EASTERN AND WESTERN MEDICINE: COMPLEMENTARY SYSTEMS OF UNDERSTANDING AND CARE
Eastern and Western medicine are both thorough, profound and effective systems of medicine.
Our understanding of health is constantly evolving. Coffee is good for you, now it's not, now it is. We used to think depression stemmed from the brain, now we're coming to understand that gut flora plays a huge role. This evolution of understanding is also occurring on the frontier between Eastern and Western medicine. Integrated medical offices are becoming more and more popular, doctors are increasingly recommending acupuncture and other "complementary" health systems, and empirical research is being done to help us understand why acupuncture works. Yet for most of us who grew up in the the United States, Western medicine is the only form of medicine that we were exposed to from childhood. We are, understandably, wary of unfamiliar things. The purpose of this article is to elaborate briefly on the differences between Eastern and Western medicine, and offer an understanding that can help bridge the gap between these two very different yet equally profound thought structures. Because healthcare is evolving. And integration of the health systems of the East and West is part of the current chapter in that evolution.
First let's take a brief look at the type of medicine we're familiar with: In Western medicine, as in most aspects of Western thought structures, the whole is studied through breaking it down into segmented parts. Just as biology, chemistry, sociology, architecture and art are different classes in school, the body is studied through examining each system independently in order to come to an understanding of the whole. In medical practice, this translates to different systems being examined and treated independently, and the mind understood and treated separately from the body. This arrangement is reflected in the design of the care system, where many doctors specialize in a particular body system or pathology. This type of model excels at creating a deep understanding of each organ system, which is very effective for relief of most symptoms and the dispelling of most illnesses. In Eastern medicine, though, as in much of the design of Eastern thought structures, the whole is understood as having common patterns that occur throughout all aspects of the system. It is these patterns that are understood first, and then applied to different areas of academia and society, such as medicine, architecture, sociology, or art. In Eastern medicine, this translates to the conviction that one cannot treat an organ or disorder as a separate entity from the whole person, nor can a person be viewed as an entity separate from his/her environment. The symbiosis of physical systems, mind, emotions, and environment is the basic premise upon which Eastern medicine is built. Based on this, the practitioner takes into account not only physical symptoms, but also everything the patient is experiencing mentally, socially, environmentally, and spiritually, in order to come to an understanding of the underlying issue. In other words, Eastern practitioners seek to understand the root of the symptoms. In treating this root, rather than only the level on which the symptoms manifest, Eastern medical practitioners believe that whole health is achieved, which is good not only for the individual but also for the society of which the individual is an integrated part.
Due to this holistic understanding, health in Eastern medicine is not solely the absence of symptoms. It involves an active component as well, including cultivation of positive qualities. Health is an active rather than a passive state of being.Whole health includes being present to our state of being physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. On a physical level, this leads us to be responsive to our body’s signals as they arise. The same applies to the other levels of the whole. Health involves learning from our symptoms how to best care for our body and mind, and using this understanding to guide our choices as we go forward in life. In this way, our symptoms become teachers of preventative care. Health in Eastern medicine also involves knowing our strengths and weaknesses. To know our weaknesses may be used to avoid repeating the same mistakes over and over again. Knowing our strengths may be used to recognize and then give the gifts we have to those around us, which leads to a sense of fulfillment and purpose. This is where the Theory of the Five Elements comes into play.
As you can see, there is a vast difference between Eastern and Western medicine medical systems and their understanding of wellness. Whereas Western medicine is based in detailed study of biophysical systems, Eastern medicine is based on the study of recurrent patterns that occur throughout our bodies and minds as well as in our external environment. In Western medicine, health is supported by the identification and eradication of biochemical irregularities, whereas in Eastern medicine health is supported through identifying and harmonizing our internal energetic ecology while taking into account the external ecology of which we are an integral part. Western medicine focuses on isolating the cause of symptoms and eradicating them, whereas Eastern medicine takes more of a unified approach through which one heals symptoms by coming to understand how they are indicative of a greater pattern of imbalance in a person's life, including not only their body but also their mind and environment. As you can see, these vastly different systems of medicine are not mutually exclusive, but are in fact complementary. Western medicine comes to an understanding of health from the bottom up, and Eastern medicine comes to an understanding of health from the top down. Together they give us a more complete picture of health and of ourselves.
Eastern and Western Medicine are both incredibly thorough, profound and effective systems of medicine. Though very different, both have an important role to play in the future of the understanding and realization of health. The following traditional story is an excellent metaphor for how our evolving understanding of wellness could include both Eastern and Western medical systems:
Once upon a time, there lived three blind men in a small village. As not much happened in the village, they spent most of their time sitting together and talking. One day, a boy came to where they were sitting and told them that there was an elephant in the village that day. The blind men were intrigued, not knowing what an elephant was. They asked the boy to direct them to where the elephant was, so that they might learn. The blind men approached the elephant cautiously, curious to learn about this new thing. One reached out and touched the elephant's tail, exclaiming, "Ah! An elephant is like a rope!". Another reached out and touched the elephant's leg, saying, "You are wrong! An elephant is like a pillar!". The third reached out and touched the elephant's trunk, exclaiming, "No, no! The elephant is like a large branch of a tree!" They argued for quite a while, each absolutely certain that what he knew of the elephant was correct. A wise man passing by saw them arguing, and stopped to ask what was the matter. "We cannot agree as to what the elephant is like!", they all said, and each explained what they believed the elephant to be. The wise man calmly explained to them that they were all correct, and that the reason for their different experiences was that each had touched a different part of the elephant. He asserted that the elephant had all of these features. Each man had simply discovered one piece of the larger understanding of what an elephant is.
Eastern and Western Medicine each hold one piece of the puzzle of whole health. It is only by integrating and understanding them together that we can come to a more complete understanding of health and ourselves.