Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Treating the whole person

I’ve just read a very interesting article in the Observer with the title “Over-treatment is the greatest threat to western health”.  It ends with a quote from a “visionary American physician and social activist Hunter Adams”, who said “When you treat a disease, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.  But I guarantee you, when you treat a person, whatever the outcome, you always win.”  The article finishes with the words “It’s time for real “whole person” care.”

This is a subject very dear to my heart, as somebody who regards “whole person” care as the main factor in helping our patients regain their health and balance.  Having myself recently emerged successfully from a life-threatening condition (a subdural haematoma of the brain), with all that it has entailed of Western medical care, by far the most important aspect of the care I received was its “whole person” aspect, the love of family and friends, and the caring attention of the medical staff. 

But I remember thinking to myself when I returned back to normal life that what I had most wanted to be asked by the numerous medical personnel who surrounded me was the simple question, “How are you coping with this?”.  I was constantly asked about my physical well-being, but not about how my spirit was responding to the situation I found myself in.  And, for me, this was what was troubling me most. 

The best example I have ever encountered of the kind of question I would have responded eagerly to was that of a very junior nurse at some hospital visit a few years ago who said at the end of a diagnostic procedure I had undergone, “You hate this, don’t you?”  And I certainly did.  She had paid me the kind of close attention we should all pay our patients, and had made what in five element terms would have been considered to be an excellent diagnosis, saying just the right thing I wanted to hear.  My immediate response was relief that here was somebody who saw me and understood my needs.

This remains for me an illustration of what each of our patients would like from us.  Each must hope their practitioner will have sufficient insight to see their unique needs and have the ability to respond appropriately to these needs, as this young nurse did to mine.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

The delight of reading a good book

I have just come back from spending a happy half-hour in one of my favourite coffee shops reading a book, and, luckily, a good book, too.  As I walked back home I pondered on what it is about the writing of a book which turns its words into something so meaningful that they can make me forget where I am, and can feel myself transported to some hidden place within me which nourishes my deepest feelings.

In my university days, I did a lot of thinking and writing about just this – what makes one book an accumulation of clichés which teach me nothing new about life, and another, as this book today did, helps me to a greater understanding of the mysteries of life?  Perhaps the nearest we can get to an answer is by saying that in some way what is written expresses something which we regard as universally true about the human condition.  Each new thought then adds something to our understanding of human beings.

So my brief half-hour in the company of a German writer, Martin Suter, who I have just been introduced to, has made me see the world with slightly different eyes, subtly shifting my perspective.  And the same is also, of course, true of creative painters, sculptors, playwrights or poets.  Or even, as happened yesterday, of film directors, as I watched a film I had seen before, Strictly Ballroom, but for the first time on a large cinema screen with a roomful of people all as entranced as I was, entranced enough to burst into applause as the lights went up at the end.

How many new insights into life those with creative eyes continue to reveal to us!  And the more I understand about human life, the more this feeds into my work as acupuncturist with my patients.  So although some people may think that my half-hour this morning reading over my cup of coffee might seem to be just wasting time, I see it as something quite different – as helping to satisfy my curiosity about the nature of things.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Giving advice to patients

I have just received an email from a Chinese acupuncturist asking how she can improve the skills needed to help her patients cope with their problems. She writes, “How to interact with our patients is very subtle and skilful, and a very challenging task for us practitioners.  I really wish I could do better on this, but I don’t know how I could improve… (Their) problems are so tricky that I always have no suggestion to give.  I even sometimes don’t know how to comfort them when they are sad.  I wish I could say something to make them feel better!”

I am sure that every practitioner can relate to what she says, for these are issues we have all struggled with in our practices, and no doubt continue to struggle with.  There is no one approach that will suit all practitioners, because we will each have worked out our own way of dealing with our patients.  As with everything we do, our own guardian element will shape our interactions with our patients and determine the nature of these interactions.  Some practitioners will be much more hands-on in their approach than others (perhaps those with Fire as their element), whilst others will be much less so, giving their patients more room to breathe as it were (perhaps those with Metal as their element).  No particular approach is better than any other, provided that the practitioner is aware at all times of how far what they are doing and saying matches their patient’s needs.

Of course this is where experience comes to our aid.  If I think back on the years of my practice, I realise that there were many occasions when my own very hands-on approach disturbed some of my patients, where allowing a little more space between us would have given them the time they needed to work out their own solutions to their problems.  As with any profession, we can only learn by hit and miss, and only experience will teach us how much advice it is helpful to give our patients, and what kind of advice this should be.  As I mentioned in my previous blog of 2 July (Never assume that we know how others feel), we have to be careful not to assume anything about our patients.

Finally, it is helpful to remember that we are not there to solve our patients’ problems;  only they can do that.  Our help must focus on offering treatments which bring greater balance to their elements, and then allow these to do the work.



Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Never assume that we know how others feel

We make all sorts of assumptions about other people, since we usually see them from our own perspective.  It requires great insight and humility to try to step out from under the shadows each of us cast around ourselves and move into the sphere of another person.  Unfortunately we often delude ourselves that we understand another’s viewpoint whereas we are simply using our own viewpoint from which to judge theirs.

