Saturday, April 25, 2015

"The truth is always kept in a far place"

Somebody, I don’t remember who now, gave me this lovely quotation which haunts me, though I’m not sure exactly what it means: “The truth is always kept in a far place”.  The words have a lovely ring to them, and awake in me an image of a far-distant land with at its centre a lovely picture of Truth, who I see as a graceful woman presiding over this far country.  Perhaps the reason the words affect me so much now has something to do with my latest visit to a far-distant land, that of China, for my seventh visit there a week or so ago, though why should I be thinking of truth residing there?

Probably this is because in some ways it is truth which I discover each time I return there, the truth of what I have dedicated the second half of my life to, this discipline of mine called five element acupuncture.  For each visit strengthens my conviction of the deep truths about the human condition underlying what I do.  Somehow in China these truths become ever more evident to me, because of the speed at which my Chinese students so quickly understand what I teach them and unquestioningly accept the fundamentals of five element practice as though they are absolutely self-evident to them.  It is rare for those I have taught in the UK and Europe to reach such an instinctive and profound understanding as rapidly as do the Chinese. To us Europeans they are at first in what seems to be a foreign language, which it takes us much time to understand, whilst to the Chinese they are familiar concepts underlying all their lives.

I have been privileged to be invited by Professor Liu Lihong into this (geographically) “far place” in a way which still surprises me for its rightness at this stage of my life.  Each visit to China strengthens my bonds to my students over there and reinforces my gratitude for being given such a gift.

To Professor Liu and the 80 students who sat enthralled in our classes as they gained insights into something which for them is often a new discipline of acupuncture, I send my thanks for the happy time we spent together.  And these thanks I also pass on to Long Mei and Guy Caplan who shared this seventh step on my journey to China so creatively with me.

I am sure I heard this quotation from somebody whilst I was in China last November.  Perhaps one of those reading this blog over there will tell me who it was.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The three levels of the human being: body, mind and spirit

I remember one very important day during my training under JR Worsley at Leamington 30 years ago.  We were learning about Aggressive Energy, and JR was explaining to us why it was so essential to insert the needles very shallowly into the Associated Effect Points on the back (back shu points) so that each needle barely penetrated the skin.  What I remember most clearly was the diagram he drew to illustrate this, simply a small block of three parallel lines one above the other, with a needle just nicking the top line but not penetrating below to the other two lines.  He said that this illustrated the three levels of body, mind and spirit.  The superficial level was represented by the line at the top into which the needle was inserted.  The bottom line was the level of the spirit, and the line between these two represented the mind, the intermediary between the body on the surface and the spirit in the depths.  For the purposes of the AE drain, the needle inserted at the physical level would draw any Aggressive Energy from the spirit up through the intermediary, the mental level, and then out from the body, the physical level, at the top.  This would appear as red markings around the needle as the Aggressive Energy drained away slowly to the outside air.  If the needle was inserted too deeply, any Aggressive Energy was pushed further inside, causing greater harm as it invaded the spirit.

This picture of the three levels of the human being has stayed with me since then, providing an excellent illustration of the emphasis in five element acupuncture on the importance of treating the deep (the spirit) and through this also treating the physical.  Many therapies, including different branches of acupuncture, concentrate treatment at the superficial level, the physical, and ignore its connections with what lies deep within us.  But the two levels, with the mental acting as intermediary between them, cannot be detached from one another in this way.  If we ignore the deep, it will call out more and more insistently for our attention, often doing this through the increased severity of physical symptoms.  We ignore at our peril what is deep within us, our souls, and do our patients a grave disservice if we concentrate too much of our treatment on the superficial.

This is what I want to talk about to the 80 or more acupuncturists who will be gathered together at our seminar in Nanning in 10 days’ time.  And as I have found during my six other visits there, this is one of the most important lessons that five element acupuncture can teach them.

To understand what lies deep within a patient’s spirit also demands compassion from us as practitioners.  Only with compassion can patients allow themselves to open up this deepest, and thus most vulnerable, part of themselves, their soul.

“The lost art of exchanging glances”

I am delighted to have found myself only yesterday in very exalted company, with none other than the historian Simon Schama as my companion.  In an article in the Guardian as part of the launch of a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery here in London, called The Face of Britain, he says:  “…society would be a better place if people, perhaps on their daily commute, actually looked at the faces of strangers”.  Anybody who has read my blogs of 24 February and 1 March will know how warmly I support what he says.

