Sunday, December 27, 2020

67. The Water element: 2

Water people tend to make us feel uneasy, even if they themselves look quite calm.  They can have a kind of frozen stillness, which can change into a leap into action if they feel threatened, as when something unexpected happens.  Then their eyes are the give-away.  Water eyes are always wary, watching everything carefully, and ready to swivel away to look at anything unexpected which might be happening to the side or behind them.  They can then suddenly look startled, even though the rest of their face can remain surprisingly still.

I see Water’s colour as being of two kinds.  There can be a very dark shadow over the whole face, in men often accompanied by the typical blue shadow around the beard area which Richard Nixon showed, particularly when he was under threat politically.  You can then think of the whole face as being dark, even though when you look closely you wonder why you think that it looks so dark.  Then there is the other kind of Water colour, when it has a kind of translucence, so that other colours show through it.  I like to think that the dark-bluish colour is the Kidney, the more hidden, deep yin aspect of Water, whilst the translucent, lighter colour is the Bladder, its more outward-facing, flowing yang aspect.  Those who have the Kidney as their guardian official give the impression of being much like still waters, which run slowly and deep, whilst Bladder people are much more like quicksilver in their movements and thoughts.

The Water element’s yang official, the Bladder, has the widest reach of any meridian, even dividing into two parallel pathways as it spreads over the back, and having the greatest number of acupuncture points, 67 in total.  Its function is that of being in charge of the storage of water, whilst the Kidney, its yin companion, is more simply called the controller of water, with a mere 27 points.  But even this number is the most of any other yin official.  Merely by adding together the total of Water points we are made aware of Water’s importance to the whole energy network, understandable, when we remember that our bodies are composed of more than 80% water.

I have grown increasingly better at detecting a Water smell.  It can be very obvious if there is great imbalance, when the smell of stagnant urine can be quite clear.  At a more balanced level, I have found that when I am standing by the couch, what comes up to me is a feeling that there is some dampness around, as though I am near a pond or a bath full of water.  This is when the smell just wafts upwards to my nose.  This is certainly not an unpleasant smell at all, which the word “putrid” seems to indicate, but instead just a rather pleasant dampish smell.

I find the sound of a Water voice is rather tiring to listen to for a long time.  It has a droning sound, which seems to drill into me, but in a more hidden, less direct way than the force in Wood’s voice.  Listen to Bob Geldof or David Beckham talking (extracts on YouTube are an excellent way of doing this), and this drone, like a bee buzzing away at us, becomes very clear.

But, above all, we need to examine how we feel in the presence of a person, and ask ourselves whether it is we who are experiencing a kind of uneasy fear, and, if so, whether this is the fear in the other person, well-hidden.  It is important to remember that Water will always try to hide its fear, transferring it instead on to us.  Water is therefore often misdiagnosed, as it is very adept at hiding itself behind other elements.  When I think I can see many different elements in one of my patients, then I have found it is often Water that is the element underlying them all.


Sunday, December 6, 2020

66. Showing patients that we really care

Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, is said to have replied to a reporter who, seeing her looking exhausted, asked her simply, “Are you OK?”, by saying, “Thank you for asking.  Not many people have asked if I’m OK.”  She then went on to say that the new normal, with masks concealing faces, was forcing people to look into each other’s eyes, adding, “For the first time in a long time, as human beings we are really seeing one another.  Are we OK?  We will be.”

In this short exchange of words, she pinpointed two very significant areas of interest for five element acupuncturists.  She emphasized the importance of giving another person the chance to say honestly how they are feeling, and she is aware of how important eye contact is for every human interaction.  By chance this second point also illustrates what I wrote in my recent blog about the Metal element “Are we living in an age of Metal?    Both these examples illustrate something which should remain constantly at the forefront of our minds in our dealings with our patients, which is the importance of showing them that we are genuinely concerned to find out how they really feel.

Obviously Meghan Markle’s comments hit a nerve, because I have just read a reader’s letter in a newspaper in which the writer says, “Can I suggest that when you meet people who are grieving, you ask, “How are you today?”  My husband, who died from motor neurone disease in 2017, said this acknowledged that some days were better than others.”

In this context, I often recall the many times a health worker, be it a doctor, a nurse or a dentist, has offered me the standard greeting of “How are you?”, which I never know how to reply to.  Does he or she really want to know how I am, as I walk into the consulting room, and well before I have seated myself?   Are they, or are they not, expecting me to answer this question truthfully?  Surely not.  And yet the conventional greeting has already opened up a slight gulf between us, making it more difficult for me to say what I had come to say.  Every time I am greeted in this way I feel a tiny stab of disappointment, because I would like to answer genuinely, but realise that an honest answer is not being expected of me.  I only remember one occasion, which stood out so sharply because of its rarity, when a nurse unexpectedly said, “You hate being here, don’t you?”  This was a really welcome moment of appreciation of how acutely she had been observing me, and I can still recall the relief I felt at realising that at last somebody was interested enough in me to see beyond the conventional mask we all put on.  I always emphasize to my acupuncture students how important it is not to engage in this kind of idle chat as they greet their patients, but wait until they have settled themselves down and are composed enough to answer such a question honestly.  

We always say that the purpose of a good five element diagnosis is to help patients feel safe enough to remove their mask, and it is our eyes, those windows of the soul, which show our true selves the most clearly.  At this time of COVID 19,when the physical masks we all now have to wear hide all but our eyes, we are given a wealth of opportunity as we walk past people in the street to catch glimpses of the real people through their eyes.  We should take every opportunity to use these brief interactions to try and help us diagnose the messages the different elements are sending us, for each element will look out at the world in a different way.  Each encounter can then become a useful diagnostic lesson if we choose to use it for this.

What distinguishes a merely competent practitioner from a really good practitioner is the degree to which they are genuinely curious about every aspect of their patients’ lives.  I think that having a good memory is a blessing for any therapist, because our interest in building up a complex picture of our patients’ lives helps us establish close and lasting relationships to them, to the extent that not long ago I happened to meet a patient in the street after many years had passed, and could immediately recall that she had problems with one of her children.  It was fortunate for my future calling as five element acupuncturist that since childhood I have always been fascinated by human interactions, enjoying watching groups of people wherever they gather, so that although my memory for facts is not very good I can build up very clear pictures of my patients’ lives which stay with me for years.  That is a skill we could all usefully develop if we wish to help our patients.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

65. The Water element: 1 The most mysterious element of all

I find it interesting, and significant, that I seem to have written the least about this most mysterious of elements, Water, than I have about the other elements.  Looking at my writings, I realise that the number of words I have dedicated to the different elements has varied.  Perhaps it is understandable that Fire has occupied my thoughts the most, and that may not just be because it is my own element, but additionally, and perhaps more importantly, because it shelters what are in effect twin elements, Inner and Outer Fire, each with its own circle of influence and its own paired officials.  Though they both quite obviously have the same sensory signatures, they are distinct enough to have characters quite their own, to the extent that I was delighted one day to see JR Worsley nod his head slightly when I dared to say, “Really I think there are six elements, not five.”

If I count up the numbers of words I have written about each element, there appear to be more about the two yang officials, Wood and Fire, a little fewer about Earth and increasingly less about Metal, before finally dwindling down to the least number for Water.  I have concluded that this is probably because it is much easier to write about Wood and Fire, because their yang nature makes them very visible, whereas the more yin characters of first Earth, then Metal, and finally the almost ephemeral of all, Water, are less easy to grasp in words because of their more hidden, yin nature.  Or at least I find them so. 

