Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Earth element 3: We comfort eat when we don't get enough comfort from eating

Some time ago I was sitting in my favourite café enjoying my favourite meal of the day, which is breakfast – a small espresso with a drop of very hot milk and a fresh croissant to dunk into it.  I was contemplating the world around me, thinking how good it was peacefully to savour the taste of what I was eating, when a thought popped into my mind, which was how important it is to give ourselves the time to enjoy food.

That led me to think how little attention we often now pay to the simple pleasure of eating when we can dash into a coffee-house and grab a quick drink and a bite to eat on our way to hurrying to wherever we are going.   This made me consider what this is doing to our Earth element, our mother element which is there to nourish and support the other elements, and which needs to be nourished and supported itself if it is to do its work properly.  It has to learn how to do this, as all elements do, as they gradually take over the role their mother has taken on in the womb.   I now watch with dismay as mothers stuff bottles into small babies’ mouths in their prams in the street or even in buses amidst all the tumult and traffic noise.  Here there is none of the peaceful enjoyment of feeding time which we should be allowing our babies, and which help its tender little Earth element to assume its role.   

I wonder how far our lack of attention to the actual process of enjoying the food we put in our mouths, particularly in the early days of a child’s life, is one of the reasons for the sharp rise in obesity we see all around us.  The Earth element can only develop as it should in a loving, caring environment, where it is able to welcome food as something which warms and nourishes it.  It needs this to sustain a healthy relationship to food throughout later life.  If it is denied this comfort because its Stomach official is asked to snatch at the food that reaches it, it will try to hold on to as much of this food as it can, being unwilling to discard what is unwanted because it is not given enough time to process it.   Rather than satisfying it, then, the food that reaches it is tantalizingly snatched away as it is gobbled down in the hurly-burly of modern life.

This may perhaps be one of the reasons behind the success of so many TV cookery programmes.  Do we, through them at one remove as it were, learn to enjoy again, or even for the first time, the delights of food cooked as it should be, as though we are kidding ourselves that this is how we are feeding ourselves?  Is this, too, the reason for the runaway success of The Great British Bake Off, with a mother or a grandmother substitute for the whole country so clearly there in Mary Berry, as the TV immerses us in succulent images of home-baked cakes, so Earth-like a delight?

Somewhere hidden in this, too, may well lie the reason why I hardly pass a person in the street who is not holding a cup of coffee or tea in their hands, often making no attempt to drink it, a substitute for a mother’s nipple if there ever was one, as though their Earth element is sending out a constant reminder to them of its need for attention.

And is this, too, why I so enjoy sitting in a coffee house with my coffee and croissant, a reminder, perhaps, of home and hearth (and mother) all those years ago?

Monday, September 14, 2020

The Earth element 2: Our relationship to food - and what it tells us about the Earth element

I have been thinking a lot about our relationship to food in a five element context.  First, because I was asked by a fellow practitioner to help her treat an anorexic patient, and secondly, because I was made aware of my own often unbalanced relationship to the eating of chocolate.

Second things first:  I have always attributed my odd cravings around chocolate to my upbringing during the Second World War when there was no chocolate in the shops.  My family spent a major part of the war in what was then called rural Westmoreland in flight from the Blitz in London.  We rented a rat-infested little cottage by the lakeside in Bowness-on-Windermere, which had an old pre-war food kiosk in the road outside.  In its window there was a display box of what were obviously paper chocolates, getting dustier by the day over the four years we were there.  I would press my nose against the glass to look longingly at them, imagining to myself what they would taste like.  Chocolates remained rationed long after the war ended, and being from a large family, we were each only allowed one small piece once a week.  I always think that this may explain part of why chocolate is still something I yearn for, even though I can now buy as much as I like.  Interestingly I hardly ever do, but if I am given a box, I will be hard put not to eat it all one go, as though making up for all those years of deprivation.

Buried in this personal story, though, there hides a great lesson about our understanding of the element which controls our attitude to food, the Earth element, our Mother element, and the element of hearth and home, which shelters the Stomach official and all that involves our relationship to food. And this brings me now to the anorexic patient.  Food is inevitably associated with our mothers, and therefore with the kind of mothering, nurturing and feeding of body and soul which we each received as a child and which stamped itself upon how our Earth element deals with the food we are given.  With eating problems of all kinds, whether those associated with over-eating or under-eating, we need to look at the kind of nurturing our patients received in childhood.  If we look deeply enough, it will be there that we may find some explanation for what may later on have disturbed our patient’s approach to food.  In my own case, I feel it was no coincidence that, war child that I was, there were long periods when we were left in our grandmother’s care to free our mother to return to London for weeks at a time to help our father with his London work.  And in effect I must have felt for these times quite motherless.

It is revealing, too, to see the changes in body-shape which under- and over-eating cause.  An anorexic person can appear to be shrinking gradually back down to their shape as a young child, as weight drops off, muscle loses its tone and menstruation ceases.  An obese person moves in the opposite direction, as bulk is added;  it is as though they are forming themselves into a shape which accommodates not only themselves but somebody else inside their skin.  They appear to be enclosing themselves within something which could be said to offer the warm comfort of a home into whose arms they can sink.  And this great envelope of flesh seems to be able to offer them an endless supply of food for a hunger that cannot be satisfied unless the deep underlying needs can be acknowledged and understood.

We may think that such imbalances in the Earth element point to this element being the guardian element in each of these cases, but that is not so.  Any of the five elements, including Earth, may suffer from eating problems.  The anorexic patient I saw this week was of the Wood element, and my element is Fire.  In each case, though, it is our Earth element which takes on the burden (emotionally and physically) of whatever imbalance lies at the root of the problems.   

Finally, since the actual level of food intake is the effect, not the cause, of a patient’s imbalance, it is unhelpful to focus all our and our patients’ attention upon the amount of food consumed, as many therapies dealing with eating problems do.  Instead we need to help patients work out ways of dealing with the underlying problems, and this is done by strengthening the guardian element’s ability to restore balance. My craving for chocolate, I always think, is more to do with my mother’s absences from home and my fear that something might happen to her under the London bombings than to the rather sad paper chocolates in the kiosk window.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Earth element 1 (revised): Learning to build up a good relationship with Earth patients

My experience has taught me that what Earth needs is not a blanket response of sympathy of the “Oh, you poor dear” kind, but instead it needs to be understood.  It wants to be heard, and wants to be heard to the end, if possible without interruption.  Its thinking is a circular process, ending where it began and then beginning again.  If it is out of balance, it begins again with the same words and goes over the same ground, like an oxen tied to a circular grindstone, going round and round.  When it is in balance, this need to churn over the same thoughts is lessened, but never disappears completely.  Since its function is to process all things, thoughts as well as food, it has to perform this task endlessly as the other elements pass their energies to it for processing. 

If I remain clear that my Earth patients need to be allowed time to circle round a subject, even though I may have heard the same thing in the same words before, I am able to stand back and allow this circular movement to continue without getting irritated.  But being a quick thinker and talker myself, the slow chewing-of-the-cud which is Earth’s way of thinking can tend to irritate me and make me want to interrupt it if I am not careful.  So a warning sign goes off in my head with every Earth patient I treat:  Let the patient speak, Nora, and only interrupt or add your own comments when you have given your patient time to process his/her thoughts and express them fully in the way they want.

