One + One Conversation with Josh Paytner

Acupuncturist, Herbalist, Daoist Art Practitioner!

COCORAU is introducing personalities that inspire us. Josh is an incredible person, healer, acupuncturist and exorcist. Every time Konstanze meets with him he not only uses acupuncture on her, but their conversation intrigues her and they converse into all different topics. For that reason she ask him some specific questions to give you an inside of Josh’s life. So incredible that he took the time to talk with her.

Konstanze: Hi, Josh.

Josh: Hi.

Konstanze: So good to see you.

Josh: You too.

Konstanze: Josh, I am so happy that you are here and answering some of the questions for all the COCORAU fans and followers. To ask you a few questions, 

I would love to know what inspired you to be an acupuncturist and especially a Daoist priest.

Josh: So my whole life has been spent in the vicinity of Chinese studies. My grandmother was a student of one of the most famous Chinese painters of the Qing Dynasty and so I grew up in that arena. And when I went to college, I wanted to study Chinese art history. I soon realized that studying art history really requires studying of history, and studying of history really requires the studying of culture, religion, and ultimately language. So before college was over, I found myself enrolled in college in China in 1994, in Yunnan Daxue, in Kunming, in the Southwest. So I was there studying to write a thesis paper on the one-child policy, and my thesis was the implications or the impact of traditional religion and culture on how well people would follow the one-child policy. I was there studying Daoism in particular. As part of studying Daoism, I wanted to study Chinese medicine because they’re very closely related. And so I took an elective in Chinese medicine and I fell in love with it. And so when I came back after graduating undergrad, I decided that instead of going to a traditional academic graduate school, that I would go to the Chinese medical school, and that’s how it all began. And I’ve been practicing it ever since, since 2000.

Konstanze: When I met you, when you told me, I was like, “Wow, that’s so interesting.” How would you describe what you do?

Josh: It’s interesting because what Chinese medicine practitioners do really doesn’t fit well in a single basket. We all have very, very specialized sort of approaches, either by virtue of our interests or by virtue of our training. And the interesting thing about Chinese medicine is it can really accommodate a really wide variety of potentials in terms of practice. What I do is, because I am a Daoist priest and I spend a lot of time in China every year at my temples with my teachers, and one of my teachers is specifically a Daoist medicine practitioner, which is like Chinese medicine, but it’s not using herbs and acupuncture only, we also have a whole category of prayers and talismans and more religious style exorcisms, things like that. And so my practice is a mix of all of these things, and my practice is informed by that, but it’s also very traditional in terms of herbs and acupuncture. But when I see a patient, I am very interested in not only the, you know, the clinical symptomology in terms of, especially in these times with, you know, the potential for viral infections and things, but I’m also really interested in their overall wellness and their sort of, for lack of a better term, sort of their spiritual wellness as well. There are ways to encrypt Daoist medicine into a regular treatment, you know. So we can work on people on multiple levels as it were.

It’s a tricky conversation, really, because I don’t want to inject my…onto someone in their care either. It’s something that I… You know, there are people who call me and ask me, “Can I come for, let’s say, an exorcism?” And I put them on a different day of the week. And when they come on that day, I’m not wearing regular clothes. I’m in my robes with a hat, with things burning, with bells ringing, and all of that. It’s a very different type of scenario, that would be more straight-up religious context, that type of treatment. And so I do both things. I try to keep those two types of practice separate because not everyone is really looking for that, you know. And I have worked in many New York City hospitals, I’ve taught in medical schools, so I’m sort of like a, I’m caught between two worlds in that sense, you know. One is highly clinical and the other one is less what we would call religious or spiritual. And so in my everyday work, I try to blend the two seamlessly, but at some point, they can’t be, and so I offer two differing practices in general.

Konstanze: Was there ever another job you had before you started getting into all this?

