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Embrace the world. Drink it in. Change with it

Interview with dr. Steve Jackowicz, MAc, LAc, PhD by Adina Dabija

I interviewed dr. Steve Jackowicz, MAc, LAc, PhD in November 2020 for my upcoming book "Wise and Wild" of America. Currently an assistant clinical professor in the Acupuncture Institute at the University of Bridgeport, dr. Jackowicz is a practitioner, researcher and scholar of East Asian Medicine who has traveled and studied extensively in Asia. He has taught at Tufts, Boston University, New England School of Acupuncture, and Pacific College of Oriental Medicine and has published widely. He is also a 19th generation teacher in the Qingcheng Mountain Longmen (Dragon Gate) Daoist tradition.

Dr. Jackowicz, you are a rare combination of modern shaman, martial artist, scientific researcher, author and popular teacher of Asian Medicine. How do these gifts balance and feed each other? Could you please describe your journey from a Harvard graduate to shamanism and back?

Dr. Stephen Jackowicz: Well that’s an interesting question. I’m not sure that I’m exactly a shaman, perhaps a Daoist instead. But I think I can answer the question. I graduated Harvard as an undergraduate and went to work in South Korea in a company that took English educational materials and revamped them for use in the Korean market. I had majored in East Asian Languages and Civilizations as well as Folklore and Mythology. So at Harvard those are called ‘concentrations’ rather than majors and I was dual concentrated, so double majored. I had also done martial arts since I was young and had an abiding interest in the martial arts that has persisted to this day. While at Harvard I had my first experience with East Asian Medicine. I was injured doing martial arts and broke my jaw. I had nerve damage on one side of my face. One of my fellow martial arts students was studying acupuncture and she suggested I see her teacher for treatment. I was treated seven times and regained all the feeling in my face so I realized the value of acupuncture. I was treated by Steve Birch, who was at that time teaching at New England School of Acupuncture (NESA). He went on to become one of the most published people in the field of Japanese acupuncture. Well when I lived in Korea I had another martial arts injury and severely damaged my left knee. Although I received Western medical intervention, it didn’t respond well. However, my martial arts teacher Kim Young-un was an acupuncturist. He treated it for three months almost daily, and the results were astounding. That experience led me to enroll in the Institute which Dr. Kim had attended. I became the first foreign student at the Korea Modern Institute of Acupuncture (Hyundae Chimsul Won) which was founded and directed by the renowned doctor Lee Byoung-kuk. Dr. Lee was very well published and had extensive experience. He provided me a superb foundation in acupuncture and herbal medicine. I graduated with the Clinical Medical Diploma. I was also lucky enough to study with Dr. Kim’s mentor Dr. Lee Kwang-chul who specialized in physical manipulation / bonesetting, as well as qigong. I was the first foreign student certified by Dr. Lee Kwang-chul in bonesetting. Dr. Lee was a master of highly esoteric qigong as well and I learned techniques of healing and spirit interaction from him as well.

When I returned to the US, I could not get licensed due to issues of reciprocity so I attended the New England School of Acupuncture eventually receiving my Master’s Degree from NESA. There I was fortunate to study Japanese Medicine, and I travelled to Japan several times with Dr. Koei Kuwahara to received advanced specialized training in pediatrics, as well as Toyo Hari non-insertive needle technique. Yet my time at NESA piqued my interest in the origins of traditional East Asian medicine. I was able to pursue a Ph.D. at Boston University through an interdisciplinary department known as the Teaching Program of the University Professors, which supported the exploration of areas not covered in the traditional academic departments. At BU, I studied with Livia Kohn, the western world’s foremost authority on Daoism, and Anthony Barrand, my advisor, who was a renowned scholar of cultural anthropology. Their tutelage shaped my scholarly approach to East Asian Medicine. As a graduate student I also encountered two of my most influential esoteric teachers; Katsumi Niikura, and Zhang Yuanming. Master Niikura is a maverick, being completely self taught. He can bend the parameters of the world around him. He can change the weather, and call fish to the surface of the water with the wave of his hand. He is a fierce martial artist. I met him in 1999 at the World Qigong Summit, and I was so impressed that I immediately became his student. What impressed me the most is that Master Niikura devoted his life to using his power to heal people when his daughter developed inoperable brain cancer at the age of seven. He made a "deal" with the universe that if he could determine how to heal her, he would treat anyone without charge for the rest of his life. She is now middle aged and he continues to treat daily many patients and he does not charge a fee, he only takes donations to support his healing practice. He has been studied by several universities, including Harvard, and he has shown quantitative proof of his abilities time and time again. I was lucky enough to study with him and become one of a handful of students who has been certified through his rigorous program that includes over 400 hours of supervised treatments. Additionally, while a graduate student, I met Zhang Yuanming at a conference in Western Massachusetts. Professor Zhang was presenting a paper on a traditional Chinese healing system of five sounds, instead of the more commonly known Six Healing Sounds. At that time I was working on a research paper on a third century Chinese text, the Record of Nourishing Inner Nature and Extending Life (yangxing yanming lu 养性延命绿) which had the exact sound system of healing that Professor Zhang was delineating. I approached him and we discussed that system and we immediately it it off. He was instrumental in helping me research my dissertation, and I spent time in China researching and studying with him. He is not only a scholar who worked extensively with international level committees on Qigong, but he is also a Daoist priest of the Longmen Dragon Gate lineage. After many years of study with him, I was ordained in his lineage of Daoism.

