I need first to define my understanding of the condition itself before trying to come up with a suitable new term for it. It will help by describing what is, in effect, the very simple test we use to diagnose it. Here the practitioner looks very closely straight into one of the patient’s eyes, and assesses how the patient reacts to this strongly focussed look. In everyday life it is rare for us to stare straight into somebody’s eyes in this way, unless in an aggressive or very loving way. In the normal course of events such an intense stare becomes uncomfortable both for the person staring and for the person being stared it, so that both will try to break off this close eye contact as soon as possible. As a diagnostic tool in five element acupuncture, we are looking to see whether the patient does not react as expected, but instead continues to maintain eye contact without any apparent sign of discomfort. In a non-possessed patient, there will be an almost immediate movement to the eye, a blink or a turning away, as evidence of the natural discomfort felt at being stared at in this way. In possessed people, however, this does not happen; the patient continues to stare unblinkingly at the practitioner.
This is the only, I repeat only, fail-safe way to diagnose this condition. If present, it then requires a specific treatment which will clear it if done properly. For the actual procedure, I would refer you to my Handbook of Five Element Practice (chapter 7 in the new Singing Dragon Press edition), which describes this in detail.
I have thought a great deal about what can cause possession, and then why the term seems to me to be an inaccurate and therefore misleading description, however ingrained it is in five element practice. Most of my learning has come from observing my patients, chief amongst which is my experience of treating a young woman many years ago. She had come for help to enable her to overcome her inability to sit down and eat with other people, having instead always to eat on her own. She could not tell me when this fear of eating with others had started, nor could she think of any particular reason to explain it. A few minutes after I had carried out the possession treatment, she said suddenly: “When my mother went blind when I was 6…” When I expressed my amazement that she had not told me this before, she was surprised to learn that she had not, adding, “They took me away to stay with my grandmother, and I thought my mother had died. That was when I started to refuse to eat with other people.” I realised then that the treatment had unlocked a door to her past which had been closed since her childhood. I have had similar experiences with many other patients, where the possession treatment opened up some past history which was hindering them from living a full life.
I have come to regard possession as a form of defence mechanism protecting a patient from reliving some overpowering previous experience, a way of shutting themselves off from continuing to experience something that originally overwhelmed them. When I was studying many years ago, one of my tutors told us that he regarded possession simply as a more extreme form of obsession, a condition in which the patient tries to gain some control over something which has overwhelmed them, whilst, in most cases, still managing to lead an apparently normal life. In some people, however, such experiences become so overpowering that they cannot be controlled and can lead to serious psychological conditions, such as schizophrenia.
I do not regard possession as being the result of the invasion of some external force which the term might seem to imply. I see it instead as an internal mechanism which patients develop to help them cope with a very difficult situation which they cannot deal with in any other way. It is as though they put up a protective glass screen behind which they can hide themselves from the world, but which is often not visible to those around them. My young patient had been living an apparently normal life, except with regard to her eating arrangements. Possession should always therefore be seen as an escape route taken by those subject to some intolerable inner pain.
It is not easy to think of a good replacement term which removes the connection to other uses of the term which have a religious or mystical bias. I am thinking this through carefully, and the only alternative I can think of at the moment is the term “Internal Dragons”. This is the name given to one of the group of seven acupuncture points used in this treatment. I remember being told some years ago that the seven points we use could be regarded as seven dragons chasing away seven demons, an image I liked. This may again come a little too close to the concept of possession as occurring as a result of some invasion from outside, a kind of take-over by an alien force. However, we can think of demons in much the same way as we talk of a person being subject to the “demon drink”, something somebody brings upon themselves, not something which attacks them from outside.
It is heart-warming to me that five element acupuncture has such a simple and profound treatment protocol for helping restore to good health people suffering from such dislocation in their lives, and one which can break down the internal barrier that life has forced them to place between themselves and the world outside. I find the image of calling upon kindly dragons to fight the internal demons which are trying to take control of our patients’ lives strangely comforting.
If I, and others around me, can think of a better term which satisfies the Chinese objections, I will pass this on in a future blog.