Travis Kern MAcOM, L.Ac.
Ok, ok, ok! Put down the crystals friend. I'm not insulting your sense of energy and the flow of cosmic forces through the human experience. Well, I'm not directly insulting those sensibilities, but I am questioning how we understand the language of Chinese Medicine and by extension a whole host of "New Age" concepts like energy healing, auras, chakras, vibrational medicine, and many many others. And by the way, the New Age is hardly New any more. It fact, it has it's own vocabulary, jargon, and style that gives it a distinctly dated feel.
So here's the rub: Saying that Chinese Medicine or Reiki or Yoga or Aura Atunements are energy medicine makes a significant assumption about the nature of reality -- an assumption that is based on a distinctly Western understanding of what it means to be real and extant and is heavily influenced by the moral dimensions of Christian thought, especially the sort of Christian thought that was brought to the American colonies by our ancestors. So there are really two dimensions of assumptions that I want to explore. The first has do with what is real and the second has to do with Satan waiting for your in the wilderness. Let's begin.
Primary Assumption in the term Energy Medicine: You can understand what is real and you are distinctly part of "real"
This assumption asserts that reality is a collection of solid objects that are animated by another force called "energy" or "spirit" or "vibration," and it is this other force, separate from the solid objects that it animates, that creates the activity of life. It doesn't matter which word you use to describe this separate force because they are all touching on the same idea, and they all conjure a similar image to mind -- that of the meat-filled, skin bag human excited and propelled by an ethereal, mysterious force that might be translucent like Casper, glow from the fingertips like an Xman, or pulse around the body like a rainbow disco show only visible to those with the gift.
This image presumes that human beings are composed of two opposing, dualistic natures, one of substance with little character which is plagued by base instincts and another of heavenly light and cosmic potency that is glorious and mighty to behold (if you have that ability of course). Hold on champ! We've got a problem - dualism is a fundamentally limiting perspective. Instead of understanding and knowing the infinite complexity of existence, we're stuck with only two forces to make sense of our experience.
"But that sounds just like Yin and Yang," you say! "Aren't you a Chinese Medicine practitioner? A student of Dao? How can you dismiss this idea?"
The thing is, you're almost right. It is almost Yin Yang Theory. Except that Yin and Yang are just parts of a complex system that is not based on two things. It's based on one thing: Dao. Which emanates to two things: Yin and Yang. Which begat the three things: Heaven, Human, Earth. Which birthed the four seasons and the five elements and then the ten thousand things (i.e. everything else). Yin and Yang are part of a larger constellation that is not about substance but about movement -- about change. In fact, Yin and Yang are concepts that reflect the way that things change, not what they are but how they move from one state of being to another. It is a constant question of interplay and dynamic transformation. To be one thing is to stagnate and ultimately to descend into permanent suffering.
Assuming that you can manipulate the energy of something demands that the energy of whatever you are manipulating is a component part of a mechanized whole, that it is like gas in a car or circuits in a computer. Standard biomedicine doctors are trying to fix the parts of the substance (the things they can observe and measure), and contemporary energy workers want to work with the ethereal (the things they can sense and feel). Each group is really doing the same thing -- being a mechanic who is repairing the part of the structure or spirit that is broken. But what if you are not actually made of substance or spirit? What if you're not really made at all in the way that most of us think of it. You're not a peanut butter sandwich and you're not a multi-phasic dimensional ghost. Stop assuming you can repair anything and/or stop assuming you have magic powers. I wanted to be McGyver and I wanted to be Hermione too but that ship has sailed. You can help bodies remember how to be whole and functional, but it's not because you shot invisible light and good vibes out of your forehead and fingertips, or because you replaced 1000 knees in surgery.
Now let me be clear....
You can't help bodies return to physiology and dynamic health with magic, nor can you do it with biological science. This is not a rational science apologia. The acupuncture needles aren't stimulating cytokine/immunoglobulin/heat protein cascades through your lymph/immune/cardiac/myofascial systems either. Well they might be doing those things if we could actually measure them (which we can't seem to... but one day amiright?), but that's not why it works. At least, that's not why it works within the framework of the system that created that tool. Chinese Medicine is not dependent on lab tests and petri dishes, nor is it dependent on belief or electric energetic forces. It is reliant on the observation of dynamic movements in nature, the earnest effort to understand those movements, and to apply the concepts that those changes represent to the human condition. Because as it turns out, we aren't actually separate from anything around us. We don't have dominion over all the other things on the planet. The idea that we are superior or wholly unique from everything else is part of that morality stuff I mentioned earlier. Gosh we have so much to talk about.
