An Acupuncture Treatment for Climate Change? Part 1

By guest blogger, Spring Cheng of the Resonance Path Institute.

Hard or Soft Reality?

Acupuncture? An ancient Chinese healing practice where a doctor pokes hair-thin needles into odd places they call “points” on a patient’s body? What does acupuncture have to do with climate change?

The issue of climate change touches everyone. Science seems to be the voice of authority. A Google search of “climate change” immediately pulls out these words, “facts you should know”, “evidence”, as well as diagram after diagram of atmospheric CO2 and temperature charts. But climate change seems to involve territory where science has a harder time to claim its all-knowing authority. For one thing, the authoritative voice of science is met with strong denial from the opposite side. For those who listen to the voice of science, climate change evokes intense emotional responses, fear, anger, despair, as well as passion and life-changing purpose. These responses lie in the domain of subjective experience, where the conventional scientific paradigm has largely failed to provide reliable maps and ways to navigate.

These emotional, subjective experiences are powerful – as climate change concerns the very foundation of humanity’s existence. Their influence reaches widely diverse populations – as every place on the planet is or will be affected by climate change. Yet, subjective experience is one tenacious “rebel” that defies the command of science.

Science in the way we know it is a discipline that studies Hard Reality – stuff that can be measured and quantified objectively with technological instruments. Science in Hard Reality is dominated by a materialistic and reductionist approach. With materialism, we believe that the world is made with Hard Reality materials only. Things which cannot be measured objectively, such as subjective experience, is either not real or a secondary property of Hard Reality stuff. From this view, as long as we understand everything about Hard Reality, we can not only explain but control every aspect of human experience including feeling, instinct, drive, and need. Reductionism views a system as made of parts, and parts are made of smaller parts… reduced all the way down to the smallest possible parts. When we figure out the properties of the smallest parts, we get a handle on how to control the system.


In the last 300 hundred years, Hard Reality science first flourished in Europe, reached its peak in America, then swept through one continent after another, riding on the waves of colonization and capitalism. With the tools and powers we conjured out of it, we have treated our natural environment mainly as an infinite source of raw materials. And we reduced these raw materials down to parts, cutting them into bits and using them at our will to meet our ever-expanding desires.

The materialistic and reductionist approach not only shapes the natural environment around us, but also profoundly shapes how we see ourselves. Modern western medicine primarily uses this approach to treat the human body. Western medicine breaks the body down into organs, organs into tissues, and tissues into cells. And then it breaks into the cell and discovers that there are different compartments inside the cell. When it breaks into the innermost chamber of the cell, it discovers the large molecules that carry the genetic information of an organism. Bingo! Now that we have the genetic blueprint showing how an organism is made, we can re-construct an organism as we wish!

In fact, I was trained in molecular biology. I have first-hand experience what manipulation of the genes can do to lab mice.

Applying a materialistic, reductionist approach to Hard Reality is immensely powerful. At the same time, this approach plays a central role in driving us into the dilemma of climate change. Human consumption of natural resources enabled by Hard Reality science has released unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, raising temperatures, melting glaciers, and jeopardizing our own access to clean water, food, and habitats.

It also does not address the ever-changing, amorphous human needs in the subjective realm, such as emotional nurturance, sense of belonging, purpose and meaning. If anything, the highly materialistic culture we live in brings on much higher level of mental stress and carves deeper trenches of loneliness that traps us.


The limitation of the materialistic/reductionist approach is now acutely felt in the arena of medicine. On the west coast of America where I live, acupuncture and other holistic healing modalities are becoming increasingly popular choices as people’s confidence in western medical paradigm falters.

When my first career as a molecular biologist did not feed my heart’s longing for meaning, I switched my career to acupuncture and Chinese medicine. It was my way to reconnect with the broken lineage of my ancestors – both my paternal and maternal grandfathers were in this profession before western medicine became the dominant medical paradigm in China.

Seeing Through My Ancestors’ Eyes

A materialistic and reductionist view of acupuncture is simply sticking needles into the body. Yet it is far more than that. Acupuncture is the application of a set of perceptual lenses through which my ancestors saw the world. When I peeked through those lenses myself, I saw a world completely different from the lens of Hard Reality science. Let me first describe the view of human bodies through these lenses before I present how this can be relevant to climate change.

In contrast to Hard Reality, acupuncture and Chinese medicine is an ancient technology of Soft Reality Science. It primarily employs a trans-materialistic and holistic paradigm. It is trans-materialistic in that it acknowledges an immaterial overlay over the visible materiality of the body. This overlay cannot be objectively measured by a mechanical instrument. However, it can be perceived and sensed by the “instrument” of the practitioner.


This immaterial overlay is called Qi (pronounced as Chi). When your acupuncturist talks about your kidney Qi, she means not just the one-and-a-half pound, bean-shaped organ by your waist, but a whole bunch of other stuff having to do with your psyche and emotions as well as ancestral influences.

At the same time, Qi is also not a religious or spiritual belief. Nor is it associated with a Spirit or Godhead. It is not relevant to talk about Qi in abstract form without a material medium. Qi is an actual empirical experience that can be consistently taught and trained through Qigong, the practice of Qi. One should not believe in Qi, just as much as one should not just believe in the taste of a fresh, juicy mango. Qi is to be experienced, felt, and tasted. In that sense, Qigong and acupuncture are akin to a scientific process as both of them emphasize “data”; however the data of Qi-related practice comes from our own perceptions.

