As an Acupuncturist, I regard myself as part of the ‘Complementary Medicine’ or even the ‘Traditional Medicine’ community. In all the years I have practiced I have never really seen myself as engaged in something called ‘Alternative’ Medicine. Complementary versus Alternative… what’s in a word? I would just like to take a minute or two to argue that there might actually be a world of difference. Even people within the profession often use the two terms interchangeably, but to me, at the heart of this is a debate about two opposing mindsets. If only for the sake of better clarity, I think this is a debate worth having.
The crux of the matter, I believe, lies in attitudes towards what I’m going to call Western Medicine (yet another label!). In this case I’m using ‘Western Medicine’ to refer to the standard medical profession as practiced in this country by the NHS. It’s what you get when you go to see your GP, or spend time in hospital. We’ve all had some, and arguably many of us might not now be alive if we hadn’t! This is essentially a science and technology-based approach to human health that relies as its mainstays upon drug therapies, for example antibiotics, and surgery. It also of course includes an entire range of modalities such as physiotherapy and psychotherapy.
Western Medicine is a vast, highly sophisticated system, that, love it or hate it, is not going away anytime soon. It will most likely continue to be the dominant system for delivering health across the world for the imaginable future. But inevitably, there are problems with Western Medicine, and I believe that it is the response to these problems that defines the difference between Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
So what are the problems with Western Medicine? Some are very obvious: drugs frequently induce very unwelcome side-effects, sometimes requiring even more drugs to combat those effects. Surgery is also not without its hazards. Then there exists an entire range of concerns about the influence of corporate financial interest (the dreaded Big Pharma) or cynical political interference. Arguably some drugs are not tested adequately, and so on and so forth. There really are good grounds to be concerned about many of these issues, even if they do provide endless fodder for some of the wilder conspiracy theories.
So if, as an Acupuncturist, I side with some of the broader critiques of Western Medicine, why am I still not comfortable with the term ‘Alternative Medicine’? Simple: because in my experience the label arises out of a mindset that is fundamentally antagonistic. This doesn’t always benefit the patient, and it is the patient that matters!
‘Alternative Medicine’ tends to arise out of a desire to oppose the ‘system’, the system in this case being the entire framework of Western Medicine and most especially, Big Pharma. Even though there are genuine concerns (and genuine people) behind these attitudes, I’m always dismayed when some within the Alternative community produce a strident knee-jerk response to the actions of institutions or individuals they basically view as ‘the enemy’. Their argument tends to go like this: Big Pharma rules the planet, aided and abetted by corrupt politicians and self-serving scientists. Doctors are either brainwashed by their medical training (and therefore unconsciously harming people all day, every day) or for selfish reasons are actively promoting products that damage the public wellbeing. Finally, all drugs, especially vaccines, are bad, bad, bad. The antidote to this medical dystopia, apparently, is to deliver ‘Alternative Medicine’ which is totally natural, safe and in every case vastly more effective than Western Medicine. It’s called Alternative because it aims to replace drugs or surgery entirely. Yikes! I’m not exaggerating here; I have actually witnessed a colleague many years ago tell someone with an advanced lung infection not to take their prescribed antibiotics, because that would be ‘dangerous’ for them. The patient went on to develop acute double-pneumonia and nearly died – to me, a triumph of ideology over common sense and basically, bad practice.
‘Complementary Medicine’ on the other hand, is far less ideologically driven and has, I might argue, a more realistic approach to human health. The way I see it, my Acupuncture treatments are designed to work with, and around, whatever Western Medical treatments a patient is undergoing. Yes, drugs can sometimes produce nasty side-effects and it would be truly wonderful if no one ever had to take them, but that’s not going to happen. Some people are only on their feet, or alive at all, because of their drugs. Yes, it is often true that after a course of treatment some patients can be sufficiently well enough to go back to their doctor and negotiate, less, or different drugs, but that is still very much a case of working with the doctor, not instead of them. Very often people come to me specifically to help counter the side-effects of their medication, and this can be very effective. Nobody ever suggests they should stop taking the drugs! Or take the case of someone who has just had a massive heart attack or been run over by a truck. Do they call their Acupuncturist? A Herbalist? A Reflexologist? No! Of course they don’t: they call an ambulance and then come and see a Complementary practitioner for some assistance with their rehabilitation – after they’re out of hospital and in a stable condition. In this way Acupuncture, and many other therapies, can ‘complement’ standard medical care and also be flexible enough to provide that ‘bigger picture’ that sees the whole person and not just their symptoms. I call that teamwork, and if we are really going to deliver the best possible healthcare in this country, then there really is no ‘alternative’ to teamwork.