The Earth element’s position in relation to the other elements has always been somewhat equivocal.  It was originally shown on acupuncture charts as taking a position centre-stage with the other elements circling round it, before it later became part of the circle, and was slipped in between the Fire and Metal elements.  Its association with a season has also been a little idiosyncratic.  Its original position at the centre of the element was seen as connecting it to each of the seasons and their associated element in turn, so that a small wedge of time at the end of each season was regarded as being under its influence, rather than having a complete season dedicated to it.  Once it took up its current place in the circle between Fire and Metal, it is now associated with the intermediate season between the end of full summer and the beginning of autumn, a season we call late summer, as the year tilts from the yang of summer to the yin of approaching autumn.

There is something of this slightly ambiguous role in all that relates to the Earth element, for it constantly acts as a pivot between yin and yang and back again.  It is no surprise, therefore, that it is the only element which has both of its two meridians running only over the front of the body, which is considered a yin area, unlike the twin meridians of all the other elements which run both over the back and the front of the body.  It is also significant that its yang official, the Stomach, should pass over the nipple, surely one of the most yin places in the body, as if in so doing it unites both yin and yang within itself.
It is as though there are always two sides to Earth, reflected both in the positioning of its two meridians and in its close relationship to both yin and yang seasons.  In terms of its emotion, too, it can be said to alternate between expressing two different aspects.  We call its emotion sympathy, which has such a warm, giving tone to it, implying a person’s ability to feel themselves into the situation of another person and understand what they are experiencing.  Sympathy could be considered to be a very unselfish emotion, and Earth is after all the element which represents the mother who is expected unselfishly to feed her children.  But as with everything to do with this element, there is a paradox at its heart.  All elements are given specific burdens which represent the demands they make upon those who come under their patronage.  Earth’s special burden is that it cannot give to others until it has enough within itself to give.  If its larder is empty, it cannot therefore offer food to those around it.  It has both a need to give (a more yang-orientated activity) and a need to take (a more yin-orientated activity).   We need to understand this if we are to help our Earth patients.

An Earth friend of mine is a good example of this dilemma.   When talking about another person she often asks me, “Do I need to worry about them?”, said with a  kind of weariness in her voice.  I see this as a reflection of an appreciation of her role as supporter of others, the mother role, the person worrying about somebody else, but implicit within the weariness behind the words is the feeling that this is a burden.  It contains a question as to whether she has perhaps the right to shrug off this burden, as well as the question as to whether instead she ought to find the strength to bear it.  And here I am given a role to play, for in her question to me is implied the wish, indeed the demand, that I be the one to take some of the burden, in effect to absolve her of the ultimate responsibility of taking on the burden of worry.  By asking the question she has placed me, rather than herself, in the role of taking responsibility for providing the answer.  Hidden within the question, too, is clearly the hope that I will reply, “No, you need not.”

Earth people, then, can often experience others as potential burdens, as here in this example of my friend, with the fear that they may not feel themselves up to the task of carrying the weight of what they are expected to offer others.  This explains in part the plaintive note in an Earth’s voice, its singing, sighing quality carrying a demanding tone, a “gimme, gimme” tone, a kind of sucking inwards, as a baby bird sucks in food.  This is how I regard Earth’s need, and if we are to give that dominant emotion within it the word “sympathy”, then perhaps in many instances we could add (in brackets) “for me too, please”.

I have also found that the need to be nurtured which all Earth people have awakes an echo of the same need in me, because at some deep level within me I would like some of the same kind of nurturing I am being asked to offer Earth.  A few days ago, interestingly, an Earth practitioner told me that he finds his first interaction with his patients disturbing because he feels their differing needs tugging at his Earth element which is reluctant to offer what is being demanded of it. Once I am aware of this reaction in myself, I remind myself firmly that I am here for the patient and not for my own needs.  

Monday, July 27, 2020

The Fire element 4: Inner Fire characteristics

There are an almost unlimited number of outside pressures upon us exhorting us to be what we call politically correct (pc).  Those, like me, whose guardian official, the Small Intestine, forms the yang aspect of Inner Fire, are particularly burdened here, since it is my Small Intestine which has constantly to find a way of dealing with these pressures.  There are many things I have to face during the course of a day, but none so tiring, because so apparently insignificant, as what happened this morning.  This may seem to be a frivolous example of the Small Intestine at work, but, like everything our guardian element insists that we do, is also a very significant illustration of that official’s work.  So any practitioner reading this should take note, because it is only through understanding the load each official bears as it attempts to do its work for the good of the whole that we learn to help our patients.

So to this morning’s tiny incident:  I feel very strongly that I must support my two small local newsagents, one at each end of a long street, at the centre of which, and closest to where I live, is a Tesco’s.  (This comes under the politically correct heading no 1, which is “Support your local shops”.)  I have a weekly subscription to the Guardian/Observer newspapers. (This comes under politically correct heading no 2, which is “Keep buying newspapers to save them from the threat of the internet”).

The problem arises if 1) it is the weekend, as today, or 2) I am in a hurry, also as today, when it would, of course, be far easier just to pop into the Tesco’s just over the road.  At the weekend, one newsagent opens late on a Saturday and is closed altogether on a Sunday, and the other only opens for a few hours on a Sunday morning, so I have to remember to get there before it closes.  So today I set off virtuously on my long walk to one newsagent, forgetting that it was Saturday and not yet open, turned to walk back towards the other end of the long street, passing the doors to Tesco’s on the way.  I spent (or at least my Small Intestine spent) the 100 yards or so of this walk towards Tesco’s debating whether I would or would not succumb to laziness and pick up my Guardian there, or whether I should continue for another 5 – 10 minutes up to the other newsagent.  Giving myself the excuse that I was in a hurry, I gave in and popped into Tesco’s.  Each time I look at today’s Guardian now I feel a slight twinge of guilt.

To some people, this dilemma, which acts itself out surprisingly often, is a ridiculous waste of energy, but try to tell that to the Small Intestine.  If it feels something is wrong - here supermarket chains crushing small shopkeepers - it has to do something about it, even at the cost of all the apparently unnecessary heart-searching that it has to do (and remember the Small Intestine’s function is to advise the Heart to do what is right).
During the course of a day, there are many other similar examples of the dilemmas I am faced with.  These include things such as: should I buy a pint of milk from the little café I like to support but at a higher price than from Waitrose, which, as part of John Lewis, is an acceptable supermarket to buy from;  or does my little dishwasher use more water than if I wash my plates by hand;  or should I avoid walking past my usual Big Issue seller because I have just bought a copy from another one further up the road, and will he therefore think I have abandoned him? 

Not to mention, should I buy my books from my small local bookshop, rather than Amazon, or, a further dilemma, through the Guardian bookshop?  Which needs my support more, the local bookshop or the Guardian?  Or should I not buy the book at all, but order it from my local library, which also badly needs my support? (These come under pc headings 3 and 4, Support your local bookshop and Support your local library.)

