Tuesday, July 16, 2019

29. The voices of the different elements

As an insight into the way different elements talk, I am reminded of something a friend of mine said to me one day.  She told me that she often thought that “silence is golden”, and was surprised when I said that on the contrary I regarded “speech as golden”.  Silence was certainly not for me, and was not something I regarded as being as admirable a quality as my friend obviously did.  This proved another lesson for me in helping me understand the different priorities different elements have.  Silence for her was an admirable quality, whereas it is slightly threatening to me, a silent space which always tempts me to fill it with words.

Why do I, as a Fire person, think speech is golden?  I think it is because the words we utter can be seen as small connections we make with the person we are talking to, each an attempt to set up a tiny relationship.  There are, of course, many ways of talking, many of them certainly not with Fire’s aim of using its words as a way of initiating a relationship with the person spoken to.  

The ways in which each element wants to communicate with others differ, as do all their individual qualities.  Understanding such differences and working out how to respond to the needs they reveal is one of the lessons all five element acupuncturists have to learn.  Each element therefore has a distinctive way of speaking, and as five element acupuncturists we are taught to listen for tone of voice as one of the sensory signs by which we recognise the elements.  As with the other three sensory signs, smell, colour and emotion, we tend to think that we recognise a sensory signal merely by using the appropriate sense organ, in this case by listening.  But there is more to speech than the mere sounds we utter as words.  In addition to the tone of voice in which we hear the words, we need to look at how the words are spoken, as well as the body language which accompanies them and expresses their meaning.  No diagnosis of the element behind the words can be complete unless all these factors are taken into consideration.

There is an additional important factor here.  When we feel we have to rely simply on the sharpness of our hearing, we may feel helpless if we cannot yet distinguish the different tones of voice, something which it takes many years to master (so students, take heart – we have all had to learn this the hard way!).  If we can add to this some visual input, by looking at how the words are spoken and watching the body language, we have more in our sensory armoury to call upon.  This is something that is particularly important for me as I am now very hard of hearing and don’t trust my ears as I once did.  I have therefore started to develop additional distinguishing marks which I can add to tone of voice to help me recognize the elements.  I noted, for example, that Fire people tended to lean forwards towards the person they are talking to, making me wonder whether this was indeed a characteristic peculiar to all Fire.  I then started to observe myself talking, and noticed that I, too, move forward towards my listener, as though trying to engage more closely with them and add something personal to the communication.

I have now started to look more closely at the movements the other elements make as they speak, and have so far discovered the following, though I have still much work to do to define these characteristics further and with greater reliability.  Metal, as is to be expected, tends to remain remarkably still as it talks.  Earth enunciates its words very clearly and obviously enjoys the process of speaking as though, I like to think, it enjoys the moment at which a word is uttered, then swallowed, and the thought behind it digested, much in the way we enjoy the taste of food as we digest it.   Its way of talking is comfortable and soothing, reflecting the singsong quality characteristic of its speech.  This can make it the easiest on the ear to listen to.                

Water’s speech, on the other hand, tends to be more rapid and jerky.  Its body moves as it speaks, with none of the stillness behind Metal’s words or the comfortable feeling underlying Earth’s.  Its characteristic tone of voice gives it a droning-like quality of speech which can be difficult to listen to, and unsettles the listener, without their knowing quite why, a characteristic typical of Water.  It is very penetrating, almost like something drilling away at your ears.  Water in nature can grind away slowly but inexorably, drip by drip, so that even hard rock has to give way and mould itself to this almost invisible force. 

I met a friend in the street recently who I know to be Water.  What struck me most was a kind of uneasiness which the encounter stirred in me.  We had known each other a long time, and yet I could not feel at ease with him, and as he walked away what stayed with me for a long time afterwards was the sound of his voice, that groaning tone typical of Water, which seemed to bore away inside my head.  For a long time I went on hearing this sound, and I realised that this was another example of Water’s persistence, its ability to carry on come what may, revealed here in the tone of its voice. 

