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Pulse Reading In Chinese Medicine

the art, science & language of acupuncture pulses


Pulse Reading In Chinese Medicine

Pulse-reading positions.

Flickr: sushiphotos

Acupuncture Pulses: Three Positions & Three Depths

Part of being an acupuncturist involves reading pulses. In both Chinese and Japanese systems, the pulse is read – in three positions and at three depths – at the radial artery, just above the wrist. We use our index, middle and ring fingers, placed side-by-side along the course of the artery. In total, then, there are six positions: three on the right wrist and three on the left wrist. Each of these six positions is used to gather information about one of the six yin (and corresponding yang) organ systems. There are also qualities of the pulse as a whole that are used to diagnose more general conditions within the bodymind.

Pulse Reading: Art, Science or Language?

Pulse-reading is an aspect of the medicine that, for most, requires many years (decades, lifetimes) of practice in order to master. It requires great energetic sensitivity -- a capacity to “listen” very deeply. It is an art-form as much as it is a science. I’ve also felt it to be something very much like a language, or – to use computer lingo -- an operating system. It’s a means of translating information from one medium (the client’s bodymind) to another (the practitioner’s bodymind) which depends upon the creation of specific cognitive/perceptual alignments.

Different Systems Of Pulse Reading

One thing I find very interesting about the art/science of pulse reading is that there are actually quite a number of different systems out there. There are differences among different schools of Japanese and Chinese practice. The Indian Ayurvedic tradition has its own system of reading pulses; as does Tibetan medicine. Many of these systems read the pulse at the radial artery. Some read it in different and/or additional places, e.g. at the ankles or the occiput or the carotid artery. But even among those that read the pulse at the radial artery, there are differences in terms of which positions represent which organ systems.

So which system is “right” or “true”? The answer, as far as I can tell, is that they all are – potentially. How can this be?

Tuning Into The Subtle Body

There are stories of great physicians spending hours reading a single pulse – and from the information gathered, knowing things about the patient’s life (past, present & future) in such a comprehensive and detailed way as to seem truly miraculous. How is this possible, simply by tuning into the sensations beneath one’s fingertips, at six small positions along a single artery? Or perhaps there’s more than this that’s actually going on?

My current best-guess around this is that part of what’s being “read” is the patient’s entire subtle body (bio-field). When the physician is close enough to be placing her/his fingers on the patient’s wrists, they’re clearly inside of (or at least contiguous with) the patient’s subtle body – allowing for fairly easy and direct intuitional/psychic access to all the information stored there-within. So placing fingertips on the wrists of the patient functions, in this interpretation, largely as a ritual container for a much deeper process.

Modesty As The Mother Of Invention

Part of the history and origin of pulse-taking, as I understand it, had to do with notions of propriety around male physicians touching female patients: palpation of any sort was strictly limited to the territory distal to the elbows and the knees. This was a case, in other words, of necessity being the mother of invention. Since it wasn’t socially acceptable for doctors to palpate women’s chests or abdomens, i.e. to access tactile information about the organ systems in a more direct way, they were forced to cultivate the capacity to intuit this information via the radial artery.

The Therapeutic Dance

So various systems evolved as shared languages – ways of perceiving and speaking that somehow worked, in the sense of guiding actions (viz. selection of acupuncture points) effective in restoring balance to an imbalanced bodymind, ease to a dis-eased being. To the extent that a practitioner’s perceptual capacities as a whole are well-developed, s/he will be able to tune in simultaneously to information flowing in from different sources; and/or to consciously choose which perceptual lens is in the foreground. Which brings us back around to the whole thing being very much of an art-form, as well as a science -- allowing for a dance between individual proclivities and shared languages, grounded always is the question: is the outcome of this therapeutic dance/ritual a healing one?

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