Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A view from inside the Water element

I have just received some very illuminating insights into the Water element sent to me all the way from India by a friend of mine whose guardian element is Water.  She wrote this after reading my blog on Walking in the Street (24 June).

“I read your recent blog, which was interesting. These short, simple observations of each element in a particular situation are very easy to remember and think about. It's also certainly a fact that on the street, I would look at people but immediately look away! I think it is because I don't want them to know that I am looking at them unless they want to initiate contact. If they smile, for example, I would spontaneously smile back and maintain contact for a short while before looking around. It's as if I feel I am transparent and everyone is always able to see through me (literally I mean) and that everyone is trying to read my mind and judge me. And I need to distract most people (except those I am very comfortable with) from something I may have been focussing on by looking here and there, away from what originally caught my attention. I think this is what partly causes the jerkiness that is experienced by others in Water. It's also as if I need to constantly check the environment to condition my own response or state of being to it, perhaps a bit like water which changes its state so often. This takes up a lot of physical and mental energy unconsciously in its own way (as Fire does in its attempt to reach out and every other element in their individual ways).”

And I would direct anybody interested in reading about India to Sujata’s own beautifully written blog about her life in India:  http://sujatavaradarajan.blogspot.co.uk/

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Walking in the street: a lesson in the elements

I have learnt something more about the Fire element and about myself this week.  It seems that I need to interact with everybody I pass in the street, as though apparently trying to set up a fleeting relationship with those walking towards me.  I can even find myself on the tip of talking to them (about the weather, or the state of the pavement, or whatever), and have to hold myself back.  I am amazed at just how much effort I seem to be expending on these tiny, second-long interactions.  What I am doing is trying to look into people's eyes, if they will let me, in an attempt to evoke a response from them.  And because I have been observing myself closely as I pass people, I am also observing them as they pass me.  I have been passed by those who, like me, look me straight in the eye, by people who don’t seem to notice I am there, but obviously must because they don’t bump into me, by people completely absorbed in their own thoughts, by people careful to let me pass and by people simply brushing me aside.

Since Fire is the only element which needs to set up relationships wherever it finds itself, this has been the easiest element for me to carry out my mini-diagnoses on.  The other elements are more difficult to detect in those few seconds of our encounter, but I have discovered all kinds of pointers in the way they notice or don’t seem to notice me.  So here are just a few rules-of-thumb (what an odd expression that is!*) when next you are out in the street:

Fire looks into your eyes
Wood hurries to get past you
Earth is absorbed in their own thoughts
Metal looks through you
Water may glance at you but also all around you (as usual Water is the most difficult to pin down in this as in everything else it does)

Of course, all of us can do all these things, whatever our element, but these tiny pointers can be surprisingly useful in helping us understand the elements a little better.

Finally, none of the above holds true for those walking and talking on their mobile phones, in which case the Metal element will reveal itself in all of us whatever our element.  We hold a metal object, the phone, and listen to words coming to us from the far-distant ether and send our own words back out there into distant space.  No doubt in doing this we will all take on that Metal look of appearing to look through everybody we pass!

(*Just looked this up in Wikipedia:  “The term is thought to originate with wood workers who used the width of their thumbs (i.e., inches) rather than rulers for measuring things, cementing its modern use as an imprecise yet reliable and convenient standard”)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

More about silence

I have just started to translate the section on sounds and tones in Elisabeth Rochat’s book 101 Key Concepts of Chinese Medicine.  This, taken together with the subject of my other blog today, The Simpler the Better, has set me thinking more deeply about sound and its hidden companion, silence.  

The words for sound and tone in French, “son” and “ton”, are so similar to each other, and much more so than in English, that I found that I was quite often using them interchangeably.  We know that each element imprints a particular sound upon our voice, but what Elisabeth Rochat has helped me understand is that the tone of a voice expresses something deeper and more individual than the sound itself, for it conveys the way in which the sound is being made, and the particular emotional intensity it reveals.  If I return to my analogy of music, as I did in my last blog, it is as though sounds are what are made if I were to strike different piano keys, but tones are what a pianist can draw from these same keys when interpreting Mozart’s music.

I was also reminded of one my favourite quotations: “Le silence ├ęternel de ces espaces infinies m’effrayent (the eternal silence of those infinite spaces terrifies me)”, which the 16th C French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote after contemplating the night sky overhead.  To human ears, the universe beyond us does indeed seem as silent as Pascal felt it to be, but modern instruments have replaced Pascal’s silence with extraordinary outpourings of sounds streaming towards us from the most distant edges of space.  Perhaps Pascal would have found this eternal noise just as terrifying as the silence he heard.

The thought that the whole universe is resonating to some frequency of sound adds a further layer to what I do.  For if each of us can be seen to have our own tiny frequency of vibration, its tones must ring true if we are in harmony within ourselves and ring false if we are not.  The acupuncturist’s needle can then be seen to act like a tuning fork, adjusting the frequencies at which the elements vibrate within us.  Our skill lies in learning to judge when it is time to put our needles aside once we feel that these vibrations ring to a true tone. 

