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 


Microsystems and Metasystems

This one's pretty heady, a little more technical, and not as poetic. I decided to share it, anyhow. Enjoy! 


“Meta-” means, “above.” A “metasystem” is therefore an “above-system” of organizing information. It can be layered above any other system. It condenses large volumes of information into functional systems of relationship and transformation. Some common metasystems include Yin Yang theory (陰陽), Five Phase theory (五行), the Three Realms/ Treasures (三寶), the Eight Trigrams (八卦), and the Ten Heavenly Stems and Twelve Earthly Branches (天干地支).

A metasystem defines what’s in each category via descriptive categories. The relationships between the component parts remain fixed, regardless of whatever other system they are placed over. It creates symbolic relationships based on patterns between relationships that can be applied as a lens to view life in its different forms, from very large to very small. For example, Yin Yang theory can be applied to us on a cellular level: every second, upwards of two million cells are birthing and dying in our bodies. Cell death is more yin than cell birth. Birth is active and expanding; it is yang in energy, compared to dying and resting, which is more yin in energy. We can zoom outwards and apply that to the birth and death of a human being, too.

We can overlay Yin Yang theory and all of the various metasystems onto the Organ Manifestation theory (五臟六腑). The Zang () organs are more yin than the Fu () organs. They are solid and hidden, whereas the more yang Fu organs are hollow and actively getting filled and emptied. Five Phase theory has its metasystem correspondences with Organ Manifestation theory, with each Phase being connected to a Zang and Fu organ: Water governs Kidney and Urinary Bladder; Wood governs Liver and Gall Bladder; Fire governs Heart and Small Intestine; Earth governs Spleen and Stomach; Metal governs Lung and Large Intestine. Yin Yang relationships are within and around each of these relationships. Metasystems are useful in their ability to flexibly overlay onto a variety of situations, with infinite possibilities of deeper levels of understanding, therein.


“Micro-” means, “small.” A “microsystem” is therefore a “small system,” or a map of a larger whole projected onto a smaller part of that same whole, also known as a “holographic correspondence.” A holograph is like a three dimensional mirror that contains all of the information inside of it. When shattered into a million pieces, each shard of the holographic mirror still contains all of the information in the original whole.

Microsystems sometimes use metasystems on different body parts. Whereas metasystems can be layered atop most anything else like interchangeable lenses, microsystems are specific lens maps that can only be applied to certain parts.

There are different microsystems for viewing the human body. Tongue diagnosis integrates Organ Manifestation theory and Five Phase theory metasystems as a microsystem map of the tongue. Different areas on the tongue represent different Phases and their associated Organs and systems, which reflects the state of the entire body. Pulse diagnosis and Eye diagnosis also utilize Organ Manifestation theory and Five Phase theory metasystems in their microsystems map of the entire body onto the pulses and eyes. Chinese medicine diagnosis involves four primary diagnostic tools (四診): visual observation, hearing/ smell, asking, and palpation (望聞問切). Observing the face, eyes, and tongue, the Chinese Medicine Physician utilizes the microsystems in each of these places to observe the entire person. Diagnosis is deepened and refined by hearing and smelling, which again utilize the Organ Manifestation and Five Phase metasystems to better understand the patient and their condition(s). Besides pulse diagnosis, the Physician can also palpate and observe the entire body, using different microsystems lenses to inform diagnosis, and the resulting treatment.

Five Phase Theory

The Five Phase theory is a beautiful example of a metasystem that can expand like a net of stars and constellations to cover various possibilities of understanding the Organ Manifestation theory, human life-cycle, directions, pulse diagnosis, seasons, tongue diagnosis, eye diagnosis, herbal energetics, constitutional types, and so much more! Five Phase theory is also used as a microsystem: the Five Phases manifesting in the tongue, pulse, eyes, and face reflect the entire human body-mind-spirit being. Thus, we can utilize our overlapping understandings of the Five Phases as both microsystems and metasystems, to accurately diagnosis and elegantly treat different people and conditions.

