My Magical Introduction to Acupuncture

The following is the continuation of my autobiographical posts concerning my experiences in acupuncture. See Part One here.

So, was my introduction to Acupuncture “magical”? I will let the reader decide.


I was excited to visit Dave McClean, the eccentric guy I had met at IBM who offered to show me some acupuncture.  My girlfriend, Amy, came with me for the evening tea visit.  We were both relatively new to Japan and were looking forward to seeing how another foreigner had eked out an existence in the land of Wa.  Amy was a bit hesitant about the get-together; first because she was not excited about meeting a strange, itinerant elderly bachelor and second because she was still a Christian who was a bit suspicious about non-orthodox medicine.  But she had been raised as a missionary kid in India and was certainly no stranger to odd experiences.  So she had decided to observe but warned me that she would not participate.

Dave lived in a traditional Japanese house: tatami floors, sliding wooden doors, a tokonoma and a cute inner court yard. He had done well for himself for only a year in Japan and he shared some of his Japan-survival tricks with us during the first hour of our visit: how to look for houses, how to find cheap furniture, job opportunities and more.

Later we discussed the beautiful art work he had collected and his meditation spot in his tokonoma. We compared our meditation experiences and thoughts on religion. By then,  I had transitioned out of Christianity, explored Buddhism and Hinduism/Yoga and was now pretty much a very disillusioned cynical materialist. Nonetheless, I was still oddly drawn to people who claimed to have experienced the unusual. Tonight’s acupuncture introduction was, in my mind, an anthropological adventure.  But I was also sincere – my pursuit was a complex mix of motivations – but in the end, curiosity and gregariousness were the main motivators.

Dave was intense about everything he pursued and his knowledge was deep and sophisticated – it was a joy listening to him. After an hour of tea our conversation finally landed on the reason for our visit: acupuncture.

Dave said, “Well, are you ready to try the needles?”

I was a little nervous but not hesitant. “Sure!” I said and Dave brought out a beautiful metal case with the needles neatly aligned and explained how he sterilized them (a concern of mine). Then he said, “Rather than talk about this, why don’t I get you to experience it first?” I agreed–for I had always valued experience more than pure theory.

He asked me to assume a comfortable posture so he could place a needle gently into my right hand.  Since we were sitting on the tatami, I asked if I could borrow his meditation pillow. I assumed the half-lotus position with my hands on my thighs and closed my eyes briefly to relax in the manner I would in my meditations. (The pic is not me, I borrow it — forgot the source, sorry.)

When I opened my eyes Dave said, “Ah, that is a good idea. Why don’t you keep your eyes closed while I put the needle in.”

“But,” I inquired “before I close my eyes, may I ask what is the needle suppose to do when put in my hand?”

“Hmmm,” he said, “I don’t want to bias your impressions.  Instead, let’s just see. But I can tell you that the Chinese name for the point is ‘hegu’ (“the meeting valley”), Japanese call it gōkoku but English speakers, avoiding the complexity of the classical names, simply call the point “Large Intestine 4″ because it is the 4th on the large intestine meridian (more on that later).

Well, that explanation did not help, so though a little nervous about closing my eyes, I agreed. Dave then gently massaged the point.  “Here we go.” he said softly, “You will only feel a little pinch.” And indeed, he slipped the needle in with no pain.

I was surprised.”Did you feel anything?” Dave asked.

“No, not really.” I responded showing my surprise.

Since my deconversion from Christianity and my experiences in India, I had become not only skeptical of any religion, but of any unusual experiences altogether.  So I came to learn about Dave’s acupuncture with a skeptic’s mind.  But Dave’s introduction was sane, rational, gentle and not unusual — well, up to this point.

“Well,” he said, “let’s move your Qi a little.”

Saying that, he slowly started twisting the needle and moving it down a little deeper (I was told this later — remember, my eyes were closed). Suddenly I had a strong sensation run from that acupuncture point on my hand, up my arm across my neck and down to the same spot on the other arm.

The buzzing river around my arms also caused me to drop into a deep quiet relaxed state.  Entering that level of relaxation usually took me about 40 minutes of meditation but Dave’s needle just did it to me in a few seconds — I was surprised again.

After about a minute (which felt like ten minutes), Dave said, “What do you feel?”

I describe the arc of sensation. But as we spoke, the buzzing feeling faded and I could only slightly feel the needle in its original position.  Dave was a little surprised.  He told me to open my eyes, and we talked for a second (with the needle still in my hand).

“It seems you are ‘channel-sensitive’ — Only about 5% of the population can actually feel Qi move along the actual channels,” Dave explained, “And an even smaller percent of people can feel the whole channel across to the other side.”

