We all want to feel safe, especially now.
Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum between “free spirit” and “control freak”, at some point even the freest of spirits among us meets their match and battens down the hatches. So maybe feeling safe means being in as much control as we feel we need to be so that we can live our lives the way we want to. And this is different for each of us, depending on personal disposition, experience, and socioeconomic circumstances.
The A-OK sign is a well known mudra that brings the tips of the index finger and thumb together. It signifies the balancing of order with letting go. Think of the index finger as your order maker, your “decider in chief.” Yes I did. And your thumb as your hitchhiking digit, a rudderless sail following the wind wherever it goes. Balancing when to hold on and when to let go is something we all do, all the time.
The drive to control is amplified when the puzzle is deadly. I think most of us want COVID-19 under control. But do we want it enough to open our imaginations to what we don’t know? I’ve been thinking about the intersection of imagination (letting go) and analysis (order). Especially with respect to problem solving, and particularly with respect to solving THIS problem. Can control get in the way of finding the fastest, most effective solution if it ends up limiting imagination, imagination that includes an openness to other ideas?
In his 2008 TED talk, The Puzzle of Motivation, Dan Pink lays out the science behind productivity, specifically the science of creative problem solving. He describes Federal Reserve Bank funded research by economists from M.I.T., Carnegie-Mellon, the London School of Economics – the list does go on – research that establishes how a highly controlled work atmosphere leads to lower productivity when it comes to problem solving. When money is added as an incentive, overall productivity sinks even further. How does this figure into the “push” for a solution, or even the considering of other solutions beyond a vaccine or immunotherapy?
Problem solving relies on peripheral vision, on being able to soften one’s focus away from a fixed point. Einstein, Descartes and other ground breaking scientists, made major breakthroughs in their dreams. It doesn’t get anymore peripheral than that. Descartes went further and described his dream as a divine spirit revealing a new philosophy to him, one that would become the Scientific Method.
To Descartes’ emphasis on linear method, add Sir Isaac Newton’s discovery of the Laws of Motion, which are still the defining lens of our everyday physical reality, and you have the basis of our modern reality. But we forget that this way of seeing the world came to us via problem solving derived from peripheral vision.
When problem solving hits an impasse, the invitation is to look around at other ideas, to look beyond one’s familiar horizon. To even look at other kinds of medicine.
During the coronavirus outbreak in 2003 (SARS), the late Dr. Deng Tietao (1916-2019) treated over a hundred patients back to health, seventy-six of whom were very sick. Using Chinese medicine, the 87 year old doctor achieved what are referred to as the three zeros:
· No fatalities.
· No patient’s transferred to more intensive care.
· No staff members fell ill.
In March of this year a team of Chinese Medicine doctors led by Dr. Liu Lihong negotiated their way on to the frontline in Wuhan to follow the late Dr. Deng’s success in treating SARS. Negotiated, because Chinese medicine is not mainstream medicine in China; since the Democratic movement of the early 20th Century, followed by Community system, Western medicine has been by far the mainstream lens of medicine in China. Only now, is the country reconsidering its own medicine en masse, in large part due to its success in treating COVID-19.
In his presentation to a Western and Chinese Medicine audience earlier this year, The Role of Chinese Medicine in the COVID-19 Epidemic, Dr. Liu described his patient selection process:
… prospective patients had to exhibit both obvious signs of discomfort and a certain degree of severity. We were hoping to have a chance to work with those patients rather than those who only exhibited mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.
All of his patients survived, and again, none of the providers fell ill. The caretakers were taking a combination of herbal formulas for prevention, while the patients were receiving acupuncture along with their treatment formulas. A renowned herbalist who has more recently come to acupuncture, Dr. Liu also observed:
Most of the patients we have seen so far, actually, were put on oxygen at one time or another. As for the sensation of chest fullness, most patients had already become used to this symptom and did not in all cases report it to us. It was only after we started to administer acupuncture that they noticed an immediate difference: stuffy before, and wide open afterwards. 