Josh: Both of my parents were artists, as were my grandmother…both of my grandmothers were, my grandfathers were not. And so my teenage years were spent either doing very blue-collar work, like demolition and construction, that’s how my father supported himself, in addition to his art, or working for their friends as a studio assistant. So I was a jeweler, a production jeweler for a while, which was really great. And I was a studio assistant in a well known ceramic artist’s studio. And so I really had this sort of highly aesthetic work, but also very hard work simultaneously throughout my life. And, of course, I was pursuing my own version of art, which has, since the ’90s, has become… I really identify my art form as Chinese calligraphy. It’s what I’ve been doing for my whole life.

Interviewer: Amazing background. That’s like very interesting. Where do you work?

Josh: I have offices here in upstate New York, in Hudson and in between a few little towns near Kingston/Marble Town/Stone Ridge. No one’s really sure where my other office is, but it’s in a Kingston address, but most people locally refer to it as one of those three towns. So that’s one, only in upstate New York. I was in the city for most of my career. I had an office in the city or was teaching at a college in the city or was working in hospitals in the city. But a few years ago, I decided to stop going down, and it was just too exhausting to do it as regularly as I was. So now I’m only in the country and I love it.

Konstanze: Where do you reside?

Josh: I live here right on the reservoir, right on the Ashokan Reservoir, and in Olive, New York. And I live at the foot of the mountain in front of the reservoir. There are some trees in the summer, I can’t see the reservoir, but in the fall when the leaves are down, I can. It’s a really beautiful, quiet place that I live, and in a tiny little house that we thought was huge when we left the city from our tiny apartment, and now with three kids, we realized that our house is not so big. But it’s a great place because I do like to go into the forests around me because of where I live, most of my neighbors own large tracts of land, and we can all wander around on each other’s property. And so whereas I can’t go into the state land to harvest wild medicinals, I do go into my neighbor’s land and get various mushrooms and things like that for my decoctions that I make, that are based in Daoist formulas.

Konstanze: What do you love most about your work?

Josh: Definitely, best part of my job is from the moment I get here until the moment I leave, my job is basically having conversations with people. I am the type of person that will start up a conversation in the subway with the person next to me, or on the bus or, at a coffee shop, whatever. I love talking to people, even though nowadays it’s a little difficult with everyone staring at their phones and the old… Still, I think you can still interrupt someone and engage them. But that’s the best part of my job, is meeting and talking to people in the context of being a practitioner of medicine, those conversations are also part of their wellness. So that’s the best part, is that it’s not just idle or small talk, it’s also, you know, therapeutic. It helps me to define how I’ll approach their treatment, and so it’s both useful, and engaging, and sustaining.

Interviewer: Do you have a favorite quote?

Josh: I do. I have a quote that I carry around with me almost every day. And it comes from the Dao De Jing, which is sort of the primordial text of the Daoist tradition, though it doesn’t offer much advice for practice, but it offers a lot of the basis for what was developed over the last 2000 years. But one of the most important quotes to me from that text is when Lao Tzu says he has three treasures that he’s giving to us. And those three treasures are humility, simplicity, and compassion. And I really think that humility, simplicity, and compassion, should we carry those around with us, that those are really meaningful ways of being. I really appreciate that quote and I think about it all the time. I check myself with it, you know, am I being humble here? Am I being compassionate here? Am I being simple enough or am I being too elaborate? And, I mean, you can tell when I talk. People can have a tendency to overstate and to wander around, and am I being simple enough? And I also, in that sense, when I have a craving for something, I like certain…with my history in craft, I really appreciate things like teacups or objects. And it can be, I can sort of get enchanted or, you know, entranced by objects, and so I call in that simplicity, do I really need this thing? Can I enjoy it to look at it, or do I have to own it? You know. And this, well, we can call it also frugality, you know, being frugal or simple, I also think, is an important thing to keep life from getting complicated. It can get complicated really easily.

Konstanze: Is there any music you prefer to listen to?

Josh: You know, it’s interesting. I struggle with my playlist as it were often. I think that what I come back to a lot, I do listen to any variety of pop music or mostly within the realm of like what we would call acoustic, but I do really like romantic piano music from the romance era. There’s something about, you know, those composers that I really like. It’s funny, it’s kind of quirky, but I like it.

