Monday, November 23, 2020

The Metal element 5: Are we living in an age of Metal?

I would recommend all of you to read a book by Andrew Keen, called The Internet is not the Answer (Atlantic Books 2015).  It contains important warnings about the world we live in, and the risks we are running of remaining, not the free agents in a free world we like to see ourselves as, but ever more like slaves entrapped in a world controlled by the large corporations, such as Apple, Amazon and Google, whose power over us grows by the day.

The author points to a worrying aspect of today’s world, our current obsession with ourselves.  The rise of the mobile phone and Instagram have disturbing consequences, one of the most frightening being what he calls our “self-centric culture”, in which “if we have no thought to Tweet or photo to post, we basically cease to exist.”  And “the truth about networks like Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook is that their easy-to-use, free tools delude us into thinking we are celebrities.”

I have often thought that the electronic equipment most of us feel to be absolutely indispensable to our modern lives, and which is intended to link us ever more closely to one another, ironically leads instead to our distancing ourselves more and more from each other.  The cameras in our mobile phones are encouraging us to look at each other through a lens, rather than in the eye.  The messages we send are beginning to stop us speaking to one another, voice to voice.  We now text rather than talk.

The young woman sitting opposite me in the cafĂ© a few days ago made no contact with anybody during the time that I watched her, all her human interactions being through her electronic equipment.  It felt as though she lived in a bubble all on her own.  As Andrew Keen says, “The truth…is that we are mostly just talking to ourselves on these supposedly “social” networks…. (It is) an Internet in which the more social we become, the more we connect and communicate and collaborate, the lonelier we become.”  Are we perhaps starting to live in an age of Metal, that element which mourns the loss of what is valuable, and in its imbalance may cut us off increasingly from each other and from the world around us?

Finally, to add to these rather depressing thoughts, a little comment by the writer, Robert Macfarlane, whose lovely books about walking in nature and in the wild all of us should also read.  In an article of his in the Guardian newspaper, I read that the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary now includes words like “chatroom” and “broadband”, but not “bluebell” or “kingfisher”.  I also read that they are now discussing whether children should continue to be taught handwriting in school, presumably because it is assumed that they will no longer be using pen and paper but tapping away on their keypads to communicate.  All these different developments underline the seismic changes going on around us.  No doubt many of these may herald exciting new departures which we should welcome.  Others, though, represent losses.  I am sad that children’s vocabularies may no longer include bluebells or kingfishers.


Monday, November 16, 2020

The Metal element 4: A Metal patient's story

Every day I receive confirmation that the elements do indeed imprint a personal stamp upon each one of us in the shape of one of the five elements.  It is both exhilarating and humbling to receive these continuing proofs of the truth of what I practise.  I received one such confirmation at a fellow acupuncturist’s practice some time ago, when I was asked to help a patient of hers.

A few years ago this patient had suddenly begun to experience severe pains down his body, accompanied by strange involuntary jerking movements of his left leg.   I asked him whether he had been suffering from any particular stresses at the time the pains started, perhaps something which he might experience as a shock to the system.  “No“, he said, but then I noticed his eyes suddenly filling with great sadness.  “Is his element Metal then?”, I began to ask myself, as I saw this look of grief.  We are always being given pointers to the elements if we are sensitive enough to notice them, however slight they may be, little gifts of help.  And then came another gift.  He was silent for quite a while as I took his pulses, and then, out of the silence, unexpectedly he said quietly, “I always wished I had had some relationship with my father.”  Aha, I thought, who but Metal is likely to say this?  For of course we know that Metal has a particularly strong association to the father.

Metal is the “if only” element, the element that looks back into the past, and often thinks more about this past than about the present.  So here was a double pointer to Metal, the grief in the eyes and the immediate connection with a father who, though still living, is as though lost to him.

So I continued with my questioning, guiding it now along a path that my experience tells me that Metal will accept.  It wants to be left alone to make its own connections and assess for itself what is relevant or irrelevant.  So I suggested lightly that maybe something had indeed happened around the time all this pain appeared. “Maybe some stress at home or at work, perhaps?  But only you will know what that might be.”  And I added, “Perhaps the involuntary jerking of your leg is because you want to kick somebody!”  We both laughed, and then he was given his first treatment on Metal, just the source points, and I left him with this rather light, almost joking remark hanging in the air.

 A few hours later he phoned, and wanted to tell us something he had never told anybody else before.  Two years ago his wife had had an affair with his best friend which had devastated him.  They had worked through this now, but he could not forgive his friend, and never wanted to see him again – another great loss in his life.  I suspect that now that he has admitted to his anger, he will no longer unconsciously need to kick out, either at his wife, or more likely at his friend, as good treatment focused on his Metal element helps him gradually heal.

