Saturday, March 27, 2010

In the Footsteps of the Elements: Colour

I was asked for a title for my next seminar at the College of Traditional Acupuncture in Warwick on July 14th, and what I came up with quickly was “In the Footsteps of the Elements”. This is a direct reference to Peter Eckman’s book on the history of acupuncture in the West, “In the Footsteps of the Yellow Emperor”, but also represents very neatly what I think we do as five element acupuncturists. We try to trace the footprints the elements leave on all of us, and we do this because we hope that they will eventually lead us to the guardian element.

We categorize these footprints under the four heading of colour, sound, smell and emotion (I prefer the down-to-earth, Anglo-Saxon word smell to odour, but that is a personal preference). Yesterday, talking to some new graduates, I mentioned to their surprise that I see an element as imprinting its colour not only on to areas of the face, but over the body as a whole, as it penetrates deep within each cell. If you can’t see colour on the face, then, learn to look carefully at whatever area of the body is exposed as you needle (abdomen, legs or back, for example). Use the skin colour of your own hands as a reference point to help you here. You may be surprised to see how strongly your own element’s colour stands out on your skin when placed against that of another element. My hands, for example, take on a much deeper red colour when seen against the skin of the other four elements, whilst they seem to tone in easily with the colouring of other Fire people.

This is my diagnostic tip for today.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Experiencing the Earth element

I wrote in my 19 March blog about my day inside the Metal element. Some time ago I had a similarly sudden immersion in the Earth element, and, as you will see, immersion is exactly the word to use. I was lying in the bath, slowly letting the bathwater drain out. As the water drained away, I started to feel my body grow heavier, moving from a point where I had been totally unaware of its weight to a feeling of increasing heaviness as parts of me emerged above water, until, with the bath now empty of water, I felt as though my body had become a dead weight whose heaviness seemed to be pinning me down. I was made aware of the considerable effort it required to unpeel myself from the floor of the bath, and was astonished by the force of the gravity which had seized hold of my body as the water sucked away from it. Why had I never noticed this before?

Once upright, normality returned, as all the mechanisms which we learn as a child to enable us to stand clicked into place. By the time my feet were on the bathmat my body no longer felt heavy, and it took me some effort to remember how difficult the transition from weightlessness to weight had been.

Those few minutes in the bath have helped me understand how Earth people can feel, for they live their lives in an endless balancing-act between the desire to remain safely tethered to the ground and the need for their Spleen to help move them forward, and thus for the few moments as one foot after another leaves the ground be vulnerable to falling over. When out of balance, this desire for security can outweigh the need for movement, and suck them down into the earth as though they are stuck in damp clay. Or the opposite may happen, and this damp clay turn instead into dry sand which allows no foothold.

This is how I see the two extremes of the Earth element out of balance: the one as though they are stuck fast in oozing mud, the other as though they are trying to keep their footing on ever-shifting sand. Between these two extremes lies stable Earth, with its feet firmly planted on the ground, and yet with sufficient balance to move securely forward when movement is required.

You may find that your next bath can be a lesson which teaches you as much as a whole lecture on the Earth element!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Experiencing grief for a day

Not long ago I experienced something which had never happened before and which gave me quite a different insight into one element in particular, the Metal element. I woke one day feeling unutterably sad. Though I racked my brains I could find no reason for this. Nothing was then happening which could be causing me the kind of sense of deep loss I was experiencing, nor could I pin it down to any recent event which might have occurred around this time of the year. I looked at the season I was in, and it was not autumn, Metal’s season, when we might all feel a little melancholic at the imminent death of the year. Nor did the date have any particular resonance for me, as I fretted away at my memory. So where had this overwhelming, all-permeating feeling of sadness come from?

The feeling lasted just that one day. By the evening it was fading, and by the morning it had gone completely, never to this day to re-appear. At one level it puzzles me that I should have been so shot through with such an unfamiliar emotion, one that even in times of deepest distress at some real loss in my life I had so far never experienced. Its very unfamiliarity was disturbing, for it propelled me into unfamiliar emotional territory.. I felt cut off, alienated from my surroundings, and unwilling or unable to share my thoughts with anybody else. I felt as if I was wandering alone like a shadow amongst strangers, unapproachable, as though nobody could reach me beneath this mantle of grief that I was enveloped in, like a garment I could not take off.

