seeking?

Are you looking to get better? Are you looking for a diagnosis? Are you looking for guidance/mentoring? Are you looking for a voice of authority? Are you looking for a prescription for a pill or medication that you know can take the edge off? Are you afraid? Are you doing it because it’s what society tells you what to do? Have other modalities/providers failed to address your health needs?

I’ve been treating a patient for about a year and half now, somewhat sporadically, providing acupuncture and most recently, herbal medicine. The patient sought me out after my having switched to a new practice location, a new location which provides a more intimate setting, the option for insurance to pay for treatment, and overall a better option for the patient.

In the last ten months, the patient has been exhibiting progressively-worsening symptoms, and has been seeing neurology specialists, working with a PT, and gone through the gauntlet of tests, blood panels and self-medicating with marijuana and hikes in the woods.

Recently, he admitted that all of his tests have returned showing inconclusive results, and his doctors have described his condition as idiopathic. Idiopathic, if you don’t know the term, essentially refers to a situation in which doctors have run through their particular knowledge and expertise, chased the review of systems and differential diagnoses, and have come up short.

The root of this word is interesting. It finds origins in the Greek idioumai, meaning “to appropriate to oneself”, “personal, private”, and properly “particular to oneself”. This is from PIE *swed-yo-, suffixed form of root *s(w)e-, pronoun of the third person and reflexive (referring back to the subject of a sentence), also used in forms denoting the speaker’s social group, “(we our-)selves” (source also of Sanskrit svah, Avestan hva-, Old Persian huva “one’s own,” khva-data“lord,” literally “created from oneself; (OED).

The patient said he felt both angry and relieved, and he struggled to put words to it as I prodded him to say more. I asked him what he was looking for from these tests and procedures. He said that he was hoping for a treatment; that if they knew what it was, maybe they would know how to treat it.

Having worked with him for quite some time now, I have several insights regarding what might be happening with him, at least from the Chinese medical perspective. However, this has been perhaps the first time that what I’ve felt and observed in working with him has elicited a more specific pattern that is known in Western medicine. From the outside, his condition seems very close to Multiple Sclerosis. Progressively worsening, neuronal die-off and mobility issues; most recently, difficulty swallowing, visual and speech changes. I believe this was heavily influenced by an untreated concussion years ago. He is someone who relies on himself and survives on himself. A notable presentation I’ve noticed in the clinical setting, has been a kind of self-deprecatory laughter, most often presenting when describing a very upsetting reality, especially that of a complex of symptoms he’s encountered throughout the week. It is almost sardonic. 

I almost expected him in our exchange to express that he desired to know the name of the disease; he mostly did. But it seemed he wanted to know the diagnosis as much as he didn’t. One of the most curious symptoms has been his description that in order to hold/grasp an object, he has to physically look at it with his eyes first, otherwise his hand cannot meet it. That is, he has to see his own hand.

My own inclination, as a provider, was to want to alleviate the mystery or fill in the unknowns, which for him are many. But I realized mid-interaction that my question (what he is looking for from working with these experts, obtaining tests etc) seemed to match his. Was I looking for a diagnosis in order to treat? Was I looking for a name? 

Several times, the phrase “M.S.” grazed my tongue, and I held back. A large question formed; what good would this do him? First, and foremost, I am not medically qualified to offer a Western medical diagnosis. But secondly, it seemed a new and unknown universe could spring from the supposedly known. It is as much a liability to sort of know than to fully not know. The skill of the practitioner is actually to not make known the guesses all that often. I believe we’re afraid to really approach and accept the full implications of placebo, as we might have to reckon with how our diagnoses are just really good stories. We use these stories to compete, like Greek aidoi, for the prize. Only the prize here, is to get the patient to believe our story more than what they’ve come to tell themselves.

