Saturday, May 13, 2017

Why I enjoy teaching so much in China

I often ask myself why I enjoy teaching so much in China and why this is so different from the teaching I do in this country or in Europe.  The answer I always give people who also ask me this is that I find it easier, and, to that extent, more satisfying for many reasons.  The most obvious, superficial reason may well be the way I am welcomed over there, which is as a revered visitor.  This is so unlike how students in this country treat their teachers, where the approach is much more irreverent than reverent.  In China the reverse is true; there the culture is built on a deep respect for tradition, and for their teachers who embody this.

Through one of the serendipities of life (oh how I love that word!), I happen now to be reading a book called The Souls of China: the Return of Religion after Mao (yes, souls, not soul!) by Ian Johnson.  Here are some brief extracts:

Faith and values are returning to the centre of a national discussion over how to organize Chinese life……As one person I interviewed for this book told me, “We thought we were unhappy because we were poor.  But now a lot of us aren’t poor anymore, and yet we’re still unhappy.  We realize there’s something missing and that’s a spiritual life.”

 All told, it is hardly an exaggeration to say China is undergoing a spiritual revival similar to the Great Awakening in the United States in the nineteenth century.  Now, just like a century and a half ago, a country on the move is unsettled by great social and economic change.  People have been thrust into new, alienating cities where they have no friends and no circle of support.  Religion and faith offer ways of looking at age-old questions that all people, everywhere, struggle to answer:  Why are we here?  What really makes us happy?  How do we achievement contentment as individuals, as a community, as a nation?  What is our soul?

This reminds me of something the administrator of a large Chinese province told me as I was treating him.  To my surprise, he said, “We need you in China, Nora laoshi (Teacher Nora).  We have lost our soul.”  My surprise was that the person saying this was a provincial administrator, not, as one might expect, a practitioner of some spiritual discipline.  I smiled when I thought to myself how incongruous such a statement would sound coming from his British equivalent, a head of a corporation or a banker.  What it confirmed for me was the essentially spiritual nature which lies deep within the Chinese character, and it is partly this which explains much of the satisfaction I experience in my teaching over there.

For I regard five element acupuncture as a form of spiritual practice, not merely as a purely physical medical discipline.  It is that, too, of course, but it is much more than this, and it is this “more” which first attracted me to it, and keeps me so firmly enthralled by it that I cannot see myself abandoning my practice until my knees will no longer keep me upright and my hands shake too much to hold a needle.  Today, for example, I was faced with the need to help a longstanding patient of mine whose partner of many years had suddenly left without forewarning, leaving her devastated.  I cast around a little in my mind trying to think of what treatment I could choose to help her, but hardly had I taken her pulses when I was suddenly struck by the thought that, of course, these were the circumstances which were most likely to create a husband/wife imbalance.  The pulses themselves had not at first suggested this, so subtle can be the signs of this imbalance, and, as I often say, how crude and clumsy will always be our pulse-taking in the face of the very delicate nature of the pulses. 

But the situation obviously pointed to a classic husband/wife situation (relationship problems being typical evidence for this imbalance), and though I wasn’t initially convinced that I was interpreting the pulse picture accurately, I decided to carry out the procedure.  The result confirmed what I had guessed might be there.  The patient’s pulses steadied themselves beautifully after treatment, and as she left she said, “I feel quite different.  When I came I felt I couldn’t cope, now I feel more hopeful that I will be able to deal with this.”  I am making sure that she comes for a further treatment within a week, as one should always do in such cases.  After all, this indicates an attack upon the Heart, which will remain vulnerable for some time and needs regular strengthening to prevent the block returning.

For me, the experience of treating my patient was akin to a spiritual experience.  The atmosphere in the practice room, from start to finish, reflected something deeply emotional.  Long after the patient left, this feeling persisted in me.  We were, after all, both in our different ways facing a situation of profound crisis, and I was being asked to help my patient at the deepest level.  Sometimes one hears the most beautiful sayings which illuminate one’s day quite by chance.  On the radio yesterday I heard Archbishop Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, a really gentle, caring man, say “We do not have a window into people’s souls.”  But even though I agree that I did not have a window into my patient of today’s soul, I felt that my treatment had allowed a little more healing light to stream into that window hidden deep within her.

This spiritual dimension of my work, and the fact that this is immediately understood by Chinese practitioners, is one of the main reasons why teaching in China is such a satisfactory experience for me.  Since the basic components of my work, such as the Dao, yin yang and the five elements, are familiar to every Chinese person, this makes it very easy for them to start to incorporate the principles of five element acupuncture into their practice.  No longer do I need to answer the kind of questions my students in England would ask me with a puzzled air, such as, “How do we know that there are things called elements?”, or “What evidence is there for the existence of acupuncture points?”  These are both perfectly reasonable questions for those not brought up in an environment where the elements perfuse every strand of everyday life, and where to cast doubt on the existence of acupuncture points and the efficacy of acupuncture itself could be considered futile and almost sacrilegious in the strict meaning of the word (an affront to a basically religious belief).  To embark on the task of introducing an understanding of the practice of five element acupuncture to the Chinese is akin to sowing seeds in already well-fertilized ground.

My conviction that what I practice represents a profound truth therefore receives welcome confirmation each time I set foot on Chinese soil.  There I am amongst people all of whom at some deep level speak the same spiritual language I do, even if we differ in the superficial everyday languages we speak. 

And how I continue to wish I could learn to understand and speak this lovely language to a level which would make proper communication possible.




Monday, May 8, 2017

People-watching: Insight into the Metal element (plus a little more on Fire)

Since writing my last blog on People-Watching, a Metal friend of mine, Jeremy, has given me the following insights into how he approaches sitting down in a café.  

This is what he has written:

"I read your blog yesterday and can tell you exactly where I sit in a cafe.  I have 2 parameters.  

First, I need to be able to see who is coming and going, so need to face the door or main entranceway (I also need to know how to get out in the event of a problem - but that is probably my army training).
Second, I need as much distance as reasonable from as many people as possible, so that I can get perspective on what is happening and get the minimum impact of other people's presence on my thinking and reflecting - I want to be able to see and watch everything and not have what I see and think disturbed..."
Thank you, Jeremy, for opening my eyes to other aspects of Metal. 
And a Fire friend of mine, having read my blog, agreed with every word of it.  She told me that she is very careful always to sit with her back covered, with nobody behind her.  This is also true of where she sits in the train as well as in restaurants.  This is obviously her Heart Protector doing exactly the kind of protecting that it should do.
How fascinating all this is!

Friday, May 5, 2017


As everybody knows, what I enjoy above all things is people-watching wherever I am.  And today, over my morning cup of tea and toast in a local café, I became fascinated by another illustration of the oddities of human behaviour and how everything we do reveals something about ourselves and the elements which direct our lives.

The café was only half-full, with many of its small tables unoccupied, providing plenty of choice for newcomers. It had a counter with six stools, two tables for four people and six tables for two people.  I started to notice that the abundance of choice itself was proving problematic to some people as they came in.  If only one table had been unoccupied, I realised the choice of where to sit would have been simple, because it would have made itself.  Here, though, the possibility of many different choices presented itself.  A woman came in, and I watched as she looked round, hesitated for quite a time, and then started to move round a few tables.  Eventually she settled herself down at a table next to one of the occupied tables.  It looked as though she was trying to draw herself as close as she could to another group of people, without actually joining them at their table.

I contrasted this with my own choice of seating a few minutes earlier.  Here I had quickly checked all the tables as I came in, trying to find one that was evenly spaced between the occupied tables, and had felt myself fortunate to find just what I like, which is always having some space between me and other people.  I realised I would certainly not have sat myself down next to somebody on the next table, as she had done, if there had been more room elsewhere.  I had deliberately chosen to distance myself as far as possible from my fellow guests.  Not only was I trying to distance myself but I was also attempting to do this in, to me, the most physically harmonious way possible, for I had chosen a table which positioned me carefully at equal distances from each of two other occupied tables, with an unoccupied table on either side, creating a kind of a pattern.  (The Small Intestine likes to put things in order and sees things in terms of patterns wherever possible.)

