The new book: Saplings – On the Path to Mastery is compilation of essays by sixteen acupuncturists and herbalists about their experiences of the first years of practice. It was edited by Carl Stimson, an acupuncturist currently living in Japan.
The book includes three wonderfully heartfelt essays by community acupunks: David Lesseps of Circle CA (San Francisco, CA), Pamela O’Malley Chang (my business partner!) of Sarana CA (Albany, CA) and Rebecca Parker of Brooklyn Open Acupuncture (Brooklyn, NY). Rebecca also penned the excellent preface.
All three essays reflect on the transformation of a new acu-graduate into a community acupuncturist from a personal perspective.
In David’s piece, entitled “Part of the Community”, he shares his journey of discovering and falling in love with community acupuncture in acupuncture school and founding his clinic. He then takes us through a day in the clinic, narrating in detail his experience of starting out the work day in a quiet room full of empty recliners and ending up in a space that, in his description, “practically hums with human presence”. He reflectss on his evolving relationship with his patients since he left acupuncture school, on letting go of the habit of getting bogged down with the complex details of someone’s health history and just showing up in the moment to listen:
Slowly, I am learning to let go of seeing labels on my patients. It is hard to let go of the idea that someone has fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis or ovarian cysts. But when I can just sit down and listen to what patients are experiencing, it is much easier to treat them.
David then talks about what it means for him to be a community acupuncturist:
As a community acupuncturist, I have learned that it is my job to understand the word “community”… When patients come to the clinic, each one has something that is bothering them. For some it is as simple as a hangover from a night of drinking while others might suffer from debilitating migraines or frequent panic attacks. When they sit in the chair and talk to me, they can tell me as much or as little about their condition as they like. I listen to them and experience it with them for a moment. Once the needles are in place and they enter a nice acu-nap, they are sharing that time with everyone else in the room. In my eyes, this is community.
In her essay “Things I Did Not Learn in Acupuncture School”, Rebecca vividly describes the nerve-wracking experience of treating her first-ever community acupuncture patient at her job as a brand-new acupunk. She relates the details of her journey from nervousness to confidence in practice and of the realization that “it is not about me”:
What patients need is an inviting (culturally, economically, medically) place where they can come as often as they need, where they feel heard and supported, where comfort is paramount so they can go inward during treatment, and where they will want to return.
Rebecca also challenges the acupuncture profession to expand its cultural competency, sadly deficient in acupuncture education, to help create a more patient-centered environment in our clinics:
It seems there is an assumption that we do not need to learn about the cultural and economic contexts our patients are coming from, either because it is assumed that everyone we treat will be from a similar background, or because of the nature of our medicine. Indeed, we claim to treat the “whole person: body, mind, and spirit.” But this definition of holistic is fragmented, as it fails to address questions concerning a patient’s place in a societal fabric woven with threads of culture, race, gender, class and other determinants of difference.
Pamela’s eloquent piece, “On Becoming a Community Acupuncturist”, narrates her journey of finding out about community acupuncture, starting a clinic with a partner and learning to be comfortable in her role as a practitioner, building trust and community with her patients:
I realized then that my gift for healing is in holding a space where people can feel safe and acknowledged. I can listen to them and bear witness of their struggles. I do not have magic fingers, but it does not matter. My job is to be as trustworthy and caring as I am capable of and then to step aside. In fact, the longer I practice, the less I think of myself as a healer. I put needles in; I pull needles out. Maybe the most effective thing I do is drape blankets, tucking people in for a cozy nap. People heal themselves – or not. The most I do is to set the stage.
She goes on to talk about her efforts to set boundaries, to develop more speed in delivering high volume treatments without getting behind schedule, and reflects on the what relationships with her patients are teaching her:
Finally, my patients are my ultimate teachers. They show me that acupuncture works: sometimes instantaneously, more often gradually and cumulatively, sometimes spectacularly, and sometimes not well enough. Many of my clients come week after week for months or even years. Their regular attendance means we develop a comfortable, ordinary relationship. In our five-minute conversations, they tell me of their aches, pains and challenges; of births, deaths and everyday stress. They see me on days when the clinic runs smoothly and on days when I am running late. They know me well enough to tell me such things as: “your hands are cold,” “you forgot to take my pulse,” or, “you need to stop and breathe.” (Whereupon I did and thanked the client.)
The ordinariness of our relationship takes the pressure off me. I do not need to have magic fingers or expert answers; I am just an ordinary person – albeit with specialized knowledge – doing what I can to make people feel better.
I really enjoyed reading all three essays. My only disappointment is that all three of the acupunks’ stories included in Saplings are by practitioners who began with community acupuncture straight out of school. I wish the editor would have asked for a contribution from an acupunk who practiced in a private room setting prior to switching to community acupuncture. As this was the experience of many of my POCA comrades, it would have been good to have this type of story included in the book.
I have only glimpsed the other essays in the Saplings, as I am obviously more interested in the community acupunks’ writing, but some of the other stories look interesting, and some kind of wacky and funny.
I will end by sharing another great quote from Rebecca Parker’s preface:
We are stronger when we do not just disappear into our treatment rooms, but when we encourage each other to be ambitious, to think big, and envision the best for ourselves and all people who need relief from suffering. We have a lot of work to do.
Saplings is available as a Kindle edition or as a paper copy from Createspace. It’s pretty inexpensive, so I though some of you might want to check it out.