Sunday, September 27, 2020

57. The Earth element 4: The Earth element and breastfeeding

The emotions that fly around the question of breastfeeding have always interested me since the days when I was of an age to bear children, and observed the problems people had with feeding their babies which I found I did not, and wondered why I did not and they did.  Now that I understand better the qualities of the element, Earth, which controls how we feed ourselves , and how we respond to being fed or not being fed, I have been able to find a wider context within which to place this very complex issue.  For it goes to the very root of our being, our ability to obtain for ourselves that which we need, at the simplest level merely to survive and not starve to death, and at the much profounder level to nurture ourselves by feeling ourselves cherished, enfolded by love and concern.

The food which is in mother’s milk can do both or neither of these.  In those who are starving, it may be insufficient to sustain life, though still providing love, and in the rich, it may sustain physical life but be insufficient to cherish.  In the society in which I live and for which I write, I do not, fortunately, deal with the physically starving, but I do meet, surprisingly often, the emotionally starving, and my dealings with these have helped me understand at a much deeper level the needs within all of us which the Earth element is there to satisfy, and which are touched upon at a physical level each time we feel ourselves to be hungry.

We all have our personal, often idiosyncratic, relationship to food.  From an acupuncturist’s point of view this relationship is understood to be determined by that most primary relationship of all, that to our mother.  The element we are dealing with here, the Earth element, is the one which can truly be called the mother of all elements.  As we know, this most primary relationship, that to our mother, also makes it the most complex of all, for it sets the tone for our ability to nurture ourselves and others for the remainder of our life.  This prime relationship scores deeply into all that we do, and affects all our interactions which concern the nurturing of others, above all that of infants.  This issue is made even more complex because that part of the mother created for feeding, the breast, has acquired, in the human, additional sexual functions which equivalent nourishing organs do not appear to have for other species.  We do not, for example, see bulls nuzzling at cows’ udders.

Much has been written about how or why human sexuality has developed as it has, but its effect upon attitudes towards the feeding of babies has been overwhelming, and differs from country to country.  The breast does not now simply offer the possibility of food, but much more complex pleasures as well, which are usually, although increasingly less in more open societies, supposed to be carried out in private, to the point where the breast as fountain of baby food has become entangled emotionally with more furtive, often hidden pleasures, confusing the simplicity of the breast’s original function, and often subtly downgrading it.

The picture is complicated further by the complexities of each of the individual relationships with our mothers that we bring with us into everything we do, not least, and above all, to the feeding of our infants or of those infants for whom we take professional care.  The often confused picture adds further layers to all the professional advice surrounding mothers in relation to how they should feed their babies, this advice, too, being inevitably coloured by an individual adviser’s own relationship to their mother, but rarely acknowledged as playing any part in the advice given.  Such age-old comments, such as, “You mustn’t spoil a child by feeding it when it cries”, often stem from the fact that those giving or accepting such advice are keen to deny the baby something they themselves have not experienced, the unconditional offer of food (and thus love) whenever they wanted it.  We are often disturbed by seeing others getting what we cannot have or have never had, and this is never truer than in the case of those watching a baby demand with all its being the unrestricted outpouring of breast milk, and being granted its wish.  Watch how people often look away from the sight of a baby’s uninhibited joy in receiving this boundless sustenance, and the mother’s joy, too when this sustenance is accepted unconditionally.  Do we have within us, unacknowledged, some jealousy of such a demonstration of perfect satisfaction, made no longer possible as we grow up, when our pleasures have to be tempered by more realistic expectations, and our mothers are no longer there to satisfy our needs?  And, if so, is that why there are so many books which appear to want, however subtly this is done, to deny babies such pleasures, apparently in the interests of babies’ health?

And then, too, there are all the issues surrounding our need to have our offers of sustenance accepted every time we offer something.  Mothers often feel rejected when a baby struggles to get away from breast or bottle, and continue to try to force milk upon the baby even when it indicates it is satisfied.  This is the flipside of the approach which advocates withholding food from the baby, but stems from an equal level of imbalance.  It also lies at the heart of many of the problems of obesity in babies and children, for mother (and it is still predominantly the female in a family rather than the male) can easily overfeed, particularly with artificial milk which flows much too quickly and much too uniformly richly from the bottle compared with the breast which has its own in-built filtering mechanisms, allowing it to become ever thinner as the baby’s suckling slackens.  I have watched mothers force the bottle on to a baby who is lying quite contentedly there and continue to try and coax it to drink more even when the baby turns its face away.  And on the face of the mother appears satisfaction as soon as the baby starts sucking again and dismay when the baby indicates it has enough but there is still milk left in the bottle, as though what she regards as her offerings of mother love have been rejected, rather than understanding that the baby’s stomach is full.

Different cultures have different attitudes to the feeding of babies, to do with very complex social and economic attitudes.  These include a culture’s approach to the natural functions of the body, to a mother’s place in society and obviously, too, the availability and promotion of powdered milk as a satisfactory, and apparently recommended, alternative.  Some countries, such as Sweden or Norway, for example, where breastfeeding is taken as absolutely the norm, cannot understand what they see as British mothers’ reluctance to breastfeed, having an almost 100% record of breastfeeding.  It is a pity that we in this country and in other countries, such as the United States, do not follow this praiseworthy example.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

56. 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 cafĂ© 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

55. 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.