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E.E. Cummings and the Complementary Pole to Discipleship

Theory Philosophy

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

“Singular and particular attention is the foundation of the sublime.” William Blake


“Nothing in a caterpillar predicts a butterfly.” R. Buckminster Fuller


“Attention is selection.” Alan Watts


I would like to start with a piece by the famous poet e.e. cummings (he often did not capitalize his name) and then draw a connection to the learning and practice of Traditional East Asian Medicine (TEAM).

A Poet’s Advice

A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.

This may sound easy. It isn’t.

A lot of people think or believe or know they feel—but that’s thinking or believing or knowing, not feeling. And poetry is feeling—not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught how to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people, but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time—and whenever we do it, we are not poets.

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.

And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world—unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

Does this sound dismal? It isn’t.

It’s the most wonderful life on earth.

Or so I feel.


What does this have to do with the learning and practice of TEAM? A great deal as it turns out, and not just that we, like poets, face years of hard work and still enjoy the most wonderful career in the world. It has a lot more than that to say to us. I would like to explore cumming’s idea of becoming “nobody-but-yourself” and contrast it with traditional discipleship in TEAM.


It is the traditional route in East Asian medicine to find a sensei who will initiate you into a certain style of practice and then mentor you along. This holds equally true for acupuncture, moxa, massage and herbal medicine. We call this relationship discipleship. In modern times many TEAM students never have any experience of discipleship as their entire training comes in TCM colleges; their educational experience is actually no different in kind from any other university or training program, such as in commercial art or accounting. Someone is in the front of the classroom telling them facts, and they are writing them down for later repeating on a test. This is a near-tragic weakness in TEAM in North America, unlike Japan, China or Korea where one can still hope to find a real mentor with deep clinical experience; in recent years a few elders in our field in North America have recognized this and have attempted to introduce elements of discipleship, and one can only hope this movement will grow. This is a good thing, the participation in a lineage, but there is the other pole we see expressed in A Poet’s Advice above, the pole of finding-our-own-way. How does that fit in with the traditional route to mastery?


As in most things it seems upon analysis to boil down to yin and yang, the dance of two complementary (not opposite!) poles. Discipleship and belonging to a lineage occupies one pole; what are we to call the complementary pole? For now let’s agree to call it the poet’s pole. This is the pole of practicing, as cummings puts it, like “nobody-but-yourself”. As with yin and yang it is easy to state the names of the two poles, but it can get tricky in the execution when one tries to say where the close discipleship pole stops and the poet’s pole begins..


How far can one stray in the direction of the poet’s pole of finding one’s own way before one loses contact with one’s lineage? This is a key question and a bit of a muddy issue, and the amount of leeway seems to differ from style to style. Some schools of thought tolerate very little straying from orthodoxy before the practitioner is shown the door, i.e., ostracized from the community of the lineage; other styles allow a great deal of latitude in how they are practiced. It begs the question as to what the essence of a lineage is, the essence that must be retained or else one is no longer practicing in a way consistent with that style.


e.e.cummings writes in his piece above of ten or fifteen years of hard work before one can hope to write a single line of real poetry all one’s own, free of the knowing-believing-thinking one picks up, mostly inadvertently, from others. This is a timeline that makes sense to me in this question of where the blurry line is, beyond which one cannot stray or one will have left a style behind and invented something new— which is not necessarily bad. If we want to learn from a teacher, we ought to commit to investing significant time (that means years!) before we start tinkering with things. After this initial period of learning though, it is only natural to slowly drift in the direction of the poet’s pole. Otherwise we dishonor our own experience and creativity and feeling.


Starting in 1999 I have studied Sotai with Stephen Brown, Jeffrey Dann, and Peter Thompson. I have read Dr. Hashimoto’s two English language books many times as well as the Sotai section in Hara Diagnosis Reflections on the Sea by Stephen Birch and Kiiko Matsumoto. Although Peter’s influence on me is by far the greatest, and can be readily seen in how I practice Sotai, in truth I picked up many insights from all these teachers, either personally or through their books. It is impossible though to not be influenced by our own experiences, and herein lies the reason for the existence of the poet’s pole. It is my felt experiences (remember e.e. cummings’ focus on feeling) in doing Sotai treatments that compel me to practice in at least a slightly different way from others of the same style. It is a function of my unique way of paying attention (see quotes above from Blake and Watts) that forms my experiences, and from these my unique feelings can constellate. My Sotai has become my Sotai and in another ten years (God willing) it will look different still, because further experiences will lead it in yet new directions. Do I dishonor Stephen or Jeffrey or Peter by evolving my own way of being comfortable with Sotai? No! This is the influence of the poet’s pole that has made my own way of practicing unique. The Sotai principles are maintained, but the execution and the language I use with my patients are now my own.


Whether one acknowledges it or not, this question of the poet’s pole is there for everyone in TEAM. It cannot be otherwise, as we are all creative beings who feel. A claim might be made to follow a certain style or lineage closely, but one’s own felt experience will be a factor. It is far better to recognize this dynamic and make it a fully conscious process.

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