With the inappropriate laughter, I couldn’t help but wonder that the complex of symptoms my patient encountered were, for him, rather unbelievable stories. What I mean is that when being witness to the capabilities of his own body, this man was equally inspired as he was terrified by himself. Overall, his conditions spoke to overactive immune response. But what I felt, and observed as his provider, was someone whose own power had been divorced from its own context. In other words, he’s begun to deny, to disbelieve his own being. Vine Deloria Jr. in his Custer Died for your Sins: An Indian Manifesto once said, “When death becomes unreal, violence also becomes unreal”. I sense that my patient, in a deep place within him, is a purely sensitive being. But also with this sensitivity came an inability to accept the death of parts of himself along the way. He’s responded by creating in memoriam stories which keep those regions living, at least partially and not in totality. Trauma does this. It elongates the mourning time, which might otherwise involve more specific emotions, feelings, symptoms, all of which show as an emergency. Rather than emergency, he’s transferred these into first stories, that then became unbelievable stories, and finally, legends within himself. The problem with legends, as Plato described to us through his works comparing mythos and logos, was that they were unverifiable and irrefutable. 

I used to scoff at the Western medical provider who’d resort to what felt like such a lazy term in the idiopathic. What I’ve learned, time and time again, and especially in this patient, is that idiopathic is almost too precisely the term. It’s precisely the term that the Western medical provider uses to do everything in their power and expertise to refrain from blaming the patient for their own condition. An autoimmune disease, by nature, is harm that you are enacting upon yourself. That is precisely what it is. When someone asks, “what is the cause of this autoimmune condition?” And the doctor responds, “well, it’s when the body’s own system is attacking itself”, the patient somehow feels better that they have an answer, but not fully a solution. However, if the doctor had said, you did this to yourself, you’d be sure to hear about a possible lawsuit or some kind of censure, in the least, the accusation of poor bedside manner. 

What we have here is the body becomes an auxiliary “self” that is somehow “to the right” of the person. What I mean is that the medical dialogue becomes method through which the person needs an auxiliary blame that is beyond theirself, when the condition is truly idiopathic. It gives the patient temporary breathing room when their condition has potentially self-originated. The problem with this approach is that as the patient bides time, they can become susceptible to building narratives that support the unknown/mysterious symptoms. The mysterious symptoms are so because the person is using the creativity of their own body to create a new outlet for who they are — new life as the dying parts of themselves die off. 

Only, if this becomes too rampant, the story is too imaginative, then the patient creates legends within themselves that they are unable to live up to. They create conditions in which their projected capabilities far exceed what the “who” of their life is capable of. The immune response supersedes the healthy system. Idioumai, as the etymological dictionary defines, describes a condition that is particular in breed to the individual. It cannot be mirrored, except to themselves. If it cannot be mirrored, they cannot have empathy for that aspect of themselves. If they cannot see it, they cannot locate it. As is the case for my patient, it is only when he moves his own hand in the line of sight that he can grasp what he sees. He has to be the one to handle it. 

My job as his provider is to show him that his life and his stories are precisely in his own hand. That his condition, it appears, is idiopathic. One more aspect of this, I believe helps elucidate the condition. My patient is getting a little older. He’s not elderly, but he’s also no young sprite. It is possible that when aging we can often face the reality that we are not who we used to be, and that this becomes the so-called legend. The body, no longer able to finance that former self, a sort of somatic alimony, demands the body to continue to operate under the same conditions, requiring the same resources, and in my patient’s case, freedoms. He cannot accept that he cannot be free. As such, he becomes a slave to himself. And not even to himself, but his own body. The body in this case becomes an auxiliary excuse, a slave to the self. Rather than becoming accountable for who he is, he punishes the body that finances that self. What occurs, as Vine Deloria Jr. suggests, is violence, and specifically, violence that is unreal to the person. When this patient observes and recounts his own story, this is when the symptoms really begin to reveal. He laughs tragically at the complex of symptoms he encounters, the way a drunken man might describe his escapades the night before; a sort of “Can you believe that shit?” sentiment. “I mean, could I be any more pathetic? “Could I be in a worse situation?” These are examples that are not directly uttered by the patient, but reveal themselves in comments and inconsistencies in how the patient acts, performs or retells their symptom in narrative, and how they actually appear or present in the clinical setting. When attempts to reveal how he suffers to himself, with the witness of another, it is sabotaged by self-mockery. When he describes he’s in pain, he hears only the laughter at its absurdity.

