colorful scarf

Originally uploaded by angelhead

A new client comes to see me. It’s always such an honor. In the first few minutes, she is showing me a funny side, a self-aware side. Now she is hiding how deeply it hurts, that thing she laughs about on the wei, surface, level, as if it were something breezy like a scarf she holds up to the wind. And it is–this end of it, the end that she shows me–the wei level of it. It’s funny, self-aware, breezy, colorful, and we laugh and smile about it together. We have formed an alliance about the wei-level of her uneasiness. I used to think the superficial level was less important than the deeper layers, but I no longer think so. It’s a doorway into what is. Although sometimes this wei-level doorway is not the best door to enter because it can be a place of personality, charm, and fascination. Like most humans, I can get lost there.

The other end, of course, the deeper end of personality’s colorful scarves is the distress of a soul. The other end, wrapped around her heart, is what she wants unraveled. Even when I am liking my client and her scarves so much that I forget that a shift towards health is not a pretty scarf, I vow to remember the importance of unraveling it.

The ying level of it is wrapped around this list-maker’s heart filling up what should be an empty void of big Shen with lists– with precise and particular details of what she should be doing during each and every moment of her day. These lists of obligations and responsibilities are elevated to biblical proportion. She follows lists like some people follow a religion or a guru. She is a self-proclaimed perfectionist. She smiles. She feels as if she does what she does for some entity looking over her shoulder, not for herself. This clear self-reflection from her warns me to consider three fundamental questions: First, is there an entity attached to her shoulder? A gui (ghost)? Second, will I make the mistake of collaborating with the pretty, scarf-wearing, colorful, laughing persona instead of with the faceless soul who is magnificent sans scarves? And, third, is the entity the personality, the pretty scarf?

Who is the client? Who called me and asked,

Please! Let’s unwrap this together?

Her smile implies,

It was me. I’m in control here.

And the laugh she wears like armor around the soft tissues of her upper torso adds emphasis. Yet, I touch the concave emptiness of her hara, which is why she has come to see me.

Breathe here, all the way down. Put your breath in your abdomen. Feel your breath deep inside you.

She looks surprised, as if she has just realized:

Yes, I have an inside. A core, a place deep inside me that is in communication with the world…even when I myself feel nothing.

I will see in these first few sessions how easily she can visit shen in her belly. Can she inhabit her abdomen? Can she hang with the blood/shen of the uterus, ovaries, and zang-fu? Or will she resist the deep, fear the blood, feel hurried as she races outward to the outer edges of the scarf which she holds in her hands, and on which she has written all the organizing lists for her day. She is a hand-person, someone who does, performs, makes lists, keeps things in order. Let’s see if she can sink into her abdomen, inhabit herself, the one who simply is. If she will sink and be and, perhaps stop smiling, just for a moment to acknowledge her unsmiling self, the self she is here to serve…. .

She is still smiling. It has been a few sessions now and I have no idea what to do. The needles have asked her repeatedly to inhabit the abdomen, to fall off the page of her appointment book into the timeless river of blood that she is. Still, she lies with her eyes open, the knowing smile upon her face. Who is she smiling at? Me but not me. She is just smiling, constantly. And her blood pulses remain obscure, hidden. Acupuncture will not be enough in this instance.

After a treatment or two I realized that I was aligning myself with the smiler not the hara. I had been distracted by the scarves and the way she smiled, knowingly, as if we were sharing a secret. But as I realized my first mistake, I made my second mistake. I shut down. I said to myself,

Don’t go there, where the smile leads. Close your mind to the smile and go deeper.

But I was only half right. I was right not to follow the smile into the world of everything fine and cheerful. But going deeper, following the hara, can never occur with my own mind closed. I do my best work from an empty mind, not a closed one. I work best when I am paying attention. I had made the mistake of thinking of her constantly smiling self as false, as a pretender, like a poor immigrant claiming to be a descendant of a Romanov… . So I dismissed her smiling claim as a delusion. But of course, as soon as I dismissed who she presents her self to be, I was no longer paying attention. Dismissal kills attention. Instead of dismissing her smile, I will accept it as a younger sister. I will honor the younger sister, and tuck her lovingly in bed so that older sister will emerge from the middle. Like the alien that bursts out of Sigourney (as Ellen Ripley) Weaver’s abdomen in ALIEN, it won’t be pretty. Older sisters are so often guardians of little sibling’s pain.

I can’t explain how not-knowing flows into knowing or how knowing fails to announce itself or explain itself or otherwise leave a trail which we can follow and learn from. But it’s true that sometimes not-knowing flows into knowing and sometimes knowing fails to announce itself or leave a trail by which we can reconstruct how we came to know. And it’s also true that sometimes I might as well be following dust floating on a ray of sunshine because I’m getting no closer to the light.

It’s winter here in Maine. Even though today is warm and rainy, and yesterday’s snow has melted, tonight’s deep freeze is coming and tomorrow we will awaken to 2 inches of ice–if the storm predictions are correct. So I have to ask myself, why did this Fire person with the constant smile choose this contracted, inward month to make repeated visits to an acupuncturist for a jump-start to ming-men, the gate of vitality? Because that little bit of winter in her hara was easier to ignore in the summer? Or maybe, winter is more congruent with her true self and the smile, the fire, the joy is a mask. Maybe winter’s movement towards healing means that directly treating the abdomen will be less effective than emptying the bladder meridian of its hypervigilance. Maybe sinking into the abdomen has been impossible because of the false fire running through her bladder meridian, encasing her in perkiness. Maybe this is an example of the intelligent body imitating what it needs (fire) but doesn’t have. While I’ve been pumping energy into the abdomen, it’s been leaking out the back shu points. Close the holes first. Then fill the bucket.