The next two pics illustrates the “Small Intestine channel” on which the acupuncture point layed. The feeling went up that channel to the back of my neck and jumped over to the same channel on the other side and down to my other hand.

“If you don’t mind,” Dave continued, “I’d like to try a little experiment with you?”

Amy was sitting nearby and she looked pretty interested even though I could tell that the situation was making her a bit cautious. But she appeared to be patiently watching, so I agreed, “Sure, what is next?”

“Well,” Dave described, “I’d like you close your eyes again and tell me what you feel.”

I agree and again closed my eyes again and relaxed.

“Ok, I don’t feel anything.”  A little time passed, “Still nothing” I said impatiently.

“OH! You must be twirling the needle. There goes that sensation again — up my arm to my other hand. Now it is fading. Ooops, there it is again.”

This pattern of an on-and-off sensation repeated itself about four times. And finally Dave told me to open my eyes.

Amy had her mouth open in surprise. I asked Dave what he had done but instead Amy blurted out in surprise, “All he did was hold his hand about 6 inches over the needle. And every time he did, you felt the sensation going up and down your arms. And everytime he moved his hand away from the needle, you said it faded.”

“I am impressed too,” Dave said, “Not many people have that degree of sensitivity.”

“Hmmm”, I thought out loud in my surprise.

I did not believe that energy could flow outside the body, yet alone from one body to another. But even this experience I was still extremely skeptical and objected saying, “It was probably just the heat of his hand triggering the same sensation.”

“OK,” Dave replied, “I have another experiment that may test your objection.  Would you like to try?”

I agreed and we set up experiment the same way with my eyes closed and the needle in.

Just like the previous experiment, I reported my sensations.  Over the next five minutes the buzzing sensation went up and down my arms.  It came and went in an irregular pattern.

Finally Dave told me to open my eyes again.  But this time, Dave was not sitting next to me.  Instead, both Amy and Dave were sitting across the room.

“This time,” Amy informed me,”you felt the sensation every time Dave pointed his fingers at the needle from over here. And when he pointed away, you reported the sensation dimmed each time.  Each time!

OK, I was pretty shocked. And I had skeptical, religious, anti-acupuncture Amy as a witness adding to the credibility.

To top off the night, Dave wanted to show us one more related phenomena. He felt I probably had the ability to feel the energy surrounding a person’s body. So to set up the experiment. He asked a-now-willing Amy lay prone on the tatami floor and relax. He then asked me to hold my hand above Amy’s body.

Dave then asked me if I could feel a sensation in my palm that was similar to the needle’s buzzing sensation. I did. In fact it was clearly present for the first foot or so off her body but then quickly faded at about two feet above her.  The fading felt like the fading of the buzz of the needle, albeit it more subtle.

I thought it was her body heat but she had clothes on and when I put my hand near the bare skin on her arms I could feel a little heat but I had to be very close to her body. The sensation of heat and the subtle buzz where very different.

Eventually it was time for us to leave Dave’s gracious company.  It had been a unique evening. We thanked Dave for everything and started off on our slow walk along the gorgeous, moon-lit Kamo River back to our small home.

On the way home, Amy noticed my silence and said, “You are being unusually quiet. What are you thinking about?”

“Well, it is like I saw God!”

I said that for shock value knowing that though Amy had practically given up on my ever becoming a Christian again, though she still hoped I’d return to the flock.  Her and I had long standing tensions since I had left Christianity about 4 years earlier.

“I mean, look,” I continued, “tonight I saw something that I had not thought was possible.  I could have sworn such a possibility did not exist. It was as if I saw a god. Because up to now, whenever I heard people talking about energy in and around the body, I thought they were talking hocus-pocus woo-woo.  But tonight I experienced that energy even when I was trying not to.  And you verified it. That sort of experience is enough to even shut me up.”

Amy nodded.

Well, I have tried to tell this story as I experienced it at that time without any post-hoc analysis.  Go ahead, let me know your questions and your speculations.  My acupuncture stories after this event abound, but this was the pivotal experience that made me pursue acupuncture.


My other related posts:


Filed under Medicine

15 responses to “My Magical Introduction to Acupuncture

  1. If we wish to stay away from ‘hocus-pocus woo’ then we must deal honestly with causal effect by means of a natural mechanism. This task falls to those who suggest that acupuncture is not hocus-pocus woo.

  2. @tildeb
    Your comment inspired a post I have always wanted to do. Thank you. That aside, I wonder if this post affected you in any way?