This was further evidence for me that we need only lightly suggest something to Metal, and then stand back to allow them space to work out their own solutions, since Metal is so acute and quick at making connections for itself.

How much we achieved in such a short time!

I’m sure five element acupuncturists reading this will expect me to write about any other signs of Metal I noticed in terms of the other sensory signs.  His emotion I have talked about;  his colour was not very clearly what I associate with Metal.  I couldn’t detect any smell at all, but the sound of his voice was very flat, very yin, dragging me down with it.  This is the sound which I associate with Metal’s weeping tone.  




Tuesday, November 3, 2020

The Metal element 3: Metal's two officials

Of all the elements, Metal is the one whose two associated officials, the Lung and the Large Intestine, have the widest reach, spanning the whole body from top to bottom, from the nose and the lungs down and through the colon as far as the body’s lowest point.  The Lung, our organ of intake, is the element’s direct connection to the world outside, and establishes this connection through the act of inhaling air as well as through the pores of the skin, which are called the third lung in Chinese medicine.  The Lung passes oxygen on to every cell of the body, before the Large Intestine takes over to carry out the final processing and elimination of all needless waste material from the body.

When we think of Metal’s season, autumn, we can see that nature’s work at this time is to filter as much goodness from what Earth’s harvests have left behind, before sending all this goodness down to the roots below ground, to the Water element, to feed the next cycle.  Metal not only has to help the Lung inhale life-giving air, but help the Large Intestine sift through and discard all the waste material from the other elements, retaining only those few which are sufficiently pure to support the renewal of life.  If we look at the components listed on bottled water, for example, we can see that they include a great number of essential trace elements, the products of Metal’s work in filtering all the purity from what has gone before.  These trace elements leave no actual trace for the human eye to perceive, but without them no seed will grow.  The Water element will then stores these trace elements as nutrients for the seeds it nurtures throughout the winter.

The process of breathing becomes what we can think of as an act of purification, as the nasal hairs catch as many impurities as they can, acting as filters to remove them, and expelling them in our sniffles and sneezes as we breathe out.  The Lung is therefore one of the body’s purifying agents for all the physical activities involved in breathing, as well as for the deeper mental and spiritual activities for which it is responsible.  It then passes on the residue of these activities which it no longer needs to Metal’s companion official, the Large Intestine.

The Metal element can therefore be seen as bearing a heavy burden, that of being responsible for ensuring both the purity of what we take in and the removal of all the impurities and waste material no longer of use to us.  The wide range of its responsibilities has always made me regard Metal people as having to live their lives under a surprisingly great level of strain, for if they fail in their task, they will allow through that which the Lung should be filtering out.  I remember well one of the most important lessons I learned about this element was from a Metal patient who told me one day, “I feel dirty inside all the time”, a description which could be seen as clearly reflecting her Lung official’s inability to maintain the purity which she craved.  It was very significant that this patient always turned up for treatment to start with in what I could only imagine was a set of fresh white underwear, as if by wearing these she could somehow hide the pollution she felt deep inside her.  I regarded it as visible evidence that her treatment had been successful when, after a few months, she turned up in coloured underwear, as if she now no longer needed to hide her body in what most of us would consider the purest colour of all, white.


Saturday, October 24, 2020

The Metal element 2: Some of the difficulties in diagnosing and treating Metal patients

I have always found Metal people to be the easiest patients to treat, provided (and this is an important proviso) that I am quick to diagnose that Metal is really their element. I have therefore had to work out my own ways of pinpointing specific Metal characteristics which help me with my diagnosis.  A person’s first impression upon us is always very revealing, particularly if we can catch a glimpse of some similarity with how we have previously reacted to somebody else, and perhaps revealingly so if the person we are reminded of is a patient whose element we are sure of.  This makes life much easier for us, of course.  A very clear comparison of the similarities between our reactions to the two people is very helpful.  Less helpful is what happens more often, which is that some little quirk in appearance or behaviour, something like the way they move their mouth as they smile or talk, or the way they look at us, sets off a vague memory of somebody else we know who smiles, talks or moves in a similar way.  We may not immediately track back to work out who this is, and it may take us a few hours or even longer to pinpoint the person we are thinking of, but once traced this is a nearly infallible way of finding an elemental signature to help us.

