Every once in awhile someone will ask me the difference between Eastern and Western medicine. The common answer given is that Eastern medicine is “holistic” and “natural.” I really dislike this response because it’s completely lazy. A Toyota and a pineapple are both natural things in a very broad definition. And, Western medicine is a kinda “holistic” when all the sub-specialties are cobbled together as a group. No, I really don’t like that answer at all. Instead, I offer this comparison: What’s the difference between a fisherman and a fishmonger?
A fisherman spends his days in the ocean understanding the currents, the temperature of the water, and the restlessness of the waves. Over a lifetime, he learns the habits, preferences, idiosyncrasies of his catch. He already knows if it swims alone or in a school; acts as predator or prey; migrates with the changing seasons or stays in local waters. The fisherman and fish have a living, dynamic relationship because they share the same home. Like family, what affects the fish will affect the fisherman.
The fishmonger, on the other hand, lives in an environment far removed from the coastal depths or briny shores. His work place is one of sterility and smelling of chemical disinfectant. He wears a white smock often bearing a sharp knife. His understanding of fish anatomy is quite detailed and he can deconstruct one readily. The fish who arrive in his clutches are already dead or dying so he has little or no interest in how they swim, play, or interact. He’s likely never seen one vibrantly alive.
When I first began studying Chinese medicine so many years ago, I took a deconstructionist approach, an intellectual carry-over from my years in medical school and studying science. I would spend countless hours trying to discover the anatomical logic underlying the traditional philosophy. The concepts of meridians (channels), yin and yang, and Qi (energy) to me were more like metaphors than a real way of describing human experience. Being a proud and sophisticated intellectual, I was certain I would eventually uncover the logic to this anachronistic practice. I anticipated that, at the start, I was going to be an amazing practitioner.
Nope. Out of the gate, I fell completely flat on my face.
Though I would devour piles of professional journals, go to celebrated workshops, hop from one internship to the next, I came no closer to understanding why nothing seemingly worked. French-Vietnamese needling technique, the English Worsley philosophy, New England American acupuncture style - nothing worked. I eventually discovered that my frustrations weren’t exceptional. Fifty percent of new acupuncturists do not renew their licenses after two years; fifty percent of that number do not renew after the next 2 years. This piece of trivia did nothing to encourage my spirits as I limped through my practice. Depressed and embarrassed I carried on like this for another 5 years.
At some point last year, I noticed something interesting. I had stopped measuring out the anatomical points on the body and was now actively palpating for them. Instead of relying on the intake charts, I was watching eye movement, observing body language, and listening to the voice of my patient. Gently touching the pulse and skin, a once empty proposition, became an incredible road map into the internal landscape. My senses, once as sharp as an old butter knife, had surprisingly blossomed into powerful tools. My practice quietly evolved from an awkward, overly analytical exercise needle poking to a conscious, living engagement in feeling for vibration and energy. I had subtly made a huge shift.
Along with these changes, came the realization of what I had been doing wrong. For years, I dissected the practice of Chinese medicine, rationalizing and translating it to fit a Western paradigm. Instead of understanding the practice as a living whole, I tried to break it into pieces, and, in the process, lost something vitally important (This is why Western doctors(MDs) usually stink at acupuncture). Like a fishmonger, I had filleted the life of the practice. What finally changed after all these years, what I finally understood and accepted, was the phenomena of energy, particularly in myself.
As much as time, experience, and exposure were all important contributing factors to this growth, I know for certain that there was nothing that shifted my consciousness as profoundly as my yoga practice. The landscape of my body, the rhythm of my breath, the sensitivity of my hands and feet, all those parts of me that once felt dead, now move with articulation and an electric connection. Intent possessed a clear voice, movements have a musicality, the physical narrative of emotion is more defined. Where I once dominated with intellect only, I learned to surrender and feel. This transformation from soulless fishmonger to a spiritual fisherman began when I finally felt the sea of energy inside of me. This didn’t happen through my academic studies, this occurred for me first on my mat; from this space it spread outward into everything.
So what’s the difference between Western and Eastern medicine? What’s the difference between fishermen and fishmongers? The space from which they work. One understands it, the other lives it. Although it’s still okay to go with the standard answers, “holistic” and “natural,” just keep in mind that the distance between saying words and actually understanding is huge. It’s quite literally an ocean apart.