Monday, September 18, 2017

Simple can be harder than complex

I came across this quote from the Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, in a Guardian article a few days ago:

“Simple can be harder than complex,” he said. “You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple.  But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

This echoes what I like about being a five element acupuncturist.  One of my catchphrases when talking about my work is “the simpler the better”.  We certainly do have to work hard for quite a few years to get to the stage where we understand what it means to practise in the simplest, purest way possible.  This was a skill which JR Worsley so beautifully mastered and passed on through his teaching to us, his pupils.

I found it amusing and ironic, though, that the article in which I found this quote was entitled “We are at the mercy of devices we don’t understand”.  It was all about how incredibly complex the latest version of the i-phone which the writer had just bought had become, so that he ended up losing much of his stored data because he could not understand all the hidden instructions embedded in it.  This seemed to be hardly the kind of “simple device” which Steve Jobs had worked so hard to get his company to create.

But I like to think that our simple treatments can indeed move mountains.



Friday, September 15, 2017

Never ask a patient how they feel after treatment

It is never good to ask a patient to tell you how they feel at the end of a treatment.  A question such as this is usually a sign that we are looking to the patient to reassure us that we are on the right track.  Patients are not there to reassure us;  we are there to reassure them that we know what we are doing.  What a practitioner is really hoping with a question like this is that the patient will tell them that they are feeling marvellous.

In any case how can any of us put into words how we feel if we are asked?  There is so much involved in our feeling anything, particularly something like the result of an acupuncture treatment, when we are not sure what we are supposed to be feeling.  Being asked is therefore also likely to worry us to different degrees depending on the kind of person we are.  I know that when I have been asked this by some of the several practitioners who have treated me over the years, the question has always thrown me.  Being the person I am, I try to be helpful to whoever is trying to help me, and therefore I will think that I ought to say something complimentary as a way of thanking them for their help, however untrue this may be.  Other patients may think they ought to be feeling something, but cannot detect any change at all, and therefore leave the practice room disappointed.

A practitioner is the one who at the end of a treatment should be observing their patient so closely that they will be able to judge if the elements have responded in some way, always a sign of a good treatment (see my last blog about this).

We are there to help our patients, not puzzle or worry them.

Feeling our way towards a patient’s element

I always say that the work of a five element acupuncturist starts within themselves.  We should always ask ourselves “How does this patient make me feel?”  This feeling must then be linked to all the many other feelings our patients have given us over the years, and which, particularly in the cases of those patients we know we have treated successfully, have added to the pointers to the different elements we have gradually accumulated.

I have had a good example of this from a day I have just spent in Switzerland looking at six patients with two five element practitioners.  It was a productive day, as these days usually are.  I am with people who are keen to learn as much as they can from me, and I have to offer them as much of my expertise in diagnosing the elements and working out a treatment schedule as I can.  So days such as these are always challenging for me, because, unlike when I am in my own practice, I feel compelled to get my diagnoses right in such a short space of time, otherwise I will feel that I am wasting my host practitioners’ time (and money!).  In that sense, a day like this, as with any seminars I have run, has its own particular stress.   

It is by close observation of any changes at the end of each treatment that I receive some confirmation that we are on the right elemental path.  Changes can range from being quite obvious to being so subtle that I am sure that I would not have seen them in years gone by. Yesterday, for example, I observed two quite clear colour changes, one in a Wood and the other in an Earth patient, and a third patient looked much more relaxed and was communicating more easily with us.  There were also marked changes to how I felt about the fourth and fifth patients, as though I sensed that my relationship to them had shifted as their elements responded to treatment. 

Finally, the sixth patient blessed our day by putting the change he felt into words, such a rarity, and valued all the more for that.  This was a young man I diagnosed as Water, who was coming for his first treatment.  After his AE drain and his Kidney and Bladder source points, he stood up and said, with great surprise in his voice, “My feet feel as though they are touching the ground quite differently.”  I love the thought of the Water element sending good energy to connect him with the earth beneath his feet in this way.

This reminded me of what two of my Water patients told me after I had needled IV(Ki)1 on the sole of the foot.  Both said that they felt a rush of energy like a fountain pouring up their body. I remember thinking what an appropriate name for a point this was, Bubbling Spring, confirmation that the ancient Chinese really did understand the actions of the points they named.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The strange power of fashion

I find it both interesting and rather disturbing to note a fashion statement which reveals very clearly some of the confusion there still exists among even the brightest and most obviously liberated of women in relation to their footwear.  I am not a historian of fashion, but it is obvious even to my untutored eyes that the very high heels all professional women now wear appear to be a statement of what is called power dressing, because it is in these circles where these high heels are usually accompanied by extremely elegant suits with very short, tight skirts, revealing as much leg as possible accentuated by the height of the heels. Rather incongruously the wearers remind me of girls from a Folies Bergère chorus line.  It is as though we are being sent two quite conflicting messages: the first, the ostensible one, the image of the successful woman in whatever career she has chosen, whether as a BBC journalist or a city banker, and the second, hidden beneath this one, a much more sexually explicit invitation of availability.

