What helps your medicine go down?
My studies in Acupuncture included a business module full of all the appropriate jargon one would expect. This included the idea that a 'successful' practitioner was one who accumulated the largest market share of customers. According to this model all practitioners are therefore in competition with each other for clients. Awkward! However, in the same way that you can't add apples and oranges and come up with one number, practitioners (and clients) are too different to compare 'like for like'. There is a difference in the physical styles of medicine we practice: Japanese acupuncture, TCM, 5 elements, cupping, gua sha, electro, moxa.
There is an even bigger diversity in how we represent ourselves - in our appearance, our demeanor, and our 'banter' and this post is suggesting that the 'how' a therapist does their thing rather than what they do, is really where clients receive the medicine they are looking for. To illustrate the point, imagine that you walk into your doctor's surgery and found him or her playing on a guitar with his or her feet on the desk. Would you be more or less inclined to believe that s/he knew what s/he was doing? Probably less, unless you had an incredible fear of 'the man' and actually a hippy doctor is the only person you'd trust to come anywhere near you.
This is because our brains instantly recognise archetypes. A white bearded elderly white male is suppose to be wise, a shoeless one a thriftless fool. A young woman modestly dressed should be a maiden, but provocatively dressed, she should not be! Tarot images such as the Hermit, the Emperor, the Priestess are hard-wired into our psyche and we shoe-horn people into these pre-set boxes of the brain at the slightest provocation.
Apparently it's not just how a person looks that effects us but the space in which we interact. An architect friend of mine explained to me the history of doctors' treatment rooms: if the doctor's room fits the formula of 'approaching an oracle' (something to do with the positioning of the desk and the door) the patients judge the doctors efficacy more positively i.e. whether their medicine works or not!
So am I saying then that the medicine is irrelevant? That it's all placebo? Almost! Holism recognises that our psychology and physiology are intrinsically linked, and psychoneuroimmunology now believes the same thing. In short, our continuing modern medical evolution is now coming to examine the idea that trust, or even love can have a profound effect on our bodies' ability to heal.
Although this is really talking about sustained periods of emotion, you can experience the physiological effect of happiness by trying the classic Taoist exercise of the inner smile:
• Sitting quietly and comfortably (full lotus NOT necessary!) become aware of the rise and fall of your breath.
• Observe your thoughts as they come and go. Keep returning to an awareness of your breath until you feel it coming and going, 'unhitched' and regular.
• When you feel like it, bring to mind a time when you were very happy: be it coming home, hugging a loved one, or reuniting with a lover
• As you feel your mouth widen into a smile allow the smile to spread inwards towards the heart
• When the smile reaches your heart, like a disco ball, you can imagine the warmth of the smile reflecting into the other organs of your body
• Feel free to place your hands over any organ in which you choose to enhance the connection and sense of relaxation
• Continue to breathe, feeling the smile deepen and the organs of the body relax further
(Don't) Stop Monkeying around
I am considering changing the name of my business from Paul Silk Acupuncture and Massage – my name and what I do – to Buddha Palm Healing & Martial Arts. Still what I do but not my name, not even who I purport to be - I have an enormous ego but even I wouldn’t compare myself to the Buddha. Also, I’m Jewish, not Buddhist.
So what's in a name and why does it call to me? The Chinese Classic ‘Journey to the West’ is the story of how the Buddhist scriptures were bought by a monk, Tang Sanzang (called Tripitaka in the popular TV series) to China from India. Tang Sanzang is aided in his quest by Sun Wukong, the Monkey King - a wild and boisterous god who was exiled from Heaven by Buddha after several shenanigans including stuffing his face with a godly food that made him immortal and invulnerable, and kicking the arses of most of the other gods in heaven.
As a child this irascible scoundrel was an absolute hero to me. His battles and victories were inspirational to someone with wide-ranging impulse control issues who struggled with ‘unjust’ authority. Even when Monkey finally confronts Buddha in heaven he doesn't back down! The story goes that after Monkey beat the hosts of heaven they call on Buddha to finally humble Monkey. Buddha’s challenge to Monkey is to simply escape his palm. Monkey - famed for his ability to somersault vast distances and possessing cloud-walking boots - immediately leaps to the end of the world. Finding 5 pillars he writes his name on one of them and, in some versions of the story, charmingly pisses on it. A smug Monkey then returns to Buddha. “I have done as you’ve asked. You must release me” says the proud monkey. Buddha simply points out the small wet patch at the base of one of his fingers and imprisons Monkey in a mountain bound by a prayer scroll. Monkey remains there for 500 years until he volunteers to help the monk, Tang Sanzang.