Brenda Hood, Meta-Systems
Brenda Hood, Microsystems: Holographic Correspondence
Ted Kaptchuk, The Web That Has No Weaver
Maoshing Ni, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine


五行 The Five Phases

The five phases organize life into five archetypal energies that can be applied to different systems, including the body, seasons, directions, life cycle, and more. The relationships between these phases forms one of the foundational bases of Chinese medicine. Water nourishes Wood, which burns as Fire, whose ashes turn into Earth, where Metal is extracted, the minerals forming Water, which then continues the cycle all over again.


Water is the mother of life, dripping down from the sky in small droplets into streams that flow into vast oceans. Water surrenders to the unknown, always drawn downward to the lowest point, by gravity. Floating in the vastness of the ocean, anything can happen. Unbalanced Water can manifest as fear: fear of the unknown in every moment. Water in balance manifests as preparedness. In the north, place of the unknown, where the coldest winds blow from, sits Water, and the energies of winter. Winter is the time of hibernation, storage, silence, and preparedness. Our energies draw inwards, and a stillness and yin nature permeates our beings. In this place, anything can happen. In the course of a life, the north, Water, and winter represent the place between death and birth. This is the place of distillation and integration, of endings and preparing for new beginnings. It represents the great mystery: where do we go after death? Where do we come from, before birth? Where am I going, now? Water holds these mysteries in its flowing, quiet ways that compose 80% of our physical bodies, and the part of our nature that questions the meaning of life, while maintaining connection with our pre-natal Qi (our jing essence), and our will to survive. 


Wood is the bursting, rising, upward, yang, moving, manifesting, forward momentum, excitement, and birthing possibilities of spring. The energy of the East, of the rising sun, of the beginning of all things, of each breath and each moment, arise here. In balance, Wood energy is directive and purposeful, getting things done, knocking out amazing projects left and right. Out of balance, Wood energy can be overly angry and aggressive, like a plant growing out of control, and wreaking havoc. In the life cycle, it represents birth: new beginnings, and infinite possibility. This is the place of excitement and inspiration, moving forward into orientation and motivation. Wood governs the Liver, which makes decisions. It governs our (soul), which connects with our goals and higher purpose, actively manifesting that into this material world. How can we channel our energies in a powerful and focused manner, to achieve our desired goals? Wood moves forward and outward in bursting growth, like the 2 million cells birthing and dying each second in our bodies. 


In the middle of the day, the sun is at its zenith in the sky. It’s the hottest part of the day, like summer is the hottest season of the year. Here in the south, in the place of Fire, all is in motion. All is at the height of its yang energy. We move, run, jump, explore, play, and celebrate. Fire connects with the Heart, which connects us to our communities, the world around us. The Heart connects with our Spirit (), which further connects with our life purpose, and how we connect that with the world around us, moving that purpose into the world through our actions and communications. In balance, Fire energy is playful, active, passionate, juicy, charismatic, engaged, and energized. Out of balance, Fire energy can be manic, scattered, chaotic, and soap-opera dramatic. This is the place of focus and perspiration. In the life cycle, it’s the time of adolescence, youthful exuberance and bounding life explorations, active explorations of all the possible ways to live fully alive. The heart pumps 1/3 cup of blood with each beat, drawing energy and life force to our entire body, the Fire literally coursing through our veins. What are we passionate about? How do we express our passions? 


