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Science magazine reports today that adding small amounts of soil from one terrain such as a wild meadow can ‘inoculate’ barren soil elsewhere. It is of course the uncountable organisms in the healthy soil that achieve this effect – the microscopic bacteria and fungi, nematode worms and other invertebrates. Different communities of these organisms in soil will form relationships with different plants, and so choosing the right soil to draw from will influence which plants grow best in the inoculated soil. This is a dramatic discovery since attempts to restore grasslands, forests and other precious damaged ecosystems are often either unsuccessful or take many years to work.

This is yet another wondrous example of the mirroring of the external environment with our own human internal environment. More and more, it is being understood how the ecology of the human gut – the richest concentration of bacteria found anywhere in the world – influences virtually every aspect of human health. When the right balance of gut bacteria is destroyed by antibiotics, poor diet and disease, it can be a real challenge to restore it to health. One way that is showing great promise, however, is faecal transplantation – seeding the gut of compromised patients with the healthy gut bacteria of donors. Interesting too that Chinese medicine was ahead of the curve on this by nearly 2000 years, Ge Hong, the famous 3rd/4th century Daoist alchemist describing a preparation of dried or fermented faeces (known as ‘yellow soup’) for food poisoning or severe diarrhoea.

I was asked to write another piece for The Acupuncturist, the newsletter of the British Acupuncture Council, on a teacher who inspired me, and this was my submission:   Dr. John Shen – who gave two memorable seminars in London in 1979 and 1981 – probably had more influence on practitioners of my generation than any other teacher.  He was a man of extraordinary intelligence, enhanced by his practice of daily meditation from the age of 17 until the end of his life. His single greatest skill was diagnosis. Combining a forensic knowledge of the pulse, traditional Chinese face-reading, a vast mental database of past patients (for many years he saw 200 a day) and Holmes-like observational and deductive powers, he regularly dumbfounded us with his skill. This diagnosis went well beyond differentiation of the disharmony, disease and pattern. The question that he always asked – and answered so brilliantly, time and time again – was, ‘why is this person ill?” It could be constitutional weakness, events that occurred in the womb, problems of childhood or adult events. Displaying what seemed like psychic powers (he always took pains to stress they were not), he would reveal extraordinary and intimate details about a person’s past, their behaviour and daily habits without being told. And though he clearly took pleasure in astonishing his patients and students with the pinpoint accuracy of his observations, his approach served a vital and healing purpose. Explaining ‘why’ helped his patients to change what could be changed in order to help the healing process, and to understand and begin to reconcile themselves to what was in the past and could not be changed. Well beyond his herbal and acupuncture treatments, he offered a profound understanding of human life – a deep, solid and practical wisdom. And while he regularly warned his patients to “very be careful” when homing in on behaviours that needed to change, his mantra was always ‘don’t worry”. He once said, “If you go to the hospital for a check-up and the doctor tells you that you have cancer or some other serious disease and could die in a few days, don’t worry! You must say: Now I’m alive and can do something about it – rest and sleep. If you sustain your energy and don’t let it disappear you needn’t worry about any disease.“

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