top of page

Acupuncture, Poetry and Perception

Updated: Sep 24, 2021

I’ve recently started working from a new clinic and decided I wanted to have something on the wall that said something about what it is I’m trying to do in the clinic room and ended up writing a poem. When I say I ‘writing’ a poem that’s not quite true because the few poems I do write seem to appear of their own accord in my head, often in bits and pieces and the pieces in no particular order. The process of producing a poem seems less like writing and more like catching leaves on a windy day and then trying to put the tree back together. At the same time I was reading a book called ‘Intuitive Acupuncture’ by John Hamwee and also came across the ideas of the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist (see here), whose work has focussed on the different ways the two sides of out brain understand the world. In this post I’d like to explore the connections between these apparently disparate things.

The first chapter of Hamwee’s book explores how intuition might be understood, concluding it’s a form of knowledge that can’t be gained by or explained through logical deductive reasoning. He goes on to look at how an acupuncturist may improve their chances of benefiting from intuition through the development of what he calls ‘attention’ and he contrasts this with ‘intention’. He suggests that, as acupuncturists we’re often looking at patients with the ‘intention’ of understanding what’s ailing them and how we might be able to help them with that. He’s not saying that we shouldn’t view patients in this way, quite the opposite. He’s very clear that the sort of logical, deductive mindset implied by ‘intention’ allows us to make use of the medical tradition within which we practice, with its clearly defined diagnostic categories and prescriptions. What I think he is saying is that, given sufficient experience it might be possible to move the logical, deductive part of our minds into the background and allow ourselves to simply pay ‘attention’ without any thought to what we might be looking for or wanting to clarify.

It’s easy to bring in the work of Iain McGilchrist here and suggest that intention would be a mode of perception associated with the left side of the brain and attention with the right. McGilchrist’s work on this split within our brains throws up some surprising things and he makes some quite strong claims. For instance he suggests that the great Western Civilizations; Greek, Roman and our own, all started with ways of seeing the world that made equal use of the insights of both sides of our brains, and that their demise stemmed from their placing too much weight on the perceptions and values associated with the left side of our brains. I’m not sure quite how one might validate such a claim but some of his insights are more measurable (measuring; a left brain activity). For instance, given the left hemisphere’s role in logic, deduction, measurement etc, one might expect injuries to the left side of the brain to correlate with drops in IQ. In fact, according to McGilchrist, the opposite is true and its brain injuries affecting the right brain hemisphere that produce the biggest drops in IQ. Another observation he makes is that its really quite common that mathematicians or physicists who’ve made remarkable breakthroughs in their fields say the first thing that struck them about their solutions was their beauty (beauty, a right brain perception) and that the logic that ‘proved’ their solution followed afterwards.

And this brings me to poetry. As I said above I don’t write much poetry and what I do write seems to be created by a very different process than that which might create an essay or this blog. Poems seem to appear in my head in little bits, small phrases, vignettes and images, each fully formed and my job isn’t so much to ‘write’ the poem as to catch it, to put the pieces together. This brought me back to thinking about Hamwee’s ‘attention’ and ‘intention’. Writing a blog or an essay is all intention, ordering facts and arguments, making logical connections etc. A poem by contrast seems to be all attention – attention to the thing and to my reaction to it. I think one of the reasons I’ve never written much poetry is that I couldn’t ‘understand’ how to ‘do’ it, but maybe its not so much something one does as something one allows. I appreciate this seems to be straying quite some way from acupuncture at this point but I think there’s another difference between ‘attention’ and ‘intention’ that poetry illuminates.

I really love some of the poetry written in Tang dynasty China, mostly by recluses living in remote mountain regions. For instance this by Wang Wei

Zhongnan Retreat

In middle age I’m quite drawn to the Way.

Here by the hills I’ve built a home. I go

- Whenever the spirit seizes me – alone

To see the spots other folks don’t know.

I walk to the head of the stream, sit down, and watch

For when the clouds rise. On the forest track

By chance I meet an old man, and we talk

And laugh, and I don’t think of going back.

These poems are so simple. Often they read almost like a list of facts and yet somehow they seem to convey, to me at least, a real melancholy, a sense of being small in the midst of a vastness moving to its own rhythms. These poems seem to arrange these simple facts (left brain) such that they also convey a qualitative aspect (right brain) of the poets experience. Its this ‘qualitative’ understanding that I think both Hamwee and MacGilchrist are, in their different ways, suggesting is important if we’re to have a complete understanding of the world in front of us.

Hamwee is quite explicit about this when he talks about pulse taking. For those who don’t know much about Classical Chinese Medicine, palpation of the radial pulse, usually at 3 positions and 3 depths on each wrist, is one its major diagnostic tools. Traditionally there are said to be 27 pulse qualities, each of which could appear at any of the positions or depths; its not an easy thing to master! However Hamwee still suggests that a practitioner should also record what they feel in their own words. He gives a couple of examples from his own practice – a Pericardium pulse with a ‘flutter at the top’ and a Heart pulse that seemed ‘hesitant’. Why, one might ask, would someone bother to record these more personal impressions, if there are already 27 qualities that can be used to describe the pulse? I think, perhaps, because these 27 qualities, standardised by tradition, have become akin to facts against which we measure our experience of our patient’s pulse. What Hamwee seems to be suggesting is that in allowing our rational, left brain perceptions to dominate we might miss our own, more immediate perception of our patients and thereby miss valuable, qualitative insights.

As I've said elsewhere I'm not trying to find definitive answers in my musings here but the more I’ve thought about these things, the more I think Hamwee is probably right (he’s got a lot more experience than me after all). That said, I think it would be wise to temper the urge to go chasing after every fleeting impression I might have with the insight that there’s an awful lot of bad poetry out there.


Bruce Bell is a fully trained 5 Element Acupuncturist working in the Midsomer Norton / Radstock area, and also from a clinic on the edge of Bath.

29 views0 comments


bottom of page