Five-Element Acupuncture: A Body-Mind-Spirit System of Healing:
An Interview with Robert J. Abramson, DDS, MD, MAc
Advances: How did you become involved with Five-Element Acupuncture?
Dr. Abramson: I became a dentist in 1971, just around the time when acupuncture was
becoming popular in the United States. James Reston [the New York Times journalist who
received acupuncture for post-op pain, while accompanying President Richard Nixon to China]
had come back from China. Nixon had his Open-Door Policy toward China and, as a dentist, I
became involved with acupuncture because it was regarded as mainly for pain control. We all
thought it would bring an end to migraine headaches, back pain, and arthritic problems. As
interest in acupuncture increased, physicians and dentists realized that it doesn’t really work like
that. You don’t just insert two needles in someone’s skin and have his or her migraine headaches
go away. What was being taught in the United States at that time was symptomatic physical
acupuncture, also known as cookbook or formula acupuncture. Coming out of the 1960s, I was
interested in Eastern thought, philosophy, and religion, and I kept looking for something deeper
and more comprehensive. I read about the Five-Element theory and I read Lao-tzu, but I didn’t
know anyone who was doing it until I heard Professor J.R. Worsley lecture in the mid-1970s. It
was an epiphany for me, and I started going back and forth to England to study the Five-Element
system with him.
During the 1970s, I had a dental practice and an acupuncture practice, and I continued to
study with Professor Worsley. I began to feel that I wanted to be doing Five-Element
Acupuncture full-time. In those days, acupuncture was still on the fringe. If you told people you
were doing acupuncture, they thought you were very weird; and if you were a dentist doing it,
they didn’t know what to make of it. I don’t know if it legitimized it or made it even weirder. In
my own mind, I needed a sense of completeness and wholeness—integration, whatever term you
want to use—so I went back to medical school as an adult after having had two practices for ten
years. I started practicing Five-Element Acupuncture in the mid-1980s, and I continue doing it to
this day. I also use Western medicine when it’s appropriate.
What is so wonderful about the Five-Element system of acupuncture is that it addresses
the spiritual dimension, which is what attracted me to it. In this day and age, that is where the
people that I see daily are suffering—on the spirit level. They come in for the back, the head, the
stomach, or a whole host of other problems that didn’t get resolved with Western medicine. But
their real suffering, 95 out of 100 times, is on the spirit level. That is why the Five-Element
system resonates with me, why it resonates with my patients.
Worsley was a very interesting combination of a working-class British man who
embodied the Taoist tradition. He was a Taoist master and would say, “don’t advertise, don’t
proselytize, don’t send announcements out, don’t publicize.” He was loving, compassionate,
low-key and perceptive with his patients and students.
Advances: What is the Five-Element System?
Dr. Abramson: When you talk about the Five Elements, you are faced right away with a
mystery or paradox because its basis is the Tao. When you read Lao Tzu’s Tao Teh Ching (The
Way of Life), it says the Tao cannot be verbalized, it’s experiential. For me, the Five-Element
system provides for us a way into the Tao. The concept of the Tao is vast: it is both simple and
complex at the same time; it’s nothing and it’s everything. The Five-Element system is and
experiential way of understanding the Tao. It sees the Five Elements in the macrocosm of the
universe mirrored in the microcosm of the individual. The Five Elements are Fire, Earth, Metal,
Water, and Wood. For example, the element of Fire—the sun blazing, a match burning brightly,
a forest fire, a little spark—is embodied within us: as the warmth in us, the passion in us, the
spark in us. The Five-Element system is very understandable from the human perspective, which
is what I love so much about it. It is not theoretical. For example, there have been recent articles
about “broken-hearted syndrome” [people who have suffered cardiac problems because of severe
emotional events]. Chinese medicine has been aware of this condition for a long time.
So when we talk about the element of Fire, which includes the heart official, we
understand that in the summer the warmth of the sun opens us in the same way that our hearts
open when we’re with people we love. We hear people say, “When I was with him, it was like
being in the sun. He just warmed me.” The other side is, “When she left me, my heart closed.”
