One of the things I told them was not to worry about feeling that there is any quick way to develop the complex skills required to distinguish those much-emphasized sensory signs the elements imprint on all of us. When I first started my studies, I think I was very optimistic about how easily I would perceive these, imagining that by the end of our three-year course I would be well on the way to assessing accurately all the four aspects of colour, sound, smell and emotion.
I was to find that this was far from the case, so far, indeed, that it was only after quite a few years of practice that I at long last began to understand what a rancid smell was, or honed my assessment of Earth’s colour, yellow. And just when I thought I had “got” one manifestation, I would find all my previous learning confounded by discovering that my patient’s rather bright red face was nothing at all to do with Fire, but was either Wood or Earth out of balance. In the case of Wood, I eventually worked out that it was its imbalance which was throwing its child, Fire, out of balance and creating the red colour, and in the case of Earth, the red was coming from problems handed down to it by its mother. Fire, I have found, never imprints a constant high red colour on those of its element. Its reddish tinges come and go, as it flickers, but they never remain a constant imprint.
Now that I have recognised for myself how difficult it is accurately to perceive the elements’ sensory signals, I realise how important it is for those new to five element acupuncture not to rely too heavily on sensory impressions which may well be leading them astray. Instead, I try to emphasize all the many other ways the elements reveal themselves, and share with them the observations I have accumulated over the years to help fill out what I lack in sensory awareness. For example, I have now developed for myself a list of the small variations in facial expression which help me pinpoint an element more clearly. I give these below as an aide for others.
Wood: Look at the eyes (perhaps obviously enough since Wood is to do with vision in every sense). Its eyes have a direct, often challenging look as though demanding a response from me. A secondary point may also be very tight neck muscles around the mouth or neck.
Fire: Look for the smile lines around the eyes. All elements smile when they are happy, or want to pretend they are happy, but only in Fire do the smile lines around the eyes stay in place long after the smile has faded. I can feel this in myself. I love warming my own Heart up by smiling, often doing this when I am on my own as my own personal comfort blanket. I now recognise Fire by those smile lines indicating that a smile is trying to force its way through.
Earth: The mouth: often slightly open, or if not open, then looking as if it would like to open, as though appealing for food.
Metal: The eyes, like Wood, but with a completely different look. They are not trying to set up any relationship with me, as Wood’s eyes try to do, but even when looking at me seem to be looking past me as though into the far distance.
Water: Again the eyes, but here it is the movement of the eyes which is revealing. They have nothing like the stillness of Metal’s eyes or the forcefulness behind Wood’s gaze. Instead they seem to flicker, dart around, as though constantly on the move, ready to perceive danger and avoid it.
If all else fails, and you are not at all sure which element your patient is, then see whether the rather basic signposts I have listed above help you. I have found them to be a remarkably accurate way of supplementing what my senses are unable to tell me. And as you move on in your practice, you will also find your own pointers to add to this list – maybe a characteristic way of walking, or talking, holding a hand out for pulses to be taken or settling on the treatment couch. Since everything we do is the work of the elements within us, every part of body and soul will be showing characteristic pointers to our guardian element. We just need to be patient enough and give ourselves the time needed to develop our own individual stock of diagnostic pointers.
I still find it fascinating that each patient I see teaches me just a little more about the elements, and this learning will never stop since we are all unique manifestations of the interplay of the elements within us.