I’ve also maintained a private practice in East Asian Medicine for years while teaching. I’ve taught at a number of schools both academically and clinically. I now serve as the Chair of the Doctoral Program in Traditional Chinese Medicine at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. Through UB, I was able to pursue a second Ph.D. through a hybrid program with our sister school Liaoning University of Traditional Chinese Medicine (LUTCM) in Shenyang China. My advisor Dr. Ju Baozhao is northeast China’s foremost authority in the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine Huangdi Neijing. My dissertation focuses on this ancient text and a unique application of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth. While in Shenyang, I have been fortunate also to study with Master Li Shan-de who is an expert in Chinese traditional divination.

So it’s been a curious ride for a boy from Long Island to have travelled and met so many great teachers and learned so many curious things. I feel that in many ways I’m the “incidental Daoist” meaning that my path has grown by chance meetings and unexpected opportunities which have worked out in various ways to allow me to develop in directions I could never have planned out.

Dr. Jackowicz presenting at the 5th Biennial of the Interdisciplinary Society for Quantitative Research in Music and Medicine, June 7-9, 2019 at Molloy College, Rockville Centre, New York, USA

What is the contribution of Asian Medicine to the progress of civilization and what is it’s role in the current American health care system? What could that role be in the future?

Dr. Stephen Jackowicz: That’s a big question. East Asian Medicine is the oldest continuously practiced form of medicine in the world. It spans thousands of years. The modern practice still holds much of the methods from the Han Dynasty over two thousand years ago. It carries a message of the intimate relationship of the individual’s health with the greater environmental and spiritual forces that surround them. How does that relate to the current American health care system? Well in several ways, there are now 46 schools of East Asian Medicine in the US, so the number of graduate who bring this medicine further into the US mainstream grows every day. There are around 150 schools that grant an MD, so there are about a third as many EAM schools. But that’s enough to start a shift in the medical paradigm. Also there are East Asian Medical providers in many hospitals and clinics. In Connecticut, there are acupuncturists in the Veterans’ Administration, and in public health facilities. That mainstream presence means our view of medicine will be in front of more medical practitioners than ever before. In addition, the US Army has developed an Army Operational Specialty (AOS) for acupuncture which means it will one day be in every army hospital. So EAM is becoming a mainstream part of American healthcare. Hopefully in the future EAM can become a larger part of primary care. This medicine has been primary care for most of its history, let’s hope it returns to that place. EAM can do so much for the common ailments people have, it would be best if it becomes a first line approach here in the US.

You are the receiver of a few important lineages of transmission of Daoism. What is the importance of an esoteric path? How do you apply it in the day to day life?

Stephen Jackowicz: Well that’s a great question. I think that life is hard and complex, and it throws things at us that we do not expect, or deserve. And we have a choice to despair, or to accept what is presented and move on as we can. In Daoist thought, we say the Dao provides, meaning we are provided a path through our lives and the tools to deal with the circumstances. That does not mean it’s easy. It does not mean we deserve anything. It means that we have the things around us or within us to struggle, or accept, or acquiesce to the demands of life. Spiritual or esoteric teachings allow us the perspective to keep moving forward. One step forward, one star in sight, we need to keep those two ideas within us no matter our current circumstance. One human family, one road we all share in existence, we need to remember that we are all on a course from cradle to grave. No matter what cosmic spirit, ghost, or demon, one can confer with, the human narrative remains the same. Realizing that truth, allows us compassion, forgiveness, and solace. That is the application of the esoteric path in the real world.