People say, “Thirty years ago, when my father died, the fire went out in my life. My heart was
broken.” Recently, very sadly, a patient recounted that three siblings had died of cystic fibrosis,
and then her mother “died of a broken heart.” On a physical level you might prop her up or help
her sleep, but as you are addressing those physical complaints, the spirit is drifting further down
because you are not addressing the spirit. People function best when their body, mind, and spirit
are going at an even pace. Five-Element Acupuncture is all about balance. It’s about a sense of
harmony and evenness. The Tao Teh Ching reminds us of this balance: “Conduct your triumph
like a funeral,” he tells us. If you feel overblown and puffed up, eventually you will burst in
some way. The Five-Element system provides for us a beacon that we can use to illuminate the
path, even when the path appears overgrown. The Five-Element system, with its roots in the Tao
and nature, gives us a way to experience being part of the natural world. It is innate; we do not
have to learn it, only to recall it on the deepest level.
We function best with that sense of balance. When a person comes in with a broken heart,
the practitioner can help that person on the physical level, but we’re not really helping that
person unless we address his or her spirit. The Five-Element system is amazing. People ask, “you
are sticking needles in the body, and you are helping a person’s spirit?” The answer is yes. I have
been doing this for 30 years, and I’m still in awe. There is an ancient quote that expresses this
simply: “There is no illness, only stagnation (of the chi), and there is no cure, only re-
establishment of flow (of the chi).” It is that simple. There is a oneness of body, mind, and spirit.
At times, we need to break it down somewhat, but we always realize the oneness. This is what
Western medicine is starting to see more and more of with psychoneuroimmunology and
Thousands of years ago, as this system unfolded, people deeply observed the natural
world. They saw that we have this seasonal flow in nature, and we have this seasonal flow within
us. We are not outside of nature. We are nature. That is the real strength of this system.
This is what people resonate with. We are so cut off from our natural selves and the
natural world that we feel alienated. When this system touches the spirit in us and allows us to
resonate with a Summer’s day, a mountain stream, a seashore, a tree, or a plant, we begin to
think, “if this plant could bloom, I could bloom too, I could have my own Spring.” So the Five-
Element system incorporates the cycle of life, the creative cycle. We can begin by talking about
the Fire element, which manifests in passion, warmth, intensity, and sexual energy. The opposite
side is the fire gone out, the person who has never experienced love, or never experienced joy.
Imagine the deep depression of that. We talk about a cold Winter; what about a cold Summer,
When everything has reached its zenith, with the sun at its highest point in the sky, the
Summer flows into the late Summer season. We start thinking about the harvest—everything that
has reached a peak starts to decline. Late Summer is Earth time, harvest time. We think of
Mother Earth, that sense of being cared for and nourished. Everything that we have comes from
the Earth, and we go back into the earth. There is a sadness in a person who says that she took
care of her brother, her sister and, when asked, “Who took care of you?”, replies “no one.” That
sense of security you feel when adequately nourished by your mother is the essence of the Earth
element. Sometimes I’ll give people the homework to lie down on the Earth to get that sense of
peace, that sense of being supported. We have this “Earth energy” in us. Coming out of Late
Summer, with the sun lower in the sky, we begin Autumn. The Fall, the season of the Metal
element, brings this idea of letting go—which corresponds to the large intestines and lungs.
Sometimes people think that “Metal time, Fall time, is all about grief and loss. It is loss, but it is
an appropriate loss. If the leaves didn’t let go in the fall, we would not have spring. There would
be no place for the new leaves to come in. If we did not exhale, we would have no room for
inhalations, new inspirations. If we did not clear out the rubbish in our body-mind-spirit, we
could feel constipated on all levels. People talk about how their mind is full, how their mind is
stuck. We can purge the colon and not purge the mind. But if you use and acupuncture point,
such as the Meridian Gutter (Lung #8), you can finally breathe, finally release, and clear out on
Advances: So in Five-Element Acupuncture, are you working on all levels at once?
