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Ancient Healing
Ted Kaptchuk, OMD

Ted Kaptchuk, OMD, earned his doctorate in Oriental Medicine from the Macau Institute of Chinese Medicine in 1975. He is now the associate director of the Center for Alternative Medicine Research and Education at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, and an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Author of the book, The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine, he recently spoke with Body & Soul senior executive producer Gail Harris. Following are some excerpts from their conversation.

Gail Harris: How did the Chinese come up with their view of how the human body works?

Ted Kaptchuk: We don't know for sure how China developed its views. It's speculation. But one could easily say that, what we call Chinese medicine is based on a philosophic perspective that develops in China in the third, fourth, fifth century BC -- a perspective that rejects supernatural healing. A philosophy that said, instead, one could understand illness and health by using the human mind. One could actually have access to what's going on in a person's life in terms of what they feel, what they experience -- by paying attention, and by using normal sensations. It's based on the Taoist and Confucian philosophies, which emphasized human knowledge as opposed to supernatural knowledge.

The Taoists say that the most important thing is the knowledge within, not the gods and demon world. They believe that there is nobility in human awareness.

GH: So, in the Western tradition, we believe that we can figure things out. And the Chinese say that doesn't matter -- what matters is what we see?

TK: Well, we have multiple traditions in the West, and actually China has multiple traditions too. In Western medicine, if we want to find the cause of an illness, we try to find the invisible agents -- germs and different kinds of chemicals in the endocrine system, different questions of the nervous system, things that we can't see. And we look for those linear cause-and-effect relationships to explain a person's discomfort or symptoms.

In China, there's a fundamental belief that one can know another human being -- that one can understand illness and health by being with them, listening to them, and observing them. Paying attention. And that one can finally get a sense that this person's way in the world is too active here, not active enough here, too hot, too cold. Something is not balanced right. And getting that gestalt, then, allows the physician or healer to either make suggestions, give herbs, give acupuncture, whatever the intervention is. But there's the sense that you can know another human being…That's a profound belief for people to practice on, and even more important, it's a profound experience for patients to feel.

GH: Is it too simplistic to say that Western medicine tends to look at problems-or people- as a collection of body parts? And Chinese medicine looks at them as being a complete person that needs to be in harmony to be really well?

TK: You can have bad Chinese doctors. You can have bad Western doctors. However, it's easier to pay attention to people as a Chinese doctor because it is your job is to pay attention. Every piece of information -- how the patient makes an appointment on the telephone, how they shake your hand, how they introduce themselves -- all that information is part of what you need to gather. But in fact, all great healers, I think, use a kind of intuition to pay attention.

GH: What's accounting for the lines in the sand between Eastern and Western medicine being a little less clearly drawn? Is it because now there's more scientific evidence that demonstrates, in fact, that some of these things like acupuncture are valid?

TK: I think scientific evidence is an important contribution to the discussion. For instance in acupuncture, there's a clear link between endorphins and acupuncture, and there have been some positive randomized control trials, the fact that you can produce evidence of say, acupuncture easing nausea and vomiting, or dental pain, for example. There's something going on there. It's not just the "imagination."

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Ted Kaptchuk, OMD
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