I give below another example of the unnecessary pressures my Small Intestine official can put me under.  I travelled by train from London to Salisbury one day, not something requiring much mental exertions, one would think.  But with every train journey I take comes the moment as I walk along the platform when I have to decide whether I want to head for the carriage with the quiet zone, and opt for a journey theoretically free of people talking loudly on their mobiles, or just sit in an ordinary carriage and suffer.  As everybody now probably knows, I absolutely hate mobile phones, however necessary they have become, not only because of the complete disregard for other people their owners show, but also because they are increasingly cutting people physically off from contact with one another - ironically, because they are intended to do just the opposite.   So do I suffer a journey interrupted by the endless pinging of mobile phones, and forced to listen to conversations I have absolutely no interest in, or do I sit in a carriage in peaceful silence? 

Except it is rarely silent, I have found.  What usually happens is that somebody, finding that there are more seats available than elsewhere, plonks themselves down without seeing where they are sitting, and immediately switches on their phone.  Then there comes the moment when I look round to see if any other occupant is as annoyed as I am, which they, surprisingly, rarely are.  So I am forced yet again to gesture to the signs on the window, to be greeted usually, not by an apology, but by irritation, with the speaker either hurriedly grabbing his/her bags to walk to another carriage or walking through the carriage to the area beyond the door still talking loudly.

And this may happen not once but twice during a journey.  And if it doesn’t happen, then at every station along the route, as new passengers come, in I tense myself for another such encounter.  What an utter waste of my energy!  Wouldn’t it be far better for me, plagued as I am with bad hearing, just to turn off both hearing aids and sit in utter silence wherever I choose?  But I know that when I take my next train journey, I will go through the same rigmarole.

It is on occasions like this that I would love to be any other element than Inner Fire to allow my poor Small Intestine simply to relax and enjoy the journey, rather wasting so much time sorting things out in such an unsatisfactory way. But, sadly I often think, it can never truly relax, as it sifts and sorts, sifts and sorts to protect the Heart.  Oh, the burdens upon my Small Intestine of trying to do what is right!

Finally, one of my Inner Fire patients delighted me this week when she said, rather sadly:  “I run on my thoughts.  Other people seem to run on their emotions.”

Cars run on petrol, lorries on diesel, and she recognizes that she “runs on thoughts”. 

Yes, I thought to myself, that is an excellent description of what powers the Small Intestine.  It always has to think everything through, sorting and sorting its thoughts out to make sure that its companion official, the Heart, receives good advice.  I have described the Small Intestine official as acting as the Heart’s secretary, often doing its deep thinking for it, and then passing on what it hopes are only pure thoughts to the master of all, the Heart.

This is how I have learnt to distinguish Inner from Outer Fire, which is never an easy distinction to make.  If you think a patient is Fire, ask them some rather complicated question, and watch how they try to answer it.  Inner Fire often looks slightly puzzled, frowning a little as it tries first to take in what you are asking, and then start sorting out its reply to your question.  There will always be signs of a kind of slight hesitation, as if the answer is not easy to find, and the reply may sound slightly confusing, as though the patient is still sorting out what to say as they talk. 

Outer Fire, on the other hand, will perhaps take a little more time to answer, but tend to give a more straightforward reply, and one which is much less involved in its own thought processes.

Being an Inner Fire person myself, I have often said that I sort my thoughts out as I talk.  And now, hearing what my patient said, I agree that I, too, run on my thoughts.


Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Fire Element 3: The Fire Element's Four Officials

Being a Fire person, for whom the relationship of one person to another forms the central focus of their life, I have always been fascinated to see how humans interact with each other.  I remember as a child enjoying sitting in the corner of the room just watching how the different members of my large family dealt with each other.  I was always very sensitive to any changes in atmosphere, particularly if things became a little strained and uneasy, and, even as a young girl, I would try to work out for myself what was happening to make it so.  This was useful preparation for my similar work as a five element acupuncturist, and has stood me in good stead to this day.  Perhaps it was therefore inevitable that I would eventually find my way towards a calling which drew so deeply on my interest in people, and which fed my Fire element’s desire to find out exactly what is going on in the human interactions I am witnessing.

I have always had an image in my mind’s eye when I think about the Fire element, and that is of a mediaeval castle, surrounded by a moat and battlements. These represent the Heart’s outer protectors, the Three Heater and the Heart Protector, which work together, and which I have named Outer Fire.  The battlements have what is called a portcullis guarding its entrance from the outside world.  For those not familiar with the word, a portcullis is a heavy iron or wooden barrier in a mediaeval castle which is lowered down from above to cut off anyone trying to gain access over the castle’s moat, and thus to protect the castle from intruders.  At the very centre of the castle there is a further structure, again surrounded by its own fortification, which represents the Heart with the Small Intestine circling around it and protecting it.  To these two officials I have given the name of Inner Fire.

The beat of a heart is the first sign that a tiny life is slowly shaping itself in the womb.  It therefore seems totally appropriate that in five element acupuncture the Heart official should head the list of all the organs, and is designated by the first Roman numeral (I).  I have always found it slightly odd that in many branches of acupuncture it is the Lung which takes the dominant position, with the Heart relegated to a lower place.  In my eyes this robs the Heart of much of the significance acknowledged by its traditional name of Supreme Controller, the Emperor of body and soul.  Surely the Emperor, the ruler of all, must occupy the most important position.

There is something very comforting in this symbolism attributed to the body’s organs by the ancient Chinese, and still adhered to in a modern age, where such symbolism could easily be mocked as being somewhat primitive.  It is far from that.  Indeed, symbols represent an astute way of describing very profound thoughts in simple, easily accessible terms.  To think of the Heart as representing the Emperor in what we can think of as the kingdom of body and soul adds a level of significance to the physical organ itself which far outweighs its purely physical manifestation.  It recognizes its dominant role in the hierarchy of the organs, assigning to it a special position unlike that of any of the other organs, for it is associated with the two most important landmarks in each of our lives:  the emergence of life with its first beat, and the onset of death when this beat fails. 

This being so, it is appropriate that this most precious organ is always approached with a reverence given to no other organ in five element acupuncture.  To the Japanese, who inherited most of their interest in acupuncture from the Chinese, it became a sacred organ, its points not to be needled, or, if so, only with great care.

I don’t know where I got the image of a castle from.  Did one of my teachers at my Leamington College describe the Fire element in these terms, or was it an image I developed for myself to understand the different functions of the four Fire officials?  I know that it was already clearly imprinted on my mind by the time I started my evening classes in London soon after I qualified, so it has become a very long-standing representation of this element for me.  And I find it very useful as it helps explain for me some of the differences between the two Inner and two Outer Fire officials.  For each pair has a different function within the Fire element, has different characteristics, therefore expresses itself differently within us, and needs to be treated differently with its own groups of points.

