Macrocosmic Medicine: An Introduction to Humming with Elephants
Here is an excerpt from the introduction to my newest publication Humming with Elephants: A Translation and Discussion of the Great Treatise on the Resonant Manifestations of Yīn and Yáng (Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen, Chapter Five), which is now available through our online store here.
The Great Treatise on the Resonant Manifestations of Yīn and Yáng (Yīn Yáng Yìng Xiàng Dà Lùn 陰陽應象大論, below abbreviated as Great Treatise) is one of the most foundational and important texts in the entire canon of Chinese medical literature. In Chinese medicine circles, it is also, much more prosaically and perhaps affectionately, known as Plain Questions Chapter Five or, even shorter, Sù Wèn 5. As such, it is merely a humble chapter in the “Plain Questions” (Sù Wèn素問) half of the Huáng Dì Nèi Jīng 黃帝內經 (Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor), a large collection of medical texts that was compiled in the Hàn dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE) but contains many older layers. After having translated, worked with, and taught the Great Treatise to students of Chinese medicine for several years, I realized that this text deserves to stand on its own and be much more widely read and discussed than it is at present, perhaps because it is hidden within the voluminous Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor. In addition, the material covered in this text is so deep, complex, and foreign to our modern way of thinking that I have come to accept over the years that no single translation, whether into modern Chinese or any Western language, could ever do it justice, much less make the content understandable to an uninitiated reader who does not have access to the original source text and the volumes of historical commentaries and discussions in classical Chinese. For this reason, I have chosen to incorporate both historical and modern commentaries by various specialists or “scholar-physicians,” as well as my own ruminations. I see this text as a beautiful poetic distillation and manifestation of the traditional Chinese worldview of macrocosm-microcosm resonance, also known as “correlative thinking” or “five-phase correspondences,” that forms the foundation of all aspects of traditional Chinese culture. As such, this text is relevant not just for clinical practitioners in the field of medicine, but also for scholars, historians, and thinkers interested in early Chinese science, cosmology, philosophy, religion, and even politics and economics. The book in your hands presents my humble contribution to making this important text and its underlying way of thinking and being and acting in the world more accessible to a modern audience. Like a finger pointing at the moon, though, I am keenly aware of the inherent limitations of this project, as of any work trying to bridge the huge gulf in time and space between our modern Western world and Hàn dynasty China. I see this book as just one more attempt, among a growing number of other renditions, to express the content of the Great Treatise in an accessible and at the same time historically and linguistically accurate rendition for a contemporary Western audience.
A word of warning though, for the uninitiated reader: It is not easy to access this text because its meaning is hidden, like the core of an onion or a set of Russian dolls, in innumerable progressive layers of insights that reveal themselves only over many years of studying and reading the text over and over. Like the slow extraction of nutrients that takes place in a goat’s four stomachs, I sincerely hope that this book can encourage you to begin a sustained and sustaining practice of “rumination” on the classical medical texts that you may return to for the rest of your life. Both in my personal studies and in observing my students’ efforts, I have found this ruminating practice to be most fruitful when done as a flexible combination of rigorous academic brain work with spacious aimless roaming, meditating, and even dream work. This text deserves more than just a single session of intellectual engagement. As you grow in your understanding of medicine, of early Chinese culture, and of the world and your place within it, so will your reading of the Great Treatise and the sustenance that you receive from it. And while you do this, you will learn not only about medicine but also about following the Dào of Heaven and Earth in a life of free-flowing ease;, about harmonizing Yīn and Yáng in every micro- and macrocosm that you might encounter, and about cultivating your Heart and your Spirit in the tradition of the ancient Chinese sages.
Here is the way in which this process of expansion and deepening has played out in my own growing understanding of the meaning of this text: I began by reading Sù Wèn 5, like the rest of the Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic, in the conventional way as what we might call “microcosmic medicine,” with a lower-case “m” to indicate the usage of medicine here in the main-stream meaning, as in this definition from the Merriam-Webster Collegiate dictionary:
Medicine: The science and art dealing with the maintenance of health and the prevention, alleviation, or cure of disease.
