Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Bridging ancient Tibetan medicine and modern Western science

Tawni Tidwell amid Tibetan prayer flags in eastern Tibet. Photo by Shane Witnov.

By Carol Clark

Tawni Tidwell is the first Westerner to be certified in Tibetan medicine by Tibetan teachers in the Tibetan language. The PhD candidate in Emory’s Department of Anthropology is now working on a dissertation about how Tibetan physicians diagnose diseases, especially cancer.

“I see myself as a bridge between Tibetan medicine and Western science,” says Tidwell, who became a Tibetan physician in 2015. “I feel like each has something to offer the other.”

Tidwell was born in Colorado but lived from the ages of two to five in South Korea, where her father was a U.S. Army surgeon. Tidwell and her mother lived in mainstream Seoul, which gave her an affinity for Asia when she returned to Colorado. She was also influenced by the Native American ancestry on both sides of her family and by the ecology of Colorado, where she became involved in rock climbing and winter mountaineering.

Tidwell has trained as an animal tracker, worked as a ranger at a biological preserve, taught wilderness survival lessons, and led gap-year students on trips to learn about traditional cultures through the “Where There Be Dragons” program.

Tidwell studied at the premier Tibetan medical school outside of Tibet, in northern India (the cultural and intellectual capital of the displaced Tibetan community). In order to enroll, she had to pass a five-day exam of memorized Tibetan grammar and Buddhist logic, as well as general Tibetan cultural knowledge. From there on, each year she had to recite from memory 115 pages of a medical textbook in Tibetan, considered one of the most difficult languages for non-native speakers to master. She also had to complete written exams, coursework and attend classes, all in the Tibetan language among Tibetan peers.

Below is an interview with Tidwell, covering some of the milestones of her long and winding road to becoming a certified Tibetan medical practitioner.

Where did you spend your undergraduate years? 

I went to Stanford, where I started out majoring in physics and pre-med, with the idea of a career focused on aerospace medicine, exploring questions like how the body adapts to space.

In physics, you take the extremes of a problem to understand how an average system operates. I thought if you studied how humans respond to extremes, then maybe you could find out more about how the human body works and responds to illness.

I was also really interested in the relationship between our bodies and the land. I eventually switched my major to Earth Systems. Stanford has a 2,000-acre biological preserve – ranging from redwoods to chaparral and perennial grasslands – where I worked as a docent and a ranger. I learned to identify dozens of different species of grass. I wanted to know why this grass species survives in the desert and another one doesn’t, and why the bobcat patrols this area and not another.

While ascending Illimani, a peak in western Bolivia, Tidwell pauses to take in the view.

When did you become interested in Tibetan culture?

I took a gap year after my freshman year and went to the Emory Tibetan Studies Program in north India, led by Tara Doyle (senior lecturer in Emory’s Department of Religion). I studied Buddhist philosophy and the Tibetan language, which is exquisite and poetic. The word for computer translates as “brain of light.”

The Tibetan language pays special attention to the sacred. It reminds you of the pursuit of understanding the reality we all experience and how one should live. It’s very specific about cognition and the mind and provides a much more detailed description of the trajectory of perception.

I feel different when I speak in Tibetan. People have told me that my whole body language changes.

Why did you enroll in an animal-tracking course?

I went to Washington, D.C., to work with an environmental organization. I realized that most of the environmental specialists in our nation’s capital had no time to spend in the natural world. They are completely disconnected from it. I wondered, what were humans like as foragers and what have we lost by being academic specialists without first-hand experience?

I went to New Jersey for a 10-day course taught by Tom Brown, Jr., an animal tracker and wilderness guru. He basically teaches what it takes to survive when you are butt naked in the woods and have nothing. In just the first class, you learn about wild edibles, how to make fire by friction, how to make two different traps and two different snares, and how to tan a hide. Other classes build on those basics.

What was your favorite part of your survivalist training?

Fire. There is something so enigmatic about making fire by friction. The experience ignites something deep in our past. It’s almost like creating life. You have to get a feel for the spindle and the fireboard. You apply just the right speed and pressure and when the fire comes out it’s like magic. And you realize that you can have a relationship to everything like that in the natural world.

After I finished the initial course, I realized it was really about putting in the experiential “dirt time’ to learn the skills. I took more courses and helped with teaching. I lived in the New Jersey pine barrens for about a year in a pit shelter, which was dug about four feet into the ground and was about 10 feet in diameter. It was full-on immersion in ecology.