Konstanze: Is there a special composer you like?

Josh: I think that music and mood have to be consistent with each other or you can change your mood with music. My musical tastes fluctuates with the seasons and with my mood. So right now, I’ve been listening to a lot of Erik Satie, Gymnopedies, however one would pronounce it, I don’t really know, but I love that.

Konstanze: Describe your perfect day.

Josh: It’s definitely a walk on a mountain with a stream nearby, especially if there is a stand of pine trees where the ground is soft and silent. That’s my favorite walk, is in the pine tree debris, because nothing grows out of the pine needle mats for some reason, well, other mushrooms do, but there’s something special about the sort of desert bottom, and the canopy above, and the silence, and the smell of the pine, that’s my favorite day. And depending on the time of year, that experience is really different. So on a hot, dry day, you smell the resinous pine smell, and on a damp day, you smell the moldering forest floor. On a sunny day, it’s shady, and on a cold day, it’s sort of warm in there. So it’s a beautiful and interesting microclimate in the forest in a pine stand, my favorite place in my favorite day. And if my kids are with me, it’s even better.

Konstanze: What’s the last gift you gave somebody?

Josh: The last gift I gave somebody was a few days ago, it was my mother’s birthday, and every time I go to China, I get her… During the Qing dynasty, there was a method of jewelry making where they would make a foil, basically a foil shape, and then put enamel on that. It’s sort of like [inaudible 00:12:01], but it would be in jewelry and it’s usually butterflies or phoenixes or dragons, very colorful images, and flowers. And so every time I go there, it’s not expensive, but it’s beautiful, so it makes for a nice way to have a collection for her. So when I go every year I go to… in Beijing, there are a few places that have this stuff, and that’s what I get her. So it was a necklace or a bracelet with this type of enamelware.

Konstanze: Is there a favorite piece of advice you give people or…?

Josh: The advice that generally… So after 20 years of seeing tens of thousands of patients, whether it’s in the hospitals or at the Javits Center during 9/11, I mean, the amount of the weird places that I’ve worked, free clinics and house calls for movie stars, whatever it is, no matter who and where, the conversations generally end up at the same conclusion, which is that, be moderate. People will say, “I’ve never felt better. This diet is the best thing. I’ve lost five pounds,” and then two months later that diet is gone and they’ve gained more weight than they lost. And any example of extremity will show the same results. You have to be able to maintain, especially with our bodies. Really, they need constancy and…I mean, something that can be maintained over the duration. And moderation, I think, things that are toward a goal of a certain methodology of health maintenance, but not in the extreme, are where we want to be. So aimed in the right direction, oriented in the right path, but moderate in our engagement seems to be the key for the people that I’ve seen that are the most successful in their health. There’s always a new fad, there’s always a miracle, and those miracles last a few months, and then they’re gone. Someone makes a lot of money and the rest of us are sitting there picking up the pieces. So I really do think that a daily regimen, a moderate daily regimen is the best advice I can give people. Eat within your culture, eat within the availability of things. If something is hard to find and hard to get, it’s not going to be sustainable.

Konstanze: Is there any hidden talent of yours, what you would like to realize?

Josh: When I was young, I was more athletic than I am now. I would like to be more athletic. That’s a talent that I would like to revisit or uncover. And I don’t mean like when… I’m 47 years old and now my engagement of physicality is basic fitness, you know, taking a walk, or I think that I would like to put more rigor into that. Athleticism and fitness are two different things. I’d like to be more athletic. That’s a talent that I want to explore.

Konstanze: Where were you born?

Josh: I was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico. My parents were both getting their master’s of fine arts at University of New Mexico. My mother was getting hers in textile design fabric, textile arts, and my father was getting his degree in jewelry making. So my childhood there was spent in galleries and with their artist friends, and then we moved to New Jersey.

Konstanze: Would unlimited income change the way you live or your lifestyle?