Let us start by looking at the Heart, and thus with Inner Fire, as we should always do, since it is our most important official.  There it sits safely behind all kinds of barricades in rather lonely splendour, with only its companion official, the Small Intestine, granted close access.  It is cut off from the rest of the castle to protect it, and there is no direct connection between it and Outer Fire.  This is the inner sanctum of the Fire element, with the Supreme Controller, like a Lord of a Manor or an Emperor in the Forbidden City in Beijing, hidden well away from sight, and closely guarded by its yang companion, the Small Intestine. 

The Heart’s importance, and thus to some extent also its vulnerability, is signalled by the fact that, unlike any other organ, it is not only protected by its companion yang official, the Small Intestine, but by the two overarching functions of Outer Fire, whose areas of responsibility extend far beyond the Fire element itself to the body as a whole, those of the Heart Protector (Pericardium), guardian of the network of blood vessels, and the Three Heater official, which harmonizes all things and keeps the body’s temperature at the correct level to maintain life.  These two officials form an outer defensive ring, patrolling the castle’s ramparts and forming the outer perimeter of the heart’s defence system. Together these three Fire officials form a tightly-knit unit, sheltering the Heart in their midst.

The Heart Protector can be thought of as a guard always with weapons in its hands, defending the castle from attack.  Its yang companion, the Three Heater, ensures that every part of this defensive structure functions harmoniously and as a single unit.  These two officials are alert to any danger, and do all they can to prevent an attack upon the Heart deep within.   We can interpret this emotionally as an awareness of the risks inappropriate relationships can bring.  It is interesting to note how often an Outer Fire person may cross their arms across their chest when they talk to other people, a physical sign that they are trying to protect the Heart inside.  This image reveals some of the characteristics which the two Outer Fire officials show as they maintain their defensive attitude at all times.  This can manifest itself as vulnerability when they are weak, as though retreating behind protective barricades.  It is as if they are physically lowering the portcullis when danger threatens.

This kind of defence is quite unlike the response of the Small Intestine to pressure upon it.  Since it is the closest official to the Heart, it cannot afford to retreat in this way, but has to stay in control at all times.  Instead, its yang quality shows itself increasingly the more defensive it may feel inside.  It counters stress upon it more by verbal sparring and mental agility.  We know that the Small Intestine’s function is to sort the pure from the impure, rejecting impurities to protect the Heart.   It is therefore constantly responding to whatever situation it is presented with by trying to sift from it only that which it is good to allow through. When we are trying to distinguish the characteristics of an Inner Fire person from that of Outer Fire, this somewhat restless activity can be seen as one of its distinguishing features.  The slightly puzzled look in an Inner Fire’s eyes as it tries to sort out its responses to a given situation is a good clue.   Outer Fire is not puzzled by life, just alert to its dangers.

Despite all my good efforts, I still remain slightly puzzled when I try to pin down the differences between Inner and Outer Fire.  Perhaps, because I am personally so closely involved here, since the Small Intestine is my own guardian official, this may well be a distinction that I will never find easy fully to understand.  I have, however, fought my way through the Fire thicket until now I feel that I have a little more of a handle on the crucial differences between the two aspects than I had earlier on in my practice.  Working out what the distinction is has probably been so important for me, as it helps me understand my own Inner Fire better.   I have noticed people of other elements, and even those of Outer Fire, seem less pre-occupied than I am by trying to work out where the differences lie, or they may simply be able to recognize them more easily than I do, since they are able to stand back a little and observe from a distance whilst I cannot do that.

I have always found it oddly appropriate that my particular place within the kingdom of body and soul represented by the five elements should be within the one Fire official which is the closest companion to the Heart, the Small Intestine.   With the hindsight I have gained through my work on the elements, it has become clear to me how profound has been the influence my Small Intestine official has cast over how I live my life, and in particular over the path I have found myself as though compelled to take, first to study five element acupuncture, then to practise it and finally to teach it.  

I remember sitting in the classroom of JR Worsley’s Leamington College many years ago watching a video of him with a patient in which JR asked the patient a question.  I can recall seeing the young girl’s puzzled look as she cast around in her mind for an answer, before saying, “I’ll have to think about that.  I’m not sure…”  And I heard JR, muttering quietly to himself, “Only a II (Small Intestine) person would say that”, one of those significant comments that have stayed with me in the 40 years since then.  At the time, I, too, puzzled myself over what exactly had made him see the patient’s reply as being typical of the Small Intestine.  And, as with all things to do with my acupuncture life, there was a great personal significance to my having heard JR say that, for it has illuminated my understanding of myself and my own relationship to the Small Intestine official, and helped me understand in a very subtle way why my work has taken the direction it has.  Like JR’s patient, I, too, have to “think about things”, always initially being “not sure” what to think or say until my Small Intestine has had time to sort its thoughts out.

Seen from this point of view, the whole of my acupuncture life with its digressions into teaching and writing could then be said to represent a continuous attempt by me to sort out what my understanding of the elements teaches me about life, and then to express the results of this sorting process both in spoken and written words.  It is, after all, communication which is the Fire element’s chosen method of engaging with others.  I have therefore come to see myself as a walking, talking symbol of Inner Fire, for there could be no more appropriate official to help me than my own Small Intestine, with its insatiable need to sift through what comes towards it.  Hence the many different ways I have devised to say perhaps the same things, but each time from a slightly different angle, so that the whole picture I gradually build up is illustrated by as many new insights as possible.  It is no coincidence that I use many different types of communication to do this:  blogs, books and different forms of teaching, now principally large-scale seminars.

Echoing what the young girl in the video said, perhaps all my teaching and my writings can therefore be said to be continuous attempts to “think about” whatever puzzles life confronts me with.  This whole book which presents new thoughts about the elements is then the result of much intense mental and emotional activity, evidence of the workings of a lively, restless official ever conscious of the need to evaluate and re-evaluate every thing that it encounters.

As five element acupuncturists we have to be alert to the constant need to look closely at all those who surround us, trying to assess the influence within them of the different elements and their relative importance one to another.  We are on the look-out for subtle manifestations of different aspects of the elements (“Is it the colour white I am seeing?”, or “Is this person’s voice pushing at me”, or “Does this person make me feel nervous?”).  All our Small Intestine officials will here be involved in trying to sort out the minute differences which point to one element rather than another, and this is true of none more than someone, like me, whose guardian element is Fire, and whose place within the hierarchy of the Fire officials is Inner Fire.  You can say that it can be considered both a blessing and a curse to have been granted as close an association with the Small Intestine as I have. On the one hand it gives me some very specific tools with which to home in on an element, whilst on the other it often overburdens me with the constant need my Small Intestine has to question every conclusion I come to. 

When learning about the astrological significance of the star sign of Gemini, I remember laughing to myself because my chart is heavily laden with this sign, and I found it interesting to draw a parallel between the characteristics of Gemini and my own close association with the Small Intestine.  Both spend their time weighing up the relative importance of two contrasting things, in effect asking the question, “Is it this or is it that?”, an assessment of alternatives leading to much querying of any decision I make, as though asking myself, “Am I sure I am right?”.  As a five element acupuncturist this can be a powerful tool in helping me track down a person’s guardian element, for I will only be satisfied when I have obtained positive proof from the effect of successful treatment.  On the other hand (a favourite Small Intestine phrase!), it can lead to much soul-searching as the resultant lack of certainty feeds into uncertainty in treatment.  But then any element and any official within an element has both its positive and its negative side.                    