Finally, there is Wood, where the emphasis behind the words, that of telling somebody something with a kind of internal punch, can often be spoken with tight lips, as though the words are being held back from bursting forth.  We have no trouble in knowing where Wood’s forceful voice is issuing from.  It is coming right at us from there in front of us, symbolically hitting us in the face.  It is very penetrating, but less like Water’s drill, rather more like a hammer.  Wood people make their presence felt more openly than Water’s;  their voice, by far the most consistently emphatic of all the elements’ voices, comes straight towards us. Forceful as Water’s tone of voice is, it does not strike us as a series of finger jabs demanding the listener’s attention as does Wood’s voice, but as a rather monotonous mosquito-like drone circling round and through us, difficult to locate.  Wood’s words, on the other hand, often fall on our ears like miniature hammer blows, each word clearly enunciated as though each has a force of its own.

Wood always wants to “tell” rather than to communicate.  To tell somebody something is just as much a way of ordering things, this time through the structure of words, and we know that Wood wants order above all.  Wood’s telling can be described more as making a statement rather than taking the form of a discussion with others.  It wants to impart something to us, rather than enter into a dialogue with us, which is what Fire will do.  The emphatic tones with which it talks to us are its way of insisting that we hear what it is saying.  One of the ways we were told would help us recognize Wood people was to think we could visualize them as illustrating what they wanted to say by pointing a finger at us in time with their words, in effect saying, “You must listen to this.  This is what I am telling you“, much like a teacher in class.  To tap a finger down emphatically as they try to get a point across to their listener is very typical of Wood speech.

The words Wood utters can be experienced almost like some physical push if they are spoken with sufficient emphasis, and it is this emphasis which characterizes what we call its shouting voice.  The voice does not need to shout, though.  Clearly enunciated words, quietly spoken, with each syllable differentiated, can have the same effect upon us as words shouted at us.  Hissing can then be as powerful as shouting, if not more so, because of the unexpected venom which may hide behind its quieter tones.

Wood’s talking differs from Fire’s whose communications turn into a two-sided affair, moving from one person to another and back again.  Wood’s is in one direction only, towards the person spoken to, with far less emphasis upon the need for the words being returned to it by the person spoken to, or, if Wood is very unbalanced, with no attention at all paid to the need for discussion with the other person.  The image I have of Wood’s speech is to think of it like a tennis player practising alone by hitting a ball against a wall, where I see Fire as taking part in a game of two players, one on each side of the net, hitting a ball of words to one another across the net.

I learnt most about the different qualities of the elemental voices from an exercise I carried out with a class of students.  Each of us would read the same passage from a book whilst the rest of us listened with our eyes closed.  What surprised me was how different voices sounded to me when I wasn’t watching the person speak.  I knew each of the speakers well, but their disembodied voices, separated from any visual clues gained from looking at them as they spoke, revealed qualities I had previously been unaware of.  The voices that surprised me the most were the Earth voices.  I had not previously realised how seductive a typical Earth lilt is, and how its speech appears to flow so easily, almost without interruption, drawing me towards it.  I was lulled by its sing-song quality, which sounded almost like the singing of a soothing lullaby to me.  Thinking about it afterwards, I interpreted this as evidence of Earth’s desire to enunciate clearly what it wants its hearers to understand so that it can make sure that they do really understand and that what they are saying is truly being heard.  After all, the more clearly speech is formulated, the more clearly does what Earth is trying to convey come across to the listener.

Fire’s voice, too, surprised me, but in a quite different way.  I had not realised so clearly as I did after this exercise that there is a jerkiness to Fire’s speech quite absent from Earth’s.  Again, thinking as I did of how Wood’s and Water’s voices mirror what happens in nature, Fire’s voice, too, has some resemblance to the flickering and unsteady movement of something like a bonfire burning.  The most emphatic example of this is seen in Inner Fire’s speech, where the Small Intestine can be audibly heard striving to sort its words out as it talks, so that there will be many spurts and hesitations as it tries to get its thoughts into some order.

Of all the voices, Fire’s is the least like Metal’s, for Metal shows no hesitancy or unevenness.  Rather, it comes across as steady and clear, a true reflection of how Metal’s thoughts are always attempts to maintain the clarity it admires above all.  Appropriately for such a yin element, its voice has a quiet, low timbre to it, where the voices of Wood and Fire, more strongly yang, seem to lift their listeners.  It is this yin quality which is so typical of Metal’s voice, as it draws us down and down, as nature does in autumn.

