30.06.2014

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.“

**************************************************************************************************************************************22.5.2013 I was asked to write a piece for The Acupuncturist, the newsletter of the British Acupuncture Council, and this was my submission: BEYOND TREATMENT When we are learning Chinese medicine our main concern is to understand disease and how to treat it. After all, the amount of time we spend studying the body in wellness (the functions of jing, qi and blood, the functions of the zangfu etc.) and the number of pages they occupy in our text books are insignificant compared to the time and space given to the symptoms of disease, differentiation of patterns and treatment of specific disorders. It can be easy to forget, therefore, that Chinese medicine is rooted in the promotion of wellness. The Neijing (Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic) – the first and foremost historical text of acupuncture – opens with a discussion of how, even two thousand years ago, human health and longevity was suffering because people were ignorant of how to live. Qi Bo (the ‘Heavenly Master’) tells Emperor Huang Di that in times of antiquity the ‘sages taught those below’ how to avoid disease and how to calm their hearts and minds. If they did that, “where could a disease come from”[1]? Then, in Chapter 2, Qi Bo says, “The sages did not treat those already ill, but treated those not yet ill, they did not put in order what was already in disorder, but put in order what was not yet in disorder.[2]” I do not take the essence of this quotation to be that doctors should only ‘treat’ (i.e. give acupuncture or medicine) to keep people well. I take it to mean that the highest role of the doctor is to study, to teach and to model wellness – even more so than it is to treat sickness. This is especially so because we know from the hard reality of clinical practice that most chronic disease – once arisen – may be helped but rarely cured, or as the Chinese saying goes, “Medicine can only cure curable diseases, and then not always”. In fact, since the fifth century BCE, yangsheng (the nourishment of life) and its teachings on how to regulate the mind and emotions, how to eat and drink, how to exercise, rest and sleep, how to conduct our sex lives and how to maximise our chances of a healthy old age, have been a powerful theme running through the Chinese medicine tradition. If what the Neijing says about humans losing their understanding of how to live well and long was true over two thousand years ago, it is even more so today. It is no exaggeration so say we are facing a looming health catastrophe. As the modern Western lifestyle reaches further into Africa, Asia and South America, it is accompanied by a seemingly unstoppable rise in obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease. At the same time the developed world faces an aging demographic afflicted by an epidemic of dementia and other crippling health problems. This is not only a source of great suffering but imposes impossible economic burdens on our societies. Healthcare administrators and educators know this of course, and in the UK at least, attempts to improve the nation’s diet and exercise habits (via the admirable ‘five a day’ dietary and ‘five a week’ exercise campaigns) are a step in the right direction. But at the same time there is massive confusion not only about how to get people to follow health advice, but exactly what health advice to give. Scientific opinion seems to be changing all the time and we are deafened by newspapers, magazines and the internet trumpeting the benefits and harms of numerous individual foods and dietary and exercise regimes. What is lacking is integrated, joined-up knowledge based on deep principles. Fortunately, that is exactly what those of us lucky enough to have studied the Chinese tradition have to offer. Our first great tool is the Daoist philosophy of ‘learning from nature’. This simple approach is the basis, according to the great sinologist and historian Joseph Needham, of China’s extraordinary early discoveries in science, medicine and technology. And moving away from nature – for example in allowing agribusiness and the food industry to reinvent food in the interests of profit – has caused many of the health problems we experience today. Interwoven into this respect for natural systems is an understanding of the interconnectedness of all things, of the dynamic balance of yin and yang and of the wisdom of finding the middle way between extremes. We have a broad understanding of the causes of disease and know how important it is, not only to cultivate the physical body but to work with our emotions in order to promote harmony and free flow. Government health warnings and policy initiatives are to be valued, but it is in our friendly, informed, one-to-one encounters in the clinic that health behaviours can best be discussed, recommended and taught. And we, as practitioners of Chinese medicine, have an extra tool that is not available to practitioners of other kinds of medicine. That tool is differentiation of patterns. As one of my early, Chinese-published English-language textbooks explained, differentiation of patterns points forwards towards treatment and back towards cause. Yin deficiency, qi or blood stagnation, damp-heat, phlegm – these have causes may be rooted in lifestyle and which therefore have to be understood by the patient if significant change is to happen. I recently helped interview the impressive infertility expert Professor Wu Yuning[3]. She is in her sixties but when I asked her if she ever advised her patients to change their lifestyles, she slammed her palm down on the table so hard the windows rattled and exclaimed, “Of course! All the time! Always!” At the same time as pointing back towards the cause, differentiation helps clarify the specific ways in which patients can help themselves, enabling us to offer tailored advice, rather than those blanket, lifestyle recommendations which are almost impossible to put into practice (try changing your diet, exercise, sleeping and working habits all at the same time). While those with qi stagnation and phlegm-damp, for example, may best be advised to exercise more, those with yin deficiency have to learn to relax and rest and take it easy on themselves. While patients with phlegm-damp may need to reduce consumption of rich, greasy foods, those with yin deficiency may need to increase them. And those with qi stagnation – and a consequent tendency to obsessiveness – should be encouraged not to worry about what they eat and instead find ways to express and explore their emotions, to play and have fun. The Chinese saying, ‘the last creature to discover water is the fish’, reminds us that we all have difficulty seeing ourselves as we really are. Equipped both with the wonderful tools we have learnt and adequate consultation time, we can hold up a mirror to our patients so that they can better see how their illness might relate to their lives. And they can become active partners in a healing process which might otherwise be ineffective or short-lived. As the years go by and we see many thousands of patients, we gradually accumulate more and more experience, honing the acuity of our understanding of human life and the wisdom of our communication. But to be able to help our patients in this way also requires that we cultivate ourselves. The dialogue will work best not only if we are well informed, but if we are committed to tuning our own lifestyles and honest about the challenges that involves. And perhaps the greatest of those challenges is to genuinely care for ourselves in a way that will model to our patients how to care for themselves. As Sun Simiao said, “Whenever people don’t live out their lives or life is cut short, it is always caused by not loving or cherishing themselves[4].” Peter Deadman is currently writing a book, ‘Live Well, Live Long’, that compares traditional Chinese  health preservation teachings with the findings of modern lifestyle research.