I have always felt how appropriate it is that the Small Intestine official’s meridian should end deep within the ear at SI 19, at a point where all the impressions pouring towards us from the world around are sifted before being transformed into the shape of thoughts and words with which we can communicate to others.  No wonder little children, inundated on all sides by the relentless volume of verbal information their little ears are asked to filter and make sense of, often fall prey to ear infections of all kinds as a kind of defence mechanism as they try to close their ears to too much verbal noise.  Adults, too, often suffer the same sense of being overwhelmed by a continuous flow of new information and impressions, perhaps one of the reasons why people are now so keen to keep their earphones clamped to their ears as they walk along the street, as though trying, probably in vain, to keep to a minimum the auditory stimulus these ears are subject to, or at the very least to filter what they hear through the channel of self-selected music which they hope will drown out all the other noise.  It was therefore no coincidence that, as a child, I suffered numerous serious ear infections, probably one of the reasons why my gradual hearing loss occurred so early on in my life.

I remember a tutor at the Leamington college laughing at me because I kept on asking, “How do you know that it is the Heart Protector/Three Heater side of Fire, rather than the Heart/Small Intestine side?”  I soon realised, however, that I had a particular problem in understanding this distinction because it affected me so personally, and things which touch us more deeply than other people can always be problematic.  The mere fact that I still puzzle over whether a patient of mine is Inner or Outer Fire is proof of my own close involvement with the question.  And probably nobody but an Inner Fire person could have spent as much time as I have over the years enquiring with such stubborn persistence into what exactly distinguishes the two. 

I have also noticed that though I have always been fascinated by trying to work this out, other people certainly are not.  When they ask about how they can recognize Inner Fire, I always reply, “Just look at me, listen to me, and you will see its workings at close hand”.  But I notice that very few of them listen to this advice, almost as if they find it confusing to be given such a clear example of Inner Fire right in front of their eyes.  What this apparent lack of interest has made me understand is that we all have different areas of interest, and that includes five element acupuncturists in their search to understand the elements.  

Tips for distinguishing the two sides of Fire from one another:

Outer Fire:

Easier than Inner Fire for people to relate to. (This reflects its time of maximum activity which is the evening, at the end of the day, as people start to relax.)
Relaxed company, spreading warmth and joy around it.
More articulate than Inner Fire, since it does not need constantly to sort out its thoughts.

Inner Fire:

More active than Outer Fire, since its time of maximum activity is around noon, when the sun’s yang energy is at its height.
More prickly than Outer Fire. 
Likes to spread warmth and joy, but is often prevented from doing this because it is concentrating more on trying to work out what needs to be done to help the Heart.
Can look puzzled by life and remains puzzled until it has worked out a solution.  Can therefore send out confusing signals which other people may find disturbing.

Despite these tips, it is not easy to distinguish the differences between these two sides of Fire.  This is why we always start by treating Outer Fire for a few treatments to strengthen the Heart’s defences before moving to Inner Fire if we feel we have not reached the core of a patient.

I like to think that Outer Fire asks "Is this person safe to love?", whilst Inner Fire asks "Is this person wise to love?”

Copyright:  Nora Franglen 2020



Monday, March 30, 2020

The Fire element 2: The Fire element's daily interactions with people

We may not ourselves be aware of how far each minute of our life lived amongst other people will be occupied with relationships of one kind or another.  I will use an example of this taken from the brief duration of a typical day’s journey into work to illustrate this.  We may be surprised to find how many tiny threads of relationship we knit together on this journey, from the moment we open our front door and turn to wave goodbye to our family, to an encounter with a neighbour, the interaction with a newsvendor and a ticket collector, the avoidance or acknowledgement of eye-contact with all those packed tight with us in the underground or bus, and finally the arrival at work with the greeting of our colleagues.  All these involve numerous small or large skeins of new and old relationships being sorted into their different threads.  This covers just a few short hours in a 24-hour period at most, and an infinitesimally small part of all the hours in one year in our life, let alone all the hours of all the years in our life.

In each of these encounters with another person, our Fire element’s need to establish a relationship wherever it finds itself with other people will be taxed to the full.  Just detailing all this activity is quite tiring, but not nearly as tiring as Fire may feel if, during these few hours between home and office, something occurs which puts excessive strain on this element, such as an argument before leaving home, an unpleasant encounter on the bus or the dread of a meeting with a feared colleague.  Here, the Fire element can experience such unpleasantness as blows to its heart, which cut sharply across its desire to spread warmth and joy around it.  Hence the potential for the physical heart to suffer if these blows become too frequent or too prolonged.

It is to this element that we owe our ability successfully to negotiate the myriad interactions with other people which pepper our every minute, and its health will determine how accurately we align ourselves with the reality of the encounters we make, and how realistically we assess their value, their negative impact or their relevance to us.  The constant level of hard work needed to help the Fire element in each one of us in its task of adjusting to all the demands others make upon us places a particular strain upon Fire people, for of all the elements this is the one which most ardently (oh, such a Fire word!) desires to make these relationships work.  That is, after all, what it regards as the main purpose of its existence.

This, then, is one of the ways in which we can learn to recognise people as being Fire people, and also one of the ways which helps us understand their needs better.  If we are of another element, and are surprised at what appears to us to be an over-emphasis on problems in many of Fire’s relationships, we may find this irritating because it is incomprehensible to our way of thinking,  It will therefore bring greater harmony to our own relationships with this friend or partner if we begin to understand the dominant role relationships play in their life.  Even if this appears to us to be an over-dominant, exaggerated role, we can do much to smooth the path of our own interactions with this person if, instead of being critical, we start to understand that they cannot stand back in their relationships in the more detached way that we, of another element, maybe can.  We have to learn that it is as impossible for Fire to do this as it might be for us to do the reverse, entangle ourselves in the complexities of relationships as they are doing.

What then are the ways in which we can help Fire in its relationships?  To a Fire person the answer appears so simple;  it is by allowing them to make us happy.  It wants to give and you have to be prepared to receive its gifts, even when they burden you.  To you these gifts may appear annoying, irrelevant or even overwhelming.  You may feel that you are being given what you do not need or, even worse, what you actively don’t want, but it will help you in your dealings with Fire if you understand that it is the act of giving which feeds it.  Fire may not consider how appropriate its gifts are, in fact will only do so in states of great balance, for it may be so intent on the gesture of giving that it does not have time to gauge how its recipient is reacting.  We can all fear gifts as much as welcome them, for they can make us beholden in ways we find disturbing.  All this is something which Fire does not naturally understand, but has to be taught to understand.  The burden of an unwelcome gift, and even sometimes of a welcome gift, can arise from the need to express gratitude the recipient may feel is being demanded of it, even though, to Fire, gratitude is not what it is seeking.  Instead it seeks the smile on the face, the warmth of eye in another person, and, if this is not forthcoming, it will experience this as a slap in the face, a rejection, something which can scar its heart.




Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Fire element: 1

Fire, the element of summer, can be thought of as being the time of the young adult, where Wood, our springtime, is the time of childhood and youth, and Earth, Fire’s child, provides our harvest time, when new life will be created in the shape of a child.  Fire’s position at the peak of the year, the height of summer, makes it in many ways the most visible of all the elements, open to the gaze of all, and exposed as no other element is to the full glare of the sun at its height.  Something of this openness is there in all Fire people.  It is as though they feel that they must reveal their true nature to all they come into contact with, having a need to be honest with themselves and others, and to be as transparent as they can be in their relationships to all around them.  With openness, of course, comes its inevitable companion, vulnerability.  If we do allow others to see us for who we are we run the risk of allowing too close to us those with less charitable motives.

I always find it strange writing about Fire, because it is my guardian element, and I often think that I may be too close to it, too familiar with all its weaknesses and strengths, to look at it as objectively as I do the other elements.  On the other hand, the very fact that it has been my close companion from birth means that I have had plenty of time to study it in myself, and as five element acupuncturists we must always use ourselves as providing the most revealing examples of the workings of the elements.
Each element has its own burdens.  Fire’s are associated with its overwhelming need to relate to others.  I share Fire’s burden of always needing to communicate with other people wherever I am.  I can do this through speech, of course, but communicating through our eyes is just as, if not more, powerful.  Yesterday the phrase “I wear people down with my smile” occurred to me after I had passed another person in the street, and, yet again flashing a smile at them, realised that they were reluctant to engage with me, indeed looked a bit dismayed at being asked to respond to my invitation.

When I look at myself I am aware of some dominant characteristics which overshadow all the others.  I list them here in no particular order, although, as with all my writings, an order may later emerge as I think more deeply about what I am writing.  The first characteristic of mine which I regard as very typical of the Fire element in all its manifestations is what can almost become at times a rather desperate need to make everybody around me as happy as I believe they should be.  Locked into this is the odd assumption that it is I who know exactly where another person’s happiness lies, a quality which could be said to verge upon arrogance.  I notice this particularly when I feel compelled to give people things, as I all too often do, and this is when I realise that I have often not considered whether these gifts of mine may be welcome to the person to whom I give them.  Recently I came across a saying which is very pertinent to this, implying that the burden of being given something always weighs heavily upon the person receiving the gift, and can make them angry or resentful rather than delighted or grateful, which is how I hope my gifts will be received.  The gifts Fire likes to extend to others may indeed breed resentment in those they are giving them to. 

The smiles Fire likes to give, too, are offerings as much as physical gifts are, and, if not encountering responding smiles, will be experienced as rebuffs.  Very often, then, rather than judging the lack of response as simply an indication that the other person does not want to engage in any closer relationship, Fire may rather unwisely redouble its efforts in an attempt to draw something from the person they are trying to interact with.  We have always been told that one of the fundamental characteristics of Fire is its need to relate.  It likes to think that it is acting unselfishly in its offerings to other people, but in effect it is no more unselfish in this respect than are the other elements, for the process of giving feeds its own need, just as much as the processes of standing back and observing feed those of Metal.  In offering the gifts of love it is at the same time feeding its own Heart.

Being unselfish, therefore, has its flip-side, which all Fire people have to beware of.  The giver can be so intent on giving that he or she remains unaware of how these gifts are being received, and, even if aware, must be sufficiently balanced to withhold them when it sees they are unwanted.  There are two aspects of an element involved in every interaction with others.  The one is the emotional expression of that element coming from the person and the other is its reception in the other person.  This applies to all the elements, but the scope for a conflict between these two aspects, the one relating to the giver and the other relating to the receiver, can seem particularly stark in the case of the Fire element, which more than any other element, needs to foster mutually satisfying relationships to maintain its balance.

I have noticed increasingly, in a way that I did not do before, the energy the Fire element shows in all it does, as though a spring within it is always coiled and ready to be released at each new encounter with the world.  It is even there in its smile, an outpouring of warmth towards others, very unlike the timid, passive or more withdrawn smiles of other elements.  I don’t think I had realised until now quite how much yang energy is contained in this most yang of all elements, whose season, after all is high summer, the yang high-point of the year.

I think we often regard Fire as being a gentle element, perhaps because we believe that the love that it brings to bear on all things is a gentle emotion, which it so rarely is, just as Fire is far from being as gentle as the impression it likes to give of itself.  I have recently been looking at videos on YouTube of famous Chinese people to take as examples close to home for when I teach in China, and this is when I was struck, so unexpectedly, by the weight of energy pouring out in all Fire’s movements.  Watching yet again the Chinese pianist, Lang Lang, a very clear example of Fire, it is so vividly clear in the way he plays.  Through his playing he reaches out forcefully to the conductor in front of him, the orchestra around him and the audience beyond him, almost as though trying to capture them with his joy.  I compared this with other pianists I know, some of whom will sit quite still and withdrawn at the piano, so yin-like, as though communing silently with the music and apparently, during these moments of their playing, unaware of the world beyond them.

So if you are a five element acupuncturist and are trying to work out ways of recognising Fire, watch out for the energy you feel coming towards you.  And then learn to compare this with the very different energies of those other two powerful elements, Wood and Water.  Wood does not try to share anything with you in the way Fire so ardently would like to do, but wants more to force itself on to you.  Water’s energetic thrust is much more elusive, being apparently so gentle at one moment, and then, like flood water, sweeping you aside in its rush to survive.

I am always delighted to discover yet again the elements’ ability to surprise me with the variety of ways in which they reveal their differences. 


Saturday, March 21, 2020

50. The Wood element: 2

I was with a Wood friend today and after a few hours in her company I realised that I wanted to ask her an odd question, which was, “Do you ever have doubts?”  I wondered why this question had popped into my mind and realised it was because the hours with her had in a subtle way undermined me.  She seemed so sure of everything she said, stating everything as an established fact.  It was as if I was listening to many statements all having the effect of a pronouncement, a kind of “this is so”, and “that is so” and “that is all there is to say about it.”
I asked myself why this had thrown me as much as it obviously did, because here I am now half a day later still slightly disturbed.  Mulling this over, as I always do when something happens which throws me off-balance, I realised that the strong certainty with which she talked about things had caught me on the hop by highlighting what I felt were my own uncertainties and making them look like weaknesses.

If I look carefully at the times when I think of myself as uncertain, it is not in fact the result of weakness, rather the reverse.  It represents merely the necessary time my Inner Fire (Small Intestine) needs to weigh up possible alternatives, because I always have to allow myself to see two sides of every situation.  In contrast to Wood  I am asking myself: “It may be like this, but I must also consider whether it may on the other hand be like this.”  And then my Inner Fire carries on with its ceaseless work of sorting what it is right for the Heart to do.

