Everything Starts With An ‘E’

I’m often asked what it was that precipitated my involvement with Chinese medicine.   I have answered this question in various ways, mentioning doing kung fu or having had acupuncture and being fascinated by it to the extent that I wanted to study it.  Both of these answers are true, up to a point.  The best and most honest answer to the question is, however,  ‘ketamine’.

This is a tricky topic in the context of the image that people apparently have of acupuncturists and alternative practitioners in general.  The perception is that we are squeaky clean angels. Being angelic is an awkward business in a small town if you aren’t actually an angel.  A few years ago I consulted a naturopath, who prescribed a diet involving the forswearing of wheat, salt and sugar.  My partner and I investigated it’s rigours for a few miserable weeks.  We were pretty strict and didn’t lapse, until one night something snapped and we went clubbing at The Ocean Rooms.  At some point in the long night, our naturopath emerged from a thick cloud of dry ice holding a pint, with a fag in her other hand.  It was an awkward moment.

It’s clearly comfortable at some level for some patients to have an idealised figure for a practitioner.  Unfortunately in the case of the staff at the dragon, any perpetuation or promotion of this agenda would be wholly dishonest.  If I’m honest, I’d probably like to take drugs more than I currently do, which is none.   They take ages to recover from when you’re older, and who’s got the time?

All of us drink, have difficulties in our relationships at various times, have partied quite heavily in the past, are at times unreasonable bad-tempered and emotionally conflicted.  In short no different from many of our patients.

The inspiring ketamine interlude happened towards the end of my contact with rave culture in the early nineties.  The insights into the way the body and mind worked as well as some of the possibilities that it presented were something that I needed to keep exploring.  Evidently ketamine and high doses of LSD weren’t a sustainable vehicle for such exploration.  The collateral damage was apparent in my peer group in Goa, who were losing their sanity in numbers.  Clearly if I  wished to continue, I had to pursue other methods of inquiry. Acupuncture, meditation and chi kung appeared down the line, as I struggled with the impact of a long period of heavy substance abuse, and the issue that had driven me there in the first place, which was the loss of my father from cancer.

I think the way we were trained perpetuates this perspective. The Chinese medical view of drug abuse at the time was that taking class A drugs damaged your jing or deep constitutional energy.  Since you aged and died according to depletion of your jing; class A drugs were a bad idea and something neither you or your patients should be doing.  It was all about moderation and class A drug binges weren’t moderate.

Aside from that, alternative medicine tends to promotes a perspective of purity and an ascent to something spiritually more elevated.  Its marbled through the semiotics of websites, business cards and leaflets.  It screams ‘you are bad we are good, but contact with us will make you good’.

With its iconography of storks standing on one leg, zen gardens, yin yang symbols, cross-legged buddhas and soothing pastel shades Chinese medicine is flogging the same idealised notion of calm and balance. It advertises contact with more evolved beings, who are master manipulators of invisible ‘Qi’ energy, and who will heal your ills. It’s a superficial view. If Taoism is about any one thing then it isn’t balance so much as change.  Context-less images of eastern spirituality that fail to encompass the pain and conflict inherent in any true spiritual growth are nonsensical and, as such, are the worst form of kitsch.  Implicitly or explicitly alternative medicine encourages a good/bad dichotomy and unfeasible levels of projection into the practitioner. Something which is utterly invalidated by the sight of said practitioner going up on a pill in a night club; or being seen fighting with strangers outside a 24 hour store; or cruising; or out at a fetish night.

As such we were advised to keep it tidy in public.

In another blog entry  I have described an alternative view of the ageing process being based on incremental levels of emotional rigidity.  Emotional sclerosis leading to physical sclerosis manifesting in conditions like hardening of the arteries, stroke, high blood pressure and kidney disease.

