OVERVIEW OF THE FIVE ELEMENTS
The five elements (or five phases) — wu xing — is one of the core philosophies of ancient Chinese (and particularly Daoist) thought.
Based on observations of nature, this model is a description of change over time and the interaction between different states of being.
The Five Elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water
These don’t refer to physical substances, but phases of a cycle or ‘energies’ of a particular nature.
Each element resonates with a wide range of other phenomena, such as seasons, climates, colours, sounds, odours, emotions, flavours, directions and many more.
Note that these things are not necessarily discrete categories, but we categorise them to better define and understand our complex environment. For example, colours are on a spectrum of visible light. We know when we’re in the middle of summer, or that a colour is definitely green, but it can be hard to say where the boundaries are.
Similarly, all systems and theories (including five element theory) are necessary simplifications that help us understand the complexities of nature. This is why you can have multiple different theoretical systems working concurrently (e.g. yin/yang theory and five element theory, or Western medicine/Chinese medicine, etc). They are like different types of maps of the same terrain.
Basic Five Element Correspondences
IDENTIFYING ELEMENTS THAT ARE OUT OF BALANCE
Five element theory is one of the diagnostic frameworks we use in Chinese medicine. Elements can become imbalanced, becoming either excessive or deficient. We may inherit a certain kind of imbalance, or our formative experiences can create an imbalance in one or more elements. In Five Element Acupuncture, people are categorised according to the element that seems to be most out of balance. In this system, the key indicators of the main element are:
- Colour – the colour on the face, usually seen around the eyes and/or mouth. This can be quite subtle, and can also change due to other factors (for example dark blue/black patches under the eyes with lack of sleep, green around the mouth when hungover etc)
- Sound – the sound of the voice. Most indicative is when the sound doesn’t match the emotion being displayed (for example, a laughing voice when talking about something sad or difficult, a voice that sounds like the person is shouting all the time)
- Odour – people have slightly different odours – most easily identified when returning to a room they have been in for a while, or smelling the nape of the neck. Quite subtle and not as widely used as the others.
- Emotion – here we’re looking for emotions that seem inappropriate. If someone is fearful, is this justified, and can they be appropriately reassured? Are they appropriately angry/assertive, do they fly into a rage at the smallest things, or are they very timid and lacking in assertiveness?
Another useful indicator can be how we feel when interacting with a person, and the kinds of needs, issues and difficulties that come up often for them. Here are some examples:
WOOD: boundaries, power, being correct, personal growth, development
FIRE: love and warmth, emotional volatility, closeness and intimacy, happiness, clarity and confusion
EARTH: feeling supported, getting nourishment, feeling centred and stable, having mental clarity, being understood
METAL: recognition, approval, feeling complete, feeling adequate in the world, finding inspiration
WATER: needing to be safe, trusting, drive, being reassured, excitation in danger
THE CYCLES OF THE FIVE ELEMENTS
There are two main cycles through which the five elements interact:
The Creation (Sheng) Cycle
This is the grey circle connecting each element to the next in the cycle.
- Wood creates Fire by burning
- Fire creates Earth from ashes
- Earth creates Metal by hardening
(think of metal as ore being held and compressed by the earth)
- Metal creates Water by containment
- Water creates Wood by nourishment
For example: If Water is deficient, we can strengthen Metal, which will in turn generate Water. It can be difficult to strengthen a deficient element directly, or we can enhance the strengthening effect by working on both the deficient element and it’s ‘mother’.
We will also find that a deficiency in one element often leads to problems with the next element in the cycle. For example, if Metal is deficient, we may see symptoms of Kidney (Water) deficiency. If we treat or strengthen the Water, we won’t deal with the underlying problem of Metal deficiency.
The Controlling (Ke) Cycle
This is the red pentagonal lines in the middle of the diagram. Each element controls the element two further along in the cycle:
- Fire controls Metal by melting
- Metal controls Wood by cutting
- Wood controls Earth by covering/binding
- Earth controls Water by damming
- Water controls Fire by extinguishing
For example: If Wood is excessive, we can control it by strengthening Metal. We may also find that it is a Metal deficiency that is causing the Wood to become excessive in the first place. (In this case, we might also strengthen the Earth to help increase Metal which will control Wood).
You will notice that through these cycles, each element is linked to every other element.
THE FIVE MOVEMENTS
Each element has an associated movement that we can use in our qigong practice to strengthen a deficient element or calm an overactive one.
FIVE ELEMENT QIGONG
By practising the Wu Xing Qigong set, we are ‘Harmonising the Five Movements’. You can watch the exercises in the video below.