Saturday, January 26, 2019

3. Individual approaches to diagnosing the elements

We can never be neutral observers of life.  As all scientists now acknowledge, the observer is always part of what is observed, so there is no such thing as being objective.  Our judgements are always subjective.  The important thing is to be aware of this, and to try and understand ourselves as deeply as possible so that we can understand the nature of our involvement in any human interaction.  In five element acupuncture terms, this means understanding how our own guardian element colours how we perceive all the people we meet, and in particular how this fact colours our interactions with our patients, and our diagnosis of their particular element.  The important thing is that we should try to trace and analyse the impact each element has on us, and use what we learn from this to hone our diagnostic skills.  So if the Water element does not feel as ephemeral to you as it does to me, or Earth does not feel as needy to you as it does to me, then these differences will help you work out your own personal criteria for how the elements impact on you, and this in turn must help you in your practice.

We therefore need time to home our diagnosis to a point where treatment of the chosen element has had sufficiently positive results to make us feel sure that we are on the right path.  We have to call on our observations of the many ways that the elements imprint themselves upon us to help us pinpoint the most dominant.  And these marks are in everything we do, such as the way a person walks or talks or the kind of choices they make in life.  But above all, and in my view, definitely providing the greatest level of additional information, is the nature of how an element makes us feel.  In other words, the answer to the problem of tracking an element down lies within each five element practitioner, if we are sufficiently self-aware to appreciate this.  If we can learn accurately to measure another person’s impact upon us, we can apply this information to any other new person we encounter who makes a similar kind of impression upon us, thus providing us with a way of pinpointing the guardian element.

We learn to develop our own way of recognizing the different elements, although there are some general characteristics which distinguish one element from another and which we can use as diagnostic aids.  This means that there may only be a few characteristics which we would all accept as common pointers to a particular element.  Our own element and our own life experiences will inevitably colour what we perceive in ways which may well differ.  The experiences gained from our own meetings with people of the different elements will add a particular slant to how we interpret what we see in those we meet, making it likely that we will respond to another person in our own unique way.  There will therefore always be something very personal to us about how we diagnose the characteristics our patients present us with.

Many years back when I was an acupuncture student we were told to concentrate our diagnosis upon the four sensory signals emitted by the elements, under the well-known headings of colour, sound, smell and emotion.  It does, however, require many years of hard study to develop these sensory skills to the appropriate level to give us accurate information about the elements.  Since I initially found this difficult, I soon came to see that each of us is a walking, talking manifestation of the presence of the elements, so that I gradually began to draw together all sorts of little pointers to one or other element to supplement the four sensory categories. This means that, to the acute observer, everything in a person can be seen as diagnostically pointing towards one or other element. 

My own deepest learning about the elements started soon after I qualified, when I was asked to teach some evening classes, and found myself talking to a whole range of people, from plumbers to retired people and young, unemployed mothers.  Looking back, I realise that in explaining what the elements represented for me, and trying to find examples of them in famous people the whole class were familiar with, I learnt to see the elements, not simply as a component of acupuncture treatment, but as one way of approaching the complexities of human behaviour.  I have always felt that anybody interested in understanding more about human nature in all its amazing variety can benefit from learning about the elements, whether they then wish to extend this knowledge into the field of acupuncture or not.

The subjective nature of all our interactions with the world around us is undoubtedly why I notice that my writings about the elements which I present here are not evenly spread over the five, but tend to be focussed more on Wood and Fire, with Earth a slightly more distant third.  Throughout my writing life, I appear to have written far less about Metal and Water.  I rationalize this a little by thinking of the order in which the elements are placed around the great five element circle.  Fire’s relationship to its fellow elements is closest to its mother element, Wood, and its child element, Earth, whilst it has a more distant relationship to the following two yin elements, Metal and Water.  I wonder also whether this helps explain my yang Fire’s deeper understanding of totally yang Wood and half-yang Earth, than of the two more mysterious and more hidden yin elements.  Despite myself, then, what I write is tilted slightly more towards the yang, the sunny side of the mountain and daylight, than towards the yin, the shady side of the mountain and the darkening light.


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