And I guess this explanation still isn't very clear.
How about a comparative example?
Setting: Ancient times - when people were superstitious and dumb
So here you are walking along through the woods when suddenly you realize you have strayed into the forbidden swamps of the ancestors. Here is a no-pass land, long slapped with a metaphorical verboden sign because it is well known that the spirits that live in this place cause illness and death to those that enter. Though if you are strong and young and still possessed of the good stock given to you by your own ancestors, it is possible to survive a walk through these bogs, but nonetheless, a travel pass is not recommended. Yet here you are. Suddenly bitten by a swarm of gnats and assaulted by foul-smelling air, you bolt from your position across the swamps and back home where within a day you start to feel ill.
Chills and fever take hold of you and the local healer declares that you have been possessed of a foul force from the swamps. It has broken through your charms and defenses and that you will need the smoke of healing herbs and the poultices made of tree barks to cure you. It's hard to know which spirits are the ones that are attacking you and without that info, the healing approach is in broad strokes. But you are young and from good people so hopefully the protection offered to you from your own family spirits will be strong enough to survive. You'll make it. A little worse for wear but you make it.
Setting: Contemporary Times - when people know what's real and aren't bound by ridiculous assumptions
So you're hiking in Mt. Hood National forest when you realize that it's colder out here on the trail than you had imagined and you don't have a nice North Face fleece to cover up with. It's cool you think, punning to yourself quietly, and you carry on with your hike. You've been assaulted by a few No-See-Ums while walking along but you brought your handy bug spray so you're pretty comfortable. By the time you get back to your car though you've got a little sniffle and you hope it doesn't get worse.
The next morning you are sick. Sneezing, hacking, your through feels full of razor blades and you know you need to see the doctor. They tell you that you have a bacterial infection in your throat and lungs. These pathogens probably entered through your mouth and nose and set up shop while your immune system was depressed by the cold. These bugs are causing your symptoms, but they're not sure which one's they are. So take these antibiotics to see if it'll get rid of them and if not, you're young and strong with good genes. You'll be ok. A little uncomfortable but Ok.
Comparison: They are the same thing.
Both of these scenarios describe a similarly observable process. They both are looking at a sick person and trying to understand how that person went from being healthy to being sick. Each of them relying on a set of knowledge and a system of analysis to determine the answer to the question. Now I don't mean that one is real and one is a metaphor for something real. I mean that these stories are just using particular vocabulary to describe the same thing. Healthy becomes sick. Microbes and spirits? The same thing. Whoa snap! I know. I sound like a crazy person to both camps but seriously just sit with it a minute. Have you ever seen a microbe yourself? Have you ever seen an ancestor spirit yourself? Have you been to Havanah before? Yeah like in Cuba? But all or some of these things are real? How do you know? What is it to be real? Whew ok, lets take a step back from the post-modern, relativistic anarchy and just breathe.
Just breathe a second, and feel the air.
I am not trying to collapse the world down on itself to say that all the things are just one thing, in fact that they are not even "things" as such, and that how you view the world, no matter which frame of reference you are using is not more or less real than any other. That, in fact, there is no sense of real because nothing is fixed, and everything that we truly understand or try to understand is a moving target. Wait, actually that is what I am doing.
The parameters of our language create boundaries around our experience by the nature of description. Can we understand things without words for them? Can we see that energy and body are not separate nor are they joined? They are the same thing moving in different spheres and observed in different frameworks. By observing a phenomenon we are intrinsically changing it (concept credit to a white guy from a while back who probably didn't actually think of it but got credit for it anyway).
Chinese Medicine isn't Energy Medicine because that is a limited and erroneous description. People don't get better because my acupuncture needles manipulated their energy flow or because your invisibly glowing hands moved their cancer out of the way or because your good vibes made The Secret come to life. It's because when we work in a sphere that is speciously described as an energy space, we are softening the edges of our own "realness" and experiencing ever so briefly the interconnected fabric of Dao. Our pattern of health and wellness is laid over the pattern of disease and disorder when those boundaries are loosened, and they interact. I don't do anything accept make the space; open my mind to the very difficult idea that what we are all experiencing is only an infinitely small fraction of what is moving in, around, and through us. The actual healing that happens is the flow and movement of existence on a macro scale. You can cut out a tumor or lay in downward-facing-dog or chant or take pills or smoke drugs to solve your ails, but none of those things is the treatment really. They are tools to accessing the pattern of things. Not a magical pattern to be stored in some grimoire or a rational pattern to be tracked by electron microscopes -- just the pattern that even gives us the framework to read grimoires and see microscopes.