The next person who came in now had less choice, but still hesitated, first looking at the long counter, but then deciding to sit at a table, and again taking a little time to choose at which table to sit.  The man following her, however, plonked himself down at the counter without looking round at all, even though the counter was close to the now mainly occupied tables, and there was plenty of space elsewhere.  So obviously, unlike me, he didn’t mind being pushed up close to other people, and hardly seemed to notice his surroundings.

This reminded me of the cartoon of a theatre audience with only two couples attending, in which the couples seat themselves one behind the other, with the whole of the rest of the auditorium completely empty, and the woman in the row behind asks the woman in front to take off her hat, as she can’t see the stage.  I always think of this cartoon when I go to my newly-opened local cinema, and find myself each time in a fairly empty auditorium, and each time annoy myself by not being able to decide where to sit, because there is so much choice.  The same is obviously true for many people, as I see my fellow cinema attendees hesitating for quite a long time before deciding in which of the many empty rows of seats and the many empty seats in these rows to sit.

Of course, being me, I had to try to relate this behaviour to the different elements, starting with my own. Is it typical of Fire to be as cautious as to where it positions itself in relation to other people as I am?  I am very aware of how close other people get to me and realise that I welcome approaches from people I accept as being safe to be with (my Heart Protector working actively here), but am very hesitant to allow the kind of close contact enjoyed by those who welcome group hugs, a very Earth element pleasure, I think.

The young woman who sat herself down so close to another group may well have been Earth, or at least had strong Earth qualities, needing the closeness of others around her.  Water, too, though, is in need of the company of others, but in a slightly different way, and this woman did not show the kind of hesitation I think I would have expected of Water, a hesitation combined with that quick glance round to check what is going on around it, and ensure that no danger lurks.  This is often Water’s way as it enters a new space, and one which can therefore potentially represent a risk.  I was a little more unsure how Wood would seat itself, but I think it would undoubtedly be less concerned with who the people were it was sitting itself amongst than either I would be or the woman who came into the café after me.

And what about Metal, then?  Here I am even more unsure.  I feel it would certainly slip in more quietly and unobtrusively, as the man who settled himself down quickly did, for this is the element with the lightest tread of all, but would it look around and seek to position itself in a specific relation to other customers, or simply ignore them?  I decided that I must ask my Metal friends about this.

This is how this morning’s breakfast gave me another lesson in the elements.

Thoughts on my return from an excellent time in China

When I return from China I always have to give myself time to pause a little, catch my breath and allow all the many happenings over there to settle so that I can assess them properly.  In a way, there can be no starker contrast than my two lives, one in China, now as I return from my 10th visit (or is it my 11th – I have lost count), and my familiar life here in London. For the few weeks I am in China, I am transposed into a life lived in the full glare of many hundreds of eyes. In London I can disappear for days into a quiet, almost meditative existence, interspersed at times by my hours of practice (now deliberately much reduced), my meetings with family and friends, and my much sought-after, much-cherished interludes of reading and writing.

Each visit to China yields new experiences, each time propelling what my little team of five element acupuncturists is doing over there further along the path of increased acceptance of five element acupuncture as an important discipline, with an exponentially increasing number of China’s own practitioners now reaching from province to province and city to city around this vast country.  And also stretching well beyond its shores, to Singapore, Malaysia and beyond, to Australasia.  Not being somebody who likes to bask in my own successes, I am, however, amazed at what has been achieved in the past 6 years of my visits, from teaching an initially small group of 10 interested TCM practitioners on my first visit to now holding two seminars, one of over 100 practitioners and the other of 70 practitioners, divided into an intermediate and an advanced group because of the large numbers.

For the past two years we have moved from Nanning in the south to Beijing, where the Foundation to which I am attached now has its own offices and will soon be setting up its own clinic.  When there I always give a talk to students at the Beijing University of Traditional Medicine, where hundreds of students crowd into the large auditorium, finding seats wherever they can, on the floor and gangways, or peering in from the corridors outside. The interest is overwhelming.

