Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A difference of philosophy

Yes, I know, this is a Bhodisattva. It was the closest representation of thinking and meditation I could find.

Understanding TCM requires understanding Chinese culture; it is impossible to appreciate the full scope of TCM within the paradigm of Western medicine

This was the first point of the TCM seminar on Monday, that in order to understand TCM you have to understand the culture, or at the very least, the philosophy of medicine that pervades TCM.

When you read Chinese texts, there's a lot of talk about energy channels, "hot" and "cold", "yin" and "yang". Most doctors would laugh at you if you tried to explain your stomach ulcer in terms of "hot" and "cold", and they'd be right to. There's no more of an "invasion of cold" as there is an invasion of Easter Bunnies (well, unless you live in South Park). So if you read the texts literally, it sounds like a lot of hocus-pocus bullsh!t that vaguely resembles the humoral theory of health that was popular during the Renaissance.

The difference? TCM works in a way that the humoral theory never did.

That alone explains the staying power of TCM, even more so than the pseudo-New-Age language it's often surrounded in. And while we're talking about the language, let's just clear one thing up--Chinese is an extremely contextual language. The same word, used in two different sentences, can take on two entirely different meanings. It's an art, for a Westerner, to be able to read the words AND get the meaning right. But also, as anyone who has ever tried t'ai chi or yoga, there is simply no scientific way to explain that flowing sensation you get when you've practiced for a while. Sure, you can call it a supersensitive spell in newly invigorated neurons, but that doesn't make any more sense than a "flow" of energy in the context of how it feels.

And that is what Western medicine lacks--the words to describe the sensations of sickness, the beginnings of imbalances. Without words, it is almost as if these sensations don't really exist. I don't think it's that Chinese doctors and patients are any more sensitive to the sensations of sickness--I think it's that TCM provides a platform for expressing the problem in a common language that both patient and doctor can understand.

I actually do not think the bridge between Eastern and Western medicine is impossible to cross. But it does require that Western doctors stretch the boundaries of their conventional models of sickness and health in order to accommodate the slew of information that TCM (and other ancient medical systems) has to offer.

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