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Heaven and earth: the ancient roots of Chinese medicine.

I hold the needle close to the skin ready to touch the point. My feet are planted on the ground and I imagine myself as a channel from the sky. The point is a gate. The needle creates a moment of chaos, an opening, a disturbance, an opportunity to change this woman's energy so that a larger change will begin within her body, mind, and spirit. She breathes in and then relaxes. The color of her skin shifts and she laughs. The mysterious act of inserting a needle in an acupuncture point along a meridian of qi (qi is the breath or life force that streams through the body along a complex system of channels known as meridians) connects us to an ancient tradition.

As more people turn to Chinese medicine as a complementary approach to addressing their health concerns, they realize that there is a great depth and spirit to this medicine that goes beyond simple pain relief. Recently, numerous scientific studies have focused on the efficacy of Chinese medicine and the ability of acupuncture to treat a wide variety of functional diseases. It is less widely known that Chinese medicine is also a powerful psychological healing modality that can promote emotional healing and spiritual transformation. The ability of Chinese medicine to work on this level is a result of its deep origins and centuries of accumulated wisdom.

Many people are aware that the roots of Chinese medicine go back thousands of years, but where do they go and what is the basis for this medicine's understanding of human health? Chinese medicine is a tradition that evolved from the earliest myths and philosophies of the Chinese people. In the earliest records of Chinese medicine, the line between history and mythology blur. These foundational concepts give Chinese medicine its adaptability to address a wide variety of ills of the body, mind, and spirit from ancient to contemporary times.

The first evidence of Chinese medicine, known through the archeological record, is the tradition of the wu, healer priests who practiced shamanism in Neolithic Chinese culture. The wu were the first acupuncturists. They entered houses with spears and sharp arrows to chase away evil spirits that they believed were causing sickness. They were also the first to use bits of jade and bone to shift the energies of the body for healing.

The wu were influenced both by their observations of the natural world as well as their connection with the supernatural world. These shamans would use dance to put themselves into trances that gave them insight into how to help a person in need. Their practices were not standardized and were mostly ritual. Their methods were similar to shamanic healing that is done throughout the world in many different cultures. They used divinatory methods such as applying hot irons to tortoise shells creating cracks that they would interpret. The earliest evidence of Chinese pictographic writing is found on these divinatory shells.

Over time, the natural and supernatural observations of the wu evolved into concepts that form the basis for contemporary Chinese medicine. What we understand today as Chinese medicine was also strongly influenced by the three main philosophical and spiritual traditions of China: Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Daoism is probably the oldest of these traditions, but unlike the other two, lacks any specific originator. Daoism is the collected wisdom of these earlier mystics and sages. Daoism is certainly the primary body of knowledge that underlies the rest of Chinese philosophy.

While it is impossible to translate the word Dao (or Tao) specifically into English, its meaning is that of wholeness, the way, the oneness of nature. Careful and precise observation of the natural world became the foundation of the Daoist tradition. Emptiness is another foundational concept in Daoism. It is the space in a vessel that enables it to hold water, just as it is the space within our heart that allows spirit to enter. Daoist ideas were written down in texts such as the Dao De Jing, which is still studied today in schools of Chinese medicine.

The earliest surviving medical texts from China were found in. Han dynasty tombs. These are fragments of the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Chinese Medicine. a text that contains the primary principles of yin yang theory and the five phases. This is the basis of the complex system that acupuncturists use today to diagnosis symptoms and bring energy back into balance.

The idea of yin and yang has become a part of popular American culture and the symbol of the endless flow between these two energies is well known. This is also the root of the binary code known as the I Ching. Numerology became an important way of understanding relationships between things. After the binary division of two came three, the relationship between Heaven, humans, and the earth became a way to find balance in our quickly shifting world.

The five elements, or phases, are a way of understanding the different energies that are present in the world and their relationships to each other. One way to think of the five elements is to look at the relationships between the seasons of the year. The wood element has the energy of the spring, the fire the energy of the summer and the earth the early autumn harvest season. The late fall is associated with the metal element and the winter with the water. The relationship between the elements is like the relationship between the seasons. Each is unique and one flows into the next without specific boundaries. The map of the five phases helps a practitioner of Chinese medicine understand all the energies in the body and their relationship to each other.

Over thousands of years, many different branches and styles of Chinese medicine were developed based on the careful observations and recordkeeping by the many practitioners of this art. This acquired knowledge was passed down through families and from teacher to student as well as in many written texts.

As China had more interaction with Western countries, people began to view the esoteric ideas of traditional Chinese medicine as backward superstition compared to the new philosophy of scientific thought that developed during the Enlightenment in Europe. Practicing Chinese medicine was even outlawed in China at the end of the last dynasty and under the Nationalist government.

When Mao and the Communists were looking for a way to provide health care to the large population of China, they decided to bring back Chinese medicine in a systematic way that would be efficient to teach to many new practitioners and that would support the philosophy of cultural materialism on which communist ideology is based. This revival of Chinese medicine codified many ideas into Traditional Chinese Medicine; (TCM). In this process, many of the spiritual aspects of Chinese medicine were discarded in favor of a symptom-based approach that was, ironically, more like Western science. It is only now as Chinese medicine has flourished in the United States that the earlier philosophy and spirituality of this medicine is being rediscovered and brought into practice. J. R. Worsley was one of the practitioners who studied this earlier style of Chinese medicine and began teaching it in England and the united States as a style now known as Classical, or Five Element, Acupuncture.

When I share the name of the point I needled with my patient, I am sharing the deeper meaning of the energy that is within the body at this place and calling on the incredible healing power within us all that has been studied and attended to by practitioners of Chinese medicine for thousands of years. I am also engaging in the contemporary problems that my patient experiences in modern America and thereby allowing the medicine to further evolve.

Mark A. Fortney, L. Ac. graduated from the Academy for Five Element Acupuncture in Hallandale, FL, NCCAOM. He has a diploma and a master's degree in Anthropology and in Education. You can reach Mark at his practice, Pulse: 828-280-0497, or check out
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Title Annotation:strong roots
Author:Fortney, Mark
Publication:New Life Journal
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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