NUNM year 1: a review

Starting graduate school in the winter meant taking extra classes to catch up with students who started in the fall, then spending all summer at school continuing to catch up, while missing bits here, and catching other things there. There were six of us brave (or crazy) enough to attempt this daunting mission, this past winter: two transferring from another school (including myself), four switching from the naturopathic (ND) program to the Chinese medicine (CM) program, and one dual-degree (ND and MSOM) student transitioning from the ND-emphasis part of his program into the CM-emphasis. With naught but a week’s break between winter and spring, then spring and summer quarters, I fully enjoyed my 4 week break between summer and fall quarter, wandering through the mountains, digesting the events and information of the past year.

 My grandpa Yeye was a poet, artist, and avid scholar and practitioner of ancient Chinese culture and arts. I spent the first year of my life in Taiwan with Yeye and my grandma Nainai, who planted the first seeds of my medicine journey, through simple life experience. I think of Yeye daily, with my current studies. In Chinese history class, we discussed much of what was an integral part of Yeye’s life and passions. He would have loved what I am learning now, and would have a lot to say about all of it. So instead, I converse with his son, my dad Ba, who is also a skilled and curious scholar and spiritual practitioner, and my Ma, who first taught me wildcrafting, as a way of life. My Chinese medicine studies not only draws me closer to my distant ancestors, but also deepens my connections with my immediate family. This review of my first year of school, and my journey itself, is dedicated to my family, blood and otherwise, committed to the path of healing, and living life to its juiciest potential.

I started my graduate level Chinese medicine studies last August at the Academy for Five Element Acupuncture (AFEA), in Florida. I quickly found the school disappointingly unfitting, and left after my first quarter, driving across the country from Connecticut to Oregon, to pursue my Doctor’s of Science in Oriental Medicine (DSOM) degree at the National University of Natural Medicine (NUNM). I was drawn to NUNM’s holistic “classical Chinese medicine” (CCM) program, as opposed to the more biomedical “traditional Chinese medicine” (TCM) post- Communist revolution approach. One of the many beauties of Chinese medicine is its abundance of written material that remains, from thousands of years past. The classical approach emphasizes collected information from the classical texts, as directly recorded and shared from our original predecessors of this medicine. Or at least, that’s the intention.

After a year of school, I still have doubts. “Do I really want to do this?” and “Is this right for me?” are some daily existential queries. If it weren’t for the heavy financial burden, then the answer to the above would be an immediate yes. However, I haven’t yet found a better way to become a quality licensed acupuncturist (LAc) and Chinese medicine practitioner, that doesn’t involve what hopefully won’t but likely will be a lifetime of debt. For tuition alone, I will pay about $120,000 over four years. This is about $1000 a week, which is a hefty price for classes that can range in quality. But, after visiting many other schools, and chatting with students and professionals across the globe, I realize that regardless of where I am, or how I do it, what matters most is how I commit to the process, and carry it forward, afterwards. I must make the best of whatever I receive, regardless of the inevitable imperfection present in all circumstances.

I had a hard time deciding whether to study CM in the USA, or Taiwan. School’s cheaper in Taiwan, but takes longer (at least 7 years). I would experience and cross a language barrier hurdle (my written Chinese is poor, let alone medical Chinese), learn a more TCM-oriented approach to CM, treat a much wider array of people and conditions, and be immersed in the culture of this medicine’s origin. But, I chose to stay here in the USA, where I grew up and currently plan to live longterm, for a faster, less comprehensive, more expensive, more holistic education, disconnected from the landscape of its ancestry, but in a place that feels, in some ways, more like home. It’s a mixed bag. Being multicultural is a complex blessing.

I’m studying where I feel most comfortable, with teachers that I like and trust, and general school-wide philosophies, values, and integrity that I support. I could have grit my teeth and done it at a cheaper school then supplement my education after graduation, but even with all of my frugal practicality, I’ve enrolled in the most expensive CM school in the whole country. This school will not necessarily prepare me that well for the board exams, since it’s less biomedically focused, which the boards are more geared towards. But, I will get a well-rounded education in a way that I resonate more deeply with, providing a strong foundation with which to layer anything else on, later. Although I remain unhappy about the heavy burden of the high cost of education, I feel solid in my decision to continue on this path, make this investment, and tromp forward filled with purpose, high hopes and dreams, conviction, and the willingness to work hard and be even more creative with my life, to not just survive, but to thrive, thrive, thrive. ­

NUNM offers two Chinese medicine degree programs: the Master’s of Science in Oriental Medicine (MSOM), and the Doctor’s of Science in Oriental Medicine (DSOM). The MSOM is all that’s necessary to take the boards upon graduation, to become a licensed acupuncturist (LAc). The DSOM includes all of the MSOM curricula, but includes an emphasis on the classical texts. The “first professional doctorate” is a relatively new program instated at a few CM institutions across the USA, where the Master’s and Doctor’s program are taken simultaneously. Some programs, like ours, have extra Doctor’s program classes each quarter, along with the regular curricula. Others tack on an extra year at the end of the program. Most Doctor’s programs are biomedically clinically or research oriented, possibly focusing on geriatrics, women’s reproductive issues, oncology, or sports medicine. These programs better prepare students for working in integrative healthcare settings, such as hospitals. Our program is the only program in the USA that offers a classical texts oriented Doctor’s program, which deepens students’ understanding of the classics, but is more theoretical than clinical, perhaps lending itself to further teaching or translating, upon graduation. We are still waiting for accreditation to pass with the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM), the accrediting board of Chinese medicine in the USA.