So about Satan and the forest:
If the world is dominated by two forces: body and spirit, up and down, hot and cold -- then one of the core anchors of a dualistic world view is that Good and Evil also stand in opposition to each other. God and Satan. Even if you're a polytheist or a nature worshiper, what is the fundamental relationship at play in your pantheon? My guess is probably Good and Evil. Or if you're a super modern person maybe it's Good and Apathy. Even still, this idea of good and evil is reflected in our love of spirit and energy and our derision of animal and substantive. Our society looks at our physical selves as machines in the process of decline and popular nutrition and baseless science is constantly trying to purge your body of all the toxins it has absorbed or created, all in an effort to restore your pristine, "natural" self. Your clean soul, free from the dark influences of indulgence and a lack of self-control. Take your vitamins even if you don't feel like they do anything for you because it's important to build up health brownie points for the time in the future when your skinbag starts to fray.
Satan has long been depicted as waiting in the dark forests of the Americas. Living and working through people of color and natives, warping their minds and filling them with notions of unmarried sex, demonic chanting, and the reverence for the very natural world that has been infused with disease. That same fear has been at the heart of Western empirical thought even as the very people who started the Enlightenment worked to release themselves from the shackles of what they saw as an oppressive religion. And yet, the idea of your body as flawed and impure has persisted, even among people spending time at Free Love Ashrams.
But wait, you're a free-thinking atheist (sometimes agnostic) who has spend years working and studying the Eastern Ways and you know that the world is in fact filled with poisons and horrors that must be purged.
Sure. Ok. But if you are taking a collection of plants and supplements that have words attached to them like: natural purgative, anti-inflammatory, emetic, demulscent, restorative, curative, immuno-supportive; and you are consuming these products with the aim to "purge toxins," to "cleanse the liver," or to "expel heavy metals," then you should know ahead of time which toxins and metals you are targeting and then you should have some way of measuring whether or not those things are actually happening. You are living and working in the world of biomedical, reductionist science (even if the treatment is called natural and chemical free) because you and your practitioner are thinking about your body in this substantive way -- that you are biological machine who needs its oil changed because ENVIRONMENTAL TOXINS/MOLD/FUNGUS/GLUTEN/NIGHTSHADES. But fear that these toxin monsters are lying in wait with henchman from Big Pharma and Monsanto who are all waiting to destroy you is just the Devil in a new form. It is the Puritans exacting control from 500 years in the past. Western culture has not shaken the influence of Abraham, and American culture in particular has made a new religion of fitness and health among some of the least healthy and high-strung people on the planet.
And look, I feel that tension myself every day. We are all of us in the US entwined with our past and our history. We have not left it. We have not evolved beyond it. It is our ancestry -- in Chinese Medicine terms, it is our cultural Jing. And we can't start being vegetarians until our great great great auntie has had her fill of steak.
So how how about those action items?
The only way out of the mind bend is to work to internalize every day that how we have been trained to know and understand the world is not objective. Science with an capital S is not without a point of view -- not without assumptions in the same way that our tribal or religious ancestors made assumptions about reality. The fact that you saw a video on Facebook of a virus attacking cells and injecting its DNA into those cells to reproduce is not itself evidence of an incontrovertible truth about existence. The real truth is that almost no one has seen with their own eyes what that video showed you. It was made in a computer, an example of what we believe is happening based on our observations of lots of other factors. When your doctor tests your blood for infections, they don't look at your blood in a microscope and see all those badboy microbes puttin' a beat down on your cells. It's more complicated than that and much less exact. Certainty is an armor against the scary truth that profound humans have been spouting on about for millennia: The world is largely unknowable in any concrete way and sitting with the certainty that things are the way they seem to be, is the root of inquisitions. The only certainty is that there is no certainty (concept credit to Neo or did Confuscious say? Look for a meme. I'm sure it'll be a wrong attribution).
Chinese Medicine is NOT energy medicine because there is no energy and there is no medicine. And of course both energy and medicine do also exist. Sort of. The answer is Yes and it is No. Because the answer is not what is important. It's the space between the answers and the transition from one answer to the next which gives us the only real insight into what is.
Now jump on into the comments pool. It's pretty warm this time of year...