Acupuncture: Spiritual or Scientific?

What is acupuncture?

Most people know that acupuncture is a practice where very thin needles are inserted into the body to balance or open the channels of Qi (pronounced ‘chee’). Qi is basically life force or energy that brings all things into being; the equivalent of Prana in the East Indian tradition. Many people in western countries associate acupuncture with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Acupuncture is indeed a branch of TCM, but TCM these days relies more heavily on herbalism than it does on acupuncture. Also, the style of acupuncture practiced in TCM is but one of many styles of acupuncture, though it’s the only style that is currently accepted in most western countries.

So what are some of the other styles of acupuncture and how do they differ?

Each style of acupuncture has many similarities. The basis of each style can be found in the history of acupuncture in Asia. Where they differ is mostly in perception and emphasis, although there are some slight differences is diagnosis and needling technique as well.

What we know of as Tradition Chinese Medicine today differs from most other styles in the fact that there is very little tradition left in the theory and in the practice. Where most other styles emphasis the ‘five elements’ approach, TCM emphasizes the ‘eight principles.’ Also it should be noted that much of what is traditional in acupuncture was left behind (and even banned) during the communist revolution in China. So Traditional Chinese Medicine is not, in fact, as traditional as some of the other styles. The most traditional acupuncture practice is probably in Japan where some Shinto monks still practice a style of acupuncture that emphasizes the spiritual connection to the cosmos.

Acupuncture, after all, was likely started by the early shamans of the nomadic tribes that at that time dominated the pre-agriculture world. All through the history of acupuncture there is a great deal of emphasis placed on the spiritual connection and purity of the practitioner: ethics, morals, self-discipline, wisdom and knowledge. Most courses of acupuncture today emphasis knowledge alone, although most people who take the route of acupuncture

The reason Traditional Chinese Medicine is accepted by the west is that it’s been made to fit with western medical empiricism in theory and practice. No one still really knows how it works, only that it does work. Even the online “Skeptic’s Dictionary” has admitted that acupuncture works, which is saying a lot coming from a skeptic. The contention of the skeptics is that acupuncture works by way of placebo, but studies have also shown that most drugs prescribed in the west and even surgeries for that matter are no more effective than placebo. But placebo healing is another topic of it’s own that I will get to shortly.

The term traditional here is a misnomer at best, a term of Communist propaganda and mass marketing at worst.

TCM is the style of acupuncture, which has found acceptance with the modern medical community. This form of medicine relies most heavily on herbal treatments with acupuncture playing a rather minor role in the treatment of disease. Much of what is actually traditional in Chinese Medicine was banned with the arrival of the communist revolution in China.

Chinese medicine was traditionally practiced by shaman and later by spiritual philosophers. Spirituality and shamanism have both been banned in modern China. In Japan there is still a form of acupuncture backed up by the Shinto tradition and I have heard that Taiwan and Korea still have spiritual masters practicing acupuncture.

You may be wondering what the difference is between the pseudo-scientific acupuncture that is coming out of modern China and that which is has found acceptance in the West (TCM), and the spiritual forms of acupuncture practiced elsewhere and more traditionally in China.

Like everything, it’s largely a difference of perspective that has far reaching consequences. TCM see you as a physical body, your disease a physical manifestation of mostly external stimulus. It treats physical symptoms.

Spiritual acupuncture, on the other hand, sees you as a spiritual being with your disease arising mostly because of mental spiritual imbalance. When we loose our connection with the spirit imbalance arises. The function of acupuncture than is to help us reconnect with the heavens. Each point has some relation with the heavens and has a subtle or profound effect on the way we see the universe and our place within it. By bringing more or less power to a point, acupuncture causes a shift in our perspective. By shifting our perspective our lives take subtle or profound shifts in direction. Since the disease manifested because of erroneous direction in our lives, these shifts serve to cure our problems at their root.

Spiritual master all over the world have been decrying the erroneous direction the world is taking in destroying the earth. This great loss and pollution of natural ecosystems is widely viewed as a disease that must be cured. The nature of the disease is greed, selfishness, short-sightedness. The root of the disease is the loss of spiritual consciousness. And although modern democracies claim to support religious and spiritual freedom, this is only the case for those following accepted orthodoxy. Shamanism and any practices that view the world through an esoteric lens are still widely banned, or at least suspect. Basically anything that goes against science, consumerism, and power politics must be kept in the closet. Those practices that are not outright prohibited by law are prohibited by custom and popular opinion.

And what is popular opinion? How is popular opinion formed? In this day and age, popular opinion is shaped by the media, by those with power and money. Shamanistic practices and spirituality and any kind of deeper connection with the heavens, the earth and/or ourselves would undermine their power and wealth.

Slowly the message coming out of the mass media, Hollywood mostly is beginning to change, but if the medium is the message, then any change in the programing coming out of Hollywood isn’t really much change at all.

Which brings me back to the fundamental difference between spiritual acupuncture and ‘scientific acupuncture. If the medium is the message, this places a great deal of responsibility on the acupuncturist him or herself. The practitioner is as much the medium of healing as are the needles. If the practitioner is not pure and connected to the three planes (the heavens, the earth, and him or herself) then what good can come from the needles. From the spiritual perspective, the practitioner is merely an instrument of the gods channeling the energy of the universe thru his needles.


In the footsteps of the Yellow Emperor: Tracing the History of Traditional Acupuncture, by Peter Eckman MD

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