For many years now, I had the idea that I would make my own acupuncture needle out of a meteorite. In ancient times, before the technology of smelting had been discovered, meteorites were one of the only sources of high-purity iron that, through firing and pounding, could be made into steel. In ancient China, swords that were forged out of meteorite iron were considered to be not just functionally exceptional - harder, sharper, less apt to break in combat - but endowed with celestial powers as well. It is hard to believe that acupuncture needles, associated from the very beginning with stars and the cosmos, would not have been made from meteorites. The acupuncture points on the human body were regarded as a microcosm of the stars in the heavens. What better instrument to illuminate our corporeal stars than a sliver of condensed heavenly yang qi?
Last year I turned fifty, and as part of the year-long celebration, went on a camping trip with my old friend Andy McKenzie. I drove from Santa Cruz and he drove from Fort Worth, Texas, and we met up at Zion National Park in Utah. On a day trip to Bryce Canyon, we pulled into one of the many rock and mineral stores that dot the Southwest. Inside, I found small chunks of meteorite on sale, and thought, "Aha! Finally, the raw material for my needle!" and bought a couple.
Over the course of the year, I designed and built a little outdoor workshop and smithy where I could try to transform my meteorite into a needle. I figured that, since everything was on such a small scale, I could make a forge out of a blow torch and a fire brick or two. All that was left to do was to actually make the needle! So, the other day, I took advantage of the break in rain and got to work.
It took a day of firing and pounding, and another day of straightening and polishing, heat-treating and oil-quenching, and now... (keep reading)
The first time I ever distilled my own liquor, I experienced something of the excitement that must have been felt by Jabir-ibn-Hayyan, the eighth-century Mesopotamian alchemist who is said to have discovered the distillation of alcohol. It was the year that our apricot tree fruited like never before, an embarrassment of riches that yielded apricot pies, apricot sauce, and finally, due to sheer neglect (some over-ripe apricots left in a bowl, then accidentally submerged in water), apricot beer. The beer got me all excited, but my excitement waned when I tried it, then reached a new height as I was hit by the inspiration to extract the alcohol from the beer. I rigged a crude still out of a pot, a ceramic vegetable steamer, and a bag of ice, and produced a few milliliters of clear, strong, and deliciously fruity-flowery-aromatic moonshine. Tasting it, I was transformed by the spirit, the essence of apricot as it melted into my tongue then shone out of my every pore. This, I thought to myself, is definitely something I could do full-time.
As it turned out, I never did become a big-time producer of whiskey or rum or apricot liquor. Fortunately, there are other ways of extracting plant essences with alcohol. When I was a child, I used to help my parents make umeshu, the traditional “plum wine” of Japan. My sister and I would carefully wash and dry the unripe fruit (actually a variety of apricot), then poked them full of holes with a fork. My mother put the fruit into large glass jars, together with rock sugar, and poured shochu (grain spirits) over them. A couple of years later, we enjoyed the resulting liqueur, neat or mixed with soda water and ice as a refreshing summer drink.
This, essentially, is the art of the herbal liqueur: you take a plant, soak it in strong alcohol to bring out its flavors and other qualities, then (after a wait of at least two weeks) drink this extract in small amounts over time to appreciate its effects on your mind and body. You can do this with all sorts of things: ginseng, astragalus, angelica, walnuts and Chinese wolfberries all yield decent tonic liqueurs. And you can experiment with a variety of solvents – rum is one of my favorites, although you can use vodka, tequila, or any strong liquor.
