Thursday, April 23, 2020

None of us can escape our past

During these terrible days as COVID19 locks down the world, I have been thinking a lot about what may cause some of those in power to react in the often disturbing ways they do when faced with dealing with the pandemic decimating their countries.  These thoughts have been triggered by a comment I read today by Philippe Sands in the Guardian newspaper who was discussing his latest book, The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive.  He writes that he was at the International Court of Justice listening to Aung San Suu Kyi trying to justify the Myanmar military’s actions against the Rohingya community, and asks, “How could she not see the facts as others did?” Answering himself, he wonders whether the reason may lie in her relationship to her father, the previous ruler.  He then transfers this thought to the son of the man who was in charge of the extermination of the Jews in Poland during the war, including members of his own family, and wonders whether this son has learnt to accept his father’s appalling actions as “a way of being able to live, a means of survival”.

This made me think of Donald Trump, as I tried to apply this understanding to his inability to empathize in any way with another human being.  I then tried to relate my thoughts to my knowledge of the five elements.  I have always believed that Aung San Suu Kyi is of the Metal element, and can see that her need to maintain her father’s legacy, possibly added to the effects of years of enforced isolation, may indeed be her “way of being able to live, a means of survival” that somebody not subject to Metal’s yearning for an absent father may be unable to understand.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, is, I think, of the Wood element, at the opposite point of the five element circle.  Do his words and actions show a Wood element which is pathologically out of balance?  We know that Wood is the child among the five elements, and it is significant that a speech expert described Trump’s way of talking as “oddly adolescent”.  There is definitely something frighteningly childish about him.  Perhaps this can be traced back to a childhood in which his mother apparently played little part, his brother saying that the children rarely saw their mother.  Since we know the emotion associated with the Wood element is anger, it is not surprising, therefore, that this is the emotional atmosphere in which Trump feels most at home, quite happily stoking up anger in all who surround him, like a child indulging in tantrums.  It is terrifying that somebody with more power than anybody else in the world should be the least able to exercise any self-control. 

But perhaps, like the other two examples I mentioned, Aung San Suu Kyi and the son of the prominent Nazi, this is his “only way of being able to live, a means of survival”.  And perhaps this applies to us, too, for how each of us lives our life can indeed be said to be our only way of being alive, and a means of survival, though we hope with less extreme consequences for the people around us.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Some more little pointers to the Wood element

I was with a Wood friend one day and after a few hours in her company I realised that I wanted to ask her an odd question, which was, “Do you ever have doubts?”  I wondered why this question had popped into my mind and realised it was because the hours with her had in a subtle way undermined me.  She seemed so sure of everything she said, stating everything as an established fact.  It was as if I was listening to many statements all having the effect of a pronouncement, a kind of “this is so”, and “that is so” and “that is all there is to say about it.”

I asked myself why this had thrown me as much as it obviously did, because there I was half a day later still slightly disturbed.  Mulling this over, as I always do when something happens which throws me off-balance, I realised that the strong certainty with which she talked about things had caught me on the hop by highlighting what I felt were my own uncertainties and making them look like weaknesses.

 If I look carefully at the times when I think of myself as uncertain, it is not in fact the result of weakness, rather the reverse.  It represents merely the necessary time my Inner Fire (Small Intestine) needs to weigh up possible alternatives, because I always have to allow myself to see two sides of every situation.  In contrast to Wood  I am asking myself: “It may be like this, but I must also consider whether it may on the other hand be like this.”  And then my Inner Fire carries on with its ceaseless work of sorting what it is right for the Heart to do.

The Wood element, on the other hand, has other priorities.  Wood does not have the luxury of weighing up pros and cons.  It is there to get on with things, and its decisions have to be rapid and taken in a “no turning back” kind of spirit.  Once made, these decisions have to be put into effect as soon as possible, and once it has decided what its opinion about anything is, that fixes it, if not for all time, then certainly for the immediate future.  During the time I spent with my Wood friend, I heard many statements of fact which sounded as though they were my friend’s firm opinions.  With each of her emphatic statements I could feel any confidence in my own certainties fading a little, as my Small Intestine tried to take on board what was being so firmly offered as fact.  It often felt itself swayed by these dogmatic statements because it couldn’t give itself enough time to assess whether at heart it agreed with them or not. 

This was another important lesson for me on the differences between Wood’s ability to make decision and my own, and also gave me further insights into Inner Fire’s potential weaknesses, as well as its potential strengths.  These are related to its need always to see the other side of the question and therefore to evaluate the relative merits of the arguments being presented to it.   I feel that Wood has no such hesitations.  Once having made up its mind, that is it.  And as I put it myself, it can’t afford to have doubts, because doubts will hold it back from acting, and action is above all what Wood wants.

