The importance of lineage in [Chinese] medicine

I set the word “Chinese” apart with brackets because I believe lineage is important in all medicine – indeed in all human endeavor. Unfortunately, lately the word has become something of a curse, something looked down upon as being too subjectively oriented, too privileged, too hierarchical. Of course, there are those, too, who put it too high on a pedestal, who become cultish and backward thinking, who do harm to others based on too-fervent beliefs.

But we lose so much when we throw out lineage to avoid the difficulties that can come up when it goes too far, or becomes damaging itself. I don’t throw it out in my own life and practice, and it has made me a person capable of so much more than I would be able to do otherwise.

But, wait, let’s back up – what am I talking about?

What’s lineage?

Simply put, it is the way you trace yourself and your work back, hopefully, to Huangdi! Whether you have such lofty aims or not, lineage at the very least tells us who you learned from most immediately. This can give us insight into your style, your personality, your likely professional interactions before I ever learn anything individually about you.

People who study with my colleague Bob Quinn may not know particularly much about his grandfather in the medicine, or great-great grandfather or great great great grandmother. They may not have any particular attachment to the man himself. But what I can pretty much guarantee is that they will have the best palpation capacity in the school, the evenest dispositions and a passion for pediatric medicine.

Sure, there are exceptions – but there’s a certain regularity to folks who come from a particular teacher. If you look closely, you can find it. And if you pay attention to it, in many cases, it can help you in your quest to learn East Asian medicine.

That doesn’t seem particularly important…

All of what I just said isn’t really the reason lineage is important in EAM. The key is what it does for YOU as the practitioner. In the first several years of practice, most of us go through periods of self-doubt and the finding of actual deficiencies in skills, knowledge and personality. Unmoored, unrooted, it can all be a little much.

A connection to a lineage gives you a physical and energetic family – people whom you can reach out to in a number of ways when you are feeling weak, lost, afraid or just not particularly smart. The connection from teacher to student when lineage is respected is profound, even when it is subtle in its manifestations.

A connection to a lineage usually gives you some subset of problems, modalities and historical understanding to grapple with. If your teacher chiefly uses the formulas of Zhang zhongjing, for instance, you’ll be spending most of your time learning about that system and those herbal formulas. This is tremendously useful in creating a more manageable study and practice experience in a field with dizzying diversity!

When one is a part of the lineage – development is inevitable

Lineage is an evolving thing. As it encounters new cultures, new classes, new minds, new technologies, it adapts. Each person adds their own individual spin on parts of the medicine. It grows. It changes. This is something that happens very naturally when you’ve been in practice for a while, I think. Maybe there are some prodigies out there, but I bet it rolls along with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour concept fairly well.

After your 10,000 hours, things start to happen in your mind. The unique experiences you’ve had during your upbringing, training and subsequent practice, with the background of your lineage, begin to spark new fields of inquiry, new layers of understanding. The student contributes to the development of the lineage.

But it isn’t just about the information

a kayaker ventures into a dark cave openingAs I’ve discussed elsewhere – it’s not just about the external goods, it’s about those internal. It’s not just the medicine we gain, but a frame of reference. We gain a respect for certain aspects of the field, and yes sometimes a disdain for others (depends on the lineage, really). We become confident in places and less so in others. We learn the lessons of our teachers’ lives – both the good and the bad. We become enlivened by the experiences that are flowing down through us from the past.

It’s worth the process of looking for a teacher, a lineage, and then sticking with the sometimes messy development process. When you do, the rewards are beyond what can be imagined until they are upon you. Like this weekend, when on the teachers’ side (for the first time) of the lineage ceremony that accompanies the graduation of Chinese medicine students at NCNM, I suddenly realized the profound debt of gratitude I owe to my teachers, my lineage. Of course I recognized it intellectually before, but the lineage reached into me – and showed me another layer.

It all became real in that moment – what I’m doing in my clinical practice and with my teaching. From that point forward, everything has changed. Everything is coming into focus. The shift is beyond profound, and beyond description. To me, that’s the power of the lineage. Worth consideration?

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