I’ve been working as an Acupuncturist for almost twenty-five years. One of the buzz-words in pretty much all Complementary Medicine is ‘grounding’, and that is something I have been discussing with clients for a very long time. Now, in the midst of a highly challenging Covid-19 pandemic, the need to manage our anxieties and stay focused seems greater than ever. Over the years I have lost count of the number of people who have come to me saying they want my Acupuncture to help them ‘feel more grounded’. I’d like to think that it really does, but this blog is not about Acupuncture as such.
So, if being ‘grounded’ is such a common ambition, why does it seem so hard to achieve? My observation has always been that a failure to ground oneself is much more a matter of clarity than ability. In other words, you can’t take the necessary steps to ground yourself until you know exactly what you mean by ‘grounding’.
To get a feel for this, I think it’s useful to take a brief look at what being grounded is not! What would be the exact opposite of that happy state? Here’s a provisional checklist just to give a flavour, although no doubt it could be longer:
In my experience, being grounded is NOT:
Feeling nervous or anxious. Feeling distracted. Feeling overwhelmed. Feeling like you’re just not coping. Having your head in the clouds and being a bit of a ‘dreamer’. Swinging between emotional highs and lows. Being inconsistent. Focusing on the relatively trivial at the expense of what really matters to you. Being unable to concentrate. Dividing your time and energy in a haphazard way that limits what you actually achieve. Feeling that you’re just getting through each day, rather than actually living it. Not being able to switch your mind off, especially when you know you should be sleeping. Distracting yourself with, for instance, TV or shopping. Having great plans, but never seeing them through. Procrastinating. Being unrealistic. Feeling you’re going round in circles. Ignoring daily practicalities. Putting your personal wellbeing on almost permanent hold. Not allowing yourself enough time to rest, either mentally or physically… in short, running around like the proverbial headless chicken!
Any of that sound familiar to you? I’ll be the first to put my hand up and admit that I am sometimes guilty of pretty much everything on the list! But that’s ok, because this isn’t about being perfect or ‘getting it right’; at least not at first anyway. This is more about taking appropriate steps to slowly but surely bring your life ever more under your own conscious control. So now we’ve had a look at what being ungrounded might mean, how about its opposite? To me as a therapist, a grounded person usually looks a lot like this:
Well, that’s all very well, you might say, but how would you ever get there? It’s always been my observation that for most of us, ‘grounding’ takes a bit of practice. It’s a life skill, and one that doesn’t always come naturally, especially in the midst of 21st Century information overload. But where to even start?
Fortunately, at least one group of people spent a great deal of time (actually, centuries), trying to answer just that question. They didn’t invent ‘grounding’, but they certainly came to know a great deal about it. These were the ancient Chinese Daoists; philosophers who gave the world such technologies as Acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, T’ai Chi (and its cousin, Chi Kung); not to mention highly sophisticated meditation, martial arts and exercise techniques. Engaging with any one of these would be extremely useful in helping you ground yourself. But that’s really not the point: any good Daoist would also have told you that grounding is not really a matter of technique – it’s more a matter of attitude.
By ‘attitude’, I mean that any one of us can adopt a certain mindset that includes the firm intention to stay grounded. We can start this today: right here, right now, and we don’t need to be a special sort of person or know anything about obscure Asian practices. (Those would help tremendously, of course, but they often require a lifelong commitment and are not to everyone’s taste). Fortunately, you don’t need to be a wise old meditation master to get the results you want. What one really needs are qualities like: honesty (with oneself), consistency, a sense of humour, a commitment to wellbeing, a willingness to always ‘see the bigger picture’ and to always keep a sense of perspective. Finally, what is needed is a willingness to accept ourselves as we are, which includes our inevitable daily failures.
Those ancient Chinese Daoists were extraordinarily practical and realistic people. They knew that to constantly get things wrong was simply to be human. They also knew that with the right attitude and a little application, we could all be happier and far more grounded humans. I think that has got to be something worth trying!
This blog is designed to pique your interest. It’s clearly not an attempt to provide a ‘how to do it’ guide. If you have any questions about anything I’ve written here, please feel free to contact me. An email would be just fine!