We have the following MSOM classes for most of our first year of school: Points lab, Points theory, Foundations, Diagnostics, Herbs Practicum, and Herbs theory. Our first year immerses us in Chinese medicine. Our second year introduces biomedicine and pathology while weaving in ever deeper strands of CM, such as the exciting adventures of clinic, herbal formulas, and cosmology. Cosmology and biomedicine continues into our third year of studies, with the focus shifting towards practical work in the clinic, which the fourth year revolves around. My first year was a tough transition from empty-pocketed free-spirited simple outdoorsy-nomadic life to focused, committed, urbanite, over-worked student-dom. I hear that my upcoming second-year student adventure will be the most difficult chapter of my time here. I plan to rise to the challenge by joyfully studying during my summer break as I hike through epic vistas and float down glacial rivers, and by adding even more to my plate this year: joining student government, continuing my three work-study jobs, teaching herbal workshops outside of school, and embarking on a leadership training program in an adjunct field. And, I still cook all of my own meals and prepare copious ferments, which usually means bringing 2-3 bento boxes of food to school each day, for breakfast, lunch, and too often, even dinner. The more I add to my life, the more both I and my life expand to encompass my needs.

Most of my classes were challenging, in different ways. Points classes were difficult, because of our two weekly quizzes with the highly skilled, precise, and demanding old sorcerer, Dr. Cleaver. Herbs theory also had weekly quizzes with another skilled, precise, and demanding instructor, Dr. Lee, but my existing relationship with herbs made it a bit easier. He’s dry though, with text-only slides and no hands-on material, so classes are difficult for my kinesthetic-learner’s needs. Herbs practicum with Eric Grey are like plant provings in western herbalism. Only one hour a week, we focused on experientially exploring one plant each week, with Eric racing through some juicy goodness at the end of each class. Foundations and Diagnostics were my most difficult classes. I could grasp the more experiential parts of Diagnostics class, such as palpating each other for pulse diagnosis, and staring at tongues for tongue diagnosis. But, the more theoretical aspects, such as discerning between different Organ pathologies, (which is a more TCM oriented approach), is more difficult, and will take more time and clinical exposure for me to truly understand.

We flew through one channel (aka. meridian) line each week for points classes, culminating in “learning,” or at least cram-memorizing, the 361 primary points of the 14 primary channels, within the first two quarters of school. “How,” I asked our points professor, Jim Cleaver, “can you remember all this stuff?” He coughed his characteristic Jim hem-haw, “Well it’s difficult to believe but...” and launched into a story about how when he was first studying this stuff (before I was even conceived, and before CM was even a “thing” in the USA) and hitchhiking around the country, he would run through the channel lines and point locations in his mind and body, while waiting for rides, and thumbing down cars. Having traveled similarly for the past decade, I could feel what he was talking about, and realized that all of my hours struggling indoors trying to cram this information into my head were basically useless. I needed to bring my studies into my life.

I started walking with flashcards in the woods. The longer the channel, the longer my walk. The more information that I needed to learn, the further I walked. I would climb trees with flashcards, and repeat information from the tree tops to the birds, tracing the information in the clouds, and watching it fall from the sky via the rain, and falling leaves. I started my first quarter of school dancing as much as possible, then almost stopped dancing during my second quarter due to lack of time management skills, then brought it back up to dancing twice a week my third quarter, as I embodied the learning more, in my life. I remember lying relaxed on the ground, my dance partner’s feet nimbly yet gently undulating my spine snake-like across the ground, as I gradually noticed, feeling and seeing, just how yin and yang fit into each other, as does the Earth-Sky-Human connection, the places where one (Dao) gives birth to two (yin yang), gives birth to three (Earth-Human-Sky), gives birth to all the infinite manifestations of life (Dao de Jing, passage 42.) There is so much to learn in Chinese medicine. How can we express and explore this, in our everyday lives?

We have weekly Jin Jing Qigong classes and a quarterly Qigong weekend retreat through our first three years of school, with a year of Taiji for our final year. I love connecting with my fellow students in a natural environment during retreats. It feels more appropriate to learn CM in the forest, rather than in the city. However, a whole weekend “off” makes it difficult to recover back in school again, the following week. We focus on learning one Qigong form each quarter, which has been somewhat frustrating this year, as my teacher leads the same sequence every week, starting the first twenty minutes of class with us lying on the floor as he lectures. But, practicing on my own, the same words that he repeated for the whole year comes back as reminders of how to flow through the form.

