Restoring Order in Health and Chinese Medicine Studies of the Development and use of Qi and the Channels
Stephen Birch, Miguel Angel Cabrer Mir and Manuel Rodriguez Cuadras with Dianne Sommers, Chip Chace, Dan Bensky and Mark Bovey
Publishers: Jade Stone Group/La Liebre de Marzo, Barcelona, May 2014 Paperback, 500pp, 80 illustrations ISBN 978-84-92470-27-3 RRP: £30
(Reviewed by John Hicks, Vol. 7 No. 6)
This is a stunning and unusual book. There are three main authors plus another four. All are experienced practising physicians as well as scholars. They are not, significantly, all of the same 'school'. In spite of there being seven authors, the book hangs together well.
The subject matter moves from a conceptual level involving the examination of classic texts to a practical level involving specific procedures to develop sensitivity, stillness and needling skills.
There is a quote that is a thread throughout the text. In a shortened form it reads: 'Don't listen with your ears, listen with your mind… not with your mind, but your vital energy… vital energy is empty and waits on all things… Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.'
If you don't quite understand it, reading the text will help. If you fully understand it, there is no need to read the text.
The first two chapters deal with the concept of qi, the classic texts and differences between early Chinese thinking and modern Western thinking. Differing cultural assumptions make it difficult for Westerners to understand early Chinese texts. In the West, we tend to believe in objective truth and logic. The Chinese, however, thought we were part of nature and favoured efficacy as the sign of truth. They could acknowledge new and old views in spite of their being contradictory.
Chapter 2 concentrates on the development and nature of the jing mai. The initial notions of the mai, as a primitive physiological system, developed into channels where qi and blood flow and included the connections with Organs and the systematic correspondences.
In Chapter 3, Dianne Sommers investigates the shang yi or the 'superior physician'. One of the most important qualities of a developed practitioner is 'genuineness'. The genuine person (zhen ren) or 'true man' is one who is well trusted by those around him/her. Being true to yourself attracts the trust of others.
Morality and technical competence are combined in a way that suggests these cannot be separated. The lowest level practitioner is said to simply copy and is concerned with his/her own benefit and business. Moving up a notch we have a practitioner with 'special interpersonal qualities'. We then move to the level of the universal sage who represents the highest degree. These are stages in a practitioner's development.
Su Wen 26 suggest that the superior doctor sees things others do not see and this explains why he/she will get better results.
Chapter 4, by Steven Birch, covers three big subjects: qi, the jing mai and the art of needling. The chapter starts with the notion that qi and the jing mai have been used in many diverse ways to produce different practice models and methods of practice.
If you have wondered whether you are practising the 'true/best' style of acupuncture, the author takes an interesting view. East Asian medicine is 'practice-based' and 'interpretations of the same passage (in the classics) are correct if they lead to a practical application that can be reasonably related to the original text...' Not so much about 'truth', more about efficacy.
Next we have a fascinating discussion of needling, which includes the inner state of the practitioner and the whole needling process. This section is a treasure in itself - both detailed and rewarding.
Ling Shu 25 says that 'Needling regulates the qi', which means helping to correct deficiency and fullness. For regulation to occur, the consciousness of the practitioner is of fundamental importance. This model includes more than what is commonly taught about needling. Practitioners could well consider their own process in the light of this description.
Chapter 5 is by Charles Chace and Dan Bensky and focuses on needling and concentrates entirely on the first chapter of the Ling Shu. The authors take each line of Ling Shu 1 and discuss its meaning in the context of previous lines and other relevant texts.
As an example of the discussion, an early line says: 'The crude attend to the form, the superior attend to the spirit.' This suggests that the crude attends to 'methods of needling', whereas the superior attend to the patient's surplus or insufficiency of qi and Blood, allowing them to tonify or drain.
Chapter 6 is by Manuel Rodriguez Cuadras and deals with herbal practice. The author discusses two approaches to herbal medicine. He says that if Chinese herbal medicine is to progress, it must go back to its basic energetic paradigms and only then explore those of modern science.
Chapter 7 is by Miguel Angel Cabrer Mir and is titled 'Qi and Stillness' and subtitled 'Taiji Quan, Qigong and Acupuncture'. The previous chapters clearly highlighted the importance of the superior doctor's sensitivity. The appropriate sensitivity develops out of stillness; tai ji quan and qi gong are useful methods to foster stillness. I welcomed this chapter, partly because I started tai ji before Chinese medicine and partly because it provided some practical grounding of the earlier theory.
Chapter 8 is titled 'Qi, Jingmai' and is by Steven Birch and Mark Bovey. This chapter is about how to research Chinese/East Asian medicine. I have frequently wondered if Western research can be applied to Chinese medicine. There are too many variables and great difficulty in proving, for example, that acu-points exist. As the authors say, the basic concepts of Chinese medicine, such as 'qi' or 'jing mai', do not have an easy Western equivalent nor do they have a single meaning.
The authors have great courage and vision. They go through what research is possible and end the chapter with a table of research programmes that could lead to East Asian medicine's being appropriately researched. This is an important contribution. The vision is longsighted and a path has been cleared.
Chapter 9, by the three main authors, relates back to the importance of sensitivity when making a diagnosis and when needling. They first lay out the stages to be followed when treating. The progression is as follows: Decisions (mainly diagnosis), then Engagement (preparation for needling and beginning to influence energy via finding the point), Enactment (needling) and finally, Completion.
They then list a variety of skills/qualities that are important in that process: alertness/concentration, calmness, sensitivity, alignment, grounding, presence and awareness. These qualities are related to classic texts. For example, alertness and concentration are supported by Ling Shu 1 and 9, Su Wen 54 and 62. All the supporting texts for all skills/qualities can be found in the book itself.
The final chapter is by the three main authors and asks the question, 'How do we develop the skills/qualities from the previous chapter?' The first set of qi gong exercises are absolutely appropriate to be included in the same volume as the theory. There is also a set of training questions to use when going through the stages outlined in the previous chapter (decisions, engagement, enactment and completion).
In summary, this is an excellent book, likely to have a long-term effect. It demonstrates excellent scholarship, a keen awareness of practice and puts the development of the practitioner in its right place. I recommend it highly.
(Reviewed by John Hicks, Vol. 7 No. 6)
John Hicks is joint principal and co-founder of the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine, Reading. He has a PhD from the University of London and has been in practice since 1975. He trained at the College of Traditional Acupuncture and has a Dr.Ac. from that college.