Acupuncture has undergone a substantial transformation over the last century. Whereas for many years it was confined to the Far East, it has now spread across the planet, and is now so commonly practised that it is routinely prescribed within the modern healthcare systems in the West. Whilst acupuncture’s popularity is a boon to those seeking a less invasive and medicated form of healthcare, to many, the alteration of the art is so drastic that it hardly resembles the traditional style that was developed in the Orient.
In 1971, an article was published in The New York Times by an American reporter called James Reston, who visited China to report on President Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic visit to the country.1 He contracted appendicitis and had to undergo emergency surgery to have his appendix removed. Several days following his procedure he complained of abdominal discomfort and pain, but rather than just take medications to alleviate his symptoms, he was also offered a combination of acupuncture and moxibustion. He was captivated with the novelty of the therapy, and so pleased with the results that he wrote ‘Now, About my Operation in Peking’ upon his arrival back to his home in America. It was in part because of this article that acupuncture rose to fame in the Western world and would soon become one of the most fashionable ‘alternative therapies’ available.
Due to the rising popularity of acupuncture, the scientific community felt an obligation to scrutinise it and put the practice into context with modern biomedicine. Needless to say, the canon of theory and philosophy underpinning Chinese medicine (CM) doesn’t remotely read anything like its modern equivalent: peer-reviewed scientific journals. The massive disparity between the philosophical and biochemical versions of human health can easily lead one to assume that the seemingly contradictory theories cannot both accurately represent the workings of the human body. A doctor called Felix Mann took it upon himself to study CM in the 1970s. In one of his books on acupuncture he expressed the following opinion, which, in my experience is representative of the medical community in general. He said (somewhat unfortunately for me):
‘The meridians of acupuncture are no more real than the meridians of geography. If someone were to get a spade and tried to dig up the Greenwich meridian, he might end up in a lunatic asylum. Perhaps the same fate should await those doctors who believe in [acupuncture] meridians.’2
Poor Felix obviously didn’t have much success in tuning his mind with his energy body. But, despite this, he still thought that acupuncture was an indispensable tool in his own clinical practice; and so, he and other scientists like him sought through rigorous scientific enquiry to determine exactly how acupuncture worked. Since then, a barrage of research has been done on the subject, opening up an entirely new field of medical research. Unsurprisingly, it was promptly concluded that the ancient Chinese model of health was an allegorical interpretation of the body and mind, based on imagination and woolly mythical concepts rooted in a pre-scientific civilisation, a model that has long since been superseded by the infallible authority of modern quantitative science.
The outward incompatibility of the philosophies of ancient China and modern science led to a division in the practice of acupuncture. One half stayed faithful to the traditional principles incorporating meridian theory, whilst the other, rejecting anything metaphysical, developed a completely new class of therapeutic needling called Western Medical Acupuncture (WMA). This is instead based on how the body reacts to needles being inserted into it from a nervous and chemical point of view. In an article defining this new scientific version of acupuncture, the authors assert that the ‘traditional explanations of acupuncture… were difficult to reconcile with a scientific world view,’ and that ‘[t]he ideology which formed the basis of Chinese acupuncture has been discarded by medical practitioners in the Western world for some time.’3
The article defining WMA doesn’t go into why the Chinese medical ideology was ‘discarded’ in the West. Some studies have looked at whether meridians exist physically.4,5,6 However, such research is limited because qi is not a physical substance, and therefore it cannot be detected in a quantifiable way. The research does highlight some interesting electrical and chemical properties around meridian points that could stimulate further research.
To many, though, qi is such a vague and nebulous concept that it can be dismissed out of hand without the need for evidence. One of the most fundamental principles underpinning all of modern science, including medicine, is that nothing exists that isn’t physical. This means that if something cannot ultimately be reduced to (sub)atomic matter or energy, then it is simply not real. This belief is so deeply rooted in the Western psyche that it becomes very difficult to accept a model of the universe, let alone the human body, that takes into account finer planes of existence than physicality. With this belief firmly in mind, scientists are potentially willing to accept that acupuncture is an effective treatment modality, but only if the theory behind its practice is an extension of the scientific institute’s materialistic dogmas, which we are led to believe encapsulate the workings of all natural phenomena.
When an establishment encounters a new way of thinking that generates doubt about their existing beliefs, it is common for these new ideas to be scorned and ridiculed at first. As an interesting historical example, a pioneering physician in the 1800s called Ignaz Semmelweis sought to reduce obstetric mortality by introducing hand washing to the ward where he worked (this was a few decades before the development of germ theory). He was able to prove that washing your hands before delivering babies was extremely effective in reducing the chance that women would contract life-threatening infections after childbirth. Despite the simplicity and effectiveness of this new practice, there were many medical professionals who condemned his theory, in spite of his proof. Ignaz campaigned furiously for his ideas to become mainstream, but his obsession unfortunately wound up driving himself insane, and he was eventually beaten to death in a psychiatric institution. Sadly, I lack the commitment that Ignaz Semmelweis had when it comes to proving a point, but his story goes to show, though, that often the scientific community’s horizons are unwilling to expand in new directions, even if a new idea is presented in their own language, and supported by experimental evidence.
