Grounding in the medicine

I’m currently reading “Decolonizing Trauma Work: Indigenous Stories and Strategies” by Renee Linklater. For several years now, I’ve cultivated a lay interest in Indigenous studies because of the illumination it as a field gives to the shadow side of my country, culture and people. In this reading, I’ve come to see that though the land of our ancestors differs, we all carry a connection to our own Indigenous roots. By this, I mean the part of us that feels that the current system isn’t quite right, that something in it isn’t working for us, and hasn’t for a long time. This is the part of us that longs to connect to nature, to spirituality, to atone for the wrongs of our ancestors and to buck a conformity that may or may not work for us. I believe this to be the root of our modern discontent and the rise of burnout culture, where being anxious and depressed is strikingly pervasive.

When I think of it, that’s why I chose to become an acupuncturist. I wanted to tap into nature as my medicine, to learn about plants and the body’s way of healing itself. I wanted a different way of looking at the body, a holistic one that took into consideration the unique origin of pathology and strength in each of us. While CAM offers that, I didn’t question myself too deeply as to what it meant to take on a system of thinking that isn’t rooted here and that isn’t based on a scientific way of looking at the world. I got caught up on the flow of things, of academic performance and the idea of being able to offer something that could help people when other forms of therapy couldn’t.

My “ah-ha” moment in reading “Decolonizing Trauma Work” was when the author meets with a colleague at a conference. Neither of them are from that area, so they take a moment to smudge themselves and connect to the land where they are now.

When have I ever done that with the medicine I practice?

I practice a medicine that comes from East Asia, and that I am now practicing on American soil. So much effort was put into keeping my education “authentic” that even though I use the five elements as a framework to view the body, I’ve thought little of my personal relationship to those elements. Indeed, part of the attraction to Traditional Chinese Medicine was that it is a traditional medicine whose system of logic and practice is in tact and able to be studied in an academic format. We can never really take ourselves out of the frame, however. In my last post here, I began to think about cultural appropriation in TCM. Still meditating on that, I have to investigate further what I’m bringing to the table as an individual. While I wish to honor the ancestors of this medicine and the land it came from, I also have to honor my own ancestors, the land they came from, and the land I live on now. By virtue of who I am and where I live, I will always practice a hybrid form of East Asian Medicine.

On my maternal grandmother’s side, I have an ancestor from the Big Bend area of the Rio Grande who was a bonesetter. All of his knowledge is lost to me, but he remains a part of me; his DNA lives in mine. I’ve since begun to jet the long and complicated formulas I learned in school to get to know each herb that I use individually. From what little I know of Mexican traditional medicine, I have the impression of an herbalism similar to the traditional medicines of Europe that favor single herb recommendations. That’s what I grew up with, at least, with my grandmother cooking yerba buena after particularly filling meals for us to drink and favoring a wickedly pungent onion soup to combat colds.

I’ve also begun to directly approach the land and plants around me. Each week, I tend to the green space across the street from my house. Clearing the invasive plants, native species have begun to emerge. Skunk cabbage is shooting up from the banks of the creek, and Oregon grape is uncovered from ivy on a hillside. Long, seemingly dead stems of devil’s club can now be seen as the blackberries are hacked back, and salmonberries create spindly thickets. As I return to this space repeatedly, I’ve entered into a relationship with the land in a way I’ve never had before. Instead of sculpting the land and curating the plants as I do in my own yard, I’m tending to the plants that are already growing, a part of the indigenous ecosystem. I now spend hours contemplating the force that propels leaves through to the formerly dormant exterior of the plant and the growing strategies of different species. Slowly, I’m starting to feel what it means to be genuinely connected to the land, something that as a lifelong city-dweller, I doubted I could truly understand.

The third way I’m rooting myself is by remaining true to what patient population it feels right for me to work with. For better or worse, at this point in my life I am ridiculously compelled to work with people with severe mental health issues and who’ve lived in homelessness. I’ve tried to deny it, but it satisfies me in a way that a conventional acupuncture practice never has. Since CAM is a fringe treatment method in conventional healthcare, I’m unable to use my acupuncture license to do this, but it doesn’t matter. Being present, listening, and resourcing people is the same, regardless if you’re sticking needles in them. In addition, reading Linklater’s book bolsters my faith that I’m not wrong in the benefit CAM providers could bring to this work, if only we have the right additional training and are willing to work in larger health systems.

Where all of this will take me, I’m not sure. What I am sure of is how much more settled I feel in my own voice within this medicine. And for now, that’s enough.