Practice makes perfect – advice on learning Chinese herbs

As a student learning Chinese herbs, I was impatient. Already having been in higher education for 8 years straight, I was eager to get on with it. I didn’t understand the process, and I didn’t understand (nor respect) the ancient traditions of learning that, despite it all, still have something to teach us. I got in my own way, and didn’t take advantage of the time I was given. Now, I’m busy trying to rectify my wrongs and fill in the gaps that I created for myself with my incessant hurry.

I was listening to one of my favorite songs, featuring some rather mind blowing guitar work, I found myself considering the process of learning an instrument.

Learning to play music, particularly as a child, the instruction starts off basic and continues basic. Essential movements are focused on, and only very simple theories. When those dive all the way into the student’s mind body and otherwise – then another door is opened by the teacher or the instrument itself, and so the process carries on.

It moves in a stepwise fashion.

It’s often slow. You frequently find yourself feeling held back, or teetering on the edge of boredom. It can be frustrating. The same is true for learning Chinese herbs. At first it’s all confusion and headaches, 炙 this and 草 that. At some point, after the hardest of it stops, there’s a curious sort of lull. You feel like you’re not being told the real secrets, and you’re eager to get on to the next thing.

a boy chops wood simple work herbsNow, granted, there is a mismatch in this comparison (probably many). With learning an instrument, you are by the nature of the thing doing hands-on work. You’re engaged in the practice that you are trying to learn better. The same isn’t always true for Chinese herbs. There’s a lot of sitting, and memorizing, and more sitting. Sometimes also some testing.

Students always want more time in the herbs practicum I teach. They want to touch the herbs, grapple with them. They want to see them in action, not just in the physical sense, but also in the sense of seeing them be prescribed and modified. When they get more time with them, they are less frustrated, and more content to take the step-wise approach. And so maybe there is something to learn here about how we decide as a community how to teach herbs…

Anyway – the impatience. I don’t know the perfect answer to chasing it away. I’m not certain how to leave a perfect vessel for knowledge in its place. Not in my students, not in myself.

What I do know is that every skill I have that feels worth having took time to develop.

It took doing little moves over and over again, getting frustrated with a lack of knowledge and reaching farther. It took building an understanding of material bit by bit, day by day. More than that, it takes all the stuff that’s happening when that excrutiatingly slow process is taking place. Because learning – particularly long programs that lead to some professional membership – is so much more than the data and degree acquired.

Like Alasdair Macintyre discusses, the process of being brought into a true Profession isn’t ultimately about the “external” goods that can be acquired when a person is a member. What we can do as doctors, how we can help, the satisfaction there, and the compensation with financial support – all of these things are wonderful. But they are external, ephemeral.

What we’re looking for are the internal goods.

The goods that spring forth from the heart of the activity in question, and in the culture and community that springs up out of it. We learn information and techniques, yes, but we also learn temperance. We learn curiosity. We learn respect. We learn to rely on ourselves and on the bounty of nature. We learn what to do, what not to do, we learn to learn, and to learn more about learning!

So, to my students, working so hard to learn…

Those of you so smart it lights fire to my brain! Calm down a second. If you rush this, you will regret it. Let the little seeds take root. Don’t worry so much about this test, or even this school. Look for those internal goods that arise in the transformation from layperson to Insider. Trust me.

Oh, and to myself, still working so hard to learn. Take your own advice.

[This post has been updated during the 2020 site updates. My goal during post updates was to keep the character of the original post, but update for corrections and clarity, as well as to remove broken links.]

One Comment Add yours

  1. jonathanmead says:

    Love this post. Such an important reminder. You’re on fire man.

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