You die when you have become too rigid to flow with the changes of life.  In the spirit of this point of view, fixed perspectives on what one should or shouldn’t do injure the heart.   I’m not denying that class A drugs damage the constitutional energy.  Look at long-term users and you can see profound synaptic damage, deep level issues with the endocrine system and nervous system.  Thyroid problems, intractable emotional instability, memory problems, weaker teeth and bones.  I am, though, saying that promotion of a rigid attitude, being judgemental, and encouraging the kind of idealization of ourselves as angelic entities with its corresponding denigration of ones own failings on the part of the idealiser, simply stiffens up both your system and that of your patients.  In a christian country it’s very easy to slip into the background spiritual narrative, but a heart heavy with a sense of failure and sin just isn’t that healthy.

A few years ago I was treating someone who was transitioning from female to male.  He was drinking more than I thought he should be and I recommended that he cut down.  He just gave me this look which simply conveyed that I had no idea what I was talking about and the pressures he was under, and that at this stage of the game for good reasons that I would clearly find hard to understand, he needed to drink. End of.

As practitioners, we are not there to judge our patients.  We are not there to offer them sins to feel guilty about.  We are not there to offer them rigidity.  Sin is a cop-out for everyone because beneath the heavy rubber stamp of something being accorded the status of wrong, the nuance of fine print is erased. Engagement with the situation is limited. Why are you doing that? The sensitivities of an unhappy system, the possibility of growing beyond whatever it is, or adapting if one can’t.  My patients are thoughtful, intelligent people who know far better than I what is best for them.  My job is simply to allow them to grow towards whatever that is. The highest aim of any practitioner can be summed up as ‘the promotion of growth’.

The overarching view of drug and alcohol usage in this culture is based around sin.  Around doing something bad.

My contact with rave culture began in 1988 with the magic moment when listening to the same loop of sound over a four four dance beat suddenly seemed like a good idea, as opposed to something a bit naff and not for the likes of me.  I was early on this simply because friends of mine pushed me into it by getting me stoned and playing me early acid house records again and again.  After my moment of epiphany, I watched my entire west London, druggy-punk, peer group fall, slowly, one by one.  Sometimes it was a sample that got them, sometimes it was a loop of something particularly cool and familiar, a bit of Hendrix or Led Zeppelin perhaps, but fall they eventually did.  In fairness there was a lot at stake.  Inherent in listening to dance music was, well ultimately, some actual dancing.  And collectively we didn’t really do that.   There was a lot of flow to go with, and it took some time for some to finally put away the Hawkwind albums and buy some tangerine jogging bottoms covered in smiley faces and get on.

The early days of acid house were an amazing experience creatively.  A new format had appeared which completely changed the game.  This hasn’t happened again and hadn’t happened since punk.  The format was simply structured around beats and beyond that anything went.  Practically, this meant that there was an experimental explosion in the early days, with fantastic new sounds on a weekly basis that became more or less impossible to keep up with without serious effort and connections, but meant that intermittently tuning into a pirate station meant you heard hauntingly brilliant new things.  The sense I had then and have now was of a sudden rush into the technological future.  The music was keeping in lock step beat with the informational revolution, that really got under way in the mid to late eighties with the appearance of the desk top pc.  This phase drove on until the mid-nineties before the scene stagnated, became fractured by genre and sub genre and had become so massive it had to be accepted as a part of wider culture.  For a while though something, that I would argue, was a reflection and symptom, was also a description.  It explosively described the pace of technological change.  Week on week it suggested trajectory.  And for a while it was very much our response rather than received by us. Fragments of the new computer technology had come down to street level prices and a new form had flowered antithetically.

It flourished in the exhaust-tainted, no mans lands of the M25.  Places that weren’t town and weren’t country.  Places that weren’t really anywhere.  It hit the headlines and it’s pantomime TV news stories; of wild robotic dancing interspersed with angry rural types in dressing gowns and police spokesmen; reinforced its peripheral nature.  It was always going to have a fundamental PR problem.  People on ecstasy, perhaps more than any other substance really fulfil  the shock-horror archetype of someone on drugs.