Our world views determine what seems practical, or even realistic. There’s a certain comfort in dogma that says “this way is the only way.” I’m thinking of dogmatic religious people and dogmatic scientific people. You, know, the fish symbol bumper stickers depicting Christ vs. the walking fish symbol depicting evolution. Chinese medicine, born of Chinese philosophy, is an ongoing multi-millennial dialog of observations exploring the intricacies of evolution, with a core of mystery at its source. Why separate the two?
We have the Big Bang. I pretty much accepted this miracle prima facie. I think this utter mystery was the lure for me into modern science. When I first heard the term I was half day dreaming in my 3rd grade classroom, and I thought my teacher was sharing a Greek myth. Out of nothing, everything. That’s how it still sounds to me. Many phenomenon in the reality of quantum physics likewise show matter behaving outside the bounds of it’s normal behavior. What physical law enables the simultaneous, synchronized movements of thousands of fish in a school? Or a flock of birds to turn on a dime with no leader? Or time to slow down and speed up depending on how close an orbiting satellite is to the Earth? Or people who perceive numbers as colors and shapes, see sounds as colors, taste words, and other forms of synesthesia.
Climate change, verified by modern science, is also acknowledged by Chinese philosophy and furthermore, considered to be a causative factor of this pandemic. As Dr. Liu Lihong suggests at the end of his brilliant piece about Chinese medicine’s evolution via epidemics, Don’t Just Fixate on the Virus: Thoughts from Quarantine in Guilin:
The question of whether or not humanity can focus on the other two conditions outlined above, those that do not just focus on killing the virus—efforts toward a decrease of unseasonal preconditions, for instance—are inextricably linked to our respect for the natural world and our willingness to conserve its resources and decrease the emission of greenhouse gases.
What does a modern science trained mind do with Chinese medicine’s unique differential diagnostic method that speaks in terms of climatic factors like Hot, Cold, Damp, Dry, and Wind? They’re important enough to be capitalized since all disease is explained in terms of these climatic factors, from the interlinked systems working inside the body, to the interlinked systems of the environments each of us live in. Why else would Florida be such a popular retirement destination?
This makes perfect sense from a Chinese medicine perspective when it comes to COVID-19, because Wuhan is at the confluence of two major rivers and is damp most of the year. And this past winter was the warmest one in the 60 year calendrical cycle of Chinese science. Our way of measure time and space, by the way, is derived from this same very base 60 system. 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 360 degrees (6×60). The significance of such a warm winter is that it throws off the natural hibernation cycle of the natural world, allowing for the spawning of unusual diseases.
Damp qualities are the reason why this disease can linger and weigh down the lungs, seemingly disappear, and return. Most lovers of autumn aren’t in it just for the changing of the leaves. The heavy Damp-Heat of late summer is evaporated by the rescuing Dryness of fall. It makes for easier breathing.
Medicine is the pragmatic expression of a world view. And the medicine we choose for ourselves is a sacred choice . It’s very, very important to use medicine we believe in. In fact, the efficacy of any medicine is greatly enhanced by our belief in it. Sure, there are pills or herbs that will flat out kill you regardless of your beliefs. But, the placebo effect is at play in all medicine, including FDA approved pharmaceuticals with great track records.
Ted Kaptchuk, a faculty member of Harvard Medical School and director of the Harvard Program in Placebo Studies, is known to many students of Chinese medicine for his bridging exploration of the differences between Western and Eastern medicine in The Web That Has No Weaver.
Kaptchuk’s research has come to focus on the “placebo effect” of the relationship and ritual with which medicine is administered, with the goal in mind of transforming the art of medicine into what he’s calling the science of clinical care. He wants doctors and other physicians to spend more, not less, time with their patients. Because it makes for better medicine. He’s calling it the science of clinical care, in contrast to the machine of, hurry up and get ‘er done, modern medicine. His research is showing that the human dimension of healthcare needs to be elevated again for the vital role it plays in healing. It’s a science that can treat symptoms, and even the change in the course of an illness, without pharmaceuticals.
