Acupuncture for the Soul
By Sara Calabro
We live in a physical world. Material goods define success. Fitness is measured in miles and pounds. Love is expressed in diamonds. Yet even the richest, fittest and most enamored among us often feel a void. The stories of our lives run deeper than meets the eye, and yet mainstream medicine pays little attention to our non-physical aspects. Even acupuncture has become dominated by an emphasis on physical pain.
Being in touch with these more abstract, non-physical parts—the soul, spirit or psyche—often is the missing piece for people who may be otherwise healthy. Lorie Dechar, one of the world’s leading thinkers on acupuncture and spirituality, has been helping people find this missing piece for over 25 years, beginning long before the quest for spiritual enlightenment became a trend.
Lorie is the author of Five Spirits: Alchemical Acupuncture for Psychological and Spiritual Healing, a definitive text on acupuncture as a soul-nourishing medicine. In her many years of practice and teaching, she has evolved her classical training in Five Element acupuncture into a unique style of acupuncture that helps people change their life stories through spiritual transformation.
AcuTake recently spoke with Lorie about how acupuncture can aid in our collective search for greater meaning.
AcuTake: Words like “spirit” and “soul” can be loaded and at times confusing terms in Western societies. To set the stage for this conversation, what do you mean when you talk about spirit?
Lorie Dechar: The word “spirit” in English is so messed up. We are lucky that we have other languages to help piece apart what the concept might actually mean. In English, spirit has come to mean some abstract thing that we can’t really even talk about. It’s not part of medical or political discourse. It’s only talked about in religious discourse, and even there, it’s really only talked about in Judeo-Christian traditions. In comparison, in ancient China and most cultures where alchemy was part of the tradition—Vedic India, Kabbalah, Arabic—there was a sense that spirit was not something far away but rather a central aspect of our being here.
I think that the closest we can come to spirit is light—pure light, before it gets fragmented into color. Spirit is something we can’t know because it is outside of time and space, and yet it enters and initiates processes. We know it through its presence. We can’t measure it or put it in a box, but we can know it palpably all around us. When you look at a friend and you see that the light in his eyes is dim, you know that something has happened for him on the spirit level. Spirit is the light in the lantern.
Spirit is an initiating, moving tendency, but without its attachment to matter, spirit cannot sustain life. Similarly, matter on its own cannot support transformational change. We transform when these two phenomenons, spirit and matter, come together.
Since spirit and matter are both necessary for transformational change, what’s your take on present-day acupuncture education and practice? Can real change happen when utilizing formulaic—matter-focused—approaches such as TCM point prescriptions or trigger-point needling?
There are two trends happening. On the one hand, I am seeing some incredible education going on. Some schools really are opening up the conversation regarding the size of the circle that we draw in the treatment room. On the other side of the coin, there is a movement toward making acupuncture extremely materialistic and physical.
There is a time and place for strictly physical treatments. For example, when a mother brings in her son with a soccer injury. These are clearly physical, acute events, and the kids are better after one treatment. I have tremendous respect for that kind of work. What I disagree with is when that kind of work is done when other work is called for. I have just as much of a problem with someone trying to force a profound spiritual treatment on a kid with a soccer injury. We dishonor the vast elegance of the medicine when we don’t utilize the tools that are called for. It comes down to being able to make the proper assessment.
How did you develop an interest in spirit-level acupuncture?
At the time I first came in contact with acupuncture, I was in my 20s and working as a gardener and a poet. I was very active in the environmental movement—specifically, I was focused on a feminist approach to environmentalism that involved looking at the earth as something more than just “stuff” that we use to make products. I enjoyed my work but I was frustrated a lot of the time because it is hard to make the kinds of changes I was looking to make.
This was 1979, and around that time, a friend of mine was practicing acupuncture after having gone to England to study with J.R. Worsely. Everyone was telling me that I had to go see her for a treatment, that this specific kind of acupuncture wasn’t just for pain. Reluctantly, I decided to go.
She performed an intake, and during that process, she got me—even before she used any needles. This was one of the beautiful gifts that J.R. Worsely taught his students. Just with our presence, acupuncturists can penetrate to a level that affects change. After the intake, I got just two needles in my feet—Liver 3 on both sides—and I felt an immediate shift. The whole world around me changed: My sense of smell heightened; I noticed an apple tree out the window that I hadn’t seen before; I felt my body on the table. After that first treatment, so many things opened up in terms of my capacity to have a vision for my life.
