Tuesday, April 30, 2019

16. The filter our element lays between us and the world

The more I try to teach people about the elements, the more I realize that over the years I have worked out my own personal, possibly rather idiosyncratic ways of interpreting the signals a patient’s elements are sending me, and using these as clear pointers to a particular element.  I imagine that all experienced five element acupuncturists must do the same.  And none of these pointers will be exactly those of other practitioners, because everything we do and experience is filtered not only through a filter which our guardian element places around us, but a filter with a unique focus reflecting our own unique nature.  Some of the impressions we receive from a patient may have some similarity with those others will experience, but we will each put our own interpretation upon them.

This is why as practitioners we should do all that we can to find out what our own element is, recognize its qualities, make allowances for its weaknesses, and take all these factors into account when dealing with our patients.  This is not an easy task, because we all have a tendency to think that the fault in some uneasy relationships with our patients lies in them not in us.  It is good to remind ourselves at intervals that this is not so.  Often it is the balance of the elements within us, particularly that of our guardian element, which is shaping our relationship to our patient, and perhaps distorting it in some way we are failing to recognize.

I was doing some cooking a few days ago, and poured the cooked spaghetti through a sieve to drain it.  As I was doing this, the thought came to me that each element, like my spaghetti, needs a filter through which life is sieved.  I only have one kitchen sieve, but each element has its own, with its own particular mesh allowing only certain things through.

When our energies become unbalanced, some of these meshes become blocked and can no longer filter what they should. Viewed in this way, treatment for the energy blocks with which any five element practitioner is familiar, such as those for a Husband/Wife imbalance or Entry/Exit blocks, can be seen as shaking the sieve in different ways to allow it to filter what has been blocking it.

I think the concept of the elements as sieves with different-sized meshes is a further rather neat illustration to help me understand what I do.  


Sunday, April 14, 2019

15. Don't shut the elements up into too small boxes

In our attempt to pin down some of the characteristics of the five elements to help us with our diagnostic skills, there is always a danger that we apply the very broad definitions we have learnt for each element in too rigid a way.  General descriptions, such as that Fire’s emotion is joy, or Earth’s colour is yellow, are all well and good as starting points to help us understand the differences between the elements, but we have to be careful not to regard them as fixed categories.  Instead we should see them as providing us with broad outlines into which we will gradually learn to fit our growing understanding of the elements.  In each of us as unique human beings they meld together to form something far less clear-cut.

Of the four sensory signatures of colour, sound, smell and emotion I always think the most accessible initially are the emotional signs.  The others are likely to be more difficult for us to detect, since our senses tend to become blunted as we grow.  Our emotional sensitivity, however, has to continue to be sufficiently acute throughout life to guide us through the intricacies of human relationships, and this is why we may often concentrate our diagnostic antennae more upon how a patient makes us feel emotionally than upon whether we can detect a specific smell or colour.  With time, of course, our other senses grow sharp enough to help us with our diagnosis, but even now, after 40 years of practice, I find that my first impression of a patient is based upon their emotional impact upon me.  Subsequently, I will draw upon information my other senses give me to add to this. 

At least that is true for me, but may not of course be the same for other five element practitioners.  One of my fellow students at our Leamington College, for example, had a very acute sense of smell, and used his ability to pinpoint a five element smell as the basis for his diagnosis.  Presumably painters must have an acute ability to see colour, and musicians an equally highly-developed sensitivity to sound.  I am neither a painter nor a musician, so I tend to fall back on what I feel is my most developed sensory skill, which is that of recognizing the emotional signals directed at me by my patients. 

Here, too, though, we must beware of relying too heavily upon boxing the elements into too rigid categories.  Something like this is always likely to happen as a result of being told that a particular emotion is assigned to each element.  If we take Wood, for example, whose emotion is described as anger, it becomes all too easy to think that any expression of anger must point to this element, whereas experience will gradually help us understand that each element can express anger in its own way, since every person, whatever their element, has a Liver and a Gall-Bladder, which are Wood’s organs within us.  For example, I am of the Fire element, but can all too often explode with anger, but for very different reasons from those which my Wood or Water friends will express.  Earth’s sense of fear differs from that of Water, Wood, Metal or Fire, just as Metal’s expression of joy differs from that of each of the other elements.

14. The impact an element makes upon us

I like to think of the impact an element makes on me to help me gauge its individual characteristics better.  Each has a different impact.  I think of the word “impact” as a good description of my reaction to a physical force.  We know that everything is formed of force fields.  You only have to move your hands slowly together with your eyes shut to feel the point at which the force field of one hand engages with that of the other, well before the hands physically touch.  In acupuncture terms, we call this force “qi”.  It is that which creates all life and which we manipulate with our needles to help restore health and balance.  It is therefore entirely appropriate that we should experience the approach and presence of another person each time as a kind of physical impact upon us.  If we add to this that extra dimension, that of the qi at the deeper, emotional and spiritual level, then the total impact a person makes upon us can be very striking, and, from a five element acupuncture point of view, very revealing indeed.

