The Metal Element #1

September 17th, 2007

The metal element manifests in our bodies as the lungs and colon. 

The lungs (being more solid) are the yin aspect and the colon (being more hollow) is the yang aspect of the metal element.

The lungs do not store a vital fluid.  However the lungs are in charge of qi.  There is one activity (or one type) of qi which is the responsibility of the lung alone.  This is called “defensive qi” – it is the qi that fights off those things from the environment which make us sick.  The lungs are said to rule the skin and this defensive qi is said to circulate just below the skin.  The qi that flows to the rest of our body (and which is usually manipulated by the acupuncture needles) is called “nutritive qi”.

Traditionally defensive qi is said to be “bold as a warrior”. 

Metal can be unyielding.  It can therefore (in some sorts of feng shui) be associated with counsel or divine guidance: our job is to adapt to spirit – the way of the divine.  In christian circles it is said that: you don’t break the ten commandments, you break yoursefl against them.  A secular equivalent would be: gravity is no respecter of persons, you fall far enough onto something hard enough: you die – end of story.

Think of the people you know who seem to never catch cold: most likely they have a quality of boldness about them.  These people have strong defensive qi.  If you picture the lungs position in relation to the other organs in our torso they form a sort of cover over them: this is a good picture of the role of defensive qi.

For another aspect of the metal element picture a sword, scythe or scissors.  Metal can cut through and is associated with letting go.  The colon lets go of the solid waste we no longer require and the lungs let go of the air that we breathe.  To experience this quality in your breathing pause for a moment and note how little effort it takes to breathe in.  Once you have experienced this for a few breaths notice that it takes no effort at all to breathe out.  This effortless letting go is the complement to the boldness of defense qi.

So how is your metal element?

  •     Is your immunity good or do you pick up whatever is going around?
  •     Any constipation?
  •     Are you able to mourn the losses you have had?

More on Study Strategies

September 5th, 2007

This is a post from Scott H Young, an American.  The advice is helpful and practical.

How to Boost Your Study Habits
Holistic learning isn’t like a brainstorming technique or mind-mapping. It is fundamentally changing how you look at the process of learning and how you absorb information. As such, there isn’t an easy ten step program to master it.

But there are some tools that can help you shift your learning habits so they become more holistic:

  1. Visceralize – You’ve probably heard of visualizing, right? Visceralizing means taking all of your senses and connecting it to information. Studies have shown that people remember more vividly information that comes to us in an emotionally aroused state. Linking feelings, senses and imagery to bland ideas makes them more real. You probably counted on your fingers when learning numbers, why can’t you do the same when you are learning now?
  2. Metaphor – The heart of holistic learning is relating things together. Metaphors are literary devices that link two things that normally don’t go together. Come up with metaphors to describe more complicated ideas in simpler terms.
  3. Ten Year Old Rule – Explain ideas to yourself as you would to a ten year old. Sure, this isn’t always possible in your last years of a medical degree or learning how to apply neural networks to computer AI. But the idea is that you should be able to “dumb down” an idea enough so it seems obvious to yourself.
  4. Trace Back – Put away your books and start with a random fact or concept. Then relate that idea to another concept in your subject. Keep doing this tracing pattern until you’ve linked many ideas together. The Gupta Dynasty reminds you of ancient Greece which reminds you of Socrates, reminding you of Confucius…
  5. Refresher Scan – Scan through information in your text book. Notice whenever you encounter information that you either don’t remember or weren’t 100% sure about. Quickly link that information back to existing ideas through viscerlization and metaphor. If your refresher scan is turning up more than a few points per chapter, you haven’t learned it thoroughly enough.
  6. Compress Information – Not all information works well for holistic learning. A common point cited to me is learning anatomy for first year medical students. Anatomy involves learning arbitrary Latin names for hundreds of different elements of your body. There often aren’t clear patterns and constructs, just a dry list of facts. When encountering information such as this, your goal should be to compress it. Find ways to group information into smaller chunks of memory through pictures or mnemonics.
  7. Write – Take a piece of paper and write out the connections in the information. Reorganize the information into different patterns. The key here is the writing, not the final product. So don’t waste your time making a pretty picture. Scribble and use abbreviations to link the ideas together.

Scott Young is a blogger on learning, productivity and habits.

Scott has a free ebook on studying and learning that is quite useful and practical, with enough theory base to make sense of what he proposes. 