This is a strong example in which the patient demonstrates that they are their own author, and the story they are telling is in their own hands. By refraining from offering a diagnosis, the patient moves closer to their own diagnosis. The skill of the practitioner is to ask the right questions. My question to this patient is/was: what are you looking for from these doctors? Is he looking for them to say that they are more expert in his life than he is? Because, experience has shown me while working with him, that he is the master of his own destiny. He has made his mind more powerful than his body. But this has led to making himself a slave to his own body. If he can blame his own body, he won’t have to blame himself.

It is of my experience and opinion that this reveals the true limitation of Western medical diagnosis, and it is that our conditions are frequently idiopathic. We cultivate persons/personalities who by every ounce of themselves resist the possibility that someone else could be in control of who they are. We cultivate attitudes of supreme control over who we become, what we do, what we’re capable of, and what we leave. A prescient teacher has often noted that what would otherwise be an emergency, in terms of disease and the body, becomes instead a chronic illness. What we cultivate as chronic illness is perhaps a persona that has outlived its own usefulness, but cannot let go of the idea of immortality. I am not saying that my patient wants to be rendered immortal. However, when our stories supersede who we are, then we can only be known in our stories and how good of a story we can tell. 

Rather, health or wellbeing must take into consideration the limitations of knowing, of certainty, and this is true of who we are. 

Circling back: why do you seek out your provider? Are you looking for a diagnosis? Are you looking for clarity? Are you looking for better ways to get to know yourself?

I might suggest, start here: get acquainted with the most unknown aspects of who you are, and rather than solving them, interrogating or exposing them, work towards accepting the mystery. The best stories are those that don’t tell you what to believe about yourself. The best stories are those that want to deepen what it means to be.

Only Eyes

I remember, I think. I think of the word, remember; to place together the dismembered parts.

That morning, the damp weight of an english basement held me to the mattress. Pressed along my back, inert buttocks and legs, the sponge drew me toward the earth and I realized it had been six months. I looked to the phlegm light, blue and muted sparkle, white-yellow lumens and an intermittent crackling coming from the pronged wall. I couldn’t move. The words were no longer helping. Get up, I’d hear. Get to work, the refrain. And then this morning, my eyes glittering quietly and unseen in mostly brown darkness, nothing; silence, air that voided. I expected the phrases to storm in the brain, but I was met with pure looking. It was the state the yogis trained to attain and maintain. It was a mind without thought and only body. But it was unwelcome, a sort of directionlessness. Though, not exactly that. Not exactly. When a person leaves their bed, and on sure-footed cement slabs, they are guided by an interior directing force. I couldn’t, that morning, hold those dismembered parts together, and the whole thing was rendered inert, like a computer broken open for its copper, like seeing spare car parts at a yard sale on white, washed and dried summer linens. It seemed I’d lost the ability even to muster the language programming that told them to play along together, to get with the program, to hold fast, boys. It was as if I couldn’t remember myself in each moment. I couldn’t anticipate where my hand would go, where my trapezius should be, or how long I might allow my right eye to watch the house’s foundational beam. The fireplace was equally mute, albeit a thumbprint of propane hardly threatening to lick the glass. The altar I’d assembled couldn’t make out my position from its higher perch; the digitally-rendered glimpse of Ruby in black and white, grandmother, thin features like the actress who played the witch of Oz; my mother fading in white pearls and red-rhubard done up hair, her legs crossed in her sitting chair, retro tabletop and an age that preceded my present; my father, dressed in handsome military uniform, a knowable gleam on his skin and his eyes, but I’d never known him. I wondered at their distance from me, their memory on printed paper, I wondered at their legacies. How can I remember myself? The only thoughts were questions. How will I? Why can’t I? What…

The questions turned to silence; just vision, again and the awareness of breath. I searched the familiar corners of the pale walls, where small spiders dropped their refuse in black-brown flecks. I heard “I’m here” as “am I here?”; the prompts canceling the other, the way the basement’s dense air held onto clothes and fabric; sticky, combative, useless. I felt my body as only weight, without time. I sat up, and the vantage remained. I was only eyes. Just witness. The yogis were jealous that I was in hell. I was upset I was no longer called by the world. The next day, I opened my eyes, and I was still only eyes.

