If you have ever taken a personality quiz, you know how enjoyable it can feel when the result seems to be exactly right and you get a little more insight into yourself. We are all searching for a deeper understanding of ourselves, our situations, our lives. And your quiz results, even if they don’t fit exactly, may validate a few things or just leave you with some thought provoking ideas or insights. When I work in Chinese Medicine’s Five Elements, I find the same sense of deeper understanding when I can connect with a client’s base element or ‘causative factor’ (CF). This is important to healing as it grounds the internal changes in the primary Element and results in better outcomes that can be swift and long lasting. A CF is a key principle of Five Elements theory, but I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s explore a bit about the Elements first.
Learning and exploring in the Five Elements has been like unlocking a deep mystery for me as the beautiful layered patterns and interplay of rhythms and cycles across the physical, emotional and the spiritual aspects of everything is unfolded. The Five Elements theory has been a part of Chinese Medicine since 10th Century B.C. Based in Taoist philosophy, or ‘the Way’, the Five Elements provide a way to come to wholeness, to unity, as we in humanity stand between Heaven and Earth. The same laws that see humanity as the bridge between Heaven and Earth are seen to unite everything in nature, from the small cycle changes in the plant and animal world to the movement of the planets and stars. Within the Elements, each person is reflected as a microcosm of the universe, their qi or life-force energy connecting and resonating with the qi of Heaven and Earth.
The Five Elements of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water represent the qualities of all matter in the universe. Each of the Elements is within us, and when balanced we experience physical, emotional and spiritual health. Each of the Elements relates to an energetic meridian (pair), physical organs in the body, emotions and aspects of spirit. Key resonances of the Elements provide some clues to imbalances; too much or too little of any of the key aspects may indicate an imbalance or block. Let’s start with Wood Element, as it relates to springtime which is where we are now.
The Wood Element key resonances are the colour green, the odour of rancid, the sound of shouting, and the emotion of anger. The season of wood is spring. Wood organs are gall bladder and liver. The power of wood is birth, representing the beginning of the cycle of growth. Throughout life, people strive to grow and become their own mighty oak, and, depending on the nature of their ‘wood’ they may show flexibility in the face of obstacles and continue to grow, or may be rigid and get stuck. Like trees, people require certain resources to fulfill their potential and may require flexibility to adapt to circumstances. Out of balance, Wood Element may show up as difficulty in making decisions, high levels of frustration, excessive need for control, headeaches and vision problems. Water is the mother of Wood, Wood is the mother of Fire, and Wood controls Earth. Just as in our physical world, trees need water, fire needs the fuel of wood, and without plant life, our earth is barren.
Next is the Fire Element. Its key resonances are the colour red, the odour of scorched, the sound of laughter and the emotion of joy. Fire organs are the heart, the pericardium (heart protector), small intestine and the triple burner (three burning spaces). Two of these, pericardium and triple burner aren’t organs at all but are integral to the balance of the Fire Element. The season of Fire is summer, generally our warmest and highest energy season. The power of Fire is maturity, representing absorption of resources and it is the time plants are most developed, full ripened. Emotionally, Fire manifests in being joyful. To be with others, sharing and communicating generates and maintains the fire within us. Balanced Fire enables people to reach out and be nourished by human contact, and that in turn helps to keep the fire nourished and in balance. Out of balance, Fire Element may show up as low energy, digestive problems, issues with intimate relationships, confusion and doubt, insomnia, tinnitus and cardiac disease. Fire is the mother of Earth, Wood is the mother of Fire, Water controls Fire. Just as in our physical world, when fire burns ashes become earth, fire needs the fuel of wood, and we use water to put out fire.
