Recently I received a phone call from a man with a very strong French accent. Referred by a friend, he asked me if acupuncture could help his gout. At the moment of his call, I had only a short time to speak to him, so I got directly to the point. I said, “I’ve never met gout walking around all by itself. It comes connected to a human being who has many other symptoms which are uniquely combined in that individual.” And gout, I told him, whatever it is, shows up differently in that individual from day to day—some days more strongly, some days less so. To determine whether I might help him, I said that I would need to meet him and learn much more. His response: “Oh, thank God. You’ve not going to give me the usual American hype.” I referred the man to a wonderful individual who practices acupuncture near where he lives.
That conversation was not unusual. Acupuncture practitioners and students are asked constantly if acupuncture can help a particular disease. When they have learned the art of responding to that question, they have acquired one of the keys to starting a healing relationship. The question involves two assumptions, usually unexamined, that are endemic in our mechanistic culture. The first assumption is that disease is an entity that lives apart from the individual—that “gout,” for example, stands by itself, a thing apart from our total selves. The second assumption sees acupuncture as a technique, a disembodied tool used to “fix” a disease.
All great physicians, including William Osler, a founder of modern Western medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical School, focus on the patient: it is the patient who receives treatment, not the disease, for the power to heal himself resides within that individual. Each person’s unique discomfort is a messenger from the bodymindspirit calling the individual to the way home.
I think of the title of Dianne Connelly’s book, All Sickness Is Homesickness. Society has taught us to see our symptoms as problems to be “fixed,” rather than as signs that point us home—signs that point the way to healing.
Thus an acupuncture student is reminded repeatedly not to label a patient (nor allow patients to label themselves) with disease words: asthma, arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, or even the expressions that often appear in Oriental medicine such as “Rising Liver Fire” or “Water Causative Factor” or “stuck chi.” These diagnostic nomenclatures may serve a limited purpose, but for the most part, they distract us from the unique signs given off by this unique individual on this particular day. And it is the uniqueness, the specificity, that enables individuals—often with the assistance of another—to find their way back to living as well and as fully as possible.
Who is this practitioner who assists another? Just as our culture views diseases as standardized things, it views practitioners as technicians delivering standardized treatments. Perhaps it would be more appropriate and helpful to speak of these assistants as “healers”—healers who may use acupuncture, who may use Prozac, who may use St. John’s Wort, who may use a surgical scalpel, who may manipulate the body—healers who are aware of each patient’s unique pattern and use their tools accordingly. Very different actions may result than when practitioners view themselves as experts who administer techniques to “fix” diseases. J. R. Worsley, in his first small book on acupuncture, pointed out that it is the task of the acupuncturist—the healer—to envision persons as they would be when whole and well in themselves. As a young student, I heard J. R.’s words as reminding practitioners to remind their patients of “home”—of what it would be like when they allowed themselves to recover their wholeness.
What healers often do while using their “tools”—the acupuncture needle or drug or pill or touch—is to remind patients that living fully depends on breathing deeply, getting enough sleep, eating well, walking and exercising the body, having an appropriate pace, having values that honor the ancestors and serve one’s children. It is through the appropriate balance of these components, together with the extraordinary gift of the needle (or the drug, or the touch), that patients recover their own healing ability. The needle, or any therapy, is only one of many components of healing, and the healer must use these “tools” guided by the uniqueness of each patient.
Having practiced for 25 years, I am well aware of the extraordinary power of the insertion of a needle—I’ve seen it create dramatic change. I know very well how essential the needle and other therapies can be in moving forward the healing process. However, I fear that emphasizing the power of these techniques will obscure the fact that they are only one element of a much more complicated process—the awakening of an individual’s own healing powers.
These days, as we speak more and more about “integrative” and “whole medicine,” we must be careful: We must not think that “wholeness” or “integration” come simply from applying an assortment of techniques and therapies. Rather, we need to develop an “integrative medicine” that can blend various healing possibilities uniquely to serve the unique individual—the one who is the heart of the healing process. We must remember that it is the patient who knows his or her way home, and that the healer serves simply as guide and helper—not the creator of wellness.
This essay from Common Sense for the Healing Arts by Robert M. Duggan first appeared in the Summer/Late Summer 1998 issue of Meridians: Changing the Experience of Personal Health, published by Tai Sophia Institute.