Thursday, October 1, 2015

Two laments for the end of an era and one happy thing

I start this blog with my laments.  The little café, Stefano’s, which I would pop into daily on my way to the clinic, and which I wrote about in my blog of 29th March, has now closed and been taken over by what looks like a very much more upmarket place.  I think I can no longer call it a café, but would describe it more as a small patisserie.  And my favourite espresso has nearly doubled in price.  Stefano and his Italian family seem to have been the last survivors around here of a time when small family-owned businesses ran a one-shop enterprise.  Now the coffee chains, such as Starbucks, with their standardized fare, are taking over everywhere, perhaps understandably in view of the rents charged.  Even this new little patisserie has other branches elsewhere in the up-and-coming areas of London.

My second lament is for the puzzling substitution in train announcements of the good old-fashioned word “passenger” by the word “customer”.  I wonder who decided that this change was necessary.  Did a group of railway executives with nothing better to do solemnly sit around a table to discuss the merits of the one word against the other?  And why change it at all?  When I hear “passengers” I always thrill slightly to the thought of all those large ocean liners, like the Queen Mary, or indeed the Titanic, or people climbing aboard The Great Western  or the Orient Express.  When discussing the Titanic disaster, is anybody likely to ask, “How many customers were lost?”  The word now only reminds me of the money I paid today for my rail ticket to a much less exotic destination, Sussex.

But to relieve the slight gloom of writing about these two rather sad things, I tried to think of something good that has happened to me, and came up with quite a few examples, none more heartwarming than a little incident that occurred in the street a few days ago.  There was a different Big Issue seller from the usual one outside my local supermarket, and I thought I recognized him from seeing him somewhere else.  He smiled at me, and said, “You may not remember me, but you’re the lady who called to me to come across the street in Bond Street some time ago, so that you could buy a copy from me.”  Now I recalled that this must have been over a year ago.  So he had remembered this small act of kindness from all those months back.  Perhaps too many people treat Big Issue sellers as nuisances, and walk on by, and too few as people, trying hard to put their lives together.  We smiled at each other like old friends, and I walked on with my heart a little warmer. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

How people make us feel

Each day of my practice adds one more day of learning.  Today’s lesson came from something I observed in myself after I had been asked to look at another practitioner’s patient.  Together we agreed that she had been treating her on what I, too, considered to be the right element, which was Fire, but when I was thinking back on this patient the next morning, I remembered that I had remarked at the time, “She’s a rather passive person, isn’t she?”

Something about what I had said jarred now with my feelings around the Fire element.  Was passive a word I would ever use to describe a Fire person, I wondered?  That set me thinking of as many Fire people as I could, including of course myself.  Nobody could call me passive, but then I am Inner Fire, and the Small Intestine is the most active of all the four Fire officials.  But I could think of no Outer Fire person I knew either to whom the word “passive” would fit.  I then thought more carefully about something else which had struck me after seeing her.  I had not felt that she was trying to give me anything, far from it.  I felt instead that she was drawing me towards herself, which gave me now with hindsight the feeling I associate much more with the Earth element.  She seemed to be expressing a need, as though asking something from me, rather than wanting to give me something, so much more typical of Fire.  I told the practitioner of my doubts about Fire, and suggested that she should change her treatment to Earth and let me know how the patient was after a few Earth treatments.

It pleases me that I somehow could not leave things alone until I had traced my unease about the time I had spent with the patient to its source.  This feeling about how we experience being in the presence of a particular element becomes ever stronger with experience, and we should always take note of it.  It can be seen as a form of direct transmission to us of the essential nature of a patient’s element.  

If we interpret this information correctly by examining our own feelings and their response to what is coming from the patient we are well on the way to finding the element.

I always love it when an element declares itself so firmly in this way, even giving me only a slight, but clear hint of its presence.  It may take me a little while to see what it is trying to tell me, but then it always certainly better late than never.


