In my last post I mentioned a comment from one of our student’s, Banghan Nabi Kim in which she described acupuncture treatment as “offering a gift of points” and using “needles as symbols of love.” Her full comment was in reference to a day of observing long-time practitioner, Thea Elijah. It is the context of that comment that I wish to explore today.
Observation is one of, if not the best, teaching tools that we employ at Academy for Five Element Acupuncture. As you hopefully already know from our website, students of acupuncture traditionally learned the practice from other practitioners. Students were apprentices to a master where they would learn theory and practice through observation and theory was passed down through oral lessons. Mastery came from experience and the development of one’s senses and intuition, not memorization. Written instruction is a very recent occurrence, and “textbooks” still require must explanation. This can be a source of frustration for many students who are used to reading a topic and “mastering” it intellectually. Real, live patients are individuals who expose exceptions to the “rules” and introduce gray areas where we would like black and white answers. And so students learn by working with patients on different levels, treating, but also observing. After a treatment, practitioners can explain their rationale for choosing a point, the creation of their treatment plan, and their CF diagnosis for each individual patient. A textbook can only give examples and standard practices. It won’t flesh out the patient, so to speak.
And so, as an acupuncture student, you’re required to observe. At AFEA, observation takes several forms. During your intensives, you’ll take part in what we affectionately call, “PIFOC” and otherwise known as Patient in Front of Class. This is a clinical theater course in which you will observe an instructor perform all of the common procedures of an acupuncture appointment. In the early stages, the focus will be on how to do a thorough Traditional Diagnosis, i.e. the TD. You’ll be able to hear the kinds of questions asked, what is standard but also what tangents occur depending on the patient’s history. You’ll be able to observe the patient, listen to their words, the sounds of their statements, see their color. Afterward, you’ll be able to discuss with your instructor your thoughts on the patient’s CF, hear your classmates’ assessments, as well as hear your instructor unpack their understanding of the patient. You’ll also be able to observe different instructors’ approaches and styles.
Beyond PIFOC, though, our students are required to observe practitioners in their own practices. This is an important step in learning how to conduct yourself as a practitioner, just as much as it is in learning how to diagnose and treat. While it can be a time-consuming assignment done in between each intensive, observing practitioners in their own space allows students the chance to witness. No matter how capable the practitioner, the classroom setting is still an artificial environment. But working with a practitioner and their patients changes the dynamic and incorporates you, the student, into the treatment. You are being asked to create and hold that sacred space for the patient, just as you will when they are the practitioner. You become a witness and a participant in the healing process. And while you hold the space for healing, you are also being held by it, your education and understanding nourished by it. Observing, witnessing, can be an extremely inspiring, tell-tale moment. A lot of students come away from their observation hours saying, “That is what I want to do.”
I find that I use the word “inspiration” a lot when I’m thinking about Five Element acupuncture. Inspiration is an important tool in the educational repertoire, which is just one more reason students are required to observe. They learn theory and practice, they learn rapport and needling technique. But if they are open to it, they can also learn from the inspiration of the simplicity and beauty of the five elements at work. Banghan’s comments about the humbling inspiration she felt upon observing her teacher inspired me. So I will leave you with her full statement to consider as you go about your day: