Asking Philosophical Questions of Alternative Medicine: James Mohebali (SF13)

August 19, 2021 | By Les Poling

St. John’s Santa Fe alum Dr. James Mohebali (SF13)

In contemporary society, there exists an almost inescapable need to categorize everything—whether by book subject, career field, musical genre, or, notably, in the way we think about academic subjects (and the vocations that follow). Many colleges actively encourage incoming and current students to choose between science and the humanities, philosophy and literature, math and the arts; it’s implied that a surgeon or psychologist could never conceivably make use of a philosophy degree, for example.

But for St. John’s Santa Fe alum Dr. James Mohebali (SF13), nothing could be further from reality, and he considers himself (and his St. John’s education) to be living proof. In his acupuncture and Eastern medical practice—Rutherford Family Acupuncture, based in Rutherford County, North Carolina—and with a newly launched podcast/YouTube channel, Classic of Difficulties, Mohebali emphasizes the rich philosophical underpinnings of health and wellbeing, describing the endeavor as “St. John’s takes a look at alternative medicine.”

Both Mohebali’s medical career and the intellectual foundations of his vocation have firm ties with St. John’s. He discovered the college accidentally, via his mother’s copy of Colleges That Change Lives. Intrigued by an academic environment vastly different than his own, he applied, was accepted, and decided to attend. The St. John’s experience, he says, “was transformational.”

“I was raised, academically and intellectually, with a very strong reliance on received opinion,” Mohebali explains. By way of example, he points to the type of academic papers he wrote in high school—entirely based on, even reiterating, ideas presented by secondary sources; relying almost exclusively on expert scholars and empirical, post-Enlightenment logic for ideas of right and wrong, truth and meaning. At St. John’s, he was asked to do something entirely different: engage directly with the text, ask questions, take intellectual risks, and refute the supposed infallibility of the academic status quo.

“It’s very challenging to start to disassemble these [preconceived] ideas,” Mohebali says. “But ultimately, if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have had a way of critically examining new ideas; I wouldn’t have had a way of discovering myself, because the trouble with relying on received opinion is that you never really find out who you are.”

Mohebali plunged even further into that sense of self-discovery after graduating from St. John’s. Having grown aware of alternative medicine while a student in Santa Fe—despite having no real interest in Chinese philosophy or the college’s Eastern Classics program—he started learning about chiropractic healing shortly after graduation, reading introductory texts like The Chiropractic Way. After a time, though, “my St. John’s education led me to be dissatisfied with the underpinnings of a lot of [chiropractic] alternative healing methods. Because many of them are built on shaky foundations, especially those that come out of the 19th century.”

The journey began in earnest when Mohebali turned his attention to acupuncture and Chinese medicine, particularly through texts like The Web That Has No Weaver and teachers like the Daoist priest Jeffrey Yuen—an extraordinary personal influence who helped inspire Mohebali and his wife to move to North Carolina. Yuen, Mohebali says, helped illuminate the richness of Daoism and the profound role that Daoist philosophy plays in the day-to-day life of a practitioner of Chinese medicine. (A favorite Yuen quote is “medicine is philosophy and practice.”)

“I was floored, I was just blown away,” he remembers. “Chinese medicine has a rich, cohesive philosophy as a foundation … a worldview that is a complete alternative to the Western perspective.”

Now, after receiving his doctorate in acupuncture and Chinese medicine from the Pacific College of Health and Science, Mohebali puts the philosophical tenets of Chinese medicine into practice in Rutherford County, where he seeks to help people whose needs haven’t been met by Western medicine—and who don’t live in stereotypical hubs for alternative healing (the Bay Area, the East Coast, etc.). On any given day, Mohebali treats patients using methods ranging from acupuncture and herbal medicine to massage and dietary therapy, with a constant focus on comprehensive, personalized care.

“The philosophies of Chinese medicine are really integral to the healing process,” he says. “To some extent [when working with a patient], I make a diagnosis that involves looking at the patient’s community, looking at their body, looking at what they eat, how they manage their lives, how they manage their emotions—looking at the whole thing, and diagnosing that there’s a little bit of disharmony between certain elements. Then, what I have to do is explain to them why they have this disharmony and why it matters.”

Importantly, it’s a process that Mohebali and his patients undergo together: instead of simply delivering an expert opinion, he seeks to help patients understand the entire healing process, including the sometimes-complex ideas behind certain methods.

“I learned from St. John’s that philosophy is not something that is separate or inaccessible from everyday life, and it’s not something that must be discussed in lofty, difficult to understand, specialized technical terms,” says Mohebali. “Philosophy is something that should be understood with the heart.”

That desire to expand philosophical understanding led Mohebali to create Classic of Difficulties—named after the Nan Jing, a seminal, 2000-year-old text in Chinese medicine, which roughly translates to “Classic of Difficulties” or “Classic of Difficult Questions”—in early 2021. In part, he wanted to address what he perceived as an absence of deep, meaningful philosophical content about health and alternative medicine. For example, he explains, he wanted to counter the “ahistorical” viewpoint that, he believes, pervades Western medicine.

“Modern Western medicine, is, by design, a secondary source medicine; if you look at a textbook of Western medicine, it will never discuss who came up with an idea or practice,” Mohebali says. “Chinese medicine is originally a historical medicine based on scholars reading past doctors and responding to them, creating this ongoing historical and philosophical dialogue about how we can take this wisdom from our ancestors, but also mesh it with our current understanding of the world.”

More generally, the podcast is about something that Johnnies know well: critical inquiry, nuanced thinking, and the pursuit of truth.

“I wanted to offer people this notion that we can look at things critically,” he says. “We need a way of looking at the foundations [of our medical assumptions] in order to come towards a more meaningful, more unified medicine.”

The more people that engage with the questions and ideas posed in Classic of Difficulties, the better, according to Mohebali—and he emphasizes that interested Johnnie students and alumni should feel free to reach out to him directly.

“The channel is a springboard for meeting interesting people and talking about interesting things.”