The Science of One

Another piece from my school days in Beijing:

If you stop for a moment to consider the sheer volume and scope of information you are expected to master as a student and practitioner of Chinese medicine, it can be dizzying to say the least. From herbal properties and combinations, to acupuncture points and treatment protocols, to anatomical knowledge and diagnostic tools, your bookshelf quickly fills with a collection of intimidatingly thick volumes that ramble on for hundreds of pages with several thousand years of differing opinions on nearly every aspect of the practice.

In a modern world where specialization and differentiation are considered the hallmark of a well-developed ‘science’, it is easy to get caught up in this habit of acquiring information in the same way we have been trained to do since first launching into our academic careers with the baby-steps of our ABC’s. This undertaking that spans decades is akin to a mental journey far out and away from the mind center and is characteristic of the fundamental stage of learning. There comes a point, however, where our orientation should begin to shift, and having familiarized ourselves with the material reality of the concepts of Chinese medicine, we begin to return to the root of true wisdom. In Ch. 16 of the LaoZi, “归根: Returning to the Root” we learn:


All things blossom in their own way and return to their root; Returning to the root is called stillness; in stillness, life is renewed. The renewal of life is eternal; knowing the eternal brings enlightenment. Not knowing the eternal, we act recklessly and bring about misfortune.

The theme of this passage rings through in Ch. 6 of the NeiJing where the ever-patient QiBo responds to a question by HuangDi regarding the nature of Yin and Yang, with:


Yin and yang can be multiplied to ten, one hundred, one thousand, ten thousand and so on infinitely, but their unity is constant. 

This concept of grasping the singular, essential nature that runs through all of the seemingly disparate elements of TCM is something that we must always be conscious of in our study and practice. Unfortunately, as I come upon the half-way point of my fourth year of formal TCM education, I am yet to have a single professor tell us what this mysterious, all pervasive concept is. It took an unassuming, older gentleman from Switzerland and 2 weeks of reminding to come to the concrete, unshakable realization that the answer is so simple as to be overlooked and can be summed up in a single word: ENERGY.

To quote briefly from Jacques Pialoux’s Guide to Acupuncture and Moxibustion we can outline this concept of energy according to its modern scientific attributes as “the product of various interactions (nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational) in the form of motion, or vibration. It is characterized by: frequency (its quality), amplitude or power (its quantity), and its direction (including both where it originates from and the destination it is moving toward).”

YuanQi! Of course we talk about qi with incredible frequency as we study TCM; we throw the term around so flexibly that it becomes an ethereal, abstract concept somehow removed from the reality of the human body. I hear professors and doctors mold the term to fit any situation; to explain any problem, and have come to the opinion that if traditional medicine is to continue to gain strength as a viable means of healthcare in the modern world, we as practitioners must hold ourselves to the same strict standards as other scientists. Our treatment protocols should be centered around the simple questions contained within the definition for energy: what is it?, where is it coming from?, where is it moving to?, does this represent a physiological or pathological function of energy?

As LaoZi states, we must become clear in our understanding of the fundamental principles of the matter at hand, lest we act carelessly. As for how we do this, I think the conversation takes a clear turn away from the academic toward the esoteric in passages such as Ch. 48 “忘知: Forgetting Knowledge”:


Everyday things increase through study, but everyday things grow less through the Dao. They grow less and less until one arrives at simply being. Just being and yet nothing is left undone.

I find this passage particularly relevant as I get into my final semester of book learning here at the university, where knowledge reigns and understanding often gets left by the wayside. The work that lies ahead for me is to deconstruct the system that has been downloaded to me over the past 4 years, to understand the why. Why is this particular acupuncture protocol the accepted standard for a particular illness?; Why does this combination of herbs produce this effect? It’s this deconstructionist approach to learning that I think separates learning from scholarship and imitation from mastery.

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