When I have given talks about the elements, inevitably I always start with Wood, since its upfront character appears to be the simplest for me to describe and  it is therefore the easiest element for my audience to identify with.  I once tried to change my routine and started with Water, but I felt very uncomfortable doing so, particularly as I could feel that I was losing my audience as I stumbled through my description of Water’s qualities.  In a similar vein it is much easier to talk about the glories of spring with all nature’s abundance on show than the unremittingly passive picture of the dark days of winter, Water’s season, with a landscape lying apparently fallow for months, often buried beneath snow.

Water is the element that I always feel quite wary of.  And this is such an appropriate word to use when describing anything to do with this element, particularly if you are, like me, of the Fire element.  Because Fire is always slightly apprehensive whenever it comes into contact with Water, just as Water is equally just a little nervous when it comes into contact with Fire.  I believe, however, that Water has this effect upon people of all elements, but perhaps to different degrees.

It is always good to think of the way these elements manifest themselves in the natural world, for their appearance and their actions in nature are why the elements have originally been given the names that they have.  There is something which makes us think of the earth beneath our feet when we think of an Earth person, just as there is something very specific to our thinking about metal objects or things made of precious materials, such as gold or silver, when we think of a Metal person.  It is therefore not by coincidence that the ancient Chinese named the five elements as they did.

Everyone should at some level be wary of Water, because in its often silent and rather hidden way it is quite remorseless in ensuring that it finds its way to whatever goal it has set itself.  If you think of the force of water in the natural world, you can see that it has the ability to transform itself in seconds from being something as apparently harmless and peaceful as the smooth surface of a small pond into becoming the awesome, overpowering force of a torrent drowning whole villages and towns in its path.  It represents our determination to achieve whatever we have set out to achieve, come what may, and at the deepest, most primitive level, is our survival instinct.  This is why so many people who have reached the top of their profession often owe allegiance to this element.

I call it the hidden element, being the most deeply yin of all the elements, because it is not as obviously aggressive as Wood, a yang element, but the power it can exert can be all the greater because it can be so unexpected and catch us unawares.  I always feel that Water people can creep upon on us without our being conscious of their presence, whilst the more yang movements of the Wood element announce themselves much more openly

People often underestimate Water’s power and single-mindedness because these are often disguised by its apparently gentle, pliable nature.  So what is there about water as we observe it in nature which will help us understand the nature of this element better?  At its deepest level, I think it has much to do with one of its characteristics, which no other element shares, and that is its ability to change its shape at will whenever it feels the need to do so.  At a stroke, often associated simply with changes in environmental temperature, it can transform itself, becoming in turn steam or ice, and in so doing turning the soft flow of water into ice-bound glaciers, a boiling kettle or the steam of hot geysers.  I have always seen Water’s ability to change its shape and consistency as offering it different escape routes enabling it to avoid capture, the thing that Water most fears, for to become captive would be to hold it back from performing its main task, which is to be on the move, with the aim of drawing things together into a whole, and thus to create the image of wholeness, which is that of the unbroken circle of the Dao,  

As a footnote to these thoughts about Water, I was sent some very illuminating insights into this element all the way from India by a friend of mine whose guardian element is Water.

“I read your recent blog, which was interesting. These short, simple observations of each element in a particular situation are very easy to remember and think about. It's also certainly a fact that on the street, I would look at people but immediately look away! I think it is because I don't want them to know that I am looking at them unless they want to initiate contact. If they smile, for example, I would spontaneously smile back and maintain contact for a short while before looking around. It's as if I feel I am transparent and everyone is always able to see through me (literally I mean) and that everyone is trying to read my mind and judge me. And I need to distract most people (except those I am very comfortable with) from something I may have been focusing on by looking here and there, away from what originally caught my attention. I think this is what partly causes the jerkiness that is experienced by others in Water. It's also as if I need to constantly check the environment to condition my own response or state of being to it, perhaps a bit like water which changes its state so often. This takes up a lot of physical and mental energy unconsciously in its own way (as Fire does in its attempt to reach out and every other element does in their individual ways).”