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East continually meets West in the world of acupuncture in America, but the news media doesn’t usually go far enough to expose the fascinating convergence of two super-powered medical paradigms: Western (allopathic) medicine and Chinese Medicine. The two systems are based on entirely different sets of principles and beliefs, and yet both improve human life and potential using uniquely rational, but different, methodologies.

If the news media wanted to push the convergence along, it could be done with a headline that read something like this: “Acupuncture Zaps Medic-Cultural Substrate!” Unfortunately, that’s the headline of a major news story whose time has yet to come. If for no other reason than the term, medic-cultural substrate, is only being introduced in the English language right here, right now, by one lone linguistic enthusiast. Pardon me, if you’re a linguistic purist, my word-coinage is not meant to offend. It was not, in fact, pre-meditated; I don’t really know how it happened. That new word just happened upon this post, in much the same way that snow just happens in middle March when we Northerners are too darn tired of snow to much notice (but we yearn for spring nonetheless).

So, what is it, you ask? This medic-cultural substrate? I love the way the ‘ic’ of medic combines with the ‘cul’ of cultural to sound oh so much like medical. We forget so easily that our medical knowledge and understanding–even our medical predisposition and yes, bias–are in fact cultural constructs, not medical ones. When a paradox seems to exist between our rational, western medical mindset and the equally rational (but different) Chinese medical mindset the paradox does not exist except in the limitations of our understanding. To quote the famous physicist, Richard Feynman (speaking about quantum physics but equally applicable here),

a paradox is not a conflict with reality. It is a conflict between reality and your feelings of what reality should be like.

Our feelings of what medical reality should be like are determined by the culturally specific substrate underlying our very thoughts about body, mind, spirit, and the nature of health, wellness, and disease. This often unspoken philosophy of what we want and expect from our medicine and our doctors grows out of a particular culturally-specific “weltanshauung” or world view. For an interesting book about profoundly different medic-cultural world views in conflict see the book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong child, her American Doctors and the Collision of Two Cultures.

In the language of western science, a substrate is the matrix that scientists long assumed was just the junk that held the important stuff together. But not all scientists were fooled. Glial cells in the brain, long thought to be the glue that merely held the all important neurons in place, are now seen as contributing greatly to the transfer of information in the brain. Likewise, it may be the brilliance of the body’s pervasive connective tissue that (besides holding us together) it can also transmit the regulatory messages intended by manipulation of an acupuncture needle within it. However, our cultural bias towards pharmaceutical medicine may cause our scientists to lack enthusiasm for this energetic signal system propagated by acupuncture treatments, even when evidence of it appears in new research. Case in point:

This week, I read an article describing how a bunch of people with fibromyalgia had decreased pain when the levels of glutamate in their brains was reduced, as shown by functional magentic resonance imaging(fMRI) scans. Your first question may be (it was mine) how did these guys lower their glutamate levels, and decrease their pain? It was almost in small print, but not really. It wasn’t mentioned until the end of the 7th paragraph in a 10 paragraph news story that the methodology used to achieve the pain reduction and glutamate reduction was…drum-roll…. acupuncture. When I reached this point in the article, I immediately went back to the title to see if I had misread it. But I hadn’t. The article was called “Pain in Fibromyalgia is Linked to Changes in Brain Molecule.

OK. I sort of got from the article that it was also linked to acupuncture, but I’m clearly biased (as an acupuncturist). Not that I don’t love molecules, (also spring flowers, puppies) and quantum physics. I do. The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which I read in 1979 probably had as much as anything to do with me becoming an acupuncturist. And not that I don’t love brain studies. I do. I quote another one frequently to my clients and I will now quote this one as well. But it strikes me as a particularly revealing fact that the mysterious signal system that linked acupuncture with 1) a decrease in glutamate in the brains of fibromyalgia patients and 2) a reduction in fibromyalgic pain did not feature at all in the news about this study.

The fact that a signal potentially and in fact likely instigated by acupuncture reduced brain molecules should constitute news! The lack of excitement about acupuncture in the scientific community became even clearer when I read that researchers hoped that this discovery would be useful in creating new drugs to treat fibromyalgia. Yes, you heard it–drugs. Not that I don’t love drugs. Antibiotics saved my mother’s life once. But on the other hand, prescription drugs kill more people every year than car accidents or illegal drug use. Prescription drugs are the fourth leading cause of death in the United States behind heart disease, cancer and stroke–according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. And acupuncture never killed anyone. Ever. So I take issue with the direction our leading scientists want to head for the “benefit” of all those zillions of people with fibromyalgia. Only with a very mind-narrowing medic-cultural substrate could researchers miss the other (I would say most) exciting line of thought for future research: what is the nature of the signal system that allows acupuncture to produce these results, and how can we reproduce these same results for fibromyalgia patients everywhere without resorting to drugs?

It’s not that we don’t have a western scientific understanding of the ‘body electric, ‘to use the phrase of Robert Becker, M.D, author of The Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life. It’s been about 100 years now since Western scientists first identified electrical and magnetic energy fields in the human body. And western medical technology utilizes one or the other of these fields in electroencephalograms (EEGs), electrocardiograms(ECGs), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and the lesser known magnetoencephalograms, and magnetocardiograms (no, these last two are not made-up words, both are real technologies used in some major medical centers, or so I’ve heard). Despite this appreciation for electrical and magnetic energy in the realm of medical diagnostics, however, the realm of western medical thought has not yet fully birthed the willingness to explore energetic theories of healing. They may, like Chinese Medicine be 5,000 years old, yet it is as if these energetic sciences have hardly been burped out of the great uterus in the sky, or grown past infancy. All have suffered from a severe and lamentable ‘failure to thrive’ in the biochemical substrate that dominates our medical thinking today.

This lamentable situation is most likely a function of the human propensity to grow attached to its own medic-cultural substrate. In our (western) case that is an attachment to western pharmacological medicine and its big-wigs as if to a pair of slippers and the reassuring comforts of a hot cup of ____ (cocoa, coffee, tea, milk…). But if we dare to take our medicine out of the range of comfort food and old digs, there are some truly amazing possibilities out there to enhance medicine and human potential.

We, the practitioners of Chinese Medicine, must take responsibility for our inability to break through the closed ranks of our own culture’s underlying philosophical expectations of medicine. Even though acupuncturists throughout history have been accessing invisible energetic fields for thousands of years, in modern times in western society we haven’t been so good at describing what we are doing–as Westerners to Westerners. At our worst we get stale and robotic as we recite technical terms like ‘Spleen Qi Deficiency’ to an audience who lacks any cultural, linguistic or educational foot-holes by which to climb such a boring rock wall. And for those who do find such terms interesting and are helped by sharing the language their acupuncturist learned in school, it may not be the flash of understanding these words transmit as much as the resulting sense of openness to new ideas that they instill, a juicy substrate of possibility and potential change that envelopes the thinker in the truth of not-knowing, of mystery and miracle.

I believe that medicine’s ability to enhance human potential beyond the physical, and the ordinary, depends on it’s ability to bridge the gap between modern and ancient wisdom. Our scientists current lack of enthusiasm for energetic signal systems (such as the signal system instigated by acupuncture) allows our medic-cultural substrate to stay a frozen terrain out of which ‘disease-management’ juts like an iceberg. Let’s reach further than disease-management. Let’s reach for radiant health and wellness.