Acupuncture is based on a pre-scientific model of the body, reminiscent of Hellenistic medicine. My landlady many years ago was training to be an acupuncturist, and when she qualified, I had to move to make room for her treatment room. She was a borderline pass because she couldn’t detect the various “pulses” there are supposed to be — six or twelve of them, alongside the one we know — used to diagnose imbalances in the flow of qi. Perhaps she was eventually able to discern them; it’s amazing what people can talk themselves into. I was briefly her patient, I don’t remember what for, but perhaps the usual non-specific malaise or gloom. It’s too long ago for me to remember the thought process that got me onto her couch, but I recall it as a striking fact (which may or may not actually be true) that acupuncture has been used in China for surgical anaesthesia. Just as with the tangible benefits of meditation, this provides a way in to believing there must be something to it. Once you embark on acupuncture, there are the needles, and also, it’s a holistic practice. I must have felt cared for, and also, I was doing something to take care of myself, and spending actual money on it too. I don’t recall a firm sense of it having “worked”, but it was a positive experience, and I certainly didn’t feel cheated. I’ve just remembered that on one occasion, Mary rang up her supervisor to ask the treatment for opium poisoning. I dare say it would have gone away on its own.
A word is in order about relativism. It would be foolish to maintain that our current worldview has got all bases covered. But that doesn’t mean we might just as well go back or sideways. I doubt there are actual “meridians” (though perhaps, some of the standard needling points tap something not yet known inside the body). What we do have to learn from this and other traditions of healing is the holistic approach. That means both the role of the mind in physical illness, and the importance of things like diet, exercise, or sleep. There is also the relationship between healer and patient, the value of listening, and time.
An afterthought: the meaning of such practices depends in part on their cultural context. Let us say for the sake of argument that acupuncture arose as a medical form in a context where there was little to be done about most serious illness. In the end, though, that’s just as true when the technology that is medicine in the modern world runs out of solutions. Those who do not survive need to be cared for too, and perhaps holistic medicine does that better. The thought is hardly new, but here, it may serve to insulate us from the thought that non-Western traditions are simply foolish. I think I’d take needles over leaches, too.