Before I started my program at AOMA Graduate School of Integrative Medicine I was fairly typical in that I thought of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as being pretty much a case of going to my wonderful acupuncturist, getting needles put in me, and feeling much better afterward. In reality, this was a limited perspective at best, because the tradition does in fact rest upon what are referred to as the Five Pillars of Chinese Medicine. These treasures are, for their part: acupuncture, herbology, moxibustion (the use of heated herbs for treatment), tui na (bodywork) and qi gong (mindfulness practice). If one wishes to expand upon this, nutritional therapy can fit within the rubric of the herbal treatment. And yet, as one becomes more and more familiar with TCM, it becomes more and more clear that many practitioners develop their treatment strategies based on reliance on some of the pillars rather than all of them. Needles, of course, are the primary symbol that codes for Chinese medicine in the United States.
Herbs, on the other hand, can fall by the wayside once one has graduated and left one’s institution, particularly if there isn’t a TCM herbal pharmacy nearby and one hasn’t the space or finances to launch one. Some institutions do not require in-depth herbal studies. Conversely, if a student is in Texas, which has a stringent herbal board exam that one must pass in order to practice, a graduate might be so worn out by the rigorous studying preceding it that they avoid herbs ever after. Studying herbs is grueling. It is easy to focus on the grind of memorizing the 300 herbs and the endless number of conditions to treat, the formulas, and the modifications. Enough focus on the challenges and one may easily forget that herbs are wondrous–indeed, magical!–and that herbal treatment is an intrinsic aspect of a thorough healthcare strategy. (As I finish my program and prepare for board exams, this was where I was headed, anyway).
Enter into my consciousness the beloved Hogwarts student, Harry Potter, and his classmate and friend, Neville Longbottom.
Yes, that’s right. I only just recently discovered the Harry Potter series and I only found it because one of my dearest friends from my program is a Potter-maniac. I think I am a rare bird indeed, because it seems that everyone in the world had read the books or at the very least seen the movies. But for those who didn’t pay a lot of attention to the series about the Boy Who Lived, aka Harry Potter himself, the British wizard and hero, allow me to at least note that there are–among the many charming threads constituting the storyline–quite a few vignettes about herbology in the series. All of the students at Harry Potter’s school, the renowned Hogwart’s, must study herbs over the course of at least their first five years of school. As the storyline grows darker, one student–Neville–who has been ostensibly untalented and potentially not up to standard, finds his niche in the study of herbs. When the students need to fight for their school and resist the return of the evil wizard who must not be named, Neville’s courage becomes manifest. The humble herbalist stands up and roars and it is a sight to see (or to read).
Some of you who either know me from my office or clinic, or who follow my blog, know that Chinese medicine is a second career for me. I used to be a Spanish professor. In fact, I wrote my dissertation on the subject of fantasy, fantastic, and magical realism in short fiction. I wrote a chapter each on Spanish and Italian use of these modes and how they responded to and reflected war trauma (the Spanish Civil War and World War II, respectively). I wrote a chapter each on Chicano short fiction and Latin American stories and how these, for their part, used the modes in question in the service of national identity and independence and self-construction. As my career progressed, my professional focus remained primarily on Spanish literature and my area specialty was national trauma (namely: war, dictatorship, torture, and genocide) and how this suffering filtered through art and literature (mainly short stories). I never really did go for realism and almost all my scholarly publications relate to fantastic or fantasy narrative and the ways that they were employed to work through the most grave historic occurrences. I was way too busy reading Spanish literature when the first Harry Potter books were published. Besides, I was protective of my cherished fantasy and fantastic narratives and, indeed, a bit defensive. England and Germany are the countries who are considered to have prominent fantasy traditions; Spain and Italy, relatively speaking, disavowed theirs. Consequently, I didn’t have a lot of interest in or affection for a fantasy tale from England, to put it mildly.
I left academia with regret but no reluctance. Now, as I am about to finish my program of studies in Chinese medicine, I can honestly say that I no longer regret stepping out of the world that I knew and finding this new one.
I cannot imagine life without patients or Chinese medicine or the sound of my teachers’ accents. Now I cannot imagine life without Harry Potter. And though I find it a daunting subject, I am increasingly fascinated by herbs and herbal studies.
When you go to your acupuncture appointment, does your practitioner suggest herbal treatment to you? I know we do at the student clinic at my school. Some patients want herbs and others simply do not. My question for you, then, is what do you think when you consider the notion of Chinese herbal remedies? Based on what I’ve seen in clinic, some people don’t necessarily trust the safety of them and others hate the taste of the powders. Some people don’t have time or the inclination to drink concoctions. Others are just not on board with the slow pace that accompanies many herbal regimens. And, finally, it can be challenging to put together a formula with raw herbs so student interns don’t always get as much practice as they need in this art. (See the photograph at the top of this essay? That is an herbal formula that starts with raw herbs and a hand-written prescription made by one of my teachers and it ends in a powder that the patient will take three times a day). The result, then, is that both students and patients miss out on the benefits of an herbal prescription.