September 3rd, 2007

What is expertise?  It is the integration of a wide range of standard situations.

For example, chess masters can play blindfolded or remember the positions of each piece on the board from a game.  However, when the pieces are arranged randomly they do no better than non-chess players.  Their memory is for standard moves – and a chess master will have many thousands of these in their memory.

Expertise is the ability to recognise standard situations.
Thus doctors when doing a diagnosis will quickly assess the person and then find which of a few possibilities give the best fit.  When the person does not fit a standard situation the experienced doctor does no better than one just starting out.

Fortunately with acupuncture theory there are only about forty standard situations that you need to have memorised.
These are: the five elements and how they relate to each other, the functioning of the twelve organs and channels, the functioning of the ren and du meridians, the five vital fluids, the effect of the ‘six devils’ which cause sickness, the eight conditions (which I call the three dimensions of yin and yang).  There are about a dozen standard things to know for diagnosis: eight questions to ask, the map of the tongue, the indications of the pulse, and once again how the five elements relate to each other.  For treatment you need to know how to insert the pin and which acupuncture points to put it in (about 120 for a full repertoire, however there are only thirty main ones).  As you can see learning only one concept a week you will have a good understanding of acupuncture theory within one year.

The more you make this knowledge a part of you the more of an expert you will be.  The question is how to do this.  The only way is to make it part of you daily living.  Ask how each concept: makes sense of your experience; How it helps you understand other people and; How it gives you an understanding of what is happening to your health.  So try picking any aspect of health and see how acupuncture theory understands this – you can even get people to test you by picking random parts of their body or aspects of their health. 

Once you think naturally in acupuncture terms you are on your way to being an expert practitioner.

Study Strategies

September 3rd, 2007

For long-term memory it is best to learn something then revise it later.

As we all know cramming gets you through the exam and then we blessedly forget all that stuff we crammed.

However, for stuff we are wanting to remember long-term, like acupuncture, cramming doesn’t work and neither does immediate over-learning; that is, learning it ’til you’ve got it and then going over it a few more times.  It is better to spend this extra time revising things learnt previously.

These are the findings from research conducted by psychologist Doug Rohrer at the University of South Florida and Hal Pashler of the University of California, San Diego.  They tested how much of a memorised word list was retained up to four weeks.  They have also done research on retention of abstract concepts with the same results.

So the story is:

get it clear in your mind, then let it rest for a while and revise it later. 

If you can have a routine of revision (say next week, then monthly) it may help to make it easier to get into the habit.

Teaching is Not Learning

September 1st, 2007

Usually in schooling it is the students who are tested.

And so attention has gone into helping students learn.

The way this was done, for decades, was by studying what teachers do.  This doesn’t really make sense.  It was hoped that by improving teaching then learning would follow.  This turned out to  not quite be the case.  Learning is what students do and so it is what learners (not teachers) do that should be studied.

With an on line course, like this blog (which has no teachers), this is important.

So what is learning about and what can you do about it?  There is a truck load of different studies on this.

Here is a brief summary of what I think are useful pieces of advice for learning. 

1. We learn by doing not by ‘learning about’.
Whatever you are learning: do as much as you can with it.  How does what you are learning help you understand and/or live your life?  How can you use it to help yourself or others?
To help you do this it may be helpful to keep a record, some kind of diary or journal.  Everyone I know who has done this has found it helpful.

2. We learn the meaning not the details.
So to grasp the details have a clear idea of the meaning for you.  How does what you are learning fit with the rest of your life?  The better the fit the more you will have learned.  The principle of “to the one who has shall more be given’ applies here.

3. It helps to have a big picture to slot the details into.
Whatever you are learning get a sense of an overview, what the parts are and how they fit together.  This is not a summary (which you can make at the end and is a brief presentation of the main ideas).  In acupuncture my overview is: health, sickness, therapy.  Under health in acupuncture my overview is: vital fluids produced by the organs flowing through the channels, and so on.  The main ideas can then get slotted in under these headings and summarised later.  The overview can give you a sense of where things fit and why they matter.

4. Find how you learn best.
There are various lists of different ways to learn.  The simplest is probably: head, heart, hand.  Head people (like me) think about stuff and think about the ideas, heart people are more engaged by people – how what they are learning relates to people and how it can be used to help them, hand people want to know how it works and learn by playing around with stuff.
Head people can: put ideas in their own words, find the main ideas for each area studied.
Heart people can: figure out how to use this stuff to help others.
Hand people: can make a model (on paper or out of cardboard or some other material).  If nothing else move around when you’re learning.

5. Make it fun.
Having to discipline yourself is a warning sign.  If you are not enjoying what you are studying ask why.  Then try to find a way to make it fun.

The Earth Element #2: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual

August 31st, 2007

The division into physical, emotional, mental and spiritual is my own.  It is not a division traditionally used in acupuncture.  However the aspects under these heading are covered traditionally in acupuncture.

The physical process of digestion is the food we take in.  So when our wood element is out of balance we may put on excess weight or be underweight.  Our appetite will be unreliable and we may have cravings.

The emotion traditionally associated with the earth element is pensiveness.  If this is not functioning well we can get obsessive – going over and over our experience rather than digesting it.  Some of our relationships nourish us and others can be quite toxic.

Digesting our mental experience is likewise a process of rumination and consideration.  The result of this digestion is that grow in our understanding and expand our knowledge of new areas.

Is your spirit nourished?  Does your life have a sense of meaning?  When we digest our experience spiritually we have a sense of centredness – as the earth is the centre to which all things fall.

How easily do you digest your experience?

Do you crave particular types of food?  How is your digestion?
Do your relationships nourish you?  Which ones are more nourishing and which less?  Are some of your relationships toxic to you?
Do you feel nourished intellectually?  Are you learning new things or do you tend to go over what you have already learned?
What feeds your spirit?  Do you have a spiritual practice?

The Earth Element #1

August 29th, 2007

The earth element manifests in our bodies as the stomach and ‘spleen’.

Please note: the ‘spleen’ in acupuncture is usually taken to include what in western medicine is called the pancreas.

The spleen (being more solid) is the yin aspect of the earth element and the stomach (more hollow) is the yang aspect.

The earth element has to do with our digestion – our taking in and using the fruits of the earth.

In acupuncture the process of food digestion has two main stages:
the stomach is said to ‘rot and ripen’ the food we eat, and
the spleen is said to ‘transform and transport it’.
‘Rotting and ripening’ is the first stage of digestion.  It is digesting our food to the stage it is still recognisable food.  When our stomach is upset and we vomit what we expel is still recognisable as food.  The second stage is ‘transforming’ the food into qi (other organs as well as the spleen are involved in this) and ‘transporting’ this throughout our bodies, so that all parts of us are nourished.

The earth element is easily damaged by dampness.  In humid weather we often don’t feel hungry.

When our earth element is healthy we have good muscles and our limbs are healthy.  The wood element is more associated with two vital fluids – qi and blood – than storing one in particular.

Do you feel nourished by what you take in – whatever the aspect of your experience?

In what areas do you feel nourished?
What do you feel starved of?
What do you tend to take in too much?

Do Teachers Make a Difference?

August 28th, 2007

Depressingly, for those of us who care passionately about teaching,

this is a tricky question.

Firstly there is what Edward de Bono calls ‘The Gateway Phenomenon’.

The “gateway” is the way into a prestigious educational institution.  Because this institution is seen as prestigious it gets to select the best students.  And, you guessed it, it can then boast it has the best graduates.  It then claims these students’ ability as its own, by saying that “we produce the best graduates”.  If they truly believed they were the best educators then they could choose the worst students and turn them into the best graduates: I have yet to see an educational institution adopt this policy.

Secondly its hard to find out.

If you wanted to find from rigorous research whether teachers made a difference you’d have to do something quite complicated.  You’d need very similar groups of students, studying the same curriculum and taught in the same way.  You would then test the two groups to see what difference the teacher made.  You would probably need to do this for several thousand students across different ages and different subjects.  This kind of research just hasn’t been done.

Thirdly, even if we did this difficult research it may not be the teacher. 

It is students who need to get the grades – not the teachers.  I think we can all remember times when we have succeeded despite the teaching rather than because of it.  For the research to be on the teachers, it would have to be they who got the results and not the students.  It seems very unlikely that this kind of thing will ever be done.

