I have always had a problem with teaching students how to learn to recognise the presence of an element through the four famous sensory indicators of colour, sound, smell and emotion (CSOE). I know from my own experience that it has taken me many years to perceive some smells, colours or sounds, and then pin on them the label of one of the elements. Even now, after more than 25 years sniffing at my patients, looking closely at them, listening closely to them, I may still not be able to pinpoint exactly what that particular smell, tone of voice or colour is. I have always felt that I am on much surer ground when I look at emotions, and not just those five emotional categories we have divided the elements into, but the whole emotional weight we carry with us which impacts with a jolt upon those we meet.
Of course we can sift this down into the small words of joy or grief with which we label an element, but our emotional make-up is much more all-encompassing than just whether a person looks happy or sad, since it is the overall impression of the whole of our inner emotional life which pours out from us in all that we do. And since we have all reacted to the emotional impact of other people from the day our mother first smiled at us with love (at least we hope it was a smile and not a frown!), this is the elusive quality with which we are, I believe, more familiar than the way we may or may not have reacted to the colour upon our mother’s face, the smell of her body or the sound of her voice. Of course these, too, will have affected our responses in some way, particularly perhaps the sound of her voice, but, unless we are blind or deaf, we are unlikely to continue to be as aware in such depth of all the other sensory signals as we are by the signals we detect with our emotional antennae.
I don’t think I am the only one to have learnt to rely more on emotional feedback than on that from my other senses, because I see the difficulty those new to five element acupuncture have in seeing, smelling or hearing anything which can help them differentiate between the elements. They appear to be able to attune their emotional responses much more quickly as a way into the landscape of an element. This being so, I think it is a bit unfair for students to be expected to give all four sensory indicators equal weight to start with. One consequence of implying that they should be able to do this is that this is likely to make them feel disempowered from the start, and the whole aim of any training must be to empower.
I certainly felt disempowered in those early days as I attempted to see anything which could be called a colour on the areas of the face I was told it apparently showed itself, the side of the temples and round the mouth. This is not the where I see colour particularly even now, but instead I have gradually recognised it as imparting an elemental sheen over the whole body. I use my rather red Fire hand as comparison, and by placing it anywhere on the patient’s body I can see another elemental colour appear on the patient's skin in quite startling fashion, and there before me now lies a bright yellow body or an ashen white body. If, on the other hand, I lay my hand on a Fire patient, the red of my hand softens into a more gentle pink, as the patient’s skin and my skin seem to meld together in harmony. (For any practitioners reading this, try this out yourselves. The leg is an unobtrusive place to do this. You will learn a surprising amount about colour from this.)
Obviously there are people who have better vision, smell or hearing than I have. These are fortunate people. I remember that we had somebody in our undergraduate class who picked up smells with remarkable accuracy, but that was an unusual trait. How we envied him as we struggled to smell anything!
So all people out there trying to trace CSOE on their patients, take heart. It will take some years, but gradually the ability to see quite marked differences seeps into us, so that now I can walk in the street and be shocked at how clearly I may see a very green face, or hear a weeping voice talking in the bus. If we try too hard, though, our ability to distinguish these subtle differences appears to fade. It is far better to let the sensory impressions float towards us. And if, like me, you feel you can more easily diagnose which element a person belongs to through the emotions they evoke in you, then this is a perfectly valid way of starting to pin down the difference between elements, as the emotional signals everybody sends out raise an echo deep within us.