  3. Oh, I think your experience is quite fascinating! And I mean that honestly. I hear many stories of strange and wonderful experiences (with a few myself) and I would dearly love to know what’s going on. After much talk and conjecture, usually what we end up with is a really interesting “I don’t know” but the sticky residue is often some kind of belief in woo, which I think is very unfortunate because such explanations are not answers at all but petrified beliefs that leave my curiosity unsatiated (if that’s even a word).

  4. DaCheese

    One wonders if it is experiences like this that helped to create belief in things like acupuncture in the first place. People experimenting in an informal way and trying to make sense of their experiences. Eventually someone comes up with a grand hypothesis (eg. “chi”) to explain it all.

    Where the ‘woo’ comes in is when people start taking the hypothetical explanation as fact and start extrapolating from there. The hypothesis is mistaken for proven theory and becomes more important than the empirical results that helped spawn it. And when science comes along with a better supported explanation (eg. peripheral nerve pathways, which in this case run exactly where the “chi channel” is supposed to), the followers cling to their theory instead of re-evaluating their practices in light of the new information.

  5. soren

    When I first met Sabio (about 10 years ago now), he told me this story. I don’t imagine he repeats it very often, but he retells it exactly as he told it to me way back when. Fascinating story.

  6. @ DaCheese,

    Absolutely: a few weird experiences and a good imagination and a little charisma and bang! you have woo.

    BTW, I have heard theories about muscle sheaths conducting some sensations but I am not sure if there is anything to that. But Qi (as I have experienced it) does not always travel on established neural pathways.

    Interesting stuff.

    @ Soren,
    Glad you enjoyed again — I didn’t remember telling you this. Glad it hasn’t changed too much!

  7. wow. “channel sensitive.” i had a similar experience and have believed in energy fields (aura’s and such) for some time despite any decent reason why i should. during my accupuncture sessions, the dr found this out with me, although we never tried the “pointing at the needles from across the room.”

    i am fascinated by this story for two reasons: it adds another wrinkle of mystery to you and another layer of complexity. thanks for sharing the story!

  8. @ Ghost,
    Yes, fantastic. This was written with the exact intent of adding “another layer of complexity” to my story. A huge tendency of mind is to make things nice and neat. We are uncomfortable with vague and untied things — some more than others. Part of this is tied with the need to control and fear. I hope to illustrate a story of alternative medicine with all its fuzziness honored and yet skepticism unrestrained.

  9. makes me think of a book i’m reading. i’ll post on that soon. but yeah, most can’t tolerate mystery. i’m all about it and that caused some hurdles for me in my ordination process because people wanted firm answers when the only one that was truthful was ‘i don’t know.’

    oh, loved how you narrated and blocked out the story, btw. very easy to read!

  10. Thanx — that story actually took lots of effort — but fun to recall. Did you see “Soren’s” comment?

  11. yeah, i did… freaked me out a little too! not that i needed a 3rd party verification, but it’s nice to see😉

  12. I think there is a naturalistic explanation related to blindsight, phantom limbs, and the Penfield map (all of which used to be considered psychological delusion as well, before neurological explanations were found).

    IMO, that’s the tragedy of people who are too “scientific”. They are blind to things that are right in front of their faces, because they think those things are impossible.


    What do you think about this? My problem with acupunture (I’m not an MD nor anything like it), it’s that I haven’t heard any explanation of why it works (when it supposedly works) that uses any reproducible tested notion. What’s the Qi? How can we measure it? If a human being is able to sense it, then a machine should be able to do it, shouldn’t it?

    If we can’t make it work reliable in controlled situations, then is not scalable (it’s not able to help the majority of the population), and then it’s basically useless. If we can’t explain it using at least partially understood notions, then is hocus pocus.

  14. @ JS Allen
    Personally, I am a naturalist, but, as you say, perhaps a little more comfortable saying “I don’t know” for a longer time than others who would think , “Since I can’t explain this by mechanisms I understand, it must be placebo, deceit or some such thing.”

    @ Canek
    Excellent questions. And thanks for the link — I may use it later. I like that site a lot and use to teach my students to use it to check their information. I actually taught a “alternative medicine” course to graduate student physician assistants. That experience was a story in itself.
    People tend to be 100% buy-in or 100$ skeptics –> they would both be wrong. But “Leery” is a good attitude when it comes to alternative and orthodox medicine.

    Your questions are ahead of my story, but they are the right questions. I hope to work more with them over the year with posts — as time allows. Maybe it is fun to feed them slow, because that is how my experiences and insights came to me.

    Hope you keep visiting.

    May I ask: how did you find this blog?

  15. Planet Atheism. I do look forward to read the rest of your story.

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