The Metaphysical Aspects of the 5 Elements in Traditional Chinese Medicine

The Five Element Theory

Within the TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) spectrum, this theory has numerous names that are used when describing the Five Elements Theory. They are the Wu Xing, the Five Movements, the Five Phases, or the Five Steps/Stages. Illustrated below are the elements with their chinese character, color, and their relationship with each other, shown here:

5elements21

Chinese cosmology sees the world as arising from yin-yang and the five primordial powers. From the macrocosm to the microcosm, all natural phenomena can be organized by the five phase theory of systemic correspondence.

The five phases consist of: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water. In TCM, the five phase theory is used to generalize and explain the nature of the zang fu, the inter-relations between them, and the relation between human beings and the natural world.

Theory of the five elements formed during the Yin and Zhou dynasties (16th c. – 221 B.C.) Each elements has unique characteristics, yet remain interconnected. The Five Elements are five fundamental energies in nature in motion. There is a dynamism between them; they are not static. Within the structure of the Five Elements there are two fundamental relationships: generation and support. Without the balancing nature of these two relationships, things would fall out of order in a flash.

The Five Elements show us how the structures and systems in our bodies are connected to each other; how we are connected to our environment and the natural world; how our world is part of the greater universe. Many people today have lost this deep connection to nature and no longer are able to feel this truth resonate in their being. The Universal principle of connection still exists nonetheless.

Everything within each element is related. While referring to the chart below, let’s take a look at the Water element as an example. Water is related to winter, a cold climate, the north, the color black, the Kidneys, the emotion fear. These are things that share a deep, sometimes invisible, connection to each other. When it is winter there is a cold essence, it relates to and impacts in some way the Kidneys, the emotion fear is linked, though not always in an obvious, visible way.

cycle-2-w-text

The emotions are an extremely important aspect of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Emotional well being is an integral part of health in the TCM model. Each emotion is associated with an organ, which, if out of balance will cause specific symptoms.  These are what the experienced acupuncturist or practitioner of TCM is looking for when you walk into their office with a complaint.

Emotions are of course a natural part of being human. Feeling joy, sadness and anger and all perfectly normal experiences we have in our day to day lives. It is when these emotions become excessive, or are repressed and turned inward that they can become pathological and cause disease. The belief is that balancing the organ associated with the emotion will balance the emotion. Sometimes the organ is out of balance and produces the emotional imbalance. But sometimes the emotional imbalance can produce the organ imbalance. The difference to the practitioner is important only in preventing a recurrence of the problem.

For example, if a person is experiencing extreme fits of anger, frustration, red eyes, problems sleeping, migraines and constipation, they are seen to be suffering from an imbalance of the Liver. This can be corrected with acupuncture and herbs. The liver returns to balance, the migraines disappear, sleeping improves and the bowels return to normal. But, if the patient is in a job he hates, with coworkers that make him angry and is constantly fighting with his wife, his anger will remain and the Liver imbalance will return. This is why during the diagnostic process, the practitioner asks many questions, and to the patient, it might seem like they have no bearing on the presenting condition. The job of the practitioner is to evaluate all aspects, not just the physical, so that once the imbalance is corrected, the environment that created that imbalance no longer exists.

It is important to remember that cause and effect in TCM is not linear but circular. We usually think that something is the cause of an act, or effect such as – eating too much will give you a stomach ache. Eating too much is the cause and the stomach ache is the effect. This is linear thinking. In TCM linear cause and effect does occur when symptoms are present, for example – going outside without enough warm clothes on in the middle of winter will cause you to catch cold, resulting in symptoms like a runny nose, achy muscles and a fever. These symptoms are the effect of the cold which was the cause. However, in some cases, the symptoms are not a result of such straightforward reasoning which is especially true when we are dealing with emotions.

One very common cause of emotional imbalance in TCM is repressed emotions. TCM is all about balance and flow. If emotions are not being expressed, they are being stuck which can lead to a blockage of the flow or a stagnation, which is turn can lead to disease. How the disease manifests is completely individualized depending on many factors, and it is up to the practitioner to determine the “how”. Releasing the emotions can heal the disease. Emotions that do not have avenues for expression and release can create disease and disharmony in the body manifesting as physical symptoms. So, it is very important to have a healthy emotional life, expressing your emotions freely and not allowing things to build up.

Below is information about the 5 elemental spirits written in their chinese character. Each elemental spirit is explained by author Lorie Eve Dechar from her book “Five Spirits: Alchemical Acupuncture for Psychological and Spiritual Healing.” You can find her book online for purchase at www.anewpossibility.com.

Click on the links below each Chinese character to read more in detail about each elemental spirit:

hun

Hun: The Spirit of Wood—Vision, Imagination, Direction and Benevolence

shen

Shen: the Spirit of Fire—Inspiration, Insight, Awareness & Compassion

yi

Yi: The Spirit of Earth—Integrity, Intention, Clear Thought & Devotion

po

Po: the Spirit of Metal—Animal Wit, Embodiment, Sensation & Appreciation

zhi

Zhi: The Spirit of Water—Instinctual Power, Aligned Will, Courage & Wisdom

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