That was the beginning of my journey with spirit-level work, or working beyond the physical symptoms. I enrolled in acupuncture school at Tai Sophia in Maryland, where Professor Worsely was still teaching at the time. I also studied with him in England.
After completing your acupuncture education, you went on to study some branches of Western psychology, including Gestalt, Jungian and Focusing. Why did you feel that was necessary and how does it inform your acupuncture practice today?
My gift and passion seems to be working with people at the level of the psyche. That’s not to say I don’t treat physical symptoms, but my excitement comes when those physical symptoms open up so that we begin to see the psycho-emotional component.
Initially I was doing pure Five Element acupuncture, as I was taught. But something started to come up for me: I would put in needles and notice energetic shifts, yet I felt that I was lacking the tools to help people take the energy that was liberated in the treatment and apply it to changes in their life. I wanted to help people actually live differently. In China, people do qi gong and meditation to manage all the energy that’s liberated during acupuncture treatments. But Westerners are story-telling people. We come from a tradition where our personal myth is very much part of our identity. The question I was interested in was, how do I weave this energy into this person’s story so that it can actually develop and change?
At first I thought I’d need to become a psychotherapist. But after some training I realized that I didn’t want to become a psychotherapist; I wanted to be an acupuncturist who incorporated tools from psychotherapy. I started working with Nathan Schwartz-Salant, a Jungian analyst who has taken Jungian work to another place, to focusing on alchemical processes. Through working with Nathan I really started to see that the psychotherapy work—the story, the imagination and images, and the feeling—doesn’t have to be in a separate room from the work we do with needles.
So do you consider acupuncture to be an alternative or an adjunct to Western psychotherapy?
Well, lately I am calling the kind of work I do alchemical healing, because the focus really has expanded beyond acupuncture. In my training programs, I have psychotherapists, doctors, environmental artists, nurses, and of course many acupuncturists. The tools are applicable in any situation where people are committed to fundamental change. So it depends on the situation whether alchemical healing is an alternative or adjunct to psychotherapy.
As acupuncturists, if we don’t have training in psychotherapy, we need to know and honor the limits of our scope of practice. Acupuncturists should always have a psychiatrist or psychotherapist in their Rolodexes. We are working in a community of healers; we don’t have to do it all. Having said that, psychotherapy is called the talking cure because talking is the main tool. Acupuncturists have many additional tools. I have had many patients say to me, “Wow. I’ve been in psychotherapy for 10 years and I never got to this.” The “this” has been living in the body, so just words alone weren’t able to get to it.
Critics of emotional or spiritual-focused styles of acupuncture may say that acupuncturists are not adequately trained to deal with issues that traditionally fall within the realm of Western psychology. Based on your experience, is psychotherapy training necessary for acupuncturists who want to work with emotional or spiritual matters?
I strongly disagree that an acupuncturist who wants to work with emotions needs to be trained in Western psychotherapy. Theoretically, no one is better trained to work with people on transforming the story of their life than a practitioner of Chinese medicine. But that means we need to know not only the acupuncture points but also the point names, the animal symbols, the elements, and the mythical basis of the medicine. These are the aspects of acupuncture that incorporate the soul or psyche. If acupuncturists stay close to the tradition of Chinese medicine, we’re not going to be working unsafely.
There are, of course, things that are outside our scope. Examples include heavy addiction or severe depression. Acupuncture is great for seasonal depression, but someone who has felt doubtful about the meaning of their life over a long period of time should not be treated solely by acupuncture. That doesn’t mean acupuncture shouldn’t be an adjunct. I always tell my students, don’t let go of those patients; they need you. But get a team of healers together so that you’re not alone.
Let’s talk specifically about how you practice. Many people have heard of Five Element acupuncture—crudely defined as “acupuncture that deals with emotions.” But the Five Spirits, the focus of your book and daily work, may be less familiar. What is the difference between Five Element and Five Spirit acupuncture?
Acupuncturists all over the world get at least a smattering of Five Element training. The Five Element wheel is just as central to acupuncture theory as yin and yang. In 25 years, I have yet to find a situation in carbon-based life—that is, life on this planet—where that wheel does not apply. But the Five Element wheel alone does not provide the technology for transformational change. The wheel describes how organic life grows and changes, so it provides the technology for the continuation of life on earth. But humans are of a different neurological and genetic make up than, for example, the seasons. We are born with a capacity to transform into spiraling, upgraded states.