Interview with a Chinese Medicine Provider

My sister in-law, Heidi Warren, asked me some questions regarding my experience with alternative or complementary medicine. The themes are topical for the current crises we face, so I thought I would share.

1. What is your training? Where did you get your training? Why did you go into this field?

I studied acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine at Daoist Traditions College of Chinese Medical Arts in Asheville, NC. The program was a double-masters, and included a large portion devoted to Western pathophysiology and pharmacology. The last two years of the program included a clinical internship, working with patients in both student clinic and offsite capacities. I got into the field through my own health. I was on track to start a music therapy program, having devoted most of my life to the study of sound. I decided not to go forward with the masters, and spent a good amount of time soul-searching and somewhat confused about the trajectory of my life. A close friend had just started acupuncture school in Maryland, and suggested that I receive acupuncture. After going to a community acupuncture clinic for a few sessions, I wasn’t that impressed, nor did I experience noticeable change. However, I started to read about the theory of Chinese Medicine, and the theory of the Five-Elements, and I felt the medicine capitulated a lot that I’d come to believe. I also happened to work, at the time, at a coffee shop a floor below a community acupuncture clinic, and so I was able to engage with an acupuncturist regularly, who answered my questions. Not long after, I came to the conclusion that I could pursue this as a meaningful career, as well as one that could support me financially, while also making space to enjoy what I love, such as music, writing and art.

2. How do you define holistic health?

I define holistic health as a modality whose central approach is based in compassion. This involves commitment to understanding the individual’s health as a whole expression of their life, rather than as a collection of signs and symptoms, or that they are even “solveable”. I’ve come to accept that I cannot answer for a person “who” they are; I can only work with them to develop more efficient ways to regain that for themselves, when it has been lost, and disease ensues.

3. How do you feel acupuncture works in conjunction with traditional medicine? Or not?

Acupuncture and herbal medicine are tremendous tools that can fill in several gaps in the conventional medical approach. For instance: Western Medicine does not emphasize the importance of nutrition in health, though food is a medicine that we encounter 3-4 times every day. It is preventative medicine. At the same time, Western Med. often will not, even in medical school, emphasize this aspect of health, as it is considered moot to have a conversation with a patient about their diet. Sometimes, this is due to time constraint, sometimes there is no excuse. As a result, it does not treat digestive issues that well. Many major pharmaceuticals have long-term unseen side effects on the system, that lead to a high price for their intervention. Chinese Medicine carries the same principles regardless the modality. For acupuncture, there are points that are said to “Clear Heat”. There are also foods, herbs, movement exercises, essential oils that “clear heat”. This means that regardless the tool we are using within the auspices of the medicine, our treatment strategy remains the same. So long as the diagnosis is clear well-deduced; the treatment strategy will be effective, because it is in line with the diagnosis. The patient has heat, so you clear heat. Patient has stomach heat, or heat in the digestive system. You can send them home, after acupuncture, with lifestyle modifications such as specific changes in nutrition habits, that will reflect your strategy. After the acupuncture, they have a tool they can incorporate to emphasize what is being accomplished in the clinic, outside of the clinic.

Pain is another area that CM treats effectively, where WM’s major avenues are: pharmaceuticals that can be damaging to the liver, as well as addictive; and surgery as last resort. There is a lot of clinical evidence that supports the use of acupuncture for pain. There are ready instances where acupuncture doesn’t simply reduce or manage pain, but corrects it, showing promising results as a low-risk, virtually non-invasive intervention. With that said, WM can still do what it does best (often emergency medicine), while CM can successfully fill in the gaps, and in many cases, serving as a safety net when conventional treatment is too risky or too costly.

The last thing I’ll say about the two modalities’ complementary quality is this: I think it would be a disservice for the Western perspective to turn its interest in CM into simply trying to translate CM medical concepts into the conventional.

For instance, there is a lot of push to directly translate diagnosis and diagnostic codes. Liver Qi and Blood stasis might look like Hepatitis, or liver cirrhosis, but the diagnosis and treatment depends on the individual’s presentation. It doesn’t always directly translate and there is a nuance. WM has to be willing to accept CM as its own medicine, and this is directly reflective of people who see the world in a completely separate way. Even in fields such as neuroscience, scientists are beginning to understand that there may never be a fully unified theory on the brain, what it is, what is does. Instead, they are accepting that how the Chinese or even the French conceptualize the brain is different than the American researcher. CM describes the body as a phenomenon very differently that how it is seen in the West. In that way, it is a different language, and working together, the modalities might need to accept that there is no equivalent explanation for how a disease progresses, or even for tangible concepts.

For instance, there is no Western equivalent to the concept of “Qi”, a pivotal concept in CM theory, and the Western tendency is to reject the medicine outright. Rather, they need to be able to coexist without necessarily having to have everything equally translatable. This is where CM is very strong, as it finds paradox, contradiction, and the unknown as powerful tools for dynamically navigating an individual’s disease.

4. What advice would you give to someone who is looking to go into this field?

Primarily, it is not something you are going to understand in a short amount of time. The medicine is designed to deepen and become more embodied and dynamic the longer it is practiced.

Second, be open. Most of the time, you are going to learn information that appears conflicting or confusing, sometimes wrong. Being open, and absorbing the information kind of osmotically trains you to hold space for the patients and presentations that are the exception to the rule.

Third, don’t make it something it is not. Chinese Medicine is a modality based in observation, cultivated, curated, argued, compared, and organized by thousands and thousands of devoted practitioners. The medicals texts, schools and and exhaustive studies were built out of individuals who realized that to observe a patient with compassion and genuine interest, they had to become better observers in all aspects of their life. The efficacy of the medicine is contingent upon the cultivation of the practitioner. If you don’t like how Qi is conceptualized, don’t try to change it. Try to understand it see how the rest of the medicine uses it. Try to objectively observe what the medicine is “doing”, and then do that. CM isn’t about being the best. There is no best flower or leaf; everything has to contextualize. By not making CM something it is not, the practice naturally contextualizes you.

5. Do you treat cancer patients?

I don’t specifically work with cancer patients, but I have worked with them in the the clinic several times.

Though cancer might be considered a more advanced disease, the method of diagnosis and treatment protocol would remain the same regardless of the perceived severity.

6. What do you feel are the benefits of acupuncture for cancer patients?

There is a lot of evidence coming out right now showing the promise of acupuncture in oncology care. Acupuncture is exceptional in treating and managing pain, and is strong in improving psychoemotional health.

With that said, apart from the cancer itself, a cancer diagnosis and treatment can take an almost holographic toll on a patient’s life, including their mental health. In addition, they are often navigating not simply their own anxiety, but the reinforced anxiety of those in their life, who either struggle with the concept of death and dying, or have never confronted it. As a result, these patients are often managing a lot of unforeseen auxiliary factors in their healing journey.

Acupuncture, from my experience and perspective is exceptional for aiding individuals in transition. The medicine utilizes potent metaphors to observe and interact with the body and the environment. Metaphors, in my mind, are especially profound because they help us deal with death. By including two disparate or unrelated images together in a single image, you are trained to accept the unseen gap between both of them, or that space. It is hard to see how a person dies. It is easy to see how a blade of grass among others can die, but the grass remains. Cancer is often seen as an issue with cells that are unable to mature and experience apoptosis. They are children, and they want to play with more children. The cells proliferate, and there’s too much heat. In a body that understands, it can accept there are childlike aspects of the self that, due to issues or stress in pivotal life transitions, were unable to mature, and also transition and die away. In other words, this may not actually be the case, for this person with cancer, or that person. But the medicine is designed utilizing this kind of tool, and therefore by nature lends itself to reducing the intensity of that transition, or maturing process.

Therefore, I could argue that there are significant benefits in acupuncture for the cancer patient. At the end of the day, it is about the individual, and really seeing “them” – “who” they are.

7. Many people do not believe alternative medicine has any real advantages for overall health. What would you say to those people to help them understand the value of complementary health services?

Many people do not believe conventional medicine has real advantages for overall health. There are people who don’t get flu shots, who refuse vaccines. There are those who don’t take any medications. My mother doesn’t typically trust doctors, and has good reasons for doing so. She rarely takes medicines for colds, never gets a flu shot – she is someone who doesn’t anaesthetise herself or seek outside answers for her issues. This is mainly because she is someone who believes in doing whatever she can in her own power to understand and improve her situation. She’s lived her whole life in the cold and hard winters of Western MA. A few years ago she had a major hip replacement, and not only didn’t take painkillers post-surgery, she also didn’t experience pain during her recovery. Is she wrong or right? It doesn’t really matter. A good and effective medicine is one that is effective and offers results. But it’s also one that isn’t based on the whims of people’s beliefs.

However, this does not mean you can’t meet a person in the space where they believe. CM as a complementary medicine is effective and viable because it seeks to understand the context out of which the individual and their disease springs. We are seeing now that the faith we place in our experts and the answers provided by research are insufficient for the COVID-19 pandemic. What is clear is that there is this gap between crisis and alleviation. Research is a form of faith, and sometimes it proves insufficient. It takes time and innovation. But in the meantime, all we have is faith. By nature, medicine is the reorientation of worldview according to what observed is changing. Medicine is always involved in crisis. People will always encounter crises in their worldviews, or what they think is possible or is or isn’t real. The current moment feels very “unreal”. The virus might be more deadly for those who resist what is changing on a larger scale. This doesn’t go to say that if you don’t believe in CM, you’ll be effected negatively or are stupid.

Instead, it is only to point out that rarely does medicine reflect what someone doesn’t believe in terms of health. Instead, it reflects precisely what people have to accept to get better. The most profound aspect of complementary medicine is that it is not a monoculture. It is, by nature, biodiverse in its view. Researchers suggest that the yellow and very sweet bananas that are in every grocery store will, in less than a decade, become extinct. The reason purported is that despite there being dozens of banana species, the species that have been cultivated and bred for modern consumption has led to its sole reliance. Because of this monoculturing, it becomes very susceptible to disease and especially blight; not unlike how COVID-19 is operating now. In a rainforest, there may be pockets of other plants, other bananas and overall greater biodiversity. When a disease comes through, the banana’s chances of surviving are higher.

The same can be said about complementary medicine. Western Medicine is a monoculture. The crisis in healthcare at this moment, you could argue, has a relationship to the fact that conventional medicine has championed itself as the singular authority on the state of the Western individual’s health – and this is further aided by its global presence, i.e. not merely of interest to the Western body. Here we have a moment where an unknown and especially virulent pathogen is significantly devastating not simply the medical worldview, but of nearly every system that supports the proliferation of the human being. Complementary medicine is significant because it, by nature, represents the biodiversity of worldview. It represents all of the perspectives, the plants if you will, that were unable to flourish, because one took the helm.

This does not mean WM is wrong, or not valuable or effective. With the current climate of the world, it does suggest that complementary medicine will be an absolutely crucial light, in a dark time. Chinese herbalists are chomping at the bit, as they are coming together to push forward formulas here in the US that were being used successfully to treat COVID-19 infections and to mitigate further spread through formulas designed to prevent transmission. The difference is that someone could continue to believe complementary medicine and Chinese medicine are bullshit. But if it saves lives, if it offers an effective avenue, medicine will continue to operate beyond what a person believes, including what is the common belief in conventional medicine. Only a medicine that evolves is one that can meet a disease that evolves.

8. Why is acupuncture controversial?

Anything that is unknown is controversial for someone. Even the things that are known are controversial for someone. A good practitioner of medicine is someone who is going to be able to operate through and beyond drama. Western doctors have patients who sue them because they look like an ex-wife, or because they used a word in the clinical setting that rubbed them the wrong way, on that day. Medicine is the place where you become very sober about how truly diverse people are. It is there that you realize to what profound extent you cannot take things personally. The person is suffering, is suffering, is suffering, is suffering. From a Chinese medical POV, it is relevant where the individual grew up, what foods they were being fed, whether or not they smoke, if they are sitting for long periods of time. But we are not gathering this information to demonize them for it. Drama would be antithetic to a healthy prognosis. Acupuncture is great because, in the simplest way of putting it, it is the gentlest way you can injure a person – you are piercing them, but without it being perceptible. When you injure another in a perceptible way, either through words, emotionally or physically, the drama turns on. The response is often worse than the original injury – yet another context for cancer.

But acupuncture bypasses that layer or level, and allows you to have a conversation with the person’s body. You then use both the acupuncture and your diagnostic skills in listening, asking, taking the pulse etc, to streamline what questions you will ask. The major issue with asking someone what is wrong is that if you ask them preemptively, they may not have anything wrong, or depending on how it’s asked, they might sense in your words that something deeper is going on inside them and suddenly they are in an emergency, and have to figure that out.

In these moments, the individual can create on the spot, the suggested disease or issue. Questions can act as placebo. Our bodies are creative, emergent, for good or ill. It’s rare for a person to simply volunteer that something is wrong with them, especially in the day-to-day. As a culture, we are shown to reject feeling, to not trust emotion, and to suppress and repress. This translates to people who will not volunteer information unless they are coerced. Elsewhere, we collectively do a good job at talking “around things” rather than addressing them directly. With that said, we typically don’t admit something is wrong until we are in a state of emergency; because at that point something fundamentally has to change about us. We have to make a choice to move forward. We have the capacity to evolve from the micro to macro; but the implications of such a dynamic change in who we are, is terrifying. It is terrifying that it could be that easy. It’s safer to be difficult, to cling to the old, to remain static and hold fast to the familiar.

This is why Chinese medicine, and especially acupuncture are exceptional tools for this kind of person, because acupuncture can bypass the need to ask the person to explain their symptom or themselves directly. Explaining a symptom directly is one that is showing in emergency. In Chinese medicine, we talk about this in the context of a “shen-to-shen” or healing presence. This is where your listening ability and ability to be present with the individual carries into the needles that you are using for treatment. You have the opportunity to move past the surface of the body where the symptom is often showing itself, and to have a direct dialogue with an interior landscape that is reflective of the effected organ system. You then spend the majority of the treatment observing what changes in the patient’s body as you penetrate. Often, the patient will volunteer their story, or the underlying contributor to the symptom. But this doesn’t always come in the form of words.

In essence, the patient has their own dramas. The practitioner’s job is to acknowledge that they are experiencing it in precisely the way they are showing it. The next step is helping to reduce the physiological attachment the body has to those stories, events, traumas, replacing them with blood flow, qi flow, whatever you want to call it. At the end of the day, we’re helping return “who” the person is to themselves. Everyday circumstances invite in new material and comparison, but once in the body, those phenomena can get stuck, stagnated or trapped, and they can compete for the space and the body’s resources. A virus acts in this way. They say that viruses aren’t quite alive. They aren’t exactly a “who”, but once they’ve penetrated the exterior of the body, they suddenly have all of the resources and environment to allow a new “who” to proliferate. The body, in this process, suddenly senses a systemic conflict; their immune system, or body authority is in doubt.

Acupuncture works in the interstices, because by nature it is creating outlet where outlet has closed. The body is covered in outlets, or portals, whether the pores, mouth, nose, ears etc. But there are autonomic dramas that are based in survival mechanisms that marshal the major areas of the body to shut down, when there has been perceived invasion and compromise. These are fear, anger, grief, worry and even joy. These are the faultlines, the climates, the seasons, the altitudes, and the material earth. Acupuncture bypasses the dramas that are compromising these major influences in times of crisis. We are unable to ask the earth directly why it hurts. This is too great and complex a question, and too complex an answer. The earth has its own agency. Acupuncture penetrates the individual and says “You are here,” when the winds of change and crisis are too dynamic to navigate. It’s a way for the body to social distance from itself when your body believes change is so painful, you’d rather die. Politics are the global disease. Qi is the human being beyond the political. Complementary or alternative medicine is the needle. Acupuncture regulates the necessary and inevitable change of worldview.

Contemplations on disease in Brooke Holmes’ Symptom and the Subject

“One of the hardest things to see in medicine is the disease itself. We can best understand it as a cluster of effects to be referred to as a specific phusis that is endowed with a specific dunamis, that is, a capacity to act and to suffer in a predictable way…”

“…What a symptom refers to depends largely on the questions posed to it. That is, symptoms enable physicians to see a range of obscure things depending on whether they are interested in what is happening inside a given body at a given moment.; in the probable outcome of the disease, or in securing evidence for a general claim–diagnosis, prognosis and proof, respectively…”

“…I stress the symptom’s polyvalence in part as a reminder that fifth- and fourth-century medical writing exhibits considerable heterogeneity. At the same time, though, that polyvalence attests the complexity of what I take to be the common object of these writings — the physical body. That is, the different questions posed to the symptom reflect the different angles these writers take on that body. Emerging through a cluster of phenomena and ideas, the physical body is at once a hidden space of bones, sinews and joints, hollows and channels; a mixture of stuffs with different capacities to act and suffer; dense but labile flesh; and a principle of growth and flourishing. It is precisely because it is so complex that it fosters so many divergent narratives within its broader intellectual and cultural milieu, narratives that transform the conditions under which human nature can be imagined.” (Holmes, pg. 124-6)

In other words, how we encounter disease depends largely on the extent to which we question what we observe. When we lose consensus, when we have too myriad of observations — we lend too much toward opinion, and this is a realm of judgment, misunderstanding, prejudice and demonization — it is immunological; Conversely, when we are too linear or one-dimensional in perspective, too subjective, no cure or reliable intervention can be had because the only body that matters will be our own, and our individual symptom is a drama staged and witnessed only by ourselves. This develops resistance to “being observed” and we then become the only ones privy to the meaning of the disease. As a world full of divergent perspectives on ways of being, including what constitutes not simply a disease or a symptom — but a body — we are prone to not only an inability for consensus on what a living, healthy human being might look like; but we become fixated on what we never want it to look like. We’ve developed a global witness of the body whose parts fight among their own shadows, and not a single one of us can observe another in their light. As Plato said: “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”

Said another way, none of us can agree upon what we’re looking at, in terms of life, and our fallback is to question whether the other is living at all. Our fallback is to mistake one another as a symptom, which by nature is innumerable and this inhibits consensus regarding what we know to be a living, breathing body. There is no prognosis for a body that’s already declared itself to be dead, which is one that can only see its symptom.

What is fear?

Fear is a natural protective mechanism that is designed to conserve the amount of physical energy you would expend to an event or circumstance.

If you are experiencing a lot of fear, it means that your body knows that it does not want to expend resources to a particular event.

You have three choices when you encounter fear:

  1. Clarify the source of the fear, assess whether you consciously want to extend yourself to the circumstance.
  2. Remove yourself from the circumstance.
  3. Pain.

Treat your fear like it’s the most thorough form of love you can have for yourself. Trust that what you are communicating to yourself has context and purpose, and it is the most powerful method through which you are trying to obtain clarity about yourself and your motivations.