He is also very scathing about the craze for those instant self-portraits we know of as selfies (horrible word, I always think).  He says, “What we love about selfies and phones is that it’s of the moment, but the true object of art is endurance….”  “The meteorite shower of images that we contribute to and come to us every single day in every medium, especially social media, is the equivalent of white noise, and great portraits deliver the music.”

It is very comforting that I am not alone in thinking thoughts such as these.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

"Step into the blank of your mind"

I love this quote which comes from a poem by somebody called Richard Wilbur:

     “As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there
      As a general raises his hand and is given the field-glasses,
      Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.
      Something will come to you.”

It represents very accurately what I often feel as I sit, pen in hand, waiting for some thought to come to me which I think is worth pursuing.  At the moment I am indeed faced with the “blank of my mind” in relationship to writing about acupuncture.  I have concluded that this may be because I am just about to set off for my seventh visit to China, and as usual my mind is preoccupied with planning what I will take with me, and, much more importantly than any clothes, what the overall aim of my time there will be.  I always like to think of a theme around which I weave what we will be teaching there.  Last time it was the importance of developing a good patient/ practitioner relationship.  This time I note that I have written something about "it requires patience to be a five element practitioner”.  This echoes one of my constantly repeated mantras:  “Don’t hurry.  Don’t worry”.

We live in a world which is obsessed with results, so that we feel pressurized “to get things right”.  In five element terms, this means “getting the element right”.  But we need to lose some of our fear of not getting things immediately right.  Today on the radio I heard a headmaster, Anthony Seldon, saying that everybody is now concentrating far too much of their attention on children’s exam results.  We should be looking at things differently.  “Don’t ask how intelligent a child is”, he said, “Ask instead how is this child intelligent?”  This is an important distinction, which also applies to acupuncture.  We should not be thinking of the disease or condition that a patient comes to us for help with, but of the patient who is suffering from this condition.  This distinguishes us as five element acupuncturists from Western medical practitioners.  It is not simply enough to say that a patient is of the Earth element, much as a patient, in Western terms, could be said to be suffering from arthritis.  Instead we should be thinking not about the arthritis but about the patient - not what is the patient suffering from, but who is the patient who is doing the suffering.

This crucial distinction emphasizes the uniqueness of each patient, rather than the common nature of the disease they are suffering from.  We are not trying to lump a group of patients together under the heading of arthritis, or in five element terms, under the heading of the Earth element, but instead are trying to see the patient as a unique example of the Earth element, requiring a unique approach to the treatment we will be offering, whilst still under the umbrella of the Earth element.

These thoughts have just come to me as I sit here pondering on my theme for the week in China.  For a few moments, then I “stepped off into the blank of my mind”, as the poet says, and something has indeed “come to me.”


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Stefano's Snack Bar

Anybody who knows anything about me knows that I do a lot of my thinking and writing in coffee bars around London.  There is one in particular that I now treat as a kind of home from home, and I want to write about it because it is nearly the last of its kind in central London.  It is called Stefano’s Snack Bar and is at 56 New Cavendish Street, W1, half-way between Marylebone High Street and Portland Place.

It is run by an Italian family, father, mother and son, Stefano himself being the son, with Giorgio and Santina his parents.  I like going in there for many reasons.  First, because of the very warm welcome I always receive, a refreshing change from the more impersonal or even non-existent greetings in those anonymous coffee shop chains now filling up every London street.

Then I particularly love the homemade chocolate slices which Giorgio makes, sometimes, I think, specially for me, or by the tray-load for any seminars we run from our Harley Street clinic just round the corner.  And finally, they have the cheapest and best espresso coffee in London, a great temptation for me as I pass them at least once or twice a day on my way from my flat to the clinic.

If you are in the area and want to stop for a cup of coffee, do pop in and tell them that Nora has sent you.  They will give you a special welcome.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Changes that creep up on us

Sitting in the train yesterday I was brought up short by one of those endless announcements that now annoyingly punctuate every journey.  “Customers are advised….”  Each time I hear the word “customer”, it irritates me.  Since when have passengers transformed themselves into customers?

I think of customers as people who pay for some service, passengers as people who travel in some kind of vehicle.  Is this then another sign of today’s overwhelming interest in money above all?  And what was wrong with seeing me as a passenger, as all travellers in any vehicle have always been known as?  I somehow can’t see an 18th century coach driver calling his passengers customers. What is the rationale behind this, I wonder, except perhaps to give some work to some office somewhere in British Rail charged with finding new ways of saying old things?

