A phenomenon that we regularly see in the acupuncture clinic occurs when a person receives treatment, feels better, and then wonders if this was merely coincidence. “I mean,” they might say, “would I have felt better anyway?”
Let’s take the example of a patient who injured her knee. This was not her first knee injury, and each time the healing pattern was slow and laborious. She came in while the injury was still acute, and saw increased mobility, decreased pain, and a healing time of about 2 days – compared to her usual 2 weeks. And she asked, “Would this have happened anyway?”
It’s good to examine whatever treatment we decide to undertake to make sure that it makes sense for us. And in that examination, the above is a good question to ask, in general. But I’m most interested in what it reveals about us and our beliefs. In this case, it seems likely that we ask that specific question because we’re separated from ourselves, and we don’t really understand how natural medicine works.
Most people will agree that acupuncture and herbal medicine are natural medicines, and that somehow that’s not the same as “Western” medicine. But often the same people expect the two medicines to behave alike, even though they acknowledge that these medicines differ conceptually.
One way to look at the difference is to examine the language the medicine uses to describe its methodology. It is not uncommon in biomedicine to talk in combative terms. We are accustomed to “fighting” a disease, “killing” cancer cells, or “going under the knife.” Generally, a substance or a surgery is introduced to overcome that which is occurring in the body. Often, the patient views the sickness as something separate from himself, like a rebelling force that needs to be squelched.
In acupuncture and herbal medicine, we have a different kind of language. We talk about “releasing” pathogens, “clearing” heat, and “building” fluids. In other words, we are interested in reminding the body of what it already knows how to do. Sometimes a light reminder will do. Other times we remind a little more loudly.
This truth calls for an adjustment of our expectations. I’m not saying we should expect natural medicine not to work. It should work. We just shouldn’t expect it to behave and feel like biomedicine, because it doesn’t and it won’t.
So how does it behave and feel?
The answers are as varied as the people who experience the sensations. My personal experience was a certain type of physical and mental awakening. The specific symptoms for which I first sought acupuncture diminished, yes, but even more exciting was the development of an ability to connect more deeply to my body. With monthly treatments and my active participation, I felt my perceptions shift. It was as if I received a bonus sense, one that combined with and brought a glow to all of my usual senses. This is not exactly measurable, but it is very real.
Many people report a similar experience. They notice improvements in their senses; they feel sturdier; gross processed food suddenly tastes gross and processed. (It’s a good thing when what’s bad for the stomach tastes nasty to the tongue.)
In short, acupuncture and herbs help the body begin to be an assimilated whole. Physiological processes that were before jerky or pathological can again become smooth. Such a feeling is so right, so human, and so natural that it can be easy to forget to trace it back to the treatment.
This essay first appeared on The Lantern Project. It appears here with permission.