This time I also attended a new event which gave me a fresh insight into the burgeoning interest in traditional medicine in China.  I was asked to take part in the graduation ceremony of a teaching group of the Sanhe TCM College, under the name of Project Heritage.  This has been set up inspired by the work of my host, Professor Liu Lihong, to increase appreciation of the different heritages which underlie today’s practices of traditional medicine, including here, for the first time, five element acupuncture. The 500 or so graduates had all completed the first year of a course led by Profess Liu, of whom 100 will then be selected to pass on to their second year. This will be when five element acupuncture will form one of the seven disciplines of different medical traditions students can choose to study.

The first-year graduates were of many ages;  some were traditional medicine practitioners of many years’ experience, others simply students and some were lay people, all inspired by Profession Liu’s spiritual approach to his teachings.  As I stood there on the stage in front of these hundreds of people, expressing my admiration for the work the Foundation was doing to inspire new generations of practitioners, I felt honoured to be part of the amazing growth of this spiritual dimension to traditional Chinese medicine.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Publication of the second book of my blogs

I have just signed an agreement with Singing Dragon Press to publish a second book of my blogs, following on from my first book On Being a Five Element Acupuncturist.  The new book covers my blogs from January 2014 to the present.  We are calling it Blogging a Five Element Life.
I hope it will be published by the time of the BAcC Annual Conference in September, where I will be giving a talk on Saturday 23 September on the challenges and rewards of introducing Chinese acupuncturists to the practice of five element acupuncture.
I am also adding a note here to help those who come to our seminars and want to learn more about a five element approach to treatment.   At our seminars many questions are always asked about point selection.  I realise that some of you may not know that I revised and updated the second edition of my Handbook of Five Element Practice to include what I consider to be a more comprehensive discussion of the way in which we use point selection in five element acupuncture.  In particular, I added a surprisingly short list of the points I like to use.  It would be helpful for anybody trying to understand the principles behind five element point selection to familiarize themselves with the relevant chapters in this new edition of the Handbook (to be obtained from Singing Dragon Press).
At each seminar I also always emphasize my beloved mantra: “Think elements not points”, to help those who find difficulty in understanding the five element approach to point selection.
I hope everybody will have a good Easter break, and that spring will bring with it a bit more of Wood’s optimism.  


The tale of a learning support dog

This article in the Guardian made me smile, because here for once was a very cheery story on the education pages to offset the normal gloomy discussions on deficiencies in our educational system.  I learnt that “more and more schools now employ waggy-tailed staff to soothe students and even help teach them to read aloud.”

The dogs are trained by an organization called Dogs Helping Kids (DHK ) before they are handed over to a school.  Apparently the effect on children’s behaviour and learning is quite marked.  “Classroom dogs not only improve literacy skills but also have a calming effect.”  The dog “just goes to sleep and the children don’t want to wake him so they are really quiet – and these are children that do have a tendency to get a bit excited.”

One particular dog is learning how to become a “listening dog” who will help children read aloud.  “He will put his head in their lap and listen, prompting them to turn a page with his paw.”  As a result, children increase their reading levels. 

A dog’s presence in school also reduces truancy.  Children who have a poor record of attendance are allowed to take a dog for a walk with a teacher at break time.  “It makes (the children) feel quite special and their attendance has improved massively”.

What a heartening story!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Discovery of a little gem of a cake shop behind Oxford Street

One of the delights of London is how many coffee shops there are, and how often I have managed to find a new one.  As everybody who reads my blog knows, it is in coffee-shops that I do most of my writing.  To think my thoughts I need the peace of being in my own little world, with no distractions of phone or email to disturb me.  If the music is too loud, which unfortunately it often is now, one of the benefits of being hard of hearing and having to wear hearing-aids is that at a turn of a little switch I can shut all sound away, and stay cocooned in blissful silence for as long as I want.

So today I found yet another little coffee shop, or more correctly a little cake shop.  It is called The Sicilian Collection, and is at 51-51A Cleveland Street, London W1T 4JH, email 

It is run by a young Sicilian woman, Emilia Strazzanti, who has been trained in cake-making by a five-star Michelin chef.  Her beautiful cakes are certainly proof of that.  I have rarely tasted cakes which are so light to the palette, rich in taste and utterly fresh. 

