Waking Up – A Journey through Acupuncture in America

“How many patients a week do you have?” I still remember the question. It was 1998 or thereabouts, and I was in the back seat of a beat up acupunk’s car with a couple of other recent grads, heading to a CEU seminar. 

He almost glowered at me with his gaze, as if to say, “I’ll bet I’m treating more patients than you.” If this is what acupuncture is all about, everyone for themselves, bitter rivalries with former classmates, and many bureaucratic hoops to jump through, then I quit.  And I did for a few years.

As recent grads, we were still in fantasy land.  For three years we had been taught to strut like peacocks wearing white lab coats, fanning out our exotic Oriental wisdom  – unaware of the level of pretentiousness and even racism as mainly privileged white folks studying an ancient medicine from Asia, treating it like a commodity with very fancy packaging, to be used for our own twisted intentions.

And then the dream world came abruptly crashing down. Graduation, the license in the mail, cast adift into a confusing sea of choices – network provider lists, marketing, and oh my Buddha  –  meeting, greeting, and communicating with real live patients. The schools had not prepared us for this, unless there was a class I had missed.

It is truly a shame that so much talent (and people’s money)  is wasted by acupuncture schools’ insistence on teaching students a model of practice which only works for a few  – urging them to find a wealthy neighborhood, or a wealthy niche cliente, get on all the right lists, and “charge what you are worth“.

There are parallels between the myopic excesses present in acupuncture education and the steady demise of mainstream education in general.  For example, in the recently released movie, Race to Nowhere, it becomes clear that we are training a nation of children increasingly drilled in test taking, as their ability to think and creatively problem solve steadily declines.  More homework and tests is not statistically linked with better learning, but instead, seemingly a rise in suicides and teenage stress syndromes.

Acupuncture schools – those that haven’t gone belly up yet that is – boast at how successful their students are at passing the national exam, but the majority of students end up as business failures, at least as well as anyone can guess, as record keeping by the profession is spotty at best. Note: These issues have been discussed extensively in the CAN blogs and forums and if you have questions, do a search, or post a query and you’re likely to find answers.

I am grateful to my teachers for my acupuncture education, and, disgusted with the corporate attitude and empty ethics of acupuncture schools. Their owners seem bent on selling expensive (and unrealistic) dreams to students without devoting sincere attention to fulfilling the promise of acupuncture for all. For the vast majority of Americans, increasingly feeling the squeeze of a society with an ever widening gap between rich and poor, acupuncture is an irrelevant curiosity for rich folks. It doesn’t need to be that way, as CAN clinics around the U.S. and the world, are powerfully making clear.

As a naïve young man in my 30s, making a career switch, I remember buying the package of dreams called “Oriental Medicine”, since repackaged in many places to the more politically correct term, “East Asian medicine“. Regardless of what it is called,  most students, though trained in the powerful arts of  healing, are greatly encumbered by the classist baggage that comes with the package. 

Professional conversations within state and national acupuncture associations tend to be dominated by the turf mentality – striving to protect what little status acupuncturists enjoy in mainstream medicine, and seeking to expand that status in order to compete with the big money players – doctors and chiropractors mainly. They grovel for renown and  clamor for respect with shinier credentials and wider recognition, giving precious little thought to the issue of accessible services for the average American.   

I bought the whole package initially. I remember the proud feeling I lugged around with me, my smug and self-congratulatory white skinned upper middle class cleverness, that I could get paid $50 for tapping 10 needles into someone and scribbling a few notes on a chart – as if I was, well, a doctor. A few patients bought it as well. Most patients could care less about status  though. They simply want pain relief and good health. Until a few years ago, they expected to pay dearly for acupuncture, unaware that there were any options besides paying $65 to $200 a pop.

But with a hundred other acupuncturists already practicing in Seattle, and me, fresh out of school, not on any lists, patients weren’t beating down my door. After two years, I still had only an expensive hobby that did not add up to a sustainable living. So one day, I left rather abruptly for India. Sure, I took a few needles with me to keep up my hobby, doing volunteer acupuncture in a local Tibetan clinic. But  my lama saw through the thin veneer of my altruism pretty quickly.  Acupuncture can actually relieve a lot of suffering, and though meditation is an important component of spiritual growth, every seeker needs to get of his mountain of isolation and figure out how to actually serve people.  After a year indulging in my Milarepa trip, my teacher told me to go back to America.

