USE OF FIVE ELEMENT ACUPUNCTURE IN THE
TREATMENT OF ‘POSSESSION’: AN ANCIENT CONCEPT
APPLIED TO THE MODERN WORLD
Robert J. Abramson has been a student of J.R. Worsley’s and a practitioner of Five Element
acupuncture for more than 20 years. He is the codirector of the Five Element Group of New York
and has taught and lectured extensively on Five Element acupuncture.
Many people see acupuncture as a physical modality limited to treating physical entities
such as pain syndromes. Although this is true, it is a restricted view. Others understand that in
addition to treating physical problems, acupuncture is helpful for treating mental problems (e.g.
insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks). Still others are aware that acupuncture has a profound effect on
the spirit. In fact, most difficulties we face in the modern era—depression, lack of will to live,
lack of joy—have their origin on the spiritual level. Such spiritual maladies ca be –and, in fact,
must be—addressed with acupuncture for real healing to occur (oral communication, J.R.
Worsley, April 1979).
An overwhelming number of our problems today stem from a weak, deficient, and
uncared-for spirit. Although our culture provides well for physical and mental needs, too often
the spirit goes hungry. According to classical Five Element acupuncture as taught by J.R.
Worsley, most imbalances arise out of this deficiency. IF left untreated, they can give way to
more recognizable disease processes. For true and lasting healing to occur, a practitioner must set
free and nourish the patient‘s spirit, thereby allowing it to guide the person back to balance and
THE CONCEPT OF POSSESSION
A weakened and ineffectual spirit that is not able to guide and give direction to a patient,
coupled with powerful external or internal forces, can cause loss of control over the body, mind,
and spirit. This loss of control, this transfer of power from the person to this other entity—this
taking over—is what Five Element acupuncture calls "possession". Other healing traditions
acknowledge this idea of the patient being taken over by another force while in a weakened state
and have different treatments to restore proper order.
The ideas of demons, possession, and loss of free will are an intricate part of many
religions throughout the world. The Catholic church has been quietly encouraging bishops to
appoint more exorcists as the millennium approaches. This increased need for exorcism is a
consequence of social and cultural dislocation, the erosion of traditional religion, and the rise of
sects and cults dealing in spiritism. "Yes, I believe the Devil exists", noted one priest in a New
York Times article last year, "but not in the way he is popularly presented. The evil spirit exists in
people‘s hearts; it slips through the mind‘s fault lines. It destroys trust, causes despair, prevents
people from loving, from living a full life. It‘s not a matter of rolling on the ground and crying".
Other religious traditions contain similar ideas. In Judaism there is the idea of a dybbuk
or evil spirit. Isaac Bashevis Singer says of demons: "I don‘t think they can take us over so
quickly. When people say to themselves, 'I‘m not going to make any choice anymore.‘ It is then
that the demon is bound to appear".
The concept of possession and its treatment as taught by J.R. Worsley has become deeply
imbedded in the way Five Element acupuncturists conceptualize their patients. The hallmark of
possession is that the person is not in control of his or her life—something or someone has
assumed an inordinate and overpowering control. One might be possessed by money, a job, sex,
a guru figure, a religion, a lover, and even negative thought patterns. Virtually anything can
possess people to the point that it takes away their freedom. Of course, patients who present with
obsessional thoughts are not all possessed. There is a clear distinction—at times profound and at
times subtle—between those patients with obsessional, neurotic, and even psychotic thought and
behavioral patterns and those who are possessed from the Five Element point of view.
Regardless of one‘s worldview concerning predestination, we all tend to act as though we
are free in body, mind, and spirit to make decisions that affect our lives. However, when patients
become possessed they lose that basic ability. Something or someone usurps their power to
control their lives. In J.R. Worsley‘s classical Five Element acupuncture, specific needle
treatment patterns unleash the 7Internal Dragons that scour the body and devour the Internal
Devils that are responsible for the possession.
When assessing a patient for possession, the practitioner should listen to the patient‘s
story as well as how he or she tells it. One must also look into the patient‘s eyes to determine
whether a full, complete human being seems to be looking back. The look of someone who is
possessed is a vacant and absent stare. It‘s a bit like looking into the eyes of a doll—as though
something is missing in the person. That something is a connection to their spirit. The subtle
quality of a connection or lack thereof between practitioner and patient, the look in the patient‘s
eyes, the patient‘s inability to move forward with his or her life, and the context of the patient‘s
story all can help the practitioner to arrive at a diagnosis and institute proper treatment.
If the patient being treated for possession is not actually possessed, nothing happens. The
practitioner does no harm and eliminates possession as a possible cause of the patient‘s
problems. The patients in the following case reports were all treated for possession. The needling
pattern for these treatments can be found in J.R. Worsley‘s Traditional Chinese Acupuncture. It
is important to bear in mind that this treatment must be seen in the context of a Five Element
diagnosis and continued treatment on the causative factor Element. Causative factor is a concept
specific to the Five Element system and denotes the primary elemental imbalance. Practitioners
who have a strong sense that their patient is possessed can refer the patient to a Five Element
practitioner or use another modality to deal with the possession. From a Five Element
perspective, however, the possession must be cleared or future treatments will not work and the
patient will not be able to move forward with his or her life.
Emma, a 41-year-old, extremely high-functioning woman, got involved with a man, fell
in love, and was swindled out of a large sum of money. She became obsessed with this man as
well as her mistake and could not get them out of her mind. These thoughts dominated her daily
life. It was as though she was possessed by her action and could not regain control of her life.