I remember some years back the uproar caused by an employee at Harrods being forced by the management to wear higher heels than she wanted to.  Now the height of heels has become so entrenched in what women feel they should be wearing to work that it would probably cause an equal outcry if somebody appeared on our TV screens wearing flat shoes.

This was driven home to me most forcibly when I observed that most down-to-earth BBC presenter, Clare Balding, sitting uncomfortably in the TV studio wearing the most ridiculously high-heeled shoes for somebody of her sturdy build.  I always think of her as striding through the countryside wearing gumboots or flat sensible shoes.  The same thought occurred to me when I saw the BBC announcer, Gaby Logan, at the recent World Athletics Championship tottering over to a screen in the most uncomfortable looking, but undoubtedly highly fashionable high heels I had ever seen.  It somehow seemed a sad example of women’s almost schizophrenic approach to fashion that, at an athletics meeting where all the young girls wear the most comfortable trainers they can possibly find, the BBC announcer commenting on the races felt compelled to wear the most inappropriate shoes.

I watch business women coming out of their offices, taking off their high heels, reaching into their bags and with relief putting on their trainers to make the journey home in comfort. For the working day they must have squeezed their toes into shoes which my chiropodist says are crippling more and more of their feet. What a sad indictment of women’s slavery to fashion, and something that at one level can almost be seen as mimicking a return to the days of bound feet in China!

As a postscript to this, I have just heard Alexandra Shulman, Ex-Editor of Vogue, talking on BBC Radio 4 this morning.  She said that wearing high heels for her is like “being a bit more in control.”  How interesting!

Finally, Ivanka Trump can apparently see nothing incongruous in squelching across storm-soaked grass in high heels from the aircraft when accompanying her husband on a flying visit to hurricane-battered Houston.




Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Adding something to life

One way of viewing the qualities of the elements is to regard them as aspects of ourselves which we can choose to use wisely or unwisely.  They can therefore be seen as placing a responsibility upon us.  Should we not make sure that we use them in a way which adds something to our life rather than detracts from it?  And not just to our life, but to the lives of those around us?

I have always kept on my desk before me a quotation from a very wise old Austrian, Dr Oskar Adler, who I have mentioned before.  He brought into our family a surprising aura of the esoteric which always seemed to sit oddly with our own more practical, down to earth view of life.  And yet he had an important influence over us when I was young, one which had a subtle effect upon me and which slotted almost imperceptibly into my increasing understanding of those very aspects of life summoned forth by my knowledge of acupuncture.  He was a musician and an astrologer, and where I learnt the most from him was by reading his fascinating books on astrology just as I started on my acupuncture  training, for they showed me surprising parallels between the two disciplines, enriching my understanding of the world of the elements, and giving it a wider dimension.

The wise saying of his which has accompanied all my writing over the years is one in which he writes that each of us has a duty, a duty, I repeat, to pass on to the world beyond us whatever we have learnt in whatever form this is and however slight or insignificant this may appear in our own eyes.  These words produced such an echo in my mind, and still do, that they became the impetus to my beginning to write my thoughts down, first in the form of handouts for the students at SOFEA, my acupuncture college, then expanded into one book after another (now six), then into my blogs and now into what I am writing here, which may well become my seventh book.  Without the encouragement his words offered me, I might never have had the courage to write anything at all.

And I believe we owe it to the world to leave it a little bit changed, obviously, we hope, for the better, by the way in which we live our life, and this means not only by producing something creative, such as my writing or a painting or a poem, but by how we live our lives.  Our passing through should cause some perceptible ripples to form on the groundswell of life, rather than for us to die leaving everything around us untouched.  From a five element perspective, such ripples will relate to the specific characteristics bestowed upon us by the elements which form us, since these give a different shape to the flow of life through us, and therefore a different kind of way in which the manner of our passing will impinge upon those around us.



Sunday, August 20, 2017

Blogging a Five Element Life: Publication of my sixth book

I am happy to announce the publication of the second book containing a selection of my blogs, Blogging a Five  Element Life.  This follows on from my first book, On Being a Five Element Acupuncturist, which covered an earlier period of my blogs.

The book can be ordered from Singing Dragon Press:

Although I know many people enjoy reading my blogs as I publish them, many have told me that they like being able to dip into them by reading one or two in book-form whenever they want to.  Not being a lover of electronic reading at the best of times, unless forced to by the convenience of using a Kindle when travelling, I, too, although the author of these blogs, prefer to re-read what I have written by holding the written words in my hand.  So I hope some of the readers of this blog today will feel the same.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Further delight of the unexpected

A reader of my past blogs may recall one entitled Hidden delights of London:  Phantom railings (3 September 2012).  Imagine my delight today, therefore, when once again passing the wall outside the British Museum about which I wrote, I could hear my footsteps creating a strident echo, as though their speed and strength was being mimicked by sounds coming from the wall.  I paused, turned back and retraced my footsteps, only for my surprise to turn into a happy recognition of the re-appearance of the musical artwork called the Phantom Railings, about which I wrote.  This time, though, the creators of this installation seem to have added a little more to it.  I gather that the sounds made by my footsteps as I pass this installation are now being streamed live and can be heard on  