The experience of ecstasy is the important, saleable aspect of the drug.  Ecstasy puts you in touch with the life as open-hearted romantic. When you’re clubbing on it, the feeling is of boundary-less unity with the rest of the dance floor.  At the end of the eighties this provided quite a radical counterpoint to the individualist stance of the Thatcher generation.  Social rifts healed, football violence calmed down and the factional nature of youth culture united behind this quasi-spiritual phenomenon.  In the wake of the criminal justice bill which attempted to control free parties, the direct action movement warped around it, restyling itself as based on party and protest.  In the longer term and with the jaundice of hindsight, I’m left wondering whether ecstasy was really more individually orientated than it appeared. That the experiences when pilled up at a party weren’t ultimately more about the crowd being an exciting and uplifting special effect for your very personal trip. Nobody will ever be truly able to say, but the cultural and social consequences of ecstasy don’t appear to have brought everybody closer together in the longer term.  They’ve probably eased up sexual mores and made people, who wouldn’t have softened and looked inwards, soften and look inwards.  It didn’t do the collectively oriented protest movement much good in the long run and they don’t push that line anymore.

From a Chinese medicine point of view it seems to blow the heart open and then shut it closed with a bit of a bang.  The longer term ecstasy cultural experience seems to reflect this essential rhythm.  There was a ‘summer of love’ or two.  A door was briefly opened into a better world.  Then it became about getting trashed. The brutal realism of the Happy Mondays, the conservatism of Primal Scream.  It’s hard for me to know if ecstasy still does what it did back then.  I don’t do it anymore. It isn’t regarded in the same awe-struck way so I’d guess not.  I have a theory that the time and place was very important for the drug.  That it needs a great deal of emotional investment for it to be what it can be.  If everyone keeps doing it and becomes jaded by the experience then the fun, uplifting, heart opening aspects are diminished or negated and it becomes just another pill.  it makes you feel buzzed out, gives you energy you don’t have, from places you don’t want to dwell, on.  It’s sexually arousing and it makes you tense your jaw.  When you come down you feel crap and you can’t sleep.

Why rave culture?  Why then particularly?  The drugs involved: acid and ecstasy, had been around for years.  Arguably technological evolution has something to do with it.  WIth youth cultural-jumps it’s usually a feature.  In this instance, as I’ve said it’s the appearance of cheap desk top computers, running ‘cubase’ that make house music almost impossible not to make.  With punk it was cheap guitars and amps, with seventies rock it’s the technology of large-scale amplification. The music became possible because of this change in available kit.

In this country, we’d been living under the dark cloud of Thatcherism for eight years, so anything ecstatic was a fairly radical departure.  Although rave culture was in many ways a thoroughly Thatcherite phenomenon.  Right from early big pay parties, to the grass-roots activity of opening up a lucrative,small business inside your boxer shorts; and making cash selling pills to your new-found ‘friends’.  The first people involved were from the emerging information economy; Thatchers children playing hard.

I would argue that the key element in answering this question is that acid house is all about cathartic discharge.  An enormous, somewhat energetically costly, release of emotional tension.  There is nothing quite like the feeling after a big night out.  There are edgy elements, ongoing intoxication, not being able to sleep yet, but he feeling of calm after the madness is powerful.  I think that acid house fulfilled a growing need for emotional discharge from the informational sphere; a space we were all just beginning to have to occupy at the end of the eighties. Life had started to become more visually provocative from the emerging technology.  It was becoming busier and faster.  We were coming into contact with computer technology at work.  Something that allows you to get about six times as much done an hour as long as you multitask, provokes the nervous and endocrine systems through pressure on the visual cortex and leaves you feeling terrible after a few hours using it.

The first people to become seriously involved in the warehouse party scene were the first people to come into contact with the computer in their working environments.  Yuppies, making serious money, but for some reason needing to party all night.  They were also having problems with burn-out, being the first publicly recognised sufferers of M.E or ‘yuppie flu’. In America silicone valley was the centre of the rave scene and the big force behind the Burning Man Festival to this day.