You are organizing trainings with unique martial artists who teach aspects of the tradition unavailable in textbooks to your students. Why is it important to go back to your spiritual roots and mystery traditions? What is your hope with these trainings?

Dr. Stephen Jackowicz: I have learned so much from the teachers that I have been fortunate enough to study with. I have had some very hard times. I’ve been through a gut wrenching divorce with child abuse issues, and financial challenges that radically altered my range of choices. I have coped with these difficulties through the power of the methods my teachers gave me. The Dao provides. My teachers trusted a foreign kid with wisdom he couldn’t understand at the time. They told me to share it. All of them wanted to make the world a better place. They rose above the visible differences and saw the value of their lineage wisdom to the good of all people. The books catch technique and knowledge, but they don’t hold this spirit so well. So I hope that I can do right by my teachers and spread their knowledge, so my students can help the people they come into contact with. That’s a challenge. It’s a challenge to remain humane and kind despite the patients always coming with their burdens. My teacher Lee Kwang-chul traught me many techniques but he would denigrate them all saying, “That’s no big thing.” One day I asked him what was a “big thing.” He said that being kind and attentive to every person who asks you for help no matter how tired you are, no matter how busy you are, that is a “big thing.” Another of my teachers, Master Niikura said that if he could teach 100 people to heal, and they all taught 100 people, then a thousand people would spread his healing energy and the world would be a better place, and he could rest easy when he passes. My teacher Lee Byoung-kuk learned from his grandfather and he sought not to lose that wisdom so he taught six days a week until he passed away in his eighties. I teach what I can to preserve their methods, but most of all to preserve their energy, their drive to ease the sufferings and burdens of humanity. The difficulties in our lives unite us, the chance and choice to reach out and help is the measure of us. So it’s important to preserve this wisdom, in technique and spirit, to remember what we can be.

You are offering your students Daoist meditations, retreats and counseling on compassionate basis - a very Buddhist approach, I should say. What aspect of the Daoism you connect most to and think would be the most beneficial for nowadays society?

Daoism is a complex religion. It doesn’t fit the mold of a religion from a Western perspective since it touches on so many aspects of life. Daoism has philosophical or ideological components, ritual components, and even physical components like exercises and diet. So Daoism is often misunderstood in the West and sometimes trivialized into a pop psychology or “feel good” type of dynamic. Also the complex practices known as Internal Alchemy are often viewed out of context so that they appear strange and occult to the average person. So what does Daoism offer the modern person? Well all Daoists recognize two main components. One is Bu Zhi 不知 which means “unknowability,” the other is Hun Dun 混沌 which means “tumult” or “chaos.” In Daoism, we realize that humanity is small and the divine aspects of the universe are much bigger and more complex than we are. So we cannot fully understand the divine – how can a finite consciousness understand the infinite fully. So we must accept that large parts of our existence will remain unknowable to us. Because of this state of affairs, things seem to be chaotic. Often things happen without an apparent reason. The world often does not make sense and it challenges our assumptions of a logical universe. So we are in a state of tumult all the time though we deny it and try to force the world into our expectations. When it doesn’t fit, well we get frustrated, anxious, depressed and upset. If we can accept these two fundamental tenets, then we realize we must take things as they are, not as we want them to be. In Daoism we call that state of acceptance Wu Wei 无为 or “non-action / not doing.” We need not to act a certain way, or say a scripted socially acceptable response. Rather we need to not do what we think is expected, but we need to do what comes naturally at the moment of interaction. In Daoism we term this being Zi Ran 自然 “natural” or “you as you are.” I believe that this core message in Daoism has the most relevance for the modern person. In our ever increasingly mechanized and sophisticated world, where many of our interactions occur through our technology in a non-organic format, it is easy to slip into the scripted mask of expected social norms and mores and lose sight of our personal inner nature. Then we become shells of humanity and are plagued by a sense of incompleteness. But if we can apply the core Daoist ideals to our lives, we can awaken to the reality of our embodied experience and cultivate an appreciation of who we are, our talents, likes and dislikes, and become realized beings who make good choices. By doing so, I think we can help ourselves and in so doing benefit the world.