Kaptchuk’s main point is not that effective pharmaceutical drugs don’t work, but that they are far more effective when we believe in them and those who are prescribing them. We have a built-in anticipatory mechanism that preps our brains to perceive reality according to environment. If we walk into a forest known to be full of snakes, a stick is more readily perceived to be a snake.
“When a person feels sick and you go into an environment that’s designed to help you, where everyone wants to provide you relief, the brain’s processing of sensations, self awareness and symptoms changes sometimes in a very positive way.”
His findings show that the placebo effect, in my words, is actually a healing phenomenon inherent in all medicine. Do you trust your doctor? Are you open to your doctor’s assumptions around healing? Do you know everything that’s going on in your medical situation, at a biochemical level, or are you going forward with a faith, and the belief borne of this faith, that your doctors credentials, assumptions, and instincts will help you?
One of Kaptchuk’s trials using placebos alongside Maxalt, a highly regarded migraine medicine, concluded:
The effect was monotonic for placebo and nearly monotonic for Maxalt. Two other findings were that (a) placebo treatment mislabeled as 10mg Maxalt reduced headache severity as effectively as Maxalt mislabeled as placebo, and (b) open-label placebo treatment was superior to no treatment.
Statistically, the effectiveness of pain treatment for migraine was almost the same, between the placebo and Maxalt, when they were mislabeled. Maxalt was very effective only in the instances where it was correctly labelled as “Maxalt.” When it was labelled “placebo” it was very slightly more effective than a placebo labelled “maxalt.” So little that the statistical difference is considered null.
In this same TEDMED talk Kaptchuk shares research that followed the progress of 262 patients suffering from acute IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). The were divided into three different groups.
· Group 1 members filled in a basic intake form and received no placebo.
· Group 2 members filled in the basic intake form, were given a placebo and had their vitals checked (no engaged care).
· Group 3 members filled in the basic intake form, were given a placebo along with a 45 minute, engaged care, interview
(engaged care = active listening, questions, and laying on of hands).
Here are the results, with the number in each case indicating percentage of people experience adequate relief in each of the three groups:
Kaptchuk is also a proponent of open placebos, whereby the participants are informed that the pills they’re taking are sugar pills that contain no active medication. In a study, reported in the Harvard Gazette, consisting of 80 IBS sufferers divided into two groups, with one group taking nothing and the second group taking a an unmasked placebo that read ‘placebo’ on the label, the later group experienced twice the rate of improvement. Which is roughly equal to the rate of improvement that patients taking powerful IBS medications experience.
My point is that the efficacy of a particular kind of medicine is based on one’s belief system. And that this bias can limit the available options we might choose from, even when that solution is working, as is the case with Chinese medicine and COVID in the here and now.
What are we missing when unexplainable events are ignored and discarded, instead of being collected and studied? Like the numerous accounts of second hand memories acquired after liver transplants. The fortunate recipients seem to possess full memories of experiences they’ve never actually lived, but are later confirmed to be have been those of the deceased donor. Or people with multiple personalities who are HIV positive in one personality, and not in another. Or diabetic in one and not the other. Talk about mind over matter, right down to the blood test. Whenever something doesn’t feel comfortable in the lens of modern medical science, it’s typically forgotten, just like characters in the Bible who are alive on one page, and then never mentioned again.
If an 87 year old doctor was able to cure over a hundred patients using only acupuncture and herbal medicine during the SARS epidemic in 2003, over 70 of whom were very ill, is it worth investigating further?
Furthermore, if none of his staff fell ill, was that shear luck? Or the fact that they too were taking herbal formulas, ones designed to prevent infection? While 20% of the total number of 8,439 cases of SARS were infected medical staff, Dr. Deng’s staff remained healthy.
If you think there’s only one lens through which to approach this disease, then you probably aren’t going to be very open to what you would consider to be outside of your belief system. Even if the solution is at, or just beyond, the periphery of your vision. Why don’t we do what our great scientists have done to get us to this point, and open our fields of vision to what we don’t know?