Around the time that I first started practising acupuncture I remember saying to a friend: “This is a fringe therapy now, but give it fifteen years and it’ll be mainstream.” That was in the mid 80s. Acupuncture nowadays has been approved by the BMA as an effective therapy for the treatment of pain, and many research projects are in motion to give acupuncture an increasingly greater profile in the public eye.
Whilst in the old days becoming a practitioner was an option for a rare few with a true calling to heal, nowadays it has become a viable career option for a wide range of people.
Acupuncture is well publicised. No week goes by when it does not receive some mention in one magazine or another. The latest edition of Vogue includes a glossy article on ‘Who’s in your spiritual address book?’ And one of the health gurus mentioned there is, of course, an acupuncturist. You can meet the rich and famous, share their private secrets and become the magic force behind their success and fame. What a great thing. Or is it?
Throughout the ages, healers have looked after a variety of social groups. There would be the physicians to the emperors and the barefoot doctors who looked after the ordinary mortals. Only those who had a true calling would practise a healing art.
I believe that this holds true to this day. Acupuncture, as well as other forms of healing therapy, will always attract those who have an inner calling to the healing profession and regard it as a true vocation to dedicate their lives to the welfare of others.
However, what with all the razzamatazz as well as the truly realistic benefits that go with the practice of acupuncture, one wonders whether it has also become a profession that attracts those who are just after the satisfaction that goes with having a successful career, bringing money, fame, and intellectual kudos; and the question arises: is this a problem for our profession? I have been practising acupuncture for about 25 years. I think it would be fair to say that working in the healing profession was not so much something that I chose, but more something that chose me.
My initial training was as a secondary school teacher in the subjects of German and music. Music is one of the great loves of my life, yet becoming a teacher in the German school system became an impossibility as soon as I had passed my state exam with a distinction. Why? Well I wasn’t really sure at the time, but what I did know was that I had to find out.
Having already spent rather a lot of time during my study years flirting with left-wing and feminist politics, as well as sampling a whole range of consciousness enhancing substances, my footing with the so-called establishment was really not very firm by the time I reached the tender age of 22. My parents were devastated that I gave up what appeared to be a hugely promising career option, with good earning potential, a secure pension, holiday money, you name it… and I didn’t even know what I was going to do instead!
The next few years were spent wandering on a mission, trying to find my path in life, or actually my true vocation.
That calling initially took me to Wales: the trend within left-wing thinking was ‘back to nature’, and someone had given me an address where like-minded people were trying their hand at self-sufficiency. If nothing else, all that made sense to me.
So I packed my bundle and hitch-hiked from Germany to West Wales; and as they say, the rest is history.
A few years later I found myself sitting in a Tibetan monastery and it was there that I had a deep realisation of what my life should be about. I wanted to do something worthwhile, give back, heal, help, support, contribute to making this world a better place to live in. During my travels in the Indian subcontinent I came across much suffering, and I discovered a deep sense of compassion within. Dedicating my life to help ease the pain was a powerful desire that arose from deep inside me. Over the years, I had endlessly massaged people, starting with my mum, then my friends, and often I was asked to lay on hands when someone was in pain. I would do it, kind of knowing what I was doing; not that anyone had ever taught me. So that moment in Nepal was more a moment of inner acknowledgment than an intellectual decision; recognising my vocation in life rather than deciding to embark on a new career.
I qualified as an acupuncturist from the College of Traditional Acupuncture in the mid 1980s. I was then one of a few hundred somewhat eccentric characters in the UK. Since then the profession has come a very long way.
At the time, there were two ‘warring’ factions, the Five Element and the Eight Principle schools. Now there are all sorts! You can study acupuncture at numerous acupuncture schools, or even go to university and get a ‘proper’ degree. (Some would argue that the downside to this progress is that you are also required to fulfil certain academic qualifications before you can enrol.)
JR Worsley was my first and greatest teacher of acupuncture. To get on to the initial three-year acupuncture course involved a personal appointment with the great man himself, then a cup of tea with Miss Tweedie, and if you got on the course you would have a typed letter plus a handwritten note from her in the post a few days later. I have kept mine to this day.
The interview came at the end of a weekend seminar with JR during which he gave a breathtaking talk on acupuncture, when you could have heard a pin drop. It was then that everything I had ever known inside of me made sense, everything just sort of slotted into place. A lot of that was most definitely down to JR’s charisma and the way he talked about acupuncture, but there was more: this particular system of acupuncture known as the Five Element school had a depth, a spirit, that I felt completely at one with.
I cannot really remember what the criteria were then to get accepted on the course. Compulsory A levels were certainly not top of the list! I do remember being quite frightened, thinking that maybe I was a bit too much of a hippy and not enough of a proper sort of person. JR was definitely talking about total commitment, something you would give yourself to 100 per cent. If you had any doubt in your mind then you’d better leave straightaway. I suppose for me this all still holds true to this very day.
Over the years my practice as a healer has always involved a daily communion with and gratitude to the source from which flows healing energy. Sometimes that communion is deeper and at other times more shallow, but I cannot imagine ever being without it, or practising the art of healing without being mindful of the fact that I am purely a channel for that infinite energy to come through for someone’s welfare; and for that I carry deep responsibility and ask for help on a daily basis.
This has seen me through the good times, but very much also through the tough ones. In other words it is great when patients get better, but don’t we all know the days when patients come in one by one having had the worst week of their lives? When acupuncture is your vocation you really know. You carry on regardless, because it is what you have come here to do, warts and all!