You currently serve as the Chair of the Doctoral Program in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), at the Acupuncture Institute of the University of Bridgeport, being one of the rare Asian Medicine doctors who can integrate a modern with an historical understanding of disease and health. The clinical academic trend is to operate based on a standard of care rooted not only in the TCM theory but also in double blinded randomized trials. What are the challenges of integrating the two approaches?

Dr. Stephen Jackowicz: Traditional Chinese Medicine and all of East Asian Medicine in general, is traditional science. Although it may have lacked microscopes and the technological tools to examine the body as modern Western medicine does, Traditional East Asian medicine has used empirical observation and clinical outcome to build a body of approach that has stood the test of time. In the modern day, we have advanced scientific study to molecular analysis and clinical trials which utilize single blind and double bind approaches. These approaches help take out the bias of the clinician and measure the efficacy of the medicine. Many herbs have also been double blind tested and examined in this format showing their efficacy. The Chinese herb huang lian (coptis) is a potent antimicrobial and has shown action in destroying anthrax in petri dish studies. Many other herbs have shown repeated clinical trial success. However, the double blind trial is only one type of assay. Surgery is never studied with a double blind placebo trial. That approach would be unethical. So surgery is studied by comparative outcome trials that look at the current method versus the new method. The National Institute for Health endorses the same type of comparative studies for acupuncture instead of a double blind placebo approach. We need to realize that the modern scientific drive for testable repeatable results will only strengthen the understanding of the value and applicability of traditional medicine. In addition, as studies continue to validate the success of traditional medical approaches, we see it becoming more mainstream. The US Army recognizes the efficacy of acupuncture and uses it on the battlefield for pain management. The Veteran’s Administration now has acupuncturists in their centers. Leading hospitals like Sloan Kettering and Weil Cornell have acupuncture wards for their cancer patients. Federal Workman’s Compensation has covered acupuncture for treatment since 1976. There is an ever-growing understanding that many aspects of East Asian Medicine have shown predictable results so that they can be counted on for reliable clinical results. In addition, in China they have pioneered an integrative approach, wherein they use Western medical blood tests and clinical exams such as MRIs to inform the treatment choices of traditional medicine. Based on their developments, we teach blood test driven herbal medical approaches at UB, as well as liver enzyme panel tests, MRI, CT scan, urinalysis, and stool sample driven treatment selection. I feel this is an exciting time for traditional medicine as we embrace modern scans and assays to help us better address the needs of the patients. The ongoing blend of the two systems is the future of a truly patient centered approach to healthcare.

Could you please describe how does a shaman switch modes to a scholastic approach, what is the role of intuition in clinical practice and is there any point when these two paths become disjunctive, especially in today's context of highly standardized Traditional Chinese Medicine?

Dr. Stephen Jackowicz: It’s an interesting question. All medicine is art as well as science. The clinician needs to inspect the data, some of which is quantitative in the forms of tests, assays, and numbers. But some of the data is qualitative related to the patient’s subjective account of the concern, the palpation of the body, the visual inspection, and the assessment of the patient as a whole living organism within the context of her environment. So the intuitive side of medicine is always there no matter what type of modality is being used. I feel that clinicians many times fall into a rut of consistently interpreting the cases with only a few facts. But as we get to know the procedural dynamics more fully and can internalize the TCM rubrics or analysis then we can transcend the simple categorization of people into pathology. Then our clinical intuition can guide us to sense which subtleties exist in the individual who never completely can conform to category. Like driving a car, there are mechanical precepts, which cannot be ignored, but the handling of the car and the art of controlling the vehicle allow the driver potentially to elevate driving to an art form.

Insurance regulations add a whole new level of challenge to practicing medicine. What is your stand in that regard?

Dr. Stephen Jackowicz: Insurance is a curious social edifice. It allows more access to healthcare for many people who could not afford it, yet it defines a scope of practice, which will be reimbursed. I believe it is difficult to take a holistic medical approach like TCM and reduce it to diagnostic and procedural codes with it losing something. However, in the postindustrial reductionist society of the US, how could we not be a part of the insurance mechanism? So I think the bigger question is how do we integrate with the insurance industry in a format that keeps us true to the aspects of TCM which have made it a vibrant part of healthcare for several thousands of years. This may require the evolution of diagnostic codes, which can embrace our traditions. Psychology has developed its own diagnostic codes, which reflect the field’s understanding of the mind. Perhaps we need a similar approach. As TCM becomes more mainstream, even becoming acknowledged as primary care in certain states, we will be a part of the insurance world. I believe we as a TCM community need to seriously consider how we will relate to that world.