It would likely be seen as an intellectual devolution if we reverted to older ‘mythological’ concepts of the world, such as those of CM which incorporate ideas of qi and spirits. However, if the direction of scientific discovery advances along a radically different path, it does not jeopardise the breakthroughs that have been made already. As one author puts it: ‘Penicillin will go on killing bacteria, jet planes will keep on flying, and mobile telephones will still work if scientists move on to wider views of nature.’7
The model of health and disease used in CM functions entirely on the basis that humans have three bodies – physical, energetic and spiritual. The fields, pulses and currents of the energy body connect our corporeal selves to our consciousness and to the wider environment we live in, as well as providing the ‘spark of life’ that animates our flesh. Due to the interconnected nature of the three bodies, physical ailments frequently appear as a result of dysfunction on the energetic or spiritual planes, which is then transmuted down to the level of physicality.
This view is clearly at odds with the current opinion of the Western medical establishment, which essentially claims that the body is no more than a complex biological machine composed of lifeless atoms. Allegedly, over billions of years, the chance collision and reaction of microscopic molecules in the primordial soup has somehow given rise to Earth’s complex ecosystem including sentient life and human civilization. In this model, consciousness has no existence beyond the chemical reactions and synaptic firing within the brain. In reality, though, next to nothing is known about the nature of the mind from a scientific perspective. Behaviour has been studied using psychology and neuroscientists have studied the bran; but nowhere in between is there a cohesive theory that demonstrates that awareness is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of neurochemistry (this is known as the binding problem). The nature of memory and recall suggests that consciousness is not physical. Traditionally it was believed that memories are deposited as material traces in the brain, sometimes referred to as ‘engrams’. However, this view largely refuted by research that involves the removal of nearly every part of the brain (of rats), but without affecting their ability to complete learned tasks.8
Well-documented reports of near-death experiences and reincarnation suggest that the mind can exist independently of the body.9 Research has also been done which demonstrates that one’s awareness can project through space to affect the object it is observing.10
So, as we can see, the widespread belief that human physiology is completely reducible to physical mechanisms is not supported by scientific evidence. Nor is it because of a lack of proof that the scientific intelligentsia rejects the metaphysical aspects of CM.
A great deal of inertia has to be overcome for new ideas to be absorbed into a hardened set of beliefs. For scientists, CM is particularly difficult to swallow because the non-physical aspects of the body, such as qi, are not quantifiable in the same way that physical objects are. If something can be analysed using mathematics and machines, this is often more easily understood and accepted than something that is only perceived using the sense faculties. The objective physical world is composed of quantifiable phenomena; we can measure the volume of a tumour, the speed of a nerve’s impulse and the contractile force of a muscle. As the energy body is not a physical thing, it is impossible to try to treat it as such and measure it using machinery and the physical senses. The ancients who discovered and learned to manipulate their energy bodies did not accomplish this by first examining themselves with microscopes and X-rays, for of course they did not have the means to do so. Through various methods of self-cultivation, they had to develop their awareness to such a high degree that they could perceive levels of existence beyond the physical plane. As you can imagine, a fairly high degree of commitment and effort were required to yield these abilities.
At present, non-physical phenomena (such as qi, thoughts and emotions) can only be experienced subjectively, not objectively, meaning that anyone seeking to study CM in its original context must be willing to learn in the same manner that its practitioners have in ages past. This requires a leap from rote-book learning and academic study to an experientially-developed ‘tuning in’ of one’s awareness into the different layers of the body in order to make sense of the subject. Until this differentiation is made, CM will continue to be seen as cute piece of pseudo-scientific quackery, and not as the powerful method of healing that it has been known for over the last several millennia. The rare combination of open-mindedness, an interest in the subject and willingness to engage in practices that develop an experiential awareness of qi is so fleetingly rare that modern society in its current state is highly unlikely to progress to a level where physics and metaphysics can be aligned and the links between the mind and body can be widely comprehended.
Popular consensus is rarely aligned with truth and reason in my opinion, so I for one am fairly indifferent that very few people take any aspect of Chinese medicine or Daoism seriously. As the Dao De Jing states in its forty-first verse:
The wise man hears of dao and follows it diligently,
The majority hear of dao and dabble in its arts,
The lowest people hear of dao and mock it.
If people did not laugh at dao, then it would not be dao.11
2Reinventing Acupuncture: A new Concept of Ancient Medicine, Felix Mann ISBN: 978-0-7506-4857-8
9 see ‘Twenty cases suggestive of reincarnation’ by Ian Stevenson