The past two weeks we’ve been discussing timing as it pertains to acupuncture and herbology. Let’s now tackle momentum.
As you may recall, the quote we have been referencing from the Art of War is this:
“When a falcon strike breaks the body of its prey, it is because of timing. When torrential water tosses boulders, it is because of momentum.”
What Sun Zi is talking about here is the accomplishing of something difficult, moving mountains as it were. In Chinese medicine this can be compared to dealing with difficult and intractable cases, the likes of which unfortunately are rapidly increasing in number here in the U.S. These cases are often created by incorrect or ineffectual treatment of a condition that is made orders of magnitude more complicated by the failed treatment itself. Here I’m talking about things like disease suppression, medication side effects, and the results of surgery, all things that most of our patients will have experienced in spades before they ever walk through our doors as their “last hope”. Leaving aside for now the problems of what to attack and how (something I’ll cover at a later date), let’s now assume that we have intervened in some way and had some sort of positive effect on the patient. This is where momentum comes in.
The process is almost always going to be the same for deciding on treatment: gather the symptoms, look at the whole picture, make a decision. The next time the patient comes in this decision-making process has to be repeated. Even if the decision is to continue the treatment from the previous session, you’re still having to make the call of “what do they need me to do right now?” The time-honored TCM school clinic technique of “I did these points last week and they feel better so I’m just gonna do them again” is just not going to fly unless a proper examination reveals that yes, that combination of points is appropriate here. This is the primary component of establishing momentum, doing the right thing at the right time, repeated.
Borrowing from the Chinese martial art Taijiquan: in Taijiquan, a primary goal is to “uproot” your opponent (meaning, remove their structural stability) so that you can basically do whatever you want with them. My teacher’s teacher once compared this to a job he used to work at a loading dock in a harbor in Taiwan moving giant barrels from ship to land and vice versa. By themselves, the barrels were absolutely impossible for even 2-3 people to move. Yet, if you uprooted it by tilting it up onto its edge a bit you could now sort of roll it by yourself to wherever you needed it to go.
Treating chronic disease is very much like this. Your first task is to make enough initial headway against the condition that now it starts responding to what you want to do, which I can tell you is not always the easiest thing in the world. However, once you finally achieve that uprooting, now you have to keep it uprooted so that you can keep pushing it where you want it to go, like the aforementioned barrels. Explaining what to do to achieve this would take its own series, and really is the sum of all other treatment knowledge you are able to bring to bear. So instead I will tell you what not to do, otherwise known as a group of pitfalls that will effectively kill whatever momentum you have built. Note that some of these pitfalls will be of your doing and some will be of your patients’ doing. It’s part of your job to make clear to them what needs to happen in order for the desired result to be achieved, meaning achieving health.
Pitfall #1-Failing to modify
Something that is abundantly clear in Western medicine that somehow we in Chinese medicine lose sight of is the idea of habituation. A short explanation of this phenomenon is this: when the exact same treatment-of any kind-is repeated enough, the body or the agents of disease will adapt to it making the treatment no longer effective. This can actually be viewed from a couple different viewpoints. One is that the patient is rarely in the exact same situation two visits in a row (“you can never step in the same river twice”), especially where acupuncture is concerned. Another is that if you are dealing with an intelligent pathogenic agent (virus, bacteria, spirochete, etc.) if you continually show it the same attack it will eventually adapt, making the attack ineffective. Think MRSA.
This is fairly easy to deal with in acupuncture, as you can throw in subtle variations to the treatment that meet the patient exactly where they are at that moment in very specific detail. With herbs it’s more difficult as in these types of cases you’ll need the same formula for months at a time. The key to this then is having a good enough grasp of your root formulas and also of the nature of your individual herbs so that you can switch in and out appropriate substitutions that still get you where you want to go. Now obviously, no two herbs are a perfect trade for each other as even different parts of the same plant behave very differently and have very different properties. In the context of a carefully modified formula, however, the structure that is not changed will help keep what has been changed moving in the right direction.
This concept is most vitally important for cases where there is an organism on the other end that is being dealt with as part of the process (like Lyme Disease for instance), but this also holds true for other deep diseases, though you may not need to rotate as often. In a fast-reacting case (like Lyme) I generally look to rotate ingredients every three weeks or so. I usually look to rotate major (and powerful) components of the base formula I’m using that I’m confident I can get a good trade for. So if the base formula is Gui Zhi Tang, I would have the option to rotate just about any ingredient in the formula. Rou Gui for Gui Zhi, Gan Jiang or Pao Jiang for Sheng Jiang, Chi Shao for Bai Shao, Gan Cao for Zhi Gan Cao. In this particular case I would probably only rotate two ingredients (unless I had a very good reason for doing otherwise-always a caveat!) and try to stick to the soul of the formula by changing Gui Zhi less frequently than the other ingredients. Obviously this applies to any formula that you could use long-term. Note that in some cases (and with some patients) you’ll need to rotate more frequently or more creatively, with other cases you can get away with longer waits. Your mileage will vary.
If you fall into the pitfall of failing to modify you will certainly see the case stall out, which can mean not only a simply stalling of progress but can frequently be the first step into a quick regression depending on what else is going on in the patient’s life. You want to avoid this at all costs.
eek we’ll discuss the pitfalls of Treating Erratically and Too Many Doctors Spoil the Case.
About Eric Grey
Hi - I'm the founder of Deepest Health. When I'm not writing here, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Community Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.