What is healing, really? How does a healing journey looks like, with its ups and downs? How realistic is for a patient to go to see a doctor and expect to feel better immediately?

Dr. Stephen Jackowicz: That’s a big question. Healing means different things to each person. Depending on the type of problem the person is dealing with then healing has a variety of meanings. Some conditions are curable and they can heal completely. However many concerns are chronic and they are palliated or improved, but never fully go away. Those concerns require ongoing care. But for those people, an improvement is a type of healing. Also many people come to TCM to seek better health while not having an active pathology. So how can those people “heal,” if there is nothing “diseased”? Perhaps these people seek treatment to better manage themselves and their function in the world. From this we can see that healing means many things. I might say that TCM helps us adapt and exist in the world more harmoniously. If there is disease then we develop a way to either overcome it, or come to grips with it. If there is no defined disease state, then we can learn to better adapt to the vicissitudes of life. So we exist, our health with its concerns exist, the question is our relationship to that state of health. I have seen many end of life cases where we know there is no cure, and I have had hard conversations with the patients about expectations and potential outcomes. In those situations, we aim for preserving the person’s dignity and grace as the curtain call comes due. In fact, we are all on a terminal course; the heart will run out of summers and we face the great transformation into the next realm of being. Some of us simply are moving to that conclusion faster than others. The role of the doctor is to guide the person as best as possible to the maximization of potential and allow her to be at peace with the result. Can you feel better immediately? Perhaps, but medicine has no guarantees, just like life. Western or Eastern medicine does its best but the result is a combination of the known and the unknown, of the Yin and Yang. Allowing the change and embracing existence as it is can help someone feel better and settle their spirit. Resolution of symptoms can occur, but no result is ever guaranteed in medicine. Helping manage realistic expectations is the hardest role of the doctor. Perhaps healing is then to accept our embodied existence and the never ending change that it brings, and face it without judgement, preserving the wonder of each moment.

You have been teaching in Waldorf School but also in formal academic programs. What aspects would you like to see growing in an ideal educational system? What values should we embrace and are they congruent with what the current educational system has to offer (hopefully after overcoming the current remote learning challenges)?

Dr. Stephen Jackowicz: I have been lucky to teach in a variety of schools and age brackets. I have added to my teaching skills through each setting. In person and remote learning have taught me the need to adapt to the medium and be creative in fulfilling the learning objectives. I think an ideal learning environment doesn’t really exist. There is no perfect platform for one person to teach another. But if we recognize and accept the imperfection of all of our methods, then we can give space for the teacher and the learner to develop approaches which are innovative and vibrant. I believe an ever changing approach which breathes life into the subject matter is most critical. Yet I feel that is often lacking from today’s education, which becomes almost industrial focused on the production of quantitative test scores denying the qualitative enrichment of learning – coming to a subject and integrating with it to become a different person through engagement with the material. So it is that spark which I hope can become a greater aspect of all education and retain the transformative quality and power of the learning environment in the ever more mechanized world.

What is the path of the wise and wild - in other words, what would be your advice to someone committed to operate in parameters of self-sufficiency while preserving one’s core values and wisdom in today’s world?

Dr. Stephen Jackowicz: That’s an interesting question. I think that self-sufficiency is an illusion. Much like the myth of the “self-made man,” it is an inconvenient error in understanding that only feeds an egotistical appraisal of the self in the world. We are all dependent on each other. We are a part of the macrocosmic cycle of all things, which reflect within the microcosm of our being. The movement of the stars and celestial bodies, the clouds, rain, lightning, thunder, tides, seasons, plants, animals, humanity as a whole, our nation, state, city, town, family, past, present, and future all combine within us. No one is “self-sufficient.” It is a damaging illusion to think of ourselves discreet from the whole of existence. We are all things together. We are responsible for all things happening in the world. We can change the world through changing ourselves, for the inner change in being will have repercussions outwards into the state of all things. If we can perceive this fact, then we are preserved in the world. We must embrace a conscious state of abundance, that we are ripe with the fruit of existence. If we think we can stand alone then we create a perception of barren anomie that leads to our decline and the loss of what we perceive as ourselves. So embrace the world. Drink it in. Change with it. Don’t be afraid to be someone different just as the day creates a new version of itself again and again. That is the only core value which can endure – change.

Thank you, dr. Jackowicz!

Dr. Stephen Jackowicz: Thank you! I hope my answers can provide some food for thought.