Life speeded up. I was suddenly married with a baby Buddha on the way – it was time to jettison the hobby gig and start earning a wage that could pay the rent, food, health care, and living expenses for three.  So I redoubled my efforts at playing the corporate medicine game. I applied to insurance provider panels and moved to a medium sized town where I was the only acupuncturist. I found a niche treating college professors, administrators and well off ranchers, and was making a steady living.

When life in small town America didn’t work for my family, we moved back to the city, but I kept my office, beginning a long term love affair with my car.  I drove 500 miles a week…over mountain s, through blizzards – the epitome of unsustainable in so many ways.

I went to New Orleans after Katrina to do charity acupuncture with AWB. It filled my heart so much that when I returned, I begin to sense the narrowness of my profession, serving people who either had insurance, or didn’t mind spending $65 a session, ignoring everyone else.

I was making it in the acupuncture world, but my conscience ever looked for a deeper connection with Right Livelihood.  Then I heard about Working Class Acupuncture and something called community acupuncture – acupuncture for everyone – not just the affluent.  I signed up for the first conference put on by Skip, Lisa, and Lupine in the fall of 2006. A few months later, Serena Sundaram and I opened CommuniChi in Seattle.

Being a social entrepreneur requires a lot of work, and is not without challenges. Work done with integrity and a pure purpose is like food though. My heart is bigger and freer than it’s ever been. I am not confused about who I am, or my intention to serve my community. I do not need to play games, pretending to be someone elite, peddling exotic wares. My wife sometimes playfully chastises me for not wearing pressed shirts to work. At least they are clean, and far more important anyways is to carefully inspect one’s mental intention and insure that it is not rumpled or impure, tainted by games of self-deception.

If you visit the CommuniChi website, you see – not a picture of orchids, water drops, or smooth river stones balanced Zen-like one on top of the other – but an old school building taken over by Latino social justice activists in the mid 1970s. Heck, even the janitor is in the picture, walking back from his smoke break. That’s the package at CommuniChi – rooted in community, 10 recliners on the top floor looking east through gorgeous double high windows, $15-$35, no gimmicks.  I’ve even taken a cue from Skip and Lisa and now live 3 blocks from work.

Thanks everyone – to patients who may be reading this, for supporting the affordable acupuncture revolution, to the CAN “Bored” for leading a decentralized force in acupuncture, my fellow acupuncturist friends here in Seattle and elsewhere, for being a lamp in your communities in these challenging times.

Jordan Van Voast
Beacon Hill

river Jordan
Author: river Jordan

After graduating from the Northwest Institute of Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine in 1997, I had a hobby practice for a few years before moving to Northern India to study Buddhism. During this time, I volunteered in a local clinic, giving acupuncture to Tibetan refugees and Indian nationals. <p> Returning to the U.S. in 2002, I started a typical insurance based acupuncture practice catering to the upper middle class. In 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, I volunteered with <a href="https://www.acuwithoutborders.org/" target="_blank">Acupuncturists Without Borders</a>, using community style acupuncture to treat trauma victims in a natural disaster setting. </p> Inspired by the power and efficacy of acupuncture in a post-disaster setting, I began to contemplate issues of socioeconomic class. What could be done to make acupuncture accessible to everyone and still provider a livable wage for an acupuncturist? After attending WCA's first conference in October of 2006, I had found the answer to that question. In January 2007, together with my partner Serena Sundaram, we founded <a href="https://www.communichi.org/" target="_blank">Communichi</a>, Seattle's first dedicated community acupuncture clinic. <p> As a Buddhist, I believe that healing begins in the mind. As the positive qualities of wisdom and compassion are cultivated in the mind of a practitioner, this...

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  1. Perfect, Jordan

    You speak eloquently what I suspect is most true for an awful lot of us. And after seeing Skip’s blog just below yours, it appears that number is increasing by the day. Thanks for the shot in the arm.



  2. “Work done with integrity

    “Work done with integrity and a pure purpose is like food”…just what I was looking fir today! Thx for the inspiration!