There is an added factor to making a diagnosis when we treat a Metal patient, which is that the relationship between patient and practitioner is always a very delicate one, but with Metal it is especially so.  I have sometimes described it as one where I have to tread lightly, as though on glass.  Metal is the most sensitive of all elements in detecting a slight of any kind directed towards it, and will harbour the memory of it for a long time.  It regards anything as a slight as something which implies some criticism of its behaviour.  Buried deep within Metal is a search for perfection, and this is what lies behind all that it does, as it tries to weigh up what is right and good and to discard what is wrong.  This, of course, includes judging its own actions.  It is prepared to do this itself, but allows no-one else the right to do this.  Any criticism will therefore imply a negative judgement and will be resisted.  No element wants to be taken as seriously as Metal.  To mock it or make it feel unworthy in any way is to lose any respect it has for us as a person and even more so for us as its practitioner.  This is why the first interactions with a Metal patient are so crucial, and can be very tricky if we do not pick up on a patient’s need to be allowed to do things their own way with as little interference as possible from others, and thus from us as their practitioner.

One of the pointers to the Metal element is the strong feeling that I have to tread warily in what I do and say.  This is my particular reaction to sensing the space that Metal people like to keep between themselves and others, even between those to whom they are emotionally most closely related.  I feel under inspection, being observed almost dispassionately, as though I am being assessed from a distance.  This is something Metal is likely to do to everybody who approaches it, and also does to itself, since it is the harshest self-critic of any element, constantly judging its own actions.  If it feels that I am not offering it what it thinks I should, I will be dismissed as having no further use.  This will translate itself into a Metal patient abruptly deciding to discontinue treatment.  On the other hand, once it has accepted that what I am offering as a practitioner is something it can value, it will be remarkably easy to treat.  It is no coincidence, I feel, that when I was palpating the wrist of one of my Metal patients to locate the position of the Metal source points, he told me quietly, “That feels very pertinent to me,” as though such a sensitive response to my touch had activated some reaction which he recognized as profound even before the point was needled.

I have noted over the years that many practitioners including myself fail to recognize the signatures of the Metal element for some reason which I have found difficult to decipher.  It may well be associated with its yin qualities, which it shares with the other yin element, Water, for what is yin is inward-looking, unwilling to reveal itself, quite unlike the outward-looking qualities of the two very yang elements, Wood and Fire.  Neither of these hesitates to express openly what it feels, whereas the two purely yin elements tend to be more comfortable keeping their feelings in the shadows, as though unwilling to reveal their true nature.  In other words we are always slightly uncertain where Metal and Water people are positioning themselves, unlike Wood and Fire who are so unmistakably there in front of us.  Earth, of course, being a combination of both yin and yang, can be both very visible, as though partly living life above-ground and partly more hidden, as though below-ground, as befits the rather ambiguous intermediate position it takes up.

It is therefore all too easy to mistake the face Metal turns towards the world as revealing what is truly going on below the surface, which I feel helps explain why practitioners may find Metal difficult to diagnose.  We are not quite sure whether what we are seeing is revealing how Metal really feels and acts.  One of the ways I have learnt to deal with this is by understanding that Metal, whose function is to assess the true nature of things, must rely on itself to do this, not ask for help from others.  Metal people may listen to what others advise, but will then take this advice quietly away inside themselves to mull over it, and decide whether it is sufficiently or insufficiently valid to take or reject. 

I learnt this lesson quite early on in my practice, when I happened to be treating a Metal patient immediately after an Earth patient.  The Earth patient was very happy to discuss openly what she was concerned about.  This was something which had been occupying her during many of our previous sessions, and was continuing to do so now.  On the other hand, when I afterwards went in to see the Metal patient, who had told me at the last session that he had some difficult decisions to take in his life, he said without prompting, “I’ve decided what I will do,”, and that was that.  I felt that he had come to this decision by himself, presumably, I hoped, after feeling the benefit of the treatment which he had just received, and there was now no further need to discuss it.  Nor did I feel he would welcome my questioning him further.  He had moved on in that quiet but determined way that Metal has.




Monday, October 19, 2020

Our individual take on the elements

One of the problems we have when teaching five element acupuncture is how to introduce students to the concept of the elements and the individual characteristics by which we learn to recognize them in human beings.  To do this we have to draw on some of the descriptions which have been attributed to them over the years, best illustrated at a very early age by those set out in the Suwen.  We have all learnt, for example, that the colour associated with Fire is red, and Metal’s emotion is grief, and this has been repeated numerous times since then in lectures and books, such as mine.  The problem here is that these descriptions can soon, perhaps all too soon, develop into stereotypes, and stereotypes which risk taking no account of the more fluid, often quite blurred outlines with which the elements reveal themselves to us, and which we have to learn to work with.  Human beings do not fit into fixed frameworks like this, much as we would sometimes like them to.

