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As Above, So Below


This article was previously published in the North American Journal of Oriental Medicine (NAJOM). They are reprinted here with the kind permission of NAJOM.

One of my favorite thinkers in Chinese medicine, Heiner Fruehauf, Ph.D., often renders the Hermetic adage in this article title as: As in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm. He goes on to make the point that in all traditional systems of medicine, whether Tibetan, Egyptian, Arabic, Chinese, Greek, or others, we are dealing always with pattern recognition. This is a significant difference from our normal way of thinking in our modern world.


An example of NOT thinking this way in Chinese medicine might, for example, go like this: Your Liver Qi Constraint has caused your Spleen to function in a less than ideal manner, which has caused Dampness to accumulate, which has caused… A causal chain like that is common in the TCM way of working—and to be fair to the TCM method, many patients are helped with this approach—but this is not really pattern-recognition-thinking. In this article I’d like to share some thoughts and experiences that might contribute to our understanding of this question.


My previous career was teaching mathematics and German at the high school level. One of my math professors at the University of Oregon had a son who was one of the early pioneer-mathematicians to focus on fractal geometry, a field largely made known by Benoit Mandelbrot. In fractal geometry there is the unique perspective of self-similarity of form and pattern at different levels of scale. The example often cited is of a coastline, the Oregon coast for example. As you zoom in to the coast from out in space down to the micro-levels you would discover at every level of scale a roughly similar set of shapes. As a result of Mandelbrot’s work, features in nature that had been thought rough and chaotic (e.g., clouds, patterns of plant growth) now were recognized as having a degree of order. There was, in other words, a simple rule under things that were visually complex. The macro-scale and micro-scale of a given system are roughly similar.


We see this idea of the whole being embedded in the part in holograms. If I have a normal photo, say of a dog, and I cut it into four pieces, I have no chance whatsoever of recreating the whole original dog image from just one of the pieces. If the image however were a hologram, then I would from just one of those pieces be able to reconstruct the whole (with the help of the laser array that created the image)—the larger the fragment I have, the clearer the image of the whole will be. This is a radical shift and should properly have a major impact on how we view the world around us (including our patients).


This self-similarity at different levels of scale seems to be related to the idea of acupuncture microsystems. How is it, I have often wondered, that a microsystem can work so well, and how is it that there are so many different microsystems? There are the famous ear, abdomen, and scalp systems; we have also systems in the hand, gastrocnemius muscle, manubrium, face, foot, and likely many others. This Mandelbrot idea of self-similarity at different levels of scale in nature seems to hold some of the answer for the magic of how microsystems work. Why is it a surprise that I can treat everything from the hand or ear or scalp? This is the way of nature it seems, at least as we see the implications of fractal geometry and work with holograms.


In the Manaka-Birch-Itaya book, Chasing the Dragon’s Tail, a system of triangulating is shared. In this idea a bias agent (press tack, hinaishin, magnet…) is put on the area of complaint, maybe on a tender point in the shoulder region in the case of a complaint of shoulder pain, and also on the Korean hand point for the shoulder and on the ear shoulder point. These three points fairly quickly arrived at are treated at the end of session as a way of extending the effectiveness of the treatment. It is a clever idea that I have employed, and it makes brilliant use of two of the common microsystems, ear and hand.


In my master’s degree program, I studied the Jiao and Zhu scalp systems. I later flew to Boston to study with Dr. Yamamoto when he presented at Harvard University. In my doctoral studies I had a weekend module with Dr. Zhu Ming Qing, and I was so impressed that a few years later I traveled to San Jose regularly for a year to study with him. When Dr. Zhu came to teach the OCOM doctoral program, he treated a patient in the clinic theater portion of the weekend who had had a devastating stroke three years before. He now lived in a care facility. This patient had little language ability, had not straightened his leg in three years and consequently could not walk, and clearly had considerable mental confusion. With just 8 needles in the scalp and 45 minutes Dr. Zhu had the man walk 20 meters, and for the first time in three years he was able to look at his wife and say clearly, “I love you.” He even told an old joke! There was not a dry eye in the room. My classmates and I were astonished. All that in 45 minutes.


Here is the fascinating aspect of this story to me: When I later went to San Jose to study with Dr. Zhu and reminded him of this case, he did not remember it. This kind of result is an almost everyday experience in his clinic. I am not a stroke rehab specialist, but when called upon to treat stroke patients, I have been able to use his system with remarkable effectiveness. Even I, a neophyte in this Zhu system, was able to get someone walking after three years, to get someone feeding herself after three years. Such is the power of a microsystem. And what really drew me to Dr. Zhu is that he insists that the scalp needling be comfortable for the patient. A needle that hurts is removed. I recognized how easily I would be able to combine my Japanese Meridian Therapy sensitivities with his work. I will add as well that his system is by far the simplest conceptually of the three I studied. That is a real plus to my aging brain.


I had a student intern on my shift at NUNM a few years ago. He had studied extensively with a Chinese auricular specialist outside of school and had become a dedicated student of hers. I saw him time and again make reasonably precise biomedical diagnoses from close palpation of the ear. And his treatments were very effective; his patients were extremely impressed and loyal to him. He really showed me the power of the auricular microsystem. As an aside I will mention that this is one reason I stay with my teaching career—I am always learning things from my students.


A new microsystem was developed in Nanjing at the TCM College there. It is called the turtle abdomen. One of my colleagues studied this system, and I have seen him use it with great effectiveness. He said that at the hospital there they now use this abdominal scheme with stroke patients instead of the typical scalp work done throughout China. In this system the body of a turtle is superimposed on the abdomen; where the turtle’s neck is locates where one treats neck pain (Ren 12 through 10) for instance. The needling here, as in the Zhu system, is very comfortable. For Chinese sensibilities it is extraordinarily superficial needling, and because of that I think this system has the potential to go somewhere with Japanese practitioners.


My doctoral capstone treated the question of “Wholeness in Traditional East Asian Medicine.” In the capstone I discuss the implications of the invention-discovery of holograms, and the idea that the whole is embodied in the part. This is not the way we are taught to think about nature in the West. Here we think that part + part + part + part = the whole, e.g., tree + tree + tree = the forest. It is a summative path to the whole, we might say. But this is what the late Henri Bortoft, Ph.D. calls the “counterfeit whole”. In our field it would look like this: I ask my patient questions about her body, her emotions, her mental state, her spirit, and then I add all that information together and arrive at a whole. It does not work that way with the genuine whole. I read an article about a Zen roshi some years ago, and he claimed that if he observed how someone affixed a stamp to an envelope, he could tell a lot about that person. He said also he just needed to hear how someone answered the phone and he had all the information he required to understand them. This is using a part to get a clear sense of the whole.


So we assess the abdomen, we assess the ear, we assess the scalp, we assess the hand, we note color, sound of voice, odor of the body, we feel the pulse, the forearm, the back shu points, NOT looking to add all of this information together in an equation, hopefully thus to arrive at a whole patient view. Instead we are inspecting various places where we have been taught that the whole might stand forth for us to recognize; when we inspect a PART it is the WHOLE we are after, not just the part. That is the magic of this holographic medicine we practice.


In this rambling article (sorry about that) I have shared some philosophical thoughts and a few experiences on this theme of the holographic body. I hope I have inspired some thoughts and encouraged readers to explore more in this area of microsystem acupuncture. My best wishes to all.

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