Thursday, February 20, 2014

Introduction to Way of the Caveman Healer

When I was a boy growing up in western Japan, I liked to explore the hills behind my house.  One of my favorite places, past the junior high school and the bamboo forest, was an archeological site where I would play in the reconstructed prehistoric dwellings of the people who lived in my area a long time ago.  What was life like for them?  I imagined myself as a caveman, making fires, pretending to hunt game and gather greens.  There was a river not too far away, and I would make excursions to wash myself in a small waterfall, to drink the sweet water.  When it got dark I would head home, and as my eyes took in the setting sun I wondered what the cavemen [1] thought and felt when they gazed at the sun or contemplated the starry sky.

Many years later, I studied anthropology as a university student.  I wanted to understand the phenomenon of human beings, why we do the things we do, how we got to be the way that we are.  I would say that the single best thing that came out of my anthropological education is the evolutionary perspective – the idea that we, along with the rest of life on our planet, are constantly evolving: not evolving towards some kind of physical or spiritual perfection (that would be the outdated medieval view, which places humans at the pinnacle of earthly creation and closer to God at every step, as well as the current New Age view, both of which I reject), but simply adapting as a species to our changing environment.  Based on the evidence, I came to the conclusion that the cavemen were basically just like us, minus the cars and supermarkets and iPods.  They were smart, they almost certainly used language, they solved their problems using their large brains and opposable thumbs, just like we do.  I’m convinced that cavemen loved their children just like we love ours.

Growing up in Japan, and through the practice of martial arts, I was exposed at an early age to some of the ideas behind East Asian healing arts – ideas like qi, the universal matter/energy, and tsubo, or places on the body where one could access the qi flowing through the body to affect health.  After college, I became a high school teacher and spent a couple years teaching in a school district that was about to go under, and subsequently (as one of the younger untenured teachers) lost my job.  The pressures of teaching in a moribund school in an intense urban setting, and the trauma of losing my job, left me with the conviction that I should to switch careers and help people one-on-one in some capacity.  Encouraged by my taiji teacher, who was an acupuncturist, I ended up getting my master’s degree in traditional Chinese medicine, and became a licensed acupuncturist in the state of California.

I loved school and I continue to love Chinese medicine!  I was fascinated with herbal medicine, with how leaves and flowers and bark and insect parts could affect the human body.  It boggled my mind that over thousands of years, the ancient Chinese healers figured out the properties of these hundreds of substances, and that what I was learning was a body of knowledge that had been passed on uninterrupted for so many generations.  When I first pierced the skin of a hapless classmate with a metal needle I experienced an intense initiatory rush, like I had just stepped into an ancient tradition with roots planted firmly in Paleolithic times.  In fact, as I immersed myself in this healing system whose medical terminology consisted of words like wind, dampness, fire, and earth, I found myself transported back to an earlier time when humans related to their bodies and their environment in a direct way.  By considering themselves to be an integral part of nature, rather than separate from and above nature, the ancient Chinese doctors created a superior system of healing that to this day helps millions of people with their pain, their menstrual cramps, their indigestion, their insomnia, and many other ills.  I am convinced that one reason for its success and survival is that Chinese medicine retains a connection to its prehistoric heritage, that it incorporates the awareness that early humans had for their bodies and their environment, an awareness that many of us have since lost.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Chinese medicine is a sophisticated rational medical system that has been through continuous refinement since its earliest days.  I’m sure there are practitioners and scholars of Chinese medicine who would take offense at having the word “caveman” associated with this jewel of Chinese civilization.  But I would remind them that from its earliest days, Chinese medicine has looked back to a golden age in which people were healthier and wiser.  Earlier in my career I dismissed this veneration of ancient times as a Chinese cultural trait that only existed to legitimize the present by linking it to a glorious and more perfect past.  Now, I wonder if in fact this backward-looking is a yearning for a time prior to war, prior to agriculture, prior to civilization itself: a distant memory of the time of the caveman.

And, at a fundamental level, it’s hard to deny that the logic and methods of Chinese medicine hark back to the medicine men of old.  In fact, according to Richard Grossinger in his far-ranging Planet Medicine, “It is no exaggeration to think of the Yellow Emperor as one of our only guides to late Stone Age medicine [2].”  Cold stomach? Warm it up!  Hot blood?  Lance the skin to let it out!  Wind and dampness penetrating the hip?  Burn a pile of dried mugwort over it and drive out the evil influences!  When I treat and advise patients, it is easy to find myself channeling some Central Asian shaman, scraping the skin with a water buffalo horn or patiently waiting for the qi to arrive between my fingertips as I hold a gold needle to their skin.

From an anthropological standpoint, traditional Chinese medicine and the other nonconventional healing methods that are so popular today present a cultural critique of our modern world and its healthcare.  So many of our health problems stem from the strains placed on us by modernization.  From the epidemic of metabolic syndrome and diabetes that has resulted from our inability to adjust to the massive influx of sugar and processed foods in our diet, to the host of stress-related illnesses that afflict us because we have to work so hard in highly artificial environments just so we can place a roof over our heads and food on the table, to the disruptions to our delicate endocrine systems due to minute amounts of hormone-like chemicals in our plastic food containers and in the water we drink, we suffer from the consequences of our rapid industrialization and modernization.  When a healer - or a patient - embraces Chinese medicine, he or she admits on some level that there is something wrong with conventional healthcare.  Often, this admission leads to a realization that there is also something wrong with the modern society that produced it, and that produced our bad habits and bad health.

So the common sense health advice of the Chinese medicine practitioner can be taken as a gentle reminder that we should get back to our caveman roots and live more balanced lives.  Simply stated, the Way of the Caveman Healer is an approach to managing the ill effects of civilization to regain your health and sanity.  My hope is that, regardless of your current state of health, the Way of the Caveman Healer will provide you with ideas and tools to cope with the stresses and strains of modern living and help to increase your appreciation and enjoyment of life.

[1] When I write “cavemen,” of course what I mean is prehistoric humans of both sexes.  But “cavemen and cavewomen” is quite a mouthful, and “cavepeople” just doesn’t sound right, so I have it as “cavemen” and “caveman” for the sake of convenience and easy reading.  I am not writing specifically about the Cro-Magnon or the Neanderthals or any other single type of early humans, preferring instead to use the term “cavemen” to refer to prehistoric humans generally.
[2] Richard Grossinger, Planet Medicine: From Stone-Age Shamanism to Post-Industrial Healing, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 1980. Grossinger is referring to the Huangdi Neijing, or The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, one of the oldest preserved books of traditional Chinese medicine, dating back some 3,000 years.  It still forms the basis of the Chinese medical theory that acupuncturists use today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

“cavepeople” just doesn’t sound right..."

Well, how about "cave-folk"?