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The Community of Healing

I have long been interested in the crossroads of community and healing. Moving to Vermont (July 2012) after 13 years in the San Francisco Bay Area was part of this exploration; is community something that can be found anywhere? Is healing the same? Can I foster both wherever I go, and where do they meet? Vermont exceeded my hopes; healing and community indeed meet here, and have continued to grow in their dynamic exchange.

Lately, my excitement about the communal nature of healing has been particularly piqued, while listening to lectures by Bruce Lipton. He talks about cellular disease being, literally, isolation. So what does this mean on the macro-level, in our daily life?

To me, it is the idea that illness is usually not a sudden incident, nor does it happen in a vacuum. Rather, it is part of a larger context of cause-and-effect patterns. We see in the world around us that symptoms — cultural, economic, or physiological — are part of a larger system. Nature provides the best teacher of such symbiosis; it is the ultimate example of community. Luckily, the most leading-edge doctors and scientists are now bringing this to our attention.

But Traditional Chinese Medicine knew this a long time ago. For thousands of years, practitioners have been looking to nature to learn how elements and systems function. Without modern distractions, or current medical tools (such as imaging or blood tests), the Chinese utilized our most powerful human tools of observation and analysis. Acting as the first scientists, they felt the pulse, looked at the tongue, and developed a sophisticated system of diagnosis based on their observations. Chinese doctors used metaphors based in nature to describe patterns of health and illness. They took hundreds of herbs over hundreds of years and recorded the effects. They developed Acupuncture; the insertion of fine needles at points on the body, which are part of a specific point prescription, to treat an organism’s carefully diagnosed imbalance. And lucky for us, they wrote it all down.

As a lifetime student of this complex medicine and its wise worldview, I feel honored to utilize its tools of Acupuncture and herbal medicine to help patients feel better. However, a major part of community health that I’m learning from Chinese Medicine’s Taoist roots is that the practitioner’s job is not to “bestow health” upon a patient. Rather, I am a partner in the patient’s journey of “unlearning.” Together, we peel back layers of conditioning (physical, mental, and/or emotional), to facilitate a person’s intelligence coming forward. By intelligence, I mean an innate knowing; the body and soul understand how to be healthy.

As an example of how this works, I’ll explain what one of my teachers means when he says “Give them feet.” All traditional healing systems emphasize digestion; help the patient digest and you improve assimilation. This is logical; if the body can break things down, it absorbs and excretes better. But assimilation means more than just digesting food and utilizing nutrients. Its how life is taken in, processed, and transformed into energy. So if I can help a patient digest, assimilate life, I help to put his feet on the ground. I help him strengthen his ability to discriminate, trust his inner logic, and make decisions based on his natural “appetite,” rather than logic outside himself. As a result, he is more of an asset to his internal and external community.

Another story shows how healing is community by nature, and is related to the idea of “nailing one foot to the ground.” We all have a sense of the importance of routine and regularity, particularly if we spend any time with the elderly or infants. So I often instruct patients to start by eating the same breakfast around the same time every morning, or in some cases, just eating breakfast. This may sound simplistic, but a survey conducted at a school of Chinese Medicine illustrates the power of this concept. Essentially, Hispanic patients who ate a daily staple of beans, rice and corn were compared to Euro-American patients who did not have a daily staple, and the Hispanic patients responded to Acupuncture and herbal medicine much more quickly and successfully.

Guided by this philosophy of creating stability and facilitating trust in a person’s innate wisdom, my treatments consist of three basic elements. The first is talking with a patient about her life. I listen to her experience, and encourage her to help me understand what she most needs. We talk about how the little things we do every day are powerful in the long run; like drops in a bucket, what we add slowly but surely over a lifetime will determine the bucket of health we carry around. Along these lines, recommendations ranging from food to brain retraining are discussed. How to nourish one self is a guiding principle, so I’m listening for the best way to support you in doing this.

The second element of treatment is Acupuncture. From a Western Medical viewpoint, it encourages the release of endorphins, which relieves pain and supports the all-important immune system. Acupuncture also helps the body transition from a “fight-or-flight” mode to “rest and digest;" in other words, mitigates stress. The Chinese Medical perspective can also put it simply; Acupuncture either moves what’s stuck, slows down hyper-function, fires up hypo-function, or in most cases, a bit of each. For the patient, this means lying down, having around 12 fine needles inserted, resting (often sleeping) for 30-40 minutes, then waking feeling very relaxed. Many patients describe the post-acupuncture feeling as calm, yet energized.

The third element of treatment is herbal prescription and/or additional supplementation. The Chinese Medical Pharmacopoeia consists of around 400 herbs, which are combined specifically for the patient’s constitution, symptoms, and how each herb compliments another. Talk about a community! And my post-graduate studies in functional medicine have made me aware of some other basic support (such as nutrients or probiotics) that is often helpful in assisting the body with optimal function and repair. I order as-needed, and only from trusted sources.

Treatment might consist of any or all of these three elements, depending on the patient. The idea from Chinese Medical theory is always to be assisting you with calibrating to the seasons (meaning rhythm of time cycles) through eating, resting, and taking herbs, so imbalance or disease will pass through, rather than becoming chronic. In some cases, regular Acupuncture sets up the body to better accept other practitioners’ treatment plans. In others, well-timed treatments address specific pathologies such as hormonal imbalance or an injury.

One more key component worth mentioning is that a major aspect of community (healing) is expecting results. Often “community” is a nice idea that gets too lost in process, and we forget that effectiveness matters. I feel this way about my treatments; as one teacher has said, “stand by pole, see shadow!” He means we should expect to see results of the treatment immediately, or the doctor needs to question her diagnosis. This has been my experience; you should feel something in the first couple treatments. How long it will take to fully resolve your issue is dependent upon several factors. But some sort of change is almost always noticed in 1-3 treatments.

The longer I practice and the more I learn the latest perspectives on neural biology, the more I understand how Chinese Medicine works, and it is truly profound. We are a community to our core. The more I can foster this as a practitioner, the more I can facilitate healing for all of us. The alternative of isolating a patient and her pathology just doesn’t seem to be working so well anymore. However in China, when someone was sick, everyone in the family would take herbs and eat rice porridge, even when the ill person could not. This is the spirit I hope to foster in my practice, and I welcome you to take a seat at the table!