The Wood element, on the other hand, has other priorities.  Wood does not have the luxury of weighing up pros and cons.  It is there to get on with things, and its decisions have to be rapid and taken in a “no turning back” kind of spirit.  Once made, these decisions have to be put into effect as soon as possible, and once it has decided what its opinion about anything is, that fixes it, if not for all time, then certainly for the immediate future.  During the time I spent with my Wood friend, I heard many statements of fact which sounded as though they were my friend’s firm opinions.  With each of her emphatic statements I could feel any confidence in my own certainties fading a little, as my Small Intestine tried to take on board what was being so firmly offered as fact.  It often felt itself swayed by these dogmatic statements because it couldn’t give itself enough time to assess whether at heart it agreed with them or not. 

This was another important lesson for me on the differences between Wood’s ability to make decision and my own, and also gave me further insights into Inner Fire’s potential weaknesses, as well as its potential strengths.  These are related to its need always to see the other side of the question and therefore to evaluate the relative merits of the arguments being presented to it.   I feel that Wood has no such hesitations.  Once having made up its mind, that is it.  And as I put it myself, it can’t afford to have doubts, because doubts will hold it back from acting, and action is above all what Wood wants.

I learned a further lesson about the Wood element from one of my Wood patients who told me, rather aggressively, that he found my presence challenging, and, being also an acupuncturist, he attributed this to my being, he thought by mistake, of the Wood element.  Although I have learnt over the years never to show that I am taken aback by personal comments from patients, I found that I reacted inside myself with quite a vehement desire to answer back sharply, and had to hold myself back from doing so.  Afterwards I found that the episode had disturbed my inner equilibrium, and I tried to work out why this was.  By dint of some careful self-examination, I realised that this patient had projected on to me his own dislike of being challenged and had in effect made me angry, often the effect Wood can have when the Wood person or I are out of balance.  I then analysed my feelings to see what they told me about anger in myself and how far my reaction had been unbalanced, before finally using what I learned from this as a way of understanding not only the Wood element better, but other elements within me, such as Water (my fear of the anger) and Fire (my own element’s reaction to stress).  An interaction of just a few minutes therefore became through this a valuable lesson about the part of me which reacted to the Wood element, as well as about Wood and other elements in general.

Sometimes I come across very appropriate quotations about the elements in books that I read which I like to collect.  Here is one about the Wood element in a book by Helen Dunmore called The Spell in Winter :

I was bad at anger;  I’d always been bad at anger.  There was something pitiful in Miss Gallagher which muddled me.”

I, too, have always been "bad at anger".  That doesn't mean that I don't get angry.  I certainly do.  But my anger leaves a strong aftertaste in me which it takes me a long time to get rid of.  It is as though I am ashamed of feeling this emotion.  The "something pitiful" which the protagonist in this book feels is something which resonates with me, because I also tend to find quite legitimate excuses for the behaviour in people that has provoked my anger.

Thus do I learn a little more each day about myself, about my Inner Fire and about my relationship to the Wood element.

Finally, here is a lovely illustration of Wood’s sensitivity to the effects of acupuncture treatment.  It would help us in corroborating some of the principles according to which we work if patients were able to report precise effects when feeding back on the outcome of any particular treatment, but it is rare for patients’ assessment of improvement (or otherwise) to be so precise as to enable us to relate this to any particular treatment rather than to a combination of treatments.  To encourage us, however, it does, occasionally happen that a patient may say something like, “whatever you did last time made me feel marvellous (made my backache better, helped me cope better)”.
On rare occasions, feedback can be even more specific.   I treasure still, like some beacon in this particular wilderness, the memory of a Wood patient who, when I needled Gall Bladder 40, described immediately in perfect detail the pathway of part of the Gall Bladder meridian.  He traced the movement of energy down to the toe and back up along the outer leg, where with great accuracy he showed me the odd lateral dip the Gall Bladder is said to take at mid-calf, and then continued to draw a path up over his knee to his abdomen, finally arriving at his head, where he said, “I seem to feel something up here at the side of my eye.”  I have had other Wood patients describe the line of some movement of energy along a Gall Bladder pathway in this way, but none so precisely as this.  It may well be that Wood, the element which structures us, can feel the structure of its own shape reasserting itself as more energy, like sap in a plant, courses through its pathways as a result of treatment.   I have not had such detailed descriptions of the passage of energy from patients of other elements.                 

Sunday, March 15, 2020

49. The Wood element: 1

I like to keep a picture of each element in my mind as a template against which I can measure those I meet, and from this I recognize whether they do or do not fit into this template.  So here let me first discuss my thoughts about the Wood element.

I always think that one of Wood’s most important functions is that of bringing order out of chaos, adding structure to the unstructured.  Its desire is to ensure order wherever possible, for it wants a world on which it can impose its own structure and design upon what might otherwise be disorganized and unstructured.  We order and arrange things into boxes when we want to tidy up our homes or our offices. This seems to me to be an accurate image of what Wood wants to achieve in life. The picture that comes to mind here are those TV pictures of bank employees leaving their offices with all their working possessions stuffed into boxes after the banking meltdown in 2009 as the banks closed their doors for the last time.  In a similar way I can see the Wood element trying to enclose everything it does within the narrow confines of individual boxes.

It might seem as if a bud, which is Wood’s signature in nature, appears to have a much less clearly defined contour than the boxes I have just talked about, but in fact each bud is a very structured object, whose shape has to adhere to parameters strictly laid down if it is to grow properly into a fully grown leaf, plant or tree.  Without this well-planned structure, laid down in what I like to call the DNA of the seed, a bud will wither and die. This is a symbolic representation of what the Wood element within us needs to offer us if it, too, is to fulfil the functions it is there to fulfil.

A world in which things move in straight, ordered lines, have their allotted place and move forward in their allotted ways seems to me to be an image of Wood’s ideal world.  If I were to put this feeling into words, I would describe it as someone saying, “And this is, and that is so, and yet again this other thing is so,”, forming a  kind of movement at right angles to itself, and in words always spoken with precision and with emphasis.  When I represent Wood graphically to myself, I visualize it as a series of straight lines, which run up and down, from right to left and from back to front, as though forming the squares of a Rubik cube which, when rotated, re-forms itself again into a further small square. 

Wood always tends to speak with precision and with emphasis, creating a sense of order with its words.  It can be said to want 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.  Wood’s telling something can be described more as making a statement, rather than taking the form of a discussion with others. This is where its talking differs from some of the other elements, such as Fire, whose communications become 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 to be 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, whereas I see other elements as taking part in a game of two or more players, one or more on each side of the net, hitting a ball of words to one another across the net.

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 to push against the other, which we can see as representing the push behind all that Wood does.

When thinking of the Wood element it is always good to have in mind the image of nature outside on an early spring day.  We can see buds pushing themselves up from below the ground as though summoned into the warmth and daylight as the cold dark days of winter yield slowly to lighter, warmer days.  I did not fully appreciate the force required for each bud to break through the often hard soil to emerge above ground until one day I happened to be walking across a concrete wasteland where a building had once stood, and noticed tiny little patches of green here and there below my feet.  On examining them more closely I realised that they were the first vestiges of little plants, and was amazed to see how these tiny growths had managed, each individually, to break through what I could now see was a very thick layer of concrete, perhaps at least 1 metre deep, cracking it open to allow the plant to reach the sunlight.  Over the next few weeks I watched these tiny growths become taller and taller, until when I returned a few months later, I found small trees, now a few feet high, their roots embedded deep within the concrete, but creating large cracks in it as they grew.  The fact that a single bud has the power to split concrete apart in this way has always remained a vivid illustration for me of the force impelling the Wood element upwards and forwards.