As one would expect in any story featuring magic there are many mentions and uses of transformation in the story. There is even a dragon that adopts the shape of a horse! Transformation is key to health, healing and the fundamental principles governing Chinese medicine. The purpose of life itself can be seen as the transformation of our deepest, grossest building blocks into our highest destiny. Historically, acupuncture began as a form of shamanism, a primal religion whose main concern is arguably transformation. Our bodies are continuously transforming food and air into energy and movement. When this process is inhibited our body suffers dysfunction. The aim of healing is to transform the dysfunction and disharmony of the body into a new, more self-serving organism.
Although monkey is incredibly powerful it is his obvious vulnerability that really tugs the heartstrings. In the beginning monkey feigns weakness and victimhood but his egotistical power-plays cover a deep loneliness and need to belong. During his story Monkey is often confronted by opponents who test his limits. Tang Sanzang has also been given a headband that can sedate monkey if he goes against the monk’s will or attempts to escape. Monkey is encouraged, and at times, forced to confront how his desires and impulses affect others. Through the arc of the story he emerges as someone who can at least recognise how his needs effect others without compromising his exuberant nature as he starts to serve a higher purpose.
Monkey’s healing takes place in a community of friends (including Pigsy and Sandy!) as one would expect, considering the role of the sangha (community) in Buddhism. Communal healing is the third principle that calls me to the name Buddha’s Palm. The highest echelons of Chinese culture were reserved for the civil servants. Ministers of the Emperors Will. It is said that if you failed the (exceptionally gruelling) exams and couldn’t heal the community you should do the next best thing and heal the individual. I have found however that it is very difficult if not impossible to separate the health, or lack of health, of the individual from their relationship to their communities. Furthermore as I encounter people from different backgrounds with similar conditions I feel more and more like a linchpin able to share stories between people who might otherwise feel isolated. Even hearing about other people who are going through the same struggles seems to help individuals better manage their own suffering.
Monkey had many admirable characteristics, and was a brave soul, but he feared making mistakes and even more so being seen to make mistakes. Presenting to any group, be it as a teacher or performer, is impossible if you allow fear to rule you. How you get through that fear; be it through deception (the brave face), honesty (admitting to the fear and making it a teaching tool/subject of your performance) or any other technique is up to each individual. To deny the fear is to allow it to creep up on you and limit your opportunities for exposure. Part of taking a new name is grabbing an opportunity to expose myself (yes I said it), and to be inspired to create works of art, but mainly to scare the shit out of myself.
So here we are - the four principles of my potential name change:
Transformation - out with the old in with the new
Vulnerability - opening up to criticism and ridicule
Community - forming alliances and creating new groups
Making mistakes - failing at everything!
To help out or hear more about any of these hit me up at [email protected]
My teacher, Faisal Mian likes to talk about the balance between a meditative and more alert state during tai chi necessary to stop yourself getting punched in the face, if you choose to use it as a martial art.
Martial arts is a last bastion of observable right and wrong. While one can endlessly debate the grey in any emotional or philosophical conversation, in martial arts you either got kicked in the balls or you didn't. You either got your defense right, or you got it wrong.
It is with this in mind that the head of my school, Michael Acton suggested that perhaps adding Martial Arts to my business name was a little preemptive until I could actually push hands (tui shou) to an advanced level.
Maybe as a Taoist hero this sums up the core of Monkey - keeping it real!
Reverse Polarity x Choose your Fantasy
I've just been at a Live Action Role-playing (LARP) event where I was part of the 'non-player character (NPC)' team. My job was to dress in outlandish costumes and give the players a great time. I mainly played an Orc but also a zombie, and even a weird spider alien type thing. "A great time" mainly consisted of dying gloriously and/or gorily but it also involved playing characters that forwarded plot - on the whole these characters were less violent and a bit more thoughtful or impactful.