At the moment the shop is tiny, with just room for a couple of people to sit inside and drink her delicious, freshly made coffee and eat a slice of her cake, and with a bench outside for when the weather gets warmer.  She told me, however, that she will soon be extending the shop to the back of the premises, where there will be tables for lunch as well as coffee and cakes.

After enjoying two cups of excellent coffee with a slice of one of her cakes, I asked for a selection of three different cakes to take away as a treat for myself.  Emilia told me they were slices of:
1.      A Sicilian hazelnut and chocolate cake, made from hazelnuts from the north of Catania
2.      A Sicilian pistachio and lemon cake with crema di pistachio from Bronte
3.      A Sicilian almond cake with almonds from Val di Noto
I left her little shop with a smile on my face.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Article for Chinese Culture Research Society of Singapore

Below is an article about five element acupuncture which an acupuncturist who comes to my seminars in China has asked me to write for the Chinese Culture Research Society of Singapore.  I am happy to include it in my blog as it provides a very general overview of my thinking about five element acupuncture.

                                   What is five element acupuncture?
Five element acupuncture is a branch of traditional acupuncture which is based on an understanding of the five elements contained in the Nei Jing and handed down over the centuries.  It recognizes that the five elements shape each human being, putting the stamp of one of them in particular on each of us.  I call this the guardian element.  It also goes by the name of the constitutional element.   I see it as protecting us when we are in balance, but can cause imbalance when it is under stress from some physical illness or emotional disturbance.

This element is regarded as the dominant element out of the five.  It dictates how we look, giving us a colour on our skin (not a racial colour), how we talk, giving us the sound of our voice, how we smell, giving our skin a certain smell, and the emotion which rules our life, such as joy or anger.  All these qualities of the elements are those listed in the Nei Jing and are still relevant today. In five element acupuncture they are used diagnostically to help us treat a patient and restore them to health.

A five element diagnosis is therefore based on what our senses can perceive:  the patient’s colour, smell, sound of voice and emotion.  Students spend a great deal of time developing these skills by training their senses.  We know that babies are born with very sensitive senses, but as we grow older we lose much of this sensitivity because we do not practise using our senses.  Some of these senses therefore become less acute over time through lack of use, and we forget to pay attention to what they are telling us.  We put perfume on our bodies to hide our natural smell, and put make-up on to hide our natural skin colour.  Some people can, however, continue to develop very great sensitivity to one sense or another.  For example, I have a nearly blind patient who tells me that she knows by a person’s smell whether that person is friendly to her or not.  A singing teacher will obviously have a highly developed appreciation of the quality of a person’s voice.
We obviously use our emotions every day, but because we are social creatures and have had to learn to live among many other people with their own needs and desires, we have learnt to suppress many of our natural emotional responses.  Society is also uncomfortable if emotions are expressed too openly.  For example, children are often told by their parents to be friendly and kind to other children, and they soon learn to be careful to suppress their natural anger, and not hit another child if it takes their toys.  In fact, children are often told not to express any emotion too strongly.  This means that some of these emotions are not allowed their natural outlet, and are forced to stay hidden inside us.
Some of this suppression of our emotions is a natural result of having to live in harmony with our fellow human beings, but if emotions are suppressed too much or for too long they can put great pressure upon us, and in particular upon the guardian element.  And this is where the five element acupuncturist, trained to observe changes in the sensory signals from the patient, will assess how far what he/she observes reflects a particular element in balance or out of balance.  These changes can be very subtle to start with.  That is why a five element practitioner takes time getting to know their patients, asking them about all the stresses in their life, both in the past and in the present, and through this questioning tries to work out which element of the five is the dominant element.
The understanding in five element acupuncture is that it is weaknesses in this element which lead to the appearance of physical and emotional problems.  Treatment directed at strengthening the element will give renewed strength and balance, and help the patient deal with the stresses which have led to imbalance.  We therefore place great importance on the relationship between the patient and the practitioner, because it is by establishing a good relationship that the patient will feel safe enough with us to take off the social mask we all have to put on in our everyday lives, and show the real nature of who they are and what their problems really are.  And it is by allowing the patient to relax with us that the guardian element shows itself most clearly.  Then the practitioner can judge from the sensory signals which this element is sending out what treatment the patient needs.  For example, a Fire patient’s face may be too red, or a Metal patient may appear to be excessively sad.

