Slow Chinese Medicine: Twenty Years of Learning and Experimenting
Slow food is an organisation founded in Italy in 1986 as an alternative to everything that fast food stands for. It focuses on quality rather than quantity, on local ecosystems, and on small businesses that it argues should be simultaneously protected from and included in the global food system. Slow Chinese medicine is something that has gradually been developing in Italy, too, over the course of the last twenty years without anyone being involved knowing about it.
In late 2000, a group of German students that were about to finish an introductory course in Chinese herbal medicine, asked me whether I would be willing to teach them a bit more. I agreed under the condition that rather than more weekend courses, we would try to do this in a more relaxed setting in a warmer climate and as a kind of retreat over the space of a week. At the time, I assume that that would be that. How wrong one can be. The students found a large farmhouse on the Tuscan/Umbrian border above Lago Trasimeno in Italy where we met in late July of the following year for a week of communal living, cooking and studying treatment strategies for the Heart and Liver. Everyone enjoyed themselves and so we decided to do it all again the next summer.
This year marked the twentieth anniversary of what by now has become a twice yearly week-long retreat in the hills between Volterra and Cecina in the Etruscan part of Tuscany. Over the years we tried different places - Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Germany), Istria (Croatia) and even Bali - but eventually Tuscany won out because it has the best of everything: food, coffee, wine, weather, landscape, culture, cycling.
Over the years, students have come and gone but always in a manner that ensured coherence of the group itself, which feels unchanged even though its composition is always different. We are also growing increasingly international with participants now coming from Austria, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Hong Kong as well as Germany. While it was great fun and produced some memorable dinners we eventually decided to ditch communal cooking in favour of having meals cooked for us. It simply was taking up too much time. Instead of the remote farmhouse where it all started we now stay in a remote slightly more comfortable seminar hotel with a swimming pool. Teaching now happens indoors so we can use power-point presentations (some times).
The most important things, though, have stayed the same. We study in the morning and late afternoon with a long four hour lunch break that permits for trips to the seaside, cycle rides or relaxing siestas. This allows for six days of teaching/learning without causing everyone to be utterly exhausted by the end. Unlike the dissipative energy that characterises conventional weekend-type seminars, where everyone just wants to go home on the Sunday afternoon, there is sufficient time, too, for the group to come and stay together. Newcomers are always welcome and by the end of their first stay feel established members of the wider group. The weather is usually good - although some of us have memories of an exceptionally cold year, where we had to wear winter clothes in the summer, of a forty degree heatwave during another July, and of a beetle infestation that stripped all the leaves of the local oak trees. Some of us had the chance to come with partners and even children.
Several times I felt that this year surely was going to be the last. Yet, it never was. Now I hope there will be many more years to come. For it is the best teaching space I could ever have imagined to be working in. By that I do not mean the location, although that surely plays a part. Rather, over the years there has developed what I think is a unique space in the landscape of Chinese medicine itself: a space of exploration and experimentation as well as serious learning; a space that allows all of us (students as well as myself) to grow, to challenge and be challenged, to bring ancient texts into conjuncture with the varied experiences of participants (ranging from midwifery to intensive care, from rural Chinese medical practices to city hospitals), to make history come alive but never be constrained by it.
This year, for instance, we critically examined the concept of hidden pathogens (fuxie 伏邪), spent several days on the clinical application of purging strategies (xia fa 下法) as discussed by Yu Genchu 俞根撰 (1734 - 1799), and explored the possibility of developing new palpatory referents for the six jing 經. While I provided the structure and clinical cases I learned about differences in how the chickenpox and measles virus replicates and how that may help us to better understand traditional treatment strategies. I learned how to palpate the body with more attentiveness and care and how to be different in the moment of palpation. I learned from what others saw in patients that I myself had missed.
Over these last twenty years the Italy retreats have thus become a kind of laboratory for me. Precisely because they are by now in their twentieth year these seminars have divested themselves of the need to deliver stuff that can be used in the clinic tomorrow, which is what most weekend teaching demands. They do that, too, of course, but they do it differently. They allow all of us to slow down and to focus on quality rather than quantity: Where else does one get the chance to talk four days about purging for instance?. They allow me to experiment with ideas that may or may not work and to refine them in ways that makes them easier to deliver in other contexts later on. They allow students to be open to concepts that may impact on their practice only in years to come.
Without setting out to do so we thus collectively discovered slow Chinese medicine. How precious is that?
(I thank all of the students who have attended the seminars over the years for their patience and generosity. Particular thanks go to Judith for creating the initial spark, to Mike for making it happen, to Susi for almost always being there, and to Tina without whom it all would have become history a long time ago)