"The Tao is like an empty bowl, Which in being used can never be filled up. Fathomless, it seems to be the origin of all things."
~ Tao Teh Ching, Verse 4
When I first began to speak about Chinese medicine to my patients, I was surprised at how many people resonated deeply and immediately to its language. Even without any precise knowledge of Chinese philosophy, people were anxious to begin using Chinese terms to describe their lives and healing processes. After thirteen years of practice, I am still in awe at the healing power of the poetics of Chinese medicine, but I am no longer surprised. I have come to understand that there is a universal truth that underlies Chinese medical concepts. This truth touches people’s souls, despite superficial cultural differences.
In James Hillman’s words, "soul" is that "unknown component which makes meaning possible and turns events into experiences." The Greek word for "soul" was "psyche" — that which imbues matter with the divine breath of life. Psyche or soul is the link between matter and spirit, personal and transpersonal, mortal and divine. Language and soul are related through their shared origin in the pneuma or breath of the divine. Poetry, myth, fantasy, metaphor and imagery are ways we call to the soul and bring her back to the realm of matter.
The language of Chinese medicine uses imagery and metaphors drawn from nature to speak about healing and disease. The elements, fire, earth, metal, water and wood are primordial images embedded in our ancient collective consciousness. One of my patients expressed this beautifully when she said, "Understanding that I am 'fire' brings my life together in a new way and yet it's as if this is a truth I've known ever since I was a child." Connecting to these images reorganizes the loneliness, confusion and chaos of disease into meaningful patterns of change. These images give us a way to heal not only the physical but also the soul level of disease. Another way Five Element Acupuncturists use poetry to touch the soul is through the names of the acupuncture points themselves. We refer to the complex of imagery and meaning expressed in the point name as "the spirit of the point." When we choose to include the "spirit of the point" in planning a treatment, we allow the ancient wisdom and beauty contained in the point name to become a part of the treatment process. Names such as "Cloud Gate," "Supernatural Tower," "Spirit Burial Ground" and "Dove Tail" reflect the fact that acupuncture points are not only links to the energy of particular meridians but also doorways to specific aspects of a person’s soul. Just as needling the points redirects the coursing of the ch’i through the body, articulating the point names can offer a new possibility or direction to the soul. Healing is a result not only of the accurate placement of the needle but also the accurate placement of the word, for, as Diane Connelly says, "every word stirs the life force."
I offer the case of Sharon, a young mother who came to me with postpartum fatigue, as an illustration of how the deep wisdom and poetry inherent in the language of Chinese medicine can become an integral part of the healing process. Sharon was exhausted all the time and having trouble digesting food. She was weepy and overwhelmed by day and restless and worried at night. Despite the fact that she had been longing to give birth to a child, her exhaustion and emotional lability made is impossible for her to receive pleasure from her baby.
It was clear to me that one of the main causes of Sharon’s exhaustion was lack of nourishment. But her lack of nourishment came not only from her inability to digest food but also from an inability to emotionally digest the profound transformational experience of birth. She could not digest her experience and thus was unable to reap the harvest of her "labor." The joy of motherhood was unavailable to her and this was exhausting her every bit as much as her inability to assimilate the food she was eating. Thus her "disease" was not only on the level of the body but also on the level of her "soul" or psyche.
Rather than simply stimulating the acupuncture points along the stomach and spleen meridians, which I knew would help give Sharon the increased levels of energy she was seeking, I began to explain to her about the Earth element and how "Earth" related to her "disease." She responded immediately to the idea that the element of Earth was in her as well as in the world around her. There was no question in her mind about the fact that she was "Earth" to her child. Somehow, it made total sense that her craving for sweets, the yellowish tone of her skin, her nausea and indigestion and her inability to concentrate were all connected to the exhaustion of her Earth energy, which in turn was related to her improper diet, overwork and worrying. Making these connections and realizing that her various mental, emotional and physical symptoms were part of a whole, organizeable pattern helped Sharon feel more hopeful.