Treatment is always focussed on strengthening the guardian element.  It takes time, however, to confirm whether the element we have chosen is the correct one.  It is only by assessing the results of treatment, particularly patients’ own judgement as to whether their emotional and physical health is improving, that the practitioner can be sure that the diagnosis is correct.  It therefore takes courage to be a five element acupuncturist, because no textbook can tell you which element you need to treat.  The important thing I always tell students is “Don’t hurry. Don’t worry”.  Practitioners need to give themselves time to make the correct diagnosis.

Anybody interested in learning more about five element acupuncture will find it helpful to read my Simple Guide to Five Element Acupuncture and my Handbook of Five Element Practice, both of which books are now available in a Chinese edition.  My other three books are available only in English, but are being translated at the moment, and will soon also be published in China.

My great acupuncture master, Professor J R Worsley, always told us that everybody should study the elements, and start to learn to recognize them in all the people around them.  Understanding the different qualities of the elements helps us become more tolerant of each other, and makes the world a happier place.  For me it is one of the delights of being a five element practitioner that I can help people to a greater understanding of others, and thus make their lives and the lives of their family members and friends more contented.




Monday, March 13, 2017

Oh dear! Oh dear! I find that I am addicted!

I am reading a fascinating book by Adam Alter:  Irresistible: Why we can’t stop checking, scrolling, clicking and watching, about our obsession with our smartphones, our emails, our endless Twitter twittering and our fascination with Youtube. 

It makes for a sobering read, none more so than when we are told that leaving a very young child unsupervised in front of those children’s gadgets which transfix a child’s eyes for hours, but deprive it all too quickly of the ability to look people in the eye, actually damages their little brains.  Even something so harmless as talking to a child on Skype reduces the importance of eye-to-eye contact because the child cannot apparently pitch its eyes at the right level on the screen to evoke the kind of immediate response it looks for in the presence of another person.

Not being a two-year old, why did I come to the depressing conclusion that I, too, was addicted, but what to?  Of course it is to my emails, the only bit of electronic equipment I use.  I have, reluctantly, accepted the need for a Facebook account to pass on my blogs to a wider audience;   I can go for days without looking at it.  But I am, I now realise, hooked on checking to see if any new emails have arrived, so worried I apparently am with the need to answer them immediately, as though not doing so is impolite.

From reading this book I gather that this is a definite sign of an addiction.  I don’t have a smartphone so I can only check up on my emails when I am physically sitting in front of my computer, ready to tap away on a large keyboard with an old-fashioned mouse to hand.  Having now counted up how often I find myself returning to the computer when I am at home, and realising that my first action on coming back home is always to hurry to turn it back on again, I acknowledge that I do have as much a problem as if I had immediately to grab a glass of wine if I was a heavy drinker.  It may not be as harmful to my health as drinking too much, but it is probably as harmful to my peace of mind in its own way, because each email demands something of me, and often these demands are worrying or disturbing.  I am as much in thrall to this wretchedly addictive piece of equipment as anyone hooked to chatting endlessly on Twitter.

Of course, it is not only me, but all those countless others I see in the street or in cafes, their fingers twitching away at their smart phones, their eyes unable to look away to see the world around them, so busy are they scrolling up and down looking for God knows what.

I know that those emailing me can wait a few more hours or even a few more days for an answer from me, so I am resolved to watch myself now and reduce those compulsive excursions of mine to sit in front of the computer.  Let’s see whether I can manage this!

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The effect of clearing a CV/GV (Ren Mai/Du Mai) block

I love hearing patients’ descriptions of how specific treatments make them feel.  Here is a lovely testimonial to the power of clearing a CV/GV block:

I feel that this experience has allowed the real essence of who I am to emerge.  For the first time in my life I feel that the real me has arrived.”

I don’t think you can have a more powerful statement explaining the effect of removing this major block to the healthy flow of the elements.