I was about 14 years old when I read my first book on acupuncture, Acupuncture: The Ancient Chinese Art of Healing and how it Works Scientifically by Felix Mann. Even though many years have passed since, I still recall his charts of four-needle tonification and sedation of the meridians. I studied and deciphered these charts and came to understand the five-phase theory of acupuncture. It felt like uncovering something ancient (it was!) and complex, and this experience got me hooked on acupuncture.
In 1989, during my first year of acupuncture school, I read my herb teacher Ted Kaptchuk’s book, The Web That Has No Weaver. I read it something like 75 times.
In it there was a reference to a term that, at the time, I was only able to find in one other text. That term was gan-ying, which translates literally as “stimulus-response,” and semantically as “resonance”. Ted quotes Professor Harold D. Roth of Brown University who describes resonance as the process “by which a thing, when stimulated, responds according to the natural guidelines of the particular phases of vital energy engendered in itself and active in the situation.”
If I was hooked on five-phase theory at 14, in my twenties I was obsessed with resonance. It took me some time (in the pre-internet era) to track down Professor Roth’s essay in which this description is found: Psychology and Self-Cultivation in Early Taoistic Thought. This paper is heavily based on the Huananzi, a Daoistic text compiled in the second century B.C.E.
Professor Roth edited a scholarly translation of this work in 2010. It is the locus classicus for the concept of gan-ying / resonance in Chinese thought. (I will write more about the relationship between Chinese medicine and Chinese philosophy later.) The concept of resonance became the foundation for my understanding of Chinese medicine. Though rarely discussed, its implications lie at the heart of Chinese Daoist thought. Over the years, I came to summarize my understanding of resonance as it relates to medical practice in the following way.
- Each part of the body is a holograph in correspondence with other body systems and with the environment.
- Proper treatment requires consideration of all aspects of the illness, the individual, and the environment.
- What arises from an illness is part of what caused it.
- Things that occur in relation to one another are causal to one another.
- What we encounter elicits what is already inherent within us.
- Health implies the capacity for spontaneous response to life.
While grounded in classical understanding, thirty years of clinical practice, and forty years of study, this summation is my own and does not reflect formal principles outlined in Chinese medicine. Based on my understanding of these concepts, I eventually composed a series of herbal formulas that have “resonance” with each of the Chinese organ systems. You can read more about these organ systems here.
As these ideas form the basis of my approach to working with patients, I thought it was important to share them.
Western medicine posits that illness just happens to us. There may be genetics involved, but basically there is no relationship between the individual and their illness. There is a concept of disease, but not of health.
Such a perspective is disempowering and can impede healing. Chinese medicine has the capacity to help people heal at a deep level. That healing begins with understanding. I will write more about this and about each of the above-mentioned points in subsequent parts of this essay.