Dr. Abramson: Yes, and one of the strengths of this system is that it doesn’t separate body,
mind, and spirit. It does not say, “we are going to work on the physical level by giving you
laxatives and stool softeners; then we will send you to the psychotherapist who will do primal-
scream therapy with you; and then you are going to your priest or rabbi who will perform an
exorcism or a faith healing on your spirit. There is only the oneness of each of us. If you are
feeling out of balance on one level, the other levels must be affected as well.
Advances: It seems appealing to have a system that acknowledges that we change with the
Dr. Abramson: This is not a man-made system, it is not fabricated; it is deeply observing what
is present and being in the Tao. The path is there, sometimes overgrown, but what the treatments
do is uncover the path.
Advances: What happens during the Winter, from the Five-Element perspective?
Dr. Abramson: After metal, comes water, the element of Winter. We lose the light, we lose the
warmth, the sun goes down early. There is a sense that we need to conserve. We don’t’ want to
burn the candle at both ends. Think about what is happening under the snow; there is that
potential, those reserves, waiting and restoring. The image of the kidney-chest point, called
“Spirit Storehouse,” has this sense of holding our reserves. A plant needs to rest. Animals need
to rest. There is the idea of the field left fallow. Our society fosters a concern with how much we
have accomplished. But when the farmer allows her field to be fallow, it is appropriate for the
field to rest so that next season it can have the best crop it’s ever had. In the same way, we need
to let ourselves rest, give ourselves that conserving, reserve-building time.
Then we come to Spring, the Wood element. Spring begins to germinate under the snow
of the Winter. People usually think that Spring is the most joyous season; it’s the season of new
births, new beginnings. We can start fresh again. We have cleared out, emptied out, built up our
reserves, and we’re ready to start a new project, a new romance, to do Spring-cleaning.
Advances: Then how is it that the emotion associated with the Spring, or the Wood element, in
the Five-Element system is anger?
Dr. Abramson: Yes, that’s very interesting. People associate the Spring with rejuvenation,
Spring Fever. The anger is, very often, and expression of frustration. It is the image of the seed
trying to burst up through the concrete, and being thwarted every time. The Wood element is
about plans and decisions. Imagine if every plan we had was squashed, if every decision we
made was rejected. Every time we planted something, it did not grow. We would get so angry,
we would feel as if we were going to explode. That intense energy is appropriate for pushing
right through the concrete, pushing right through the frozen soil to get our buds up there into the
sun, our ideas out. Frustration, anger, and also patience are associated with wood. Suddenly,
there are all these demands on us. There is a frustration that we may be unable to plant the seeds
within ourselves and get things growing, the frustration of never having a Spring.
Advances: So there is a cycle moving from one element to the other?
Dr. Abramson: Wood naturally feeds the Fire. Out of the ashes of Fire, we create Earth. Out of
the bulk and the vastness of Earth, we distill out the preciousness and essence of Metal. It may
take hundreds of tons of earth to extract a fraction of trace minerals. It is the same thing within
us—we have all of this bulk and a tiny amount of trace minerals. Out of the trace minerals of
Metal comes Water. Metal seeds the clouds to create Water. A shiny metal surface allows water
vapor to condense. It makes the hidden visible. Water naturally feeds Wood (by making the trees
Advances: How do you approach the imbalances in the flow?
Dr. Abramson: The Five-Element Acupuncture practitioner acts as a farmer, tending to his or
her crops (patients) and determining what they need. The practitioner discerns which element is
the most out of balance, which element is the most damaged, and where, along the cycle, the
blocks are that are not allowing for change. As he supports and nourishes the element that is
most damaged (called the “Causative Factor”), the practitioner begins to unblock the patient’s
energy and strengthens the flow of the creative cycle, thus bringing the person into balance.
Advances: How would you use this Five-Element system in a typical clinical setting?
Dr. Abramson: I advise patients to work with the elements, to become sensitive to them, be
friends with them: the warmth of Fire, the nurturing of Earth, the essence of Metal, the depth of
Water, and the growth of Wood, reacquaint yourself with what is within you. Experience the
seasons as they inevitable change, and welcome the changes. The essence of life is movement
and flow. Watch what nature does and learn. “Yield and you need not break,” as Lao Tzu said.
[ADVANCES, Summer 2005, VOL.21, NO.2]