Graham's groan

Today I happened to meet a young man in the street whom I hadn’t seen for a number of years.  I am calling him Graham, because it makes for a good title to this blog, but that is not his name.  We exchanged greetings, talked for a short time and then parted.  As I walked away, I found that his voice was so pronounced a groan that I laughed at myself for not having thought of him as Water before.  What was interesting to me, and what taught me a little more about the Water element, was that the sound of this voice stayed with me for so long.  I could still hear it echoing in my head many hours later.  I almost felt that I was pursued by its groans.

What it showed me about Water was that a groaning voice, unlike any other tone of voice, has the ability to make itself felt in a very persistent way that I had not noticed before.  It seems to me to be a clear reflection of Water’s ability to push through whatever obstacle is in front of it.

I must listen now to some more Water voices to help me learn to recognize this quality in their voices.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Paring away the inessential

I was thinking whether there was one word I could use to describe the essence of an element, that which lies at its very core and defines its specific quality.  And with the word essence the words “paring away the inessential” leapt to my mind, and echoed there for a long time.  I recognised this as referring to the Metal element, and saw that it was appropriate that it was given to this element to be the first to formulate its own definition of its essential quality, and to offer me this glimpse of itself so clearly and succinctly.  There can be no more condensed a definition of an element’s most fundamental nature than this. I feel that the phrase goes to the heart of what distinguishes Metal from the other elements.

It is helpful to think what the word to pare means, and why this is so true of Metal.  Interestingly, we usually add the word “away” to the verb, thus to pare away.  Again this points to a very interesting Metal characteristic, for to pare away is to discard, throw away, get rid of, and this is, after all, the function of the Large Intestine.  To pare away is to remove the outer skin of something, such as fruit, and throw it aside to expose that part which we want to eat.  This action is always done with a knife, and this is of course always a metal knife.  One of the disposable knives in wood or a kind of ecologically acceptable plastic as an alternative to metal which now litter eating places cannot do the job properly, for they are far too blunt.  Only a metal knife can peel away the outer layer sufficiently cleanly, as the element itself does in peeling away the outer, superficial surface of things to reveal the truths lying below.  That is Metal’s task, and when carried out in a balanced way this is what it does all the time.  It forms the last stage of any process, its final reckoning, just as its season, autumn, exposes the skeletons of trees, revealing their essential nature before winter comes to cover them in frost and snow.

It is to Metal people that I find myself turning when I have a difficult decision to make, for I have found that they can sum up the essence of a situation quickly and in very few words, in effect paring away what is inessential in the situation and revealing the heart of the matter.  This is always done in surprisingly few words.  A Metal person when asked for their opinion about some problem is likely to say, “Do this” or “Do that”, or “I don’t think that’s a good idea”, and leave it at that, as though for them the subject has now been dealt with and put to one side, and they want to move on.  It is as though they have removed the outer skin of whatever we are discussing, pared the inessential away, and pointed to its inner core, to what they consider its essence.  I have therefore always found Metal’s advice to be to the point (such a Metal phrase!), as if they are indeed handing over to me the heart of the fruit on the tip of the knife which they have used to pare away its outer covering.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

A reason to write my books

I have just received this lovely pat on the back about my latest book, all the way from Australia:

“I just wanted to tell you how much I have loved reading "On being a five element acupuncturist". Somehow I take more in from words on paper than words online.

It's a gem - not only in terms of giving insight about diagnostic and practice skills but also I find it immensely reassuring and affirming. It's so nice to know that doubts and mistakes are normal and even useful. It can be particularly challenging over here in Australia where there are so few of us trained in five element style acupuncture.

Thank you, Nora!”

I am reprinting it here for two reasons.  The first, obviously, is because it is lovely for me to hear that what I write is of help to others.  The second is that I am delighted that I am helping five element practitioners understand that “doubts and mistakes are normal and even useful."

I have always liked to Descartes’ phrase, which is usually quoted as “I think, therefore I am (cogito, ergo sum)”.  But in fact I prefer its fuller, correct version, which is:  "I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am (dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum)”.  The ability to doubt and therefore to be humble in our thinking is a rare gift we should all cherish in ourselves.  This is particularly so, as I always say, when we are trying to track down the elements.

