What is Chinese Medicine? An interview with Dr. Leon Hammer

Reader Contribution by Pamela Sherman
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Dr. Leon Hammer is a world-renowned expert in Chinese Medicine who studied for almost three decades with the internationally recognized master John H.F. Shen; Dr. Hammer has taught and practiced widely for the past 50 years and authored eight seminal books and 40 articles. The curriculum of the accredited Dragon Rises College of Oriental Medicine in Gainesville, Fla., is based on his work. 

Dr. Hammer, how would you describe Chinese Medicine to those who don’t know much about it? 

It’s a medicine that is gentle, effective, and treats the individual as a whole within their life context. It’s been proven over a long period of time. It’s a complete internal medicine, one that has treated billions of people over thousands of years for every condition known to mankind. It has all of the tools for prevention, for treating the beginning of the disease process, up to treating complex chronic disease. And it is cost-effective.

How is your work the same as or different from what is called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?

What is alluded to today as TCM is not the Classical Chinese Medicine that preceded it. TCM as it is taught and practiced today was invented by a group of traditional Chinese doctors in the 1950s under orders from Mao to create a medicine that is easy to teach, easy to learn and cheap. The practitioners of this new medicine were at first called ‘barefoot doctors;’ what they practiced was later named TCM.

I learned Chinese medicine as an apprentice to a truly traditional Classical Chinese doctor for many years. His training pre-dated Mao’s orders. 

You have not retired after a half century of work. What keeps you going?

First, it works. Second, it is a masterpiece of harmony, intricacy, and movement, which never ceases to fascinate and intrigue me.

How have people used Chinese medicine in the U.S. as compared with China?

Pain is about 95 percent of what is treated in the U.S., but only 5 percent of what’s treated in China. The rest falls into the category of “internal medicine”. In China, Chinese medicine was about 95 percent herbal and about 5 percent acupuncture until Mao. Today, my contacts in China report that the recent and current treatment for the coronavirus is herbal.

Blue lotus, or purple water lily (Nymphaea nouchali). Photo by pixel2013 on Pixabay

Can you give an example of how Classical Chinese Medicine works?

Sure. R. was a 45-year-old college professor who was accompanied by his wife. His complaint was long-standing knee and low back pain that interfered with his ability to engage in his favorite exercise, tennis. He had been treated unsuccessfully by every relevant form of biomedicine and alternative medicine, including acupuncture. He denied any past physical trauma or emotional shock.

When I took his pulse I was most impressed by what is called his Left Distal (heart) Position — it was Flat and a little Slippery. Its rate was slow. He showed no signs of physical trauma [very Tight] or sudden heart shock [Rough Vibration] on the pulse and particularly the Proximal Positions [Kidneys] did not stand out in any way. His tongue was slightly pale; some contraction and redness at the tip. Other standard indicators observed with regard to eyes, face and hands, and bone structure, were unremarkable.

What does all this mean?

The Flat quality at the Left Distal Position indicated that the qi (and possibly blood) of the heart was stagnant. [Qi is the circulating life force. It’s also spelled chi and ch’i in English.]  The contraction and redness at the tip of the tongue supported this impression. Slipperiness is a sign of “Phlegm Misting the Orifices,” a common finding in this condition indicating diminished awareness.

Because the Proximal Positions (kidneys) were relatively sound and the lungs not Flat, the event that caused the “Heart Closed” condition did not occur at or before birth. 

However, the Flat quality indicates that at the time of insult to the heart, Mr. R.’s energy was low, usually a finding in growing children up to the age of 14 to 18, when all the qi is being used for maturation. 

I asked him about a possible emotional shock during childhood. His wife reminded him that his mother had died when he was five years old. At that age a child is unable to cope with such a trauma and the feelings of loss and abandonment get repressed, which appears as the Flat quality at the heart positions. Qi is then relatively unable to easily enter the heart. (At a later age when qi is stable, the quality would have been Inflated.)

How does this relate to his knee?

The stagnant heart qi diminishes the peripheral circulation necessary to heal his damaged knee. 

How did you treat it?

The treatment goal was primarily to open the heart and renew peripheral circulation of qi and blood and open the heart orifices (misted by phlegm), related to awareness and to supplement heart qi. Acupuncture and herbs for this purpose led to the complete relief of his complaint within three weeks.

So many variables to diagnose in the mind-body connection!

Yes. Here there was a relationship between an emotionally traumatic event that occurred when he was a child, his heart and circulation, and their relationship to the healing of trauma to his knee. In diagnosing, our fingers read the pulse and palpate acupuncture points, the abdomen and spine; with our eyes, we read the tongue, the eyes, the skin, posture and gait; with our ears we hear the voice and other sounds. Only by taking into account all of these variables is a solution possible.

With this kind of complexity to take into account when diagnosing — is Chinese Medicine considered “scientific”?

According to the Oxford Twentieth Century Dictionary, science is defined as “knowledge, most severely tested, coordinated and systematized, especially regarding those wide generalizations called the laws of nature.”

Chinese Medicine is a pragmatic discipline that meets this definition in its original and most creative form. Accumulated knowledge tested and recorded over thousands of years, tested on billions of patients, fits the definition. Our Chinese medical predecessors kept what worked and disposed of what did not. Contemporary Chinese medicine is the residue of what worked. This knowledge has been coordinated, systematized, theorized into principles known as “the laws of nature”.