I am writing this in the British Museum, and will now hurry back past the wall to delight once more in this installation, before returning home to what I hope will be a session listening to the live streaming as others make their way past the wall. The sounds my footsteps made are those which resemble the familiar sound of somebody running a stick along an iron fence.  This was in the days before the second world war demanded the removal of railings round houses and parks, so that they could be turned into armaments for the war effort.  Or at least that was what I was told when reading about the installation five years ago.  Now, though, a completely different interpretation has been put on the removal of the railings.  Far from being an attempt to help the war effort, they were, the notice on the wall states, “a democratic gesture to remove restrictions to public access to parks and gardens”, much advocated apparently by George Orwell himself.

I enjoyed my time walking up and down, creating my own symphony of sound.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

How do we judge whether treatment is a success or a failure

I think most of us assume that a successful course of treatment should result in the patient feeling better in some way.  But in what way?  And who decides what feeling better actually represents?  In Western medical terms the successful outcome of any treatment can probably be judged as being whether the physical symptoms have improved or disappeared.  But when we view things from a less physically oriented point of view, as a five element acupuncturist or a psychotherapist would do, the role physical symptoms play in assessing the success of treatment is much less clear-cut.   

We take it for granted that we are offering treatment for soul as well as for body, and are therefore viewing things holistically, so how do we gauge how successful our treatment has been in helping our patient at the deeper level?  This is a much more difficult question to answer than merely noting that a patient is suffering from less headaches or is sleeping better, and the outcome of treatment may therefore be much more difficult to assess.  We then have to consider more complex questions, such as a patient’s own assessment of how far treatment may have helped them in changing some more intangible aspect of their life.  This could involve something like coming to terms with a past emotional trauma or having the courage to confront an unresolved issue with a partner.  Improvements in these areas of life are difficult to quantify, because they are based on much more subjective criteria, and may often at first hardly be perceived by the patient and only by a practitioner trained to notice what are often very subtle changes..

I learnt a very important lesson not long ago, which has given me a different perspective on the whole issue of what can be considered a failure of treatment.  A patient told me that he had been given my name “by a friend of mine who said you had transformed her life.”  I was puzzled, because I could hardly remember who this former patient was.  Looking up my notes afterwards, I found that she had come for just two treatments and then disappeared.  At the time I had assumed that she had not been happy with treatment, and I therefore listed her amongst those I thought I had not managed to help.  Obviously, though, this was not how the patient herself had viewed things. This taught me that we can never really know how far what we have done for our patients has helped them or not, or indeed what they themselves want from treatment.  It is therefore likely that patients and practitioners will have different criteria by which to judge the success or failure of treatment.  It also helped me understand the importance of not becoming too self-critical, a tendency I think we all have, particularly when we start in practice, because we may not be aware that our expectations are not matching those of our patient.

We must always ask ourselves whether what we assume our patient wants from treatment is actually what they are coming to us for.  Perhaps the few treatments I gave my former patient was all she felt she needed to set her life on the right path again, whilst I might have been considering a different outcome for her.  The very simple but profound treatments of the Aggressive Energy drain and an element’s source points which we start our treatments with can by themselves give a strong boost to the elements and help them regain balance.  An AE drain, for example, is a way of asking the elements whether they have been invaded by harmful negative energy, and, if so, clearing it from the body.  Addressing an element’s source points is one of the deepest and safest ways of stimulating that element’s energy.  These first treatments therefore set the tone for all subsequent treatments, and act as their firm foundation.

Perhaps for some patients, as with my former patient, this simple treatment is all they need.  Others, though, come for more than this, and may be uneasy about being left to sort out their life by themselves without ongoing support from their practitioner.  If this is so, it is a clear reminder that each of us is likely to want something uniquely different from treatment, often related to the specific needs of our element, and that it is the acupuncturist’s task to gauge these needs sensitively and try to satisfy them in the best way possible.

We can also waste a lot of time analysing each treatment in too much detail to see whether we could have done better.  Some good advice I was given early on, which I have found increasingly easy to follow the older I get, is to stop thinking about our patients the moment they leave the practice room at the end of treatment, and not continue to clutter our minds up by taking thoughts about the first patient with us into the next patient’s treatment, or home with us at the end of the day to preoccupy us later on.  Originally I thought that switching off from a patient too quickly at the end of treatment might be doing them a disservice, but I now realise that the opposite is true.  Before the start of each treatment, it is useful to give ourselves time to empty our minds of what has gone before so that our next patient receives the full attention from us that he/she needs, not the half-distracted attention somebody still preoccupied with thinking about the last patient will bring them.  And then when the patient comes back next time we are fully able to concentrate on them once again. 