The first thing I will do next time she comes is feel the water points on the fire meridians, and the fire points on the water meridians, and do what seems indicated in that moment…

revolved side angle

Originally uploaded by Arielinha

The Maine coast is one of my favorite places in the country. I make my home here. This past winter seemed to last forever, giving pause to our devotion to this spit of earth. However, winter finally gave way to a stunningly beautiful spring and summer. Our devotion was renewed. Sometime in July, after a string of hot, dry days I noticed a sensation of heat in my lungs that came and went. Every once in awhile it seemed hard to draw a deep breath. The tip of my tongue was suddenly home to a cluster of red dots, the sign in Chinese Medicine of some lingering pathogen in the lung. I started to draw a connection between the poor air quality here (due to the winds of the Midwest carrying coal plant emissions and other pollutants our way), ozone warnings and the seeming surge of subtle lung issues in clients visiting for other, non-lung-related reasons, and the shadow of lung-heat I discovered in myself. I started asking myself the same question for every client who came through my door: How are her lungs? Is there a subtle sun-burn of the lungs (the American Lung Association description of ozone damage), a sub-clinical, incomplete murkiness to the exchange of gases that happens with every respiration in a toxic world?

At the ocean’s edge one day, my breath immediately deepened by the lap-lapping of the waves upon the sand, I closed my eyes and began a mental inventory of the acupuncture points on my upper torso. My mind was drawn to several points that were tense, rigid or gummy. As my mental eye probed the points, the rhythmic sounds of the tidal waters resonated within my body. If you’ve ever heard someone tune a guitar string using harmonics you’ve experienced the musical relief that arrives when a harmonic overtone slides into place and two strings reach a harmonic resonance. The ocean acted as my harmonic mentor, and I could feel the alignment of my internal waters with the ocean’s intelligent tone as I sat upon that lap of beach. Stretching began from somewhere deep inside me, a longing in the channels to be freed from the interference of stress and toxin (from which no one is exempt in this highly chemicalized culture).

When I moved into a stretch that was just right to expose the murky waters of an acupuncture point, I used my fingers and my breath to open the portal and release the stagnant flow. Lung 1, Gallbladder 21 and 24, Small Intestine 13. Spleen 21. A day at the water, a day at the office, a day at the water, a day at the office. Such is the rhythm of my summer.

I carried the rhythm of the ocean with me when I returned to the office the next day. I could not help but feel the pulses of my clients as manifestations of this oceanic fluid, and to navigate across the terrain of their meridians like a sailor or surfer looking for the best configuration of forces to access the heartbeat of the ocean that lives inside each person. As Emilie Conrad says in Life on Land, and I paraphrase,

We are water made flesh.

Consider these three examples of fluid resonance in the upper torso that has been unduly restricted by the compressing, rigidifying and gummy influences of stress, toxins or grief.

Pamela. I felt her meridians as if feeling for the rising and falling tide within a single drop of water. Where does the crest of her wave pattern reside in this moment, where the receding ebb? Her tissue felt nonfluid to the extreme. There was a tightness in the entire liver meridian from foot to rib. And the rib cage itself all the way to the clavicle seemed immobile. She is a breastfeeding mother, with a small, healthy preemie daughter. She nurses amid much scrutiny from self, doctors, and others of the child’s daily intake. They are all a-swirl in questions…how much did she get?….is that enough?….what if she doesn’t grow? Preemie culture is like a higher anxiety version of the already high intensity environment of any new family in a medi-technical landscape.

The constant scrutiny and attention to minute details (while in a blood deficient state post-partum) has dessicated her liver meridian and the entire rib cage which sits upon it like a stick-figure rider upon a wooden horse. My goal during treatment is to find the minute oceanic, tidal resonance that flows inside her thoracic cavity, to open the dams that are starving the rib-cage and making the job of milk-production so much more difficult than it need be for this stressed-out breast-feeding momma.

Gertrude. a 65 year old woman with Environmental Illness. She has a metallic taste in her mouth, burning in her head and sinuses, and floating stools. She lost everything, including community as she left her mold-infested home and began wandering in search of a clean environment and detoxifying treatments. She must remain isolated as much as possible from the onslaught of fragrances and chemicals that are found in any human company. She sniffed out my office before setting up her first appointment.

I like her immensely. She’s an archetypal cowboy. In another life we could have ridden horses into the Western frontier, slept under the stars, foraged and hunted for our food, and protected one another from unscrupulous men. The intercostal tissues of her ribcage are also too hard, condensed. Where is the buoyancy of breathing flesh? How can the lymphatic system do it’s job in this environment? It’s like trying to run sap through a particle board instead of a living maple. I work on the same goal, loosening the energetic stillness of the ribcage. Opening the lungs, the heart, the lymphatic system, making space for the body’s fluids to resonate with the ocean’s cleansing biorhythms. I know a deep grief lies buried here.