We must learn never to assume that we know anything about anybody else until we have proof from them that they are as we think they are.  This is the secret of being a good therapist, and also, of course, of being a good parent, partner or friend. 

A lovely quote by Nietzsche

I love finding little snippets of other people’s thoughts which illuminate my life.  Here’s one from the German philosopher, Nietzsche, which I found in, of all things, a detective story:

“It’s better to regret what you have done than what you never did.”

This is a profoundly Metal thought.  The life of those of the Metal element revolves around their deep need to assign to things their true value, and has as its necessary accompaniment the regret they may feel if they do not assess things correctly.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Enjoying the ridiculous (yet again)

Here’s another amusing advertisement which I saw on my walk through London, to add to the one I wrote about in my blog of 2 June. 

Apparently you can buy “Invisible Personal Clothing”.  My mind boggled at the thought of all those people walking around naked in invisible clothes, like the Emperor in his New Clothes.  And apparently being prepared to pay for the privilege of doing this!

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A testimony to how much the practice of five element acupuncture is helping one of my Chinese students

The following is taken from an email from Caroline in Chengdu, who translates my blog for her fellow practitioners:

“From the day on which I was helped by FEA, I’ve decided to learn FEA well and help more people. Because I have experienced the magic of FEA myself, which successfully helped me solve my family problem, I never had any problem of believing in FEA. I believe that the principle on which it is based is truth. And if I cannot cure people, the problem lies in me, not the principles of FEA. So I gave up learning to become a better herbalist, I just focused on FEA. It was not an easy change to make, but I struggled on. After one year of practising, I can now feel that I’m much more relaxed, hence I can pay more attention to my patient, and think less about the element. I learned how to have a better relationship with my patient, and learned a lot from them about how to become a better acupuncturist and a better person. And the more patients I see, the more information I can put in my library (of examples of elements), that’s how I find myself getting a deeper understanding of the elements compared to one year ago. There is still a long long way to go, but I’m not in a hurry, it's a lifetime of learning, and I know that my patients will help me, thanks to all of them!

And translating your blogs helped me a lot too! Other people may just glance over it or read it once, while I will think every sentence over and over just to get a deeper understanding and find a better way to translate it. So after translating your blog, I can almost recite it! The whole process is like chewing your teachings and digesting it and making it mine. People may think my translating helped them, but honestly I think I’m the one who gain most.

I’ll keep learning because it is such a happy and rewarding thing!”  



Thursday, June 5, 2014

A Chinese acupuncturist’s observations of the Fire element

I am always very heartened to receive clear evidence of how much my students over in China have learnt during our seminars together, and how seriously and enthusiastically they are continuing their studies of five element acupuncture by themselves.  This email from a student, Caroline, is proof of the depth of her understanding of the elements, although with a slight misunderstanding.  She starts by seeing Fire through slightly rosier glasses than the other elements, but then realises that this is a distortion, and corrects this by herself. 

I give my reply to her at the end of her email below.

"Dear Nora
I have two patients recently, who make me think a lot about Fire. They came to me a couple of months ago, both with family problems, one of them was even trying to get divorce with her husband. What impressed me the most was how they hate their husband! I was very confused about their elements at first, but recently I changed both of their diagnosis into Fire, because they both smile when talking about sad things, and their scorched smell. Now I’m getting positive feedback from both of them.

Now here comes my question. When we mention about Fire, we always think about all the good words, love, joy, kindness, forgiveness, and so on. However I could hardly feel the words from them sometimes, but the word “hate”. Then I realized that the obverse of love is hate, when the element is imbalanced, it can turn to the opposite, for example, a hopeful Wood person can be hopeless; a devoted Earth person can become rather selfish; a Metal person who keeps pursuing self-value can feel completely worthless; a brave Water person can become a coward, so fearful to move forward, or a person who always has fear in his/her heart can lose the ability of estimating risks and may put himself/herself into danger by taking too many adventures. I suddenly had a picture before me that although Fire can go out quietly with nothing to give anymore, the raging flame can burn so fierce and almost destroy everything. So I think it is possible that if some Fire people are very imbalanced, they may get so resentful to hurt people they have problem with.

When I first started to learn Five Element Acupuncture (including almost like every other student in China), Fire was considered as the “perfect” element--- easy to be with, humorous, kind-hearted, passionate, and so on, so if we met some one who could not fit into these words, we might think this one could never be Fire. But as I saw more Fire people, I gradually realized that most Fire people who came for treatment, as you’d told us, were people who were “lack of Fire”. And the feeling being with them was exactly as you’d written in your book KEEPERS OF THE SOUL, “There is an expectation of the sun’s presence throughout our summers, and then a disappointment when it fails to appear. We experience a lack of something that should be there that is not, a feeling no other season evokes in quite the same way…”

And I started to see some sides which were not so “perfect” (and no element is perfect, each element has its advantages and defects ). I could remember one sultry summer afternoon, when I left my clinic it was still sunny, but after less than ten minutes, the weather changed so quickly and started to rain heavily, I got wet in the rain and suddenly felt cold. And I thought, well, this kind of weather was very common in the summer, so, were Fire people like this? In your book KEEPERS OF THE SOUL, you described Fire as “the most volatile of all elements”, which reminded me of my mother, whom I thought may be the Fire element, who could be very strictly scolding us, then the next second smiling at other people, just like the changeable weather in the summer.