[1] Unschuld, P. Tessenow, H, 2011. Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen (chapter 1). University of California Press
[2] Ibid, chapter 2
[3]  Deadman, P., Heese, I. & Denz, E., (October 2012). An Interview with professor Yuning Wu, The Journal of Chinese Medicine, 100, 21-27.
[4] Supplement to a Thousand Ducat Prescriptions, passage translated by Sabine Wilms.

********************************************************************************************************************* 19.3.2013 I’ve been researching and working on a book on the Chinese health preservation tradition (yangsheng) – a subject that I’ve lectured on for several years now. Full of straight, simple wisdom about diet, emotions, exercise, alcohol, tea etc. this tradition – time after time – is bang on the nail. They simply got it right in ways that modern lifestyle research is slowly and painstakingly confirming. As anyone knows who has read the massive multi-volume Science & Civilisation in China by Joseph Needham, early Chinese science made numerous discoveries – from gunpowder to immunisation to street lighting to paper and movable type to deep drilling – many centuries, even millennia, before the West. Chinese medicine and the Chinese health tradition is part of this science. In one of Needham’s books, he ruminates on why early Chinese civilisation should have been so brilliant in this respect and his answer is Daoism. Daoism, because it followed the principle of observing and learning from nature – with as few obstructing preconceptions as possible. This got me thinking about how – when a whole subsection of the 60’s and 70s generation got into natural foods, natural medicine and the environment – we mostly knew (instinctively) what was broadly right and what was wrong while agribusiness and biomedicine and big business determinedly went in entirely the opposite direction. Why were we so sure that eating well and exercising were a better path to wellness than medicine, that sugar was dangerous, that taking unnecessary antibiotics was likely to be harmful to ourselves and others, that we should cultivate food and breed animals in ways that were sustainable, fair and free from cruelty? It was because our guiding principle was simple and naive – follow nature, follow the natural ways. Let’s take meat as an example. Most of us were vegetarian or else understood that it was best to eat limited amounts of meat. And that the meat should come from naturally reared, unmedicated animals fed on their appropriate diet – grass for cows and sheep for example. We didn’t have tons of research to tell us this was the right way … it was self-evident. So what do we find now when we look at today’s mass meat industry? We see it catering to the lowest common denominator, supplying meat of virtually any quality or provenance. To feed this vast industry, great areas of land have to be given over to soya and grain production – often destroying natural grasslands and virgin forest to do so. Yet grass-fed animals are far healthier to eat than grain or soya fed (their fats contain more valuable omega-3 oils). And grasslands have the potential to capture and store immense quantities of carbon, while feeding the insatiable appetite for meat irrespective of sustainability is estimated to cause up to 50% of all greenhouse gases. Furthermore, unnaturally fed and unnaturally reared, livestock requires huge inputs of antibiotics to control disease (and conveniently fatten up the animals at the same time). Just this week, though, a dire warning has been issued in the UK that because of overuse, pretty much all existing antibiotics will fail to be effective in a very few years, meaning that in the absence of new drugs (slow and expensive to develop) we will return to the kind of 19th century existence which meant that death from infection was a common part of life. We stumble from one potential disaster to another, blindly digging our own graves, periodically lifting our heads to hear that this way of doing things or that way of doing things is catastrophic, when – with our feet planted in the natural world and our minds open to take in the whole joined-up view – these things are simply obvious.

Advertisements