A lot of the aesthetic of early early acid house was based on aerobics.  It interestingly difficult to find images of it on line. Digital cameras weren’t ubiquitously available in 1988.  When I first came into it, it very quickly became apparent that tight jeans and doc martins wouldn’t work for dancing for long periods.  In amongst the culture shock of having to change my street style; for the wholly practical reason that if I danced in it I was going to chafe; it became apparent to me that there was a lot of aerobics gear on the dance floor.  Sure it was psychadaelicised, day-glo, covered in smileys, but essentially it was the same clothing.  Aerobics became massive in the eighties after Jane Fonda popularised it.  It was dancing in a group.  It was also fairly sexual and I kind of health based club culture for the AIDS generation.  Now as I’ve argued in this blog fitness culture has a great deal to do with discharging stress and is a manifestation of chronic raised cortisol levels. Obviously club culture had been popular throughout the seventies and eighties and acid house was an evolutionary stage of that. In the context of de-stress and  exercise, acid house looks like extreme aerobics: freeform, done all night, on drugs in a darkened room; but aerobics.  The avowedly hedonistic slant on it it came in later, when I first came in there it was a non-alcohol scene with sports drinks and water being the beverages of choice.  In a sense acid house was an evolutionary stage in stress management through physical movement.  It’s a shame so many images of acid house fashion have been lost to posterity.  The sartorial horrors provide a perfect strategy for encouraging image-conscious teenagers to hold back on drugs until they’re a bit older.  ‘Say no to drugs kids, they make you dress like a twat.  Fact.’

After the summer of love faded we moved into the new world of the nineties and a culture of hedonism.  We moved onto the depressant and the anaesthetics alcohol, cocaine, ketamine.  Drugs that definitely didn’t open up the heart.  Drugs that actively close down and narrow your external awareness; that numb and depress.

The brewery companies got wise and created the pub-club.  The arena for what a policeman on Radio 4 succinctly described as ‘mass vertical drinking culture’.   Nice toilets with big flat surfaces to do cheeky lines on. Loud music: if you keep the music up loud enough then people will have to shout, if they shout they make themselves hoarse, and they drink.  If they don’t shout in one another’s ears then what is there to do, but stand smiling awkwardly. And drink to cover your embarrassment.  Also, people definitely do things to a beat, give them a speedy beat and they’ll drink fast.  And do two for one on shots and you’ve got.. ….a potential public order nightmare.  During the hey day of party culture, before the good times ended and the Great Depression started, the population of Reading increased by ten percent on a saturday night. There simply wasn’t the transport infrastructure to move all of those people out of that town that night.  Yes we’ve always drunk like the Northern European pirate culture we are, but for some reason, on which there is no wider discussion, we’ve stepped it up a gear since the late eighties. It’s only poverty that’s forced us to calm down.  And that reason is the explosion of information technology into our lives, because that is the big variable.

The sin narrative, that is the standard cultural position around substance usage, is of no value.  It defines drug usage in terms of moral failing and personal weakness and negates any discussion of wider patterns.  It’s hard-wired in all of us and ridiculously easy to slip into.  It’s a daily presence in my clinic.

Hard drugs are simply a commodity.  They have effects and implications.  In some circumstances there may be a use for them.  They are a part of someones personal narrative and as such the choices around them must be respected.  Where is someone at with that usage pattern, what does it mean for them? If we are going to use the usage of jing/constitutional energy paradigm to describe the ageing process then strong drugs have a big impact on that energetic level.  In other words strong drugs have an explosively strong impact on life processes.  In wider taoist terms jing may be seen as constitutional potential. The burning up of your jing leads to life experience or spirit, Shen.  Jing becoming  Shen is what life is about. You’re going to go through a lot of life experience on a ten-day crack binge.  Life is going to happen fast, in uncontrollable ways.  The consequences may create new position of personal value and life growth.  There will be change.  We are not to tut or judge.

