As practitioners we each bring into the practice room our own perceptions of how the elements manifest, insights which we have gained from however many years of practice we had had. Each of us will also have a particular affinity with one or other element, not necessarily, as some people assume, always our own. Our lives may, for example, have been affected by people of one element, whose influence then colours our perception of that particular element for all time. We should use the insights this gives us to help us when we encounter that particular element in our patients. It is also always significant which elements members of our family represent. And how we select our friends, as well as telling us a lot about ourselves and the needs we are satisfying by these selections, can also turn into a further lesson in the different elements and their interactions with one another upon which we can draw for our practice.
We make all sorts of assumptions about other people, since we usually see them from our own perspective. It requires great insight and humility to try to step out from under the shadows each of us cast around ourselves and try to move into the sphere of another person. Unfortunately we often delude ourselves that we understand another’s viewpoint whereas we are simply using our own viewpoint from which to judge theirs. We must learn never to assume that we know anything about anybody else until we have proof from them that they are as we think they are. This is the secret of being a good therapist, and also, of course, of being a good parent, partner or friend.
It is the elements with which we have no particular affinity which can cause us the most trouble, and these we have to work hard at understanding if we are not to let this handicap our work. We have to learn ways of bridging the gulf this places between ourselves and people of this element, for bridge it in some way we must. This is where the hardest work for us lies, because we have to try and shed as much of our emotional clothing as we can, and then attempt to put on that of the other elements. Experience obviously helps us here, because each time we encounter another element we add a little something to our understanding, like another little piece of cloth to this element’s coat which we try to put on, so that it begins to fit us a little better and we feel a little bit more at ease in wearing it. It is worth thinking in these terms, as we add each experience of another element to our stock, because the aim is to start experiencing an element from the inside, rather than looking at it from the outside, as though we are looking at animals in the zoo.
Of course, since we are made of all the elements, there is always a part of us which resonates with each element we encounter, even though we may not be aware of it or pay it much attention. The work we have to do here is to track this part down in ourselves and observe each element in action in us as a way of understanding it more from within ourselves. We must take every opportunity to study them in others and then try to see how far our understanding of them resonates with something inside ourselves. The easiest way to do this is to think of times in our life when we have experienced the emotions of another element.
Here we immediately encounter a problem, for the words with which we label an emotion, which we know in five element terms as anger, joy, sympathy, grief and fear, are so much more limited than the wide range of emotional attributes they are intended to convey. The whole spectrum of human emotions, with all their variety and depth, has to be contained within the five simple words we give to these five emotional groupings, and this gives each a far wider and deeper meaning than the words as we use them every day. In addition, they may well have taken on meanings in common speech which can be very narrow, or have been loaded with all kinds of connotations which may not be helpful in an acupuncture context.
If we look at these everyday descriptions of the five emotions, two, those of joy and sympathy, appear to evoke positive responses within us, one, anger, tends to evoke a negative response and two, fear and grief, evoke more puzzling responses. Joy and sympathy appear to describe attributes we would all like to be able to express. We may well think that these are expressions of positive aspects of human behaviour, the one that of being a vehicle for happiness, the other that of showing an ability to support our fellow human beings. Anger, on the other hand, has a bad press, more often than not being regarded as something reprehensible, an emotion to which we should not allow free rein within ourselves, with connotations of something out of control. Grief comes out more on the positive side, as being an appropriate expression of loss, if there has been loss, but can develop negative overtones if it persists beyond the point at which others think we should have come to terms with our loss or even when there is no feeling of loss at all, where some expression would be considered only natural.
Fear, too, appears to look both ways, its positive side appearing when it is an appropriate response to danger, its negative side when it persists even when the person experiencing it is not exposed to risk. The common denominator in the last two cases, those of grief and fear, is that they appear to have a more clearly perceptible appropriate and inappropriate aspect to them which are fairly evenly balanced so that neither has attained the pariah status of anger, which appears to lean too heavily towards the inappropriate, nor the apparently favoured positions of joy and sympathy.
All these perceptions are misleading in acupuncture terms, and have to be revised if we are to view the five emotional categories in their proper contexts. Each emotional category has to be seen in neutral terms so that we do not load it with any preconceptions such as those I have mentioned. Joy and sympathy can therefore be understood to be just as much expressions of inappropriate as appropriate emotions depending upon the context, and we must not shy away from seeing their negative overtones nor from seeing the correspondingly positive overtones of anger. All emotions have to be viewed as ranging over the widest gamut of human expression, from the most unbalanced to the most balanced. Thus to express joy where joy is inappropriate is just as much an expression of imbalance as to express anger or fear where there is no occasion for either. To forget this is to distort our perception of balance or imbalance and thus our interpretation of the aspect of a patient which may be calling out for treatment. It is unfortunately an understandable human reaction for a practitioner to respond to a patient’s smile more positively than to a patient’s frown, though both may be evidence of imbalance.
When thinking about the different emotions the elements display, we also need to understand that since each of us is composed of a unique combination of all the five elements, and each element expresses every one of the five emotions, there are in effect 25 possible expressions of the different emotions. The five principal categories which tradition associates with a particular element, which are joy for Fire, sympathy for Earth, grief for Metal, fear for Water and anger for Wood, are therefore modified when it is not a Fire person expressing joy or a Water person expressing fear. When a Metal person expresses joy or fear, those expressions of joy or fear will be shaded by grief, Metal’s dominant emotion, and therefore will express themselves in a different way from a Wood person expressing joy or fear, or a Fire or Water person expressing joy or fear.
It is therefore not simply a matter of observing joy or fear expressed to their fullest in Fire or Water people, but of having experience of observing these emotions in people who are not Fire or Water. We have to begin to differentiate the type of joy or fear being shown, however much this may be buried beneath the dominant emotion of another element. Fire or Water will show these two emotions in their purest form, since they pour out straight from the organs controlled by these two elements, whereas joy shown by an Earth person or fear shown by a Metal person will be modified by the patina of sympathy or thoughtfulness Earth throws over all it does and the patina of grief which Metal shows in all it does. In other words they will show an Earth- or Metal-type joy or fear, which will be quite different from joy or fear expressed in pure form by Fire or Water.
In trying to gain a foothold in the tricky world of interpreting the emotional signatures of an element, we therefore have to look carefully at all the different possible nuances of emotional expression. We have to bring to this all the knowledge of the elements we have accumulated so far to help point us in one of the five directions. We can do this in retrospect, as it were, by looking carefully at a person whose element we are sure of, and observing how they express the emotions of the other four elements, not just their own. How, for example, does a Metal person express their anger or their sympathy, or a Wood person their grief or their fear? Such an exercise is a very useful way of expanding our library of pointers to the different elements.