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Joseph Needham (1900-1994), the great historian of Chinese science, summarizes the Chinese view of causation this way:

“Conceptions are not subsumed under one another but placed side by side in a pattern, and things influence one another not by acts of mechanical causation, but by a kind of ‘inductance’… The key-word in Chinese thought is Order and above all Pattern… Things behave in particular ways not necessarily because of prior actions or impulsions of other things, but because their position in the ever-moving cyclical universe was such that they were endowed with intrinsic natures which made that behavior inevitable for them… They were thus parts in existential dependence upon the whole world organism.” 

After living in China for 10-years and returning to the West, it has reminded me how steeped as a culture we Westerners are in analytical thinking – believing products, things and people cause problems and imbalance. Our words are made up of individual letters. Our foods are broken into vitamins, nutrients, calories. Our imbalances are blamed on one product, like wheat or fat or a toxin in our environment. Our politicians talk tough on rooting out evil and punishing enemies.

In the West the final concern is always the creator or cause and the result merely its reflection. For the East, the web has no creator. The Western mind seeks to discover and encounter what is beyond, behind, or the cause of the phenomena. In the Chinese view, the truth of things is imminent, it’s about to happen, it’s forthcoming. In the Western view, the truth is transcendent, the way we perceive truth is above all else. Knowledge, within the Chinese framework, consists in the accurate perception of the inner movement of the web of phenomena. The Chinese desire for knowledge is the desire to understand the inter-relationships or ‘patterns’ within that web, and to become attuned to the unfolding dynamic.

Similarly, one of the key concepts in Chinese Medicine is to understand and identify ‘patterns’. Pattern-thinking is considered the highest level of understanding. We gather analytical data in and around a subject matter, then we attempt to understand how all the information is inter-related in a web of movement and change.

We have core assumptions based on the intrinsic nature of order, and then we look for patterns. These patterns provide clues to deepening understanding of the inter-connected nature of all phenomena and then on how we may best influence the pattern. The ‘pattern-thinking’ method is based on the idea that no single part can be understood except in relation to its whole.

The modern Western world developed a way of thinking based in ‘analytical-science’, that focuses on understanding things by isolating and identifying their constituent elements. The East adopted a ‘relational-science’ where you understand the nature of things by looking at how they behave related to other things.

It is my belief that both of these perspectives have great value. The idea of this article is to become aware of how our choice of perspective in dealing with difference situations can render very different outcomes, both short and long-term.

One of my Chinese medicine teachers in China enjoyed answering questions with examples. Examples from nature were his preference. Here is an example of how different perspectives affect choices of action and outcomes.

Situation of Imbalance: There is a block of wood that is covered in mould and mushrooms.

Product-Thinking Approach: Examine the piece of wood. Identify the mould and mushrooms as compromising the integrity and life-span of the wood. Scrape off the mushrooms, use bleach to scrub the mould off. Sand the wood back lightly, re-oil the wood and it is once again polished, clean and good looking. Even shine an extra light on it to show off it’s true beauty!

Product-Thinking Result: It looks as good as new, the people marvel! Then, over time, the mould starts to return, the mushrooms start growing again and eventually the wood returns to its pre-conditioned state. The process is repeated! Now, we anticipate this happening, we schedule the cleaning for every three months to keep the wood nice and shiny. This goes on until there is no more wood to scrape or sand back, it is far too thin and frail. The wood returns to the earth as dust.

Pattern-Thinking Approach:  Spend time understanding the patterns that create this mould and mushrooms. Understand the environment surrounding the wood, the airflow, sunlight, moisture and temperatures affecting the wood. Make some subtle changes to the environment, prune a tree on the south-side, design a cover to prevent excess moisture directly falling on the wood, plant some suitable trees near by that really soak up the water in the area, open up the area to the SW (dry prevailing wind in this area) allowing greater ventilation.

Pattern-Thinking Result: After a few months, the mushrooms slowly begin to fall off and die. It takes time and seems like a fairly average result. Then after a year, the mould starts peeling off and we get a small glimpse of the real wood behind. It takes many years for the final mould in the cracks to disappear and further adjustments to the surrounding environment are made to keep the wood dry. The wood is a still a little tarnished by the previous mould but dry now and most importantly, the wood is strong and its integrity restored. Even after many years, it still does not returned to it’s original beauty. But now returned to maximum potential strength, the piece of wood will live out its full life potential. The wood returns to the earth as dust.


Alex Tan is a licensed Acupuncturist.  After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China.  A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex’s bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives.  He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients.

Alex Tan

Alex Tan L.Ac is a licensed Acupuncturist. After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China. A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex's bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives. He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. Click here for more about Alex.


  • Debra Cahill says:

    Dear Alex,
    I have enjoyed this article tremendously. It has expressed something that I find challenging to describe to my patients. I feel intuitively that if they have a better concept of the pattern differentiation the Oriental medicine employs that they will move within the realm and start to alter their lives in ways that will assist their path to healing and better health long term. This is a great synopsis, with an illustrative parable to help people more deeply embrace this concept. Thank you so much for your contribution to bringing OM to the West more fully.
    I also wanted to ask your permission to share this article, and others on my business FB page. I would of course give you all the credit.

    • Alex Tan says:

      Debra, thanks for the comments and pleased you enjoyed it! You are welcome to share it! Always looking for innovative ways to help clients and the public embrace the healing concepts of Chinese medicine. The power of Chinese medicine is in its theory and methodology!