In the Pre-Heaven diagram of the five phases, and the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches (天干地支) diagram, Earth takes care of everyone as the solid ground that holds all else, sitting in the middle of all of the other phases. It also sits in the transition period between each of the phases and their corresponding seasons. In the Post-Heaven diagram of the five phases, how we commonly view the 生剋(sheng-ke cycles, Earth is placed between Fire and Metal, in the southwest, in the season commonly known as Indian summer, right between summer and autumn, when the shadows are preparing to lengthen, the plants are at their greatest height, and it’s time for relaxation and internalization, harvest and celebration, drawing community together to eat the fruits of the summer’s harvest. Dust to dust, Earth to Earth, our bodies are made of this very Earth, and made ever more Earth with each bite of food that we take, which is nourished from Earth, too. Governing the Stomach and Spleen, Earth relates to digestion and nourishment. In balance, Earth energy is loving, nourishing, practical, grounded, and caring. Out of balance, Earth energy can be needy, stagnant, slow, worrisome, and messy. Governing the 意(consciousness, we ask ourselves how we can be of service. What is our role in our community? Who are we, in our relationship with the greater whole?


The sun sets in the west, in the place of Metal, the autumn, when everything is composting back into their original nature, and death is in the air. Here, the veil between the worlds of living and dead draw thin. The proximity to death connects us with our own mortality, and the inherent understanding that suffering is a part of life. Relating to the Lungs, Metal governs inhalation and inspiration. Relating to the Large Intestine, Metal also governs releasing what no longer serves us, and expiration. Here, in this place of release and reflection, we let go. In balance, Metal is clear, precise, organized, and discerning. Out of balance, Metal can be cold, unfeeling, detached, distant, and lost in grief. Metal governs the (corporeal soul), or animal nature. This animal nature recognizes what is true, real, and correct, resulting in clear and fair actions, clear discernment. It also connects with a sense of the sublime, of the ceremony, and sanctity inherent in each moment. Metal draws clears lines, and asks what am I? What is not me? 

We contain all of the phases and their corresponding patterns and qualities within ourselves. But, we are born with proclivities toward certain phases, and their inherent gifts and downfalls. Environmental and other life factors may pull us in the direction of other phases. Our natural tendencies can be our greatest weakness or strength, depending on how we dance with those energies. Let us live powerfully and beautifully, noticing, observing, and carefully designing and sculpting our lives as we choose, in line with our given tendencies. Like the bones and muscles of the arches of our feet that use the perfect balance of tension and compression to withstand the 100+ pounds of weight bearing down on them daily, we stand poised between our various internal and external forces to live a life suspended between Earth and Sky, at once grounded and uplifted, manifesting our life purpose, buoyed from within and without by the five phases that reflect the universes within universes, as the universe itself.

Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold, Between Heaven and Earth: A Guide to Chinese Medicine
Gary Dolowich, Archetypal Acupuncture: Healing with the Five Elements
Angela Hicks, John Hicks, and Peter Mole, Five Element Constitutional Acupuncture
Ted Kaptchuk, The Web That Has No Weaver
Maoshing Ni, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine
Nigel Wiseman and Andrew Ellis, Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine  
J.R. Worsley, The Five Elements and the Officials
John Young, Ellen Haas, and Evan McGown, Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature


(W)holistic Medicine

School is my life, now. It's difficult to find time to do anything outside of it. I love Chinese medicine though, have amazing teachers, and appreciate this opportunity to just do nothing but learn--- and worry about the details (crazy debt, for example) later. 

With less time on my hands, I'm blogging/ writing less. But, just like in my previous schooling adventures (like herb school!), I'm happy to share some homework that might be interesting, or informative. Here's one of our midterm assignments for my Foundations of Chinese Medicine class. 

We watched this video: 
Then wrote an open-ended reflection paper about it. 