This certainly doesn’t make for an easy life as a five element acupuncturist, because the elements appear in so many different guises.  We are formed of a unique combination of all five elements, requiring us to sift through all sorts of gradations of colour, sound, smell and emotion which these imprint upon us.  This means that what we eventually may decide is the weeping voice of a Metal patient may be overlaid by quite a lot of singing or laughing, tempting us initially to think the patient’s element may be Earth or Fire.  The subtle interactions of all the sensory signs the elements place on us may appear to overshadow those of the dominant guardian element, and have eventually to be discarded before we reach below them to those which represent our element’s true imprint upon us.  This makes a five element diagnosis into a form of sifting process which requires time and patience, rather than the moment of intuitive recognition that some people like to feel it should be.

This is why the different characteristics the elements show will also be experienced differently by us in ways which reflect the influences our particular guardian element has upon us.  We will each have our own individual approach to other people, coloured not only by the needs and responses of our guardian element, but also by our life experiences.  From the point of view of being a five element acupuncturist, this means that we develop our own individual take on the elements.    

The crucial thing here is that each of us will react in quite different ways to observing the elements’ presence in our patients, because our responses to the elements in their different manifestations will be unique.  My appreciation of a patient’s cheerfulness, which I may ascribe to the Fire element, may well differ from a fellow acupuncturist’s, who may see this patient as being of another element, because he or she experiences a person’s expressions of joy differently.  Here a practitioner’s own element will often be a determining factor, which is why it is so important that each practitioner is constantly aware of how much their own element may be colouring their perceptions of the elements in their patients.   

We must not be frightened of acknowledging that we will inevitably have our own individual take on the elements which may well differ from that of our fellow acupuncturists.  What is important is that we gradually hone our understanding of these elemental manifestations down to some common descriptions of the individual elements which practical experience has taught us to be true, and which we then learn to use as part of our individual diagnostic templates.  The important thing here is to base our understanding on solid evidence from our own practice.  If the result of the treatments I have given a particular patient has confirmed that this patient is of the Water element, this is one step further along the path to recognizing this element’s particular sensory signatures in future patients.  I can then add the characteristics of this particular patient to the template I am drawing up for the Water element, now based on further evidence from my practice. This is how we gradually build up our understanding of the manifestations of each element patient by patient slowly over the years.

I always say that it requires courage to be a five element acupuncturist, since we have nothing but our own personal reactions to the different elements to help us towards a diagnosis.  We may initially base our diagnostic decisions on some of the stereotypes pointed out to us by more experienced practitioners, but in the final analysis we have to be brave enough eventually to develop our own take on the different elements.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Metal element 1: General characteristics of the Metal element

Metal people have a much greater sense of stillness about them than other elements.  There can be a complete absence of movement when they lie on the couch, for example, almost as though they are like those stone effigies of knights lying in their tombs in cathedrals.  This is not a suppression of movement, as there might be with Water, as it tries to hold itself back, but a feeling of withdrawal and detachment from what is going on.

They make very steady and acute eye contact, and it is to the eyes that we are drawn, rather than to the mouth, as we are with Earth.  Whilst looking directly at us, and obviously seeing us very keenly, they appear at the same time to be looking past and through us, as though searching for something beyond us.  It is in their eyes that the sense of grief underlying this element is revealed.

Grief is an emotion which separates us from other people.  We are each alone as we grieve, the very opposite of how we feel when we express Fire’s joy or Earth’s sympathy, where we welcome others to us.  We might think that Metal only grieves for a death, but there are many other kinds of losses we can feel.  Its grief can stem from the actual loss of a person, but it can also grieve for what can be as acute, or even more acute, than a loss, which is an absence, a person who is not there for them, either physically or emotionally, such as an emotionally distant parent.  It can also mourn all that it will never have and all that was never there.  It can grieve for the things it has never done and will now never do, for what it has never known and for what it will now never know, for the losses it will never make up and the joys it will now never experience.  These are some of the losses which Metal, of all the elements, can experience the most profoundly.

I think the following is a beautiful description of the loneliness of grief, the feeling of isolation we all feel when we experience loss. It comes from a book by the American writer, Francine Prose, called Goldengrove, which is all about how a young girl copes with the death of her sister.

“So many of (those trying to offer comfort) said the same things that I might have thought that there was common ground, if I hadn’t known that I was alone on an iceberg split off from a glacier….. When they wept, I cried, too, and for a moment I almost believed that my iceberg might have room for another person.” 