After several weeks, Sharon’s digestion and energy began to improve. She reported feeling better physically, but still something was amiss. I decided to look for a point that would touch Sharon's "soul" or "spirit." The point I chose was Stomach 12 — "Broken Bowl." When I shared the translated name of this point with Sharon, she was very moved. She said that a "Broken Bowl" described perfectly her state of being, a bowl that could no longer hold things in. All her energy was draining through the crack. Her brain couldn't retain ideas and her body couldn't hold onto the nourishment of the food she ate. She was unable to contain the experience of motherhood and thus, was unable to derive pleasure and delight from it.
Later, after her treatment had progressed, we came back to the same point. As her condition improved, she spoke about the "Broken Bowl" in another way. The "Broken Bowl" became like a woman who had given birth; who, through being "broken open," had given birth not only to a child, but to a transformed, more mature self, a woman who could hold things in a new way. The fact that she was no longer "perfect," that she was broken could be grieved but also celebrated.
The broken bowl became symbolic of her relationship with her own mother, who had not given her the containment and nurturance she needed. Accepting the crack in herself eventually led to an acceptance of the crack in her relationship with her mother. She came to realize that, although her relationship with her mother was imperfect, it could still offer her a certain amount of support. This realization freed the mother in Sharon to come to life. It allowed her to be an imperfect, human, creative woman, a vital source of aliveness to herself and her child. She found that giving up being "perfect" and unbroken made room for her new self. This self was able to accept the processes of growth and change that are part of the harvesting of life’s experiences.
In the Chinese story of creation, the universe was originally chaos. This swirling chaos solidified into a colossal stone within which formed the Egg of Creation. P'an Ku, the legendary giant, the "Great Architect of the Universe," was born when the Egg of Creation cracked in two. I shared the tale of P'an Ku with Sharon and through it, she connected to the idea that the universe itself was like a bowl, a whole that had been broken so that life could begin.
Gradually, Sharon’s experience of postpartum fatigue became "dignified," invested with meaning and worth, not only through the experience of acupuncture but also through words. Language, poetry, myth, and metaphor gave her a new way of organizing her life. The "empty bowl, which in being used can never be filled up" became a Taoist concept that she knew in her own body. She could bring this knowing in an embodied way to her experience of being a mother. Even at difficult times when her fatigue returned, she could relax into being "the empty vessel," which is the deep receptivity of motherhood. C. A. Meier in his book, Ancient Incubation and Modern Psychotherapy, writes:
...classical man saw sickness as the effect of a divine action, which could be cured only by a god or another divine action...divine sickness being cast out by a divine remedy, was practiced in the clinics of antiquity. When sickness is vested with such dignity, it has the inestimable advantage that it can be vested with a healing power. The "divine affliction" then contains its own diagnosis, therapy and prognosis, provided of course that the right attitude toward it is adopted.
If I had only needled the point referred to as Stomach 12 (located in the depression just above the middle of the clavicle), without speaking the name of the point out loud, the course of this woman’s treatment would have been quite different. No doubt, her energy, her digestion and her ability to focus would have improved through the effects of the acupuncture, but her "soul" might not have been touched. Her symptoms might well have come back or have manifested later in another form. Instead, Sharon’s treatment not only helped her immediate symptoms but also gave her a way to redirect her life energy so that her healing could continue to unfold into the next phases of her life.
Like other point names, the name of the point, Stomach 12, "que pen" or Broken Bowl (sometimes translated Broken or Empty Basin), contains within it a clustering of images, metaphors and meaning. "Que" means empty, vacant, imperfect or defective. "Pen" refers to a basin or bowl. On one level, the name reflects the anatomical location of the point. There is a dip or bowl that forms in the body just above the center of the clavicle where this point is found. The bone of the clavicle itself resembles the broken rim of a basin. But this point name has other levels of meaning. The point is located on the stomach meridian. The stomach has to do with the holding of food during the initial processes of digestion. Digestion begins in the stomach as a kind of alchemical cooking or heating of the food. Thus, the stomach’s function is "like" the function of a bowl. When there is disharmony in the body, the stomach, like a bowl that is broken, cannot hold the food so that it can be cooked and prepared for assimilation. It cannot properly perform its functions.