I could not have expressed one of the aims of why I write more succinctly and more beautifully.  So thank you, too, Lucy, for this encouragement to continue writing.


Monday, August 31, 2015

What simple treatment can do

It is always good to receive confirmation of how effective simple treatment can be.  A friend of mine told me that her husband was feeling so ill and desperate that he could not work and could not leave the house.  He had problems in breathing which several visits to hospital and several kinds of medication had not helped.  Would acupuncture help him, she asked me.  I referred him to a fellow five element acupuncturist, Guy Caplan.

This is what she emailed me a few days ago:

“Treatment seems to be going so well!  Three treatments have not helped his breathing problems but have changed his whole way of being in the world.”

She also told me that a friend had met her husband, and said, with surprise, that he was “smiling with his face”.

You cannot ask for more from such a few treatments.  To be able to “change the whole way of being in the world” for a patient is what all our work is about.

I asked Guy to tell me what treatments he had done so far.  Here is the list:

Treatment 1:  AE drain (none), Husband-Wife, VI (TH) 4, V (HP) 7
Treatment 2:   IV (Ki) 24, VIII – IX (Liv-Lu) block, VI (TH) 3, V (HP) 9
Treatment 3:  CV 14, VI (TH) 3, V (HP) 9
            All points with moxa before needling.

As you can see, the patient is being treated on Outer Fire.  As you can also see, the treatments have helped the deepest part of him, his spirit.  In effect he feels as though resuscitated (an excellent example of the effectiveness of IV (Ki) 24, Spirit Burial Ground). 

This is also a lesson for practitioners not to worry too much if physical problems persist a little longer.  I have no doubt at all that his physical problems will now gradually clear.  If you treat the deep (the spirit), you cannot fail but treat the more superficial (the body).  But of course this will take time.  He has had his physical problems for many years.




Thursday, August 27, 2015

The transmission of a five element lineage

I give below the text of an article I have just submitted for publication in the British Acupuncture Council's journal Acu:

“We are not good at lineages in this country, and we appear to have surprisingly little respect for others’ expertise.  In fact, most of our education system appears to be built, not so much on the idea of learning from those of greater experience than us, but more of teaching students to discover things for themselves, almost as if the hard-won knowledge of those preceding them should be discarded as somehow not so relevant.

I have spent many weeks since 2011 in China, introducing five element acupuncture to what must now be many hundreds of Chinese acupuncturists, and have learnt from these visits how much respect they show the lineage of five element acupuncture which they view me as representing.  This is why, there on the wall of the Tong You San He Centre in Nanning where I teach, I am greeted - each time with a slight sense of surprise - by a large panel of photographs, the first showing my teacher, J R Worsley, the second me and the last showing Mei Long, a student of mine, who initiated my first contacts with China through Liu Lihong, the Centre’s director.  Through his writing he is the person who has done most to stimulate Chinese traditional medicine’s search for its past roots.

For the Chinese, the line of transmission extending back to the Nei Jing, and on through the centuries to reach J R Worsley, then me and beyond,  represents what they feel they have lost, a direct connection to the past.  In the West, on the other hand, we seem to be, if not indifferent to this, then somewhat disinterested in the routes of transmission, as though we are not ourselves quite clear what lineage we are heir to.  This probably stems from the fact that generally both in this country and in China there is little clarity about how to integrate the precepts of traditional medicine with modern attempts to draw acupuncture closer to Western medicine.

The display of photographs which confronts me each time I return to China has made me re-evaluate my own thoughts about the transmission of a lineage, and led me to a new appreciation of what has been transmitted to me.  The way the Chinese view what I bring to them makes me more aware than before of the precious inheritance which has been passed down to me, and which the Chinese now clamour for me to pass on to them.  Here I am, coming from a far-off land, the bearer of an unknown treasure, my knowledge of an acupuncture discipline which fascinates them.  And, most importantly, somebody with thirty or more years’ clinical experience, which is something they value particularly highly.  I bring them a precious gift, the transmission of what they regard as the esoteric knowledge contained within the lineage of a particular branch of five element acupuncture handed down over the centuries from master to pupil.  This has found its way through devious routes to the West and is now finding its way back to its country of origin through me, an inheritor of this lineage.  It is useful to read Peter Eckman’s In the Footsteps of the Yellow Emperor, Long River Press 2007, as the best, and in my view, so far the only, in-depth study to trace these routes of transmission.