I have also been helped in my understanding of the Metal element from the time when I unexpectedly experienced the emotion grief in an intense form for one day.  I woke one day feeling unutterably sad. Though I racked my brains I could find no reason for this. Nothing was then happening which could be causing me the kind of sense of deep loss I was experiencing, nor could I pin it down to any recent event which might have occurred around this time of the year. I looked at the season I was in, and it was not autumn, Metal’s season, when we might all feel a little melancholic at the imminent death of the year. Nor did the date have any particular resonance for me, as I fretted away at my memory. So where had this overwhelming, all-permeating feeling of sadness come from? 

The feeling lasted just that one day. By the evening it was fading, and by the morning it had gone completely, never to this day to re-appear. At one level it puzzles me that I should have been so shot through with such an unfamiliar emotion, one that even in times of deepest distress at some real loss in my life I had so far never experienced. Its very unfamiliarity was disturbing, for it propelled me into unfamiliar emotional territory. I felt cut off, alienated from my surroundings, and unwilling or unable to share my thoughts with anybody else. I felt as if I was wandering alone like a shadow amongst strangers, unapproachable, as though nobody could reach me beneath this mantle of grief that I was enveloped in, like a garment I could not take off.

The memory of this strange day has faded, but its significance has not, because at some time during it I found myself saying to myself, “so this is what it is like to be Metal. This is what Metal people must be feeling at every moment of their lives.” Was this realization the reason I was asked to experience such an unsettling day? Now I like to think it was, for that journey on to what I like to think is Metal’s territory and my identification, however briefly, with the emotional terrain upon which Metal lives its life, have given me deep, personal insights into this element which I think I could have gained in no other way. These have stayed with me ever since, and guide me with a surer hand to my diagnosis of Metal in other people.

When trying to work out whether a voice has the weeping tones of Metal, it is worth closing your eyes and just listening.  Somehow when we listen in the ordinary way, watching the person talking, I find that we can overlook the quiet, yin, falling quality in a Metal voice.  Listened to by itself without any input from our eyes, it becomes surprisingly flat and low, and draws us downwards.  This is exactly the opposite of the yang, rising tones of Wood and Fire.

When trying to work out whether somebody is Metal, it is worth watching how the person is making you feel.  Are you finding that you are somehow careful in what you say, as though choosing your words carefully in case you may be criticized?  Metal judges;  that is its role, to weigh the good and the bad, and discard the bad.  It therefore cannot help itself from judging us, and we can feel this as implied criticism, although it may not be intended as such.  It is, of course, above all critical of itself, but will not take lightly anybody criticizing it.  You can laugh with Metal, it can laugh at itself (it can have a very acute, sharp sense of humour), but you can never laugh at it without finding that it withdraws completely from you.  In the case of a patient, this may be the reason why they decide to stop treatment, because they will experience your laughing at them as you as their practitioner judging them to be in some way inadequate, and this they cannot allow.


Saturday, October 3, 2020

The Earth element 5: Lying in the bath

I had an insight into the Earth element as a result of some observations I made whilst having my bath.   I was lying in the bath, slowly letting the bathwater drain out.  As it drained away, I started to feel my body grow heavier, moving from a point where I had been totally unaware of its weight to a feeling of increasing heaviness as parts of me emerged above water, until, with the bath now empty of water, I felt as though my body had become a dead weight whose heaviness seemed to be pinning me down. I was made aware of the considerable effort it required to unpeel myself from the floor of the bath, and was astonished by the force of the gravity which had seized hold of my body as the water sucked away from it. Why had I never noticed this before?

Once upright, normality returned, as all the mechanisms which we learn as a child to enable us to stand clicked into place. By the time my feet were on the bathmat my body no longer felt heavy, and it took me some effort to remember how difficult the transition from weightlessness to weight had been.

Those few minutes in the bath have helped me understand how Earth people can feel, for they live their lives in an endless balancing-act between the desire to remain safely tethered to the ground and the need for their Spleen to help move them forward.  And thus for the few moments as one foot after another leaves the ground they can in principle be vulnerable to falling over. When out of balance, this desire for security can outweigh the need for movement, and suck them down into the earth as though they are stuck in damp clay. Or the opposite may happen, and this damp clay turn instead into dry sand which allows no foothold.

This is how I see the two extremes of the Earth element out of balance: the one as though they are stuck fast in oozing mud, the other as though they are trying to keep their footing on ever-shifting sand. Between these two extremes lies stable Earth, with its feet firmly planted on the ground, and yet with sufficient balance to move securely forward when movement is required.

You may find that your next bath can be a lesson which teaches you as much as a whole lecture on the Earth element!