It is of course natural to continue to think through the events of our day when we have finished practising, but we should try to do this at quiet times and not during the hurly-burly of the day’s activities.  Only then can we clear our minds sufficiently to help us sort out any problems we need to deal with.  All this is easier said than done, but if we are aware of some of the issues which make practising problematic for us, we are half-way to solving them.


Sunday, August 6, 2017

Usain Bolt - again

I have written about Usain Bolt and the Fire element before (see my blog of 24 August 2016), and I am delighted to be writing about him again today, the morning after he ran his last race here in London.  He didn’t win last night, but interestingly he didn’t seem to mind.  I could see him obviously enjoying to the full the love pouring towards him from the huge crowd.  This reflected what I had read in the newspaper on the morning of the race, words which so accurately describe the effect that the Fire element can have when it tries to share its joy with those around it.  Here are some of the article’s descriptions of how he affects other people:

“He is not only the face of athletics but its light-house, luring even the most casual fan to its shores.”

“..Usain really is a people person, too.  When he first went on the circuit, a decade ago, he would be in the hotel lobbies talking to people at 1am or 2am. He loves people and interacting with them.  I had to tell him to go to bed.”

And one description which makes me think Usain Bolt is Inner Fire:

“What struck me was just how willing he was in the middle of a conversation to break off and oblige a fan for a photo or an autograph, never complaining, always smiling…”

“He’s a selfless human being, one who genuinely loves to make others happy.”

All these descriptions could only be applied to Fire, I think, and in my view particularly to Inner Fire, which has a greater ability than Outer Fire to multi-task, even at the most emotionally extreme moments (such as running in the Olympics).
I know this from myself, who am Inner Fire.  Many years ago, long before I had even caught sight of an acupuncture needle or understood anything about the elements, I realised that I had this ability to do more than one thing at a time when somebody expressed amazement that I was able to switch from a very serious moment to pointing out something rather trivial happening nearby, almost as if the two events, the very serious one and the trivial one, were happening at one and the same time.  Watching Usain Bolt again, I could see that, whilst preparing for his race, he was nonetheless all the time aware of those around him and interacting with them, exchanging smiles and the odd word with whoever was next to him.  We can contrast this with the absolute and necessary self-absorption that Metal would display in a similar situation, as I have observed before.
So all hail to this most charismatic and joyous representative of the Fire element.  Feast your eyes on him wherever you can catch him on TV or social media, and you will get a lesson about one of the elements that you will never forget.  I wish it was as easy to find such outstanding examples of the other elements.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Horary treatments

Many things have happened during my years of practice which still make me laugh at myself, none more so than my attempts to give my patients what we call horary treatments at the right hour of the day (or night).  The word horary, used as far as I know only in the context of acupuncture now, comes from the Latin word meaning “hour”.  Horary treatments are treatments given at specific times of the day which are seen as having a particular relationship to different elements.  The 24-hour day is divided into six four-hour periods, one specific to each of the elements (two for Fire), and, within these four-hour periods two two-hour periods relating to that element’s yin and yang officials.  Thus the hours from 3 – 7am relate to the Metal element, with 3 – 5am that of the Lung, (often the time of day when people take their last breath), and 5 – 7am that of the Colon (which is why this is an excellent time to empty the bowels ready to take on food between 7 - 9am, which is the Stomach’s horary time).

Giving a patient a horary treatment, particularly in the season of that patient’s element (for example some time in the early morning between 3 – 7am in autumn for the Metal element) is considered to be the very best treatment of all.  Bearing this in mind and remembering JR Worsley’s exhortation to us not to forget horary treatments, even if they are at anti-social times, such as in the middle of the night, in the full flush of being a keen new practitioner eager to put everything that I learnt into practise, I gathered together two of my Wood patients for a horary treatment in the night, the best time being just before 1am still in the Liver’s horary time and just after 1 am just into the Gall Bladder’s horary time, carefully setting my alarm for 12.30am to be sure to wake up.  To my surprise both turned up on time, and I completed the treatment, congratulating myself on doing what a good practitioner should do, however tired I would feel the next day.

Imagine my horror then when a few months later I realised that with the greater experience I had gained since then I now recognized that neither patient was Wood.  Imagine also my confusion when another patient, who this time I was sure was Wood, and I had also scheduled to come during the night, overslept and never turned up.  Was I to phone her home, though I was reluctant to do so for fear of waking the whole household (this was the time before everybody had mobile phones by their beds), and how long should I stay up in case she arrived late?  Even when I felt I was treating the horary points at the right time during the night, did this justify the possible inconvenience which my previous sad experiences had shown me?  Finally, too, had horary treatments proved to be the uniquely excellent treatments that warranted all this trouble?

I cannot say that the results of giving horary treatments at more sociably acceptable times of the day have prompted me to consider that facing the possible hurdles of night-time treatments is worthwhile.  But I still like to remember with affection my novice practitioner’s enthusiasm.  Certainly my patients were terribly impressed that I was prepared to sacrifice a few hours’ sleep for them, which I am sure made our relationships all the closer, perhaps the best result of all.

