A process as described is not the process as it exists;
The terms used to describe it are not the things they describe.
That which evades description is the wholeness of the system;
The act of description is merely a listing of its parts.
Without intentionality, you can experience the whole system;
With intentionality, you can comprehend its effects.
These two approach the same reality in different ways,
And the result appears confusing;
But accepting the apparent confusion
Gives access to the whole system.
Dao De Jing, Chapter 1, trans. John Michael Greer
The term “permaculture”, a contraction of “permanent agriculture”, was coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren to describe the ecological design philosophy they began developing in the 1970s. Permaculture has since grown to become a worldwide movement, with many thousands training in and applying its design principles.
Informed though it is by modern ecology and systems theory, Mollison has also specifically noted the influence of Daoism on its core philosophy; faced with the converging crises of ecological destruction, topsoil erosion, fossil fuel depletion and the unsustainable growth of population and industry on the planet, he sought to develop a form of resilient agriculture that would work “with rather than against nature,” one of “protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems and people in all their functions, rather than asking only one yield of them; and of allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions.”
Like the permaculturist, the traditional acupuncturist works with a complex ecological system – the human body. And, like the permaculturist, the acupuncturist tries to interact with that ecosystem in a way that is more holistic, more responsive and less crudely forceful than is common practice in the industrial world.
Indeed, many of the insights of systems theory – the interdependence of multiple functions and elements, for example, or the importance of recognising emergent whole-system patterns – are already embedded in traditional medical practices, and are second nature to the acupuncturist versed in zang-fu theory and the five phases. Given the shared core of Daoist philosophy at the heart of the two systems, it is not surprising that a comparison of the philosophy and practice of permaculture with that of Traditional East Asian Medicine reveals both familiar patterns and unexpected insights:
Observe and Interact:
In the spirit of Wu Wei, the first job of the permaculturist is to do nothing. By refraining from premature intervention, they gain the opportunity to observe the landscape and learn how it works – where rainfall flows, where the sun and shade fall, what grows well where, and how these factors change through the seasons.
The acupuncturist too makes themself quiet and passive in the initial encounter, trying not to impose their own ideas on the patient, but waiting for the truth of their being to reveal itself – and though they can’t wait for a year to pass before treating, a sensitivity to the temporal is indispensable: the patient will not be treated in the same way in the depths of winter as during a summer heatwave; one seen on a Friday evening not the same as on a Monday morning.
The permaculture principle, of course, is “observe and interact”, for it is in the small initial interactions that the permaculturist learns how the land will respond to larger interventions. In the same way, it is in the first handshake, the greeting, how the patient seats themselves, that the acupuncturist begins to intuit their patterns of flow and stasis; in the microcosm of the pulse-taking that they begin to build up a picture of the macrocosm of the patient’s health.
The Problem is the Solution:
In a complex system, problems do not arise independently, or from a single cause; rather they are the product of multi-factorial imbalances. Responses that simply attempt to suppress the surface manifestation of the imbalance rarely result in whole-system health. The permaculture approach is to recognise that what is seen as a ‘problem’ can be reinterpreted as a valuable source of information about excess and deficient resources in the system – and that the solution is to re-route and repurpose those resources to where they can achieve a productive yield.
This might mean turning ‘weeds’ into dandelion salad and nettle soup, or finding creative outlets for ‘excess’ Wood; recycling food waste by feeding it to the pigs, or encouraging surface heat symptoms to go inwards and nourish the core of the body. As my favourite permaculture aphorism puts it: “There’s no such thing as too many slugs; only not enough ducks.”
Making the least effort for the greatest effect:
In Tai Chi they talk of “four ounces overcoming a thousand pounds”. When the subtle rhythms and interconnections of a complex system are understood, interventions at critical points and times can cause powerful and widespread alterations in the functioning of the whole system. In a sense, acupuncture is already a manifestation of this understanding – the use of a small needle to affect the functioning of entire sub-systems in the body. But we can deepen our understanding by considering how the same idea functions in permaculture.
Rather than trying to force agricultural components into a pre-ordained structure, the permaculturist focuses on directing existing flows of energy and growth in the most productive patterns possible. Often, this requires a recognition that the ecosystem has a will of its own, and that attempting to impose an idealised pattern onto it will be counter-productive.
In temperate climes, for example, the ‘climax ecosystem’ the land naturally moves towards is old-growth forest. Industrial agriculture, in many respects, consists of continual efforts at resisting this movement towards forest; permaculture gracefully accepts it and works to subtly guide and modulate it to the benefit of both forest and human co-habitants. The result is a ‘forest garden’, where the diversity, resilience and efficiency of the forest ecosystem are used to grow high yields of edible plants with the minimum of effort and intervention.
So too, as healers, we must acknowledge that the system we are working with has an evolutionary will of its own. The pattern of integral health towards which it is moving may not match the ideal we have in our head. But in recognising that the human is a part of nature just as much as the forest, and that the same patterns of complex balance and growth occur in the two, we can remind ourselves to trust in nature’s capacity for self-healing and self-organisation.
Our job, lest we forget, is not to chivvy the obstinate patient towards a fixed notion of ‘healthy’ functioning – it is to remove obstacles to the system’s own self-regulation and to assist it in regaining its natural balance, such that it can manifest its own natural pattern of sustainable being.
