The Sophistication of Not Knowing


This week I received another surprising email from an experienced practitioner looking for definitive answers to specific questions. If you find that you are studying in order to put more and more questions to rest, you will not be able to treat in the moment; you won’t be treating the individual in their unique humanity—you won’t be able to see or respect the limitless complexity each person presents. 

Questions about Chinese Medicine are not questions that get put to rest as they’re answered. They are questions that deepen and open as we become more familiar with their profundity. To be familiar with a question means that you and the question become like family. 

I asked quite a few questions of my teacher Jeffrey Yuen while I was at school until he said to me shortly before I graduated (and after I had received stunningly and exquisitely deep training from him) that when we ask questions we only doubt ourselves. I was taken aback but at the same time, something clicked and I felt an enormous mental opening. After that I asked him one additional question many years later in 2009, and a final one (so far) in 2011. The feeling of there being a never-ending amount to learn is still with me and increases every day. Rather than feel like a discouraging frustration, this is thrilling. What a privilege it is to be in a profession where we never run out of fascination, and never reach the end of questioning. And as we follow our own questions, we meet discovery and wonder, as the practice continually deepens.  

All answers are within us if we think in terms of principle rather than data. When the pilot Sully Sullenberger experienced his Airbus 320 being hit by a flock of geese in 2009, knocking out both his engines, he didn’t reach in his head for data, he went to principle and intuition. “My plane” were his first words. Even that was principle. Take a position in which to act, then work through principle—angle, tilt, wind, loft, glide and myriad things that only a trained pilot would know—to land in the Hudson River next to midtown Manhattan without a scratch on anyone. That’s what we do with the channels. Take a position and go to principle—are we working with wei qi, ying qi, yuan qi, expelling, consolidating, warming, releasing heat, regulating, dispersing, tonifying. The principles are the substance of the learning and apply universally, whereas data only relates to one individual measured in a moment of time, something that is gone by the time the data is printed. 

As I work with students and in training clinicians, I urge them not to collect knowledge, and not to “close the book” when they feel their questions are satisfied. If you look at a patient and arrive at a label (ah, this is a Heart Luo issue, or ah, this is a Yin Qiao channel issue) your vital sense of not-knowing is closing off in that moment. It can’t be said strongly enough that this kind of thinking is not our medicine. We mustn’t miss an opportunity to work with presence, in real time, with the healing of the person who has entrusted themselves to us.

Once you feel you have the answer, the learning is closed. Understanding—unlike answers—is shimmering, always moving, alive.

Ann Cecil-Sterman

March 10, 2023

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1 thought on “<strong>The Sophistication of Not Knowing</strong>”

  1. Dear Ann-Cecil

    this article is so much in sync with what I need to read, read again and again. Thank you so much, it’s like an angel came by and talked to me. I am sure I am not the only one.
    Thank you, your words are profound and helpful 🙏

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