Acupuncture – Tending the Human Landscape
What is acupuncture? Many people have a general understanding that it has something to do with an alternative form of healthcare whereby needles are inserted into the body. However, that’s often as far as it goes. How and why it works and what it can be used for are questions that seem to have left the general public wondering. The media has portrayed it primarily as a means to reduce physical pain. In recent years, and especially since the federal government endorsed acupuncture as a legitimate form of treatment for certain conditions, this ancient medicinal system has received quite a bit of press. Even so, and despite its gaining popularity, it continues to elude the grasp of the mainstream. It may seem just a little too mysterious, too “out there” for most folks. A few years ago a popular magazine did a feature on alternative medicine. In it was a full-page portrait of a man, his entire face and shaved head covered with needles. Interesting as it may appear, this type of portrayal is a gross misrepresentation of common acupuncture practice.
So again, what is acupuncture? The answer to that question depends upon the practitioner you ask. There are numerous traditions of acupuncture. Even within a particular tradition, practitioners develop their own styles, which change over time. I will then share with you my current thoughts.
Ancient China, the birthplace of this three to five thousand year old healing art, was a highly agrarian culture. It was generally understood that a deep knowledge of, and respect for nature was crucial for survival. As in so many other ancient cultures, the sages recognized man as a microcosm of nature. It was observed though, that unlike nature, man tended to get stuck. This “stuckness” was considered the root of our suffering, dis-ease and inability to heal. Our attachments, attitudes, and patterns inhibited our fluid movement through life. Nature, being free from these, even despite its violence and chaos, would always gracefully heal.
As an acupuncturist, I view the individual and all aspects of body/mind/spirit as an expression of the same energies that manifest as the elements of nature – water, wood, fire, earth and metal. These energies flow through us like rivers, and can be accessed by stimulating specific points on the body with small disposable needles or with mild heat. Acupuncture points are like gates, which may need to be freed up in order to swing open and closed appropriately. This can regulate the flow of “qi”(pronounced chee) along these rivers of energy or “meridians”.
There are twelve primary meridians that course throughout the body. Each is responsible for a specific aspect of being or functioning on the physical, emotional and spirit levels of every individual. In the west, the meridians are named after the anatomical organ in which their qi manifests. For example: Liver qi manifests into the liver organ. It opens into the eyes and allows us the gifts of vision and insight, and therefore planning and decision making. It controls the tendons and ligaments and therefore allows the capacity to move forward in life and smoothly assert, or retreat if appropriate. The liver meridian feeds the lung meridian and is fed by the gallbladder meridian. Together, gallbladder and liver form the wood element. Wood corresponds with springtime, the anger emotion, the green color, the rancid smell and the shouting sound of voice. Wood feeds fire, is fed by water, controls earth and is controlled by metal.
The Five Element acupuncturist needs to become intimate with the characteristics, tendencies and possible manifestations of qi in each of the meridians and elements, then observe the unfolding within each individual. I like to think of all of my clients as highly individualized human landscapes. I need to understand their strengths and challenges on every level. I therefore choose to spend quite a bit of time with patients at their initial visit, which can be up to two hours long. This gives us the opportunity to fully explore their being. Where exactly is the headache? What time of the day is it better or worse? What do you like to do for fun? How do sour tasting foods affect your digestion? What time do you wake up at night? The answers to and particularly the energy and emotion behind these answers allows me to determine where the qi is flowing appropriately and where it needs tending. And yes, the time that you wake up at night certainly can have something to do with why your injured knee is not healing. Man is a microcosm of nature and nature is holistic. Everything affects and depends upon everything else. Therefore, if the cool rainy springtime can affect your yield of summer squash in late August then why couldn’t the splinter in the palm of your hand possibly help to alleviate the one sided headaches that you tend to experience? Everything affects everything. Nothing is discounted. Everything matters.
As part of the diagnostic process, I spend a considerable amount of time listening to the twelve pulses. The quantity of qi in each of the twelve meridians can be assessed at the radial (wrist) pulse. From a Five Element perspective, pulse diagnoses verifies a practitioner’s impression of a patient’s energies, and helps to shape individual treatments.
Points are then chosen and needles inserted to recreate balance. Unlike our friend in the magazine article, most of my patients receive somewhere between four and twelve needles per treatment. Regardless of how many needles are used, the most important aspect of any given treatment is the clear intention of the practitioner. I like to think that all of the points that I select are working together to support my intention, and that the intention in that moment is in alignment with the common healing vision which the patient and I share. I listen to the pulse often during a session to help me assess how the qi is moving. A change in quality in any or all of the pulses indicates progress. When a session is over, most patient’s report feeling relaxed, clear and energized. Oh, and do the needles hurt? There is usually a localized mild pulling sensation or dull ache that the patient experiences when the needle contacts the qi beneath the surface of the skin. Sometimes a mild electrical sensation extending away from the point can be felt. Most patients find the sensations to be interesting rather than painful. Needles can be either left in for a period of time or removed immediately depending upon the effect that the practitioner wishes to achieve.
Results of some sort can be experienced immediately depending on the objective. Are we helping to balance the qi at the site of an injury, or working at as deep a level as possible for the sake of an entire being and its healing process? Regardless, I know that I am assisting in another individuals healing - not really fixing anything – just listening very closely and asking the body/mind/spirit what would best serve in that moment. The needle becomes a fulcrum around which that service is offered and the entire being can then take in the abundant healing that it has to offer itself.
Acupuncture is one of the branches of Chinese Medicine. Diet is another. Here's an easy to digest primer on Chinese dietary therapy, called A Warm Spleen is a Happy Spleen
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