What is five element acupuncture?
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
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.