Five Elements: The Basics
The five elements can be found in all walks of life. They may be translated into foods and scents, seasons and weather, sights and colors … even behaviors/habits, actions, and words. The elements are found in the ‘voice’ of the interactions of life, and through intimate knowledge of the elements and their interactions, balance may be found. For example, if a life habit has one eating too many ‘hot-fiery’ foods, imbalance may result. To counter this imbalance, foods of an opposing element should be consumed for a time, or adapted into dietary habits to aide in bringing the system (and/or the meal) into balance.
Over centuries, Traditional Chinese Medicine has evolved into intricate systems through which one may view the natural world. One of these is the Five Elements. This elegant creation is the product of ancient Taoist physicians expanding upon the concepts of Yin and Yang. Maintaining the Yin/Yang paradigm, the Five Element System enfolds all natural phenomena, correlating them to the Five Elements of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Each element contains Yin and Yang aspects, thus maintaining the underlying principles of duality and unity so fundamental and central to Chinese thought.
Five Elements Overview
A classic example used for centuries to illustrate the Five Elements is the cycle of the seasons.
Wood corresponds to spring, the time of flourishing warmth that leads into summer, the Element of Fire.
Earth follows in the cycle and presents as Long Summer, showing the very beginnings of transition from the heat of summer to the growing coolness and shortening of days of
fall which corresponds to the Element of Metal.
Winter, the Element of Water, follows fall, and is represented by the darkness and coldness. And naturally, winter leads to spring, where the cycle starts all over again.
Traditional Chinese Medicine uses the Five Element viewpoint (it may also use the 8 Principles, 4 Pillars, or many other diagnostic tools, skills, and knowledge) to develop diagnostic and treatment strategies; the ancient Chinese realized no one diagnostic or treatment paradigm fits all situations. Thus the Five Elements evolved to correspond and have something to say regarding all physiological, anatomical, and pathological processes we encounter as we move through the cycles of change in a lifetime.
Qualities of the Five Elements
Each of the Five Elements has specific qualities distinguishing it and giving it a particular appearance.
Wood - Qualities: Growing, expanding, flexibility - Organ System: Liver & Gall Bladder
Fire - Qualities: Hot, dry, ascending, moving - Organ System: Heart & Small Intestine
Earth - Qualities: Nourishing, fertile, productive - Organ System: Spleen & Stomach
Metal - Qualities: Hard, cutting, discerning - Organ System: Lungs & Lg. Intestine
Water - Qualities: Cool, descending, yielding, moist - Organ System: Kidney & Urinary Bladder
Correspondences of the Five Elements in Nature and the Body (Organs)
and Expressions of the Five Elements in the 5 Major Organ Systems
Traditional Chinese Medicine uses the energy of each of the Elements to assess the balance or imbalance of each of the organ systems. Using the Five Element correspondences helps us to understand how to maintain balance within our systems. Through observation, we learn to discern how the Elements interact with each other, for the essential understanding of the interconnectedness of all things applies deeply to the different physical, emotional and psychospiritual aspects of who we are. Below are some examples of using the Five Elements to help keep our organ systems healthy and some correlation information for the Five Elements.
Traditional Chinese Medicine views the Liver as the General in charge of commanding the ‘troops’. In this case, the ‘troops’ represent various types and functions of Qi (energy - life force) in the body, and the General’s job is to ensure all the troops are doing their job in a smooth and dynamic way.
The Liver is the organ most easily affected by stress or negative emotions, and thus a good strategy for maintaining a healthy Liver is to express your emotions in an appropriately and mindfully. This will keep the ‘troops’ moving in a thoughtful and smooth manner!
Yin Organ: Liver
Yang Organ: Gall Bladder
The Heart is the seat of consciousness in Traditional Chinese Medicine. The Five Element emotions of happiness, love, and a state of equanimity, are often associated with a Heart in balance. As with the Liver, stress or lack of the expression of one’s creative potential can directly impact this organ’s function. So, express yourself and do what you love. This will bloom the Heart open to its potential … and your friends and family will appreciate your positive energy!
Yin Organ: Heart
Yang Organ: Small Intestine
Traditional Chinese Medicine views the Spleen as the organ overseeing and orchestrating the entire digestive process. Chronic stress, worry, and over thinking can damage the Spleen’s function and lead to digestive issues. Do you have digestive issues? Eating too much raw and cold foods can also tax the Spleen. Eat warm and nourishing foods, get plenty of exercise … and try to stop worrying!
Season: Late Summer
Yin Organ: Spleen
Yang Organ: Stomach
The Lungs are the ‘delicate’ organ in Traditional Chinese Medicine and are responsible for our ability to take in oxygen, nourishing every cell. Grief and sadness are the emotions most often negatively impacting the Lungs. Deep breathing is an ancient technique (there are many breathing techniques) for helping balance Lung energy. And the Lungs are partnered with the Large Intestine, and thus ‘letting go’ of things that no longer serve us is a good way .. these organs, together as a single organ-system in TCM, free the body of physical and emotional baggage.
Yin Organ: Lungs
Yang Organ: Large Intestine
The Kidney is the repository of energy for the body, supplying needed Qi to all the organs when necessary. Getting enough rest is essential for helping to maintain Kidney energy balance. The Five Element emotion associated with the Kidney is fear. Fear is a deep-seated emotion, central - realized or not - to much of existence as it is dictated through thought and action. Fear, when welcomed and addressed with discernment, can become a strength in the affairs of your daily life. Be aware. Be calm. Rest.
Yin Organ: Kidney
Yang Organ: Urinary Bladder