What Happened to Chinese Medicine?

Reflection: D ShayneWhen I first began to study Chinese Medicine back in the 1980’s, it was in response to my fascination with Taoism and martial arts.  Here was an ancient medicine based on principles of harmony and an understanding of our relationship to nature. It was radical in its premise that nature is self correcting, and that humans can heal naturally by tuning back in to the rhythm of natural cycles. The doctor’s job was to search out the cause of a patient’s disharmony and help them restore balance.  We took the pulse; we listened to the voice; we observed movement, bearing, and skin tone; we asked questions about the patient’s life and their illness.  Then we recommended changes in diet and lifestyle; we used needles, moxa, and herbs.  We restored balance.  Patients got better.

Somewhere along the line, things started to change.  It’s been a subtle process, and therefore easy to miss.  But Taoist medicine, in which skill is dependent on the refinement of the doctor’s sensitivity over a lifetime of practice, is getting gradually replaced by a westernized approach that emphasizes the constant acquisition of new treatment techniques and diagnostic tools.

I suspect this all started from the justifiable need for acupuncturists in this modern age of technological medicine to make a decent living and enjoy a modicum of respect among other health care professionals.  Thus the emergence of what is now called “complementary” medicine (complementary to what I wonder?) and the blossoming of doctoral programs in Chinese medicine that teach us western medical skills so we can fit in better with the medical establishment.

All of this leaves me disheartened.  These days, instead of instructing our patients in the art of meditation or qigong, reading their fate in the stars, and adjusting their home environment to correct imbalances, we are more likely to send them for lab tests and spend our time taking courses on which procedure codes to stack up on our insurance bills. Perhaps this is all necessary to survive as a healthcare provider in this strange antagonistic world.

But I long for a return to the Taoist roots of Chinese medicine, when a poem might be the prescription, and a life well lived, not a lab test, was the measure of success.

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