It intrigues me why a change such of this has been thought necessary.  And this has set me thinking about other new ways of saying old things which have puzzled me.  There is, for example, the recent replacement of the good old word “alias” by the clumsy abbreviation “aka” (“also known as”).  Again, what was wrong with “alias”?

And then, to add to the odd things I have noticed, comes the disappearance of the Request Stop for buses on London’s roads.  In the good old days there were two sorts of bus stops, the ones at which all buses stopped irrespective of whether anybody was waiting.  You simply got up from your seat in the bus and waited for the bus to stop without ringing the bell.  And if you were waiting at the bus stop you did not need to wave the bus down, but just waited for it to stop, as you knew it would.  Request Stop signs were red, unlike the main stops which were and still are white, and were the ones where you, as a passenger (not a customer!), would need to stop the bus by signalling to it.  If you were not paying much attention, and did not signal quickly enough, the bus simply sailed on by.

Then I started to notice that people were ringing the bell inside the bus at whatever stop we were coming to, Request Stop or not.  And buses no longer stopped at stops which were not Request Stops. When did they start doing this and why?  Now everybody rings the bell at every stop, and everybody puts out a hand to stop the bus they want at whatever stop.  I realise that I don’t know whether all the red Request Stop signs have been replaced, or are simply being ignored, so today I will be looking out of my bus window (my usual mode of transport wherever I go in London) to check this.

This is another sign of the fact that we are now constantly being asked to do more and more work ourselves.  Where before I could leave it to the bus driver simply to draw in at many of the stops, now I have to make sure that I take steps to stop him (or increasingly her).  And in a book I read recently, it was pointed out that the computerized world of ours, by giving us the tools to do things like booking our own travel or buying our own shopping in supermarkets, actually makes each of us individually work harder and harder doing things which in the past other people did for us, such as travel agents and shop assistants.  We simply used to ask a travel agent to book us on a flight on such and such a day for such and such a place, and then waited for the phone call telling us that they had made the booking, and the letter to arrive with the airline ticket.  Of course there weren’t all the cheap flights around, and this is what we may have to accept in return for cheaper flights.  Yet even expensive flights, like mine to China, now require that I do all the work on my computer, trying to fathom all the complex choices I am confronted with, just as it is now up to me to make sure that I stop any bus I want to get on to.







Monday, March 2, 2015

A few thoughts on astrology

My family knew a very interesting old Viennese man called Dr Oskar Adler, who has influenced me in some surprisingly different ways.  He was what we call a polymath, one of those now rare breeds of multi-disciplined people with interests and training in widely ranging areas of life.  He was a musician, a marvellous violinist who, I was told, had taught the composer Arnold Schoenberg the violin, a mathematician and – and this was where he most influenced me – a widely respected astrologer.  I have on my bookshelves a copy of his large four-volume treatise on astrology (in German).  It is beautifully written and very profound, one of those works which has given me deep insights into human behaviour.

I have a rather confused understanding of astrology.  I think I would have described myself years ago as a sceptic, and yet time has changed me.  One of the changes came about by attending a short astrology course in London years ago, when for the first time I began to appreciate that there were indeed individual human characteristics which could be symbolized by a person’s relationship to the planets in the heavens.  At first I needed a lot of convincing that this could be so, until the class was one day given the astrological chart of a famous anonymous person and was asked to try and work out who that person might be.  To my utter surprise we came up with the correct answer (it was Princess Diana, much in the news at that time).  We then compared her chart with that of Prince Charles.  This comparison clearly showed that they were set on a collision-course, aspects of the one chart clearly clashing violently with those of the other.  This was my first venture into the arcane world of astrology.  As a surprise by-product, it has added much to the understanding of human nature which my five element studies were teaching me. 

There are 12 astrological signs and 12 officials spread between the five elements, though unfortunately we cannot equate one with the other.  If we could we would have an easy way of diagnosing an element simply by asking our patients their birth dates.  But the 12 different areas of life in both systems have certain surprising similarities.  The fact that human characteristics reveal themselves in different ways but with features that can roughly be summarized in 12 categories in both acupuncture and astrology has always added greater depth to my understanding of the elements.  In a way this is a comforting reminder that there really is nothing new under the sun.  And my deeper understanding of the psychological relevance of what a study of astrology shows us came originally from these four books of Dr Adler’s.

Of course there is also a branch of acupuncture which relies heavily upon Chinese astrology, something I know little about, but which represents another diagnostic tool used by acupuncturists.

