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Traditional Chinese Medicine: The Witchiest Medicine of the West?

Woman receives acupuncture and moxibustion

Getty/FogStock/FogStock Collection

Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners are modern-day witches—swapping potions and rituals for age-old proven herbal medicine formulas, acupuncture, moxa burning, and more—providing healing power not only to physical beings, but also to mind and spirit.

Animist, shaman, witch—all are valid titles for a Chinese medicine practitioner. From burning artemisia vulgaris (i.e. moxa) on acupuncture points lovingly described as the Meeting of One Hundred Ancestors, to call-in perspective, grounding, and connection to that which is greater than you—could we get more witchy than that?

Traditionally, a witch was simply a naturalist at heart; a healer, a village medicine carrier, someone who lived on the fringes and tried to find balance in their (likely) mostly introverted nature. “Witch” referred to someone with knowledge, wisdom, and the power to help others heal—someone you would visit if you fell ill or needed a powerful prayer for you or your family. Witches would empower their patients with tools to help them help themselves. From potions to rituals, patients would be equipped to participate in their own healing via the guidance of a witch.

You see, witches were in tune with the rhythms of the season and could tell you what to eat at which time of year to attain the most healing benefit. They had a deep understanding of the local ecosystem and an even deeper connection with the local plants. Witches would prescribe powerful herbal medicine concoctions to support the healing of their villagers. They cared for their communities and would often recite prayers or hold ceremonies for those who needed the blessings of the greater forces on their side.

Many witches also knew of the power of crystals and other natural objects (such as feathers and bones), as well as the power of the elements (fire, water, and others). These objects and elements would become talismans for their healing work.

Witches knew that we humans were so much more than simply physical beings—we were body-mind-spirit beings, and our troubles could not be treated only physically. What does this have to do with Chinese medicine, you ask?

Chinese Medicine Practitioners Are Modern-Day Witches in Disguise:
Just as witches would give homework for personal ceremonies to engage in, Chinese medicine practitioners send clients home with recommendations for lifestyle changes, such as getting time in nature, slowing down, eating cooked and warm foods when you feel ungrounded, and making sure to get time with loved ones.

Instead of “potions,” we prescribe herbal medicine formulas—some that have been patented for thousands of years. Many of our formulas have names such as Free and Easy Wanderer and Peaceful Spiritand they provide healing power not only to our physical beings, but also to our mind and spirit.

Instead of “rituals,” we have our patients rest on the treatment table while we burn moxa on strategic places all over the body and awaken acupuncture points such as, Palace of Weariness and Ambition Circle.

Acupuncture Points Can Guide Us Home—Into the Very Heart of Ourselves:
Rivers of energy—often called meridians in Chinese medicine—are known to flow throughout the body, mind, and spirit of a person. Within these rivers are little eddies where a person’s energy can pool and sometimes get stuck, leading to uncomfortable symptoms. These pools of energy are known as acupuncture points.

In my practice, I prefer to call acupuncture points “prayer pockets” because, when they are used properly, they can awaken healing energies, reduce painful symptoms, and support in finding balance and resilience once again. We can ignite these prayer pockets for someone by touching the acupuncture point with our hands, by gently burning moxa on them, by placing crystals on them (most commonly jade or rose quartz) or herbal poultices, or even by sliding teeny-tiny acupuncture needles into them to awaken the prayers needed for healing.

Diagnosis Is Accurate Only When We Use Our Senses:
Just as witches didn’t have compendiums of what to do when treating X, Y, and Z conditions, our original Chinese medicine practitioners didn’t either. Since diagnosis wasn’t about looking at books and matching lists of symptoms with a disease, practitioners had to learn to cultivate their senses and trust their senses enough to guide their diagnosis and treatments.

In Chinese medicine, the gold standard of diagnosis has always been and will always be to diagnose using your senses: sight, sound, smell, and feeling. We need to hear the sound of a patient’s voice, see the color of their skin, smell them, and get a sense of their dominant emotional patterns in order to detect a patient’s imbalances underneath their symptoms. 

This means doing enough of your personal work so that you can more easily get out of the way, and learn to truly read someone and their experience clearly (without overlaying your story or agenda). This is why, in many ancient Chinese medicine texts, many doctors were also considered sages; they were committed to the path of becoming a doctor as that of a spiritual one.

Nature Is Our Greatest Teacher:
Understanding the cycles of seasons and rhythms of the sun and moon allows us practitioners to guide our patients toward a path of greater balance—one that is in sync with the natural world. Much of our guidance, therefore, comes back to the wisdom of our ancestors:

  • How to eat more naturally (e.g., eating what is ripe and available to you during the current season versus eating raw salads in winter or cooked root vegetables in summer).
  • Waking with the sun and sleeping with the moon.
  • Scheduling social adventures during the summer months and solo retreat time during the winter.

Creating a lifestyle around the rhythms of the natural world not only serves to balance our circadian rhythms, it teaches us to pay attention to all that is happening around us. 

Witches knew this: Our health is inextricably linked to the health of our environment, and no matter how many walls we build or gadgets we have to distract ourselves, we simply cannot disconnect from the lifeblood the natural world provides. Chinese medicine practitioners also use the repertoire provided by the natural world to give patients feedback and suggest lifestyle changes to better support their healing.

Treatment as a Reorientation to Living in Congruence: 
Despite what you may have been told, treatment isn’t only about going in to see your Chinese medicine practitioner. Treatment must also include addressing other aspects of your life. We call these the Eight Branches, and they include: Meditation, Bodywork, Movement/Exercise, Nutrition, Cosmology, Feng Shui, Herbal Medicine, and Acupuncture. All of these branches together are known to create balance and expedite healing. Healing is a lifestyle after all—not a protocol.

Wrapping Up:
Do I identify as a witch? You betcha. Though not all practitioners of Chinese medicine would agree. Many modern TCM practitioners have taken the Western medicine mindset and applied it to this ancient, holistic, and spiritual system. Acupuncture points so poetically and beautifully written about thousands of years ago like Abundant Splendor—which clears the mind and heart of old patterns, of negative thinking, and brings about a sense of wonder and belonging—is now simply referred to in most Chinese medicine offices as Stomach 40 and is used to treat “excess mucus production” … a far cry from its roots. 

Symptom-based and practitioner-dependent treatment is becoming all too common in acupuncture offices. And while this approach can be valid for some (I don’t know about you, but if I twisted my ankle, I would want that to get treated!), I believe these things should always be considered in addition to a patient’s deeper health concerns. Providing our patients with modern-day potions and rituals, we have the opportunity to empower them by engaging them in their own treatment plan and reconnecting them to their personal healing power.

Read on bringing the body back into balance with acupuncture.


By Mindi K. Counts, MA, LAc. Click here for more!

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