Chinese medicine is rooted in the natural world. As I write this, I’m wrapped in wool blankets under overhanging hemlock trees, my fire gently flickering smoke into the cloudy Oregonian skies while baking apple crisp under the coals, Zigzag Creek tumbling over rocks to unite with larger streams, eventually trickling down to reunite with the Pacific Ocean, that teems its way thousands of miles across to the other side of the globe where my family lives, and where this medicine that is now my life originated, where the bones of my ancestors sit ensconced in the mountains and caves of China, whispering their secrets back into the marrow of the Earth, which comes streaming back up into the life Essence of all of the plants that I collect and process for medicine, I whispering love and gratitude to them, them whispering the secrets of the Universe right back to me. Full circle.

We start clinical observations shifts for our second year of school, then “clinical mentorship rotations” (CMR) in our third year, and internship shifts in our fourth year. Students range from being fly-on-the-wall observers to active participants in clinic during our second year clinical observation shifts, depending on the instructor. Students conduct more intake and treatment during third year CMR rotations, where students select one teacher as a mentor for the full year, who actively leads by example. By the fourth year, student interns enact most of the practitioner roles in the treatment room, with supervising professors checking diagnostics, reviewing treatments, and sharing insights. Of all of the cool things I’m doing in school and otherwise, I am most excited about clinic, which is where everything comes together, to help individuals regain their highest expressions of health and vitality, as I too express the highest form of myself, ideally as embodied poetry in motion, with my intention placed right before the tip of the needle, my points and herbs memorized enough to jump into my body and mind when needed or called, and my entire being aligned with all of the universe, in service to the highest good.

The DSOM program at NUNM is organized so that along with the general MSOM classes, we take the following classes during our first year of school: Chinese culture and history, Chinese classical texts, and Neijing seminar. For now, we only have two instructors for the entire DSOM program: Sabine Wilms, and Joon-Hee Lee. Ru-Hui Long was part of the faculty, but just retired this year, much to my disappointment (he was my favorite). As a native speaker, I found the classical texts classes interesting, but slow. I most appreciated learning about grammar, as it’s tricky, different than modern Chinese, and nearly impossible to learn on my own. For non-native speakers though (everyone else), the class was very difficult, and deeply fulfilling. I watched many of my classmates progress from knowing nothing about Chinese to being able to read and translate simple passages from various classical texts, by the end of the year. Here, students learn to read classical Chinese, which is like Old English. It is a purely written language that is no longer in use, besides in the ancient texts. Being able to read these texts is like having a magical key to a portal to another universe. Dr. Long aptly said during our first Neijing seminar, “Even such an ancient text is still useful.” It amazes me how something that was written so long ago is still applicable in our crazy modern world. Because it is only a written language, students learn to use Wenlin and Pleco, translation softwares, to cross reference between the original Chinese text, their own character understandings, and others’ translations. I loved the example texts that we translated, which ranged from classical CM excerpts such as Neijing and Bencao Jing, to classical Chinese philosophical excerpts from such sages as Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Confucius.

All of my fellow DSOM cohort students switched to the five year track, except for myself, and one other. I’m still hanging on to my grand dream of finishing school in four years, Doctor’s program, winter admit, four jobs and all, then creating a beautiful little homestead outside of a progressive town bordering public lands, and starting my practice. We’ll see what the future brings. I’m not familiar with the five year DSOM schedule, but fellow students report that it’s much more relaxed and manageable than my wild four year scramble. As a recovering perfectionist, I am still learning how to optimize my time by finding balance between completing my assignments, passing tests, and hopefully retaining information, while also maintaining my health and quality of life. I am trying to adjust to not getting straight A’s. Understandably so, as I have a packed schedule, with over 25 credits a quarter, which is roughly 35 hours of school a week, not including ample study time, for the next three years. This summer, I took 6-9 hours of classes everyday Monday through Friday, as I was enrolled in over twenty units of classes within a 7 week span of time, and traveling on the weekends. This journey is for the courageous, for those who are willing to sacrifice and commit to the process, with Fire in their hearts. I rise dancing, with a song on my breath.

