Chinese At Heart – the Impacts and Implications of Chinese Medical Theory in a Dominantly Western Paradigm

If God gives us life and we continue as we have, some day when I’m a pile of ashes and the smell of smoke in your memory is all you have left of these days, then you will see situations and sicknesses never seen before. I have no idea what they may be; I have no way of recognizing them with our very old ways and traditional roots. But you’re the new one who’s going to have to find special medicines to deal with them, instead of just using the old things because they are old. You must find new ways to do old things, and new medicines with old roots to cure the bad times made by new things.

-Martin Prechtel

This week I’d like to take a small break from the discussion of gastrointestinal diseases to discuss a relevant and pressing issue for each of us as people who participate and contribute to the healthcare system in this country – and further – the practice of Chinese medicine (CM) and its relationship to the western biomedical milieu.

In many ways, the practice of Chinese medicine is becoming more standardized toward the western view of health and disease.

Increasingly, I see practitioners arguing that we should value the seemingly objective nature of lab results while distrusting/negating patient reports about their own experience in treatment. In this view, the holistic and subtle underpinnings of Chinese medicine are deemphasized. This seems, particularly for classical practitioners like myself, to be a gross violation of the principles of the medicine. In some cases, this change in Chinese medicine even includes turning away from the complete and comprehensive care well trained practitioners can deliver. Instead, some would have it be simply technical, protocol-based medicine, bereft of its life-giving root.

There are enough things that are taking us away from our bodies and their inherent knowledge, attempting to simply ameliorate suffering, rather than listening to the signs and symptoms the body and learning from them; we must draw these two back together. Far too many standardized approaches exist that ignore the nuance and subtle differences inherent within every individual human being.

A holistic approach does not simply ameliorate pain, it involves exploration of how the current signs and symptoms the patient is experiencing are not separate but are in fact – related to each other – and to the patho-physiology of the body in question. In this regard, Chinese medicine is a tour de force.

What happens when we introduce these concepts to patients? Profound and long-lasting change, unwavering validation, and often a pause with utter acknowledgement. Immediately the relationship between the patient and their body is re-enlivened, repaired, and healing begins. The same thinking that brought on the disease will not be the same thinking that heals the disease. If this critical component – the patient’s relationship to themselves, and to their own bodies – is rendered unreliable, or even deemphasized, I fear we will be heading down a path of further disintegration.

Chinese medicine and CM theory hold the key to examining our lives – both in health and disease – in a way we are longing for so desperately.

In western cultures, we often separate the body from the spirit or mind. It’s not so far fetched then that medicine that comes from that root would fail to see the subject’s experience as relevant in understanding what brought them into disease. As the establishment of this thought in western biomedicine is so intertwined with the Cartesian dualist split of mind and body, these two parts of a being are no longer examined as one. Simply put, this theory that splits body and mind, or the person from their experience – can in and of itself, engender disease.

It is my conviction that a new approach toward medicine is necessary for our world today.

It is here where a new approach and perception gains fluidity and thereby greater perspicuity of the reality at hand – we live in a society where both western and eastern interventions are relevant and necessary – but we cannot forgo one in favor of the other. Chinese medical theory of Yinyang directly applies!

In the US, we hear Yin and Yang referred to as if they were two separate things – we understand they have a relationship but they are oft referenced without the emphasis that if one does not exist – neither can the other. The Cartesian split is somewhat of an example of Yin and Yang that fell short of its potential. The implication of a connectedness still exists by comparison, but the emphasis that if we do not have one, we could not experience the other, could be afforded more credence. Too, we must understand that there are TWO parts to this ONE and, simultaneously, that there is ONE and it consists of TWO.

As is true for nearly all binaries and dualities, these two, Yin and Yang, are in fact one.

The purpose of the artificial division painted here and within the theory is merely for discussion and conceptualization of the dynamic (read relationship) between them. Yinyang is a conceived notion that teaches about the continuum of existence. The relationship that obtains between the two being of utmost importance. This signals to us that we must not pay as much attention to the two individually, but to create space in our minds for the emphasis of their relationship – where two can be, in fact, one. This is true for each of us as practitioners, and seekers of Chinese medicine, in the West.

Zhang Xichun, one of China’s great scholar-physicians lived from 1860-1933. In this time he greatly contributed to the field of Chinese medicine and in large part, was responsible for ideas integrating Western and Chinese medicine together. This is not a new issue in our field – this is one that has been examined for decades. In the last year of his career, Xichun’s contributions were brought together under the title, “Chinese at Heart but Western Where Appropriate: Essays Investigating an Integrated Form of Medicine.”

Xichun’s perspective is a fascinating one that resembles much of what I was taught during my time at NUNM – this perspective is missing in the overarching rhetoric I am encountering in Chinese medicine today. Namely, that if we trace classical thought patterns down to their genesis – we will indeed find the philosophy, axioms, and theory that in fact explains – or most certainly runs parallel to, western biomedical ways of thinking. That being said, the emphasis here is to keep, “Chinese at Heart,” trusting the laws of nature – and understanding that as human beings connected to nature – we in fact operate under these same laws ourselves.

Often times when we separate the body from the mind, or the body from its environment, the body is no longer functioning as a whole.

When the body and the mind are separated, the body and spirit become objectified, and the body can only be examined by what it produces. No longer is relationship between the spirit being, and the body, held in the fore of our minds. There is proof of the importance of this connection in both eastern and western disciplines – one certainly cannot argue that the body continues to exist without the animating force of spirit within it – we witness this at death.

Rather than neglecting the body’s innate intelligence, as Classical Chinese medical practitioners, we understand that with great care, with great perseverance, the body is always attempting to keep both itself (the physical being) and spirit intact, quite literally, in form. In conclusion, I present you with a few of my own questions…

  • What impact might it have on the western biomedical body; to be so disconnected from that which animates it?
  • How do society and the capitalist model impact the way we view our own bodies?
  • Why is it that – that which is exalted is in fact only the things that the human being (and therefore the body) produces? This includes lab work, x-rays, not to mention – one’s work, home, wage and living earned, what the person does, and or what they manufacture, etc.
  • What impact does this type of viewpoint have on our bodies?
  • If medicine does not account for this connection your body becomes a thing-in-itself?

All medicine would be remiss for turning only to seemingly objective lab findings and results – we need to listen to our patients. Without doing so we deny the potential of honoring the connection between our spirits and our bodies and thereby true healing – the shift in consciousness, awareness, and relationship that a person has to their own body and their own lived experience. If this description of health and healing resonates, please feel free to look at my bio and hop on my schedule.

Stay tuned for the next article in this stream of thought coming soon…

Written by Melinda Wheeler, LAc

My care is personalized and tailored to each individual. Through my studies and training, I have developed many techniques and tools to treat anyone, no matter their ailment or injury. Whether you have identified symptoms of physical pain, emotional instability, or you aren’t quite able to put your finger on any form of dis-ease, but you want to try acupuncture and/or Chinese medicine, come and see what we can accomplish together for the betterment and evolution of your well being!