(W)holistic Medicine and the Path of the Superior Physician
(Reflections from a talk by Professor Quinn)

Drinking tea this morning, I appreciate the life and story of each of the plants in my seemingly simple brew: Gotu Kola (Centella asiatica) from my friend Robyn’s garden outside of Bozeman, MT; Rose blossoms and petals (Rosa spp.) from feral roses of my Connecticut forests, old cultivated roses from a 90-year old grandma’s home near the US- Mexico border in Arizona, and roses from fellow herbalist Kris’ garden in Montana; Motherwort (Leonorus cardiaca) from my teacher Lisa’s garden outside of Boulder, CO. I have relationships with each of these plants, the people that grew them, and the environments they grew in. As I drink this tea, I imbibe more than just the aromatic deliciousness of the plants, but also that which came together to create them, now spiraling together in a simple yet complex dance of rhythms that further spiral into the rituals of the day. Here, I begin to investigate the microcosms within the macrocosm, the multiplicities of stories and complex layers within each seemingly simple thing. There are worlds within worlds within everything. Life is not just an onion. It’s onions within onions within onions. Turtles all the way down.

Chinese medicine treatment is based on perception. Roger Batchelor, my current diagnostics professor, encourages us to trust our perception. We learn about the different microsystems within the tongue, pulse, ear, face, eye, and more. Although we learn how to map all of these systems, Roger encourages us to “always start with the shen ().” We begin diagnosing with observation, intuition, and connection, connecting our with our patients’ , heart to heart. We open up our senses and perceptions to feel more. “Trust the body, and trust palpation,” says Roger, “Your interpretation might be off, but your perception is always right. Trust that.” We cultivate interpretation by studying the classics, the ways of those who came before us. How can we cultivate perception?

I teach wilderness skills with an Art of Mentoring (AOM) style of leading by games and through example, rather than rote teaching: coyote mentoring. John Young synthesized AOM via various ancient ways of interacting with the natural world, much like how permaculture principles draw from intercultural ways of cultivating relationship with the land. On the first day of each new class, I introduce a “sense meditation,” which we then revisit throughout the duration of our time together. The more we can experience, the more we will experience. We all can experience so much. We have a nearly infinite potential capacity for experiencing, on multiple levels. We live in a rich, vibrant, nuanced world. But, in our modernized worlds, most of us have lost or forgotten our perceptual abilities. “Use it or lose it” rings true, here. And so, I ask students to cup their hands around their ears to create “deer ears” that amplify sound but more importantly, gets students to slow down and pay attention through the physical act of drawing attention to their ears. I ask students to widen their vision via “owl eyes,” where we move our wiggling fingered arms out to the sides as far as they will go, following all ten fingers with both eyes, until we can no longer see the wiggling fingers of both hands while just looking straight ahead. Hiking, and in life, people often just look straight ahead of them: down and forward, and rarely up, never side to side. Owl eyes asks students to expand their peripheral awareness to include all that’s happening around them, to notice changes in colors, patterns, and movements, to note little details that come together to reform an entire relationship with the natural world surrounding them.

Cultivating relationship with the plant world as an herbalist starts with organoleptics, or noting the immediate impact of different plants upon our senses: how does it look, smell, feel, taste, sound? What are my immediate impressions? In the western herbalism tradition, we start with organoleptics, and always return here. The immediate sensory impression gives us information about what chemicals may be in a plant. Understanding these chemicals and actions, and relating them to patterns present in plants of a same or similar family, or other prior knowledge, is immensely helpful for understanding plants in places I’ve never been. The chemicals themselves don’t even matter that much; understanding what they do is more important, and informs us directly, via organoleptics. In our Herbs Practicum class, we take one herb in each class, and focus on that plant for the entire hour. We start by organoleptic sensing and sampling of the plant. Once we’ve experienced and discussed it, then Professor Eric Grey gives us more information about the plant. In both Chinese herbalism and western herbalism, honing our sensory perception directly informs our relationship with the plants, how we use them, and how we use our to effectively match people and plants. Oftentimes, peoples’ perceptual and instinctual understanding of a plant correlates with its traditional or common usage. Deepening these relationships through sensorial experiencing and perceptual expansion not only improves our ability to sense more during both diagnostics and treatment, but also improves our relationship with the world at large. Sensing more, we live more. We learn to fully notice, appreciate, and enjoy life. Hence, we learn how to live fully alive.

