Caution to the Wind: A Moxibustion Story

When it comes to taking precautions, I tend to either take almost none at all (like the time in college when I set out on a cross-country drive with only about $200 to my name – or the time last fall when Hurricane Irene was about to hit my town and I looked in two or three stores for flashlight batteries, found that they were all sold out, shrugged, and went back to my Mary Doria Russell novel) or take way too many (like the time in high school when my parents went out of town and I went out at night to babysit leaving EVERY SINGLE LIGHT on in the house and all the blinds not only open but PULLED UP – you know, so it wouldn’t seem as if no one was home. When I returned to the house around midnight, I was pretty sure you could see our house from space). So when I set up my little moxibustion laboratory in the guest room this afternoon, I did so with the idea of balance. If balancing my qi was one of the goals of the moxa treatment, then I would aim for a little bit of extra credit and exercise a normal amount of good old-fashioned adult good sense without going crazy.

The cautions that came along with the moxa pole were as follows: 1) Burn the pole in a well-ventilated area because it often emits THICK BLACK SMOKE, and 2) to extinguish the pole, wrap it in A DOUBLE LAYER OF ALUMINUM FOIL and then wait SEVERAL MINUTES until it completely stops burning. The instructions specifically state that while it is possible to extinguish the pole by dipping it in water, this process will make it impossible to ever light the pole again. Water and mugwort do not mix, apparently.

So first I obsessed for a while about WHERE I would engage in this ancient art. The obvious choice was the sunporch, but I saw two problems with that option. First, I would need to take my shirt off for the treatment, and while I could have sat on the floor and been mostly out of sight, even a small amount of public nudity isn’t really my thing.  The second problem is that one of my smoke alarms is located right inside the door that leads to the sunporch from the kitchen. I wasn’t sure exactly how much THICK BLACK SMOKE we were talking about here, and I decided that I didn’t want to explain my moxibustion proclivities to the neighbors and the landlord.

By the way, MOXIBUSTION is my new favorite word (replacing INTINCTION, which is the official name for what it’s called when you dip your communion wafer in the wine instead of drinking from the chalice. The things you learn when you teach at a Catholic school during a swine flu epidemic). Come on – say it, you know you want to: MOXIBUSTION. You can also sing it to the tune of the Alleluia Chorus if you want to. Not that I would ever do anything so silly.

And also by the way, I was not unaware that appearing shirtless on the sunporch and setting strange objects on fire would, if anything, actually elevate my status among the neighbors. We’re a topless, fire-loving kind of community here in Webster, as the recent warm weather is reminding me yet again. But stubbornly I cling to my roots.

The kitchen and living room were out because there are smoke detectors in those rooms, and the bathroom was out because it only contains one small window that doesn’t open. So I cleared a space among all the clutter (only SEMI-flammable clutter) in the guest bedroom and prepared to moxibust. I carried the following items into the room: 1) a candle (the instructions urged me to light a candle first and then use the candle flame to light the moxa pole as moxa poles are hard to light – this turned out to be quite correct; 2) matches; 3) aluminum foil; 4) the moxa directions; 5) a huge roasting pan full of water, just in case the whole situation grew out of control and I decided that I didn’t care if the moxa pole could never be lit again; and 6) my cell phone – for the timer function.

My concession to NOT being overly cautious: I left the fire extinguisher in the kitchen.

I opened both windows in the guest room to let in a really wonderful springlike sixty-degree breeze. My favorite weather is the kind just like we had today: warm enough to open all the windows but cool enough to still wear sweats and wrap up in blankets on the couch. You know: San Francisco weather. I closed the door to the guest room to circumvent any feline intervention. I lit the candle and watched its flame flicker and dance in the breeze. I doused the match in the roasting pan full of water, and then I held the moxa pole up to the flame and tried to light it. And then I tried to light it again. And again. The instructions weren’t kidding when they said that moxa poles are hard to light.

I should mention that except for its color, the moxa pole really does look a lot like a cigar. I have smoked about five cigars in my life, all under extremely memorable and usually amusing circumstances. So I did a lot of chuckling while I was repeatedly sticking the moxa pole in the flame, remembering the unique cast of characters that has populated my cigar-smoking life. But that’s a story for another day.

Eventually I noticed that while the moxa pole did not appear to be on fire, it had gotten quite hot. I decided to set the timer for five minutes and go for it. I used the instruction sheet to locate the first acupuncture point – halfway between my solar plexus and my navel. Fortunately, the pole did not emit nearly as much black smoke as the instructions warned, and it was definitely on fire, because that little thing was HOT. I was supposed to hold it half an inch from my skin, but I couldn’t keep it there for the whole five minutes without taking occasional breaks from the intense heat. I don’t even WANT to know what’s involved in the SCARRING type of moxibustion.

So five minutes passed, and I went to re-light the moxa pole. At that moment a gigantic gust of wind swept through the room and extinguished both the candle and the pole. Crap. So I lit another match and tried to re-light it. No luck. I could barely re-light the candle in that wind, let alone the pole. Finally I got the pole lit and repeated the whole process with the second acupuncture point, which is located an inch and a half below my navel. Then the process was over. I wrapped the pole in two layers of aluminum foil and stared at it for the ten minutes it took to cool down. I dumped out the water in the roasting pan and apologized to the cats for leaving them out of all the fun. Then I was tired. I lay down on my bed for a nap as the wind carried the smell of fresh-cut grass into the apartment.

So have my energy levels risen? Not really. I did put a lot of work into blogging today, but I think that had more to do with the pot of coffee I drank in the morning while psyching myself up to moxibust and singing the moxibustion song. Maybe I should give myself another lesson in controlling my variables.

More tomorrow.

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