And then indeed we should say, “And the rest is silence.”

The simpler the better

It is interesting how often I return to the phrase “the simpler the better” when helping acupuncturists gain confidence in their five element skills.  And I keep on repeating it because, much to my continuing surprise, what I say does not appear to be actually what people want to hear.  It seems as if, instead, they prefer to believe the opposite to be true, that the more complicated things are the better.

One reason may be because people like to take pride in thinking that their discipline is a complex one requiring hard work to practise it.  To encourage its practitioners to greater levels of simplicity may appear to run directly counter to this, as though it strips away some of this pride.  It also takes courage to trust that minimum interference may mean maximum effectiveness, but there is no doubt in my mind that it does.

Nor must we think that it is easy to be simple, for this is far from the case.  Some of the most sublime music ever composed is that of Mozart’s piano concertos, where the pianist may only interject a single note as counterpoint to the orchestra.  And yet if that note were placed a bar earlier or a bar later, or at a slightly higher or lower tone, the whole perfection of the musical structure would be broken. These single notes could appear to be written by a child, and yet they are the product of the highest level of creativity.

I like to feel that we can show some of this creative ability in our own work, if, instead of bombarding the elements with a plethora of points, often picked at random from one of those books on points I dislike so much, we dare to hone our selection down to a few simple points, and end on the single note of a command point.  Treatment, like music, should then be allowed to fall silent, as we give the elements the time to carry on their healing work without further interference from us.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Our relationship to food - and what it tells us about the Earth element

I have been thinking a lot about our relationship to food in a five element context.  First, because I was asked by a fellow practitioner to help her treat an anorexic patient, and secondly, because I was made aware over this Jubilee weekend in London of my own often unbalanced relationship to the eating of chocolate.

Second things first:  I have always attributed my odd cravings around chocolate to my upbringing during the Second World War when there was no chocolate in the shops.  My family spent a major part of the war in what was then called rural Westmoreland in flight from the Blitz in London.  We rented a rat-infested little cottage by the lakeside in Bowness-on-Windermere, which had an old pre-war food kiosk in the road outside.  In its window there was a display box of what were obviously paper chocolates, getting dustier by the day over the four years we were there.  I would press my nose against the glass to look longingly at them, imagining to myself what they would taste like.  Chocolates remained rationed long after the war ended, and being from a large family, we were each only allowed one small piece once a week.  I always think that this may explain part of why chocolate is still something I yearn for, even though I can now buy as much as I like.  Interestingly I hardly ever do, but if I am given a box, I will be hard put not to eat it all one go, as though making up for all those years of deprivation.

Buried in this personal story, though, there hides a great lesson about our understanding of the element which controls our attitude to food, the Earth element, our Mother element, and the element of hearth and home, which shelters the Stomach official and all that involves our relationship to food .  And this brings me now to the anorexic patient.  Food is inevitably associated with our mothers, and therefore with the kind of mothering, nurturing and feeding of body and soul which we each received as a child and which stamped itself upon how our Earth element deals with the food we are given.  With eating problems of all kinds, whether those associated with over-eating or under-eating, we need to look at the kind of nurturing our patients received in childhood.  If we look deeply enough, it will be there that we may find some explanation for what may later on have disturbed our patients’ approach to food.  In my own case, I feel it was no coincidence that, war child that I was, there were long periods when we were left in our grandmother’s care to free our mother to return to London for weeks at a time to help our father with his London work.

It is revealing, too, to see the changes in body-shape which under- and over-eating cause.  An anorexic person can appear to be shrinking gradually back down to their shape as a young child, as weight drops off, muscle loses its tone and menstruation ceases.  An obese person moves in the opposite direction, as bulk is added.  It is as though they are forming themselves into a shape which accommodates not only themselves but somebody else inside their skin.  They appear to be enclosing themselves within something which could be said to offer the warm comfort of a home into whose arms they can sink.  And this great envelope of flesh seems to be able to offer them an endless supply of food for a hunger that cannot be satisfied unless the deep underlying needs can be acknowledged and understood.

We may think that such imbalances in the Earth element point to this element being the guardian element in each of these cases, but that is not so.  Any of the five elements, including Earth, may suffer from eating problems.  The anorexic patient I saw this week was of the Wood element, and my element is Fire.  In each case, though, it is our Earth element which takes on the burden (emotionally and physically) of whatever imbalance lies at the root of the problems.   

Finally, since the actual level of food intake is the effect, not the cause, of a patient’s imbalance, it is unhelpful to focus all our and our patients’ attention upon the amount of food consumed, as many therapies dealing with eating problems do.  Instead we need to help patients work out ways of dealing with the underlying problems, and this is done by strengthening the guardian element’s ability to restore balance. My craving for chocolate, I always think, is more to do with my mother’s absences from home and my fear that something might happen to her under the London bombings than to the rather sad paper chocolates in the kiosk window.