Maya, a 62 year old woman whose healthy, vibrant partner died unexpectedly two years ago in a winter accident involving cold Michigan waters and thin ice. She described the fear of grief at work in her body, tightening her breath, her shoulders, lodging in the once flexible joints of her knees with wisdom and self-acceptance. She described the busy-ness she worked at for the last two years as a means of staving off the sense of her own drowning, her psychic parallel to the physical experience of her beloved.  She proclaimed her readiness to stop the busies. She radiates peace, a beautiful woman steeped in love like a good cup of tea is steeped in the finest leaves. Her love story continues in the patience she has given herself to heal slowly and at her own pace.

As I suspected the pulse of her lung was depressed, and the gall bladder meridian had a strangle hold on her torso. The meridian system is brilliant. When grief threatened the lungs, the gallbladder and liver meridians battened down the hatches, and kept determined, wooden eyes on the rigors of the daily schedule, freeing the body to go on living, in the comfort of the known and recurring obligations of job and chores. This wise woman has more than survived a tragic love story.  She has gestated herself for two years and now stands poised for birth, with a glad heart to welcome the butterfly she is becoming.

There are many acupuncture points both distally and locally that open the chest, nourish the lungs, clear heat and toxins, disentangle Qi from grief’s constraint, and engender fluid. I don’t think of these actions as attributes of points on paper, but as attributes of the living flesh. One must touch the points, feel their resiliency or lack there of and choose the points that are appropriate at that time. The point that feels wooden needs nourishment and a wood point on the same meridian will help as well. The point that feels dessicated needs nourishment as well, and perhaps the water point on the same meridian will show it’s own degree of need. Common local points that if constrained will impair lymphatic flow and respiration are Lung 1, Gallbladder 21, all the intercostal Kidney points, Liver 14, Gallbladder 24, Pericardium 1, Spleen 21. Distal points are so diverse as to be difficult to narrow down for the purposes of discussion, but certainly points on the arms and wrists, and lower legs corresponding to or in relationship with the meridians to which the active local points belong.

As I immerse myself in this work over the course of a hot, muggy, summer with ozone warnings as prevalent as the sun, I am aware of the synchronicity of both illness and healing that occurs in my office. If someone new comes through my door this summer without these subtle challenges to the lungs, I would be surprised. It is not an encouraging sign that one of our most tree-filled states in the country is unable to detoxify the chemical products circulating world-wide, released into the air by industrial processes and our dependence on fossil fuels. I am ending this summer by reading the book by Jared Diamond called Collapse, How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. We as a society have not yet chosen to succeed. How much more time do we have?

Instructions for Life

Originally uploaded by pshutterbug

Does sickness live permanently on the bad end of the good-versus-evil spectrum? Or is it possible to be sick in a way that serves self, humanity or even cosmic interests? These are questions I’m continually pondering as I analyze the meaning of symptoms in myself or others, or when I feel the utter unfairness of that hammer-swing of disease diagnosis as it falls upon someone I know or love and cherish.

Whether it’s a viral cold, a heavy malaise with uncontrollable crying, wounded veterans, shattered minds, diabetes, or any other experience of the suffering that comes with this physical, social, cultural, tribal experience–is it important what we make of our symptoms? Does it matter if we see sin, redemption or unworthiness in our frail, human dance between wellness and disordered chaos? What if we truly had joyful hearts, would disease be unable to enter? So say the ancient Chinese sage-healers.

Maybe disease truly is an accident of nature, for which we can never be held accountable, except in our ability to let go gracefully of the smoke and mirrors that constitutes what we think of as our “health.” What if absence of disease were merely an anteroom, a fun house chamber of ignorance out of which we step at some point, into the room with the sign on the door that says simply,


Diagnosis is usually seen as the bad-news end of the health spectrum, just a step or two or three from the point at which we fall off the measuring charts into no body. Death. Is there any other way to look at it? I ask you again, do you think there can be a purpose in illness that serves some higher good? A purpose which would put illness somewhere other than the dreaded end of the spectrum. If we could find ways to put illness into the life-building, life-affirming, heart-expanding end of that spectrum, why would we hesitate? And indeed people do it all the time.

The phoenix rises from the ashes. We are cleansed in some primordial way necessary to our unique circumstances as a body on earth, weighed down as each of us are by the ancestors who came before us by the fire of sickness, while the intentionality of our recovery reaches back to the generations who have gone before, healing the past. Even when nothing rises, not the phoenix, not inspiration, or intention or any sense of purpose whatsoever, even then, when illness consumes us and we have nothing but a moment in which to be fully and utterly dying–even then, isn’t it perfect? How can such an experience be good or evil? It is what it is.

In the Chinese Medicine paradigm, relationships determine relative placement on any bipolar spectrum we could possible dream of. In relation to midnight, dusk is bright. In relation to noon, dusk is dark. So goes the first lesson of Yin and Yang encountered by the student of Chinese Medicine. We are repeatedly asked in our training to consider what we are considering in relation to a host of other phenomenon, theory, and experience. Nothing is. Everything becomes–the more you consider it, the more it becomes. It becomes what it is, not something set in stone but something relative, changeable, inspired by the trickery of the moment, which can do nothing but change, minute by minute.

