WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN EASTERN AND WESTERN MEDICINE?
Eastern and Western medicine are both thorough, profound and effective systems of medicine.
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. An unfamiliarity with Eastern medicine is one the biggest hindrances for most people who are considering including Eastern medical disciplines, such as acupuncture, in their personal care. The purpose of this page is to briefly elaborate on the differences between these two forms of medicine, and clarify how they are inherently complimentary.
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, as in much of the design of traditional 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. It is the symbiosis of physical systems, mind, emotions, and environment that is the basic premise upon which Eastern medicine is built. The practitioner takes into account not only physical symptoms, but also everything the patient is experiencing mentally, socially, 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 approach, 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 involves being present to your state of being physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. On a physical level, this leads you to be responsive to your body’s signals as they arise. The same applies to the other levels of the whole. Health involves learning from your symptoms, and using this understanding to guide your choices as you go forward in life. Your symptoms become teachers of preventative care. Health in Eastern medicine also involves knowing your strengths and weaknesses. To know your weaknesses may be used to avoid repeating the same mistakes over and over again. To know your strengths may be used to recognize and then give the gifts you have to those around you, which leads to a sense of fulfillment and purpose. This is where the Theory of the Five Elements comes into play.
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 the part each plays in our evolving understanding of wellness:
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 come closer to a full understanding of health and ourselves.