The second year of the DSOM program, we dive into the Shang Han Lun, or the Classic of Cold Damages, by Zhang Zhong Jing, a pivotal herbal text that forms the foundation of not just our herbal program, but our school at large. This is appropriate for our cold damp Pacific Northwest climate. I hope that I will be able to adapt this approach appropriately to the warm dry climate that I plan to one day live and practice in. When choosing a CM school, it’s important to note the primary approach of the school. Being such an old medicine, there are many diverse schools of thought in Chinese medicine, such as the “Warm Diseases” school (Wen Bing), Five Elements approach, Japanese style, etc. My last school, AFEA, only focused on one approach: Five Element Acupuncture, as practiced and transmitted from the students of Dr. Worsley. NUNM offers many different approaches: Japanese, Five Element, Shang Han Lun herbalism, Zang-fu, and more. I was restricted to only one approach at AFEA, but would have graduated knowing one modality very well. Here at NUNM, it is easy to become scattered by trying to learn everything, but emerge with only a superficial knowledge of many different things. “Find a professor that you resonate with as soon as possible, and stick with them,” said my herbs professor, Eric Grey. I am still exploring, but am glad to have some really stellar professors and living examples to choose from, work with, and be constantly inspired and informed by.

With my initial exposure to Five Elements acupuncture at AFEA, I am still drawn to that style, with its simplicity, elegance, and psycho-emo-spiritual orientation. The Five Elements approach draws from many disciplines, which includes Japanese style acupuncture, which has been my favorite modality as a patient in our school clinic. Japanese style is gentler than Chinese style acupuncture, with shallower needle insertions, more moxibustion, and shorter needle retention time. It tends to be a tonifying approach. I myself am terrified of being needled, and prefer a subtler (yet still powerful) treatment modality. I am excited to begin my clinical observation shifts with Dr. Quinn this quarter, a Japanese style acupuncturist who gets students actively involved doing what they do best, and then exploring their edges, from there. Having worked with herbalist 7song in wilderness first aid settings, I am also interested in CM for acute care, especially for disaster relief, and in “third world” settings. I plan to work in acute settings while traveling, and work with chronic degenerative issues and whatever else arises in my community clinic, and psycho-emotional imbalances for people who have nowhere else to turn. Another beauty of CM is its range of uses and flexibility. “If used correctly, Chinese medicine can really treat everything,” said my foundations professor, Dr. Hood, “but you need to know what you’re doing.” I am here to learn.

I struggle with the theoretical nature of the program. My year apprenticing with clinical western herbalist 7song remains the best year of my life: working closely with an amazing herbalist and human being, living in the woods, and fully embodying all the principles of my learnings in every aspect of my life. Here at NUNM, I feel disconnected from nature, like we talk more than we do. That will change when I start clinic, this fall. But for now, I am sitting indoors more than I’ve ever sat in my whole life, memorizing more than I ever thought I could, and struggling to stay healthy, do well in school, and still be joyful. I often feel like I’m fighting to stay afloat: I’m slightly behind no matter how hard I try to get ahead, constantly tired, trying to remember what we learned before, while learning the next new thing, and riding the edge between delirious joy and miserable breakdown, complete with alternating diarrhea and constipation, acne, and even insomnia. There are moments when everything clicks, and life is smooth poetry. There are other moments when all becomes dark, there is no hope in sight, and the lonely reality of my single existence as an indebted student with an unknown future in a new town full of strangers rises to the fore. There is much to celebrate, and there is much to fear. I am in a place of infinite possibilities, and complete uncertainty. Anything can happen, from here.

So, we read the Shang Han Lun with Dr. Lee during our second year of NUNM’s DSOM program, one ancient Chinese beautifully complex word after another, line by rich line, layer by delicious layer, working our way through the entire book by the end of the year, where I imagine we will look at each other, wink with the mutual respect of having done this, laugh at the ridiculousness of our undertaking, and head off on our merry ways next summer (my only real summer “off”), before embarking on the third year of our DSOM program, which returns us to Dr. Wilms and Neijing seminar style discussions. From year one all the way to our end of our time as NUNM DSOM students, we also have a small “Imaginal and Experiential Inquiries” (IEI) class, which is a well-intentioned but thus far poorly- ­executed (it often feels disjointed) class that seeks to tie together the various threads of our joint explorations as DSOM students, to effectively prepare us for the fourth and final year of our studies, where we research, write, then share our culminating “capstone projects,” which are basically 30-page dissertations. Mine will likely revolve around people, plants, and place.

Backpacking through my new home of the Pacific Northwest, I admire moss hanging off the trees and the abundance of water, a core metaphor for how Qi flows through our bodies. I reflect on the challenges and triumphs of this past year, and all that I hope to release from my past, and bring into my future, for my second of four years of DSOM studies here at NUNM. I feel older. I am physically heavier, with more ailments than when I first started school, and a deeper reverence for life, its fragile transience, and my place in it. I commit more deeply to my own health and healing, especially within the context of my current work as a still-budding herbal teacher, and humble Chinese medicine student. I feel grateful for how my family and friends continue to love and support me, even as our relationships shift, with the heights and depths of my surging emotions that pique questions more odd and colorful than ever before. With each step on this path, I feel sadness and wonder as my old self falls away, and something ever more strange, beautiful, and startlingly authentic emerges. There is great fear here, and there is great celebration. This is no easy walk. This is a long journey with a heavy pack that must be emptied and refilled and emptied yet again. It is a life journey to soaring peaks and the deepest of valleys, that goes on and on, ad infinitum. And, one step at a time, one breath after another, I am grateful to be here. 


