Dear Doctor Steven Novella, so somebody has given you money to prove that acupuncture is useless. You have achieved the Great Work by randomly sticking needles into thousands of unsuspecting, probably sick, people and you have found that what you did is, indeed, quite useless. You also found that it does not make any difference whether you stick needles into acupuncture points or some other random spots. Therefore you concluded wisely that any improvement on the medical condition in the case of acupuncture must be owned to the dreaded „Placebo effect“.
Dear Doctor xy, I am really concerned about your sanity of mind. How can you even ask that question? How superstitious can you be?
Of course sticking tiny needles into people will not cure their diseases, whether these needles pierce the body at some points charted in ancient Chinese books or at some random location.
What did you expect?
Me, after working as a medical doctor and acupuncturist for thirty years can assure you that it really really does not make any difference where you stick your acupuncture needle. Every five year old could have told you the same thing. A needle is a needle is a needle. Otherwise handling a bunch of roses could have the most unforeseen effects. Which it does not.
So what is the point?
The point is that it really does not matter which acupuncture point you chose. You got that completely right.
Just do not get too smug about it because in the great scheme of things it is but a trivial accomplishment given that everybody knew this to begin with. In vain you have tormented all those people. In vain you have wasted all those nice funds granted by your pharmaceutical sponsors. I suggest the next time someone gives you so much money do not stick thousands of useless needles into unsuspecting people but just go ahead and buy yourself a really nice car. Show some respect.
The Chinese philosopher Zhang Yi once said: „Medicine is meaning.“
For him acupuncture is a language spoken to convey that meaning. But where does this meaning come from and where does it reside? Who is the speaker and who is the listener? And how do we, as acupuncturists, learn to speak this obscure language?
And most importantly: Granted the acupuncturist somehow managed to know this language what about the clients who do not speak it? Do they have to „just believe“ as in a religion? And will their believing in it make them actually understand?
I do not think so.
For a language to work both parties most be aware of it and not just believe in it.
You see. Should I happen to write a letter in Chinese to you and you did not know that language you would not be able to make any more sense of it than if I had used some random scribbles to begin with.
On the other hand if a child saw her mother writing an old fashioned letter it might decide to imitate her and proudly smear some ink all over a piece of paper.
An outsider who did not know about the art of writing might not be aware of the difference between the mother’s writing and the scribbling of the child.
I daresay in the case of acupuncture you are this outsider.
You may wish to argue with this because semiotics are of no avail to you as far as medicine is concerned. After all the body is a dumb piece of machinery. Slave to the laws of Newtonian physics. This is what you were told at med school and they must have been right because after all this was med school.
You just wanted to prove the point that acupuncture is useless and prove it you did. Or did you not?
In a medical paradigm were the body is dumb and devoid of meaning, acupuncture cannot be more than scribbling random sigils on a piece of paper when neither the writer nor the reader know the language and there is no receiver who might decode it.
But. There are always many ways to look at things.
We can decide to look at the body as a physical expression of the Deep Conscious. Not a dumb machine but a highly intelligent being.
We can decide to look at acupuncture as a language, a coded system for the transference of complex information. In order for this system to work there must be an intelligent sender and an equally intelligent receiver. Here comes the interesting bit: In acupuncture neither sender nor receiver are conscious personae.
Acupuncture is a technology that exchanges information unacknowledged by the conscious mind directly between the Deep Conscious of two people. In acupuncture we directly address the most intelligent part of our being: The Deep conscious. Our higher self that lies at the root of everything. Source.
The letters and sometimes words of the language of acupuncture are the classical points defined and coded sometime in ancient China by people we do not know very much about. We can only suspect that they did know much more than was written down in later times.
The grammar that comes with this highly structured language are the seemingly random rules by which these are combined. Remember: Grammar has a way of imposing itself as willful and random to the non native speaker. If you ever tried to grasp the workings of a foreign language you will have experienced that.
Interestingly the Chinese acupuncture points do not have names that make much sense to the conscious mind. Among old Chinese point names there is no such thing as a „common cold point“ or „headache point“. Rather the point names speak in metaphors that bury any obvious meaning under layers of nature poetry, obscure riddles and references to ancient shamanic gods. Clearly acupuncture is a language meant to be understood only by the Deep Conscious.
