Friday, May 28, 2010

New thoughts on aggressive energy

I have just been asked a question by a student doing a research project on what we call aggressive energy in five element acupuncture. I had written something in my Handbook about the fact that there are two ways of draining aggressive energy, one through the Associated Effect (back shu) points, as five element acupuncturists do, and another by using a dispersal technique on all needling. This was something I had heard in a lecture by Peter Eckman, author of In the Footsteps of the Yellow Emperor, many years ago. In other words, five element acupuncture mainly disperses excess energy through its initial AE drain, whilst other forms of acupuncture disperse energy over a longer period of time by leaving needles in at every treatment.

This set me thinking about this a little more than I had done before (it shows how teaching helps us learn something new each time!). I realised that the fundamental difference between the two systems of approach must stem from a deeper fundamental difference than that of simply being a matter of a difference in technique. In five element acupuncture, apart from specific protocols, such as the AE drain or treating the dragons (what we call possession treatment), dispersing energy (which we call sedation) is much more rarely used than boosting energy (which we call tonification). In the last 15 years of my observing JR Worsley’s selection of treatments, I cannot remember a single occasion when he suggested we sedate a patient’s guardian element, although sedation is a technique taught all five element students as a matter of course. I have a feeling that as his attention concentrated more and more upon treating the spirit within the body, as I felt it did over my time with him, so he understood more clearly that the element’s spirit, which bears so much of the weight of the other elements upon it, is weakened as a result rather than enjoying the luxury of excess energy. Since five element acupuncture addresses the guardian element predominantly at every treatment in an attempt to strengthen it, it is therefore unlikely, seen from a five element perspective, that this element will have any excess energy left to disperse to other elements.

What does happen though, I find, is that an apparently excess pulse on the guardian element will collapse completely after the AE drain and show its true weakness. Apparent initial overexuberance of energy can often mask a level of deep depletion in this way. This may well explain the fact that I have only had to sedate the guardian element in the case of one patient over the past 10 years. The remainder of my practice has concentrated on tonifying, on strengthening, this element’s energy.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Future teaching plans

I am just back from the TCM Kongress in Rothenburg (, always a powerful experience for many reasons, not least the sheer number of hours during which people talk of potentially very different approaches to acupuncture, each well-researched, well-documented and, no doubt, well-practised, and each looking at their practice from a slightly different perspective. It would be easy to be overwhelmed by what is on offer, but I have learnt over the years to recognise the range of new ideas I will feel able to assimilate into my practice, and concentrate only on these. What is often most valuable are the connections I form with other participants, and this year was no exception. I took part in a meeting organised by Sonja Köllner ( with the aim of bringing together any five element acupuncturists coming to the conference, particularly those from Germany. It was encouraging to hear of all the different ways in which they had learnt their five element approach. As a result of all this, I have now agreed to run a two-day seminar in Hamburg arranged by Barbara Moeller, at which I will be helped by Henrik Mathisen, who is making plans to start a five element course in Oslo.

So, enriched and re-invigorated, I return to London determined also to plan more SOFEA seminars on the elements both here in London and in Hove, with Sarah Matheson. We are now planning our autumn seminar programme, and details will soon be appearing on the SOFEA website Anybody wanting to join us in our latest explorations of the elements should contact me on or Sarah Matheson on

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How life seems to challenge the particular needs of our guardian element

I have just received the following very interesting communication:

“I was wondering about something these last few days, after talking to several women who to me seemed to have the Earth element strongly expressing itself. (I don't go out of my way to analyze but thoughts of the elements do float around in my mind on many occasions.) At some stage they have all expressed a lack of nurturing from their mothers (without my asking) and though they are all different people with different parents and upbringings, I was wondering why this aspect seems to run so strongly through them all. Is it perhaps that this element has certain needs which the parents (specifically mothers?) don't gauge or respond to and it then expresses itself in this way subsequently? I think a person's guardian element would not be based on his parents’ actions; the person would most likely view those actions in a particular way depending on his guardian element. Is this reasonable?” Sujata

We are moving here into esoteric areas involving questions relating to our personal destinies and how they act themselves out in the context of our lives. If our element is the elemental equivalent of our genetic inheritance, which is the only way I can see it, since every pore in us is imprinted with its shading, then what is its relationship to our parents’ elements, and is there indeed any relationship? I think all I write here can only be speculative, but if, as I believe, there is a pattern to life, then the elemental circle to which we have been assigned at the moment of conception forms part of this pattern, as does our parents’ choice of partners which will create the elemental pool out of which we ourselves emerge.

But it is surprising (or not so surprising, if you believe in patterns) to see how often a Metal person suffers some great loss during their life, even though they were assigned to the Metal element long before the loss occurred, and an Earth person, as Sujata so acutely observes, will have a parent, usually a mother, who shows signs of being unable to nurture their Earth child long after the Earth element has imprinted itself upon that child. To answer Sujata’s question, I think that the dominant elemental need, which in the examples I have given above are Metal’s need for respect and Earth’s need for nourishment, is within us from conception, but the fates in their wisdom add events in our lifetime which bear down hard upon these needs, as though deliberately focusing attention upon them. From one viewpoint these events can seem to be conspiring to draw out our element’s particular task in life, and thus offer us an opportunity to overcome the handicaps these tasks can place upon us. In Metal’s case this would be to learn to live with loss and not be diminished by it, in Earth’s to learn to nourish itself.

Footnote on the Earth and Metal elements: I am reminded of something Anna Freud, Freud’s daughter, a child psychoanalyst, once said to me: “Mothers who smother and fathers who are absent are the most difficult things for children to cope with.” Smothering with love, though ostensibly a way of giving something to a child, also deprives that child not only of air, but of the possibility of feeding itself. Watch a baby being pressed too close to a mother’s nipple and struggling to breathe or swallow, and you will get a vivid image of the harm smothering can do. The harm absence can do is much easier to visualize.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

We must allow the elements to surprise us

It is only human to long for a time when we are so secure in our knowledge of something that we no longer need to think about it because it has become so self-evident. I think most of us would like this to be true of our understanding of the elements. We would like to be able to place each in a tightly sealed box, labelled Wood or Water, and think no more about it. It would be comforting to think that, locked in these boxes, are all the different signs, sensory and emotional, by which we recognise Wood or Water in people, and that there is nothing out there in the world at large to cast a different light upon what these boxes contain. In this way we would have built up for ourselves fixed templates by which we learn to recognise the elements: such and such a tone of voice represents Wood’s voice, such and such an emotion imprints itself upon all Water people.

Unfortunately things are not as simple as that. We cannot capture the essence of an element so easily. It will slip past such clear-cut categorizations, often surprising us by showing us characteristics we might well have thought belonged to another element, almost as though forcing us to re-adjust our thinking. This is why I say being a five element acupuncturist is not for the faint-hearted, because it requires courage to adapt to the challenges of recognising that each of us is much too complex to be boxed into the black-and-white categories traditionally ascribed to an element. Rather than being daunted by the difficulties we have in tracing the elements, we should instead be pleased with their capacity constantly to surprise us.