Classical Chinese Medicine: What it is, Why it Matters, and why I'm Moving Towards it in my Practice
The Change from Classical to Traditional Chinese Medicine
While Chinese medicine has been around for several thousand years, it underwent a dramatic change in the last century. This created massive changes in the effectiveness and scope of the medicine, which we still experience today.
In an effort to modernize and standardize the medicine, bringing it “up to” the level of western bio-medicine, the communist government made sweeping changes in what was considered orthodox, or acceptable, Chinese Medicine. They created standardized teaching and testing protocols based on cherry-picked aspects of the medicine, eliminated entire ways of using it, and called this new, fractured practice, “Traditional Chinese Medicine” (TCM).
It is what is now taught in all the Chinese medical schools in both China and the US; and while it is incredibly effective, powerful, and brilliant, it is also limited.
The medicine that was used before this time has now come to be called “Classical Medicine” because (while including the concepts of TCM) it relates to the prior, broader practice based on a more complete use of the “classical” ancient texts upon which the entire medicine is based.
Why Any of this Matters
Why this matters is because unfortunately patients don’t always fit into the neat and tidy standardized categorizations of diseases that TCM would make students and practitioners believe they should.
To oversimplify things, TCM is based on what we call “patterns of imbalance”, where you’re basically taught that all patients fit into these neat diagnostic categories, each diagnosis comprising a complex mix of symptoms. You should theoretically just be able to memorize (or look up in a book) all the symptoms related to each diagnostic category, find your patient’s complex combination of symptoms listed there, and then have your diagnosis and treatment — including acupuncture and herbs — presented to you. Very handy!
If only that matched up with real life clinical experience. :-(
TCM works fabulous when patients do fit into these perfect categories or even a clear mix of categories, but when they don’t, most of us practitioners find ourselves at a loss for how to diagnose and handle these more complex cases; which unfortunately are the norm rather than the exception.
Classical Chinese Medicine allows for a much more vast level of complexity which mirrors the reality of the acupuncture clinic
Conversely, the wider view of Classical medicine lends infinite ways in which we can view and diagnose patients, opening up infinite treatment possibilities along with it.
Since beginning to integrate the Classical principles into my practice, I’ve been able to successfully treat patients with whom I’d been “stuck”; and see breakthroughs that I know would not have been possible before. It’s incredibly inspiring and keeps me constantly thirsty for more.
How I Describe the Amazing Complexity of Classical Medicine & What it Reveals to Me About Our Bodies
What came to me one day, as I was discovering the art of Classical Medicine and getting my first tastes of its incredible vastness and beauty; was an analogy comparing the differences between TCM vs. Classical Medicine:
They seemed to me like the difference between learning an instrument and how to use it to rearrange notes to create entire songs; verses learning an entire symphony.
Knowing the musical notes is amazing and foundational. And being able to put them together to create beautiful song with one instrument, is incredible enough. That’s what it feels like when a patient comes in and they’re “textbook”, neatly lining up to designated TCM categories. You just follow the notes of the treatment procedure, and they get better. It’s lovely.
I can’t do Chinese medicine without knowing the notes. I can’t do what I do without the fundamental understanding that was given to me by TCM.
But most of my patients come in with an orchestra of symptoms…many problems spanning several or all systems of their bodies; not just one simple song composed of designated symptoms that fit neatly together. So somehow having the ability to meld with that vastness and complexity and all the ways the symptoms in all the various systems come together to create that entire symphony…THAT is what Classical Medicine is to me.
When I can step back and see the bigger picture of a problem — which Classical Medicine gives me — then new and more effective solutions open up for me.
Humbled and in Awe of this Old Medicine
When I study this timeless medicine, and then see its truths play out in my patient’s healing, I am often humbled to tears, as if listening to a beautiful ancient symphony whose melody is just as poignant and relevant today as it has ever been. The beauty that learning Classical medicine forces one to grasp about the unspeakable wisdom of the body — it really does feel like melding with a vast, universal, incredibly awe-inspiring and transcendent concert.
It is so much incredibly bigger than me, as is the wisdom of the human body; and and it makes me understand why devotees of Classical Medicine bring such reverence to the study and the lineage of teachers who came before them.
I am just starting out on my Classical Medicine journey, but it’s a journey I don’t see ending any time soon. I hope I can continue to benefit all my patients with my studies.