Jerry Sees An Acupuncturist
If someone tells you it never hurts, don’t believe them.
Does one have to believe in acupuncture for it to work? Or is it just as effective if one simply gives it a try, fingers crossed? When I was a teenager dabbling in charismatic Christianity, we were told if you had faith, you could pray for a sick person to be healed, and, if God willed it, that person would be healed. My charismatic teachers told ecstatic stories about—after fervent prayers—cancer miraculously disappearing and painful backs inexplicably restored to bounding-around-the-room health. (It made a better story if the doctor acted astounded, and if the doctor was an atheist, that was a triple play.)
When they prefaced their instructions with, “If you have faith…,” I never understood whether you had to truly, deep in your heart, believe in miraculous healings before the healing took place, or could you merely pray, hopefully, and it might work. (The “if God willed it,” by the way, gave God a capricious dominion over our health, but I was unwilling to think much about that at the time.) If I were miraculously healed of something after praying for healing, well then, of course, I would believe way down deep, but is that belief a prerequisite?
As my friend Tere Canzoneri once said, quoting the oncologist Bernie Siegal, “In the face of uncertainty, there’s nothing wrong with hope.” Willing myself to be hopeful, to the acupuncturist I went, at the recommendation of a friend who had benefited from his treatment. She added, “I liked what he had to say.”
The acupuncture doctor stressed that acupuncture promotes the body’s ability to heal itself. He didn’t speak of the needles as one would speak of taking medication or getting a surgical procedure—which cure or fix some thing. He told me that acupuncture addresses the energy, or “Qi,” (pronounced “chee”) that flows through the body along 14 stream-like channels called meridians. The needles, when inserted at certain points along the meridians, act sort of like antennas and reprogram the body to a healthier state by restoring the flow of Qi to what it should be. There is much more detail you can read about meridians and acupuncture points (there are lots of them in at least 3 categories).
If the flow of Qi gets blocked (a range of factors—physical, emotional, spiritual— can cause this blockage), the disruption can lead to pain, lack of function, or illness. Acupuncture releases blocked Qi, restores the body’s harmony, and stimulates the body’s natural healing through its own systems. The acupuncturist said modern research has affirmed acupuncture’s effect on the nervous system, endocrine and immune systems, cardiovascular system, and digestive system. By stimulating these systems, acupuncture helps to resolve pain, balance hormones, decrease stress and inflammation, and improve sleep, digestive function, and well-being, he said (to me in person and on his website).
Do I have to believe in Qi and meridians for acupuncture to help me? They won’t appear in an x-ray—or an autopsy— so are they real? Does it matter whether I’m convinced they’re real?
If you want to occupy a few hours (or months), look up “does acupuncture work?” on the internet. You can read passionate, heated arguments in both directions. You will see terms such as “life-saving,” “relief,” “wholistic,” “pseudo-science,” “quackery,” etc. Wikipedia referred to a study in which “placebo acupuncture”—needles inserted here and there in the body, not at official acupuncture points—worked just as well as those placed according to proper acupuncture. Ouch.
When I told him I was there for my loss of taste and smell, he said he had a good success rate with that problem. However, he smiled and said he couldn’t write that on the form he sent to my insurance company because they wouldn’t accept it. He wrote, “For pain.” It’s not totally untrue.
The doctor asked me to remove my shoes and socks and roll up my sleeves, and lie on the table. He felt my pulse using three fingertips, checking for far more than beats per minute. More than 30 pulse conditions have been documented in Chinese medical texts. Each fingertip felt a spot that he said was connected to specific organs. He said he initially felt to see how hard he had to press to feel my pulse, then felt to sense the many nuances of my pulse.
He suggested I swing my arms when I walk or exercise and to sing, especially high notes. He also suggested I sing/hum the “ohm” sound associated with meditation. Ohm is considered by some Eastern religions to be the “primal sound,” God having created sound first and ohm being the “seed sound” of all creation. In this line of thinking, the universe, the gods, and all matter come from the sound “ohm.” My acupuncturist described it is “a primitive sound—like a baby saying ‘mama.’” Repeat it as a mantra, he said. The vibrations are good for my nasal cavity and might stimulate the olfactory nerve.
He pressed on my neck and shoulders and advised me to do neck stretches. And breathing exercises: take 3 seconds to breathe in, then 3 to breathe out. Then 5 seconds, then 10. He said my breathing should be consistently balanced.
Then it was time for the needles to unblock my Qi flow, which he said, based on his reading of my pulse, was low. He inserted them first in my feet, then pressed on and around my stomach, each time asking if it was uncomfortable when he pressed. Sometimes it was, sometimes not. He continued inserting needles in other places. The needles, he said, would also release tension. As he inserted needles, he sometimes said which organ a given acupuncture point was connected to.
