A Modern Master/Disciple

(NAJOM Vol 18 No. 52 july 2011)

I think it remarkable that after 8 years now, I still feel like a novice when I compare myself to those significant few that I have had the privilege to study under, learn from and refer to as Sensei. Also I’m quite sure that that feeling will never leave me, in another 8 years I expect to feel just the same, a humbling thought. The expanse (measured conceivably in time and skill) that exists between master and apprentice will always remain constant. Interestingly the years that separate them also brings them together, like polar opposites, one sitting in a wealth of experience, eager to pass it on. It’s opposite, the ‘initiate’, a wealth of potential, in need of guidance. It is a unique relationship.

The nature of this special connection between the master and their apprentice has been a continuum dating back to medicines earliest beginnings like an unofficial lineage or ancestry. The cycle of master to student, endlessly repeated. Perhaps then all participants in this succession of learning are related to the Yellow Emperor, the first recorded master? Compared to western medicine who’s origins are merely a couple of centuries, our traditions are counted in millennia. Why then do not more students seek mentors, it has become an option rather than being seen as a necessity. Unfortunately I question whether our universities have become so engorged on their own importance that they do not encourage more the way of the apprentice.

My own initiation to this unofficial society came primarily though the tutelage of Katsuhiko Okuma Sensei, a wonderful practitioner who showed me what it is to practice Japanese acupuncture. More importantly however I observed the ten thousand things that are required to run a practice. The nuances of adopting the role of practitioner cannot be taught though theoretical classes. Like learning pulse diagnosis, these nuances must be observed over and over again in order for a ‘practice to come naturally’.

And there we have it, ‘for practice to come naturally’, a phrase that epitomizes what it is for the Ki energy to flow in the clinical setting. For the initiate, adopting the role of practitioner should be as effortless as the client‘s innate adoption of the role of a patient. It is in recognition of the patients need for an authority figure in the field of medicine that we take on that role but it is not a role that comes naturally to us, even if we did play doctors and nurses as children. It has to be learnt (and then forgotten). Certainly, for the general public, confidence in ones medical practitioner goes a long way towards a healthy recovery and if the patient’s respect is not natural forthcoming then a successful treatment will be an uphill battle.

I say that the role of being a doctor does not come naturally to us. That is only half true. I believe that it is innate to us all though some are better practiced at it, but we all start in a state of naïve ignorance. Infants in the field of medicine, we should naturally look to our elders for guidance, to learn; as child does by mimicking their parents. This kind of learning, mimicry and repetition are pathways to clinical competence. The fact is initiates by explanation have no experience. This is why medical internships exist. Young doctors watch experienced doctors ply their trade and in doing so build upon their own experience. Western medical doctors have internships to hone their analytical skills as well as their practical skills. In Australia at least we have no such option for the eastern medicine doctors. How then to proceed once we are licensed to practice, fresh from university and thrust upon the general public with only a rudimentary working knowledge of the art?

Apprenticeships allow the student to hone their skills on so many levels, not the least being taught to run ones one clinic or to practice soundly in the future. Not only do they fill the gaps in a working knowledge of acupuncture but they give us time to mature as practitioners. As I stated earlier, being a doctor is not as easy as hanging your shingle, the classics are rife with examples of the difference between good doctors and great ones. Being great takes time, even being a good doctor takes time, the practical skills have to be given time to mature, to be rounded out with solid clinical experience.

Even more, beyond any argument for public safety, there is professional pride at sake. I have always maintained that any given medical system cannot be worth its weight if it wasn’t possible to do the wrong thing, to make people significantly sicker than what they already were. Call it a litmus test of any medical system’s proficiency. What then does it say about acupuncture that we use a sink or swim attitude to new practitioners. At university I had to complete clinical hours, but these were spent largely on ones own. Junior students watch senior students and senior students have only their own cunning and ingenuity to work with. Proper supervision and demonstrations of treatments were few and far between. Essentially it was a case of the blind leading the blind.

Conversely, the master/disciple relationship is built on demonstration and repetition of techniques and is at essence practical by nature. It is a rarity in a modern world punctuated with weekend workshops that increase your skills base without any actual clinical experience. Such workshops exist merely as teasers, promising better skills and promising panaceas. Yes they serve a necessary function but they should not be seen to replace actual experience.

There is an old saying, excuse me for not knowing its origin, it goes that a young acupuncturist knows fifty different ways to treat just one disease, but an experienced practitioner uses just one treatment to cure fifty different diseases. Personally I see the trouble with spending all of ones time seeking out new techniques found in workshops and seminars is that you have no time to master the ones that you have already. Instead it is better to spend ones time working under the guiding influence of someone who can instruct with patience.

Taking the time to become a good practitioner is a worthwhile pursuit, one that should be revered amongst one’s profession and welcomed by the public at large. It ensures quality in the profession which although is thousands of years old, is only new to those of us in the west. Someone who takes the time to labor under an established clinician has the advantage of seeing ailments and injuries treated over and over again. This repetition, punctuated by the nuances that differentiate each and every person, perhaps this is where the true learning begins. Up until that point for the initiate, the world of medicine exists solely as classroom theory. Eventually, finally, treatments become effortless actions, the result of countless hours of practice. This ought to be desired aim in following an apprenticeship. The accumulation of experience, enough to and one day reverse the roles and teach others what you have been blessed with. In this way the Yellow Emperor’s legacy can live on.

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