What does Chinese medicine say about the “objectivity” of the observing practitioner?

Over a period of at least 3,000 years, it has perfected the art of observation, the superb refinement of our senses, blended with rigorous logic. It does not pretend that the practitioner is irrelevant. It recognizes that the medical practice is enriched with the intuitive gifts and varied experience and personality of the observer/practitioner.

How can you test and statistically verify something with so many variables?

Chinese medicine is not statistically verifiable in the Western sense. Western science, including biomedicine, eliminates variables and studies one vector or etiology at a time. The standard deviation eliminates everything that could have happened by chance, and in the West anything that could have happened by chance is not accepted as knowledge.

On the other hand, Chinese medicine functions on the relationship between etiologies and the organs and relationships between the organs themselves. 

Red lanterns. Photo by Silentpilot on Pixabay

I’m seeing here the scientific world view as one that isolates the object of study into separate parts, compared with the more ancient, holistic world view which focuses on inter-relationships among subsystems. What are the implications of this?

The founder of standard deviation and statistical significance spoke to my medical school class in 1949. He told us that his introduction of these concepts caused the loss of more knowledge  than any gains in knowledge from its use. Why? Because information that could have happened by chance was excluded. He expressed deep regret about his life’s work. He said he wished he could undo what has now become the foundation of biomedical science.

Chinese medicine has not eliminated knowledge from chance occurrences. It eliminated only knowledge that did not over time prove clinically useful.

Can you give another example of Chinese medicine working from the paradigm of living relationship rather than dissection of parts?

 While they were aware of anatomy in the Western sense, and performed surgery, all Oriental medicine was more concerned with what makes these anatomical structures, organs, muscles etc. alive than with describing them in detail.

They studied `life’ and called the essential ingredient of life qi. They observed that movement was intrinsic to life ( something that impressed me first during my internship when I had the misfortune of pronouncing hundreds of people dead.) 

Everything in the universe that moves is subject to the same force, qi. Qi is what makes a body alive. The Chinese and other Oriental medical systems focus their attention on how qi is organized in people, animals and the universe, beginning with the concepts of yin/yang, and going much further. 

Might quantum physics be able to describe what Qi is?

Recently the Nobel Prize was won by three astrophysicists for discovering that only five percent of the universe is what we would call reality–that is, what we can see, smell and touch. Everything that has substance and that we call ‘reality.’ I repeat, only five percent [4 percent per the Kavli Foundation.]

Twenty-five percent of the Universe is what is now called Dark Matter–that apparently is measurable. Seventy percent is what is now called Dark Energy–that is apparently not  measurable.

From the beginning the Chinese scholars and physicians have postulated that the force that creates and maintains life is the same force that moves the planets and stars, the universe. They call it qi and it has never been measured by a machine.

In my opinion, qi is what these astrophysicists are calling the Dark Energy of the Universe in all Life on earth. Qi is this Dark Energy in all living entities–microbes,mushrooms, plants, animals, humans. Its proper flow and functioning is what we call health.

Last thoughts on what Chinese medicine is for you?

Chinese medicine has been for me the fulfillment of a search for a congenial system of healing that embodies the inseparability of body and mind, spirit and matter, nature and humans, philosophy and reality. It is a personal, subtle, gentle, yet highly technical medical system, which allows me to be close to the essence–the life force–in myself and others.  It surrounds me like nature, or a great work of art. I am consumed and renewed at the same time.

Dr. Hammer, thank you very much for your time and teaching. 

Note from the Author and Interviewer

Further information on Dr. Hammer’s work is at The Contemporary Oriental Medical Foundation.

Leon Hammer, M.D., is a graduate of Cornell University, Cornell Medical College, and the William A. White Institute of Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry. In the early 1970’s, Dr. Hammer began a study of Chinese Medicine in England and traveled to study in China in 1981. He studied with the internationally acknowledged Chinese master Dr. J.F. Shen over a period of 27 years. After retiring from his practice of Chinese medicine, Dr. Hammer has devoted his time to writing and teaching.

Dr. Hammer was first published on the subject of Chinese medicine in the American Journal of Acupuncture in 1980. His book, Dragon Rises Red Bird Flies, has become a classic in the field; his second book, Chinese Pulse Diagnosis: a Contemporary Approach has been described as a seminal work. His third book, The Patient-Practitioner Relationship in Acupuncture, unpacks the “sacred space of the client-practitioner interaction.”

He has lectured and taught throughout Europe, Australia, Japan as well as the United States. In 1984, he served as a member of the Commission for Evaluation of Acupuncture Schools, and in 1995, he was appointed a member of the National Blue Ribbon Committee for Initiation of the Herbal Examination. From 1991 to 1998, he served as a member on the New York State Board of Acupuncture.

In 2001, Dr. Hammer received an award as “Educator of the Year” for participation and contribution to excellence in education from the American Association of Oriental Medicine. In 2002, he received an award from the Traditional Chinese Medicine Foundation for “Building Bridges of Integration” between Oriental medicine and Western Medicine.

Dr. Hammer helped found Dragon Rises College of Oriental Medicine in 2001, and he continues to function as Chairman of the Board and professor emeritus.

Pamela Sherman gardens with her husband at 8,300 feet on part of an old pioneer farm on the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies. She can be reached at plg59@cornell.edu.Read all of Pam’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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