I now think back rather sadly and with some nostalgia to a time when I so enthusiastically tried to put everything I had been taught into practice, and realise that I, older, much more hard-bitten and less idealistic, but perhaps not wiser, would be unlikely to do the same now.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

What to charge patients

Since my formative years coincided with the birth of the NHS and free medical care for all, I feel deep in my bones that at some level all medical care, including what I offer my patients, should be free.  This has always made me feel uneasy about charging my patients, making it all the more difficult for me throughout my long practice life to know at what level to pitch my fees.  I am, after all, a freelance acupuncturist dependent on my practice income for my financial survival, unlike those working in the NHS who are employed by the state, so charge I must, but how much?  Do I add into this figure the number of years I have been treating, and do I have a standard rate for everybody? But what about those people who can quite understandably not afford the weekly fee needed for treatment?  Hidden within this, to me, vexed question of the level of fees to charge, too, is the conviction that it would be wrong to deny treatment to somebody I could help simply because they cannot afford it.

This problem has bedevilled all the years of my practice, and seems to have grown if anything more acute since my move first from my home practice to the SOFEA clinic in Camden Town, and finally on to Harley Street, of all places, to what is considered to be the pinnacle of medical practice, where I now work amongst those who are happy to charge the most exorbitant fees that I would be ashamed to charge anybody.

My arrival in Harley Street was the result of one of those chance encounters which seem to punctuate my life, and had nothing to do with a desire to work from the very heart of London’s private medical world.  If anything, I would have preferred to move my practice somewhere else, but this clinic just fell into my lap, a chance too good to miss.  I was walking along Harley Street and passed a handwritten notice in a window saying that there was a clinic room for hire.  It turned out to be an ideal place for me and for others from SOFEA, its greatest advantage being our freedom to use moxibustion without other practitioners complaining of the smell, and access to surprisingly large storage areas for the many SOFEA files which needed to be kept for the requisite minimum of seven years.  It also happened, luckily, to be only a few minutes’ walk from my new home.  But as I walk to Harley Street each day, I am aware that I am walking past many medical practices where what I have decided to charge my patients would be viewed as ridiculously low.  What would those working in these very luxurious clinics say, I think, were they to know that I continue to charge some of my longstanding patients the very reduced rates I have offered them over the years, with the occasional free treatment thrown in for good measure?

One of the reasons why the whole issue of fees has proved such a problem for me is because it has a lot to do with my assessment of my own worth, something I am unclear about.  How do I value what I do, and do I put a monetary value on this, and, if so, at what level?  What fee to charge therefore still remains a sensitive subject for me, particularly as a few days ago I happened to note from the web that a former student of mine is charging three times the rate I now charge.  Is she right to do this, and am I therefore being unprofessional not to do the same?  Or is there still some value in retaining the idea that the vocation I have chosen represents my desire to help others, rather than doing it for financial reward?

I realise I have ended up after all these years doing what a tutor during my original training told us not to do, which was to charge different levels of fees for different patients.  He said that this only led to confusion, and he was right.  “Stick to one fee and let the patients decide whether they can afford to pay it.  Don’t make their financial circumstances your concern,” he told us.  And this is what I have always found difficult.   

I have come to the conclusion that my problem with working out how much to charge touches on my dislike of meanness, and its counterweight, my desire to be generous.  I regard treating as a gift I am offering my patients.  To ask them to pay for this is in some senses much like giving somebody a present and then holding out my hand for them to pay for it.  Even though I recognise the need to make a living, to charge the high fees which some would definitely consider appropriate for my many years of practice and my level of expertise represents not the gift I would like to bestow on my patients, but smacks of meanness.  For somebody who would always prefer to give than to receive, this inevitably causes problems, still unresolved within me to this day, after so many years of practice.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Not yet finding the right element does not mean that the treatment you give is wrong

I was walking along thinking about the blog I have just posted Nobody likes getting things wrong (13 July), when I realised that I needed to add something to it.  If we are treating a “wrong” element, we may assume that we are doing something wrong.  But that is not what I believe.  We should not condemn any treatment we give as being wrong provided that we follow one of the basic rules of five element practice, and that is to ensure that we are not going against nature by taking more energy away from an already depleted element, or adding energy to an element already with an excess of energy. 

Our pulse-readings should tell us what to do, for they will help us assess the relative level of energy in the different pulses.  Any treatment we then give on whatever element we choose will not only not harm, but will be beneficial, because it will help balance out the different levels of energy between the five elements.  And anything which brings greater balance is to be recommended.

To all five element acupuncturists out there reading this I would therefore say “take heart”.  You can never harm a patient if you let the pulses guide you in this way even if you are unsure which element you should be concentrating your treatment upon.  Pulses alone are unlikely to pinpoint the patient’s element for you, (but you may like to take note here of Peter Eckman’s comments on my blog on Facebook about this). Using your reading of the pulses to help balance the relative strengths of the different elements one to another can help you lose some of your worry about whether the element you have chosen to treat is the “right” one or not.

