Sherrie Black pulls her white Toyota 4Runner into the parking lot of a large, boxy building in Laurel off Route 29. It looks like any other sterile suburban office until she steps inside the tranquil lobby, quiet but for the gurgling of a serenity fountain, and passes a bookstore/coffee shop with wind chimes, organic tea and titles like Touching Peace: Practicing the Art of Mindful Living. The Tai Sophia Institute for the Healing Arts feels more like a refuge than a school and treatment center.
Some 300 students -- average age 40 -- are studying here for master's degrees in acupuncture, botanical healing or applied healing arts. At 58, Black is one of them, shrugging off a 30-year career as a lawyer to become an acupuncturist.
On this particular Monday morning, she heads around a corner to her "Point Location" class, a sort of advanced anatomy course; then to "Being a Practitioner," where students take turns evaluating a patient; and on to a potluck lunch with classmates. By midafternoon, she has donned a white lab coat and is prepared to spend the rest of the day listening to clients describe not only their ailments, but also what's going on in their lives. What she hears will help her determine where to insert the slender needles that acupuncturists use to influence the movement of energy (chi) in a patient's body. At Tai Sophia, acupuncturists treat everything from migraines to back pain to drug addiction with this holistic approach.
Black, a petite woman with neat chin-length hair, loves the work but says she's had to make a definite mental shift since she began classes more than two years ago. Unlike in law school, competitiveness is discouraged. ("We carry each other," one student explains.)
"I've been competitive in my life," says Black, who lives in Columbia. "I've had to be. It was, 'Am I going to beat this guy in trial?' and . . . 'What can I do to cut this witness down and undermine his credibility?' "
Her new career demands a much different set of calculations: Where is this person hurting? What can I do to help him or her? An acupuncturist needs to listen, intuit and connect. She's learning, she says, how to "craft joy."
SHERRIE BLACK WASN'T SOME CRANKY, DISENCHANTED LAWYER when she set out to change her career -- and her life's purpose -- almost three years ago. Practicing law, she says, was challenging work, and she was good at it. She also had an ideal set-up, a 20-hour-a-week job-share at the Maryland attorney general's office that allowed her to balance her work with her family.
It wasn't that she was fed up with the law. It was simply that she'd fallen in love with acupuncture.
She had her first brush with the ancient Chinese practice in 1996: On a whim, she and a friend signed up for a tai chi class, where they heard about Tai Sophia's acupuncture clinic. Emotionally worn after the recent death of her mother, she was open to anything that might help her heal. At her first session, she says, "I noticed less tension in my chest. I remember saying that I felt like I could cry."
She went for treatments every week for years, a process, she says, that made her see "expanding possibilities" and "that you really have choices in how you live your life." She slowly reached the conclusion that this was something she might be able to give as well as receive. "I realized I could get closer to who I was by doing acupuncture," she says. But it was "an evolution, not an epiphany."
She first had to consider whether she could commit to three years of study at a cost of $42,000. "It's not chicken feed," she says. And she also had to think about how going back to school would affect her family. She and her husband, Roger Meade, had recently adopted a daughter, Masha, now 12, from Russia. They also have a son, Tyler, 16.
Her husband, a labor employment lawyer in Washington, had "some apprehension," she says, "like, 'Am I going to lose her to something I don't understand?' " Meade concedes that his wife's new vocation has taken some getting used to, joking that during a recent visit to Tai Sophia, he thought, "It's like a Woodstock reunion. Lots of hugging, lots of ponytails."
But he says (and Black affirms) that he was thoroughly supportive of his wife's career-switching decision. And it was actually Meade who tried acupuncture first. His lower back was perpetually going out, a souvenir from his long-ago stint as a Navy SEAL, which, he says, involved such body-wrenching activities as being "thrown out helicopters."
"I turned to acupuncture because it seemed that traditional medicine wasn't doing it," he explains, though he had only modest success with pain relief in those initial sessions. Now he visits an acupuncturist twice a month, with better results.
