Monday, 7 October 2013

A Different Taste: Traditional Chinese Medicine and Cura Personalis

By Edmund Lo, S.J.

Chinese herbs boiled by Edmund Lo

The autumn season is indeed upon us, and this also means that the cold/flu season has arrived. This season coincided with the shutdown of my immune system, perhaps as a result of two consecutive working weekends. This is an indirect and reluctant way to say that I fell ill. I usually fall ill at the end of the school semester, when the immune system is no longer on overdrive. This would normally give me more free time to recover. Since we are currently in the middle of the semester, I do not have such a luxury. Hence I decided to pay a visit to a Chinese herbal doctor.

Those of you who are familiar with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) will immediately recall both the somewhat repulsive smell and taste of the potions. A friend of mine even commented that “sickness is preferable” to having to drink them. I, however, do not mind them; as a wee boy who was always sick, I had to drink them on a daily basis for almost two years. I have been properly-trained to ignore the associated bitter taste. But what draws me back to TCM is not a kind of operant conditioning, as if disgusting taste leads to better health. It is rather the holistic approach.

By holistic, I mean that TCM considers the physical human body as a functioning whole, rather than functioning parts that work in a discrete fashion. For example, many of our illnesses are caused by bacterial or viral infections. Western medicine focuses on eliminating the cause of the problem: the invaders themselves. This explains the design and use of antibiotics and antiviral drugs. While these drugs aggressively pursue the intruding bugs, it is not uncommon that they cause unwanted side-effects.

On the other hand, TCM is not about initiating a strike on the intruders. It is about reinforcing the systems as a whole. This includes the strengthening of one's own line of defence that is the immune system. It also addresses other secondary issues: if the damages elicited by the intruders prevent the proper functioning of the circulatory or digestive system, this will also be dealt with; if the main remedy is too aggressive or toxic, other components will be added to neutralize the possibility of collateral damage.

This highlights one of the important characteristics of TCM: its focus is the medicinal effect brought about by the combination of herbs, but not an investigation of the whats and hows on an isolated, molecular level. It is not quackery; it is just a different system of thought that needs to be understood. This is similar to its terminology: “wind”, “heat” and “wetness” are merely ways to describe the state of imbalance in the different systems.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of TCM is that it is personal. In addition to assessing the symptoms, a Chinese herbal doctor assesses how the different systems are functioning in your body at the moment. This in turn determines the proper dosages and combinations of herbs. Therefore, herbs are neither prescribed just because such and such symptoms are present, nor are they one-sizes-fits-all and come in the same dosage for every adults. This is a highly-personalized and balanced cocktail of herbs.

For this reason, the illness does not disappear with one wave of the magic wand, but it is also better and less harsh on the human body. This personalized and holistic approach promotes a sustainable development and strengthening from the ground up. I find this approach quite similar to what we understand as cura personalis, or the care of the whole person in Jesuit education. It is centred on the person, and it encourages a kind of formation that ensures a balanced and solid foundation. It is never lopsided. Perhaps this is the reason why I very much resonate with the TCM approach.

TCM is a complete caring for the person's physical body. It is a holistic approach on the biological plane. Our health can also be affected by other factors such as stressful situations. We may be able to alleviate the biological foundation of stress, but the cause of stress remains. Our psychological, emotional and spiritual well-being matter when it comes to our health. As Christians we are called to be instruments of Christ's healing power. Next time you meet someone who is ill, do not just ask about the biological signs. Try to see how he or she is doing on the other fronts. This is what a true cura personalis calls for.

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