Dr. Sharon Moalem has written a book called Survival of the Sickest: A Medical Maverick Discovers Why We Need Disease. In it he looks at the evolutionary advantages of certain diseases. He started with a question based on personal experience of hemochromatosis. He wondered why evolution hadn’t long ago weeded out this iron-loading disease in classic survival of the fittest fashion? The answer he found, in short, was that whatever will kill you later but gives you an advantage now (and for long enough for you to reproduce) will stay in the gene pool.

The idea that disease can serve an evolutionary purpose reveals how little we know about health and sickness, or more generally about what is lucky or unlucky in a universe that continually surprises us with its interrelated flows of energy, potential and change.

Consider a little book called Zen Shorts. It was written by Jon J. Muth. I read it to my children. In it, Stillwater, the Panda, tells Michael, a child, a story about good luck and bad luck and how it’s not easy to tell the difference when you take a longitudinal view of how one seemingly good-luck event can have repercussions down the road that are decidedly bad-luck, and vice versa, and on and on into perpetuity. The seemingly bad may ultimately cause more good, while the seemingly good may ultimately lead to more bad. Panda takes things in stride, and like Michael, we realize we understand less than we thought about how our lives have unfolded, or will unfold. And we may question the good/bad values we have placed on our experiences.

In the story that Stillwater tells Michael, a farmer’s lone horse runs away. The neighbors come and say,

Such bad luck!

The farmer says,


The next day the horse returns leading 3 wild horses home. The neighbors again:

Such good luck!

The farmer has the same reply.


Later in the story the farmer’s son rides one of the wild horses, is thrown off and breaks his leg (Bad luck? Maybe). The next day the army comes to gather all the young men for war but the farmer’s son is passed over because of the broken leg (the neighbor’s rejoice in the farmer’s good luck).

Is it bad luck to be sick? If we take a longitudinal view of experience over time what could come from being sick that may not in fact be all that bad? Let’s consider one group of people we commonly see in acupuncture offices. They have a long history of problems. The problems are diverse clinical or subclinical functional issues that have not risen to the macro/visible level of organic disease as contemplated by the technology in our hospitals and MD offices. When that’s the case, and there isn’t a pill or a surgery to fix it, even the most reluctant will often seek care from a different kind of practitioner. Most of these folks would say to me (if I asked),

Hell, yes! It’s bad luck to be sick! No one can figure out what’s wrong with me. I’m not myself, I can’t do what I used to do, I’m hurting, this, this and this is wrong, and they make me feel like I’m crazy!

Acupuncture ensues. Shifting happens. Lifestyle choices are examined and changed. Diet improves. Exercise is up, smoking is down. People start to get better. Way better. Was the sickness bad luck or was it “a lucky break,” something that led to a better alignment of internal resources? Dr. Moalem’s work supports some classical Chinese Medicine principles–if you’re willing to take his work and put it in the context of a different paradigm. The Chinese Medicine principles are:

  • The role of environmental factors (including lifestyle, climactic and toxic influences) on the development of disease.
  • The concept of latency and the Extraordinary vessels.
  • The Chinese Medical Consciousness of Interrelatedness between systems within the human body, between humans (social systems) and between humans and environmental systems.

It takes a lot of work to understand Chinese Medicine; the education is rigorous and often times seemed merciless in both its redundancy and its tendency to undergo a sort of collapse into paradox the deeper we thought we, as students, would get into “understanding.” After working as a full time acupuncturist for a decade, I think the brilliance of Chinese Medicine isn’t that it’s hard to understand and an intellectual challenge but in it’s return again and again to the paradoxical, to the fact that disease unfolds as strangely as humans develop, with unique twists and subplots that we do not, and perhaps will not, understand completely. The brilliance of Chinese Medicine is in standing in the light of the unknown we are not frozen like deer in the headlights. Instead we move through not knowing, reaching for another layer of the unfolding, and another and another. Chinese Medicine gives us ways to interpret human experience of health and disease in the face of the paradoxical. Through listening to the pulse, palpating the abdomen, the meridians, feeling the thump-thump of an acupuncture point grasping a needle acupuncturists are given an opportunity to follow the trail that an illness makes across a body. No two trails are alike. Western medical diagnostics may register the same diseases on many different people. But the thump-thump tells an acupuncturist only about this person, in this moment, and what expands or contracts her health right now.

In Survival of the Sickest, Dr. Moaolem discusses the link between the rapid climate change of the historical era known as the Younger Dryas, during which the temperatures dropped drastically over a short period of time, and diabetes. Being really cold for a long period of time may have favored people with diabetes, allowing them to live long enough to reproduce. He discusses the probability that excess iron in the blood as in hemochromotosis favored male survival during the plague. When the body has chronically high iron levels, it initiates a selective iron lock-down, keeping iron away from certain cells, including macrophages. Without iron, macrophages were actually more effective immune system cells, all because iron actually feeds the plague. Who knew?

The book also looks at high cholesterol as a climactic response to low sunlight (cholesterol is important in the manufacturing of Vitamin D). It looks at the evolution not only of humans, but of viruses, which we tend to think of as things we are engaged with in battle. Dr. Moalem posits that much of our DNA is actually viral in nature. Read the book! It’s cool.