The memory of this strange day has faded, but its significance has not, because at some time during it I found myself saying to myself, “so this is what it is like to be Metal. This is what Metal people must be feeling at every moment of their lives.” Was this realization the reason I was asked to experience such an unsettling day? Now I like to think it was, for that journey on to what I like to think is Metal’s territory and my identification, however briefly, with the emotional terrain upon which Metal lives its life, have given me deep, personal insights into this element which I think I could have gained in no other way. These have stayed with me ever since, and guide me with a surer hand to my diagnosis of Metal in other people.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Favourite books I have recently read

Sebastian Barry The secret scripture
William Blacker Along the enchanted way (about living in rural Roumania)
Chris Cleave The other hand
Anne Enright The Gathering
Petina Gappah An elegy for Easterly (short stories about Zimbabwe)
LLoyd Jones Master Pip
Dimitri Kakmi Motherland (about a Greek/Turkish island)
Reif Laarsen The selected works of TS Spivet (a young boy & his maps)
Colum McCann Let the great world spin
David Nobbs Second from last in the sack race
Gina Ochsner The Russian dreambook of colours and flight
Dalia Sofer The Septembers of Shiraz
Preeta Samarasan Evening is the whole day
Amy Sackville The still point
Anthony Trollope Last chronicle of Barset
Thrity Umrigar The space between us
Tommy Wieringa Joe Speedboat

Detective novels (my form of escapism)

Anything by:

Colin Cockerill
Andrea Camilleri
Anna Dean
Suzette Hill
HRF Keating
Petros Markaris
Catriona McPherson
Qiu Xiaolong
Matt Rees
Jacqueline Winspear

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Coffee shops I have known

I find that I tend to orientate myself in any town I visit, and above all in the one I live in, London, by the stopping-places for coffee I have found for myself. Somewhere something of my Viennese birthright remains in me, though the Austrian side of my family was forced to leave Vienna when I was very tiny, bringing with it some of the mystique which surrounds that old Viennese institution, the Kaffeehaus. It still evokes for me images of a place where writers and musicians gathered, newspapers were read and society mingled over cups of coffee laced with cream and accompanied by Sachertorte, that special Viennese chocolate cake.

Such places have now become for me places of work, in which I have written all the first drafts of my books. I write in short bursts, by hand, perhaps a page or at the most two at a time, then turn to a book I am always reading, coffee cup in hand to complete my daily ritual. What I look for is a corner where I can tuck myself away, good espresso with a touch of hot milk, and, if possible no music, although silence is increasingly difficult to find. I often only drink one small sip at a time, leaving much of it in the cup, for it is the smell that I savour, the bitter-sweet smell of sweetened coffee, an adrenal rush if ever there is one, giving a boost for my thoughts. I like the anonymity of a public place where nobody knows me, and nobody can contact me. I add steadily to my stock of cafes, exploring new ones, discarding old ones, and have become a great source of knowledge about these staging-posts for my friends.

My accountant has baulked at including the cost of these trips to the cafe in my accounts, although of all things that support my writing these tiny cups of the cheapest coffee are, in my view, by far the most legitimate expense, far outweighing such mundane things as stationery or travel. But there we are. I will continue to bear the costs without complaining, knowing as I do that the presence of each tiny cup on the table in front of me is as essential to my writing as the computer with which I transcribe the handwritten pages emerging slowly on the table next to them.

It occurs to me that it would be fitting if I dedicated each of my books to the cafe in which I spent the greatest time writing it, a different one for each book, much as the writer Russell Hoban did for the restaurants in which he wrote his books. To the coffee houses of London I therefore herewith dedicate my books.

Five element acupuncture made simple: Find the element and treat it

The more I think about five element acupuncture and practise it, the more I realise that I am honing it down to its very pure essentials. As I said at the seminar I gave last week at The College of Traditional Acupuncture in Warwick, it all comes down to two apparently very simple principles: Find the element, and then treat it.

The difficult part here is the first part, finding the element, though it is not as difficult as it is sometimes made out to be if we try and remove as much stress from ourselves in doing this. The treating part,again if approached properly, is the easier.

Finding the element: We are told that all we need to do is home in on one of the five elements through the colour, sound, smell and emotion it imprints on us, and we are away. We should not image that the skills this demands are easy to acquire. It always takes time to tune our eyes, ears, noses and emotional sensors, and the way to help ourselves is to accept this rather than to dwell on our own shortcomings. The less pressure we put on ourselves to "get things right" immediately, the more freely we will work and the quicker we will become at interpreting what our senses are telling us. So here the advice, as always, is: take it slowly. It will take as long as it will take, and don't be in a hurry, or blame the discipline instead of recognising that this calling is a lifetime's work, rather than that of a few years at acupuncture college. Interestingly, it is we who are more in a hurry than our patients, because I have always found that if they feel we are confident in what we are doing, they are quite happy to give us the time we need to get to know them.

Treating the element: Once having decided on the element we want to treat, the protocols for this treatment can be summarized in very simple terms (see my Handbook of Five Element Practice for help with this, And always remember that you should think "element" here, not "individual points". I like to tell people to ignore the false lure of the point. Points are only ways of accessing the energies of the different elements, and have no intrinsic value in themselves except insofar as they represent different ways of reaching down below the surface to these energies. Practitioners can all too easily be enticed away from this simple fact, bury themselves in point manuals which tend to talk of points in isolation, and often in rather florid terms, and ignore the roots which feed each point.

