My dear friend and comrade Gene sent me a copy of an article in which, he said, “I think Lonny Jarrett gave community acupuncture a simultaneous fist bump, left handed compliment, and a call out (in the latest edition of California Journal of OM).”
The article is “Chinese Medicine in the 21st Century: Integral and Evolutionary Perspectives”. Since it’s not possible to link to the article online (though CAN members should check the forums, because you never know what you might find there), I’m quoting big chunks of text (in italics) in order to give this conversation some context. Gene noted that the article included some scolding of acupuncturists for allowing Chinese medicine to become a boutique indulgence for consumers who just want to feel better, but don’t want to really change. Huh, I thought, that’s interesting; and having read the article, it’s very interesting, and also very problematic and very pertinent to our concerns. And I agree with Gene, it’s a call out to us, if only in a footnote. So! Here I am. (More on that later.)
The article is essentially about the kind of people that Chinese medicine treats, and the kind of people who treat them. Lonny Jarrett announces that in the first paragraph when he writes, From a certain perspective, the type of human being that we treat in the West didn’t even exist when the classic texts were written. The typical practitioner and patient in the West today may be counted among the most fortunate group of people to have ever lived in terms of material wealth, freedom, and comfort. I think he’s saying, basically, that there is a new kind of patient, one who really should have nothing to complain about, and yet complains endlessly. This is due to a cultural distortion that places excessive emphasis on the individual. The way to address this distortion is for the practitioner to recognize his own integrity as foundational to the practice of medicine, and then to use that integrity to inspire this new species of patient to stop whining and start saving the world. By means of integrity. I think. Here’s where he brings us into the conversation:
In the context of a global world, and in the face of its challenges, what is the continued relevance of “one on one” medicine? (Footnote: This discussion points to some interesting and, as yet, untapped potentials in “community” acupuncture.) What is the significance of helping an individual feel better when the human species is threatened with extinction?
Well, since you asked, that’s something I’ve been wanting to talk about anyway.
I started the clinic that would become WCA at the end of an episode in my life that could probably best be described as a pretty comprehensive personal dis-integration. I’ve generally left this part out of descriptions of our beginnings, and don’t worry, I’ll spare you the details. Basically what happened was that as a result of moving to Oregon and going to acupuncture school, I discovered things like therapy and bodywork and yoga, things that were not previously part of my universe, and I did them. After I did them for a while, it became clear that I had constructed a lot of my personal reality on the building blocks of some major denial. I don’t really know if it was the pressure introduced by the therapy or the bodywork or the yoga, or the stress of not being able to make a living doing acupuncture, or whether there’s just a time limit on that kind of shoddy construction, but the denial eventually fell apart and so did I. And not in a minor way. I couldn’t stop crying, I couldn’t get out of bed, and then when I finally did, I realized I had to leave my public health job doing acupuncture with chronically homeless and addicted folks, because I couldn’t take it anymore. I realized I needed to work in a setting where there wasn’t any chaos (as in, a clinic that didn’t catch fire while I was working, and where nobody threw needles at each other). Also, I needed to make enough money to pay my student loans. In general, I needed to be much, much kinder to myself. This wasn’t an idealistic impulse, it was a practical one; if I wasn’t kind to myself, I wasn’t functional either. I was too hurt to be tough. The setting I needed to work in didn’t exist, so I made it.
And so WCA was born out of my need to take care of myself. Interestingly enough, as I kept trying to take care of myself, and that kept working out better than NOT taking care of myself, it also became clear that taking care of myself was not actually separate from taking care of my neighbors. The only way to integrate myself as a working class person and an acupuncturist was to take care of working class patients. Well, duh. Like a lot of other things about the community acupuncture movement, it took an awfully long time to recognize the obvious. The only way for me to really manage my history was to live in a different kind of present, one that I had to create, and one which allowed me to be connected to my community instead of separated from it — that was part of the healing.