Finally, in all my years of practice, no patient of mine has ever, I repeat ever, told me that any treatment I had given them had made them feel worse, except when it has temporarily exposed an underlying block, such as Husband/Wife or Entry/Exit, which the appropriate follow-up treatment successfully clears. 

I think nature is very kind.  The elements help themselves by disliking the states of imbalance which lead one element to have too much energy and another too little.  It seems that they try everything to even out any discrepancy in energy between them, which is why the treatment using energy transfers between elements is greeted with such a huge sigh of relief by all the elements.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Nobody likes getting things wrong

One of the most difficult lessons for a five element acupuncturist is learning to train themselves not to mind when their choice of element eventually turns out not to be the “right” one. I can still remember my feeling of embarrassment when the whole of my Leamington class except for me thought a patient was quite clearly Earth, when I was sure she was Metal.  I remember cringing inside when I realised that there was something in the patient which I had not before then associated with Earth, but everybody else had, and my shame at having to admit this in front of the 20 or so of my fellow students.

I have often baulked at using the words “right” and “wrong” when talking about the elements, because these terms hide within them just this feeling I had in the class of not being good enough, or at least of not being as good as other people.  But there is definitely a “right” element, which is the patient’s element, and eventually “wrong” elements, which are the four other elements which are not this patient’s element.  We have to learn to accept, though, that discovering the right element always takes a lot of time and a lot of experience, but does not come as a result of a flash of insight in a few moments.  It helps, though, to know that the cumulative experience of years of practice undoubtedly speeds this process up.

 I have tried to think of better ways of describing an element as being either the “right” or the ”wrong” one, but have not yet come up with any satisfactory alternative.  So these descriptions may have to stay, despite making us feel just as inadequate as we felt at school when we got an answer in class wrong.  “Not yet the right element” is the nearest I have come to a possible solution, but, although it is an accurate description of the step-by-step process of diagnosis, it does not slip easily from the tongue.  Perhaps with more frequent use, though, it will gradually start to supersede the phrase “the wrong element” with all its unhappy associations.

I have often thought that this is one of the reasons why people hesitate to venture into five element acupuncture.  Other branches of acupuncture seem to display their diagnostic choices in less black and white terms, and can therefore seem to expose their practitioners less to public displays of what they may wrongly feel as their ignorance.

Significantly, though, this, to me, embarrassing lesson in not recognizing the Earth element taught me the most about Earth in the shortest time that I have ever learnt.  As JR would tell us: “You don’t learn anything if you get the element right.  It’s when you get it wrong that you learn the most.”



Friday, June 30, 2017

Meaningless mission statements

I often laugh at the slogans companies devise to advertise themselves.  Here are two I have recently seen:

In the Nat West Bank window:  We are what we do.
On the side of a van advertising building work:  Make sure the past has a future

I do wonder who thinks these things up.

In the early days of SOFEA, I was asked by somebody who was helping us with our advertising to think of something which defined what I wanted our school to represent, and I came up with a phrase which I still like:

An ancient form of healing for a modern world

I always felt it had been given JR Worsley’s blessing, because when he read it one day, I saw him nod his head and say, “That’s nice.”

I still think it is nice, and unlike some of the mission statements I see dotted around on every advertising hoarding and on the side of vehicles, I think it still means something.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Wood element in crisis

As those who read this blog will know, I think both Theresa May and Donald Trump are Wood, and both, unfortunately for the world, appear to be incredibly rigid, unyielding Wood, more stolid oak trees than graceful willows.

I was therefore amused, as well as horrified, by reading this in the Guardian newspaper yesterday about Theresa May:

“Wooden-headedness is a source of self-deception. It is also the defining feature of Theresa May’s prime ministerial stint, and particularly of her “hard Brexit” strategy.  On Europe Mrs May appears to assess a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring any contrary signs.  She then acts on her delusions and does not allow herself to be deflected by facts.  While this might be a good way of winning power, it is not a good way to exercise it.”

And the piece ends with: 

“Wooden-headedness is characterised by a refusal to benefit from experience.  Why not, Mrs May, learn from one’s mistakes and change tack?"

It made me think a little more about how I perceive Wood.  Changing tack, a very nautical expression for changing the sails of a boat to move it in a different direction, is very appropriate for describing the flexibility and manoeuvrability of the Water element.  It is certainly not how I would see Wood moving.  It likes to keep to a straight line, and once on that line is determined to stay on it as it presses onwards towards the future.

We all know that Wood’s function is to do with planning and decision-making.  When in balance these plans will be appropriate and lead to good decisions.  When under stress, which Theresa May always seems to be, the plans, once made, have been rigidly adhered to, and the decisions made on the basis of these plans can easily become the wrong ones.  She has been seen to change her mind suddenly and quite erratically (from a Remainer to a hard Brexiteer in the matter of a few hours, as well as all the volte-faces she has recently made in government). 