She was referred by a psychotherapist who felt something was needed to break through the
obsessive thoughts, allowing the patient to regain control. I treated her for Internal Devils. Her
sleep was restored and the obsessive and possessed feelings that ruled her life left her. She was
now able to deal with the psychological issues that allowed her to get into such a situation in the
In the following section, Emma‘s therapist describes the background leading up to
Emma‘s referral to my practice:
Emma is an extremely successful single parent. In 1996 her son received a full
scholarship to an Ivy League university and her daughter received a scholarship to a prestigious
prep school. Suddenly both children were out of the house and Emma, who hadn’t been on a date
in approximately 12 years, began a relationship with a retired baseball player. He was
charismatic and playful, but an alcoholic. Emma knew this was not going to develop into a
lifelong partnership, but was nevertheless enjoying herself. In spring 1998 Emma’s friend and
lover decided to go back to his former girlfriend. Emma had given the man a large sum of
money, with which he had absconded. Emma was devastated.
My work with Emma involved helping her to manage and grieve the loss. After a month
of treatment, nothing had changed with her. She was suffering from depression and anxiety and
was unable to concentrate at work or make herself available to her children when they came
home for a visit. I referred her to a psychiatrist and she began taking both Prozac (fluoxetine
hydrochloride) and BuSpar (buspirone hydrochloride). Around the same time I began treating
her for trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder. The treatment included traditional cognitive,
cognitive-behavioral, insight-oriented therapies as well as eye movement desensitization and
reprocessing techniques. After several months of psychiatric and psychological treatment, Emma
found no relief from her obsession with her lover or the pain associated with his betrayal of her.
She was not functioning and we spoke about hospitalization. At this point I referred her to Dr.
Abramson for acupuncture treatments in the hope of avoiding hospitalization.
After the first session Emma reported that she was thinking more clearly and that she could
conceive of the possibility of "getting on with her life". She arranged outings with friends and understood
that she had to break her ties to the family and friends of her former lover. Only one additional
acupuncture treatment remained, and within a month following the initial treatment Emma began to
stabilize. During the summer of 1998 she was working effectively at her job. She began to take trips and
spent satisfying time with her children. In September she began dating a man she knew when she was a
young woman. The relationship appears to be healthy and Emma is reportedly doing will (written
communication, James Halpern, PhD, November 1998).
A 35-year-old woman receiving treatments from an acupuncturist had begun to feel poorly over
the previous 6 to 8 months before she came to see me. Jane appeared to have an ideal life: she had 3
wonderful children a loving husband, and financial security. She was also intelligent, physically
attractive, and generally healthy.
As our interview and physical examination proceeded, however, the sense that something was
wrong became increasingly strong. I felt I could not engage this patient and could not find the person
behind the façade. Following some gentle questioning, Jane revealed that she had just remodeled parts of her house, noting the experience had been "toxic" and that she felt "poisoned" by it. I thought perhaps that environmental pollutants were making her sick, but with further probing Jane opened up with a flood of tears and emotion.
The builder with whom she had been working closely—a man who had befriended her and
became her confidant—was exerting increasing control over her life. Jane had become dependent on him
to a very unhealthy degree. She had slowly lost control of her life and was being manipulated by this
person. Jane could feel that something was wrong but could not extricate herself from the morass. Finally,
it came to light that the builder was grossly overcharging her and she broke off the relationship. She then
had a very disturbing and graphic daydream in which she imagined him as the devil. Since that time Jane
had not felt right: her sleep was off, she was lethargic, everything was a great effort, there was no joy in
her life, and, as she said, "It was a dark cloud over me."
The combination of how I perceived Jane and how I perceived her story led me to treat her for
possession using the Internal Devils treatment. After the first visit there was a dramatic change. She
almost immediately felt a sense of relief and of being back in control. This did not mean that her energy
returned immediately or that all of her issues evaporated, but the treatment seemed to allow her to begin
the healing process and to make some sense of what had happened as well as why she felt so poorly.
At this writing I have seen Jane 5 addition times. She is doing well, her joy is back, she is
energetic again, and she is present and engaging in conversation.
A 40-year-old man with a long-standing history of depression told the story of how his older
brother had been very depressed and committed suicide as a teenager. Jeffrey was 18 years old at the time
and it became the defining moment in his life. He became depressed himself and was obsessed with the
idea that he should have been able to prevent his brother‘s suicide. Of course, this sentiment was
irrational, but it exerted an overwhelming force over the patient. I treated him for Internal Devils, which
had a very positive effect. Although the treatment did not magically eliminate Jeffrey‘s depression, it
allowed him to focus on his own life and problems and to begin moving forward with his treatment,
which involved antidepressants and acupuncture.
These clinical examples illustrate the hallmark of possession—that something or someone is
controlling another person‘s life. Clearing away this kind of possession is a necessary starting point in
Five Element acupuncture. My hope is that these case reports will expand the scope of how we view our
patients and acupuncture in general, giving practitioners another treatment protocol in their clinical
armamentarium. One cannot work effectively with the Elemental causative factor and bring balance and
harmony to a person‘s body, mind, and spirit when that person is being controlled by a foreign influence.
Once cleared, the person can begin to move forward, allowing various treatments that may not have been
successful previously to work the way they were originally intended.
[Alternative Therapies, September 1999, VOL. 5, NO. 5]