Chinese medicine views things in a completely different way than modern biomedicine. This is one of those truths that is very difficult to get across, yet so, so very important.
So often, I’m asked whether Chinese medicine treats this or that disease, e.g., “diabetes” or “hypertension”. Though a fair question, it is impossible to answer because those words refer to a disease label that reflects a certain way of perceiving a person suffering.
Diabetes, for example, is not inherent within a person; nobody, truly, has diabetes. That term is simply one way of conceptualizing, or thinking about, the suffering of a person, and that “way” of thinking is rooted in the ideas and theories of the current times.
Chinese medicine has a different way of thinking about suffering, illness, and health… This is extremely important, but, unfortunately, as important as it is, it is exactly that difficult to communicate. It is so difficult because we all think in the “way” of the modern times without realizing that that is just a “way” of thinking; it isn’t the way things are.
For instance, it’s not whether or not someone has diabetes. There is no argument between modern medicine and Chinese medicine as to whether such a diagnosis is correct. The term, itself, the disease, itself, is a creation of the “mind” of biomedicine. It does not exist outside of that mind, or way of thinking.
Yes, the person so labeled is suffering; that is real. However, the interpretation of that suffering can vary widely, depending on the system of medicine you choose, the specific “way” of thinking you apply in assessing the patient.
Many times, modern practitioners of systems of medicine that are not biomedicine (such as Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, etc.) contort and alter their system to look like modern medicine. For instance, there are acupuncturists that will tell you that such and such an herb is “good for” diabetes. This is so very tempting because that word, diabetes, is known by people. It makes communication infinitely more simple when familiar words are chosen.
However, the practitioner separates themselves from the truth of the situation. They make statements that are not supported by their system of medicine. They compromise a certain integrity for making such statements. It’s extremely tempting but also very risky. What they have said is heard, but it is not actually true (1).
For the patient out there seeking treatment, be aware that systems of medicine are different. It’s not just a matter of determining which hormones are out of balance – this practitioner says these, while that practitioner says those. It’s a matter of even thinking about the body in terms of hormones and chemicals. That is just one way of analyzing, categorizing, thinking about disease. It is not the only one.
This may be difficult to truly understand or accept, but if you can, then, literally, a whole new world opens up. Diseases may be difficult to treat, from within one system of medicine, one way of conceptualizing disease. However, if you can come at things from a completely different perspective, then who knows? You may be promised that there’s no way of altering your liver enzymes, and that may be true, but what if you could look at things in a way that doesn’t even incorporate liver enzymes?? Keep in mind, they aren’t “real”, outside of the system of thought behind them (2).
This happens over and over in Chinese medicine. We see the person in a different way, treat them from that different perspective, and they get better, even though chemicals, nerves, etc. never even came into the picture. (Of course, from an MD’s perspective, it’s likely chemicals were altered. That is, that’s how they would interpret the results of treatment…)
Chinese medicine is different. This is a difficult fact to convey and understand, but, if you can, if you can allow for truly different perspectives, you can access a whole new world of potential for health and healing.
1. Within the last couple of decades, there has been much research into the use of Chinese medical modalities, such as acupuncture, herbal, etc., into the treatment of biomedically defined diseases, such as diabetes. Therefore, statements such as “this herb is good for diabetes” are becoming more and more credible. However, the strength of these statements, i.e., the degree to which they are based on evidence, is still profoundly less than those statements that are more authentic to their respective system of medicine.
Also, research is slowly beginning to explain the effect of acupuncture via theories of modern times, e.g., biochemistry, neuro-anatomy, and so on. Again, however, though such explanations are easier to hear than traditional ones, they are far less reliable, far less accurate. Too much compromise, in my opinion, is made when we use terms of one system to try and describe another.
2. This may, also, be extremely difficult to swallow, but it’s a very simple, very obvious thing. What is “true” and “real” is beyond the rational, thinking mind. All we can do is generate explanations – We come up with stories to explain things. We, then, test that story, and alter it based on the outcome, thus, creating the illusion of “getting closer” to truth, but as Albert Einstein pointed out, we are forever left guessing what’s actually going on:
“Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavor to understand reality, we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears it ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious, he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility of the meaning of such a comparison.”
– Albert Einstein, quoted here from Lonny Jarrett’s ‘Nourishing Destiny: The Inner Tradition of Chinese Medicine’, p.13, originally from Einstein and Infeld ‘The Evolution of Physics’, p. 31
So, in medicine, it’s not about how the body actually is, what’s really going on, what the true diagnosis is; it’s about ideas of all the above that will lead to the patient getting better.
In following, it’s not about which system of medicine is right or correct. It’s about the usefulness of their given approach. The proposed usefulness is based on evidence. Modern medicine emphasizes clinical trials to demonstrate the reliability of their approach. Chinese medicine emphasizes the collected clinical experiences of over a hundred generations of physicians. Each approach has their own strengths and weaknesses.
The point of this article is that there is real clinical value in acknowledging systems that vary from our own. This is made easier when we’re released from the idea that absolute truth is achievable through mental process. Once so liberated, we can look, simply, at what is right in front of us and determine how useful one approach may be, versus another, for the problem at hand.