Josh: I think about this a lot. I drive around thinking, “If I won the lottery today, would I go to work tomorrow? If not, what would I do? And if so, how would I change it?” And I always land in the same place. With unlimited income, I would do what I do on essentially the same schedule that I do it. Go to China more and for longer periods of time. But I have to say, interestingly, when it comes to the remuneration aspect of a medical practice, I have, in the past, offered so I have these sorts of personal rules about charging people. If they say they can’t afford it, then I don’t make them pay, and they can, when they can, if they don’t, they don’t. Or if they have cancer and I know that they’re out of work, then I say, “For the duration of your cancer treatment, you don’t have to pay me.” So what I’ve noticed is that, unfortunately, whenever I offer free service, oddly enough, people don’t make their appointments. They come late, they come the wrong days, there’s some lack of a commitment on their part that I don’t know if it’s driven by the financial relationship or not, but it is interesting to me and I worry about that. Whenever I think about having unlimited income, I think about doing only charity work, but then I think about the chaos that would ensue if that’s how I did it. It’s a strange thing because, over the years, I have constantly tried to make myself available at deep discounts or for free, and it’s generally not good for the patients’ continued or constant care. They seem to put it in a category that it’s not important anymore, I don’t know why, but I have spoken to other colleagues about that and they have noticed the same thing. I know it’s weird. I wish it would because I’d like to imagine that people can see value in things without it being transactional, and I think that there’s something about transaction that it sort of qualifies something as being useful or not.

Konstanze: What is the most difficult project or task you have ever engaged in?

Josh: Learning and maintaining the Chinese language. Reading it, I can do really well, writing it, I can do really well because I can do those in a vacuum. Speaking it is difficult because where I live, if I want to speak Chinese, I go to a restaurant and the conversation is generally the same. I ask for what I want in Chinese. They say, “Oh my goodness, you speak Chinese. Where did you learn it?” I tell them what college I went to and a few things about myself. They say, “That’s great,” then they bring me my food and our conversation’s over. So it’s always reiterated small vocabulary. When I go to China, I do have the opportunity while I’m there, you know, for it to expand again and sort of my brain can start working in Chinese again. But then I come home soon after and I have to wait another year. So I do meet with some Chinese colleagues every other Wednesday and we do these Skype type calls all in Chinese and so that definitely helps, but it is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Obtaining Chinese was the easy part, maintaining it is the most difficult.

Konstanze: When you say you speak Chinese, I know that Chinese doesn’t really exist, what kind of language do you speak?

Josh: Which dialect? I speak Mandarin. It’s called Putonghua, which means the common speak, which is the official dialect of China since 1949. However, I was educated in Kunming, and so there’s another dialect there that I can recognize and say certain…you know, particular phrases in that dialect. One of my temples is in Sichuan, which has its own regional sort of flavor. It’s like it would be the difference between New York and Texas, they have a kind of a draw and a few little nuanced phrases that they use. So anywhere you go, if you spend enough time there, your dialect will adapt to that regionality. Sometimes it’s city by city, sometimes it’s province by province. I mainly speak Mandarin or Putonghua, the common dialect, but I also speak a few of the little city talks that I frequent.

Konstanze: Who would you aspire to be?

Josh: That’s a question that I ask myself often because who I aspire to be seems to be contingent upon a certain role I play in my life or in my surroundings, and so I think that I serve two main or three main roles. I am a practitioner of Chinese medicine, I’m a husband, I’m a father, and I’m also a Daoist priest, and those are my main sort of categories. And so each of them, I aspire to be the best of those that I’d be, and sometimes they’re at odds with each other. Taking patients too late or too early makes it so that I’m failing as a father or a husband, actually, and all of these things, they can be competitive with each other to some extent, you know. And what I aspire to be, if I could say this, is I aspire to commingle all of my roles into like a whole person who’s capable of doing all of those things well enough.

Konstanze: I have the feeling you’re doing a pretty good job in that.

Josh: I’m trying. I am trying.

Konstanze: It was a pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much.

Josh: Thank you so much.

More research on acupuncture from Nick DeNino: It covers what acupuncture is, its benefits, and some techniques, and I even added a generator to identify insertion points based on your specific symptoms.

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