Community Acupuncture & The Neighborhood of Our Minds

neighborhood-cartoonI had a thought provoking dinner with my friend, Tim, and his wife Amy last night.  We had 20 years of catching up to do in one evening before they headed up north to visit San Francisco.  They are living quite an exceptional life.  Working 9 months of the year in their successful Vermont business while living on the top of a beautiful mountain.  Traveling the U.S. during the winter months in a fully loaded Airstream complete with 110 pound rescue mutt.

Not only do we have shared memories of existing on 89 cent burritos for lunch every single day in college, we also have a shared sense of adventure.  Tim and Amy Brady are savvy risk takers.  They left their jobs in South Jersey to buy a bed and breakfast and eventually open a thriving waterfront restaurant and brewery in Brattleboro, VT.

Their Whetstone Station Restaurant & Brewery creation story intrigued me.  Apparently, the building lay vacant for many years.  It was a foreclosed property that was a sad reminder of the state of its neighborhood.

Because of their success with the bed and breakfast and their active involvement in bettering the town where they lived, the bank that foreclosed on the eventual location of Bradys’ establishment contacted Tim to see if he wanted to buy it.  He said, “Sure.  Why not?  But you [the bank] have to help me finance the repairs.”  Then he contacted other people in the community about knocking down some abandoned buildings in the neighborhood.  He tells me humbly that it was really a community movement that helped Whetstone Station Restaurant become a reality.

Fast forward 5 years.  Just 5 years and not only is their business a hotspot for local townspeople, New Yorkers and other visitors, the entire neighborhood is a hub of activity, art and new local business.  By starting with a little bit of hope, they brought new life into an entire neighborhood.

What on earth does that have to do with community acupuncture?  In community acupuncture, we sometimes better the physical neighborhood but we also better the neighborhood of the mind.  Let me give you an example.

I’ve visited many community acupuncture clinics*.  I volunteered at one in San Francisco’s Mission district which is a diverse and sometimes harsh part of town.  It seemed like a Harry Potter scene where I walk through the city with my city face and find the secret passage into a magical world.

I learned to make a city face while living in NYC.  Although intent, my SF city face is a little softer.  Still it has a “Don’t mess with me.  I know where I’m going.” vibe about it.

I would walk down 24th Street from where I lived in the fluffier part of town called Noe Valley.  As I descended the hill, my SF city face would form a little bubble around me.  It gave me enough room to smile at a child or make eye contact with what we don’t call untouchables in the U.S. but who certainly feel that way at times.  SF city face gave me just enough room to hold my boundaries with someone who might not have the best intentions for me.

Then the Harry Potter train station scene would happen.  The one where you run face first into a brick wall and end up on the Hogwarts platform.  In the case of Community Acupuncture Works, it was a small glass door just a few doors down from a beat-up laundromat which lead you into a gently lit lavender room filled with recliners and people peacefully napping in them.

This was my safe haven in the city.  A place where I and so many other patients felt we could let down our guard, restore our bodies and be taken care of by Ninah, our kind acupunk.  Without setting out to, Ninah changed the neighborhood by providing this oasis of stillness in the bustling, loud city.

In Blue Heart Acupuncture’s case, it’s a little different.  Our neighborhood isn’t really a neighborhood at all.  In order to practice low cost acupuncture, we needed dirt cheap rent.  We found it in the industrial area of Orange.  Most people don’t even know this area exists until they Google Map us.

We didn’t change the neighborhood except for helping a few neighbors in our industrial park get relief from back pain, stress and allergies.  What we did change was the neighborhood of our community mindset.

You have no idea how many squint eyes I got when I cheerfully explained our sliding scale to my first hundred or so patients.  I didn’t have enough money to afford front desk staff so I was the enthusiastic greeter, orientation giver, answering service and acupuncturist all rolled into one.  I was extremely excited to share community acupuncture with anyone that walked through the door.  The idea of making acupuncture accessible for everyone had me practically bursting out of my Blue Heart tshirt.

Orange County wasn’t all that trusting at first.

I’d get a lot of slow, suspicious “what’s in it for you” looks followed by questions such as;

How long can I stay if I pay the lowest amount?

-As long as you like until we close.

I can only pay $20.  Do you use less needles if I don’t pay more?

-No, you pay what you can on the sliding scale.  All treatments are equal regardless of payment.

There were many other questions but more than the questions, there was a feeling of “Why on earth are you doing this?”  and “What’s the catch?  What’s in it for you?”

A few people caught one right away.  They understood that the biggest benefit I get out of running a community acupuncture clinic is the profit of community betterment.  It’s not a charity.  It’s also not some creepy scam you figure out two years into some weird membership we’ve signed you up for.  Like Brady’s restaurant, it’s a community undertaking to make our world a little safer, saner, more peaceful.

One of my wise friends once told me, “My mind is not a neighborhood that is safe to walk alone.”  In many ways our current society is set up for isolation, loneliness, feeling unsafe, feeling invisible, feeling unloved.  I find that community acupuncture combats that thinking.  It brings a shiny bit of much needed connection into the neighborhood and from that new life grows.

Patients who leaned into the community acupuncture model tell their friends.  They keep our clinic thriving by sharing about us.  I’ve gone to coffeehouses and grocery stores to find my clinic’s flyer hanging on their bulletin board.  People come in with business cards that their family members gave them six months ago.  Patients share on Facebook about their migraine relief and tag us in the post.  People who love the clinic are the biggest piece of our teeny-weeny marketing budget.

Other patients bring friends and pay for them when they can’t afford to do so.  One couple in their 60s brings a woman friend in her 30s that is currently undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.  There is no way she can afford even $20 per visit but they bring her and slip us a check for her treatment every week she is well enough to come with them.  It’s acts of kindness like this that continually crack my heart wide open.

Many patients share their garden fruits with us.  We often have a plate of lemons or oranges for other patients to enjoy.  It’s uniquely satisfying to see a patient’s face light up when I offer them a beautiful avocado on the way out the door.  Knowing that this gift came from another patient that was moved to share their wealth.

This is a manifestation of the neighborhood of their mind changing.  Like me walking through the magical glass door into the peaceful lavender clinic in SF, they found a place where people (acupunks, the staff and even other patients) care so very much about them that they in turn begin to care about the success of the clinic and the health of their bank tellers, baristas, yoga students.  The neighborhood of their mind gets a few more lampposts and they can see more clearly that they are empowered to make things better for themselves, for the neighborhood of their minds, for their family, friends and yes, even the world.

*POCA clinics are easy to find by visiting pocacoop.com .

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