The problem with class A drugs is that they tend to create more of the same.  Usage patterns develop.  Ecstasy and acid are very exciting experiences.  They tend to make every day life look rather boring in comparison  People who don’t do them start to look like tedious prats, who are really missing to point. Practically this means the only people you can relate to are people who do get it and who dress like clowns and stay up all night at squat parties.  Day-to-day existence becomes drained of magic and the magic happens only on drugs.  The day-to-day is when you’re dealing with the impact of substance use on your body, so it isn’t a comfortable time anyway.  Frankly you feel like shit and nothing is remotely as much fun as flapping about, sweating in a disused warehouse on a saturday night.  Usually the gap between the good times and the bad times becomes too great for one life to handle and people pack it in and start getting on with the mundane and gradually reinvesting it with the lost magic.  Life goes on, with occasional forays onto the dance floor. Whatever drove you there in the first place, is still there.

The drugs-are-wrong narrative helps invest the heavy usage lifestyle with a sinner outsider mystique rather than the more prosaic its-just-usage-of-a chemical perspective.  It reinforces the social exclusion aspect as does the descending boot of dull-witted drugs laws.  What is really going on is that people are dealing with neurological overload in a fairly intense, extreme way.  There’s probably some depression there, and there may well be a background inability to manage high stress levels.  But there’s wider ambient situation that is intense enough to make the come downs, the tiredness, the emotional pressures, the illegal manoeuvres and social opprobrium worthwhile.

I’m not the only one who walked this walk.  There was an explosion in interest in alternative medicine after the psychedelic boom of the late eighties and early nineties. Unacknowledged by Chinese medicine as a whole.   Other people left their bodies and came crashing back in; to appreciate them anew or address the damage and the depression. Others saw things out there and came back down and had to follow the call. The new metaphors of technology inspired perceptions of the body.  Homeopaths talked the language of quantum and nano tech.  Acupuncture described spiritual/physical networks of information transfer in the body and offered a refined science of mystical practice applying these to health.

This new wave of alternative medicine was and still is catering for the needs of people who are experiencing adrenal fatigue and stress based illness from contact with information technology.  We are working with this, or somatized cultural angst in one form or another.  The assault on spirit by modern consumer capitalism is our basic field of operation.

In the late eighties information technology started to really happen for the first time.  We started to come into contact with data interfaces, computers, mobile phones, cash points.  A youth culture arose based on dancing to repetitive music that was an early product of that contact, on drugs that dropped a boundary within yourself and the group, based around dancing.  Being on the dance floor was about being part of a huge collective experience and at some level about becoming a part of the beat.  A part of the machines that made it and so, so much more possible.  The scene evolved into a celebration of these exciting possibilities, a celebration of becoming one with machines.   Virtual reality and nanotechnology, cybernetics.  The beat ran through those of us in that generation for a few years until our flesh and our nerves could no longer keep up; until the contradictions became too great and most of us fell away.  For a while though we collectively marched in time to the new tempo.  The driving martial sensuality of the beat that was the harbinger of the new speed of interaction and contact, the new speed of working life; the new speed of just being.  Acid House marked its arrival.

Partying on class A’s and dancing hasn’t really gone away because it’s become a necessity.  Sometimes it all gets too much for millions of people, and they have to get ‘out of’ their heads.  They may not really be aware that’s what’s happening. Mindful of the sin narrative, it will be couched in more positive and evasive terms, but what they’re doing, is actually about firing up and discharging their nerves in a way that’s positively explosive.  The consequence is a fundamentally unsustainable sine wave of high highs and low lows.  But then computers and information has the same sine wave snaking through it.  The recurrent spikes of intensity, the small adrenal overloads that are intrinsic to its interface.  In a way party culture is just a continuation of the process with the sine wave exploding across someone’s whole lifestyle.

Fusion with technology: the metaphor occurred to me again and again as I thrashed in crowds with beats thundering through me.  It was inescapable.  The acid house generation was the first to rise to meet the new technology, wide-eyed with the novelty.  Each generation since has formed in successive waves has subtly reframing the form jungle, drum and bass, new school breaks, trip hop, dub step. The drugs have changed: the emphasis is more on focussing in and numbing and shutting out, but then the world is that much more intense.  The song, though remains substantially the same.  The beat goes on.

And coded into the metaphor of fusion between double helixes and ones and noughts, the message is the same. Interfacing with information technology is really exciting, but if we work synergistically with machines we are the weaker part of the equation.

And we must be mindful and we must be careful.

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