Dr. Moalem points out that the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is an outgrowth of our battle mentality and suggests that knowing how evolution changes things can teach us to develop health strategies based on meeting evolutionary needs of the bugs. In other words, the natural evolution of bugs favors survival and reproduction of the bugs. This is the evolutionary goal of all creatures great and small. So what if we find ways to influence that evolution away from methods of ensuring pathogen survival that are harmful to humans? Can you say win/win? This is an astounding, refreshing, radical idea for science, and at the same time completely resonant with the concept in Chinese Medicine of external causes of disease (climactic, toxic, and lifestyle). The approach to an externally-contracted disease in Chinese medicine is to release it, drain it, or change it. It can be a longer process than the big pharmaceutical hammer of some drugs but it will not make super-bugs that are resistant to treatment down the road.

A friend of mine, Michael Kelly, has done a video called Leading from the Emerging Future. You can look at it here. (Sorry, haven’t figured out how to actually paste the video here…). The idea is that the rapid growth of technology is in a state of discordance with the tendencies of humans to become entrenched in the familiar. We are habitualized beings. The risk is that we will not adapt. We will be outpaced by ourselves and lose harmonic resonance with the earth. Michael urges us to learn the art of change as if our lives depended on it. If we do not lead from the emerging future, we will be done in by it.

Perhaps this is the key to finding the heart of sickness as it impacts individuals, families, friendship networks, towns, whole cultures, our planet. Sickness asks something different of us. We cannot go about our business in the same way anymore. We are challenged to lead from that which emerges rather than from our habits. When we or someone we love is sick we feel the edge of darkness, it breaths on our necks and we walk in it. When my father was dying in his last days he called out in semi-delirium,

I don’t have the instructions. Where are the instructions!

In Chinese Medicine the extraordinary vessels (EV) have the ability to make latent an influence, experience, or toxic phenomena that would overwhelm the primary channels were it not siphoned off through the EVs. This ability is the point of connection between genetics and Chinese Medicine. I have inherited my father’s call for instructions. But my gifts are different than his. He was a social scientist. Statistics, norms and deviations were his comfort foods. For me, the walk in the dark is it’s own reward. I am willing to stand in the emerging future without instructions. Statistics mean nothing in the face of one illness. Because in the face of every illness are the eyes of a magnificent soul. As for norms and deviants, it’s all in the perspective. It’s never solid or absolute. One person’s normal is another person’s craziness. Like the walk I took in the woods with June 30 years ago I am willing to go forward without sight, to feel my way like a galactic octopus through the experience of sickness in the community that is mine, that is me, and us. Survival of the sickest isn’t just about genetic advantages of diseases. Survival of the sickest is also about practicing the art of leading from the emerging future. It does not come with instructions.

A few reflections on the practices that influence my practice of acupuncture…

Before I was 30 I loved spinning kicks. It was the loss of vision, I think, the inability to track my movement through space with my eyes that I liked so much. Without clear vision there is nothing so clear as the sense perception that rises from the belly like a cyclone. With the extension of a side-kick added to that spinning momentum the boundaries between self and target find each other effortlessly, like rain finding a puddle.

To create the same sensation my dojo friends and I would play a game we called ‘drunken monkey.’ Two of us would stand facing one another, and we would begin turning around, faster, and faster. Someone would call the count,

One, two, three, go!”

(in Japanese, ichi, ni, san, hut!”). On the word go we would stop spinning and move drunkenly towards one another, blurry-eyed and low in our stances, and we would spar. We’d get in a few moves in that altered state before our eyes would dominate again and our vision would climb at least in part out of the belly and into the head. We would try not to lose the sense of moving from our center, following the inevitability of our movements and of our partner’s movements. Sometimes we’d get in the zone and continue sparring with eyes that were clear but not dominant. When we could sustain it, it was a real high. That state of being in which eyes are open but not dominant is a state of heightened awareness. We called it ‘soft focus.’

My martial arts practice made me feel like a kid in a new world. Even training full-out for 10 years, obtaining black belts in two styles, and teaching others did nothing to change that feeling of exhilaration, awe and appreciation for something beautiful and larger than me. I may have been strong, flexible, eager and possessed of a fighting spirit, but still I gawked at the edges of this world aware of how little I understood it. What if I walked around every day with my mind in my abdomen, with the heightened kinesthetic knowing of a ‘drunken monkey?’ I did not then nor do I now glamorize blindness as some sort of guaranteed entrance to higher perception. But there’s a fine line between using one’s visual abilities to one’s benefit and becoming stuck in the way one sees. Drunken monkey was the 2nd experience in my life to teach me that my eyes (read ‘way of seeing’) could actually lessen my access to energetic intelligence.

The first experience was when I was in high school and I had a recurring dream that I could not open my eyes. I would strain to get my lids to open but as I did so my eyeballs would roll back in their sockets making it impossible for me to see anything, and causing me to strain even harder. These dreams left me with a strong sensory-memory of the physical struggle I engaged in while I slept.