天地人: The Microcosm- Macrocosm Correspondence between Earth- Human- Sky

In one of my classics classes this quarter, we covered 1-2 chapters each week on a selected chapter of the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine (黃帝内經素問). Our final essay involved briefly summating the experience, via discussing the ideal of harmony between Heaven, Humanity, and Earth. With thirteen classes to wrap up this quarter and limited time, I could only spend one afternoon on this essay. I would still like to share it with you. In future essays, I would like to explore more on energetics, share some school-related stories, and gossip more about the Suwen. But first, Earth, Human, and Sky. Enjoy!

The Microcosm- Macrocosm Correspondence between Earth- Human- Sky

Standing in Universe stance, I root my feet firmly into the Earth thru Kd-1 (湧泉), while anchoring the top of my head to the Sky via GV-20 (百會). I feel the smoothness of my breath, the stability of my bones, the supple strength of my muscles, the alignment of my spine as a lightning rod connecting me with the Universe, via Earth and Sky, electricity in the form of breath, blood and Qi coursing through my being. Blessed with this human body and life to be powerfully walking between, supported by, and supporting both Sky and Earth, I take on my life responsibilities with humanity, humility, dignity, reverence, and gratitude.

The first few chapters of the Neìjīng Sùwen (黃帝内經素問) address this Heaven-Human-Earth connection (天地人), or the microcosm-macrocosm correspondence. In this paper, I examine a few passages that explore this relationship, and how it connects with me as a human, student, and future practitioner of this medicine.

[Heaven and earth] can be father and mother of the myriad beings.
The clear yang rises towards heaven; the turbid yin returns to the earth.

(from Suwen 5, Unschuld translation)

In the Yì Jīng (易經/ Book of Changes), Sky (or Heaven) is represented by three solid lines. Earth is represented by three broken lines. Hexagram 11, or Taì (泰), shows the Sky under the Earth. Earth, representing the epitome of yin energy, wants to move downwards. Sky, representing the height of yang energy, wants to move upwards. In this arrangement, they move towards each other, in constant communication. Taì does not represent a static peace, but demonstrates instead a dynamic equilibrium between yin and yang that culminates in a peace that allows both to move as they need, each in accordance with the other, while solid within their personal power, in a state of constant transformation. Hexagram 12 on the other hand, or Pĭ (否), shows the Earth under the Sky. This seems logically correct, right? However, yin moves downwards, while yang moves upwards. In this arrangement, they keep moving away from each other, incommunicado, distant. The person thus falls apart. Illness is simply a lack of communication, stuck qi, imbalance between yin and yang, or an imbalance of our internal Earth and Sky.

If one follows yin and yang, then life results; if one opposes them, then death results.
If one follows them, then order results; if one opposes them, then disorder results.

(from Suwen 2, Unschuld translation)

In Chinese medicine’s view of life, nature revolves around the interplay between yin and yang. The ongoing courtship dance between the two constitutes health or disease. To have more of one or another would create imbalance, leading to illness. To “follow” them means to follow the flow of the energy, responding accordingly to what’s necessary in the moment to continue flowing organically. Alignment between Heaven, Humanity, and Earth means to exist with yin and yang dancing harmoniously, adjusting for seasonal and other changes with dietary, lifestyle, medicinal, and other seasonally appropriate modifications.

When a disease persists over a long time, it is transmitted [in the organism] and transformed. When [a stage is reached where] above and below have lost their union, then [even] a good physician cannot do anything about it. Hence, the sages arranged yin and yang [in such a way that their] sinews and vessels were in harmony, [their] bones and marrow were solid and firm, and [their] qi and blood both followed [their usual course]. In such a situation, inner and outer are balanced in harmony…

(from Suwen 3, Unschuld translation)

One of the strengths of Chinese medicine, particularly herbal medicine, is its ability to address each unique individual, and tonify them in tailored ways that match what they truly need. This fortifies the inner reserves, making that person more resilient against unwanted xié qì (邪氣), or pathogens. By creating a solid nourished core that roots into the Earth and connects with the Sky, a person is more steady in their center, and less likely to waver due to unwanted external or internal influences. As practitioners, we cultivate inner Taì (泰) via good food, sleep, exercise, and a fulfilling life. By nourishing and strengthening ourselves, we can approach our patients with honesty and self-knowing, fully understanding both sickness and how to recover from it, with a diversity of practices and protocols tailored to each individual that we encounter.

… if the ruler is enlightened, his subjects are in peace.
To nourish one’s life on the basis of this results in longevity.
If the ruler is not enlightened, then the twelve officials are in danger.