He asked if I slept well. I said I usually wake up in the night to pee, and he said we shouldn’t do that, even as we get older. Traditional Chinese medicine holds that the flow of Qi through our meridians and organs has a daily schedule, in 2-hour intervals, and interrupting our sleep interrupts the restorative function of Qi during the night. According to one acupuncture website:
“Every two hours the qi is strongest within a particular organ and its functions within the body. And that’s not all – the body, mind and emotions are inseparable in Chinese medicine – meaning that if you have disharmony in your physical body, it is tied to your emotional state. So if you wake up at 3 AM, when Liver energy peaks, you may be suffering from Liver Qi stagnation, which could be related to an unhealthy diet, excess alcohol consumption, unresolved anger or high levels of stress. If you consistently wake at 4 AM, it could be due to an imbalance in your Lungs, which is related to grief and sadness, fatigue, or reduced immune function.”
After inserting the needles, he said it was time for me to rest and let the needles do their restorative work. He left the room for about 20 minutes, then returned and removed them. Sometimes I fell asleep during this rest time—unless some of them hurt—and some did hurt a few times.
In the next visit, he first put two needles in my upper back and said they were “lung points.” He checked my pulse again, put the other needles in the same places as the last time. He pressed my stomach.
He said there are external and internal causes of illness. The interior causes include our emotions. Even happiness, he said, could make us sick, if it is excessive. He said we shouldn’t have too much of any emotions, even if they are emotions we typically enjoy. He advised I balance my emotions and not to go to sleep on my anger. Exterior causes include factors such as heat and wind.
He pressed on my neck and shoulders, to help the flow of spinal fluid between the brain and the spinal cord. He said the proper circulation of spinal fluid throughout the central nervous system is important: “Tensions at the top often mean tensions at the bottom.”
He said, “God said, ‘I am that I am.’ What name is that? He said he will introduce us to someone who has no name. That means we should empty the self, like Jesus said.”
He asked, “Do you feel fear?”
“Do you feel sorrow?”
“Do you feel worry?”
He asked me to state my name. He asked my age. He asked, “Where you going today?” And, “Are you running late?” He asked about my home.
He pressed on my stomach, to feel for blockage and to ease tension. He said he could feel the tension. He again pressed on my neck and shoulders. His movements and the pressure felt similar to that of a chiropractor.
He reminded me to breathe balanced, the same length in as out, and to do breathing exercises. He suggested I occasionally think about oranges and lemons and see if those thoughts make me salivate. He said the color orange stimulates the digestive system.
He recommended a book written by a college friend of his, a Korean, who teaches theology: “The Holy Spirit and Ch’i (Qi).”
He spoke softly and had a gentle demeanor. When he accepted my credit card, he used both hands, almost cradling it. He spoke with an even tone, using the kind of balance he recommended to me regarding emotions and breath.
At a subsequent visit, he said my pulse still showed low energy and low fluid. He advised that I drink more water. He also said my pulse revealed dampness in my body, so I should eat summer fruits such as melons, and corn. He asked if I have a bowel movement daily. “Almost.” He pressed on my stomach again. It seemed less tense to me, but he said he could still feel blockage and tension.
He pulled on my arms and moved each leg around and pushed, like when professional athletes are stretched by assistants before a game. Toward the end of this session, he pressed on my calves, back, and shoulders. Some of the pressure felt painful. It felt like a combination of massage and chiropractic.
He looked at my tongue each visit and referred to “the map of the tongue.” Once he showed me an illustration of this map on a small poster. In traditional Chinese medicine, different sections of the tongue are connected to specific parts of the body, so examination of the tongue might give the practitioner some clues about what’s going on elsewhere. They also look for the overall condition of the tongue: the color, shape, and coating. He said my tongue indicated my body is under-nourished. Once my tongue had bite marks, and he said that means I’m tired, that my digestive system is working too hard.
After several more visits, he said my pulse was better.
A needle in my toe hurt. He said that’s a powerful point, it can affect your head, like a Newton’s cradle, which has hanging metal balls and only the balls at each end move. A ball strikes one side, and the other end moves.
He gave me a new herb to take. The first one was to stimulate around the nose. This one was to stimulate the blood. He had me smell peppermint, which he said stimulates the olfactory system.
I eventually discontinued acupuncture. It had made no impact on my loss of taste and smell. (Western medicine didn’t either.) However, thanks to him I have reflected thoughtfully on my emotions, sleep patterns, breathing, and nutrition.
And I miss him.
In one session, he asked about my work, and I explained what it is like to be a hospice chaplain: being a non-anxious presence and attentive listener, saying prayers that not only beseech God but also calm the patient, and addressing fears compassionately and hopefully. He listened carefully, without interruption—sort of chaplain-like.
He again pressed on my back and legs. I asked if he was stimulating the spinal cord, and he said, “Yes, and the meridians.”
I knew about the needles and the meridians but not hands. Curious, I asked, “So you stimulate meridians with needles and your hands?”
“Yes. And with my words. Like you do.”