Of course the Yellow Emperor’ Inner Classic has a lot of valuable insights for just this kind of medicine, in particular in regards to the prevention of disease and “maintenance” of health. Perhaps one could even rephrase this last goal more optimistically as “optimization” of health, as the restoration of the perfect equilibrium of Yīn and Yáng and unhindered well-ordered flow of Qì in the human body. This last point alone constitutes a major contribution, in my eyes, to our global contemporary understanding of medicine and of the role of the physician, with significant potential for changing our dominant medical paradigm. This is also the way in which the Great Treatise on the Resonant Manifestations of Yīn and Yáng is generally read and interpreted, and applied by Chinese medicine students and practitioners both in Asia and in the West.
What I have learned over these past few months of working intensely and deeply with the meaning of the text, however, is that its core message is one of “Medicine,” of medicine with a capital M. The Yellow Emperor and Qí Bó are not just talking about sticking needles into people to resolve blockages, getting enough sleep in the winter and exercise in the summer, or eliminating greasy foods and increasing the consumption of greens in the spring. As powerful as those simple messages are, this book is talking about what I now call “macrocosmic Medicine.” Its teachings ARE Medicine, in the sense of the word yào 藥 that I am discussing below. The macrocosmic Medicine presented in the book in your hand encapsulates a vision of the role of humanity that is diametrically opposed to the paradigm of control and dominance that we see playing out all around us right now, with usually disastrous consequences: in our standard technological responses to environmental crises like global warming, exploitation of natural resources, international conflicts, punitive political responses like the “War on Drugs,” incarceration rates, social hierarchical relations in the family and workplace, our relationships to our plant, animal, rock, and spirit neighbors on this plant, and also in standard biomedical solutions like cancer treatments. One only needs to look at the cardboard shacks under the highway bridges of any big city in the US to see the results of this paradigm of dominance. Can we really not do better than this?
In the place of this relatively modern ideal of humans conquering and dominating our natural environment, the Yellow Emperor and Qí Bó propose a paradigm of reciprocity, of mutual responsibility and care-taking where we humans are positioned at the center of the cosmic dyad of Heaven and Earth. Completing the macrocosmic triad, it is our role to harmonize these two and create a dynamic equilibrium of giving and taking in ecological, social, and spiritual terms. How do we get there? How do we acquire the skills necessary for macrocosmic diagnosis and treatment? Here we can turn to my favorite philosopher Zhuāngzi, whom you will encounter many more times throughout this book. In his view, it is the nature of humans to position themselves happily between Heaven and Earth, just like it is the nature of fish to swim and of birds to fly, and of old gnarly trees to provide shade for the lumber jack who is taking a nap underneath it. In sharp contrast to our current activist pursuit of visible, measurable, and quantifiable progress with instant concrete solutions, of “DOING” things and judging their effectiveness and value, the ancient Chinese sages envision a state of quietude, receptivity, humbleness, and emptiness, where simple solutions work best and were less is more and more is less. We only need to look at the history of humans on this planet, from the ancient grazing landscapes in the Swiss Alps to the steps of Mongolia and rice paddies in Southern China, to the open park-like birch forests described by the first colonists in what is now the United States of America to know that a different way of being is possible. Civilizations have come and gone, but all over the world we can find examples of humans who have lived sustainably and in harmony with our environment and our animal and plant siblings for centuries, if not millennia. Even the development of domesticated species like goats or corn or apples bear witness to the ability of humans to give and take in a mutually beneficial relationship of symbiosis with other species. We are all related to everything else through the web of Qì, after all, through breathing and eating, inside and outside our skin, living and dying, contracting and expanding. All life is Qì, and your Qì is my Qì is the Qì of the universe. So simple, and yet so easy to forget.
It is my hope that the present text can remind, encourage, and guide us to live in accordance with our original human role between Heaven and Earth by deciphering the cosmic Dào, the Way of Change as expressed through the fluctuations of Yīn and Yáng, and guide us back to a simpler life in harmony with our environment. We might be well advised to heed this wisdom from the past and honor the experience of the ancient Chinese sages, who may know a thing or two that could be helpful for us, if we recognize the cyclical pattern of history and time. As we listen to them, we might learn that this path does not need to be as complicated as the invention of zero-pollution electric cars or establishing colonies on distant planets to dump our toxic waste. The simple act of feeding a hummingbird can heal our sense of estrangement from the rest of the world, our “species loneliness.” Rather than running around “doing,” this book is an invitation to slow down, to “un-do” and “un-know,” and to contemplate another approach to life in all its dimensions.