(from Suwen 8, Unschuld translation)

The ruler is the Heart, who is the emperor of all of the other organ systems, or twelve officials. If the Heart Emperor is in balance, then all is well in the inner kingdom of the person. If the Heart Emperor is out of balance, then this is reflected in chaos in the kingdom. Harmony here refers to the twelve officials, or different body systems, working together to create a dynamic, efficient, effective, and elegant kingdom within the person. The Heart, governing the Spirit, dynamically connects the axis between Earth and Sky, terrestrial and celestial, human and Universe, microcosm and macrocosm. We cannot just address the physical. We must also address emotional, spiritual, and environmental wellness within ourselves, and our patients and communities. When meeting a patient for the first time, we first notice their shén (神), or our immediate impression of their general energy, almost like an “aura” that they exude. Addressing the patient as a whole human being is thus addressing the person on a shén (神) level. My self cultivation practices seek to nourish myself on a shén (神) level as well, which connects me not only with the deeper layers of myself, but also with the deeper layers of nature, and the Universe itself.

The accomplished [people] … of pure virtue and… entirely in accord with the Way…
adapted themselves to [the regularity] of yin and yang and lived in harmony with the four seasons.

(from Suwen 1, Unschuld translation)

One who is truly healthy and vibrant aligns with the natural rhythms of the Universe, yin and yang’s courtship dance, reflected in the fluctuating tides of our bodies that respond to the celestial cycles, seasonal cycles, and simply growing older day by day. We can engage in self-cultivation/ nourishing life (養身) practices to restore jīng (精/ Essence) and nourish shén (神/ Spirit).

Heaven has the essence; Earth has the physical appearance.
(from Suwen 5, Unschuld translation)

Earth, or yin, forms the solid container for Sky, or yang. In cultivating health on all levels, we caretake both our Earthen physical bodies, as well our Heavenly yang Spirits. How can we be effective conduits of energy to lead the most fulfilling lives, possible? How can we best nourish ourselves, and in doing so, help restore others to health and dynamic equilibrium, as well? How does our relationship with our internal Universe, our inner ecology, connect with our relationship with our outer Universe, our outer ecology of human, animal, plant, and mineral communities?

Exhaling, I drop my hands downwards back to the Earth, then inhale them in a circle out and up to greet the Sky one more time for this practice, collecting Sky energy with my hands and exhaling it back down to connect with Earth, collecting the energy into my center by inhaling my feet together and hands to my belly, one on top of another atop my umbilicus (CV-8/ 神闕), the center of my Universe, eyes gently closing, with a smile.


Quotes from Huangdi Neijing Suwen translations by Paul Unschuld and Hermann Tessenow, from Volume 1 of their 2011 Annotated Translation of Huang Di's Inner Classic- Basic Questions


Herbal Medicine Making Overview

Click on the above so you can see my class handout in more detail. It's a broad overview of herbal medicine-making techniques. 

Then, click on these links for further information and directions to work with the menstruums delineated above: 

Explore making other things, too: 
- Lube


Botany Basics

Depending on where you live, the flowers are either at the height of their bloom, or they are just beginning. Regardless, it's the time of year to bust out your loupes (in other words, undust your magnifying lenses), and start keying out plants--- or at least looking at them carefully! (The better to appreciate you, my dear.) 

Besides the obvious: look carefully, and then look even more carefully, and notice and take note of what you see... 

The four basic whorls of a flower, from outside in: Sepals, Petals, Stamen, Pistil. In plural form: Calyx, Corolla, Androecium, Gynoecium. 
But wait, there's more! 

Here's a few ideas on how to start botanizing: 

- Check out my basic botany class handout that I drew for my Botany class at the 2015 Montana Herb Gathering
- Download 7song's Botanical Identification Steps handout
... and see 7song's website for more free and useful handouts
- Join the free/ by-donation "Botany Everyday" class run by Marc Williams

Happy herb-nerding! 


Welcome Spring

What kind of dreams did you nourish, cultivate, and explore through the dark winter days? Now, as the snow melts and the sun returns, what changes do you feel inside of yourself? How do you continue to take care of yourself, gently holding, nourishing, and bringing your dreams to life, as animals come out of hibernation, the rivers begin actively flowing again, and you run around the forest like a madwoman, digging up medicine roots, for the rest of the year? What went back into the Earth, through the death of winter, and what is now springing forth? What are you planting? What roots are you harvesting, these roots that sat so deeply and patiently in the Earth all winter long awaiting the lengthening days, the return of the sun, the melting of the solid Earth? How do you rest, amidst all this action, continuing to hold the parts of you which must be tended gently, and with care? How do you celebrate? 

(photo: freshly harvested Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) in Bethany, CT) 


莊子 (Zhuangzi)

莊子 (Zhuangzi) was an ancient Chinese Daoist philosopher from the 4th century BCE. Here's some reflections from two of his stories. 