In this country we often forget how precious the legacy of the past can be, tending to take this past for granted.  To the modern Chinese, deprived for so many years as they have been of much of the history of traditional medicine through the traumas of the Cultural Revolution, anything which helps them trace this past is a gift to be nurtured.  Even though all practitioners are brought up on rote learning the Nei Jing, they are aware that they have lost many of the connections between what is in these old texts and their practice of today.  In their eyes, the branch of five element acupuncture I represent makes these connections clear to them.

To the Chinese acupuncturists that I teach, therefore, five element acupuncture embodies a spiritual tradition which they regard as lacking in much of the acupuncture now taught in China, and connects them to a past which they feel they have lost.  Its emphasis on ensuring that so much attention is paid to the spirit is something they respond warmly to.  It echoes what they have learnt from the Nei Jing, but is something which is ignored by the TCM they are taught in their acupuncture colleges.   

To witness the joy with which they greet all the five element teaching I offer them is to raise an echo within me of a similar joy that I experienced sitting on my first day in the classroom at Leamington more than 30 years ago, and learning about the Fire element with the Heart at its centre.  It seemed to me then, as it still does, and does, too, to all my Chinese students, that to base an acupuncture practice upon treatment of the elements was to state a natural truth about life.  Learning from the Chinese approach to their past, I can now see more clearly than ever that I, and every other five element acupuncturist, form one link in the unending chain stretching from the earliest days of the Nei Jing down the years.  This path of transmission passed to the West in the 20th century and is now coming full circle on its return to its birthplace, China, in the 21st century.  This is indeed an inheritance to treasure."


Thursday, August 20, 2015

The different kinds of spaces Earth and Fire feel comfortable with

Here is an amusing little observation I made during my morning’s breakfast excursion to a local café.  It was quite full, and I tried to find a table as far away as possible from anybody else.  The place gradually emptied as people set off for their day’s work, until all that were left were two people at one table and me at another.  A woman then came in, looked carefully around her for quite some time, before firmly seating herself at a table a mere few feet next to the one occupied by the couple.  I was amused when I saw this, thinking that the last thing I would have done would have been to settle myself so close to the few other customers at the café. 

I then realised that she had made her choice for exactly the same reasons that I had made a completely different one.  We were, I thought, both following the dictates of our guardian element, different as these were. 

I assumed that she was Earth, mainly from her colour, and because she was quite at ease sitting in such close proximity to other people.  Earth likes being surrounded by people, almost irrespective of who they are.  I, on the other hand, am Fire, and Fire only wants to move close to others when it feels really comfortable in their presence.

It is by observing these tiny differences in human behaviour that we learn more and more about the elements.  This morning’s was another interesting little insight into the differences between Earth and Fire for me to ponder on.  Thus do we continue to learn.


Saturday, August 15, 2015

How sad it is.....

As I get older, leaving many years trailing behind me, I am aware that nostalgia for the past creeps up on me more frequently than it used to.  There are so many things now which are different from what they were, and though some of these differences are undoubtedly good (though here I have to stop and think hard without for the life of me being able to come up with even one example), many more appear to my ageing sight to represent losses which can never be made good.

A small, apparently insignificant, but to me important, example of this is something which happens every morning.  As I make my way out to pick up my newspaper and indulge in my early morning coffee in one of the many coffee shops around here, I step over the wet pavement outside the front door of a block of flats, and exchange good morning greetings with a young woman who is busily washing down and sweeping the front step and pavement outside clear of any rubbish.  She laughed when I told her that this piece of pavement is probably the only one now in the whole of London where the age-old practice of making sure that the pavements outside our houses are kept clear for passers-by by their owners still takes place.  Now we leave all that to the road sweepers.

