Following on from my last post, The Pulse, I wish to delve slightly deeper into its subject. In my book, Contemporary Chinese Pulse Diagnosis (Eastland Press, 2001), I present teaching that was passed on to me by Dr. John Shen, an innovative and venerable master of pulse diagnosis. It is based on seventy years of Dr. Shen’s work, and on thirty years of attempting to feel, understand, and codify what he taught. All the while, I have added substantially from my own observations, which sometimes differ from his.

The human organism has a limited reservoir of symbols with which to express its internal anguish, and we call these symptoms. This restriction of the expression of dysfunction and misery calls for, and is the genesis of, the art and science of diagnosis. Likewise, the pulse is limited in its variety of sensations or qualities, and so is likewise constrained in its ability to communicate the internal state of the person. While some students of the pulse have the ability and sensitivity to perceive more sensations than others, the qualities themselves do not change, and their distinguishing features are the same as ever. However, what has changed are the causes for these qualities, the practitioner’s ability to distinguish them from one another, and the language with which to explain them.

To meet the needs generated by these shifts, my pulse model, called the Shen-Hammer system or Contemporary Chinese Pulse Diagnosis (CCPD), includes considerably more than the standard twenty-eight qualities. Its qualities can be read in eight depths of the Principal Positions, and in at least two depths of the Complementary Positions. Three of the eight depths are subdivisions of the Organ Depth – Organ Qi, Organ Blood, and Organ Substance – and findings in the lower two of these seem associated with deeply entrenched “retained pathogens” and “latent heat”.

Some of the qualities in the CCPD system vary slightly in sensation at different positions, and some have different meanings in different positions. The qualities are accessed at the six Principal Positions and twenty-two Complementary Positions, and allow for a very comprehensive and detailed diagnosis. This becomes even more precise when we consider the deepest two of the eight depths, the Hidden and Firm qualities. These exist below the Organ Depth, and are found only rarely, under extreme conditions.

During my twenty-eight year apprenticeship with Dr. Shen, I spent eight years “sitting” with thirty patients a day, for two to three days a week. I was taught the necessity of “rolling the fingers” in order to access two of the six Principal Positions, and most of the Complementary Positions. The importance of this technique has been confirmed by Georges Soulié de Morant’s material, given to me by Dr. Van Buren in 1972, and later partially recorded in a recent translation of Soulié de Morant’s book, Chinese Acupuncture (L’acuponcture chinoise).

Throughout Contemporary Chinese Pulse Diagnosis, I have attributed new interpretations of qualities commensurate with the stresses of our time, and I have aspired to create a modern language of qualities based on easily recognizable sensations. “A feather floating in the wind” or “the pulse of the heart should sound like the blows of a hammer (continuous)” from the Nei Jing, is poetry that appeals to the soul of a sensitive person. However, it is insufficient to illuminate and communicate the nature of a pulse quality to a 21st-century practitioner from any contemporary culture, who is conversant primarily in a modern language.

While drawing from the vast reservoir of past wisdom, I have attempted to bring pulse diagnosis, with all of its inherent power to diagnose and preclude disease, into modern times. It does not need to justify itself in terms of the classics. The only issue is whether or not it works.