蝴蝶夢 Butterfly Dream
Zhuangzi dreamed that he was a butterfly. Upon waking, he couldn’t tell if he had dreamed of the butterfly, or if the butterfly had dreamed of him! The indistinguishability of dreamer and dream highlights the undefinable nature of reality, and the interconnectedness of all things. The microcosm dances infinitely within the macrocosm. Anything is possible. Keep an open mind.
All is in motion. The only constant is change. I could be the dreamer one moment, the dream the next. I am an herbalist now, but I am also a client. I am alive today, but one day I’ll be dead. I’m a sleeping human in one moment’s realm of reality, and a flying butterfly in another. In my everyday life and clinical practice, I seek to treat all people with equal respect and appreciation for them in that moment, however they are. It’s important to maintain humbleness, a respect and appreciation for all things in their current manifestations, past evolutions, and future possibilities. Butterfly today, human being tomorrow. Anything can happen.
How do I perceive the world? Am I perceiving myself as the dreamer, or the dream? What’s real, anyhow? Is there such a thing? Stay humble, open, and curious. Question everything, yet hold it all loosely, like a flower that just keeps changing from seed to sprout to plant to flower to fruit to seed again and again, in your hands, breath, body, and heart.
I once dreamed of a Passiflora plant growing and blossoming, then gathering the flower and making tea, which I drank into my body, where the plant continued to grow and blossom into me and my life, while informing my existence with its past history of growing and blossoming, me evolving and growing as a flower as well, getting picked, processed, and drank back into my body, and into the body of the world. I am the flower. The flower is me. The answer is both, and neither. There are no clear lines or delineations, but there is clearly “me” and “the flower” and how we mutually inform and inspire each other.
We walk a fine line between healer and healee. We too are neither, and both. As healthcare practitioners, we can shape-shift, establishing rapport with clear communication, clean boundaries, a loving heart, open mind, and deep compassion. We can see things from the perspective of our patients and be supportive and understanding, while also holding space in a grounded professional way, accessing the roots of the medicine in clear, deliberate, poetic, intuitive ways that birth innovation through tradition, embrace the universal, and address the individual.

屠夫 The Butcher
When the butcher first started his work, he was clunky and awkward, carefully figuring out how to cut the ox just right by looking carefully, cutting slowly, and sometimes still making mistakes. Now, after much practice, instead of thinking about what he does, he approaches his work via his spirit, and doesn’t look with his eyes, resulting in smooth, effortless, and even graceful butchering that is efficient and effective. He cuts by following the form of the ox, instead of trying to impose himself onto the ox.
Michael McMahon shared this story during one of our first Palpation and Perception classes, where we learn a different myofascial line in the body each week, and palpate it on each other. “Touch as many bodies as you can,” says Michael, “then eventually you can stop thinking, and be like the butcher in Zhuangzi’s story.” I’m currently like the butcher when he first started his work. I keep referencing my notes to find the points, bony landmarks, and other elements, slowly repeating their names and qualities to myself, and still not remembering, while inelegantly manhandling my fellow students. One day, after much practical experience, I can internalize what I do so that it becomes second nature, I move with the body with knowledge and poetry, and I no longer need to think about it.
Non-action is poetry in motion, being in the zone, and being the wave, when all things move through us, and we don’t have to work hard or struggle wildly to create eloquent perfection. Practicing yoga and dancing, there’s a dynamic balance between maintaining relaxation and having control over the movements and postures. Non-action isn’t controlling everything with tightly contracted muscles and stiff joints, nor is it holding myself so loosely that I have no form or structure at all, and am just slumping around all over the place. There’s a balance between those two extremes which also encompasses both, in which I am completely relaxed, while simultaneously in complete control, able to accomplish the most with the least amount of effort, and the utmost grace and efficiency. It’s not just being in the flow, but it’s being the flow. The law of least resistance requires practice and life experience to attain, but is also a moment by moment practice of awareness, surrender, adjustment, and breath to access and attune one’s still, silent, center, radiating outwards with grounded elegance.  
We have to memorize a lot, as Chinese medicine practitioners. There’s 361 acupuncture points, 400+ herbs and formulas, and a whole new language of medicine, and way of observing and analyzing the world. In the USA, we can gnash our teeth as we labor long hours to memorize all these things, but in Taiwan or China, there’s even more to memorize: the entire Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine (黃帝内經 Huáng Dì Neì Jīng), the song-lines (歌訣) associated with each channel, and more. “Dead memorization, live usage” (死記活用 sĭ jì huó yòng) describes this way of learning, where we invest so much sweat and tears memorizing this information that by the time we work clinically, it’s effortless, like second nature. When we memorize it, it still feels dead to us; we don’t yet have a true understanding of it. Personal, clinical, and all other life experiences literally breathe life into our memorized dead chunky information. But the memorized information forms the backbone, from which life practice can spring out from, and refer back to. Both are necessary.
Studying most modalities is like this: during yoga teacher training, we focused most of our training on learning one basic sequence. Once we could all confidently teach that basic sequence, we learned modifications. Once we internalized the basic form, then we could root down from that place of grounding, and rise up with powerful elegance. My Thai massage training was similar: we went over the same sequence over and over, until it was internalized, then could start diversifying from that still, silent, solid yet mutable center. My qigong teacher in Taiwan would not allow us to learn more of the form, until we had first achieved a certain level of mastery with the basic Universe stance, or 站樁 (zhàn zhuāng) daily for months. I’m still working on it. A simple movement held, for nine minutes a day, can make me shake and sweat, and sore the next day. During the nine minutes of stillness, I pay constant attention to my body, making micro-adjustments to my hips, shoulders, feet, head, neck… entire body. These miniscule nine minutes affect the rest of my day, and all add together over the years, to impact the rest of my life:  my posture, approach to movement, innate response to change, etc. An underlying form, or deeply internalized understanding of one discipline, can create a solid Earthen foundation for infinite flowers and possibilities to freely blossom forth. Complete immersion into any one thing creates a portal to the Universe. We immerse ourselves so completely that we lose all sense of self, and merge with all else.
To stop leaving tracks is easy, but to walk upon the ground is difficult.

