Going Fractal

FractalYou could say it starts with broccoli.  Scientifically it’s called a “fractal”: a complex, repeating pattern, in which every part is a miniature copy of the whole. Fractals are everywhere in nature: broccoli is one of the most familiar. (Romanesco broccoli is one of the most spectacular.) When you cut up a head of broccoli, you can see that the individual florets are the same shape as the stalk; it’s the same pattern repeated at different scales. Snowflakes work the same way, as do leaves, blood vessels, lightning, ferns, peacock feathers, rivers, and mountain ranges. The initial pattern appears to be random but becomes remarkably consistent as it repeats itself at different scales.

Acupuncture is one of the oldest, simplest, and safest forms of health care in the world. Though no one knows exactly how it works, it seems to stimulate the body’s self-healing and self-regulating mechanisms. This means that it can treat a wide range of problems, both acute and chronic, without causing major negative side effects.  And it’s worth replicating and repeating! It’s not magic, but it works for many to improve their quality of life and enable people to do what’s important to them, rather than feel sick, suffering or stressed out. Of course, if acupuncture doesn’t help, it’s appropriate to access the bigger guns of conventional medicine. But it’s often a good thing for the individual, and for society as a whole, to be able to try a low-tech, non-invasive, inexpensive option first – especially when the principal side effect of that low-tech option is stress reduction.   Acupuncture is a good thing for 21st century Americans because it is very simple, both in its essence and its tools.

In conventional medicine, there’s often a sense that the goal is to triumph over illness: to diagnose it, to beat it and to win. But so often in community acupuncture, we are treating people who are not going to triumph over their conditions; they have to manage them. Whether it’s a chronic condition, or age, or stress, or some difficult aspect of life, there isn’t going to be any clear-cut triumphant moment where you get to declare victory – whatever that is.

Because acupuncture is gentle and gradual, people who are getting it regularly are embracing the need to care for themselves as opposed to beating their illnesses – even if they wouldn’t quite use those words, that’s still what they’re doing. In fact, as an acupuncturist, even if you do “beat” one condition, often another one pops up.  A lot of what community acupuncture clinics do is to help people accept and work with whatever it is: stress, pain, disability, limitations, illness, terminal illness, loss. We encourage and support and accompany people in working with whatever it is that their lives have given them to work with. We try to get out of the way and let them connect with their own inner resources, their own source of healing – which doesn’t mean that everything gets fixed. Probably the main thing community acupuncture is doing is trying to give ordinary people a better quality of life.

shutterstock_89875054What St. Paul said about love is true about acupuncture: it’s patient, it’s kind, it doesn’t insist on its own way, it’s not boastful. It’s gentle and slow and it tries to help things work out instead of forcing them. It depends on an acceptance of mystery. When people get acupuncture, aspects of themselves that were cut apart by our culture are able to grow back together in the stillness and peace of the treatment room. The mind and the body, the conscious and the unconscious, get closer together.  And it’s “good news” worth sharing!

Enter POCA: our international cooperative, the nexus of the community acupuncture movement.  POCA has over 300 clinic members, a couple thousand members — acupuncturists, patients and acupuncture studets.  We’ve calcuated that POCA community acupuncture clinics provided more than 750,000 acupuncture treatments in 2012.  This is over 1/4th of all acupuncture treatments provided in the US.  POCA is helping community acupuncture go fractal.

People who study fractals argue that their existence proves that there is a force in the universe that counteracts entropy. The final word might not be that everything breaks down into little pieces and ultimately falls apart, despite what we believe. The existence of fractals – rivers, ferns, broccoli, and POCA – suggests that life loves connectivity and self-organizing structures.

I invite you to join the movement, join POCA and go fractal with us.


This essay was inspired and drawn from Lisa Rohleder’s new book Fractal: About Community Acupuncture. You can buy copies her book at the clinic or order copies online.

About the Author

Acupuncturist & herbalist. My goal is to make acupuncture care accessible to folks with ordinary incomes. Student midwife. Gardener. Teacher. Aspiring goat herder!