I think her dominant Wood official is likely to be the Liver rather than the Gall Bladder.  It appears to be much easier for her to plan (the Liver’s function) than to carry out the plans (the Gall Bladder’s function) by making the right decisions.  Others may see the differences between Wood’s two officials differently.  I have always been reluctant to specify which is the dominant official within an element, because I have always regarded the elements as an almost indivisible whole, the yin and the yang within them indissolubly tied together.  There are, however, definite differences in some elements which I have found easier to see, such as the difference in the Metal element between the Lung and the Colon official (taking in and letting go).

And finally Trump as well!  I need hardly point to Trump in this context.  Enough said, as they say.


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Interpreting the elements is always a subjective experience

I have been very interested by the comments people have posted on my recent blogs about the differences between Water and Metal.  Some have agreed with my observations, others not.  All have given me something fresh to think about.  They have made me realise that people reading what I write may be assuming that the very personal way I have learnt to interpret the elements over the years is prescriptive, and that they should see and feel things in the same way, rather than what I say reflects my own often maybe quite idiosyncratic approach to the elements.  What I mean by the word prescriptive is that it may be felt that others reading what I write should try and see the elements as it were through my eyes.  I don’t think that this is right or what I would like people to do.  Instead, it is important that everybody develops their own personal filters through which they perceive the elements.  Everything we do, think and feel reaches us only through these filters, and will be interpreted according to what they tell us individually.

What is absolutely essential, though, is that each of us, practitioners as well as anybody else interested in developing their understanding of the elements, subject this understanding to a rigorous system of control.  This is what I have been doing ever since my eyes were opened on to the landscape of the elements spread before me.  I have learnt that I must test carefully my assessment that a person I encounter might at first sight be Earth, for example, against those other people who I have previously thought might also be Earth, and then assure myself that these people have enough in common to warrant being gathered together under the heading of Earth.  Collecting together enough examples of all the elements therefore takes time, and requires a great deal of patience and self-scrutiny as we assess how accurate our diagnoses are.  Being accurate requires us to be very aware that we may often get things wrong, and then be prepared to amend our initial diagnosis.

Some people, of course, will find this the most difficult aspect of being a five element acupuncturist, because we can never really know that we have found a patient’s element until we are offered proof from the results of successful treatment.  As I have often said, what we do is not a calling for the faint-hearted, but, as I have also often added, but it is a calling which, if we persist, brings us incredibly rich rewards.

A headline on BBC news: “Scientists say that they have proof that marriage may be good for the heart”

I love it when Western science, after much earnest research, prides itself on discovering something that we acupuncturists take as self-evident.   Understanding as we do that the Heart official will remain healthy if it is happy, perhaps before we agree totally with this bit of scientific research, we should add an important proviso.  Just as it is likely that happy partnerships will nurture the Heart, is it not just as likely that it will suffer under the effects of unhappy relationships?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Something frivolous for a change (or perhaps not so frivolous)

As light relief from the horrors of this utterly unnecessary election and Brexit, plus the disasters of Trump, I am allowing myself to laugh at myself in this brief blog.

I am of the generation brought up in the real austerity days after the 2nd world war, when there was nothing available in the shops to buy, and in any case you viewed buying anything which was not absolutely essential as frivolous, and made sure that you saved everything you could.  “Waste not, want not” was the slogan then.  These words popped into my head this morning as I walked, carefully watching where I put my feet on the increasingly uneven pavement (is the local council cutting back on repairing the road as well as everything else?), when I noticed, as I often do, one of the rubber bands which postmen now throw away as they walk on their rounds.  These rubber bands used to be red, but have recently changed their colour to brown.

I am always tempted to pick one up when I see one, because I often need them for all kinds of things, such as packing books together to hand on to my friends, and I baulk at the thought of buying a packet when so many lie discarded at my feet wherever I walk.  And then I thought of how odd it would look to see me bending over from time to time to pick them up (and what if I toppled over again doing this, just as I fell a few weeks ago?).  And should I then wash them to remove the street dirt from them?

So with reluctance I leave them lying sadly abandoned there, although each time I see one a little pang passes through me at the sight of so much waste.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Further thoughts on the differences between Water and Metal (see my last blog on 27 May)

I do a lot of my thinking as I walk.  And I have been doing a lot of walking recently, both because I no longer drive a car (quite deliberately having giving up driving because I’m not sure that all my faculties remain as acute as they need to be to cope with London traffic), and also because, on a more temporary basis, I fell over and bruised my bottom so much that for the past few weeks walking has been a less painful alternative to sitting.  Anyway, on one of these walks I was mulling over my last blog about the differences between Water and Metal, and the following definition just popped into my head:

             Water feels, whilst Metal perceives.

“What is the difference between feeling and perceiving?”, I then asked myself.  You feel through every pore in your body.  It is an instantaneous, immediate reaction to what is going on around you.  Metal, of course, also feels, as do all the other elements, but in a different way;  I do not think it is its first reaction.  With Metal there is a hidden filter between it and the feelings which are being aroused, and this acts as a first stage before the feeling part kicks in.  We know that the Lung filters everything before it allows it through.  At a spiritual/emotional level it filters feelings, too, as much as it filters air at a physical level.  Once feelings are filtered and allowed safe to pass through, Metal then also allows itself to feel. 