Primitive skills instructor Tamarack Song leads people in a “Oneness meditation,” where one focuses on an element of nature then gradually expands their focus, until eventually they are focused on that one element, as well as all that surrounds it. By expanding vision and perception in this way, one eventually feels a connection with all things. Goethe notes that, “Man knows himself only to the extent that he knows the world; he becomes aware of himself only within the world, and aware of the world only within himself. Every new object, well contemplated, opens up a new organ of perception in us.”

The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine (皇帝内經) notes that: 《得一之情以知死生》。 《一》or the number “one” represents the whole body integrated as one entity. Our bodies are internal universes that connect with the entire universe. Through understanding ourselves deeply, we understand the life and death of each moment, and how to nourish life. Understanding death means understanding illness, and how to work with it in healthful life-affirming ways. We must cultivate our senses to such a degree that we can notice the finest details, to see the world in a grain of sand. We must truly understand how to heal and nourish ourselves, before we can heal and nourish anyone else, or notice imbalance in others. Hatha yoga is a practice that cultivates the individual via breath and body awareness. At the end of the practice, the merits of practice are offered to benefit all beings, “Lokha samastha sukhinhu bhavanthu.” Similarly, as we cultivate ourselves as Scholar-Practitioners, we cultivate a relationship with our patients and the world around us. The fruits of our practice benefit ourselves and everyone that we come across. Our practice informs our understanding of our own body-mind-spirit selves, as well as all who come into contact with us.

Bensky noted that we’re not trying to recreate an ancient Chinese world. We’re taking all of the beauty and depth of this ancient tradition and moving with it in modern ways. Chinese medicine is not static. It is a dynamic medicine, a living medicine with microsystems that reflect and are informed by their environment. Nothing good can survive unless it has tradition, but no tradition can survive unless it includes change as one of its traditions.

At the end of Dr. Quinn’s lecture, he quotes Buckminster Fuller, saying “he didn’t belong to himself,” that he belonged to the Universe. One of my greatest challenges in being in school is feeling separation from nature, from my old life. I feel like my life is no longer my own. I gave up my freedom for my Chinese medicine education, so that I may live and move in ways that are of greater benefit to the world. It is my calling. But, I miss living in the wilderness, and outdoor education work. I feel a deep sense of simultaneous loss and surrender. I don’t belong to myself. I give myself back to the world, back to my ancestors. According to Quinn, Fuller’s life mission was to deprogram himself, discover Nature’s organizing principles, and devote them to humanity. I feel like I was already deprogrammed living in the wilderness, and am now reprogramming to fit into an urban academic mold. My mission is similar: to be an amazing student through four years of school in a bustling city, then return to my natural community, and start a homestead: clinic, healing center, retreat center, educational center, and home all bundled into one. I am entering the system to get tools, then leave again, to create change from the inside out. I am not stuck in this city. I am here to follow my 天命 (tian ming, or “life destiny) and offer my life as incense, to learn and grow so much that after the four year DSOM gestation period, I can return home with even more to offer as an embodied physician, a fully human human, and (w)holistic practitioner. 

Maoshing Ni, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine
Martin Prechtel, Long Life, Honey in the Heart
Tamarack Song, Journey to the Ancestral Self
John Young, Ellen Haas, and Evan McGown, Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature

Photo Credit
Photo of me in a field of Wyethia amplexicaulis from my teacher 7song, from botany-fieldtrip scouting in Utah last summer. A summer of freedom, wholeness, and truly experiential education. 7song is one of the people that I look up to as a "Superior Physician." Story here: 

Lower photo from a peaceful moment of prayer in the Rockies, offering incense to my ancestors. 



It's that time of year. Here's a few decadent chocolate-making recipes to woo yourself, and all other interested individuals! 

(Photo: top- Willow buds opening in Gila wilderness, NM. Bottom- freshly made rose petal chocolate bark.)