Again, as with all the different characteristics of the elements, we have to practise listening to voices and learn slowly to interpret what our reactions to each are.  We have to ask ourselves what kind of a force do they exert upon us.  Is it a hidden, more oblique one (more typical of Water), or a direct, open full-frontal one (more typical of Wood)?  I am saying “more typical” because hidden within all the different elemental voices will be echoes of the other elements, which may confuse us if we forget how far elemental signatures meld with each other, just as the elements within us constantly interrelate.



28. The way in which different elements hold a practitioner's hands

I have noted another example of the different ways  in which patients’ body movements will show their elements from observing the way in which my hand is held as I take their pulses.  I was alerted to this one day when a patient almost defiantly tried refuse to hold my hand when I attempted to take her pulses. She persisted in tucking her hands away underneath the blanket as I reached for them, and was very reluctant to draw them out to allow me to take her pulses, even though she knew that this was an important part of the treatment.  I would then need to push the blanket aside to search for her hand.  As soon as I relaxed my hold on her hand, she would each time snatch it away and tuck it away again.

From a diagnostic point of view I felt that there might two possible reasons for this.  The first was that she was quite clearly resisting doing what was needed to be done to allow me to do my work.  This might be the result of some perhaps unconscious resistance to helping me in any way.  The second might be a sign of fear of some kind; her action could be said to be an attempt to hide herself away.  In deciding which of these two factors were being played out here (the resistance pointing me to the Wood element, the fear obviously to the Water element), I then examined my own feelings when she persisted in doing this not only once, but each time she came for treatment.  I realised that she was making me angry, something I would start to feel often in advance of her arrival.  I did not think that she was stirring the usual feelings I have in the presence of Water’s fear, which is gently to calm the patient down.  Instead I was getting increasingly irritated.  This kind of irritation is always a sign for me of a person’s Wood element getting to me, and making me in turn angry.  And Wood it indeed proved to be.

The way the other elements hold my hand whilst I take pulses is also very significant each in a different way.  Earth’s can often be a good diagnostic indicator, because it tends to want to hold me firmly, often as though clinging to my hand and unwilling to let go. Earth, after all, looks for comfort wherever it can find it, and the warm, close grasp of a hand clearly conveys this, is received gratefully and released reluctantly.  Metal people, on the other hand, though understanding the need to hold out their hands for pulses to be taken, will do this without any of the clutching Earth may do.  The hands will feel somewhat cool and detached, and are withdrawn as soon as they feel I have done what I need to do.  Fire’s will show more appreciation of the close contact with their practitioner than Metal does, but hold less tightly than Earth does, and will perhaps linger a little longer, enjoying this contact more than Metal does.

These may seem very slight differences, perhaps too slight to emphasize too much, but it is nonetheless through such tiny differences that diagnoses are made.  I have, for example, found myself realising that my diagnosis may not be as straightforward as I might first have thought it as a result of some, to me, surprisingly dissonant information my patient’s hands are conveying which does not tally with the element I had originally decided upon. 



Saturday, July 13, 2019

27. The way people walk

Since our observations will be filtered through our own personal spectacles, we will all observe the life around us from different angles.  I notice, for example, that I appear to be very aware of the way people walk, and can recognise them from a long way away just by the way they are moving and well before I can even see their faces as they come towards me.  This is therefore one of the things I look for in patients to help me with my diagnosis.  There may not be as much time to observe their walk as they move towards me in the practice room as there is out in the street, but if we extend the concept of walking to include the way a person moves in general, we can obtain a surprising amount of information even within the small confines of a practice room and the comparatively brief time we have with a patient.

My observation of movement was originally sparked by something my own practitioner at the time once said to me.  At the end of treatment I was told to get up from the couch and get dressed.  Apparently, although I myself didn’t realise this, I leapt off the couch in a hurry, reaching for my clothes almost before my feet had touched the ground.  “Goodness”, she said, “you are a speedy person.”  At the time, not having observed people as closely as I do now, I had not noticed that my movements are always quick, often much quicker than others around me, and speed up even more when I think somebody is waiting for me to leave and I assume, usually wrongly, that they are waiting impatiently, as I may well have thought my practitioner was.