Their two kids see an acupuncturist as well, though, Black says, "they're not philosophically connected to it. My son is, like, 'This is a crock.' But, as he's saying that, he's changing before your eyes."
BLACK STARTED STUDYING AT TAI SOPHIA in the fall of 2002. It was humbling, she says, to be a stone-cold novice in classes with names like "Touching the Energy" and "Embodying Qi Gong." And learning all the anatomical minutiae of the human body was a challenge for Black because she's dyslexic. "I had to go over and over and over it."
While many of her classmates at Tai Sophia come from medical backgrounds -- massage therapists, physical therapists, dentists -- others range from pharmaceutical salespeople to airline pilots. Founded in 1974, the school is riding a wave of interest in alternative medicine.
The school prides itself on teaching lessons based on the interconnectedness of body, mind and spirit. Robert Duggan, who co-founded the institute and still teaches there, repeatedly tells his classes not to "chase the symptoms" but to treat the patient in a holistic way. "The symptoms are the body's wisdom" is one of his mantras, as is "The pain is a teacher."
When Black graduates next June, she'll apply for certification through the Maryland Board of Acupuncture, allowing her to become one of 740-plus certified acupuncturists in the state. The school reports that alumni working full time are making an average of $72,000 a year.
For now, though, Black is still in "clinic," the final phase of Tai Sophia's program, which requires 250 hours of hands-on, faculty-supervised experience treating patients, 90 hours treating people with addictions in Baltimore and 200 hours of community service.
Clinic rules require that she find her own patients -- real-world training -- and she's managed to persuade Ron Broun, whom she once worked with at the National Labor Relations Board in Washington.
Broun, a recently retired lawyer from Bethesda, has been coming for treatments since March. Many clients are drawn to acupuncture because they want help with a specific ailment -- a stiff back, arthritis, infertility. Black has been practicing her skills on one especially troubled patient who has neck and back pain, numbness in his feet and high blood pressure to boot.
There's not much specifically wrong with 64-year-old Broun, however. "He told me to bring warmth into his life," Black explains. In line with Tai Sophia's holistic approach, Black has been encouraging him, with moderate success, to adopt a healthier lifestyle -- cut down on caffeine and eat better.
During a recent treatment session, held in one of the school's small rooms reserved for clinic training, Black sits down with Broun and starts in with her usual questions: "So how's it going with the coffee?"
"One mug, good-sized," he says, "but I've been good about not filling up again."
Also, he's been trying to eat a bit more for breakfast. "I do feel better," he says.
Black jots down notes. Eventually, she asks him to lie down on a table so she can check his pulses -- first one wrist, then the other -- which practitioners say reveal whether the body is in balance and working harmoniously.
Based on what she hears and what Broun has told her about how he's feeling, Black prepares to insert a series of seven needles into each of four points on her patient's chest. She first marks the points with a purple pen. Then she heats the points by placing little cones of dried mugwort leaves, called moxa, near his skin and lighting the moxa on fire for a few seconds before snuffing it out with her thumb and pinky. She explains that this "warms and opens the point to prepare it for the needle."
She slowly places the needles about half an inch into Broun's chest, points carefully chosen, she says, to move him "from a point of darkness into light."
The success of an acupuncture treatment is hard to measure. "I feel different in a subtle way, it's hard to describe," Broun reports, vaguely, at mid-treatment.
At $60 per session, it's a lot cheaper than psychological therapy. And he adds that he doesn't mind all the attention he gets. His treatment sometimes lasts more than two hours.
But Black expresses confidence that, after four months of her pokes and prods (both physical and verbal), she's guided Broun a little closer to the light. "He has a growing awareness of how he lives his life," Black says. "He's kind of blossoming."
She could say the same thing about herself.
Christina Ianzito is a frequent contributor to the Magazine.