Learning from the Unknown

Catherine A. Hollingsworth

When I enrolled in AFEA two years ago, I expected initiation into a precise field of knowledge that I would soon be using to treat patients for diseases of the body, mind and spirit. This is a rational idea of education, and it made perfect sense to me based on the standards with which I was raised. This was medicine, was it not?

Around about year one, I was struggling to understand why we were not rigorously drilling points and protocols and causes of pathology. We were more likely to be sitting around in a circle talking about our feelings or the dynamics of nature. “What kind of school is this?” I thought. “They aren’t teaching us anything!” I was frequently prone to airing my frustrations to the school’s administration, and the Academic Dean patiently listened to my every complaint. And then one day he said, “the problem is that we are living in a Confucian society, but we are learning a Taoist medicine.”

I put the brakes on my search for knowledge, paused, and began to rethink my perspective. Over the course of the next year, I slowly realized what he meant.  It was in the spaces of the questions, the students’ experiences of each other, and our crises of personal transformation that we were learning the most. Academic effort as I understood it was not going to get me anywhere. In fact it had been impeding my learning. At this school, in those circles of conversation, were lessons that can’t be learned from a book, one of the reasons why Five Element is considered an oral tradition.

Now, my classmates and I have begun our clinical year. We have been granted the privilege to use needles and work on actual patients. As we attempt to shape what we’ve learned into concrete treatment plans, I can’t say that I am settling into any kind of certainty. The subtle cues that reveal a person’s nature and imbalance are becoming more familiar. Yet I’m still mystified, maybe more so.

Every new question represents an experience that I haven’t integrated into my concept of reality. How is it that patients can process their treatments through dreams? How can multiple styles of acupuncture, with vastly different protocols and ways of manipulating needles, be so dissimilar and yet simultaneously true? How can a single needle release tears so long-held that the patient can’t even name their source? What are these points anyway?

Apparently I’m in good company. Even masters with fifty years experience will honestly say they still don’t know how acupuncture works. Among styles of acupuncture, there is a particular subtlety to Five Element. A practitioner of this medicine must enter into the space of not knowing, confident that answers will be found there. Or not. And the patient is likely to feel a drastic shift in his or her way of living for essentially indescribable reasons. I owe great thanks to my teachers for holding an open space for me to continually reorient myself in this mystery (sometimes kicking and screaming).