So acupuncture for me is very much from a calling, primarily a vocation and secondarily a career. When I trained, especially at Leamington Spa, that spirit was shared by most of us. In the German language the words used for vocation and career carry slightly different meanings than they do in English. The translation for vocation is Beruf. In the dictionary this is associated with Berufung, which translates as ‘calling’. It is defined as innere Bestimmung, an ‘inner destination’, and Aufgabe, which translates as ‘duty’, and in this context is understood as a spiritual duty or dharma. It is also related to belonging to a trade, or professional body. The word Beruf is what people normally use when speaking about their profession. Both within the word Beruf and Berufung lies the verb rufen, which translates as ‘calling’, both as a verb and as a noun; a calling from somewhere higher than ourselves.
A career on the other hand is not something that you have, but something you make. Karriere machen. Now that, interestingly, is referred to as rascher Aufstieg im Leben und Beruf, a swift rise in life and profession, as well as eine glaenzende Laufbahn haben, Erfolg haben, meaning having a shining development in your life and great success. So the notion of a career is associated with fame, success and money; whereas Beruf refers to a sincere professional life associated with an inner calling.
The discussion here is whether acupuncture as a profession is a career option or a vocation; or is it both? In my opinion having a calling to work in healing is vital. You can then also make it your career: earn a good living, support your family, contribute to society, run acupuncture clinics and hospitals and so on.
When we begin to look upon acupuncture as a sexy career option, without the acknowledgement of our origins as acupuncturists we run into problems. I don’t know how much that goes on. In this day and age of statutory self-regulation I see a danger of putting too much of an emphasis on the career side of things and losing out on the other. As a matter of fact I feel strongly in favour of regulating our profession, mainly for the sake of protecting our sincerity as practitioners as well ensuring proper initial training and making ongoing training compulsory.
Sadly, the moment that your profession has greater status within society it opens itself up to becoming a career option in a more conventional sense. That notion carries the need for success, and what does that mean? Seeing lots of patients, making loads of money, having a fancy clinic, teaching all over the world, writing books, collecting information from your teachers, rewriting it and sticking your own name on it, having websites, promoting ‘new styles of acupuncture’ so you can patent your particular kind of technique or brand name?
I suppose it is a human trait to want to be a player in this game. The modern world encourages that and we certainly gee each other on. It certainly feeds the old Ego, and in my humble opinion therein lies the danger of losing what is an intrinsic beauty in
The other side of this issue is to do with the tremendous variety of acupuncture styles which we now have at our fingertips: facial rejuvenation acupuncture, substance misuse treatments, the magic five-point pain reducing ear acupuncture treatment, to name but a few. It is so easy with all that we know to make a change in a person’s life. Remove the pain, take ten years off your desperate middle-aged housewives’ faces in a jiffy.
It seems all too easy!
The first seven years of my acupuncture practice were spent practising a pure style of Five Element acupuncture, which required a total presence in the treatment room. No fancy tricks, just being there with your patient! The most important ingredient was to establish a powerful rapport with your patient. There were no textbooks where you could read up about what you do when the
patient comes in with a certain kind of problem.
I am not saying that one system of acupuncture is better than another, or that we should not learn the many different acupuncture techniques. My concern is that we remember that ultimately a healing process is sacred. It has been established time and again that the main ingredient in a person’s healing experience is the rapport he or she has with his or her practitioner.
I remember Volker Scheid once talked about this at a conference in Germany. His comment was that at the end of the day what matters is that you understand the energy of Earth and Heaven deeply and truly with your heart, and without that all the fancy treatments you may have up your sleeve really amount to very little.
We practise a system of medicine which has an ancient tradition. It goes back to a time when life was regarded as sacred. No one would practise medicine or acupuncture without first clearing that up with the forces of nature and the Divine. Medicine men, shamans, were chosen; or often the gift was handed down from father to son or master to disciple. It would be the master who would choose the disciple to hand his gifts on to rather than the other way round. It also required ongoing spiritual practice and study from the practitioner and a great sense of responsibility within the community.
Nowadays all that has changed rather a lot. But I suppose I do beat the drum for maintaining some sense of tradition. There is nothing at all wrong with having a career in acupuncture. My concern is that when you build a career in acupuncture, focusing mainly on the worldly side of things and without having a firm spiritual grounding, you run the risk of losing a vital ingredient.
Our profession is getting an increasingly greater kudos that, sadly, does not come without strings. What with increasing guidelines, rules, and regulations with regard to requirements for running your business, as well as those necessary to get on a professional training course in the first place, we must make sure that we do not throw the baby out with the bath water. Whilst a person with lots of A levels in science subjects might be able to tick all the right boxes when applying for training, he or she may not be up to the job when it comes down to it. What is vital in this context is to recognise that a person with a true calling for acupuncture might be a born healer but a lousy career person. The reverse may also be true. It should go without saying which one is the more important.
So how do we differentiate whether a practitioner regards his or her acupuncture practice as a true vocation in life or whether he or she just sees it as a great career, and how much does this matter?
I am not here to give any answers to these questions. The profession is developing organically, as it must. All I can do is share my own viewpoint. Yes, I am concerned that with the increasing fame that goes with acupuncture we could lose our humility towards the great beauty that underlies every healing event.
The bottom line is that we need to find a balance. Living in the modern world places demands upon us that we respond to for as long as we choose to be part of it. I also hope that those amongst us who make it to the ‘top’ of our profession and stay there continue to be outstanding practitioners who are driven by an inner calling and sincerity as well as a genuine love for the profession.
For me personally it is a clear case of vocation first and career second at the end of the day.