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.