Philip Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy
Bryan Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy

Luna moth, guardian of dreams. Pictured on the northeastern tip of the USA in Maine, from last summer's journey-woman botano-adventures.  


Some Tasty Spring Weeds

Here's some delicious wild edible spring weedy greens that are available around most parts of the USA, though at differing times (depends on when your spring begins). Spring is a prime time to get the leaves first, then the roots, then the flowers... and you can harvest (some) roots again, in the autumn. Chop 'em up fine all together, on their own, mixed with cultivated greens, etc. Make soups, stir-fries, souffles, soirees, etc. Yummm... have fun, and enjoy!

- Dandelion leaves, roots, flowers (Taraxacum officinale) 
- Mustard leaves, roots, flowers (Alliaria petiolata, and other Brassicaceaes)
- Wild Onion bulbs, leaves (Allium spp.) 
- Sorrel flowers, leaves (Oxalis spp.) 
- Miner's lettuce leaves, flowers, seeds (Claytonia perfoliata) 
- Chickweed leaves, flowers (Stellaria medea) 
- Clover leaves, flowers (Trifolium spp.) 
- Violet leaves, flowers (Viola spp.) 
- Dock leaves (Rumex spp.) 
- Plantain leaves, flowers, seeds (Plantago spp.) 
- Nettles leaves (Urtica dioica) 


道德經 (Dao De Jing)

Although the Dao that can be named is not the true Dao, here’s an attempt at summarizing the unsummarizable. Below are the five main themes of the timeless classic from Laozi, the Dao De Jing (道德經), with a link to a passage translated by Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng to illustrate each theme, and a commentary below that.

Social Ills and their Solution

Enough of being superficial, and attached to worldly things and values. Let’s return to what’s real inside of ourselves. Let’s return to the Dao. Let the government rule from the Dao, and the people live with the Dao. The Way is simple, uncluttered with material possessions or preconceived notions and frivolities.


Everything is more than it seems, for each thing encompasses everything else, and therefore is also nothing. Don’t take life too seriously. Don’t grasp too hard. Let go of letting go. Don’t work too hard. Be. Don’t do. Don’t try to do the not-doing. Don’t try. Just be. When you are in the natural flow of the Dao, you are acting without acting, moving without forcing. Stop trying to explain it. You can never fully define it, anyhow. Embody it.

Teaching Without Words

Words cannot describe the fullness of life, or what is. Words reduce something boundless into something bounded, a diminutive description of something ineffable. Words delineate judgements. Judgments remove us from reality. Nothing can truly be named. What is true, anyhow?

The Way

Follow the Dao, or the Way. The Way is gentle yet powerful, natural yet beyond nature. Stop looking for it; allow it to reveal itself. Stop working so hard; it comes naturally.

Active Mysticism (Immanence)

Don’t elevate yourself in haughty rituals that seek to remove you from the world. Make life your ritual. Don’t strive to separate life and the practices that connect you with something greater than yourself. Live the life that you pray for. Don’t try to make yourself a better person. Be who you are, which is definite yet undefined, fluid yet solid. Live in your questions, which are your answers. Live in the ways that you praise your ancestors, in a path of easeful brilliance. Let every moment and action be a graceful yet clunky prayer, a life of virtue and respect, honesty and truth. Live alive and thriving, aligned with the nature of yourself, the world around you, and the Way. This life is mundane yet sacred, every moment full yet empty, teeming yet lacking with impossible possibilities, with such a rich abundance of nothingness and everythingness. Flow.  

Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, Tao Te Ching
Philip Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy
Stephen Mitchell, Tao Te Ching
Bryan Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy