05 July 2010

Why Classical Chinese Acupuncture?

OK, so I'm not Chinese.
Obviously, I'm a little red.

Since 1977 though, I've been fascinated with Chinese philosophy and its applications in medicine.

It occurs to me that nobody alive today really knows what the ancient Chinese were up to.

So why should we care about something written 2,500 years ago?

What this blog site seeks to answer:
  • How is Classical Chinese Acupuncture different from what is coventionally practiced now?
  • What got lost that we need now?
For starters, let's talk about psychiatry. Maybe you read this often-circulated NYTimes article, at "The Americanization of Mental Illness".

This article states that American views of 'mental disorders' may be as influential as McDonalds, and with unintended harm.

It gets into our shared view of our minds, our beings, and reality itself.

The biomedical view of mental health issues are reduced to chemical deficits or excesses in the brain.
--How do you feel about that?

I worked for over ten years as an acupuncturist in mental health facilities. I travelled to China four times, the first three to observe the work of a qigong teacher treating mental health issues in children: Zhang, Yu-Lei. The fourth time finished two months of doctoral acupuncture training in a clinic that treated depression with acupuncture. The teacher there, Zhang, Jie-Bin in Nanjing (pictured left, in the center) who used the classics to find new ideas for treating his patients. Youth depression and suicide are epidemic in his town of Nanjing -- despite China's economic transformation. The bridge over the Yangtze river, once a symbol of collective pride in the 1950s, now struggles with a daily suicide jumper. Volunteers patrol the bridge.

Drugs can help, but they are a partial solution. Psychiatrists I worked with in the States were very open to new ideas, new options.

Mental health diagnoses are described in objective terms, with clear differentiation, but they are describing a collective subjective experience. It's not like diabetes, with objective blood tests. There are some objective markers, and mental health issues are as real as any disease in their effect.

Psychiatry is considered as something less than other western medical sciences, like neurology, which claim a more 'objective' basis. In this stepping order, 'hard' sciences like physics are the apex. The problem is, quantum physicists tell us there is no such thing as pure objectivity.

Ken Wilber wrote extensively and clearly about the western denigration of the subjective realm. He sought to re-integrate it by talking about 4 aspects of truth, much like the four directions or 5 Phases of Chinese medicine:
  1. Objectivity when single is the hard sciences like physics, describing isolated events
  2. Objective - plural are the social sciences, like sociology and economics
  3. Subjectivity in the singular sense is the realm of poetry and art
  4. Subjective-collective experience is culture and includes language

We tend to discount anything subjective in this culture as unscientific and not valid. Try to imagine life without culture and language: the Inter-subjective.

Psychiatry and much of psychology may then be viewed more appropriately and generously as
a collective subjective process, matters of convention.

Process Oriented Psychology is commendable here. Developed by a quantum physicist named Arny Mindell, their international center here in Portland. It translates psychology from states and things to processes. This is both more accurate and opens up possibilities. Instead of "having depression", "being diagnosed", and "taking something for it", the patient's lived experience is the starting point. The endpoint is: what is really trying to happen, what really wants to be expressed?

In the conventional view, patients come to us being told and believing certain ideas:
  • They have diseases that are pathologies, and potential diseases they cannot see
  • In the case of depression, it is a chemical imbalance in the brain
If we describe those as a process instead, a major shift occurs. Their label is no longer attached to a thing. And it is knowable to themselves.

Fine--but does it work?

In my experience, Classical Chinese Acupuncture is process-based. And the ideas I found there described what I saw in those mental health clinics, and what worked best in my own practice.

What we need is a Process Oriented Acupuncture. It may be similar to the classical version. There is an unfortunate tendency to translate contemporary acupuncture as symptom-based--states, relying on western medicine to define the issues uncritically. But if we talk at length with an MD or a researcher, these definitions are questioned. We need to follow their courageous inquiry.
There is also a tendency to want to give things to treat it, in the form of pills and powders. These also help, but they may distract a practitioner or a patient from this shift in worldview.

If we put a few needles in, and something changes even for a while, what does that tell a patient and a practitioner? What does it mean if we are a few needles away from changing a troubling condition that's lasted for years?

One implication is that the answers are within.
Another is that it was a matter of energy or Qi. 


  1. This is truly inspiring and insightful! A lot to think about. Thank you, Dr.

  2. Great to see you writing, Roger! I look forward to more dispatches from the front.