I treasure deeply two things Dr Adler taught me.  He said that each of us owes it to the world to pass on whatever we have learnt so that we can give others the opportunity to learn from us in turn, even though we may never know where our thoughts land and whose lives they will enrich.  There is one phrase of his which has echoed for me down the years (in German, but I will translate it).  “What would have happened if Mozart had not written down his music?”  And Mozart, we must remember, died a pauper with no idea that his work would resonate for millions in future generations.  This gave me, and still gives me, the impetus, and almost the duty, to write and to continue writing, in the belief that what I write may help somebody somewhere learn in turn from what I have learnt from life.  We all owe it to others to hand down whatever thoughts we have had in whatever medium – blogs such as this one, novels, poems, paintings, music, sculpture.  Only in this way will we help preserve for future generations what is valuable in human culture.  And however insignificant we feel our contributions may be, we should still find the courage to make our thoughts public in the hope that they may contribute something to the lives of others.

The second, more esoteric, lesson I learnt was Dr Adler’s insistence that if we cannot find something we have lost, however hard we search, then that object has really disappeared and will not allow itself to be found.  We must then try to put it from our mind because it will reappear at some point in the future when the time is right and usually at quite an unexpected time and in quite an unexpected place.  I have put this to the test numerous times, and it does appear to be true.  I remember once frantically looking for something in a room where I knew I had last put it, only to find it two weeks later in a room I rarely used right at the back of a drawer I would have sworn I had never opened.  I also found my house keys at the bottom of the dustbin after losing them for a few days!  In both cases I had no recollection whatsoever of putting the things where I found them.  Now if I lose something, I just wait, and usually, but not always, it reappears in an unexpected way, long after I have given up searching for it.  Try this.  You may find that Dr Adler was right.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Are we living in an age of Metal?

I would recommend all of you to read a book by Andrew Keen, called The Internet is not the Answer (Atlantic Books 2015).  It sounds important warnings about the world we live in, and the risks we are running of remaining, not the free agents in a free world we like to see ourselves as, but ever more like slaves entrapped in a world controlled by the large corporations, such as Apple, Amazon and Google, whose power over us grows by the day.

The author points to a worrying aspect of today’s world, our current obsession with ourselves.  The rise of the mobile phone and Instagram have disturbing consequences, one of the most frightening being what he calls our “self-centric culture”, in which “if we have no thought to Tweet or photo to post, we basically cease to exist.”  And “the truth about networks like Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook is that their easy-to-use, free tools delude us into thinking we are celebrities.”

I have often thought that the electronic equipment most of us feel to be absolutely indispensable to our modern lives, and which is intended to link us ever more closely to one another, ironically leads instead to our distancing ourselves more and more from each other.  The cameras in our mobile phones are encouraging us to look at each other through a lens, rather than in the eye.  The messages we send are beginning to stop us speaking to one another, voice to voice.  We now text rather than talk.

The young woman sitting opposite me in the café (see my last blog of 24 February) made no contact with anybody during the time that I watched her, all her human interactions being through her electronic equipment.  It felt as though she lived in a bubble all on her own.  As Andrew Keen says, “The truth…is that we are mostly just talking to ourselves on these supposedly “social” networks…. (It is) an Internet in which the more social we become, the more we connect and communicate and collaborate, the lonelier we become.”

Finally, to add to these rather depressing thoughts, a little comment by the writer, Robert Macfarlane, whose lovely books about walking in nature and in the wild all of us should also read.  In an article of his in the Guardian, I read that the new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary now includes words like “chatroom” and “broadband”, but not “bluebell” or “kingfisher”.  I also read that they are now discussing whether children should continue to be taught handwriting in school, presumably because it is assumed that they will no longer be using pen and paper but tapping away on their keypads to communicate.  All these different developments underline the seismic changes going on around us.  No doubt many of these may herald exciting new departures which we should welcome.  Others, though, represent losses.  I am sad that children’s vocabularies may no longer include bluebells or kingfishers.

Are we perhaps starting to live in an age of Metal, that element which mourns the loss of what is valuable, and in its imbalance may cut us off increasingly from each other and from the world around us?






Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Being an unashamed Luddite*

The world gets more and more bizarre to me, and more and more in thrall to all the computerized gadgets being invented by the day to satisfy some never-satisfied appetite for the new.  I live near an Apple store and have seen the queues building up outside its doors on the days some new gadget is put on sale.  Presumably each of these must incorporate some additional feature considered essential by its buyers, a symbol of conspicuous consumption if there ever was one.