Following Fire is the Earth Element. Earth’s key resonances are the colour yellow, the odour of fragrant, the sound of singing and the emotion of sympathy. Earth organs are the stomach, spleen and pancreas. The season of Earth is late summer, and the power of Earth is harvest, the time where we carefully reap what we have sowed. Have we benefited from our experiences? Emotionally Earth manifests sympathy/concern which can show up when out of balance as worry and over-thinking. An imbalanced Earth element can create famine, both physically with the organs being unable to transform food into nourishing qi, and mentally and spiritually, making us unable to bring the projects of our life into harvest. Unbalanced Earth can be obsessive, self centered, opinionated, insecure and uncaring. The physical symptoms include eating disorders, upper and lower gastrointestinal disease, inflammatory bowel disease, headaches and gynecological disorders. When I think of Earth Element I think “grounded” – the feeling of deep connection to the earth and the strength of being supported. Earth Element is compared to a mother, and, our mothers and main caregivers provide us with support and security and in turn we learn how to care for others and care for ourselves. Earth is the mother of Metal, Fire is the mother of Earth, and Wood controls Earth. Just as in our physical world, we find precious metal lies within the earth, when fire burns ashes become earth and without plant life, our earth is barren.
Metal Element follows Earth, and this Element’s key resonances are the colour white, the odour of rotting, the sound of weeping and the emotion of grief. Metal organs are the lungs and large intestine. The season of Metal is autumn, a time when the leaves wither and drop to the earth along with the seeds that will carry on the cycle of growth. Metal’s manifestation in nature is in re-vitalizing the earth. Stillness accompanies the dropping leaves and seeds. Without Metal, in the form of rock within the Earth, water would soak through the centre of the earth. For life to be possible, we need water to be returned to the surface. The power of Metal is decrease, a time of letting go, which directly relates to the emotion of Metal Element which is grief. Metal represents something small, in quantity, of great value and yet is buried deep within; think of our precious metals and the value we place on gold. Out of balance, Metal Element can manifest as depression and sadness, an inability to recover from loss, lack of inspiration, rigidity, poor self esteem, excessive materialism and emotional withdrawal. Physically we may see asthma, skin disorders, constipation and lower bowel disorders. Metal is the mother of Water, Earth is the mother of Metal and Metal controls Wood. Just as in our physical world, a metal jug or copper pipes controls the flow of water, earth hardens to create metal, and our cutting implements are metal, like the axe used to cut down a tree.
The fifth element is Water. Water resonances are the colour blue/black, the odour of putrid, the sound of groaning and the emotion of fear. Water organs are the bladder and kidneys. The season for Water is winter, the time when life slows down, nights get longer, water freezes, animals hibernate and seeds lie dormant. Water’s power is in storage, when our qi goes deeper inside us and we go slow and quiet to preserve our energies. In winter we store crops, fruits and vegetables, and, even seeds themselves become the archetype of storage with the potential of a plant waiting for the warmth of spring. The emotion of Water is fear, like the darkness of the long winter nights. Fear, when in balance is a primary and necessary emotion as it allows us to survive. Water out of balance, like floods and drought, can create havoc physically and spiritually affecting the very core or primal energy (jing) stored in the kidneys. Out of balance Water Element is fearful and may struggle for survival, feel a lack of reserves and deep fatigue, have reduced sexuality, show timidity and a lack of trust in life and in other people. Physical symptoms include fatigue and exhaustion, urinary tract issues, infertility, endocrine disorders and hypertension. Water is a quiet strength – it is one of the softest substances yet can wear away the hardest rock. Water is the mother of Wood, Metal is the mother of Water, and Earth controls Water. Just as in our physical world, plantlife and all of nature cannot exist without water, a metal jug or pipes will contain the flow of water and earth controls and balances the flow of water through river banks and waterways.
This is a very small sampling of some of the key aspects of the Five Elements. And now back to primary imbalance, or CF – why is it important? Professor J.R. Worsley who is credited with bringing traditional Five Elements acupuncture to the west, defines the causative factor as the Element that, under internal or external stress, becomes imbalanced and initiates a state of dis-ease. Similar to one of those personality quizzes, clear answers to certain questions can guide us to a ‘type’. Within the Elements it is not always obvious or easy to see, but important nonetheless as working in this primary Element means you return to a better state of health. It also creates an environment for other imbalances across the Elements to respond and improve quickly.
Working with the Five Elements has changed the way I view the rhythms and cycles of the body, of nature, the cosmos, of just about everything. There is a natural order, connectedness and rhythm to it all. I use this as a guidance system in my own life, knowing I am primarily Earth Element, and as a way of starting the process of understanding the needs of the people I work with when doing energy balancing (acupressure and sound healing) and using hypnotherapy.
Another beautiful aspect of the Five Elements is the Five Spirits, which I will share in a future post!