As the acupuncturist picks a point and needle it in the way she has been taught her conscious mind acts as an instrument of the Deep Conscious. But without some kind of phonetics a word remains mostly obscure. When the acupuncturist manages to apply the right form of stimulation the body picks up the sensations and translates it into one of the thousands shades of pain, piercing, prickling, swelling, numbness or heat that lay at the heart of acupuncture. Not necessarily all grey. These are the words the deep conscious can receive.The Deep Conscious may speak back to her when she feels that the „Qi has arrived“. It means that she has got the pronunciation right.
The pronunciation of the words, the needling technique as it is sometimes called, is as much part of acupuncture as is the art to combine these words to longer phrases. There are certain rules how point are combined. This is where the grammar gets complicated. You may have been vaguely aware of this. After all you tried to prove that it does not make any difference whether you speak the language or whether you just brabble along.
But acupuncture does not stop at point combinations. What if someone randomly copies famous quotes and puts them together in a way that does not defy the rules of grammar. Does that make for a read that captures the reader’s imagination? Probably not if there had been no other intention but to fill some pages with grammatically correct phrases.
To speak a language correctly is not enough to capture your listener’s attention. They will only listen if there is some piece of information that is important to them. You need to tell a story. Something new and powerful. If your story is good enough they will excuse a funny pronunciation and poor grammar.
This is why a technically poor acupuncturist can oftentimes achieve much more than someone who has studied with all the right teachers but does not care to tell a good story.
An acupuncturist may not be aware that she is telling a story. Neither does the client. Consciously both may be quite unaware of the communication going on between their deeper beings. This does not matter at all. What matters is that she allows for the necessary time and space for communication to happen. She will sit with her client. Listen. Breathe. Smell. Mirror. After a while her Deep Conscious will know the story it needs to tell and manage to communicate the necessary information to the conscious mind so it can do the practical work. Other than that the acupuncturist’s conscious mind tries to stay out of the way. In Chinese philosophy this attitude is called „wu wei“ and it is considered the axiom of all doing.
So while the acupuncturist does not quite know what is going own, she is open enough to listen to her deeper impulses and translate them into correct action. This is where her knowledge comes in.
A good grasp on the traditional rules provides a ritual framework for the work of acupuncture to unfold graciously and without much conscious interference.
(In its deep aspect acupuncture is very similar to magic. In my work, be it in writing or in treating people you will find many approximations to chaos magic and sigil work. Just think of a needle as a sigil and you get the idea.)
Even a well trained acupuncturist will never know how the „real“ language of the Deep Conscious is spoken. After all this language as we know it has always been a conscious construct meant to get as close as possible to the „truth“ without ever hitting the mark completely. To the body our interventions may sound like a young child’s stummering. But it will listen all the same. Oftentimes it will react enthusiastically, even violently. After all this may be the first time somebody cared enough to address it at all. For the Deep Conscious this is like opening its eyes to the light of the sun after living in a dark room for many years.
At first session our first reaction may be overwhelming pain. If this reaction is understood as what it is and guided with compassion the pain will subside quickly and make room for an astonishing array of ever more finely modulated sensations. These sensations translate into complex cascades of chemical reactions. Make no mistake. These chemicals are not what acupuncture is about. Acupuncture is not about „Endorphins“ or „Serotonin“. These molecules are nothing but vehicles to transport the meaning. While all kinds of sensations and chemicals roll over the client this meaning is transferred and translated to the client’s Deep Conscious where the story is distilled, received, and understood. The room will become sweet and calm once again.
But before that it may well get sweaty. Often literally. Some clients lose consciousness or drift aware into some unknown space. Some start to shake and shiver as traumas are being released. They sweat, lacrimate, roll their eyes or feel icy cold as the dorsal parasympathetic system gets turned on. Others see beautiful colors or visions, hear exotic music or experience intense sexual sensations. Mercifully, the most severely traumatized clients just fall asleep. On wakening up they smile and ask „What happened?“.
My favorite answer is: „We do not need to know.“
After all, when a trauma is released, we do not want to talk it back into our lifes. Let it be gone for good.
All this will only happen if and as long as the acupuncturist stays closely by their clients side. A little needle does not do anything at all if there is no story being told. This should be obvious by now. If a client is left alone all reactions will stop immediately.
After a couple of days profound healing will set in. By that time people will find that their traumas have resolved. Cramps losen up. Pains disappear. Hormones reappear. Medications are discarded. Tumors shrink. Bowels and hearts move happily ever after. Depression ends and breathing is joyful once again.
My clients tend to be very pleased with acupuncture.
After all this is the meaning of „placebo“: „I will please you“.
Tell me again what is wrong with that.
(Its a kind of magick…)