On my recent trip to China we visited Beijing’s prestigious University of Chinese Medicine, the premier teaching facility for traditional Chinese healing practices in the world. Under the direct supervision of the Education Ministry, its highly qualified teaching faculty brings students from all over the world. The campus has 18,000 students, 1,900 from overseas. The University now co-sponsors English-speaking training programs with universities in England, Iran, Mexico, and Indonesia.
I don’t know anything about traditional Chinese medicine, although as a medical student I was fascinated by a film of a woman undergoing a complete removal of her thyroid using only acupuncture anesthesia. After the gland was removed (in the largely bloodless field), she was helped to sit up and then stepped down from the operating table by herself; it was an impressive demonstration.
My own interest in traditional medicine began in the 60s when I first came to work as a physician with the Indian Health Service. Over the next 20 years, I learned how to integrate Western and traditional views of healing. As Chief of Psychiatry at the Phoenix Indian Medical Center, I invited Native American medicine men and women and gave them space to work with patients and families. We instituted a traditional talking circle as a weekly therapeutic gathering, and built a sweat lodge on the hospital grounds. But this was an Indian hospital and, therefore, receptive to the idea. In most American hospitals, however, there is little encouragement to include other healing practices.
I was interested in seeing how the Chinese medical system integrated traditional practices and decided to visit the campus, even though I had no appointment. I arrived with my wife and two close friends, found some non-Chinese medical students whom I asked where the International School was, and we were directed to the building and the Dean. Dean Chen greeted us warmly and invited us to join her in the conference room. We introduced ourselves; I told her of my experience and interests, and she arranged for us to meet the Medical Director of the International Program, Dr. Ma LiangXiao.
Dr. Ma was a small, vibrant, younger woman (perhaps late 30s early 40s), who spoke English well and was remarkably candid. We talked about healthcare availability in China, and I was surprised to learn that there is no universal healthcare here. There is a growing disparity in the health care in urban and rural areas and a source of increasing social strife. Ironically, it’s pretty much like in the U.S., those who can afford it and/or are insured get excellent care. But most Chinese can’t afford it, and the common folk who don’t have insurance scramble for what they can afford, which are herbalists and street doctors.
However, when it comes to an integration of healthcare practices in Western and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) hospitals, the Chinese come from a place of mutual respect. Both hospitals have integrated staffs, and doctors here routinely prescribe medical Qigong as a health maintenance program. This is an aspect of traditional Chinese medicine that coordinates breathing with various physical postures. Often in groups, people practice Qigong everywhere: in parks, on the street, and under trees.
Coming together in community to get energized through the coordination of breath and movement is a common traditional healing practice. It’s the idea that harmony between body, mind and spirit (the worlds of actions, thoughts and feelings) need to be in balance if you are to live fully.
Find a practice, — it might be Qigong, yoga, meditation, tai-chi, dancing, drumming, chanting, or line-dancing — that gets you away from ordinary ways of seeing, breathing and moving, and you will face life’s stressors better.