I know that plenty of people out there don’t believe in oppression, or think it’s some completely abstract dimension of political correctness, and I’m not going to try to convince you, but I am going to say that looking at oppression helped me reconstruct and integrate myself in a way that was based on truth instead of denial. Society doesn’t treat poor people or working class people well, or women and children, or immigrants or people with mental illness — it’s one thing to think about that abstractly in college, and it’s another to admit what it means, concretely and without denial, in your own history and your family’s history. I realized I had a choice: I could continue to treat myself the way society had taught me I deserved to be treated; I could perpetuate various subtle forms of violence against myself for the rest of my life, because that was familiar, or I could stop. I could refuse to be my own oppressor. Maybe I had no control over how society or any other person treated me, but I didn’t have to participate. That was just the negative part — deciding that I won’t hurt myself, no matter how subtly; the positive part was even more powerful. The bravest and most radical thing I could do was to take care of myself, to approach my own wellbeing like a serious project that deserved time and thought and attention and effort. Given who I was, where I came from, and what I’d experienced, that was practically an act of civil disobedience.
And every time I took care of a patient who was like me in some way — a working class person, a woman, someone who had experienced violence or lost someone they loved, someone with chronic physical or mental illness in her family — I was building a new world, a world in which people like me were valuable.
I have been wanting to write something like this ever since Michelle Fanslau put up this post after the CANference about how doing community acupuncture is a very gentle kind of activism. But I also find myself thinking about these themes as I’m working on the development of our cooperative, POCA. It’s so technical, there’s so much detail, it’s so much time and trouble to set up a cooperative, that I catch myself thinking, oh God, is this worth it? What if this doesn’t work out? And that’s exactly the point. It IS a lot of time and trouble, and that’s why nothing like it exists for us and our patients already. Creating it requires making a decision — and making it over and over — that we deserve that much time and thought and attention and effort from ourselves. We deserve something complex and well designed that really meets our collective needs. This is just as true of creating a clinic as it is of creating a cooperative. Acting like people like US deserve something like THAT requires real courage.
What is the significance of helping an individual feel better when the human species is threatened with extinction?
Sure, in the global scheme of things, my personal pain is insignificant. But for me to treat myself that way is to perpetuate the cycle of violence. And to treat people like me as if their physical and mental suffering deserved attention and care — in other words, as if their bodies and minds really mattered — is to rewrite the laws of the universe I live in. (Also, I have to say, I think this whole question possibly looks entirely different, and not so rhetorical, based on whether or not you’ve ever felt PERSONALLY threatened with extinction, and no, I’m not talking about global warming.)
I get the value of transforming your perspective beyond personal pain, I really do. But the problem with Lonny Jarrett’s article is that it leaves community out of the picture. When he writes,
…the only compelling imperative for holistic medicine that makes sense from the biggest clinical perspective is the evolution of the individual not strictly for his or her own sake, but for the sake of emergence of higher cultural values
it DOESN’T make sense to me, because I can’t separate the individuals I treat from the community that they belong to and I belong to. Contrasting the evolution of individuals withthe emergence of higher cultural values seems hopelessly abstract. How can you talk about individuals and values outside of the context of communities?
Apparently not coincidentally, yesterday my friend Nora posted a link to an interview with a Detroit activist, Adrienne Maree Brown. The interview was very cool, so I followed another link to Adrienne Maree’s blog, where, lo and behold, her most recent post addressed some of the same issues as Lonny Jarrett’s article, but from a completely and illuminatingly different perspective. She wrote:
“I am starting to believe in wholeness, not as a future concept, but apresent one. I am starting to believe, after years of angst and anger and suffering that was both empathetic and experiential, that there is nothing wrong with the world. that in fact the world is miraculous:
1. Occurring through divine or supernatural intervention.
2. Highly improbable and extraordinary and bringing very welcome consequences: “our miraculous escape”.
there are lots of things that are horrific, there are stories to carry, there are things that are unfair, violent, disgusting, unjustifiable. there is all of that, some of it close to my heart and some of it far.
but every single place I see suffering see days, I see better people,survivors, brilliant communities. i see and hear the rush as people tell the story of their suffering, once they learn to tell it. I see resilience within all of this suffering and oppression and experienced scarcity, transforming people from addictive individuality to sustainable communalism.”
Isn’t that beautiful? And yeah — for some of us, helping an individual feel better is how we come to believe in wholeness. Because feeling better is, in itself, miraculous. That’s the significance.
The individuals who recognize and value the principles of holistic medicine, and can afford it, are in a position at the forefront of culture to meet the challenges demanded by a global world head-on. And yet it is this very demographic that is stagnated by narcissism, postmodern pluralism, and is endlessly fascinated, entertained by, and trapped in, a self-centric process of consuming experience in the name of “healing”.
So wait — what about patients who recognize and value the principles of holistic medicine, but *can’t* afford it? I guess they’re not at the forefront of culture, ready to meet the challenges of the global world. Does that mean they’re in the rear, the hindmost, at the tail end? Out in the alley? Where exactly are they in this discussion? Or are we back to the part about how the only people who REALLY value holistic medicine are the ones who can afford it? I’m confused. Either way, though, it sounds an awful lot like the people who really matter, the ones who might be able to save the world, are the ones with privilege, if only they would stop focusing on themselves the way this article keeps focusing on them.
One of our primary directives must be to break this cycle of self-indulgence. We as clinicians must become relatively less concerned with the patient’s internal experience and relatively more concerned with the evolution of the patient’s values and integrity as evidenced by his or her behavior…It’s interesting to note that when we practitioners put our attention on a patient’s highest potential and encourage it as a living possibility “right now”, we often encounter an enormous degree of resistance from the patient. It becomes evident rather quickly that patients come to us for comfort and not to be held accountable to any higher potential…
It’s hard to read that without wondering whether Lonny Jarrett likes or respects his patients. It doesn’t sound like it. And it’s hard not to notice the contrast between this article and this blog, or this one, or any of the others where community acupunks overflow with love for their jobs and their patients. I have to think that’s somehow significant for the conversation about the kind of people that Chinese medicine treats, and the kind of people that treat them.
We in Chinese medicine pride ourselves on our holistic value system, but the truth is, we tend to ignore a patient’s ethical development in favor of improved physical functioning and emotional “wellbeing”. Materialism and narcissism are endemic in our culture, and are central forces at the root of the problems we face. Our willingness and ability to face these forces in our patients will reflect the degree to which we have taken them on in ourselves.
The word “holistic”, when applied to medicine, implies that a patient moves from a relatively divided state to ever increasing states of integration and wholeness. The word “integral”, as applied to the practice of medicine, signifies to me that a practitioner’s own integrity is implicated in his ability to motivate a patient toward wholeness.
So that kind of sounds like it’s all about the practitioner being amazing, and if he is amazing enough, he will inspire his patients to become amazing also. That is definitely different from my experience, in which what is principally amazing is how many of us keep getting out of bed when we have so many reasons not to. Seriously, that’s amazing. Despite everything that has happened and keeps happening to us, we keep showing up, we keep going bravely out into the world, we keep making an effort to take care of ourselves and each other. Lots of us aren’t what you might describe as whole, but we’re here anyway. And that’s why I love going to work.
Our integrity as practitioners has import beyond any technical prowess or academic knowledge we may possess…It seems to me that the minimal requirement for being a healer ought to be having come to a place in one’s own life where no more time is being taken to overcome one’s past and all attention and effort is placed on creating a more wholesome future.
Huh. It sounds like my past and Lonny Jarrett’s were considerably different. Can I have his? Just to see what that’s like? Also, back to the issue of community. How can you “overcome” your past when people you care about are still living it? My clinic IS me overcoming my past, and also creating my future. I don’t get how you separate those, or how you separate them from your community.
The article ends:
The highest understanding of this medicine is practically demonstrated in the quality of one’s relationships with others. Hence we must strive toward a higher, more evolutionarily mature expression for the profession as a whole, in a way that can elevate our patients and the culture at large…The emergence and evolution of spirit is the highest goal of medicine if it is to do more than heal the body and comfort the mind, which, at this point in history, is simply not enough.
To sum up: it sounds like for Lonny Jarrett, as for much of the acupuncture profession, relieving mental and physical pain, for actual people, is just too boring. But that isn’t true for us. So it sounds like the untapped potential of community acupuncture for elevating the culture is going to have to remain untapped. Please leave us out of your evolution. It doesn’t seem to have any room in it for our patients or our communities, and we’re not going anywhere without them.