The Education of an Acupuncturist

I first gave this talk to a group of high school seniors in Ellensburg, Washington in the spring of 2005. One of my patients, a high school teacher, asked me to come and talk about my life. If you ever have a chance to speak to a group of students like this, I highly recommend it. You will learn about yourself and may open up horizons for the next generation.

As I child growing up on the coast of Maine, I had no contact with Buddhism or acupuncture. I remember once flipping through an encyclopedia and seeing a picture of someone who looked like they had been attacked by a porcupine. I vaguely was aware that in China, this was considered this “medicine”. “Weird¨, I thought, and turned the page and forgot all about it for a quarter of a century.

Mostly, I had a pretty typical, sheltered American childhood: I looked forward to the end of each school day and year in order to get on with the more important business of life – climbing trees, exploring the seashore, tennis, skiing and so forth. I sometimes fought with my brothers and parents, but I was never compelled to grapple with poverty, racism or war.

The comfortable walls of my sheltered childhood began to develop serious cracks as I entered my teens. I felt deeply distressed about the nuclear arms race. On my first date, instead of talking about sports, the latest rock music, or TV shows, I talked at length about my fear that the Soviets and President Reagan were about to blow up the planet. My date had no interest in discussing these things and the conversation got awkward quickly. I was glad to arrive at the movie theater where I no longer had to talk, merely needing to laugh periodically and pretend that everything was okay.

My parents provided me with all my material needs and love in a comfortable home bordering on a tract of still undeveloped Maine woods, but offered no solutions to my inner dilemma. I’m sure they or a guidance counselor at school would have been willing to listen to my fears but I didn’t even know where to begin, such was my inner turmoil at the time.

At 13, I was diagnosed with a blood disease that I could barely pronounce – chronic idiopathic thrombocytic penic purpura (ITP). I had only a vague idea of what it meant – an autoimmune disease in which my spleen was rejecting the platelets, the clotting mechanism in the blood. I knew that I could potentially bleed to death if I cut myself. In Chinese, Tibetan, and many other systems of medicine, it is theorized that mental-emotional imbalances, such as excessive fear, can eventually lead to chronic internal diseases of the body.

I began to spend more and more time going to hospitals, getting hypodermic needles jabbed into my arms.  I was put on oral steroid medication to suppress my immune system. These would temporarily boost my platelet counts, but they made my face puff up like a balloon and caused outbreaks of acne, mangling my already low self esteem. At 19, my abdomen was cut open and my spleen removed. Too often this seems to be the manner in which western medicine – and western culture in general attempts to solve problems that they don’t understand: Make something the enemy and try to get rid of it – whether that be an internal organ or a group of people branded as terrorist, or whatever.

Much later in life, I realized that acupuncture and eastern medicine approached things from a different perspective – instead of attacking some unknown evil within, through acupuncture the healthy energy is activated and this brings renewal and balance to the body-mind. But I was not ready to see this at 19. Instead I struggled to fix my life through getting rid of malfunctioning body organs, and striving to obtain all the right ingredients from the external world.

After graduation from college, I moved to Seattle and got a job at a stock brokerage firm. I became intoxicated with the American dream of success: respectable job, the promise of big money (or so I imagined), all the toys and trappings. But at 26 I burned out of the rat race.  I quit my white collar job and moved into a one room cabin without electricity or running water, next to the seashore on the west coast of British Columbia.

I had minimal possessions: a few clothes, a couple of books, including Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden¨, and a sea kayak. Life with the orcas, eagles, otters, seals and the silence helped reconnect me with a wider perspective and purpose in living. I began to understand what it means to be interconnected with all life on the planet.

Almost daily I watched giant barges stacked high with entire forests of tree trunks being towed to the paper mill. Will the Earth survive long enough for my children?¨ I wondered. “Do I even want to bring children into this world?¨ I remember listening to the CBC radio broadcast that broke the story of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. I cried, but not for long. I began to get involved in environmental activism, putting my thumb out on many a lonely road to journey to  to many protest campaigns to stop logging and mining projects in the wilderness. Too often though, even the environmentalists would fight amongst each other and I knew I had not yet found what I was looking for – how can I truly make a difference for a peaceful world?

In my late 20s, I met my first Buddhist teacher and the spiritual conflict of my teenage years began to find a vocabulary to frame the questions. I began to meditate again and answers began to appear – not intellectual answers, but answers in the language of the heart. There was a sense of rediscovering an inner home that had always been with me, only covered over with a lot of emotional debris.

In the early 1990s I enrolled in a 3 year Masters program in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. After graduation, I still felt like a novice even though my diploma said “Master¨ on it. So I went back to the meditation cushion with renewed intensity. In the fall of 1999, I attended a 3 month silent meditation course. Morning to evening, just observing the breath rise and fall, interspersed with the periods of walking. This brought a sense of deep peacefulness and inner acceptance.

After the course, I decided to study Tibetan Buddhism in India where I ended up living for 2 years. My intention was to become a Buddhist monk and devote my life to spiritual practice but I met my wife in the middle of the street on my third day in India! I asked her if she knew where the Tibetan library was and she said she was going there herself and could show me. We’ve never been apart for more than a few days since. So much for my monastic zeal! Still, I try to think about spiritual practice each day – in my marriage, as a father, an acupuncturist, and as a global citizen in this vast experiment called life on Earth.

I’ve taken the time to tell you a bit about my life for a couple of reasons:

First, I think it can be very valuable to periodically review one’s life and take stock of where one has been in life. As Thoreau once said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.¨ One can reflect on the positive accomplishments that one has completed…rejoicing in, and aspiring to build on those achievements. One can also reflect on actions and situations in which one still holds on to skeletons from the past – guilt, will will, resentment, and other negative feelings. By generating a sense of regret, but letting go of the guilt, one can free oneself from the past, thus fully directing one’s energies towards whatever one’s goals.

Second, reflecting on one’s life makes one realize that all life is available for learning. Mark Twain once said “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.¨ So whatever situation you find yourself in, there is always an opportunity to expand the boundaries of your mind and allow you to live a more balanced life in the present moment and the future.

May all beings be peaceful and happy!

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