The upshot is we rely on what we know from our own experiences of teaching, plus the bits of partial research that have been done.  This boils down, for me, to a three simple things:

  • 1. Teachers need to know their subject (I remember one of my teachers in acupuncture college getting wrong a couple of the basic kidney points.  I knew little acupuncture and even I knew she was wrong.  She corrected herself in the next class, without admitting her error.  I thought then and think now that this is simply unacceptable.)
  • 2. Teachers need to be able to relate to their students.  (Things like understanding the question being asked, having examples that relate well, being able to explain  technical terms and why things are done in a particular way.  I’m sure we can all remember teachers who were speaking to themselves and not to the students.)
  • 3. Teachers need to be able to present the material in a suitable way to their students.  (This means being able to break it down into bite-size chunks.  Learning something is not knowing ‘about it’, it is knowing it.  This means that teaching is not presenting an analysis – you know the sort of thing: this is the subject, it is divided into these parts, it has this many aspects, blah blah blah – but is graduated exposure to the whole thing.  We learn by doing and the skill is finding tasks (not too easy, not too hard) to start doing the thing – in philosophy, writing a small essay; in teaching, doing a five minute class; in building, laying bricks in a straight line – whatever it is, doing a small meaningful part of what you are learning.)

For me, good teaching has made all the difference.  All the difference to looking forward to learning, to feeling that I know the subject, to enjoying what I’m doing.

What are your experiences of good and bad teaching?

Talking to Clients

August 27th, 2007

A big question for most acupuncturists is how to talk to their clients.

The problem is how much jargon to use.

You don’t want to bombard people with strange words, but then you don’t want to be misleading.

Where this problem is most difficult is the ‘translation’ into English. Telling someone they have a heart deficiency could cause one!

My approach is not the usual but I think it is better.

The usual approach is to use the standard translation, like ‘heart deficiency’ or ‘liver excess’ and then put in some time explaining that this doesn’t mean they have a heart or liver problem in the sense used by western medicine. This has a couple of problems:

1. Well, then what does it mean? Why use these words if they are wrong?

2. The client often doesn’t listen, and will tell others that their acupuncturist told them they have a heart or liver problem, or whatever. This isn’t likely to spread understanding of acupuncture or raise your credibility.

My approach is firstly to use a different vocabulary.

Most people who come to an acupuncturist have heard of qi and know that it doesn’t have an equivalent in western medicine. You can say things like, “Your qi is maybe a bit hyper. Are you feeling driven and hyper?” Going into more detail you could use the elements. You could say things like, “In acupuncture we’d say that maybe you have a bit too much wood energy [or qi in your wood element] . Are you feeling hyper? Do you have any eye problems at the moment? Would you say you are feeling angry?”

Secondly, you can talk about the symptoms fairly directly without using jargon.

It’s my opinion that acupuncture lends itself to this approach: that one aspect of the genius of acupuncture is that it refers so directly to our experience (heat, dryness etc). This means with a little work we can pretty much avoid jargon and speak in ways that are readily understood by most people. So you can say things like, “Well in acupuncture we’d say that you are a bit dry – you know, that dry skin and your thirst. So we remedy this by ‘moistening you’ using these points.

I hope this makes sense. It’s only sketching out my approach not going into depth. I’ll respong to any comments and do more posts on this if this is wanted.

If you are an acupuncturist I’d love to hear if you have this problem, and if so how you handle it.

Colleges Shouldn’t Own Buildings

August 24th, 2007

When we own an expensive asset (and real estate is very expensive) we naturally want to make this financially worthwhile. This is only sensible and entirely moral – good stewardship of resources is completely admirable.

This means that once a college owns a building then time and attention need to be devoted to it. There will be maintenance issues – if it is not looked after this will be very costly. There will also be the desire to extract maximum value from this asset. So time and attention will be devoted to using the building to get the best possible return. All this is sensible and moral. And has unfortunate consequences.

In my opinion the time and attention devoted to the building would be better spent improving acupuncture practice and how it is taught. Time that a college does not spend on these things is simply wasted time.

It seems to me far more sensible for a college to ‘outsource’ all the time and hassles that come with buildings. This may most easily be done by renting. Then others can worry about making the building pay.

It seems likely to me that colleges that run classes at difficult times (and with a valuable asset there is pressure to have classes going as close to 24/7 as possible) are putting the building before the students and their education.

For all these reasons it seems to me that it is far more sensible for a college to rent it’s buildings.

What do you think? Does renting make sense? Are there other things that distract colleges from focussing on students and education?