After 911, I left the New York City art world where I’d been a studio assistant for several years, and went to graduate school to study Chinese Medicine. I had no interest in Science (sorry/not sorry!), I was interested in bodies—with their universal sameness and uniqueness all at once. Bodies strike me as living breathing art, and this field of study provided a complex academic forum for ways to evaluate bodies hands-on with a holistic perspective. Acupuncture school was grueling but I also loved it, mostly. There were so many Science classes though, and they were really challenging for me. In Western society I suppose Acupuncture is sometimes considered a Science, but it isn’t really a Science, it’s more of an Theory Based Practice, like Art. I think Chinese Medicine lives within a spectrum between Art, Science and Mysticism. It’s a Medicine. And the root of this medicine is especially old, ancient even, and it all boils down to an image: the body is a small earth, a little ecosystem, in which the sun and moon rise and set, rivers flow, and the seasons change.
Of course there’s a lot more to it. There are theories and protocols and diagnoses and a ton of textbooks and subtleties and all kinds of landmarks in the body and in the symptoms we look for. It’s different from Western Medicine in that it’s subjective and empirical. It’s based on listening and observing and recognizing patterns. There is no tech. There are no tests. We treat the body as it shows up at the session, per the patient’s self-report and per our own observations from looking and listening and feeling and touching.
Every body is a landscape. Every body is its own planet. Each of us can be seen, known, and understood by a series of metaphors that fit us all.
The heart is a torch. The liver is a forest. The pelvic bowl is an ocean. Rivers run down our limbs. Our bones are scaffolds of stone and mineral glimmering within the earth. The flesh is that earth, dirt, soil, and the micro-biome that blooms from it. If the forest does not have enough water to drink up through the soil, the wood becomes brittle and more likely to snap in the wind rather than bend. These are ways of understanding the ecosystem of the Heart, Liver, and Kidneys. Chinese Medicine has an image-laden foundation.
Chinese Medicine abounds with seeing the body in metaphor, symbolism, and poetry. Each body is a map of energy like rivers, and each river hones to an organ system, and that organ’s counter-part organ, and they all have sounds and smells and colors and emotions and thought processes and weather systems of affiliation. An imbalance in the organ systems shows through on multiple levels. Smells carried in the breath, the urine, the stool. We look for colors beneath the skin tone and tongue like a painting that’s been gessoed over but you can still see small evidence of the earlier draft. We look for layers and we draw meandering connective lines across each person’s map. The colors and flavors and emotions of each organ are therapeutic to that system in the proper amounts, but detrimental in excess.
The heart: red, fire, singing, bitter, rancid, joy, shame, and ego
The spleen: yellow, earth, sweet, nourishment, smothering, fog
The lungs: white, metal, grief, reflection, acrid, dryness, immunity, boundaries
The solar plexus can be pinched by anger or loosened with creative expression. The immune system is an army mobilizing just beneath the skin, which is like our cell membrane, and our pores are doors, and when we have allergies or a cold the doors are flimsy, flying open in the wind. Fire can burn the landscape of our bodies, in the throat, the stomach, beneath the skin—anywhere fraught with infection. Healing the earth after a fire requires enough support so that springs open and burble up from beneath the peaty crust. We have the equivalent of something precious and viscous like oil within us. It imbues the sex organs and darkens the hair, keeps the skin plump, and naturally runs lower and lower the more we age. Some of the organs are called extraordinary because they do not have their own rivers and cannot be named by their land. The brain is one. The uterus another.
Yin organs are hollow and yang organs are full and always moving. Blood is assessed by the quality of it which you can tell by looking at the tongue and complexion and feeling the pulse. Is it: dry, stuck, depleted, too cold or too hot, or moving in the wrong direction?
Energy zips up our backs like sunrise, and slips down our fronts like moonglow. Every day is a twenty-four-part cycle of various small and large transformations.
Mapped on the body are 365 points on 20 channels often called meridians, which I liken to paths or rivers, and it’s fair and reasonable and helpful to sometimes find a point off-road and utilize it.
When we place needles in the body, they are the width of a hair, stainless steel and disposable, and it is the most minimally invasive way to enter the channels to change a person’s energy flow.
The purpose of acupuncture and herbal medicine and therapeutic touch is simply to help the energy move from where it is stuck (pain, illness, and emotional distress), because when it is stuck in one area it is running low in another. Think of a river with a dam, or a fallen tree, and how the water level would be lower than normal downstream.
The purpose of acupuncture and herbal medicine and therapeutic touch is less-simply to: tame wild fire, nourish low levels of water or yin or blood or qi, warm up rundown yang, or sometimes anchor flyaway yang, balance fluids via the digestive system so that the soil is neither too damp nor too dry, clear congested qi as if turning a fan on in a stuffy room.
And what, you might wonder, even is qi? Qi is a word for energy. It is the energetics that runs through us. Those invisible rivers of energy we feel when a practitioner presses on (or needles) one point on the body and we feel it in another place all together. Qi is the mysterious thing that makes us alive, and makes every cell in our bodies alive. It’s funny that we don’t have a word for it in Western culture. It’s simple life, but with an embodied specificity. Qi is everywhere, it is also matter. There is qi in your desk or your wool sweater. But the qi in your body is different. It is adaptable, vulnerable, and resilient. The qi in our bodies is subject to fall into imbalance or illness, and it is also capable of great change and healing itself.
Think of the last time you cut your finger. Isn’t it a miracle that it healed? The skin was severed, the bleeding wouldn’t stop perhaps, and then it did, and then it scabbed, and eventually the scab peeled off, and there was a scar and then the scar dissolved to some degree, maybe entirely, maybe not entirely. Maybe you can still feel it.
There’s so much that we can feel in our body that we so often turn off. Right now, just right now, feel the soles of your feet. Not with your hands, just with your mind, your awareness. Feel the skin along the soles of the feel, let each pore recognize the temperature and the objects it touches and also the energy moving through it. We can’t deny there is energy. Always there is blood carried and cell regeneration, and electricity in the nervous system, the ability to feel pain. Each speck of our bodies brims with vitality.
Have you ever had a buzzing sensation in your body somewhere? That’s stuck qi. A real thick traffic jam, most likely. Have you ever had your body ache in a slight and deep way, not pain, just something deep beneath the skin, sometimes accompanied by a flutter or twitch? It’s a common feeling when getting acupuncture, but you’ve likely had it other times as well. That’s the feeling of the qi moving from where it was stuck. Like the slow churn of a traffic jam unfurling. Where movement enters into a place of stillness and disbands it.
I could talk about Chinese Medicine all day, and metaphors of the body, and the ways we understand each other using these ancient poetics, but that isn’t the point I’m going for. The point I want to make is that metaphor isn’t just something to be thought, it can be felt. Poetry can be a medicine. Image can be a medicine. They are medicines in that they affect the body and can assist in a curative way. Seeing the body as an illuminated map which we are in charge of interpreting and grafting can help us understand ourselves better and actually help us heal. What I’m getting at, is that to understand the body, we don’t have to dissect it or reduce it to make the comprehension of it palatable, we need to get creative and enter the imagination, to the crux where the body and the dreaming mind meet. When we are open to making surprising connections—between bodies and this earth—and surrendering to the mystery of it all—and being curious enough and committed to follow the trail that comes of it, this ball of yarn tumbling down a midnight hill running through your gently grasped fists, we discover new ways of seeing. Isn’t that what we always want—new ways of seeing—as artists and scientists and people dedicated to learning and growing?