Finally: The practitioner's mantra must always be: Keep it simple. If in doubt, simplify, and return to that most miraculous of points, the source (yuan) point!

Monday, March 8, 2010

A few journeys into acupuncture's past

For the last two illuminating days I have immersed myself in the Chinese classics with Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée, looking again at the concepts underlying the practice of acupuncture, and thinking about how far I can translate these 2000 year-old thoughts into my 21st century practice.

For details of Elisabeth’s teaching schedule in England, contact Peter Firebrace, at, and for elsewhere around the world

My seminar with Elisabeth made me focus once more on my translation of a book by the French acupuncturist Jacques Lavier which I had rather laid aside for other things. Lavier was a teacher of many of the pioneers of acupuncture in this country, including JR Worsley and Dick van Buren. I am still in touch with Dr Mary Austin, one of this band, now into her mid-90s, who has given me many fascinating insights into those early days when a group gathered around Lavier in a Charing Cross Hotel room once or twice a year. They then dispersed, eventually to found different schools of acupuncture, each with a different emphasis, JR on developing the concept of an element as the causative factor of disease, and Dick van Buren, who taught Giovanni Maciocia, concentrating on stems and branches.

Lavier has written several books, none of which, as far as I can find out, has yet been translated into English. The one I chose to translate is called Histoire, doctrine et pratique de l’acupuncture chinoise, and was first published in 1966. The book forms an important link in the transmission of acupuncture from East to West, and should be available to the many people who can read it only in English. Lavier’s daughter owns the copyright, and I have her consent to undertake the translation.

Now I need to find a publisher who can undertake the task of good editing, which the book needs for a modern readership. Anybody know anybody out there who might be interested?

Additions to your book list: For an excellent historical survey of acupuncture’s journey from East to West, which places Lavier in a historical context, you can’t do better than get a copy of Peter Eckman’s In the Footsteps of the Yellow Emperor, available from Copies of Mary Austin’s book, Acupuncture Therapy, which gives another take on five element acupuncture, are available from SOFEA,

Friday, March 5, 2010

"Remember, Nora, five element acupuncture has been going for 2000 years"

Isn’t it interesting how things come towards us, old or new acquaintances encountered, words written or spoken, as though intended to move us on just at the right moment? Just such a thing happened yesterday, when I read an interview with Arnaud Versluys in the latest edition of EJOM, the Journal of Oriental Medicine (Vol 6, No 3, 2009), which has just landed in my letter box. I went to a seminar given by him at the Rothenburg conference a few years ago, and remember listening as other TCM practitioners, not brought up in a five element tradition, showed their fascination with what were, to them, the new ideas in his talk on energy transfers across the five element circle, and thinking to myself, “but this is what I do every day in my practice”.

Some of what he says in this interview resonates so strongly with my thinking that it has helped reinvigorate my hope for the future of acupuncture.

“…… the structure of our medicine is a non-linear, very chaotic structure. It’s not even designed to be known completely. That’s why I strongly advocate that individual practitioners commit to one style of practice. “

“By virtue of practitioners focusing on one style, they would be really good at what they do and they wouldn’t be spread so thin. Because now everybody is spread way too thin.”

But again, on a darker note, “The future of Chinese medicine is dark, cold and basically one of death. We have a few generations left if we are lucky. I don’t see that there is a prosperous, bright future for Chinese medicine.”

His take on the future is understandable, given the acupuncture environment in which he received his training in China, in which a kind of sterile orthodoxy rules, unfortunately like much acupuncture training in this country. I am not so pessimistic, although I, too, have had many dark moments in my fight for five element acupuncture. My fears have dimmed somewhat over the past year, because I have seen evidence that the kind of teaching I received, and, I hope, passed on, has borne greater fruit than I at one point thought possible.

For I was fortunate, as Arnaud Versluys has been, to learn from a clinical teacher of the highest calibre, JR Worsley, with more knowledge in his sensitive finger-tips than any textbook could ever teach. And as I have seen the lineage to which he was heir strengthen and develop in the last years in particular, so my fears have lessened.

To encourage me in my hopes, I always hear JR saying to me, “Remember, Nora, five element acupuncture has been going for 2000 years. It won’t die out now.”

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Little five element shoots of spring

There seem to be lots of little five element shoots springing up all around me, quite unexpectedly, from seeds sown when SOFEA was an undergraduate school.

I am teaching on a course organized by Sarah Matheson in Hove starting in April, , at the Rothenburg conference in Germany in May (, in Hamburg in September (, and on a new course being run by one of our graduates, Henrik Mathisen, in Oslo ( And then there are my regular visits to practices in Zurich. I gather, too, that my seminar on 10th March at the College of Traditional Acupuncture in Warwick ( is now fully booked.

This year brings to an end a fallow period after the school closed, and feels good.