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.