There’s a lot of discussion among students of herbal medicine as to the proper percentage of alcohol in the solvent, in relation to the type of plant being extracted. For our alchemical purposes, I suggest any strong liquor of about 100 proof. That way, you’ll end up with a balance of water-soluble and alcohol-soluble herb constituents. Also, to create a pleasant-tasting brew it’s good to start with more liquor and less herb, significantly less than the one to five ratio (one ounce dried herb to five fluid ounces of solvent) that is considered standard strength for herbal tinctures. Better yet, begin with something that tastes good to start with, like peaches or cherries or any kind of berry! There’s a lot to be said, in terms of antioxidants, bioflavonoids, and other phytonutrients, for the health benefits of fruit. One of my fantasies, yet to be fulfilled, is to travel the length of the West Coast one summer with a huge jar of Kirsch or Calvados or some other fruity spirits, throwing in large handfuls of wild berries as I come across them in my travels. Olallieberries, raspberries, strawberries, huckleberries, currants, even the somewhat medicinal-tasting berries of the California Spikenard and Devil’s Club would all be welcome to the mix. By the end of the summer I’d have a quantity of berry elixir to last me through the rest of the year, to share with friends and loved ones, to stretch a little bit of the summer’s sweet goodness into the cooler days of fall and winter.
The satisfaction that comes from making stuff, especially stuff that tastes good and makes you feel good, is a feeling that many people do without. In this day of instant gratification and 40-hour workweeks, few of us take (or make) the extra time and effort necessary to cook our own meals, much less concoct our own medicines and dessert wines. Why bother, when our natural food stores and supermarkets offer us everything we need, pre-made and ready to go? I bother because I find this type of activity to be deeply satisfying in a way that’s difficult to describe. To be in touch with the flux of the seasons, to pick an herb when its qi has sunk into its roots in the fall or risen into its flowers in the summer, to harvest by the time of day and phases of the moon, to extract the essence of a plant and then to ingest it – these are activities that are so ancient that their re-enactment awakens in us an almost shamanic appreciation of the natural world that we are a part of. Why not take the time to appreciate, in some small way, the great cosmic cycles that shape and influence all life on our planet? Watching the sunset or the moonrise, or the Milky Way on a clear night, can do the trick. But to drink the light that was captured by a plant – that is the unique pleasure, and the rare medicine, of the herbal liqueur.
Doing acupuncture is kind of a funny thing. What points do you pick? What is the process you go through when you give someone a treatment? You'll get a lot of different responses if you ask different acupuncturists. Here's mine:
For me, acupuncture has become a kind of energetic interaction with the patient. A person will come in with some symptom - a headache, for instance, or a skin problem. I usually spend some time asking questions: what part of the head hurts? Does your itching get worse at night? Is it worse or better when you get your period? Etc. I usually look at the tongue and feel the pulse, both standard Chinese medical practice. I was trained in acupuncture school to come up with "patterns" based on the presenting evidence, then treat by using points that fit the pattern. For instance, based on the location and type of pain, you might decide the patient has a "dampness headache," and pick points such as Stomach-40, which drains dampness, and Large Intestine 4, which alleviates pain especially in the face and head. You might also throw in Spleen 3, which strengthens the digestion, thereby treating the "root" as well as the "branch" (weak digestion is thought to create "dampness" in the body).
What I have found, however, is that this type of cookbook acupuncture often doesn't work. What has happened historically is that in the re-packaging of "traditional Chinese medicine" (TCM) in the modern era, acupuncture took a back seat to Chinese herbal medicine. So much so that acupuncture, which has always had its own set of theories and classical writings associated with it, got reformulated to better fit the theories of herbal medicine. So acupuncture points, which had formerly been thought of as apertures through which one could drain or supplement qi ("energy") to restore balance in an interconnected series or loops of channels in the body, were assigned functions or actions much like herbs. Hence in TCM we now say that Stomach 40 "drains dampness," much like a diuretic herb such as alisma is said to "drain dampness."
It was only after graduating from acupuncture school that I regained a sense of wonder and appreciation for acupuncture. This was because I began studying with Dr. Anryu Iwashina (a.k.a. "Dr. Bear"), a blind master acupuncturist from Morioka, Japan. Dr. Bear challenged my entire concept of acupuncture by treating patients - quite spectacularly and effectively, I might add - without ever puncturing their skin with his needles. At first I couldn't really tell what he was doing. With one hand he would feel the patient's skin on the arm or belly,and the other hand would gently hold the needltip against the skin somewhere else. Sometimes he would stay at a point for a long time, as if waiting for something to happen, holding the tip with his index finger and thumb, and the shaft with the thumb, index finger, and middle finger of his other hand. Other times his hand would dance over the surface of the patient's skin, the needle gently tapping the skin over a large area. Sometimes he would hold a thick golden needle on one point and a thick silver needle on another point, and wait. The impression I got was that he was constantly trying things out, waiting for a response, then moving on. Suddenly, he would announce that he was done, and the patient would get off the table with an amazed look on his or her face.