The Five Spirits follow a vertical axis that allows the Five Element wheel to turn. The spirits are what allow the circle to become a growing, evolving spiral. In the treatment room, the vertical axis of the Five Spirits allows people to not only get better but also to work with their unique personalities so that they can become more of who they really are.
Another characteristic of alchemical or spirit-level work is that it’s relational. It’s not: I’m the practitioner and the patient is an isolated system over there. In alchemical or Five Spirit acupuncture, my patient and I are forming a relational field. We are both going to be moved by the experience. When that happens, you start getting into very lively, exciting work. This kind of relational work doesn’t drain us as practitioners, because we’re not always giving giving giving.
How does your diagnostic process differ from that of a more traditional acupuncturist?
For the first treatment, I spend 90 minutes with people so that I can determine what’s really going on. During that time I do a very traditional Chinese medical diagnosis, looking at tongue and pulse. I read emotional levels on the pulse and also look at color, sound, odor and emotion—all part of the traditional Five Element diagnostic process. In addition, I look at the light that I mentioned earlier, the spirit-level state. Are they appropriately bright? Is their brightness in keeping with what they are saying? Can they make a connection to me? Can they articulate their feelings clearly? All those things give me information about the spirit level.
The biggest difference between alchemical diagnosis and traditional acupuncture diagnosis is what I call imaginative sight. This has to do with working with relational fields. In alchemy, imagination was very important. I use imagination in the sense of being able to see through the density of the person. In The Yellow Emperor’s Classic, it says that we see spirit not through our ordinary eyes and ears but through the eyes and ears of the heart. So learning to see with this special kind of sight is one important aspect of my diagnostic process. None of this is new—it’s been spoken about for hundreds and thousands and years—but this kind of seeing used to be more accessible to people. Today, with all the time we spend in front of TV and computer screens, it’s harder for us to open up those eyes.
You mentioned at the beginning that spirit cannot be measured. How do you gauge progress?
Like most acupuncturists, I look for changes in the pulse and tongue to get a read on how a patient is doing. But specific to the spirit-level component, on the first visit I always ask people what they want to change. Throughout our course of treatment together, I come back to that regularly to see what kind of progress we’re making. I simply ask them, “Are we making progress? Are we going in a direction that feels useful?” I also use that special kind of seeing or feeling to determine how things are compared with how they were at the beginning. As the practitioner, I am not separate from the treatment. I really let myself be part of the energetic field.
Is a certain level of readiness required on the part of patients in order for them to receive the benefits of spirit-level acupuncture?
Our job is to proceed in a way that meets our patients where they’re at. It’s not our job to bring patients to the deepest possible place, regardless of whether they’re ready. One of the principles of alchemy is that most things get done by not doing. If we’re pushing too hard to bring the patient along, often it can backfire. Instead, if we can stay next to them and just pay attention, it’s more effective. Similar to how we search for an acupuncture point before needling, we need to feel around to determine when someone is offering an opening to begin working with the spirit.
For people who are ready, how can they go about finding an acupuncturist who works on this level?
I still accept some patients in New York, and I also have a small practice in Maine. In addition, on my website is a list of acupuncturists who have gone through my mentorship. Anyone listed there has formal training and a personal interest in alchemical healing and spirit-level acupuncture.
For acupuncturists who are interested in your mentorship, what can they expect?
The mentorship came to be about 13 years ago. There was a small group of students at Tri-State College of Acupuncture in New York City, where I teach, who said they wanted to learn more about working with emotions. That first mentorship group had about six people, some of whom are still working with me today. The mentorship now includes about 20 people, but it is still very personal, very community-based. It is a one-year mentorship that includes five two-day weekends in New York and one four-day retreat in Maine. Everyone who comes out of that one-year cycle has been able to take these tools into the treatment room. Over the years we’ve realized that there are so many people out there who want this material, so it is open to acupuncturists and non-acupuncturists; we have two tracks. The next mentorship will be in October 2012. People who are interested can sign the mailing list on my website.
Why do you think there’s been such steady and wide-reaching interest in acupuncture that focuses on profound inner change?
The nature of our culture and planet at this time is such that there is an epidemic of materialism—and there is an epidemic of disease that arises out of that. Whether the disease is depression or an eating disorder or addiction, these things develop from a lack of spiritual base in our lives. As acupuncturists, our medicine brings spiritual possibility to people, because at the core of acupuncture is spiritual transformation. In many ways, that’s the real healing that’s needed right now.
Featured photo by Mary Marsiglio
Photo of Lorie Dechar by Peter Cunningham