Looking back, making sense of all the beautiful but disconnected theories we learned in school was the biggest challenge in my study - and practice! - of Chinese Medicine. The more patients I saw and the more training courses I went to, the more questions, and in fact doubts, I kept having.
It didn’t help that colleagues with far greater experience were “supportive” by admitting that they feel the same even after decades of practice. I was not convinced nor comforted to hear “That’s just how it is with Chinese Medicine. We never really know it, we just do our best”. There is no chance I could accept that! I needed to know why and how the medicine I practice is supposed to work, or I simply wouldn’t have the right to help others. Luckily, I found a way to achieve the former, which transformed my knowledge and practice, and even made it possible to teach others.
Now I know that it doesn’t come down to time, number of patients or amount of training hours. To know takes a particular approach. But it is only when we know, that it becomes simple - if we don’t, it remains complicated (and frankly, of little use).
If you still struggle to “get it”, let me share the approach that worked for me.
1. Find your Teacher
In your career as Chinese Medicine practitioners there will probably be many people you learn from. Indeed, you join courses, read books and articles, listen to podcasts, exchange ideas with colleagues, etc.
But getting to the essence, to the very root of Chinese Medicine, takes a different kind of learning: it requires a transformation of the worldview! I can’t imagine how this can even begin without direct transmission from the right teacher. I believe, finding your teacher is personal. No question, reputation and knowledge do matter - but, in my experience, it is as important to feel that you and your (future) teacher are similar and think alike. When I met mine, I remember thinking “This guy thinks like me, he challenges things in the same way I do, he asks himself the same questions, but now, after many years, he has answers!” In other words, your teacher should be kind of like you, but as a minimum a few steps ahead.
2. Look to understand the basic principle
One reason we struggle to grasp the basics is because we skip them. You may be asking: “How come? We all went to school, didn’t we learn the basics?” In school, we learn the theories, that’s not the same as the basics. Theories may prove to work or not, but they all should come from the underlying principle. Theories change and evolve, the principle does not. It is the law - something that works every time. Only by developing a deep clear understanding of the principle, that any theory, method, or treatment can be truly understood rather than copied. As Zheng Qinan puts it: “If students are able to pursue the ultimate principle by comprehending Yin and Yang, they have the foundations necessary to enter through Zhang Zhong Jing’s door”1.
3. Expand your methods of acquiring knowledge
Many aspects of Chinese Medicine are actually quite rational. But it is not through logic and reasoning that one comprehends its philosophy. Instead, you can try perceiving, observing, reflecting, contemplating. You need to create space for the new way of viewing the world, nature and life - by quieting the mind, distancing yourself from desires, letting go of preconceived ideas and prejudices. Like in the old Zen story, you have to “empty you cup” first. In the process, you need to develop nuanced judgment of true vs false, important vs insignificant - again not by thinking hard, but by engaging your heart and intuition. When you arrive at the truth through these methods, you acquire real knowledge.
4. Study the classics
Classics - whether philosophical or medical, ancient or more recent - are not instruction manuals. We cannot take their texts literally, or believe and copy the teachings blindly. These texts survived to our day because each generation must have seen something valuable in them that made it worthy to pass to the next one. It is this value we are after - the timeless truth, the wisdom that transcends times and geographies. With the above steps, you will be able to see the classics for what they are - invaluable masterpieces.
To know, we must experience. As practitioners, first of all, we apply the learnings to our own lives, and then we can help others. With practice, we deepen our understanding of the foundations - this in turn results in better practice. That’s the way to convert learnings to knowledge, and years of practice to experience. We advance on the path of becoming top-level practitioners.
Do I still have challenges? Of course! It is a given for any medical professional. But my challenges come from the fact that we deal with the miracle of life, the living body, the living soul. That’s different from being challenged because of lack of clarity and understanding.
If you want to have a solid foundation that all knowledge and successful practice can be built on, you must develop a firm grasp of the essential basis of Chinese medicine. With the above steps, and I believe in that order, it becomes attainable. First, the teacher shows the way, then you learn to see, then you study the classics to get to the truth and awaken wisdom, then you practice, and that’s how it becomes your knowledge. Simple? Complicated? It probably depends on where in this process you are.
1 Source: Liu Lihong, Classical Chinese Medicine, p. 88