Acupuncture as Spiritual Practice

Those who have studied Chinese medicine are undoubtedly aware of the spiritual roots of Chinese medicine. The opening line of the Ling Shu(The Spiritual Pivot), the eight chapter of Nei Jing (Inner Classic), the canon of Chinese Medicine states, “Huangdi asks Qi Bo this question, ‘In all needling, the method, above all is not to miss the rooting in the spirits’” (Larre, 1991, p. 16). Rooting in the spirits relates to both the spirit of the physician and that of the patient. If there is awareness, then heart is involved to the extent that it is awake and intention will be instrumental in the healing. Or, there may be an unconscious healing power that emanates from the physician, in which case, the patient will begin to heal simply by ‘presence’, in the same way the sun nourishes all things across the earth, each according to their measure. This type of healing in its purest form is rare because it relates to cultivating spiritual power and is difficult to grasp and attain. Thus, intellectual study is an essential part of medicine. One needs not only spirit, which is life itself, but detailed knowledge of its application, its transformation, its time, place and season.

Spiritual traditions of the world have defined spirit in various ways and it is important to understand it through various lenses. We can summarize many of these elusive ideas by simply saying that it is a divine principle, an immaterial reality and the source of life itself. Empedocles, a sage who lived in the time of David, the prophet, gives the best advice on the knowledge of the spirit. He says, 

Whoever seeks knowledge from above—the first substance—finds it difficult to grasp, and whoever seeks knowledge from below, finds it difficult to comprehend the sublime due to the problem of conveying the utterly insubstantial from the dense. Thus, he who seeks it from the middle, and knows it to its fullest, attains knowledge of both aspects and his seeking becomes effortless (Ali, 2013, p. 34).

To reframe the advice given by Empedocles: Those who seek to treat the body by material means get lost in the multiplicity of the material world. Those who seek to heal through spirit alone can hardly fathom spirit and its relation to the body. Those who thoroughly study medicine yet root it in a spiritual practice attain knowledge from both sides, and their knowledge is effused with life. Treatment will not then be a lifeless series of procedures where often the cure is worse than the illness, but a true revival of the spirit, heart and body. Furthermore, the physician, through the patient, will come to certain self-realizations and seek a cure for his or her own illnesses, because what we receive in life mirrors our own existence. On some level, both patient and physician possess the same illness and likewise a similar cure; both are agents of transformation. When we speak of Chinese medicine as restoring balance, it is the existential balance between patient and physician, which is one of the essential yin-yang aspects of this medicine.



Ali, M. (2013). The Principles of Correspondences. London: Alchemy Press.

Chittick, W. C. (1983). The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-ʿArabī’s Metaphysics of Imagination. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Larre, C., and Rochet de la Vallée, E. (1991). The Heart in Ling Shu Chapter 8. Monkey Press.

Rochet de la Vallée, E. (2013). Aspects of Spirit. Monkey Press.

Mukhtar Ali