For example I played an ancestor speaking through time to young bloods seeking guidance (they mainly spoke over me). I also played a soldier on the losing side of a battle. This was witnessed by a player on a vision quest. The player, who was a participant observer, had to make a decision to go against the fanatical majority - losing his prestige and becoming an outlaw - or support the majority's (illegal) decision - elevating his status and strengthening his future bargaining position immeasurably.
Explain LARP to most people and it comes across as a bunch of men and women playing make-believe. In a way that's not a bad description. Of course we can't actually use magic, we're not actually orcs, or priests or piratical raiders. However, Role-playing games can be bound by rules far more complex than football (yes, even than the offside rule). They may have strict codes of behaviour, or even a caste system as tightly controlled as feudal England with its lords, ladies and peasants.
An example of just such a group would be the ultra-violent military sect of reborn death-dealing knights. On a quest to find a decent group to drink with I was invited in to the end of a Q&A hosted by their priest - a woman who suffers from Ehlers–Danlos syndrome irl (we'll come back to this). She casually explained the process of conversion to their group to to supplicant, one of whom was in a wheelchair (again, see below). This group was fundamentally attached to the virtue of loyalty - in this system all PC's actions should revolve around one of the virtues of the land. To be born again into a group whose only loyalty was to each other and to the rulers of the land one needed to cut all previous ties. Simply walk into the river holding a box containing your sins for a length of time judged appropriate by the knights and then they will haul you out. You will either be reborn as a knight of their sect or just, you know, reborn. (Because you died). NB: This does not happen in any real way - the system is one of the safest I've ever seen
For geeks the fantastical can be, and usually is, delineated into genres of fantasy. Any geek reading the first paragraph above may be like "aliens, zombies and orcs? What kind of system is this?". But LARP fantasy worlds can be invested in so heavily that they become a lived-in reality. Oh no, how delusional, I hear you cry. Yet, in 'real life' we invest equally in our social structures. We use stereotypes and shortcuts to place ourselves and others (usually in a hierarchy). Jocks look buff. Nerds are wieners. Our brains need to create boxes. Both for information we store and correlate, and for groups we belong to - or do not belong to. Clear characteristics are attributed to the contents of these boxes to the point where our brains actually ignore information that does not fit the rules.
Homeless people, people with disabilities, people whose sexual preferences and behaviours make us feel uncomfortable are all shunned or disappeared in one way or another. So, the presence of two women with physical handicaps in the scenario discussed above was interesting to me on a bunch of levels. Usually (possibly excepting Charles Xavier) the handicapped people in media are stigmatised. People who are not physically or mentally 'normal' make easy villains and easy outcasts. Sometimes they are the source of wisdom. But even then tainted by an evil or unnatural force that our (white male) hero would never usually have truck with. Even better if they come to a sticky end after aiding the hero.
What was so fulfilling about the cult’s role-playing was that the women in the group were interacting as characters whose disability had no in-game relevance. What was relevant to the role-playing was the status and emotional lives of the priestess and of the supplicant. All participants in the scenario interacted only with those characteristics. This may seem self-explanatory. This may (hopefully) elicit “so what’s” from those ‘woke’ readers of this blog. For me though it was refreshing that humans could be humans independent of an agenda. Likewise, at the event, there was a higher proportion of trans, gay and people with a non-binary gender identity than any environment I've ever been in before. But this was not an LGBTQ event. There was no vocalised 'gay agenda' and there was none of the packaging or behaviour cues I associate with queer-ness that are so rife in, for example, my circus world (sweetie).
The need to be apologetic here is strong. Especially as a white male. I must rush to assure that of course I wouldn’t have minded if there was such an agenda. And I wouldn’t have. Particularly. But just like when I can go to a marriage instead of a gay marriage, when I can go to a theatre performance instead of a sign-supported performance, when I go to synagogue, not a masorti synagogue - it connects me to my shared humanity rather than separating me off into an individual who is wrong (or right) because of a quirk of nature or upbringing.
People at the LARP event were just being people, or orcs. But orcs with needs, orcs with fears, orcs with values. Why does it take a make believe environment to do it right? Sci fi writing has ever been a ground for feminist, utopian, inclusive dream building: the worlds of what could be. But they have derived their visions from real science, real economics and real socio-political structures. Let’s hope we keep moving towards such a reality. And if not maybe we can make believe until we’re there.