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.