Restorative Versus Transformational Acupuncture

By Alex Lochhead - Five Element Acupuncturist -

I seem to be going through a phase of treating other acupuncturists at the moment, which is a good opportunity to learn more about other practitioners’ treatment styles and opinions.  Whilst treating a very experienced practitioner we got talking about the difference between restorative acupuncture versus transformational acupuncture.

Traditional acupuncture, as developed in ancient China, was part of a system of ‘living well’ or the much-coined phrase ‘wellbeing’.  It stemmed from Taoist (pronounced Dow-ist) philosophy that acknowledges we each have a particular path to tread that needs tuning into.  Taosim is not a religion, more a teaching.  It’s a way to live respectfully and harmoniously with nature, one another and ourselves.  Acupuncture grew as an extension of this philosophy to offer a care system helping us to move towards the Tao, our intended path or destiny.  The theory goes that if we are following the Tao, we remain healthy in body, mind and our spirit.

Five Element Acupuncture stems from Taoist traditional teachings and is one facet of achieving a balanced and meaningful life. Shen Cycle diagram by Jennifer Potter, York.

Five Element Acupuncture stems from Taoist traditional teachings and is one facet of achieving a balanced and meaningful life. Shen Cycle diagram by Jennifer Potter, York.

When I sit here and think about that, it suddenly seems like a very lofty and intimidating career choice, to help people find their destiny!  However, it’s not. A strong theme within all Taoist teachings is humility and respect of the simple and the small.  Tuning in to one’s own Tao or destiny need not be some humongous, dramatic, painful struggle, more a quiet and still listening moment.  It doesn’t need a fanfare or expensive courses in therapy, self help books, trips to mount Kilimanjaro.  It simply needs quiet reflection, soft eyes, listening ears and time.  We all know the feeling when something feels instinctively right.  It might be described as ‘heart felt’ or ‘intuitive’ or a ‘gut feeling’.  Whatever it’s called, you will have experienced it in action.  This is Tao.

Few new patients I meet choose acupuncture as a mode of achieving their destiny.  I certainly didn’t expect to have destiny as a regular work-based concept when I began studying acupuncture back in 2006.  I approached acupuncture from the angle of fixing bodies.  Frankly, I thought it was all about stimulating nerve endings and giving advice on posture or such like.  Big mistake.  And a happy one too!  On discovering this whole extra world of meaning I discovered that acupuncture, when practiced from the ancient perspective is capable of offering both a restorative treatment and a transformational one.

What does that mean?  In simple, or Taoist terms, restorative is about bringing a body or mind back into what the patient considers the norm, acceptable, preferable or what they are used to.  Transformational is more concerned with a change in perception, an awakening, a realisation or a spiritual/emotional shift.

A purely restorative experience would be a patient suffering a migraine coming from treatment, finding that acupuncture reduces the incidence of their pain and they feel restored to their preferred physical and emotional state.  Job done, thank you very much, see you in six weeks!  A restorative treatment could lead to a transformational experience if the patient achieves a new understanding of themselves, their life, their health, which moves them forward in a way that opens up new channels of awareness in their life.  This might mean a greater appreciation of what good health means, how their lifestyle might contribute to being migraine free.  In general terms it would mean an emotional or spiritual step forward, a higher awareness for want of a better term.

A transformational experience, can however, exist without a restorative state and this is usually expressed as a move forward in the ‘awareness’ or ‘perception’ stakes rather than the physical.  In clinical experience this is where a patients’ original symptoms have not improved or altered or may not even be capable of changing due to severity, but their perception of how these effect their life has.  This, I feel, is where the true magic of acupuncture lies.  I’ll be the first to admit that it comes with an air of disappointment, as there is no change in the physical condition.  This particularly troubled me as a newly qualified practitioner, when every improvement in a patients’ condition comes loaded with meaning.  Are my treatments effective? Does the patient value me?  Do I offer good value?  Do I believe in the power of acupuncture to heal?

All of this aside, there is something so powerful, significant and awe-inspiring when you see someone transform their view point.  When they ‘get it’, understand more or overcome a barrier that has been obstructing them.   This is where the magic lies for me.  I’m not going to try to offer an explanation as to how it happens.  I feel that it is unique to each person who experiences it.  It could be the fact they have taken time out of their day to think in a slightly different manner to usual.  It could be the time spent talking and sharing together during the treatment.  It might be the needles, it might be the lie down.  I just don’t know.  Taoist belief suggests we should not question the Tao.  It is what it is.  Is this truly the Tao at work?  I hope so, but who am I to question?

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