This is how I arrived at the word “perceive” for Metal.  It seems to me to be a word which has implicit within it this kind of filtering process - first thinking about something, and then feeling it.

I would be very interested to hear from any Metal people as to whether they recognise this description.  They are perfectly free to disagree with me.  After all, that’s how I continue to learn.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Insights into the differences betweeen the Water and Metal elements

My lovely Indian friend from Bangalore, Sujata, whom I have treated over the past few years on the Water element, has sent me some very acute comments about how she perceives the differences between her own element and the Metal element, which she calls, very correctly, “the medium of air”.

Here is what she has just emailed me:

I was thinking of your previous blogs about observing elements in public places and I watched the swimming pool a bit.  While I was swimming I got the notion (perhaps a little fanciful, I don't know) of the difference between the medium of water and air in terms of connecting to the surroundings.  It is of course easier to see, smell and hear through the air but movements and changes in environment are conveyed sensitively and quickly through water and one can feel them with one's whole body and respond very fast.  This is the kind of antenna a Water person (like me) has, I think.  Constantly sensing the environment (even when apparently at ease or focussing on something, one part is always tuned outwards to sensing), looking for little ripples and trying to re-orient to those, physically or mentally.  Sensing is the very nature of Water, then moving towards or drawing away from, never being able to stand apart in isolation (like an island!).

I love Sujata’s insights, just as I always love hearing those of anybody of the other elements, since they help me understand their element from the inside as it were.  I will never truly understand what it is like to live a life under the protection of the Water element or of the other elements apart from my own, Fire, and even then it is only Inner Fire which I feel I really understand as completely as anybody can ever understand themselves.  So these small openings on to slightly unfamiliar elemental landscapes each helps me grasp a little more how the other elements perceive their lives and therefore adds to my development as a practitioner.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The importance of changing one's routine

It is always good when circumstances shake us out of a routine into which we have settled a bit too comfortably.  And teaching can become a bit like a routine if we are not careful to revisit what we are doing from time to time, not only to stimulate those coming to learn from us but also to encourage us to develop new ways of thinking about what we do.  Today, circumstances have forced me to do just that, and I am trying to devise a new plan to adjust to these new circumstances.

For the past few years we have always used the reception room at our Harley Street practice for our clinical seminars.  The room is large enough to hold about 18-20 people, although it is certainly not an ideal seminar room because it comes full of those deep leather sofas and armchairs all waiting-rooms seem to demand.  Before this room became available a few years ago, we used to run more frequent but smaller seminars from our own practice room downstairs, into which a maximum of 8 – 10 people could fit.  We have now been told that we can no longer use the reception room, which is why I have to think again about how I want to do my teaching.

Of course we could hire a room, and this might be sensible as all our seminars increasingly overbooked, but do I want to go to all the hassle and much greater expense of doing that?  And is the kind of seminar I have run really the best way to pass on my five element knowledge?  Is this change telling me that it is time to look again at what I am trying to do with my teaching in London, and perhaps my experiences in China can be used to develop a new approach to what I should be doing here.  I write “should”, but perhaps it should be “could”, for this surely is an opportunity to re-assess what I can offer and to whom I can be offering it.

Up till now I have not really considered these two questions.  Instead I have simply done much of the same at each seminar, and offered it to many of the same people, all of whom are on SOFEA’s distribution list and have registered their interest.  In other words, we advertised the seminars and accepted whoever applied on a strictly first-come, first-served basis.  Should I be a bit more selective about this, for example by restricting the number of students, and focussing more on established practitioners?  Would this be a better use of my time? 

I think that I should be doing more to help the more advanced practitioners, particularly since Guy Caplan is now expanding the teaching he is doing to include some of the groups I was already teaching, particularly in Europe, and others that I might have engaged with if Guy had not been there.  The important thing here is to gear whatever I do to a format which I would be happy to regard as part of what I now like to think of as my legacy.  And what this tells me is that I need to concentrate more on teaching the more experienced five element practitioners, leaving to others the task of inducting five element novices into the delights of what we do.

So I have made the decision, a decision essentially made for me by the withdrawal of the use of the Harley Street reception room, no longer to hold seminars open to everyone, from the student to the more experienced five element practitioner, but to offer my expertise only to the latter group.  This decision has been made easier by my experiences in China, where the very keen group of five element practitioners that have attended my seminars over the past six years are now themselves teaching various five element introductory classes throughout China in order to prepare those who wish to come to our more advanced seminars.  By themselves, in their highly organized way, they have thus made it possible to spread the word about five element acupuncture in the most efficient way and to as many people as possible, allowing me and my team to move away from the beginner level to the intermediate level (and, for just a few of the more experienced, to the advanced level), and therefore making it possible to reach more of the many hundreds enrolling in our programmes.

I am a little sad to have had to abandon novice five element acupuncturists to others, but I hope in future years to catch up with them as they in turn gain sufficient experience to welcome the kind of teaching I will now be concentrating upon.



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.