A good friend of mine, June Wolfman ( may God bless you, wherever you are) suggested that we go up to the cliffs. They were rocky precipices on the Hudson River with a view of the George Washington Bridge. There was a good bit of woods between the road and the cliffs. She offered to blindfold me up there and lead me through the woods. Kind of her, eh? In fact it was brilliant. The point was for me to let go of my panic around not seeing, to give into the blindness, to retrain the sensory-memory from one of physical struggle to one of relaxed acceptance. It worked. Something new opened in me. In some ways puberty had turned me into a removed observer rather than a participant in my own life. After walking blindfolded in the woods I embarked on a long journey home to myself.

The process of discernment which led me to study the traditional healing arts of Chinese Medicine was tied up in my martial arts practice, went further back to the blindfolded walk in the woods, and those things carried me through the years of overwork and over-study that characterize medical school . ( I’m amazed at the intelligent reflections of my friend Eric Grey who is in his last year at NCNM and blogs at Deepest Health. I am only now, 10 years out of school, able to reflect on my evolution as an acupuncturist and to write about this magnificent medicine).

Some of the things I bring from the martial arts to the acupuncture table (literally) are stance, breath, soft focus, and that kinesthetic abdomen-driven falling into the point like rain into a puddle (or spinning side-kick to its target).

I don’t kick anymore. Nor do I spar. But I still practice soft focus away from the office in two forms of movement practice. In the first, I practice belly rolls, undulations and circles, hip drops and shimmies. I follow my belly’s movement to it’s inevitable resolution into a flow of more movements, letting the belly lead, not the mind. I’m older, wiser and fleshier. Belly dancing suits me now more than sparring.

Rosina-Fawzia-Al-Rawi, in her book Grandmother’s Secrets, wrote,

We dance to become one with a rhythm that was here before us and will remain after we are gone.”

It stands to reason that dancing makes me a better acupuncturist. The most profound difference between Chinese Medicine and Western medicine is that Western medicine has not evolved a theory of health, or a way of identifying parameters of wellness, except in terms of absence of disease. On the other hand, Chinese medicine from the start has had a theoretical understanding of health as a balance of energetic forces, and a methodology to gauge minute alterations in that balance. I believe that the balance we know as health is

…a rhythm that was here before us and [that] will remain after we are gone.”

If we are lucky–if we are healthy–we get to ride that wave. It almost makes me want to take up surfing. From spinning kicks to belly rolls to riding under the breaking curl of a wave…What do you think? As for my old bones braving the cold Maine waters, that’s why they make wet suits, eh?

The 2nd movement practice I engage in to heighten the sense of moving with a soft focus from the center of my being is harder to describe because it is something new and experimental and collaborative. It involves a collaborative listening, following, leading, empty space, a group of people, martial arts and dance. Our focus most recently has gone so soft that we are motionless, but we wait. We wait for the pulse, for the rhythm, the knowing to take hold of one of us, or all of us, which will move us to the next level of understanding. We are patient, aware of an abundance of time in which to let the underbelly of our undertaking to surface. It feels luxurious to be in this place. We have watched our weekly meetings focused on collaborative movement (drawing on martial arts, dance, and spiritual practices) devolve into motionless stillness. A pregnant pause. We have no idea how our shared intention will evolve. I only know that this practice, even as it seems to have ceased to be, is evolving, and that the stillness in its wake is part of my evolution as an acupuncturist.

The Breeze Generator

Originally uploaded by Spheres57

For many days I could not think of what to write. I could not even think. I was so busy at work, and then I took a week off to be with my kids during their school vacation. The weather was glorious. The problem was that in my free time, when I might write, or think, I was loathe to do anything but merely be present in the sunshine with my children. But a voice inside worried a bit, and could sometimes be heard in the distance like the peepers singing through the night,

what are you going to write next?

I was adrift in something experiential rather than intellectual. Was this burnout? It was a void. No thoughts. An aversion to thinking. Thoughts seemed too precise and finite and limiting. My mother and husband complained that I was not letting them know what I was thinking or planning. What thoughts? What plans? Was I fully in the moment, expanding into the world around me like a galactic octopus feeling its way across the sky? Or was I merely flirting on the outskirts of forgetfulness? Am I a middle-aged woman with shifting hormones, or crossing into an early dementia?

And then my kids went back to school and I went back to work. My son turned 6. I started attacking the backlog of paperwork in the office. I did another home visit to my 90 year old client.

There was a new bright yellow swallows’ house perched high on an olive green pole in his yard. Daffodils beneath the swallow palace looked pale in comparison, and they leaned away from the wind like the ghost of my grandmother (and countless other old ladies) stooped over shopping bags on the streets of New York.

I walked to his bedside where he was waiting. While he is not bed-bound, even lying there his breath was short and labored. On my way in his daughter had said,

His back is sore, but otherwise he seems OK.

Just outside the window at the bird feeders that I had watched during previous visits, there was one Redpoll, 3-4 American Goldfinches, one Red-Winged Blackbird, and a bunch of Chickadees. The room was very warm, and a humidity control unit purred in the corner covering us with white noise. It was like being in a snow globe. Incredibly quiet, and suddenly floating down and swirling around me, were thoughts of my father and stepfather, each of whom died of cancer in my presence. My father died 10 years ago and my stepfather died 29 years ago (if the timing of their deaths sounds backwards, it’s not: My parents were divorced a long time ago and my stepfather was part of my life from an early age).