I’m not sure if it is right to understand Fire this way. I will try my best to continue observing my Fire patients and friends to develop a deeper and comprehensive understanding of Fire.


Here is my reply:

“Dear Caroline
I am very impressed by how much work you are doing to deepen your understanding of the elements.  I would emphasize, though, that there is no “perfect “element, as you yourself say.  As you realise, all elements can offer all the good things they are able to offer when they are balanced, and hide them when they are out of balance.  In other words, they all have their negative and their positive sides to them, and that definitely includes Fire.

I think you are right to think that the negative sides of Fire are a lack of all the “love, joy and kindness” which you mention as being its positive qualities.  But I don’t think I would describe the negative qualities using such a strong word as “hate”.   It’s much more that they appear as an inability to show love, joy or kindness.  It is true that when there is a lack of Fire, “the raging flame can burn so fiercely and almost destroy everything”.  That is when the negative qualities can hurt other people rather than bring them warmth and joy.

I think you are developing a very good understanding of the Fire element, as well as of the other elements, so carry on continuing to look for the traces of the different elements as you treat more and more people.

Much love

Monday, June 2, 2014

Seen today

I walked past the Radisson Hotel in central London today, and saw on the window of its restaurant the words “Scoff and Barter”.  I looked at the sign three times to make sure that I wasn’t misreading it.

For non-English speakers whose English may need a little bit of help to understand these two words, “to scoff” is to laugh at, and “to barter” is to bargain about the price of something to get it reduced.  Does the hotel really expect its guests to mock and to barter at the prices it charges them?

At least the sign caught my eye, so perhaps that, rather than its meaning, was the purpose.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Returning the spirit to acupuncture in China

(Article submitted to the Acupuncturist, the newsletter of the British Acupuncture Council)

We are used to thinking of the transmission of traditional Chinese medicine as being a form of one-way traffic passing from East to West, but somewhat to my initial surprise, I have become a key factor in its journey in the opposite direction, from West to East.  Specifically, it has become my task to take the first steps in helping five element acupuncture build a bridge back to its land of birth, China.

Over the years China has made many different, often contradictory attempts to try to integrate its traditional form of medicine within the framework of Western medicine or to find ways of making Western medicine fit within it.  It has never been quite clear whether it should view it as a powerful indigenous medical system on a par with, or even superior to, Western medicine, or as a more primitive branch of medicine which Western medicine had in many ways superseded.  This uncertainty has hovered over China’s at times almost schizophrenic approach to its traditional medicine, and is one of the reasons for the confusion which this still causes, not only in China but to practitioners of Chinese medicine round the world.   In other words, can Chinese traditional medicine be viewed as a stand-alone, intellectually coherent form of medicine based on more than 2000 years of continuous practice, or has the appearance of Western medicine in the past 100 years or so demoted it to an inferior, ancillary role?

It will be obvious from my writings and my teachings that I am utterly convinced of the former, but sadly I am not sure how far my view is shared by many of its practitioners either in China or the rest of the world.

Through a series of what could seem to have been coincidences, but I regard now as clearly defined steps along a path which has guided me throughout my long association with acupuncture, I was led to meet Professor Liu Lihong at the Rothenburg conference in Germany a few years ago, together with his very good friend and translator, Heiner Fruehauf.  Liu Lihong is described as being “arguably the most important Chinese medicine scholar of the younger generation in present-day China.  His controversial book Sikao zhongyi (Contemplating Chinese Medicine) became an instant bestseller when it was first published in 2003.  Since then, it has attracted a larger and wider circle of readers than any other Chinese medicine book in modern times.  His book represents the first treatise written in the People’s Republic of China that dares to openly discuss the shortcomings of the government-sponsored system of TCM education in China, which informed the evolution of TCM around the globe.”

I was then invited by him to give a seminar on five element acupuncture to acupuncturists at his research institute in Nanning in South China in November 2011, the first of five seminars I have given there to a growing number of acupuncturists.  At my last visit in April, Professor Liu, who is himself a scholar of the classics, when introducing me to the class of 70 acupuncturists, said, “The seed of five element acupuncture is a very pure seed.  I think it originates directly from our original classic Lingshu, “Rooted in Spirit” (Chapter 8 of Lingshu), or “Discourse on the law of needling” (Chapter 72 of Suwen). That is to say it fits easily within the Neijing. It is therefore not created from nothing.  It has its origin in the far-distant past and has a long history.  The seed which underlies its practice is very pure.  For many good reasons, this seed has now returned to its homeland and started to germinate.  In Nora’s words, its roots have started to penetrate downwards.”

I have been invited to give a keynote lecture on “Returning the spirit to acupuncture in China” at the BAcC conference on 26 September 2014, when I will be describing in greater detail the process by which the roots of five element acupuncture are being encouraged to grow steadily stronger in China.