Thinking back on this from my present standpoint, I realise that the speed of my springing up from the couch was closely associated with my fear, one that I have always had, that I am somehow outstaying my welcome and need to get myself out of the way quickly.  Fire, my element, is naturally an energetic element, but added to my natural Fire quickness was also Fire’s fear that it is somehow not getting something right.  I suppose this comes from its very heightened awareness of others and of others’ needs, and its desire to ensure that what it does is not upsetting to other people.  My rapid jumping up from the couch could then be interpreted as a clear pointer to the Fire element.  It took me some time to put this quick interaction in the practice room into context, and see it as pointing towards an example of the Fire element in action within me.

Another example was offered me when I was casually watching some golf on TV, and I suddenly noticed the golfer Rory McIlroy’s walk.  I can best describe it as a kind of jaunty stride.  It is certainly not a stroll nor does it appear to be a form  of hurrying, and yet I can find no better way of describing it than to say that he walks as though pushing the air aside in front of him, not in any way aggressively, but firmly.  It is definitely a stride, but done with a kind of joyousness to it.  He is so obviously an excellent example of the Fire element.  He can’t stop smiling as he walks, nor can he can’t stop wanting to make other people laugh.  You feel that if you were in front of him you would have to give way to allow this force of nature to pass by.

That set me thinking about the different ways the other elements walk.  I then compared McIlroy’s walk with that of another golfer who I diagnosed as the Wood element.  Wood, after all, is another very yang, outgoing element, with perhaps an even more forceful signature than Fire as its hallmark.  But this Wood golfer’s walk, though firm, differed from McIlroy’s because it did not have the same kind of joyous spring to it.  It was more of a firm placing of one foot in front of the other, a kind of a stomp, like someone claiming that bit of ground for himself, so that he made me more aware of the force with which each foot landed on the ground.  McIlroy’s stride makes me aware of the top of his body, as his chest pushes aside the air in front of him, the Wood golfer’s more of his feet conquering the ground.  This may seem a little fanciful, but I don’t think it is.  Wood, after all, emphasizes the feet, Fire the top half of the body.  If I think of a Wood person coming towards me, the word “striding” comes to mind, adding another distinctive layer to the concept of a walk.  Striding is first of all a vigorous activity, as though the air is being moved aside to allow the person through.  It is a robust form of walking, and is a good description of the kind of strong actions which Wood’s body enjoys.  If we are wondering if a person is Wood, therefore, it would be good to ask ourselves whether we can imagine them as striding rather than strolling towards that future which is where all Wood people want to head. 

All this made me think about my own Fire stride.  Did I have something akin to McIlroy’s walk, and did other Fire people, too, or had my observation not revealed a characteristic peculiar to all Fire people but only to the one?  I have not yet come to any satisfactory conclusion about this, but if anybody were to watch me walking along the street they might be surprised to note how often I glance in shop windows as I try and catch myself in mid-stride to analyse how I am walking.   

Whilst I am in the world of golf, I can also think of golfers who are Earth, and compare their walk to that of people of other elements.  Like many Earth people, I notice that they place their feet very solidly on the ground, and one could picture all their ten toes spreading out to find as much support for their body as they could.  I have often noticed this about Earth people, and realised that it is not surprising that an element with such a need for stability, literally for “ground beneath their feet”, should make their contact with this ground as firm as possible.

I can’t at the moment find any good example of Water golfers, though I am sure they are there, as all the elements are in every walk of life, but a supremely characteristic Water sportsman from another sport is Roger Federer, the tennis player.  There is a rhythm and sinuous flow to his movements which mimics that of what I am sure is his element, Water.  I would imagine that the Water element must be well-represented in dancers, for that reason.

Finally, an obvious Metal sportsman whose movements were not as flowing as Water’s, but were completely focused on the goal ahead was a former 100 metre Olympic champion, Linford Christie, whose almost trance-like stare as he looked up from his blocks ready to run always seemed to me to be the epitome of Metal’s determination to reach its goal.  Metal, like Water, is light on its feet, but does not float so much as glide.  It reflects a person that somehow wants to move upwards, and dislikes being tied to the earth, unlike its fellow element, Earth, which so clearly needs always to be tethered to the ground in some way.

