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These days, it is quite fashionable to be a skeptic. Atheism is probably more popular now than at any point in history and there are numerous skeptics societies, websites and magazines around the world. This trend seems to be particularly prevalent among well educated young people. Skepticism and science are closely linked and, in theory, the scientific method is an excellent tool for improving our knowledge of the world. However, science seems to have developed into something akin to a religion, where many consider our current understanding of the world to be ‘gospel’, and anything divergent is considered ‘unscientific nonsense’. This unwillingness to question current understanding brings visions of Galileo and Copernicus being ridiculed for arguing that the Earth orbited the sun.
“Those who always think they are right,
Are self-deluded.
He who is not self-critical,
Accomplishes nothing.”
Dao De Jing, Chapter 24
Many who consider themselves to be skeptics spend their time ‘debunking pseudoscience’. But skepticism is really about questioning your own current understanding, not about challenging ideas that are opposed to it. This is why the null hypothesis is important in scientific study; let’s assume my ideas are wrong and try to disprove them (albeit the null hypothesis is usually more of a statistical tool than a mindset in scientific research, sadly).
When I first became an acupuncturist I was skeptical about many of the ideas of Chinese medicine. Some of them I still am quite skeptical about actually. That’s okay though – here’s why.
Firstly, as a form of medicine that has been continually practiced over more than 2000 years, there are a lot of ideas in Chinese medicine, and some will be more relevant to modern patients than others. For example, treating infectious diseases was a much more important part of Chinese medicine in its early development than it is now, where these are managed fairly well by conventional medicine and most of our patients present with chronic conditions. The climatic environment has less of an impact in the modern world (though still more than most people would imagine), and the nature and qualities of foods are not the same as they would have been prior to advent of industrial farming.
The long development of Chinese medicine also allowed a number of different theories and models to develop and change in popularity at different times in history. Unlike in the West, where we tend to discard old ideas in favour of new ones, the Chinese approach was to preserve old knowledge while also adding new ideas. The result is a fairly complex and somtimes confusing or contradictory system. This isn’t always a bad thing, as different models and theories can be applied to different cases, but you do have to assess the value of each system in each case.
Not only is our cultural and environmental context quite different from the one that Chinese medicine largely developed in, but the modern version of ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’, is not very traditional at all. Rather, it is a cherry-picked and standardised form of medicine blended to a certain extent with Western medicine and with much of the ‘superstitious stuff’ removed. This means that those who wish to practice acupuncture as it was originally developed need to question and often look beyond the information that is usually presented in their Chinese medicine training. The same is true with the internal arts – as they have been popularised, they have invariably been ‘watered down’. Many people practice qigong or (especially) tai chi on a very superficial level, without any real awareness of what they are missing. Those who want to obtain the benefits these arts are supposed to offer should be skeptical and question whether their training is adequate. (The quality of training depends on three factors – the teacher, the method and the student. Even if the teacher is very good and they are indeed teaching an authentic art, if the student doesn’t put in the required effort or train effectively, their results will be poor).
Lastly, the most important reason why it’s good to be skeptical about Chinese medicine is because it’s good to be skeptical about everything.
“The highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others.”
Socrates
Skepticism is useful when balanced with open-mindedness. Like yin and yang,  an excess of either is unhelpful. If you are overly skeptical and closed-minded you will be wrong a lot because you are not willing to consider ideas that do not fit into your current understanding. But, as comedian Tim Minchin warns, if you open your mind too far, your brain will fall out!
You have to question what you’re told and what you experience. Of the two, experience should generally win out over what you’ve simply been told. The Buddha’s last teaching was “be a light unto yourself”. That’s not to say that teachers and book learning aren’t useful, just that you should question what you are taught. Whether because the teacher/author/journalist has made a mistake, because they are deliberately trying to mislead you to act in a certain way, or because their own understanding is based on flawed ideas.
Really the problem is blind faith. Whether it is blind faith in something more unusual like alternative medicines, qi or cult leaders or whether it is blind faith in the conventional, like science, the merits of capitalism or the media.
“A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth”
Albert Einstein
Some may argue that science is based on evidence already, so should be accepted as it is, but take an area like conventional medicine research. We like to assume that the medications recommended by doctors on the basis of research evidence are the best option for us. However, as Ben Goldacre has been identifying, for various reasons, including the vested interests of pharmaceutical companies, the evidence in favour of many medicines is misleading. Not only this, but research is done on populations while treatment is given to individuals, and there’s no guarantee you’ll respond the same way as most subjects in a drug trial. This is not to say that medicines are necessarily bad, just that the outcomes of scientific research shouldn’t be treated as indisputable.
There are things that we cannot or do not have the time or inclination to test for ourselves. In these cases, all we can do is take the view with the most compelling evidence and, importantly, accept that we might be wrong. A willingness to be wrong is a great strength in a world where people often feel great pressure to always be right and never make mistakes. We are all wrong about a great many things, and maintaining a sense of humility allows us to accept this gracefully, and then continue to learn and grow.
