Saturday, July 14, 2007

Paris is worth a Mass

For class I'm supposed to write about my responses to learning the theory of Traditional Asian Medicine. They're all over the map.

First of all, I love it, just as a new system to learn -- lots of complicated interlocking parts, a new nomenclature. The same hunger for new intelligibilities that drives me always to be studying new languages and new computer systems eats this right up. And there's the fascination (which it has in common with languages) of feeling my way into a set of cultural assumptions, mental habits, and protocols. Trying to think my way into a mind that feels that concepts as disparate (to me) as wood, fire, and earth have the same taxonomic status. I love that sort of thing.

There's the frustration of having to rely on translators and interpretors, of unknown reliability, which always frustrates me. I spent a year or two studying Chinese, but it completely defeated me; now I remember only a handful of words, a character or two. I won't be learning Chinese in this lifetime. So everything that comes to me is already filtered and shifted by at least one or two -- probably more like a dozen -- Western intermediaries. The little shifts and transformations they've made will be invisible to me.

I find the symmetry and regularity of the system deeply satisfying, but deeply suspicious. Suspicious precisely because it's satisfying: I can't help thinking that some of these elaborate correspondences will have been filled in simply to make the sets complete. Human beings work that way. Our minds leap to perceive patterns, and often enough the patterns they seize upon aren't really there, or aren't as complete and regular as we perceive them to be.

(The meridians, the "energy channels," by the way, are reassuringly quirky and unexpected; nobody trying for an elegant system would invent all these queer jogs and backtracks, oddities like the bifurcation of the Bladder Meridian on the back or the Kidney meridian's little twirl below the ankle. These have the continually surprising shape of reality.)

As a long-time Buddhist I have some philosophical problems with the principles (which I'll sloppily call "Taoist") underlying much of Chinese medicine -- the conceptions of qi, yin, and yang. Taoism views Nature as aligned and balanced, and civilized man as out of whack and unbalanced, which is a dualism, to my mind, just as ill-considered and pernicious as the Cartesian dualism of mind and body. And the emotional equanimity championed by Taoists doesn't satisfy me. I'm after ecstasy, more than tranquility.

I have no problems with the fact that qi is not, for the most part, directly measurable. And my only problem with the conception of the self implicit in this system is the age-old dispute about whether the self, the individual atman, is a permutation of a greater atman (God's) or delusion pure and simple. (I tend to go with delusion.)

The scientific unverifiability of much of this theory (not of much of this practice, which has a good track record) bothers me only because systematic theories that aren't subject to some sort of rigorous verification tend to turn into ratifications of what people already think is true. I don't care whether the verification is scientific, or by way of a rigorous meditative or yogic discipline, but without disciplined verification, what you generally get is wish-fulfillment fantasies. So I view the enthusiasm of some of my fellow-students with some skepticism.

I guess the bottom line for me is experiential. I don't need to believe that the theory is correct. I don't, after all, believe that the scientific materialist theory of reality is correct either, but I use it and its insights all the time. What I know is that someone trained within this framework can give a massage much more powerful and effective than anything I can usually do, at present. I want that. As that Protestant contender for the French throne (Henri of Navarre?) said, on adopting Catholicism, "Paris is worth a mass."

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