 It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that it is usually Earth people who develop a fear of flying, often experiencing the moment when the aircraft takes off as something frightening.  It is no coincidence that the Earth command points are on the feet and legs, whilst those of Metal are on the hands and arms.  Feet can only leave the ground for very short stretches of time.  Hands are free to move away from the body, and, most significantly, can stretch up above our heads.  Both positions of the two elements’ command points symbolically represent their respective elements’ needs, Earth’s to anchor itself firmly to the ground, Metal’s to allow itself the freedom to explore.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

26. The elements and decision-making

Although Wood is the element which controls decision making, it is Metal which is by far the best element at making quick and appropriate decisions.  It wants to make them all by itself, with no interference from anybody else.  It is therefore a good element to give advice, because its advice is done in short, sharp sentences, and like any metal object cuts straight through to the heart of the problem.  Nor does it worry at all whether you take its advice.  It is always what I call a semi-detached, or indeed sometimes a totally detached element, standing apart by itself as it observes the world as though at one remove. The decisions it comes to for other people therefore benefit from a greater degree of objectivity compared with those any of the other elements.  They are not hasty, as Wood’s or Fire’s might be, but well-considered judgements. I always like to call Metal the wise element, with the wisdom acquired from experience.  Wood, the hastiest element of all, the one most in a hurry to get on with things, may be over-eager to close down the discussion and simply make over-emphatic statements based possibly on not enough evidence. Wood does not ask for the time for reflection which Metal thinks is necessary for good decisions.

It is one of the ironies relating to the different skills the elements show that often those functions which each is most responsible for, in Wood’s case, those of planning and decision-making, often prove to be problematic because of their importance for people of that particular element.  Since the focus of Wood’s life is to look ahead, plan properly for the future which it sees for itself, and make good decisions based upon these plans, then if any of the processes by which this planning and decision-making take place come unstuck however slightly, the effect upon a Wood person will be proportionately greater than if the same problems occur in a person of another element.  The more essential to the smooth functioning of a Wood person’s life is their ability to plan and decide in a balanced way, the more any impairment of this function will impact upon their balance and well-being. 

I have always found it slightly sad to think that because each of us has the characteristics of a particular element we are therefore vulnerable to specific weaknesses in this area if things become unbalanced.  Thus a Fire person, focusing much of their life on creating successful relationships with all around them, will be disproportionately thrown by any problems in these relationships.  The same is therefore true of a Wood person’s approach to making decisions.  If their ability to do so becomes weaker, the resulting failure to plan and make appropriate decisions will have a greater effect upon them than it would have for a person of another element, say Metal or Earth.

The extent to which the other elements are capable of making good decisions will also depend upon the level of balance of the Wood officials within them.  If, for example, a Metal person finds themselves in a situation which makes them angry, perhaps a colleague belittling them at work, then the anger this will evoke in them will also affect the balance of their Wood element, perhaps causing it to make some untypical decisions which it would normally avoid making.  In this way, imbalance in the guardian element spreads its effect over all the other elements.  And each element’s Wood element will react slightly differently because Wood remains a subsidiary element, and will always be influenced by the dominant element.

Let us then look at each element in turn to see how the decision-making their Wood element tries to make will be modified by that element’s own needs.  I have already written a little about how my own Inner Fire is affected by contact with the certainties the Wood element likes to express (see “Wood can’t afford to have doubts”).  With both aspects of Fire, Inner and Outer, the Wood element has a particularly strong relationship because we must not forget that Wood is the mother of Fire, and remains locked in the mother-child relationship throughout Fire’s life.  It could be that this close relationship places Wood’s function of planning and decision-making in a very strong position throughout Fire’s lifetime.  Equally, when Fire weakens for some reason, Wood may take on too powerful a role, unbalancing Fire’s ability to absorb the Wood functions properly. 

I always find it fascinating to think that by trying to bring balance between mother and child by the simple means of needling Fire’s tonification points, Fire will immediately strengthen sufficiently to regain control and thereby firmly put Wood back in its place.  This is after all what happens when we decide on the basis of a pulse reading that Wood’s energy is relatively too strong and its child, Fire’s, is relatively weaker.  Taking the excess energy from Wood and giving it to Fire will therefore have the effect of tamping down any over-exuberance of Wood and allowing a Fire person to use the function of their Wood element in a more balanced, more appropriate way.  It still amazes me that this is done simply by needling the two tonification points on the Fire element’s yin and yang officials (four points in all), and on both sides of the body, making a total of eight points.