My father was a lifelong amateur birdwatcher. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone utter the word, Redpoll, except for him. They used to come to his feeders. I can still hear him telling me over the telephone about his avian visitors. It’s quite possible that I hadn’t seen a single one of these small reddish finches since my father died. My 6 year old is very interested in birds. His favorite movie is The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. He would like nothing more than if we filled the house with parakeets and Blue-headed Conures.

If you’ve read this far, thank you for your patience. The title of this post about acupuncture points, in-between spaces and non-linear time grows out of these rambling discourses on my experiences of late. Like all my posts, this is not a scholarly exposé into the nature of reality. It is merely a chapter in a book written in the language of my experience as an acupuncturist and a collaborator in a life I view as cosmic as well as terrestrial. Let me gather the threads I’ve teased out thus far: it started with a few weeks of hard work, followed by an extremely sunny vacation in which I happily crawled like a galactic octopus in a thought-free void across a celestial/sensory experience in which I was averse to thinking. That led me to the birthday of my bird-happy 6 year old, and then to a visit to an older client where his declining breath, and the presence of a Redpoll and other birds reminded me of my fathers.

When my stepfather died my mother and I had been watching his breath stop and start for some time on the old green-flowered couch. We held his hands. Each time his breath caught in a pause too long, I knew that another breath would come. And then his last breath came and I knew not to expect another one. The knowing came not from observing his body as I had been doing before with the intensity of a dentist at work. When he breathed the last breath my attention was immediately drawn from his body to the air around us. It changed. It expanded. The molecules of the air separated and space expanded. Nothing changed and everything changed. Everything looked the same, and everything looked completely different all at the same time. It was a profound experience of an extraordinary, expansive space emerging from the ordinary. It was like a hidden passageway suddenly made visible. I thought

this must be why they call it ‘passing’.

Time was restored to its ordinary ticking and the molecules of air regained their sober density and closed tightly upon themselves. I looked out the living room window at the large conifer tree that scratched my bedroom window (which was directly over the living room) every night, like a protective sentry. I was not yet clobbered in grief. I was stunned.

Help me remember this,”

I said to the tree, as if addressing my closest friend. Only then did grief erupt within me, seizing me from the gut and causing me to curl momentarily into a fetal position as if I had just been kicked.

About 10 or 15 years later, I was flooded with memories of Hans’ death. I brought them with me everywhere I went. I relished them. It went on for a few days. I spoke to my mother on the phone. She still lived in the same house where Hans had died. In the course of our conversation she casually mentioned that the tree that had brushed up against the house for so many years, scratching on the windows of the living room below and my old bedroom above, had been taken down. A few days before.

This is the world in which I live. Isn’t it fabulous! A world in which trees are friends and time is not marching from point A to B but spiraling upon itself, returning to the same point over again but at a different level. Time is a Jackson Pollack painting, not a John Singer Sargeant.

Flash forward again– I was standing in an overly warm bedroom with the white noise going and the birds outside, slowly running my fingers along the lateral edge of the fibula of my 90 year old client, feeling the meridian there. And all of it came together for me: I understood what I was looking for, crawling the celestial universe of the body for active acupuncture points.

The anatomical landmarks that most of us use to begin our orientation towards any given point are the places on the body where we have attached specific meaning. Bones, tendons, muscles. These familiar structures are agents of movement, thus of ‘doing’. Acupuncture points, in contrast, have no meaning in linear time–they do not take us from point A to point B in space like our joints and tendons do. Acupoints are the spaces in-between. They are agents of nothing–spiraling pools of non-linear time. To take my friend Kimberly Ann out of context, they are the hole in the donut.

George Soulié De Morant wrote,

The word for acupuncture points has not always been the same. In ancient times the ideogram that represented them consisted of the elements “flesh-submission-assent,” giving the idea of “command of the flesh.” …The modern term, used since the thirteenth century, is xue, which means “entry of cavern; hollow…”

To me “flesh-submission-assent,” gives another idea: that of a spiritual being as a co-creative (assenting) collaborator in the experience of having a physical body (flesh). It gives the idea that moving from the more expansive space and non-linear time of spirit into the mortal flesh requires submission, which I understand as a kind of forgetting. Is the task of being human merely to resonate at the frequency of our assenting being, even while housed in this body which forgets our roots in spirit? But I’m no scholar.

If this were true, perhaps, the difficulties we have seen in attempts to align acupuncture to medical models such as the Randomized Controlled Trial (written about here and here), are bound to fail not because we haven’t yet figured out the right study design to accommodate the uniquely individualized approach of Chinese medicine, but because acupuncture is not first and foremost a medical treatment aligned with precise, physical outcomes, but actually is at its heart a spiritual experience that occurs on a cellular level.

I’m recovering from an episode of Pain (intentional capitalization) in my sacrum. It started as a dull ache but grew to the shooting variety (the I-can-no-longer-ignore-it proportion) 2 weeks ago. With a combination of treatments from an excellent team, including acupuncture, activator-method chiropractic, and massage, as well as much soul searching, posture work, ergonomic improvements and dietary changes I’m healthier, and in better physical alignment than I have been in for six months.

