October 30, 2023
In the Northern Hemisphere, October marks the settling in of our Autumn season, and as our environment shifts – the days getting darker and nights longer – we’re also issued a shift to our daily rhythms. Across lineages and cultures people have ways of recognizing the movement into Fall times, and whether that’s through celebration of the harvest yields, a gratitude towards light’s presence despite darkness, or leaning into the “thinned veils” between the world of the living and the world of the ancestors, there is an importance around holding this turning point.
In this space, I’ll hold the responsibility by honoring and uplifting the “Ghost Points” of Chinese Medicine. Spooky in name, but largely exorcized in practice, the Ghost Points are a group of acupuncture points originally issued in prescribed progression as a treatment for illnesses of the spirit – and health disturbances attributed to spiritual possession.
Sun Si Miao and the Call for Kind Treatment
In the early Tang dynasty renowned herbalist and acupuncturist Sun Si Miao (581-682) collected and formally introduced the treatment through his literature Beiji Qianjin Yaofang, often translated as “The Essential Formulas worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold”. This classic text is composed of 30 scrolls and included case studies of disease and their treatments, rare for publications of the time. While maintaining rank as a major medical study of the Tang dynastic era, it can also be thought of as a compilation of pre-Tang medical texts embodying greater influence and information from preceding culture than pieces produced later in the period.
In his following accompanying text Quianjin Yifang, “The Supplement to The Formulas Worth a Thousand Gold Pieces”, he further describes clinical applications of acupuncture and herbal traditions conjunct with a broader experience with folk remedies – which were often less systematized and documented. The richness of Sun Si Miao’s contributions to medicine deepen as these two texts are some of the earliest preserved medical texts to discuss ethics and the physician’s active role in uphold dignity through treatment. His essay “On the Absolute Sincerity of Great Physicians” opens his first book with pledges to virtuous practice akin to the hippocratic oath. And with emphasis towards standardizing dignity within care distributed widely he formally establishes that the treatment of illness should be held in social and spiritual containers broader than clinical procedures.
Gui and Gu Syndrome: Phlegm and Parasitism
The ghost points were grouped together to address the presence of “gui”, which translates to both “ghosts” and “excess phlegm”. Phlegm, the so-called “Mother to 100 Evils” for the broad presentation of illness it can manifest, was thought to be the medium for spirits to enter the body as pathogenic accumulation and condensation. In physical assessments phlegm builds up, causing stagnation and swelling, or in heat, causes blood to become turbid affecting our mind, mood and behavior. The ghost point protocol is speculated to have shamanic origins, which follows as many traditions within Chinese Medicine are derived from ancient esoteric and folk practices. Older treatment principles prioritized the expulsion of spirits but in contemporary contexts practitioners will strategize to support psycho-emotional wellbeing. Whether one believes in ghosts or not, gui inhibits the flow of qi to weaken the body, the spirit, and eventually the will (to live).
image courtesy of classicalchinesemedicine.org
Similarly, Gu syndrome describes disease for which treatment can be challenging because of its nuanced presentation. There are a wide range of symptoms spanning gut problems, neuromuscular, mental, and constitutional signs. In the Hanyu Da Zidian – the great compendium of Chinese characters – the nine definitions for the term “Gu” are listed that reference historical inquiries to stagnancy and degeneration:
- Infection by a worm in the digestive tract
- A type of artificially cultivated poisonous bug
- Ghost of a person (often convicted of Gu-magic) whose severed head was impaled on a stake
- Evil heat and noxious qi that harms humans
- Insect pest that eats grain
- Sorcery that harms humans
- To seduce; tempt; confuse; mislead
- Affair; assignment
- One of the 64 hexagrams of the Yijing, specifically Hexagram 18. It is formed by the trigrams Gen (mountain) over Xun (wind)
Originally thought to be derived from poisoning and curses affected through parasites (medical anthropologists cite Gu worms), in the last 2,500 years the concepts forming Gu diagnoses have largely adapted to note the presence of severe parasitic infection that has spread through multiple layers of infection that mutually work to weaken the body. In much of western society there is a common misbelief, compounded by racism, that parasitic infection is rare without travel to foreign countries. However, by denying the presence and clinical magnitude of systemic parasitism health practitioners may also minimize treatment of brain fog and digestive disorders – when inflamed nervous systems and digestive tracts are common signals of deeper developing issues.
The ghost points were once taught in a cadence to address illness at varying levels of severity but because of the esoterism surrounding its origins the ritual of its original prescribed order is rarely taught or held to clinical standard. In modern clinics, the points – Du 26, LU 11, SP 1, PC 7, UB 62, Du 16, ST 6, Ren 24, PC 8, Du 23, Ren 1, LI 11, and YT – are advised to not be over stimulated, with calls to reduce needles to 3 ghost points in a given session. Treatments range from addressing chronic ails to supporting patterns of emotional health. More gently, points on the Yangming channels (Stomach and Large Intestine) can also be used to target gu syndromes – and accompanying herbs to move blood, tonify blood and yin, tonify qi, expel wind and dry damp can reinforce and add flexibility to inflammatory pathogens. Calming the Shen and other spirits will create a sense of peace to bring forward treatment effects of the ghost protocol and harmonize greater wellness at large within TCM frameworks.
About the Author
Wana is a second year master’s student at AIMC with groundwork practice in reproductive and public health. They connect to East Asian Medicine through an ancestral root, and believe that land-based indigenous medicines deserve the privilege to supplement or substitute western care practices as conduits of more intimate contemporary healing.