Earth’s decision-making is of a different order from that of Fire.  Earth has a slightly more distant relationship to Wood than Fire, being at one further remove, with Wood now a grandmother to its Earth grandchild.  Perhaps this makes it a little more understandable that Wood’s influence upon its grandchild is a little weaker, and that this might help explain why of all the elements Earth has always seemed to me to be the one that takes the longest to make up its mind.  It is always worth recalling here the original diagram of the circle of the elements, the one with earth at its centre and the other elements circling around it.  One way of seeing this symbolically is by representing Earth’s position as a gate through which all the other elements have to pass, a kind of staging post rather than a destination in itself. 

It is significant that Earth does not really have a season of its own, in one system being allocated the final part of each season, a midway point between one season and the next, and in another, the one I inherited as a five element acupuncturist, being allocated a kind of a non-season, a half-way house between the predominantly yang seasons of spring and summer and the predominantly yin seasons of the dying of the year in autumn and winter.  This tallies with our understanding of the Earth element as being a constant intermediary between these two aspects of all things, their yin and their yang aspect, illustrated physically by the fact that the Earth’s yang official, the Stomach is the only yang meridian to run almost parallel with its yin sister, the Spleen down the front of the body. its most yin part.  The meridians only divide into the customary positions of yin on the inside and yang on the outside as they pass down to the lower part of the body.  I always find it significant that what is surely the most yin part of the body, the breast, is fed at the nipple by a yang meridian, the Stomach, as though emphasizing the dual nature of the Earth’s officials.

In response to my request through my blog for some information about how the different elements make their decisions, I received the following comments from Earth people:  “I would try to understand the situation from the perspective of the others involved.” And another comment: “I would take time to process all the ins and out of the situation and try to see it from each person’s perspective, in an effort to engage and connect with them.  I would hate the thought of upsetting one person and would empathise with how they might be feeling.”

I interpret these interesting comments as meaning that Earth has to wait until it has absorbed information from the other elements, before it is able finally to make a decision, to give out something in return.  In effect Earth has to process what is coming to it from other people before being able to transform this into a decision of its own.  It has to work on something that is given it, rather as the Stomach would have to churn along on empty if it had no food to process.

In this context, I always recall my surprise when an Earth patient of mine took a whole year to decide whether she wanted to study acupuncture, as it were “chewing the decision over” for all that time.  I know that I had to hold myself back from becoming irritated at what I considered her indecision, particularly as each time I saw her she would go over and over the reasons why she was not yet sure.  With hindsight I now recognize it as proof that she needed to wait until she had absorbed all the input into this question from all the other elements within her before deciding that now was finally the right time.  It was also interesting to me to note that she was so intent on thinking things through from every angle that she was surprisingly unaware of what was going on in the treatment room, to the point where, after almost two years of treatment including many back points, one day, on my asking her to turn round so that I could treat her back, she remarked with surprise, “You’ve never needled my back before”, and was amazed to discover that I certainly had.  As she put it, “I don’t really notice what you are doing”. 

In some sense I always feel that this is evidence of Earth’s capacity to be so involved in processing its thoughts, that it remains surprisingly unaware of the world around it.  Symbolically I see this as Earth safely cocooned within the sheltering arms of the other elements, “as snug as a bug in a rug” as it would always like to be.  This is likely to affect its ability to make quick decisions, because it is reliant on information coming from the other elements, almost as though it has no access to the outside world except through them, but instead lives at one remove.

That leaves me only with the Water element’s decision-making to consider.  Here I have comments made by several Water people to guide me.  The first told me that she tries to get an understanding of the whole picture as quickly as possible, “so that I am able to move on to working out a possible solution to getting past (or out of) a tricky situation.”   The second said that if she had time to think, she would encounter fear or hesitation, wondering if she would be able to navigate her way through without sinking, but if she was plunged into a difficult situation, she would, as she said, “give it all I had.”  Finally a third Water person told me that she would need to research the question properly, but that “deep down it’s clear what the right decision will be.  You just have to wait for it to rise to the surface”, a very Water-like description indeed.