Sunday, May 10, 2020

53. 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