The following are some of my observations on how the different elements affect me, and some of the ways I have learnt to help me recognize their signatures, and use these as a help to diagnosis.

When I asked some Wood people what they want of their interaction with others, they all agreed that what they wanted was to “engage” with them.  This is an interesting word.   My dictionary gives it a very active meaning, which includes the sense of battling and grappling with, and is much used in military terminology.  It implies more than just interacting, for there is the sense within it of some kind of a struggle, or, at the very least, pressure from one side against the other.

Impact is a good word to use for the Wood element, because it has to do everything it does with a kind of a push behind it to get itself and all around it going.  To do this requires some effort.  It is not just the result of some smooth transition from a state of quiescence in winter moving towards the full-blow energy of nature at its height in summer.  The impetus necessary to get things moving in spring comes with a kind of a jerk, like the movement in the body requiring a push to set it in motion.

The way such a jolt makes itself felt in us when we are in the presence of Wood is a little like a blow to the solar plexus, slight to strong depending on what action Wood wants to take, and what emphasis it wishes to give any action.  It has taken me a long time to work out a way of dealing with its strong needs.  I tend to go through an initial period of wanting to step away, as though shrinking from the push I feel coming towards me, then I experience a flicker, or more than a flicker, of irritation at feeling that I am being outmanoeuvred in some way, before I finally reach a more balanced stage of understanding, where I know that to help my Wood patient I have to stand firm and, as it were, counter-punch, however gently.  The force I feel behind Wood’s approach to me is far greater than I feel with all the other elements, except in a slightly different way for Water, and is totally absent in one element, Metal. 

Fire, maybe because it is my element, tends to make me relax since I am on familiar terrain and therefore no longer feel under any pressure to react.  It is as though I do not have to put on a mask of any kind, and can be who I really am.  As a practitioner this runs the risk of making things a little too cosy, with a tendency to overlook inevitable areas of tension, in case these disturb the comfortable atmosphere I and my patient are hoping to create for ourselves.  On the other hand, it may be just this atmosphere which makes it easier for a Fire patient to open up to their practitioner in the knowledge that what they reveal will not be misunderstood. 

As I know from my own experience, Fire needs to avoid by any means possible making other people feel vulnerable and judged.  It is also the element which will most quickly assume that any troubles it encounters are its own fault and the result of something it has done wrong.  Because I feel at ease with Fire, I am not as aware as people of other elements might be of the pressure it puts upon me, which makes me feel warm and comfortable.  I welcome its familiar impact, whilst this may well not be the case for people of other elements.  Because this is a very personal reaction I have to think hard and watch carefully how Fire’s interactions with other people unfold.

Earth, on the other hand, exerts strong pressure upon me, but this pressure is more in the nature of a counter-movement.  I am drawn towards Earth as though sucked in by some centrifugal force which I find difficult to resist.  I see this as an expression of Earth’s need to surround itself with others, as though cocooning itself within their protection.  Earth can exert a strong pull, akin to a sucking movement, as though gravity takes hold of me and I cannot escape its grasp.  I became aware for the first time of the pressure exerted by gravity on my body one day as I lay in the bath waiting for the bathwater to drain away.  I could feel my flesh being sucked down to the bottom of the bath, and I could hardly resist this sufficiently to stand up.  It was only through this experience that I understood the strength of gravity’s downwards pull, and by extension, the strength of the Earth element’s pull on those around it.  Where the impact for Wood is very much yang in nature, pushing hard at us away from itself, that of Earth, by contrast, is very much yin in nature, pulling hard at us but towards itself.

With Metal, though, we move almost into a vacuum, reflecting the space which Metal people seek to keep around them and without which they feel threatened and uneasy.  I feel something more insubstantial than a physical pull from Metal.  Instead what I feel is my own unease at being observed almost neutrally.  When we judge people we do this most successfully from a distance, as we stand back and watch.  Metal’s impact upon me is therefore not so much a physical one, as with the other elements, but rather an emotional one, often bringing with it the uneasy feeling that Metal knows something about me which may be to my detriment.  I feel that I am being observed with a cool and clinical eye.  And if I misread the signals Metal is sending me, and step too firmly into its space, it will cut off all connection with me and retreat out of sight.

Water, too, knows how to retreat if it feels under threat, but it retreats not, as Metal does, because its privacy and its need for solitude are being invaded, but because it feels threatened and endangered.  Again, unlike Metal, though, it will not only retreat and try to move away, but it may feel the need to do more to counter whatever is threatening it, and will gather its forces together to counterattack.  Then the apparent passivity which people may attribute to it may turn at the slightest hint of real danger into a truly terrifying attacking force, making the impact Water will have over us the fiercest, most overwhelming of all the elements, as though the placid waters of a pond are transformed within minutes into a devastating tsunami.  Often the onslaught which Water can unleash so suddenly may be ignored until it is too late to counter, which makes it all the deadlier for its very suddenness.  This gives to any attack by Water such a different quality from that of Wood, which comes full force towards us with no attempt at hiding its nature.  Water instead rears its head unexpectedly, and often, as with a tusunami, is only gradually perceived as it silently gathers its strength before inundating us.

Some of the images of the effect of the elements upon me may be difficult to reconcile with the apparently less extreme examples of civilized human behaviour which we encounter in our social interactions, but hidden within even the most apparently harmless human activities lie traces of what I have described above, though probably often well-disguised behind behaviour which is considered socially more acceptable.  Nature “raw in tooth and claw” is a true description of much that goes on under the surface of what would be considered normal, everyday behaviour.




Sunday, April 7, 2019

13. The challenges of point selection

During our training we were introduced to the main principles of point selection, which I have always felt stood me in excellent stead, and have underpinned all my work both as practitioner and teacher since then.  Recently, though, I realised that I had taken for granted how much I had adapted these principles over the years of my practice, often without realising I was doing this.  This led me to expand what I had written in my Handbook of Five Element Acupuncture about point selection.  Originally I listed the points for only the first five treatments.  This I now extended to cover the first 15 treatments, because novice five element practitioners have told me that they would welcome further guidance.

As I looked through these treatments I began to realise how much I had adapted the point selection principles I am teaching now to take account of what I recognise to be the individual needs of my patients, so that in effect my point selection is often not truly in line with the very principles I was telling my students they should follow.  Looking in detail at each example of treatment selection, I realised that my choice of points obviously reflect my growing confidence as a practitioner.  So then I have moved on to look at how I actually decide upon a specific treatment, and what has led me to adopt an often more idiosyncratic approach to point selection.  I have taken to observing myself more closely in the practice room to try and work out the thought processes behind my selection of points for a specific patient at a specific time, and I realise that my selections have much to do with my assessment of how my patients present themselves.  As practitioners we become acutely aware of how a patient feels to us, of how the energies flowing from the patient towards us are impacting upon us, and how far this impact is resonating with what we have learnt about our responses to one or other element.

We are trained to observe our patients with all our emotional and sensory antennae on full alert, aware that we have to interpret what they are conveying to us in a remarkably short period of time between the few minutes of our initial interaction with them and the time when we lift a needle to treat.  JR Worsley would joke that you only need a few minutes to treat a patient:  one minute to decide which element is crying out for treatment, one to do the treatment and the last minute to say goodbye.  The less experienced practitioner amongst us will take far longer than this, but my own experience of more than 35 years’ practice tells me that it takes me an increasingly shorter time to decide what treatment to give.  Often I seem to register quickly that the patient may be showing signs of a Husband/Wife imbalance or there is a need for an AE drain.  I will also be quick to see when they look well and require only the slightest nudge to their element before I can send them on their way.  What I am aware of, therefore, is that I have lost much, if not all, of the worry any novice practitioner will have about trusting my senses to tell me a great deal surprisingly quickly about my patient’s needs, and this usually happens well before I have listened to what the patients have to say or have taken their pulses.  In other words, I allow my understanding of how the elements are manifesting themselves in my patients to lead me to assess quickly what impact they are having upon me, and then for me to decide what treatment is likely to be needed.

In the early years of their practice, five element practitioners need to learn the general principles which underpin point selection, but with practice each practitioner will gradually learn to allow themselves some latitude in how to apply them, as their understanding of their patients’ needs develops.  My mantra of “think elements, not points” has stayed true for me at every stage of my practice, but my experience has led me to see that “thinking elements” means that we become increasingly adept at assessing an element’s needs and thus adapting our point selection to satisfy those needs. This means that, as with all principles, we must allow ourselves a surprising degree of flexibility in adapting these principles to specific practice situations. Both as teachers and as students we have to accept that point selection, far from being a prescriptive science with rigid rules of application, is instead an art dependent on the practitioner’s ability to adapt these principles flexibly to fit a patient’s unique needs at any particular time.  Just as there is nothing rigidly fixed about how energy courses through all nature bringing life to each of us, so there must be nothing rigid in a five element practitioner’s approach to encouraging these elemental energies to greater balance through our choice of points to do this work.

As with the teaching of any skill, time and much patience is always needed for a practitioner to learn their craft and to gain enough experience to dare trust that their own level of understanding permits them to start “doing their own thing” in terms of their practice.  It has however always comforted me to know that none of my patients has ever reacted badly to any treatment I have given.  They may of course suffer the temporary discomfort caused by to the appearance of some block or other, which forms a necessary and natural part of each treatment, quickly dealt with.  The worst that can happen is for patients to experience no change at all, even after a succession of treatments, and I always see this as a failure on my part to assess their needs accurately.  Whatever points we select to treat our patients, we can be sure that a little bit of variety and possibly a bit of daring in our point selection can do no harm, and can incidentally also help to keep us on our toes.