I am at the opposite end of this spectrum of a desire for new computer gadgets, having been lent an iPhone a short while ago only to hand it back when I could never learn its uses, and retreated back to a mobile phone apparently so outdated as to be out of the dark ages, - and only used by me for emergences.  And then only reluctantly because I need to put on my spectacles to see what I am doing, which means ferreting around in a bag, and then, because of my bad hearing, being unable to hear the person I am trying to contact because of all the traffic noise. 

Admittedly I am not a neutral observer of the computer scene, particularly, as happened recently, when I am sitting close to somebody in a coffee shop who is engaged in simultaneous computer-driven activities.  For there I am enjoying my morning coffee with my book open in front of me when a young woman rushes into the café, plonks herself down opposite me (and the tables are quite narrow and intended for groups of people sitting closely with each other), talking all the while on her phone.  With one hand she holds the phone against her ear, with the other she fusses around in her bag to get out her iPad.  Talking all the while and passing the phone from ear to ear as she tries to open her computer, at the same time somehow she manages to interrupt herself for long enough to place her order with the waitress.  The she starts tapping the keys on her computer rather frantically, whilst taking off her coat.  By now I am watching fascinated by her ability to multitask – to talk and to type and to take off her coat, but then comes the coup de theatre.  Her coffee and a plate of toast arrives, and somehow to my amazement, by dint of moving the phone to which she is still taking from hand to hand, or holding it by her shoulder against her ear she manages to release one hand enough to pick up a knife and butter her toast, admittedly rather clumsily, but still sufficiently to be able to snatch at it, interspersed by gups of coffee, all the while still talking on the phone and tapping on the computer.

By now I am so jittery myself from all these frantic movements opposite me that I decide I have had enough and leave. I saw her again a few days later, still frantically engaged in all the same activities. Not once has she even exchanged a glance with me or the waitress serving her.  She is in a networking bubble all on her own.

I wonder what this is doing to her Earth element, as it tries to take in and process the information pouring in to her through phone and computer, as well as the food and drink which is there to nourish her.  I can visualize this poor element desperately trying to carry out its work, but not sure what to do first.  It certainly didn’t help my own Earth element, which couldn’t process what I was watching and had to leave.

 * A person opposed to new technology



Sunday, February 22, 2015

The joy of being with other five element acupuncturists

After depressing myself by writing the last blog, I am relieved to turn to a much happier subject for this blog, which is about another heart-warming seminar Guy Caplan and I gave yesterday at our clinic in Harley Street.  I love the word “heart-warming”, a word close indeed to every Fire person’s heart, such as mine, because it does feel as if my heart this morning is indeed warmer after a day spent in the presence of a group of dedicated five element practitioners and students.

We look at patients together, observe their treatments, include some practical work helping participants feel more confident about their clinical skills, and, most importantly of all, mull over together the problems we confront as practitioners.  Mostly, though, we concentrate simply on making participants feel more confident in what they are doing, and helping them by making them aware that they are part of a family of five element acupuncturists.  The main thing which I like to emphasize and which I hope they all take away with them are my two mantras, “The simpler the better”, and “Points are messengers of the elements, not the message itself”.

I am constantly bewildered by the emphasis so many people now seem to put on points and point selection.  When I trained all those years ago, we never seemed to worry about which points to select because the whole emphasis of training was on trying to find a patient’s element. Once found, or at least once we had made our first decision about which element to address, we carried out the simplest of treatments:  first, of course, A E drain, then source (yuan) points, tonification points, horary points, AEPs (back shu points), interspersed, obviously, by clearing any blocks, such as pPssession, Husband/Wife or Entry/Exit blocks.  I don’t remember us ever worrying about point selection, unlike present generations of practitioners who seem to spend an inordinate amount of time mulling over the actions of different points and when to use them, and disproportionately less time learning to look carefully at the elements of which these points are just the servants.

Another mantra of mine could be “Find the element and the points look after themselves”.  And if they don’t yet look after themselves, because you are new to the world of five element acupuncture, then look at a copy of the new edition of my Handbook of Five Element Practice, published by Singing Dragon Press, which lists in careful detail the points on each element to be used at different stages of treatment.

So a day spent with my group of five element practitioners and students, all speaking the same language of the elements, is confirmation that at least in this corner of London the spirit of five element acupuncture in its purest form continues to flourish.  This confirmation has been given an additional boost by an email from one of the participants which I received at the end of the day, telling me how grateful he and other members of the group were to see “how you simplify 5E acupuncture in a way that we can all get a real grasp of the elements”.  Thank you, Dom, for those kind words.