I've been studying with Dr. Bear for about ten years now, and use his method about 90% of the time (I still use TCM methods of physical medicine such as scraping and cupping, as well as TCM-style herbal medicine). It took me a couple years of trying his technique before I really felt anything happen between my fingertips. I was treating a patient who suffered from breast and liver cancer. She was going through chemotherapy and different experimental drugs, and I was fortunate enough to be able to join her inspiring support team. Maybe it was because she had gotten so weak that the "noise" of her various bodily processes was less than it normally would have been. Or maybe it was because in the process of preparing for death she had become so energetically "clear" that that clarity of energy could be felt even by a beginner like me. In any case, when I placed the needle against her skin, I felt a faint tingle, a mild electrical tingle that came and went, signifying according to Dr. Bear that the "qi had come."
So I've been practicing this way ever since. I haven't abandoned the theories and "patterns" that I learned in school. But I consider them working hypotheses rather than diagnoses per se. I test these hypotheses by trying out different points, and seeing if something happens. That something can be the tingly feeling that I feel between the fingertips holding the needle; it can be the patient reporting feelings of movement or warmth or tingliness at the point or elsewhere in the body; it can also be a shift in the patient's pulse or a relaxing of her musculature.
I find that the best acupuncture happens when I just "play", when I don't attach to outcomes or to particular theories of what is going on. I may notice a tight area, and needle there. The patient reports a warm flowy feeling down the leg and into the big toe, so I palpate the ribs and umbilical area (which are associated with the liver and spleen, whose channels run down the leg and into the big toe) and check points on the liver and spleen channels. While I'm working on the leg,I might notice that the whole right leg is sort of stuck, and begin pushing muscles and points and joint edges around the knee, working my way up and ending up treating stuck points in the hips and sacrum. I often end up doing something completely different from what I set out to do, following the thread until what needs to happen happens.
Sometimes, especially if I'm feeling stuck, I'll over-intellectualize things and start applying models like crazy, like "now that I've drained the gallbladder connecting-point I'll tonify the spleen source-point," or "let's try that right knee point for this left elbow pain." And that can be fun too, and the theories that have been worked out over many centuries of observation and experimentation are truly useful and sometimes work great. But what I have learned from Dr. Bear is that you always have to try things out and check for an effect; don't just apply theories blindly and then leave the room to put together an herb formula. And I think that the best treatments happen when you leave the theory behind, or just leave it running in the background as a kind of hunch-provider, and act spontaneously. It's also more fun that way!
That's why I have so much fun doing acupuncture. Each treatment is an exploration. If I find small "blood stasis" venules I might bleed them. If I find a mushy deficient spot I might burn moxa on it. If the patient reports a new pain I'll try out different things until the pain goes away. I get to combine hands-on experimentation with rational problem-solving and a kind of artistic sensibility. And best of all, I get to experience my patient feeling better!
I've benefited so much, and I believe my patients have benefited too, from Dr. Bear's teachings. Acupuncture is a very mysterious thing, and when acupuncturists start talking about "energy" and "yin" and "yang," it's easy for Westerners to dismiss it as hopelessly unscientific. And, indeed, if acupuncturists memorize the Chinese theories and terminologies by rote and spout them to whomever will listen, they will only serve to confuse and alienate people. But I don't think that we should do the opposite, namely talk about acupuncture only in scientific terms such as endorphins or the gate theory of pain. I believe that when we scientize acupuncture, we substitute a rich living empirical tradition with an incomplete and clinically inferior model. Certainly we should research acupuncture and try to figure out how it works. But if you want to learn acupuncture, I say, learn from a real acupuncturist! I consider myself fortunate that I have been able to do just that.