In contrast to being reductionist, acupuncture is holistic. It says a complex system such as a body has its own intelligence, which cannot be known by only investigating its parts.  A car is not a complex system. Its mechanics can be totally reconstructed by knowing its parts. The human body is different. You will never completely understand a human body by studying its parts. Thus, Chinese medicine made little attempt to study anatomy during its two-thousand years of history. It heals the body by promoting the inter-connectivity between different parts, such as liver and lung, and encourages them to “communicate” with each other using the systemic language of Qi.

In western medicine, a hepatologist and a pulmonologist have a hard time communicating with each other. Western medicine is very much developed in specialties. Each separate specialty has a rich repertoire of terminologies that can be opaque to anyone but the specialists.

A traditionally trained Chinese medicine practitioner must become “fluent” in speaking the language of Qi at the systemic level. She trains and refines her five senses as instruments to see, hear, smell, touch or even taste the patients! Through synthesizing the complex signals from all senses, she derives a pattern about the patient’s Qi. Then she conducts healing by activating resonance between her own Qi and her patient’s Qi, with the mediation of needles. In fact, skilled acupuncturists can evoke resonance in a patient’s Qi without needles.

For western medical practice, this is unthinkable. A western doctor primarily applies his intellectual faculty and the host of laboratory instruments to diagnose the patient. A western doctor treats with pills or surgical tools. Often his sensory faculties play only a minor supporting role, and he mostly keeps his own body out of the equation.


The Reductionist Representation of Soft Reality Science

You may say, wait a minute, my acupuncturist never does any of that! She asks me about my symptoms, and then sticks the needle in me. That’s it! Not much different from the western doctor.

This is exactly the sad reality of the ancient wisdom of Soft Reality science in the modern age. In the Hard Reality dominated modernity, Soft Reality practices themselves are subjected to the cutting of materialistic and reductionist approaches. Acupuncture as well as many other indigenous practices and rituals from pre-industrial times have been co-opted and appropriated by reductionism.

Both in modern China and the west, acupuncture has already been greatly reduced from its traditional way of practice. More like western medicine, instead of prescribing pills, the acupuncturist now prescribes “points” to treat. Moreover, the traditional cultural and economic relationships that supported the old way of practice have been replaced by the capitalistic economic structure, driving the old way into extinction. For example, the palpatory procedure in which the doctor “listens” to the Qi of patient’s body was a critical step to engage with the Soft Reality. This procedure is not taught at most schools and is not seen as valid. Nor is it paid by insurance companies.

It was after I realized that my beloved healing art was not immune to the reductionist approach that I decided to quit acupuncture as a profession. I remember weeping in my heart when I was sitting in an insurance company’s seminar to discover that that I would be paid by the number of acupuncture points performed on a patient.

I felt insulted and humiliated on behalf of my grandfathers. Can you imagine Mozart comes to China and plays piano on the street to a crowd of people deaf to his music? Not only that, they see his playing as a mechanical activity and decide to pay him by the times his fingers pound the keys? Not only that, they make rules to tell him how to play so that they can streamline the payment procedure? Through my tears, I saw my ancestors sighing in their graves. They gaze into a hazy, distant future and urge me to turn my attention to a much larger “body” ….

Climate  the Qi of Nature

Now, let us turn our attention to the relationship between acupuncture and climate change. The word “climate” in Chinese consists of two characters. The first one is 天, which means “sky” as well as the set of natural laws that govern how Earth and celestial bodies are in relationship with each other. The second character is 氣. Guess what, it is the Qi. So to the Chinese, climate represents the Qi, the immaterial overlay of nature, all the “stuff” that the materialistic and reductionist Hard Reality science has invalidated, ignored or subjugated as “secondary” properties!

Not only were the ancient Chinese aware of Qi, the immaterial medium that connects between different parts of a body and speaks the intelligence of the body; they also recognized that nature, just like our human body, communicates between its different parts through its own Qi, the climate pattern!

If we choose to perceive nature as an intelligent system, then climate is its language. When I listen, I hear that Climate Change is nature’s way to communicate to us: “Stop your obsession with the power you have wielded through Hard Reality science. Pay attention to the Soft Reality. It is real in its own way too!”


Credit: Jason Hunter’s original work under creative commons.
The original work is modified.

The Qi of nature and the Qi of a human are inter-connected. In Chinese medicine diagnosis, we would use the atmospheric factors to describe the quality of Qi in a person, such as heat, cold, dampness, and dryness. And each of these atmospheric factors is associated with a spectrum of emotional quality as well.

In Chinese language, the character Qi, 氣, is also associated with psychological and emotional qualities ranging from bravery, determination, compassion to resentment, ill intention and wrath. Qi is simply the non-dualistic potential, able to express itself through all spectra of subjective experience. In other words, the climate of nature and the climate of our subjective, emotional experience is a continuous whole, with one influencing another.

Maybe quantum physics just started to break into areas of knowledge that would one day provide us with logical explanations of how the internal climate and the external climate continually influence each other. For now, we know that climate change is calling humans to collaborate at an unprecedented scale and depth. It is calling us to embark on an incredibly challenging journey. Through this journey, we will have the chance to re-forge the kind of intimacy, trust and synchronization that we once only shared among a small community of blood-related family. The immense crisis we collectively face right now plus the power of modern technology is rapidly activating that level of collective agency.

However, there are complex “climate patterns” in front of us, patterns formed out of the legacy of our civilization, such as patriarch dominance, racial oppression, and implicit power dynamics set in place by economic structures. If we don’t know how to navigate these “climate patterns”, there is little chance we will reach the kind of collaboration needed to navigate this journey safely.

To be continued…

Note: This post is republished with permission of the Resonance Path Institute.


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