I’ve experienced the same type of thing before, but not for many years. Illness has always been, for me, a search for meaning. My body was reacting to several stressors, one of which was related to my spending more time at the computer since I started blogging at the beginning of 2008. It was winter when I started, I was indoors more than I would have liked, my snowshoes were left to lean forlornly against the front porch. I lugged my laptop around, from office to home and back again as if it were an appendage or a pet in need of frequent feeding. Sometimes late at night I perched my beloved aluminum mac on my lap while stretched out on the oldest couch still in use today (which lives in my living room). It’s mod 1970s orange velour, however warm and cozy, was no protection against the structural collapse that is our couch. Shopping for new couch begins now. As does shopping for computer for the office, so that laptop no longer has to make the commute, like a child of divorced parents, to two part-time domiciles.

Despite the structural issues that may have resulted from said deplorable posture my muscles were doing things that were highly suspicious of the dreaded food allergy. Any time I see (or experience) unexplained muscle spasms severe enough to misalign the structure of the spine I have to think of the gut. This is true especially if:

  • spasms wander to diverse muscles in proximity to the gut and attaching to the spine–such as psoas and hamstrings.
  • when (despite the picture of me lolling on evil comfy couch), the individual with such spasms is not a total couch potato but had been exercising well and often until onset of the debilitating-ouch.
  • when there is a family history of gut and back issues: in my family almost everyone has or has had “a bad back,” and there is IBS, Crohns and Diverticulitis up the, yes, the whazoo. Most recently a cousin a few years older than me was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. Yes, you read that right. Type 1. In the latter stages of the 4th decade of her life.

Oh, the gut. I gave up dairy in my thirties, gave up gluten at 40, rice at 41 or 42 (after massive rice consumption following elimination of gluten), and was heading towards 50 with just a twinge of awareness here, a flash of intuition there. Would I slide into that decade free of an irritated gut? No. Last Saturday I became certain without a doubt that soy is no longer my friend.

It has been only 4 days since my last bite of anything soy (a piece of my son’s gluten-free/dairy-free chocolate birthday cake), and the last vestiges of irritation to gut, muscle and bone are disappearing. I’ll be experimenting in the kitchen again soon to see what flours and what milk I can use to make my excellent birthday cake special a soy-free special next time. In the meantime, this change brings me increased awareness of that balance between lightness and heaviness which food literally embodies (and embeds within us). Soy was tipping me too heavily in the direction of that which is heavy, damp and overfull.

Some Western scientists (and the media) failed to get excited about the role of acupuncture in reducing the presence of certain molecules in the brains of people with fibromyalgia, and the reduction of fibromyalgia-related pain which followed. These folks preferred instead to get all excited about the biochemical possibilities which researchers would explore for creating the same effect with pharmaceuticals. I, on the other hand, got very excited to learn that acupuncture had an immediate and measurable effect on both brain and pain. To me, it was an example of how we are skirting on the edges of a natural convergence between Western science and acupuncture. I wrote a somewhat hot-headed post about this subject, which you can read here.

I probably shouldn’t have been so hot-headed. After all, the researchers plan to investigate drugs rather than the signal system of acupuncture reflects the dominant paradigm of western medicine–a deep and abiding love affair with pharmaceutical answers to biochemical problems. But in my mind–the mind of someone who navigates along the acupuncture meridians of the body with the attentiveness of a physically blind sculptor–their lack of enthusiasm pointed to a general malaise in western science–a sad lack of curiosity.   Albert Einstein reportedly once said,

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.

The good news is that (the above-mentioned researchers aside) passionate curiosity is alive and well among other western scientists and practitioners of Chinese medicine. I’m not talking about the largely misguided attempts to reduce acupuncture or herbal medicine to technical protocols to treat western diagnoses, and verifications of these standardized protocols with randomized controlled trials. Such scientific inquiries are misguided because acupuncture and herbal medicine are not protocol-driven. The kind of curiosity I’m talking about is different. It’s more fundamental. The fundamental question is not how can Chinese medicine fit into the evidence-based protocols of Western medicine, but rather what don’t we understand about how people heal, and what can we learn in this regard from Chinese medicine?

I am not a scholar, or a scientist, just a passionately curious acupuncturist who has a decidedly intuitive appreciation for bridge-building. The reason I love Chinese medicine (because it’s all about making connections, understanding connections, and being in dialog with active processes) is the same reason I am attracted intellectually and spiritually to quantum physics and biological research about information transfer through connective tissue. But since I am not a scholar, and much of what I feel intuitively must be true I do not understand well enough to write about with any degree of authenticity, I won’t attempt to summarize this vast subject.   There are some great books out there which I am reading or rereading, all of which provide clues to the intelligence of healing, the brilliance of western science, the need for Western medicine to progress from it’s mechanistic, Newtonian practices and to embrace the new frontier where biological regulatory systems meet Quantum physics, acupuncture meridians, and the X-signal system talked about by a brilliant Japanese acupuncturist of the 20th Century, Yoshia Manaka.

Without further ado, here is my reading list. Enjoy.

Energy Medicine in Therapeutics and Human Performance, by James Oschman.

Chasing the Dragon’s Tail by Yoshio Manaka, MD with Kazuko Itaya and Stephen Birch.

The Extracellular Matrix and Ground Regulation: Basis for a Holistic Biological Medicine by Alfred Pischinger, Edited by Hartmut Heine.

If you dig into any of these books, please post a comment and let me know what you’re reading. If anyone is up for an on-line book club, we could all read a chunk and chew the fat together.

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