There are other things that we can test however, given the inclination, and it turns out that qi is one of these. The theory is that qi (or energy) is found in a layer of existence between human consciousness and physicality. It is qi that connects the two together so it is the pathway via which the mind affects the body and vice versa. The reason scientists have been unable to pinpoint this ‘mysterious energy stuff’ is because they are looking for a physical substance. While qi affects and is affected by the physical body, it does not exist within the physical plane, so it is not surprising that efforts to identify qi have been unsuccessful. The brain is similarly tuned only to the physical world for most people, so everything we experience is limited to the physical plane. However, through practice we can tune our minds in to the energy body. This is often experienced as tingling, heat or vibration in the early stages of practice.
The best approach to balancing skepticism and openmindedness when approaching a practice like qigong or meditation is to try the practice for yourself with an open mind (suspend your disbelief if necessary) for an appropriate period of time and then make a judgement based on your experience. Through this approach, qi can be experienced by anyone willing to put in the required hours of dedicated effort and follow the guidance of good teachers.
Although I have talked mostly about the value of maintaining a level of skepticism for yourself, it is also useful to understand the benefit of others’ skepticism. As an acupuncturist I quite often have patients who are skeptical about the treatment and how it might work. Although this can be challenging, it is also incredibly useful in honing my own understanding of how acupuncture works. It is only through understanding the theory well (and understanding the skeptic’s viewpoint) that I can explain it to them in a way that sounds rational. One approach I often use is to share some of my experiences from practicing qigong and acupuncture which I have found to be particularly compelling. Here are a couple of examples:
In some schools of qigong or neigong, spontaneous movements are elicited as part of the process of clearing the energy system, but also in part as a training tool. For many people, performing movements spontaneously is evidence enough that something unusual is going on. However, my background is in psychology, magic and mentalism with an interest in hypnosis and suggestion, so I’m well aware of the ability of suggestions to create all kinds of experiences in the body that are produced by the imagination and are ‘not real’. Having trained in a style of qigong which includes spontaneous movements for some time, I was fairly used to feeling various kinds of expansive movement. On my first course with Lotus Nei Gong, I experienced a different, contracting kind of spontaneous movement which I hadn’t seen or felt before. At the time I wondered if I was doing something wrong, maybe too relaxed or tired. It was in the next break that Damo explained the movements of the five elements, including the contracting movement of the Metal element (according to five element acupuncture theory, the one that is most out of balance for me). In this case, there was no suggestion that I would perform that type of spontaneous movement and yet it was appropriate for me to do so according to Chinese medicine theory.
The second experience was in my early days as an acupuncturist. In the style of acupuncture I learnt, there are several ‘blocks to treatment’, one of which is known as ‘possession’ (the person is in some way overwhelmed by external influences or their emotions and loses an element of control over their thoughts or behaviour). I had a young patient who had experienced a lot of emotional turmoil with her family and was experiencing ‘waking nightmares’ and I considered the treatment for ‘possession’ to be appropriate. The treatment involves 7 needles and the reactions to this treatment are supposed to be strong and unusual. Not everyone experiences them, but the classic reactions are crying, shouting, or various spontaneous movements. I knew that by telling my patient exactly what to expect, I would be suggesting to her to have such a reaction and it would be impossible to tell whether the reaction was genuinely a result of the needles or simply her subconscious following my suggestion. So instead, I just said that it can be quite a strong treatment and inserted the needles. A few minutes later, she was shaking uncontrollably, arching her back and generally reacting as you would expect from the classical description. I could see exactly why the block was labelled ‘possession’ as this looked a bit like some kind of exorcism! Afterwards, the patient’s waking nightmares disappeared and her other symptoms started improving. She didn’t respond this way to her previous treatment or any treatments since, and I can’t think of a conventional explanation for having this reaction to 7 needles inserted in various places in the body.
Although I have had many other interesting experiences of qi, these two stand out as being compelling because they happened contrary to expectations, or in the absence of suggestions, and cannot be explained away simply as being created from the imagination. That being said, it is important to consider how experiences of the physical body arecreated from the imagination. According to daoist thought, these are an expression of the consciousness leading the qi and consequently affecting the body.
Since these experiences, I have re-evaluated my ideas about qi and the potential of acupuncture, but even now, I must still apply a certain level of skepticism. When I am training in nei gong and I notice sensations or spontaneous movements, I must explore them and question them. Not necessarily intellectually, but with enquiring senses. Especially in the early stages of internal training, all sorts of experiences are as likely to be ‘imagined’ as they are ‘real’, which is partly why the emphasis should be on continuing practice rather than focusing on these experiences as if they are the goal of the practice.
The more I practice acupuncture and nei gong, the more I am confronted with increasingly esoteric ideas and experiences. I think maintaining a level of skepticism around this is important, because it’s always good to keep your feet on the ground, and you could be easily led into believing pretty much anything. But what does become increasingly clear is that the knowledge that was developed through the life-work of generations of physicians and practitioners of the internal arts, over thousands of years is deserving of serious consideration, study and practice. Only by that method can it be tested and evaluated.