Initially, I fell into it. At 16 years old, I got sick, way up in the Himalayan mountains, with a dose of something pretty weird and meningitis-esque. I was taken in by the medical team at the hospital that served a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Northern India and in the blurred days that followed, I was dimly aware of little except the distant call of Tibetan bugles sounding out across the vast valley beyond, the collective buzz of honey-bees earnestly gathering the nectar from the rhododendron flowers growing outside my hospital bed window and the exquisite presence of the nun-nurse who tended to me. Three times a day she would come to my bedside, pull up a simple wooden stool and consider me with oh, such penetrating eyes. She assessed me in silence, partly because we neither spoke the other’s language and partly, I suspect, because silence was her preferred tongue. She’d touch my forehead with her hand, a crude but apparently sufficient thermometer. And feel the pulses at both my wrists, with her head cocked just a touch, evidently listening to something with her fingertips that I couldn’t hear. She’d look into my face, raise my eyelids and peer closer and when all her inspections were done, she’d reach into the folds of her robes and like a magician, pull a handful of medicine out. This was no ordinary medicine, well, not ordinary for me anyway.
Far from being a familiar pharma-bottle or box of tablets with garish writing on, what lay in her hand was a cluster of marble-sized balls, each one wrapped in a small piece of red cloth and tied with cotton thread in the dote-iest of bows. I’d watch mesmerised, as she’d take each ball in turn, gently pull the thread and release the dense ball of powdered herb with a subtle ping, into a stainless steel dish. With all these little gift-wrapped medicine balls undone, she’d set about crushing them and mixing them with a few drops of water from the jug beside my bed, to make a paste. At some point, she’d deem the mixture ready and would set about feeding it to me from the spoon with a palpable kindness in her manner.
Healing is more than medicine
But before the medicine ever reached my mouth, I felt different, better even in some intangible but distinctive way. There was something about the reverence with which she conducted the whole ceremony that penetrated some place within me so deep, I hadn’t previously known the place existed. Silence, meditative calm, absolute presence and magical herbal medicine mingled to create an alchemy of healing in that little chamber in the monastery hospital. As my fever receded, the woeful pain in my head eased, the rigidity in my neck loosened and the rash faded, I began to look forward to her visits. Each visit somehow carved an ever deeper path into my very being, or so it felt. The extraordinary tranquillity and stillness of each dose of her presence reverberated through me like a tuning fork and I’d sit evermore upright in my bed, looking out of the window, not thinking. Just seeing. Peacefully.
When I was eventually discharged, I immediately made enquiries as to where I could find out about this medicine. With much gesticulation and mime, I kinda figured out where to go and spent several blissful days perched on step in the local Tibetan Medicine dispensary, watching eagerly as patients came, spoke with doctors, had their pulses taken and features examined, and who then waited patiently while bizarre looking natural substances were measured out, powdered, rolled into balls and wrapped in little pieces of red cloth and tied up with thread and the dote-iest of bows.
A couple of years later, once home, I determined to find out how I could study and train in this medical tradition. In hindsight, I should have probably stayed, learned to speak Tibetan and studied it there! Back in the ’80s, the ‘West’ wasn’t exactly awash with Tibetan Medicine training colleges. However, there was a handful of Chinese Medicine colleges and I jumped at the chance. At 19 years old, I started my first two-year diploma and quite simply, began a love affair with this extraordinary tradition of Chinese Daoist Medicine that has only become more passionate as the decades have gone by.
The turning of the spiral
Since then I have gone on to do a four year BSc degree in Chinese Medicine, a five-year Post-Grad and Masters programme in Chinese Herbal Medicine and dived deeply into women’s health, training with a leading Gynaecology and Obstetrics consultant. I then discovered Classical Chinese Medicine and began another whole new turn of the spiral, learning all over again but much more deeply, this time from the ancient source texts, interning with a beautiful elderly doctor in China and the five hospitals he continues to serve even in his 70’s. Underpinning all of it, in the most fundamental way possible, is my on-going studies and training with my Daoist Medicine teacher with whom, aside from continually training in Qigong, Neigong and Taiji, I am just finishing 3 years of a glimpse into the more esoteric elements within Chinese Medicine. It’s a very iterative process. You just keep going around the spiral of learning, going deeper and deeper and deeper, with T.S Eliot-like verve:
“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”
You see, Chinese Medicine isn’t just about medicine, it’s a path. It’s not just about learning how to treat people but about how it changes you as a person in the process. For me, it’s far from being just a job. It has a profoundly spiritual dimension which becomes a path of self-cultivation and personal growth. A benevolent dynamic emerges: the more I dedicate myself to studying, training, practising and treating, the more I subtly change and evolve, the more I am able to effectively benefit my patients, the more that being in service to the wellbeing and healing of others deepens me, the more I, in turn, can deepen them. I guess, at the end of the day, there is a potent depth to Chinese Medicine that I haven’t personally found in any other modality. Three decades later, I’m as fascinated and devoted to this fathomlessly deep medical art as ever, and I still feel like I have barely scratched the surface.