There is also a spiritual resonance to this point name that transcends culture. Since earliest times, people have made bowls out of clay for the cooking and eating of food as well crocks and urns for ritual purposes. Women especially were involved in the task of pottery making. Bowls, at an unconscious or "primitive" level, remind us of the maternal bowl, the uterus where new life "cooks" until it is ready, the sacred cauldron where new life is formed. The bowl of the uterus "cracks" like P’an Ku’s egg to allow the infant to emerge into the world. In the cracking of the bowl, the One becomes Two and a new consciousness is born.
For my patient, the wisdom of the "Broken Bowl" was already in her body. She had undergone the powerful initiation of giving birth. She had herself become the alchemical vessel in which life cooked. She had been cracked open by the forces of Nature in order to bring new life into the world. Yet she did not have the wisdom and containment of a culture with an embodied language to help her reintegrate after this overwhelmingly powerful experience. Like so many women in the West, she was left in a limbo state of postpartum fatigue and disorientation with no way to make the next step into mature womanhood. She needed to make a new connection back to herself and to a meaningful cosmic environment in order to heal. Through the thousands of years of embodied wisdom contained in two simple words, "Broken Bowl," she was able to make certain connections that helped her mend not just her body but her soul.
I do not wish to imply that the above story describes the only way this woman would have been helped through Chinese medicine. Hundreds of thousands of acupuncturists, whether practicing today or long centuries before, might well have cured her problem of exhaustion simply by needling certain points and recommending various herbal tonics. What I am proposing is that conscious work with the "psyche" or "soul" can be powerfully interwoven with work on the physical level. This kind of psychological healing is completely compatible with the ancient traditions of Chinese medicine and is particularly valuable to Westerners who are often stuck in chronic states of abstract psychic distress and alienation. Using the wisdom that is contained in the "spirit of the points" can help to mend the rifts and tears between our bodies and our souls.
The "spirit of the point" reminds us that the doorway to the souls is found at the interface of language and the body. Although the points reside at specific locations and are embedded in the fibers of our skin, they have the capacity to open us to the infinite and transcendent aspects of our being.
The use of language and imagery in the healing of body and soul is very much a part of "Worsley Style" or Five Element acupuncture. But even without needles, we can use words to open others and ourselves to these transcendent realms. We can use these tools in our everyday life as well as in the treatment room. When we remember that words, like soul, originate in the breath or pneuma of the divine, we are not so quick to speak carelessly to members of our families, our partners, friends, co-workers or even, to our adversaries. Honoring another’s journey with a thoughtfully spoken word, an image drawn from nature, a story, a myth or a fragment of a beautiful poem can sometimes be the greatest gift of healing we can give.
1 C.A. Meier, Ancient Incubation and Modern Psychotherapy, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1967, p. 5.
2 Ellis, A. and Wiseman, N., Grasping the Wind, Brookline, MA: Paradigm Publications, 1989, p. 67.
About the Author:
Lorie Eve Dechar, M.Ac. is an acupuncturist, psychotherapist and the author of Five Spirits: Alchemical Acupuncture for Psychological and Spiritual Healing. Lorie studied Five Element Acupuncture at the Traditional Acupuncture Institute in Columbia, Maryland and with Professor J. R. Worsley in Leamington Spa, U.K. She has training in Gestalt and Jungian therapy and is a certified Focusing-Oriented Psychotherapist. Her work is also influenced by her experiences as a gardener, environmental activist and student of Zen Buddhism.
Lorie is a member of the faculty of Tri-State College of Acupuncture in New York City. For the past ten years, she has been creating workshops, seminars and mentoring programs where she teaches acupuncturists, body workers, psychotherapists, nurses, doctors and other health professionals how to go beyond the limits of ordinary consciousness and begin to work with the body as an "alchemical vessel," a cauldron for psychospiritual transformation. For more on Lorie’s background and work, visit www.fivespirits.com.