I learned a further lesson about the Wood element from one of my Wood patients who told me, rather aggressively, that he found my presence challenging, and, being also an acupuncturist, he attributed this to my being, he thought by mistake, of the Wood element.  Although I have learnt over the years never to show that I am taken aback by personal comments from patients, I found that I reacted inside myself with quite a vehement desire to answer back sharply, and had to hold myself back from doing so.  Afterwards I found that the episode had disturbed my inner equilibrium, and I tried to work out why this was.  By dint of some careful self-examination, I realised that this patient had projected on to me his own dislike of being challenged and had in effect made me angry, often the effect Wood can have when the Wood person or I are out of balance.  I then analysed my feelings to see what they told me about anger in myself and how far my reaction had been unbalanced, before finally using what I learned from this as a way of understanding not only the Wood element better, but other elements within me, such as Water (my fear of the anger) and Fire (my own element’s reaction to stress).  An interaction of just a few minutes therefore became through this a valuable lesson about the part of me which reacted to the Wood element, as well as about Wood and other elements in general.

Sometimes I come across very appropriate quotations about the elements in books that I read which I like to collect.  Here is one about the Wood element in a book by Helen Dunmore called The Spell in Winter

I was bad at anger;  I’d always been bad at anger.  There was something pitiful in Miss Gallagher which muddled me.”

I, too, have always been "bad at anger".  That doesn't mean that I don't get angry.  I certainly do.  But my anger leaves a strong aftertaste in me which it takes me a long time to get rid of.  It is as though I am ashamed of feeling this emotion.  The "something pitiful" which the protagonist in this book feels is something which resonates with me, because I also tend to find quite legitimate excuses for the behaviour in people that has provoked my anger.

Thus do I learn a little more each day about myself, about my Inner Fire and about my relationship to the Wood element.

Finally, here is a lovely illustration of Wood’s sensitivity to the effects of acupuncture treatment.  It would help us in corroborating some of the principles according to which we work if patients were able to report precise effects when feeding back on the outcome of any particular treatment, but it is rare for patients’ assessment of improvement (or otherwise) to be so precise as to enable us to relate this to any particular treatment rather than to a combination of treatments.  To encourage us, however, it does, occasionally happen that a patient may say something like, “whatever you did last time made me feel marvellous (made my backache better, helped me cope better)”.

On rare occasions, feedback can be even more specific.   I treasure still, like some beacon in this particular wilderness, the memory of a Wood patient who, when I needled Gall Bladder 40, described immediately in perfect detail the pathway of part of the Gall Bladder meridian.  He traced the movement of energy down to the toe and back up along the outer leg, where with great accuracy he showed me the odd lateral dip the Gall Bladder is said to take at mid-calf, and then continued to draw a path up over his knee to his abdomen, finally arriving at his head, where he said, “I seem to feel something up here at the side of my eye.”  I have had other Wood patients describe the line of some movement of energy along a Gall Bladder pathway in this way, but none so precisely as this.  It may well be that Wood, the element which structures us, can feel the structure of its own shape reasserting itself as more energy, like sap in a plant, courses through its pathways as a result of treatment.   I have not had such detailed descriptions of the passage of energy from patients of other elements.                                                                                                                    

Monday, April 13, 2020

The challenge of being a five element acupuncturist

We must never be too quick to say “I know this patient’s element is obviously Fire (or Wood or Earth or Metal or Water)”.  There is nothing “obvious” at all about the way in which an element presents itself to us.  We may learn to recognize its presence more and more clearly with time, but we should always keep a healthy question-mark hanging over it reminding us that elements can hide themselves so subtly behind manifestations of other elements that they still have the power to surprise us, as they do me even after all these years.  Pride, as they say, comes before a fall, and never is this truer when trying to diagnose an element.  We risk much if we think our understanding of the elements is greater than it truly is.

If the presence of an element were so simple to detect, we would all be brilliant five element acupuncturists from early on in our career, but human beings are much more complex than we think.  So we should never underestimate the time it will take us to find the one element buried deep within the circle of the elements which gives each of us our individual stamp of uniqueness.

In any case, the secret of good five element acupuncture is not simply managing to diagnose the right element, despite this being what many practitioners think.  Instead it is learning to respond appropriately to that particular element’s needs in that particular patient.  Even if we diagnose the right element, do we know how to respond to its needs in a way which makes the patient feel that they have been heard as they want to be heard?  If that understanding is not there, treatment will rest on fallow ground, however much it may be focused upon the right element.

Supposing, for example, that we diagnose a patient’s element, correctly, as Metal, but respond to it in a way which would be more appropriate to an Earth patient, offering a kind of “Oh dear, Oh dear, you poor thing” kind of response, we will find that our Metal patient soon backs away and decides not to continue treatment.  Our own element may be Earth and it may be natural for us, mistakenly, to offer to all our patients what we ourselves feel most comfortable with.  Unfortunately, however, we have to learn to feel comfortable in the company of elements not our own.  To surround Metal, for example, with a kind of enveloping sympathy is not what it wants.  It will feel suffocated by it, its Lung unable to breathe.  Instead we must learn to offer the space it always wants to place between itself and others.

And the same holds true for how we need to approach our interactions with the other elements.  As far as possible, then, we must learn to suppress the needs of our own element and think ourselves into those of the element we have chosen to treat.  This is not an easy task, and one that it takes some skill and much practice to acquire.