Use small and slow solutions:
In permaculture terms, increased size and speed require more energy and more intervention. When the whole of the system is considered holistically, it can be seen that conventional agriculture actually reduces the efficiency, productivity and longevity of the ecosystem in exchange for quick, short-term gain.
Large, sudden interventions – like dousing a field in pesticides, or clear-cutting a forest for cattle-grazing – cause disruption to the system as a whole, often producing secondary problems that necessitate further costly fixes. Conversely, reducing things to their smallest and slowest viable form enables an ecosystem to operate more efficiently, and to retain more energy within its nutritive and energetic cycles.
Attempts to scale up permaculture projects to match the size and yield of large agri-business ventures rarely work well. The larger the project, the more the cost of the administrative and technological requirements, and the less capable the permaculturist is of remaining in close and responsive relation with the land and its dynamics.
Equally, acupuncture practices that ‘process’ large numbers of patients often lose touch with each patient’s unique dynamics. The logic of Capitalism exhorts all businesses to seek after continual and unending growth – but when an acupuncture practice grows too big, not only do the treatments suffer, but the simplicity of our practice can easily become entangled in the distractions of data-management systems, ancilliary staff and social media marketing.
Patients are often impatient; used to the industrial medicine model, they expect a ‘quick fix’, and we can sometimes find ourselves apologising for the incremental nature of our treatment. But perhaps we should be embracing this aspect of our practice; just as growing nutritious vegetables or building a house that will last for generations necessarily require a slower, more intensive approach, so too does the acupuncturist seek to enable long-term, sustainable health by making small, slow changes to the system of the body.
As the philosopher Ken Wilber said: “Everything is contextual – and there is no end of contexts”. “Permaculture” started out meaning “permanent agriculture”, but was later re-coined as “permanent culture”, as its practitioners began to realise that their agricultural philosophy could not be separated out from the social, the cultural and the political. Many people have since applied permaculture principles (which can be seen, after all, as a restatement of the universal patterns of the Dao) to businesses, relationships, communities and societies.
In the same way, it is easy for an acupuncturist operating in the industrial West to allow themselves to be restricted to being a mere needle-technician, whose therapeutic intervention begins and ends at the clinic door. But the holistic systems-thinking at the core of our practice makes it impossible to ignore the fact that every part of a patient’s life is implicated in their ‘condition’, and that the changes we make in the clinic can easily be overridden by lifestyle, work, relationship problems or a pathogenic environment.
Clearly, we need to be careful about our professional boundaries – we are not (most of us) trained nutritionists, ergonomicists or psychotherapists, and we should not assert ourselves beyond the limits of our competence. But nor should we allow ourselves to be overly influenced by the ruling ideology of specialisation and segregation, which is a product of the same linear, fragmental thinking that resulted in the mechanistic excesses and chemical reliances of Western biomedicine and industrial agriculture. Under its influence, many of our patients have lost touch with their innate capacity for holistic, whole-system pattern-recognition – but permaculture principles can be applied to their lives just as effectively as to a farm or a forest.
To take just one example of this: many patients need to do more exercise, or perhaps just some stretching in the morning; but the gym is on the far side of town, or their bedroom floor too cluttered to lie on, and so more often than not they end up just skipping it. Permaculture organises agricultural land into 5 concentric zones centred around the core living space, and advises that the jobs that need doing most frequently be located closest to the core; if the patients can be encouraged to organise their lives along these lines, so that distance and inconvenience no longer sabotage their plans, they might just manage to jog round the garden, or to roll out of bed onto that clear patch of floor and do their stretches.
In a more abstract sense, zoning is about efficient energy-management. Perhaps there is a particular relationship that is only marginally important to a person, but uses up a lot of their time and energy. Perhaps there are resources in a person’s life – people, activities, opportunities – that are ‘right under their nose’; easily accessible, but largely overlooked. If we are serious about helping a patient organise their energy in the most productive patterns they can, it makes no sense to just needle ST-36 every week while ignoring the energy-sinks in their wider life that are draining them on a daily basis.
Finally, one of the most intriguing ideas in permaculture is the maximisation of edges. Recognising that diversity and fertility are highest in ecological transition zones like coastlines, tidal estuaries and the borders of forest and grassland, permaculture looks for opportunities to maximise these edge-areas on their own land.
This can be as simple as giving a pond a scalloped rather than a straight edge, or interspersing orchard trees with pasture land instead of keeping them in separate blocks; it can also mean valuing the fuzzy boundaries between concepts – between ‘crop’ and ‘weed’, for example – or seeking to retain the ‘edgy’ creativity of rundown neighbourhoods on the margins of cities.
There are many edges in the therapeutic encounter – how the patient enters and leaves the treatment space, the beginning and end of the treatment, the first contact of pulse diagnosis, the moment when the needle makes contact with the skin. Beyond the treatment room, there are the boundaries of how our practice interacts with other practitioners, with our local community, with the wider world, and how our professional role interacts with our ‘off-duty’ lives.
All too often we ignore these transitional spaces and focus on the more obvious blocks of space and activity. But by paying more attention to the edges of our practice, we might begin to see hidden opportunities, or allow our treatments to become more alive and responsive; we might enable our careers to support and be nourished by the rest of our lives, and our clinics to become more connected to the wider world.
For more information on permaculture principles, see: http://permacultureprinciples.com/