Acupuncture Today article #9

Discovery: Finding Insights and Each Other in Different Disciplines

Recently I’ve been thinking about all sorts of things which are hidden from our daily direct experience. That general category is what links nearly everything that catches my attention and then demands some kind of investigation.

I’ve mostly written about the ways in which the mysterious worlds of acupuncture and molecular biology have informed one another in my life, but they are hardly the only topics that occupy the realm of the hidden. Everything from statistics to mysticism probably has a presence there.

A day in the life of a human is rich with experience, but also rather shockingly limited. We can only see and hear a small subset of the wavelengths which are passing by and through us. We tend to think in patterns of association that make it hard to absorb and integrate new ideas, even if we encounter them pretty directly. We suspect that there are structures underlying the realities we encounter, and pinwheel wildly trying to make mental models which will allow us to make predictions, to feel more informed and ready for life. At some level, we must know that we are operating at least partially in the dark. The beauty of this recognition is the capacity for deep curiosity, about the big questions of why and how, applied to everything.

When curiosity gets connected to rigorous observation, astonishing things can happen. In the case of acupuncture, a network of otherwise invisible interactions was meticulously mapped. That allowed the knowledge to be organized and passed from person to person through the practice of study. It made the previously uncharted pathways, now known to us as meridians, available to direct experience where they were once concealed. A skilled acupuncturist can even introduce a reluctant patient to their own direct experience of these pathways, so that needling creates sensations of heat, or flow, or release. This is a phase shift, where a once-hidden structure is made part of direct human experience through the process of curiosity, then observation, then learning, then skill.

I have a very clear memory of the first time I reproduced the correct needing sensation in a patient after my teacher had demonstrated a certain technique. There was a delighted sense of being very close to the divide between the hidden and the known. I was bringing an underlying structure up to the surface in order to interact with it, on purpose and with intent. Next to this moment I hold a memory of looking at a computer screen. I was now a decade older, hundreds of miles away, and had a few extra degrees under my belt. I’d placed a fluorescent signal in living cells and a microscope watched them, sending the picture to the screen where I watched in turn. I could actually see the light of my signal as it was moved through the inner workings of a cell, answering a question I’d had about intracellular traffic. It was another previously invisible structure made part of my direct experience. It can make a person woozy, to be this close to encountering something that was hidden until that moment, perhaps just hidden for you or perhaps heretofore hidden from everyone.

These are just a couple of my specific experiences with encountering something mysterious in the midst of what I was doing in my chosen fields. I mention this parallel in my life to make this point: engaging with the unknown is part of the human endeavor.  This impulse to inquire into what forms, defines, and invisibly undergirds our daily reality shows up in every possible setting.

It can give a scientist the drive to set up one more experiment, an acupuncturist the motivation to learn the best needling techniques, a farmer the faith to see a crop in a bag of seed, a mathematician the focus to pull meaning out of a jumbled data set, a meditator the patience to outwait mental noise and see something deeper and quieter. While different people are most attracted to different leading edges of inquiry, many kinds of seekers are in this together.

The subcultures that divide such explorers continue to be a problematic. I have only encountered one scientist who outright laughed out loud at the mention of acupuncture, but I also haven’t gone out of my way to bring it up. I’ve known my share of holistic-minded people who are similarly strident in their dislike of Western medicine. Even within the Western tradition, basic scientists and clinicians can struggle to communicate across the divide between their worlds. Whole groups of people can be effectively hidden one from another, separated by foundational beliefs, priorities, and jargon. It’s another instance of something of value being hard to perceive without the right tools or knowledge base.

So, the first challenge may be to encounter something hidden and savor the discovery. The second challenge is to find a way to share it, and a critical step is organizing the information and insights to facilitate their transmission. As acupuncturists, we reaped the rewards of others meeting this challenge when we went through our training programs, when we absorbed an entire conceptual universe and learned to navigate inside of its rules, defined by polarities of excess and deficiency, yin and yang, flow and counter-flow. These lessons were available and coherent because people made discoveries and then organized them into systems over centuries.

The third challenge is one that invites all trained practitioners of any tradition. It is the work of translation. Translation between cultures happens any time there is dialogue between a practitioner and a patient, a popular press outlet, a clinician with a different training background, a researcher. (The current effort to translate acupuncture practice into the billing code language of hospitals is also an example.) Translation between cultures is one way to make sure that working knowledge doesn’t get functionally re-hidden, buried in esoteric practice or specialty journals. The emerging models of integrative medicine are an especially encouraging development on this front. Hopefully, they will support a robust system to value, synthesize, and use discoveries currently held by disparate professional cultures.