And a sense of movement must always be associated with this element, for movement of all kinds is what Wood enjoys.  It can be said often to appear to enjoy activity for activity’s sake.  One of the traditional qualities associated with it is that it controls our tendons and ligaments, the parts of our body which dictate our movements.  They tighten and relax as they propel the body forward, back, up or down. If you clench your hand it is the Wood element which first tightens your fist and then relaxes it to allow it to lose its tension.  If you do this a few times in succession, you will feel how much effort is needed to keep this repetitive movement going.  Eventually your muscles will be too tired to respond to your brain’s command and simply allow the tendons to lie still there as though defeated.  All sportspeople have to concentrate much of their work on honing the Wood element in themselves.  Just watch footballers out on the pitch before a match gradually exercising their muscles to a condition which will allow them to work at full strength for the whole of the match.

We are usually quite unaware of all the normal effort involved in moving around in our daily life, unless we are ill, when every attempt to move is exhausting, or when we are too tired to make the effort and are just glad to sit still.  But there, hovering behind each everyday movement we make, is the Wood element doing its busy work without our noticing it.  We can see this easily when we watch a body on the move, as we observe Wood controlling every stage of this activity, from a blink of our eyelid to the lifting of a leg as we walk.  But we have to remember that the elements also do their work in all the other spheres of our life, those which relate to our mind and our spirit.  Wood’s influence extends to these, too.

It does this by adding impetus and strength to our mental activities and emotional impulses (those of our spirit).  If we translate this image of a Wood person striding strongly into the future into a mental image, we can see how the same impetus which guides our movements can guide our thoughts and the way we respond emotionally to life.  It is likely that a Wood person may not wish to dwell too long upon the intricacies relating to our approach to life, the decisions we need to make, the way in which we distinguish what is essential from what is not essential for us to do.  They are more likely to want to move on quickly to a new thought, a new decision, a new approach to life, not wishing to dwell too long in one place in the same way as their feet itch to move their body forward.

If we want to deepen our understanding of some of the qualities of the Wood element, it will be good to look at its role in forming the initial phase of each cycle.  Let us think first of the impetus needed to change things from a quiescent phase as they slow to a stop to a more active phase as they start up again at the beginning of their next cycle.  I have many mental images of the way the different elements display themselves.  I find a picture of the Wood element that I have is very helpful here, which is that of an old steam train.  We can all visualize the train gradually coming to a halt;  its engine slowly stops, releasing steam, its wheels slow down, each becoming visible as it emerges from the blur of its movement at speed.  The train appears to be releasing its breath until at last, with its final puff, it comes to a halt.  The movement from slowing down to halting leads forward from what we can call the Metal phase of the train’s cycle of movement, its ending phase, to its Water phase, almost its dormant phase, as movement stops and all falls quiet.

What then will need to be done to re-invigorate the train’s energy to allow it to be re-started?  All kinds of bustling activity will have to take place.  Similarly much effort is involved in moving things forward from the passive Water phase of winter to the active Wood phase of spring.  It is to Wood’s natural energy that we owe the ability for things to restart in this way.  In the steam engine, all is activity, as coal is heaved manually into the furnace, shovelful by shovelful, to power the furnace which will drive the engine forward.  The driver and fireman leap into action, as though trying to keep up with the fire devouring all that they feed it with.  Gone is the temporary peace of the stationary train.  All is hurry and bustle.  Activity has replaced non-activity.  Thus does spring’s Wood energy bustle in its attempts to bring life back to the apparently lifeless energy of winter.  Keeping this image in mind is a very practical way of understanding the power that Wood harnesses in restarting all cycles.   

What Wood finds difficult are situations which challenge its need to stay on the move, things which force it in some way to come to a halt.  We can visualize examples of this in physical terms as situations in which Wood people are prevented from moving, for example if they work in a sedentary office job.  This was true of a Wood patient of mine who felt that her working life was spent as though she was chained to her desk.  Inevitably this had an effect upon her health, and might indeed have been regarded, as I did regard it, as the main cause of her physical symptoms.  All of them, from her migraines to her back-ache, disappeared after treatment of her Wood element, and this treatment included my suggesting that she would benefit from changing her work at a desk for something more active, if this was possible.  I found it almost laughingly appropriate that when she returned for follow-up treatment some months later she told me that she was now happily working for a gardening company which involved much time spent in the open air tending to the growth of plants, such a Wood-like occupation.

It is always good to think of the elements as together creating a complete cycle of activity, with each element allotted its specific activity within that cycle.  I think of them as each waiting for the element before it to do its work before it takes over for the time of its activity.  In terms of the year, this reflects its particular season, before the change of season dictates that it is time to hand over to its successor element.  Because the demands of our element so dominate our lives, I feel that each of us is reluctant to allow our element to give up its place, as each season has to the next in nature.  In a profound way, each us, so closely tied in with our particular element’s demands and wishes and under its power, would much prefer to bask in the blessings our season showers us with, not merely for that one season each year but for the whole of the year.  In my case, Fire might like to enjoy a lifetime of summers, and Wood would bask in the joys of the year’s renewal in a lifetime of springs.  But, as we know, this can never happen, so instead each of us must make the most of what our element’s season offers us once each year.

We therefore also have to take the greatest advantage of where our element places us in terms of the cycle of any activity.   Wood is the element that most enjoys doing things just for activity’s sake, and is less interested in completing an activity that it enjoys starting.  The bud, after all, hands over to the summer, Fire’s season, to draw it up to its full height.  In a similar way, Wood people are not as interested in completing what they have started as perhaps we would assume they should be.

I had a Wood patient who was happiest in his retirement working on repairing a boat he had bought.  On asking him what kind of a boat, I was not surprised when he answered, “wooden, of course”.  Interestingly, his wife complained that he spent all his time fiddling around with different bits of the boat, but never actually completed it sufficiently to take it out on to the water.  I did not find this odd.  Wood people like working on things (particularly, as here, if they are made of wood), but are not so concerned with finishing them.  They just enjoy the doing of things, often just for doing’s sake.  Other elements, above all Metal, want things to be completed, or need to have things complete.  For Wood, completion can bring to an unsatisfactory conclusion what they most enjoy, which is actively continuing to carry on doing what they are doing.

A Wood patient told me this week:  “I always have these bright ideas, but then I never do anything about them.”  If we translate this into an image of the Wood element in nature, this is like shoots popping up on all sides above ground in spring, many of which simply get trampled underfoot without growing to full size, with only a few gradually given the time and space to develop into mature plants.  I cannot, for example, imagine any other element expressing itself in these words.