I saw how some people’s lives changed as their wilderness survival skills accumulated. It gives you a certain freedom. People realize they don’t necessarily have to live in the way that they thought they had to live.

Tidwell with classmates, gathering native plants from the Tibetan plateau.

Do you ever get scared being alone in the wilderness? 

Scary movies make me scared, but not being alone in the forest. I imagine, though, that I would be scared in grizzly bear or polar bear territory, since they hunt humans.

Wolves don’t scare me because I read everything I could about the Arctic wolf when I was in elementary school – I was that kind of kid – and I knew they weren’t a threat to humans.

It’s actually part of Buddhist philosophy: The more you learn about the world, the more you learn about what you should, and should not, fear.

How did you wind up in Tibetan medical school?

In 2008, Tara Doyle asked me to return as assistant director of the Emory Tibetan Studies Program in north India.

While working in South America, I had met a curandero in Bolivia who told me that his grandmother had known more than 5,000 healing plants, he knew 2,000 and his daughter would know a few hundred or even fewer. I realized that Tibetan medicine is really unique in that it is this ancient medicinal system connected to the land – using medicines made from plants and minerals gathered from the Tibetan plateau, the highest place in the world – and it is also written down.

I thought that if I had a chance to study Tibetan medicine I could really do something with it. Dr. Khenrab Gyamtso, the vice principle of the Men-Tsee-Khang medical institute in north India, agreed to tutor me for a few hours at the end of every day, after he and I had already put in a full day of work. He eventually encouraged me to apply for enrollment.

What did your studies involve?
Medicinal herb from the Tibetan plateau


The first few years were mainly memorization of parts of the medical canon, more than 100 pages a year. And then at the end of every year you recite them. At first I didn’t value memorization but I eventually realized that it’s an amazing technology. It feels like a profound meditation. It’s clever in the sense that it forces you to focus while also giving your mind a break. The text is written poetically and you start noticing associations and layers of meaning. Layers of your mind also start emerging. It’s a fascinating thing to observe.

After five years of classes, I transferred to eastern Tibet’s Tibetan Medical College of Qinghai University in Xining, China. Under the mentorship of senior doctors, I was able to do patient rounds in the gastroenterology department of the hospital there. All that memorization prepared my mind to have a strong presence with each patient and really focus on what each one said to me.

What are some of the distinctive aspects of Tibetan medicine? 

Tibetan medicine co-evolved with Buddhism. Contemplative introspection into the mind is complemented by introspection into the body. For example, in the case of chronic pain, Tibetan medicine prescribes medication along with recommendations for diet and ways to reduce mental distress and suffering. Research has shown that some meditators can identify physical pain locales on their body but they don’t have the same mental response that a lot of other people have to it.

We’re one of the few species in the animal kingdom that can evoke stress just by thinking about a threat. What are the changes in the mind when you become afraid, jealous, angry or sad? These emotions create biological changes in the body. Tibetan medicine treats the mind and the body at the same time. If you have diabetes or hypertension, it can get worse if you are highly reactive to circumstances in your life. This phenomenon is related to a concept called rlung (pronounced loong). These are wind pathways in the body that the mind rides on, which in Western medicine is related to the neuroendocrine system.

Connecting the mind and body to treat patients is ancient practice in Tibetan medicine, but it has only started gaining importance in Western medicine in the past decade or so.

Do you think Tibetan medicine is superior to Western medicine?

No. I feel like there is a lot of learning to do on both sides. My dad is an orthopedic surgeon. There are some things that Western medicine does very well.

Modern Tibetan medical practitioners don’t do surgery but they may advocate it at times – historically, we performed minor procedures like cataract surgery. Our canon says that anything that benefits a person is Tibetan medicine. So if the results of an X-ray or blood test could give you valuable information about a patient, you would welcome that. It’s a realist perspective more than anything else. And I would also say that it’s more holistic.

Some people have such a suspicion of anything that’s not Western medicine, they just refuse to consider it. I find that non-scientific. The research done on other medical systems is so poor we can’t say that we know whether these things don’t work on some level. Westerners sometimes forget that a human connection is healing and we try to operationalize everything. We’re not allowed to have art in medicine, but sometimes that art is what makes it more effective.

All photos courtesy of Tawni Tidwell

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