Thursday, September 13, 2012

What it is, and what it is not

Wally, the human acupuncturist here:
A conversation with a patient recently got me thinking about how, again, it is time to clarify what community acupuncture is and what we are doing here at South Austin Community Acupuncture.

Ironically, it is not uncommonly the patients who are more oriented towards a “holistic” approach to their health that kind of miss the point of community acupuncture. These people often speak a language that actually belies a very compartmentalized view of their bodies, and their lives. It is a linear language of inputs and outcomes - Can you put a needle in for my adrenals? - when in fact Chinese medicine would never conceive of any system of the body apart from the context of its relationship to other systems.

Some people exhibit an appetite for information about their bodies and place great value on things like multiple page computer generated workups provided by their alternative medicine provider, for example, but can’t really can’t wrap their brains around what is going on with acupuncture…much less community acupuncture. Perhaps they are seeking an exact and tidy solution to what ails them. And just as their lives and their bodies are not tidy and exact, neither is how acupuncture works (much less community acupuncture) - so maybe it’s hard for them to see how acupuncture could possibly offer a solution.

Or I’ve seen the disappointment when I do not put on airs of gleaning deep insight into a patient’s nature by touching their pulse. To me, when a patient asks me what their pulse tells me, they might as well be asking me what the sky tells me, because essentially what I am doing is observing the natural world. Maybe next time I will simply answer, “The sky is blue.” I don’t know what to say. Sometimes the pulse informs what I do or corroborates with a person’s symptoms, sometimes not. I find usually what is of relevance has been revealed by chatting briefly, or all has been revealed because it is mostly obvious.  And then there are the many times, heaven forbid, that I do not take the pulse at all. The effect of acupuncture, as far as I can tell, is no less for it.

Sometimes it’s the simple things that can make the biggest difference in a person’s life, and I have always admired Chinese medicine for the elegance of its simplicity. That is how I practice: simply.

Likewise, I have always admired Lisa Rohleder of Working Class Acupuncture and grand dame of the community acupuncture movement for her clarity in articulating simple truths about acupuncture and community acupuncture as a way of delivering acupuncture on a grand scale. Just as I was contemplating putting this blog together, I came across a recent piece of writing from Lisa. Of course she articulates what I am trying to say far better than I ever could.  Here is an excerpt:

“One of the big reasons that acupuncture is important and needed in Western society is that it’s not dualistic in the way that so much of our culture and our medicine is. We can talk about yin and yang, certainly, but yin and yang are not simply opposites. They’re the shady side of the hill and the sunny side of the hill, right? Just one hill, not cut in half or separated. In Western society we love to chop things up, especially in Western medicine. Acupuncture doesn’t do that, and that’s one reason we need it so badly.

One of the things that you learn pretty quickly when you are working in a community
acupuncture clinic, whether you are a punk in the treatment room or a receptionist at the front
desk, is that a lot of dualisms go right out the window. Health and illness are not these separate, distinct states -- you can see that in the people who come in to the clinic. Most people are on a continuum somewhere, making the best of it. You can also see that the mind and the body are not at all separate either. People’s mental states have enormous influence on their physical state, and vice versa. And of course, a lot of how the clinic is set up is to make the haves and the havenots less separate from each other. So instead of a lot of nice, neat, abstract categories, in a community acupuncture clinic, what you get is a lot of messy human life. (It’s great.)

I think that lack of dualism is a large part of why so many people feel that our clinic spaces are healing to them. Things that were cut apart get to grow back together, in peace. And everything doesn't have to be perfect before you can relax. You get to just relax anyway.

In Western medicine, there’s often a sense that the goal is to triumph over illness. To diagnose it and to beat it and to win. But so often in community acupuncture, we are treating people who are not going to triumph over whatever they have going on. Whether it’s a chronic condition, or it’s age, or it’s stress, or just some difficult aspect of life, there isn’t going to be any clear-cut victorious moment where you get to pop a bottle of champagne and say, Yay, we won! It’s not like that. In fact, even if you do “beat” one condition, then another one pops up, or somehow, the guy’s left knee still hurts for no reason you can figure out, or just when his shoulder pain was finally going away, he gets into ANOTHER bike accident and breaks his arm. A lot of what we do is to help people accept and work with whatever it is: stress, pain, disability, limitations, illness, terminal illness, loss. We encourage and support and accompany people in working with whatever it is that their lives have given them to work with. We try to get out of the way and let them connect with their own inner resources, their own source of healing -- which doesn’t mean that everything gets fixed.

Probably the main thing we are doing in community acupuncture is trying to give ordinary people a better quality of life. That’s not a dualistic undertaking, it’s not a win-lose kind of scenario. It’s creative and it’s hopeful and it emphasizes working with what you’ve got. And of course, it helps immensely that acupuncture itself almost always gives people more energy, better sleep, a lift in their mood, a reduction in their stress. Those are humble benefits but they are very important.”

So I am writing this because I want people to better understand what we do and also to clarify what we are not.

While we do practice a fair amount of Chinese herbal medicine here, at heart, what we do and what we are about is community acupuncture. We are not spa-like, or new-age, or fancy - and it is enough. We are not here to ply you with hundreds of dollars of supplements, or to exert our authority over every nuance of your life and health. What we do is pretty straight forward: acupuncture, herbs, some cupping as needed.

No Halo Ascension Infusions here…sorry.


Just as I finished writing this, I got taken for $10 by a Reiki master who then proceeded to ask the death knoll question after her first visit, “What is your slowest time?” No shit. 

We are a community acupuncture clinic. We put it on the line every day to make acupuncture affordable and accessible to as many people as possible. If you get what we do, you do not want us to ever have a slow time. This is my mission, and I’d like to you to make it yours. Community acupuncture is community supported acupuncture, and it is only with the enthusiastic support of the community that we can make this gloriously unruly thing happen. Keep South Austin Community Acupuncture busy. Or, how about:
Keep South Austin Community Acupuncture weirdly busy.