In China, and in the norms of medical practice there, herbal treatment is an intrinsic part of the exchange. To be an excellent herbalist is to embody the scholarly history of Chinese medicine. But if herbs seem dreadfully foreign to you, maybe remembering your joy at reading Harry Potter will bring you back to the magic of herbs and, in so doing, you might become suddenly intrigued so that you will wish to take a second look. What do you think? Are you starting to become interested in Chinese herbs now? I hope so!
In China, key texts, such as the Shang Han Lun (On Cold Damage), among others, inform one’s very foundations; in effect, a TCM practitioner will rely not only on modern knowledge but also, unwaveringly, on the centuries-old history that comprise the crown jewels of Chinese medical practice. A patient is able to leave the clinical encounter with pills, powders to make into tea, tinctures, external washes and/or lotions, or raw herbs that have been ground or which can be made into decoctions. The beauty of herbal treatment is that each patient can receive an individualized formula, and it will be one that is just right for him or her. Pharmaceutical drug prescriptions are not like that. And while herbal remedies and their results tend to be slower than pharmaceutical intervention, relatively speaking, the end result is that the patient’s body has adjusted slowly and healed in a holistic way after following an herbal regimen. Everyone is different, but one of the reasons I came to Chinese medicine was because if there was a wacky (or horrible) side effect to a drug, I’d get it. I can’t take pharmaceutical drugs. I don’t do very well with Western medicine in general. Chinese medicine works for me and that’s what I follow…so your mileage may vary, true, but if you are willing to try Chinese herbs, do know that you are participating not only in health but also in culture and history…one that can change your wellbeing for the better, indeed.
Are you concerned about health and safety? This can be a valid issue, but if you are getting your herbal prescription from a reputable source then you need not worry. If you are near a school then see about getting your prescription filled there. If you have a trusted practitioner, then you can be sure that he or she is looking out for your health. I would be disinclined to buy herbal formulas from online sources unless I knew what I was doing; your best bet, in sum, is to get a prescription after a consultation.
While the young witches and wizards at Hogwarts had a lot more fun with their herbal studies programs than the average TCM student, you can be assured that your licensed herbalist (especially in Texas, because boy do we ever have a board exam to pass before we can become licensed acupuncturists) has spent years studying and practicing before being able to dispense any prescriptions to patients.
And their herbs are more overtly magical than ours, true, but to our credit, there is much that we can do for you that is real and tangible. Indeed, we can stop you from bleeding, we can clear heat, and we can dry damp, or sooth the Liver, or calm the shen, just to name a few (And those last two? Those relate to Chinese medical concepts that your practitioner will be happy to discuss with you during treatment but in essence, they relate to being less cranky in the first and having a peaceful mind in the second). And though the students at Hogwarts had to worry about snappy herbs or ones that shout or cause trouble, our dangerous ones will be screened for you and given in right measure so that you are healed, not hurt. Plus, ours contain a more quiet magic, one that presents in beautiful (or not) smells and intriguing textures and wonderful colors, shapes, and sizes.
For the longest time, I dreaded herbal study. There were so many herbs to be memorized (roughly 300). As single herbs, the memorization is exhausting. But then the student needs to be able to combine the herbs and memorize formulas too. It is grueling beyond words to first memorize singles and then need to start combining things. In the crush of studying, I started to forget that I love learning and that this subject is something to treasure in its acquisition. It wasn’t until I started reading Harry Potter only a few short months ago that I became inspired. Inspired to study herbs with greater interest, inspired to prescribe them more frequently, and inspired to go back and revisit the beloved literary traditions that informed my first and dearly-treasured and even now sorely-missed career as a professor.
What this means for my patients, now and in the future, is that people who come to me can expect that I am enthusiastic and knowledgable about herbs. They can expect that I will happily educate and prescribe well-thought formulas, tinctures, powders, and raw concoctions. They can feel confident that I, their practitioner, will be continuing to build my herbal resources for my own and for their benefit.
All the wonderful things that herbs can do for you and how they do it are going to have to wait for another essay or three. It’s a huge topic. But what I will say here is that I hope that you, in reading this essay, are inspired too.
I heartily encourage you to at least ask your practitioner about herbs the next time you have a visit. If you are near a school or there is a well-stocked raw herb apothecary available in your vicinity, I say go for it! If you are feeling especially brave, why not ask for a raw herb prescription and see how well an individually-tailored formula suits you and your condition? Though that formula will be made specifically for you, do keep in mind that it will be based on wisdom and scholarly knowledge that has travelled through the centuries and endured. I’ll bet you will be genuinely nourished by the formula that your practitioner makes for you and I think that you will be glad that you tried it. Otherwise, well…I do agree that chocolate really does fix everything.
What do you think?
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