And just as we leave it to others to clear the pavements outside our houses, so we now leave many other things to others, without concerning ourselves with whether in so doing we are making others’ lives harder or more unpleasant.  I notice that if there is something like a cardboard box in the middle of the road, nobody crosses over to push it to the side away from the traffic.  I remember my father stopping our car regularly, and getting out to remove some rubbish or a large stone to the roadside, because, he told us, “A bicycle or motorbike might not see this when it gets dark, and come a-cropper.”  The present reluctance to get involved extends to people stepping over any obstruction on the pavement, often at some inconvenience to themselves, rather than pushing it aside to the gutter.  Let alone how very rare it is for somebody to lift up a bike which has fallen over blocking the pavement.

It seems that more and more people are reluctant to put themselves out in any way, as though walking round obstacles is always preferable to removing obstacles.  Is this increasingly selfishness, inattentiveness (everybody talking into their mobile phone – or taking selfies!) or a fear of litigation, in case their actions cause problems?  Whatever, as they say, it seems to me to be a sad indictment of modern life that less and less people are concerned for the wellbeing of others and apparently more and more engrossed in their own.

But am I merely another example of an older person saying that “things were better in the old days”?

Friday, August 14, 2015

Worrying the well

I have just watched an excellent and important programme on BBC TV (BBC2, 12 August 2015: Dr Michael Mosley: Are Health Tests Really a Good Idea?), which you can catch up with on BBC i-Player.  As its title indicates, it looked in depth at the value of some of the many tests well people undergo, and queried how far many of these were necessary.  Importantly, in view of the enormous costs of providing health care for an increasingly aging population, it asked whether the vast amount of money allocated to these tests, which are overwhelmingly directed at the still well, would better be spent on treating the already ill.  The conclusion by two very eminent physicians, one from the United States and the other from Britain, summed it all up beautifully.  Surely, they said, it is better to direct resources at where help is needed, which is when a condition has actually revealed itself, and not spend so much on recommending tests for the well whose results are often uncertain, if not downright misleading.  The case of mammograms, in particular, was examined here.  It was pointed out that they often lead to needless, harmful and unnecessary interventions (a figure of 9 out of 10 mis-diagnoses was given).

This is when I heard the very telling and hard-hitting phrase, which underlines exactly what I think is the wrong direction in which the machinery of health is heading, and that is that “we are worrying the well”.  Once we are given the slightest indication that there is a slight query about any test result, none of us will be able to forget this, and it will continue to haunt us.  As I said in my book, The Keepers of the Soul, “One of the many areas to be re-assessed is the Western reliance on statistics. The trouble with statistics is that they are illusory.  They appear to be based on scientific fact, and offer scientific validity, but they have no meaning whatsoever in the individual case.  If a test is said to offer a 60% probability of establishing that a person is likely to suffer a heart-attack, am I in the 60% category of the sick or in the 40% category of the well?  No-one can tell me this, but human nature being as it is, all 100% of us are unlikely to sleep easily at night with such a statistic hovering over our heads.  And yet we may never fall ill.”

And again, “Once in hospital hands, we often find they never let us go, for one test or another, imperfect as all tests must be, may surprisingly often yield a slightly ambiguous result which demands a different test or a further check-up later on, leaving us forever waiting for what we anticipate may be a dreaded result, as though shackled to a permanent pathological prognosis.  This is a depressingly frequent occurrence, for no doctor appears to dare sign us off for fear of future repercussions.”

I will leave it to the lovely British doctor in the programme to confirm what I so deeply believe in.  We are frightening well people”, she said.  And what I particularly liked was her conclusion.  “We are seeking technological solutions to existential solutions.  We all have to get old, we all have to die, we all have to lose people we love.  We are devoting resources to worrying the well”.   It is rare for anybody in what I call this medicalized society, particularly a medical practitioner, to state this so clearly and so baldly.  Modern society is in danger of adopting a mind-set which devotes too much time to searching for pathological symptoms instead of concentrating upon nurturing the valuable aspects of our life, and accepting the natural course of life, which may or may not include illness, but will inevitably conclude in death.