The Theory of Five Elements or Five Phases was introduced by Tsou Yen, thought to be the founder of Chinese scientific thought. He described the movement of one element into another as five phases, the cadence of life within us and outside of us. Some of us go about our daily business totally unconscious of these rhythms – of twenty-eight days; seven years; and five phases of our lives. Even the movement of daytime to night-time requires that we draw within as the yin energy of our blood nourishes our organs and mind at this time. Women’s’ bodies and women’s’ emotions ebb and flow with this cyclic tide of life-giving force. Many of us are too sensitive to this ‘pulse’ of the universe and many of us who do not flow with it, battle against it. Gynecology more often than not would have us stand on the battlefield by taking medication with side affects to the delicate balance of the hormonal system or aggressive procedures such as hysterectomy. Chinese medicine is patriarchal. The point of reference is to the Yellow Emperor and his court [approximately 206B.C – 25 A.D. The functions of the organs are likened to his army, whose sole purpose is to protect their emperor. The analogy works very well in Chinese medical practice. The functions of the organs are described like poetry – harmonizing mind, body and spirit. Chinese medicine is a rich and sophisticated science – but women’s’ physiological and emotional cycles are described, surprisingly, in mechanistic concepts, even in the modern texts. This is no doubt due to the fact that there are no medical manuscripts written by women during the dynasties of ancient China. The TCM books actually say that by the time a woman reaches her seven times seven cycle (49 years) her Jing (essence) is depleted. On a gynecology workshop, the renowned Japanese acupuncturist, Kiko Matsumoto, said to us, “You want to know about TCM, you go to source. You go before 2,000 years to Five Elements, and then you know!” My ‘initiation’ into grand motherhood was just that, gratitude; it melts away any doubt, any fear of the future and infuses one with a great enthusiasm to live life to the full for another fifty years to come! That is the quality I try to bring into my work with the people I treat.
Overview of The Five Elements: Wood – Fire – Earth – Metal – Water There are many different ways of practicing Chinese medicine. Over the past twenty-five years in the West, TCM s being rediscovered. We are born with all five elements within us, but when one element becomes a little out of balance it creates chaos and may interfere with allowing us to reach our full potential. Each one of us is predisposed to a pattern of emotional and physiological harmony and dis-harmony, according to this theory. The five elements are likely to be unfamiliar within Western medical concepts, as they arise from very different cultural and conceptual frameworks. The following descriptions and explanations will help you to understand this system, and can help the layperson understand why three people at the same phase of life, with the same chief complaint may be diagnosed or treated in three very different ways.
A Five Element practitioner will begin to establish the Guardian Element of her patient the moment the person walks through the door. The first impression provides important clues – the way they move across the room, the tone of their voice. The element out of balance will create recognizable characteristics in a person – such as the expression of emotion, hue or color on the face, and body odor. Each element represents an organ, a season, an emotion, a direction, sound, taste, color, odor, climactic influence, spirit and more. The elements also have their time of day when their energy peaks and sinks (a high and a low time). Balance is created between the Elements: Wood generates Fire, Fire generates Earth, Earth generates Metal, Metal generates Water, and Water generates Wood.
The first element in our cycle is Wood. Its organs are the Liver and Gall Bladder, and it is in charge of the smooth flow of Qi (biological energy) for all the organs and the emotions. The Liver also houses the menstrual blood and so is involved in the female reproductive system. The season is spring, representing birth and youthful energy. Its energy flows upward and outward towards the sun. You might picture a little bud under the cold hard ground after winter.I It takes a tremendous effort to push up and out, breaking through the hard earth. The energy is selfish; it must get that bud up to meet the sun at any cost. It has direction and purpose. So it is with Wood in our lives. Wood also nourishes our eyes, giving us vision as well as our ability to be visionary. Wood gives us our flexibility – you can bend like a young green shoot or be as inflexible as an old plank. The emotion of Wood is anger. Anger in balance is assertiveness. Wood gives us our ability to vision the future, make plans and have the courage to take the decisions necessary to carry out those plans. When Wood is held back, it easily becomes frustrated and angry or resentful, and if not checked, will give rise to disharmony, manifesting in any element that may be weak. Problems arising could be migraine, blurred vision, palpitations, stroke, late onset asthma, irritable bowel, or menstrual problems.
Fire is the second element in the cycle: Inner Fire and Outer Fire. Fire gives us our ability to love and receive love. Its organs are the Heart and Small Intestine, the Pericardium, and San Jiao. (The San Jiao, or Triple Burner is an elusive aspect of Chinese medicine. It is formless, yet divides the body into upper, middle and lower. It may be seen as an avenue for Original Qi.) The emotion is joy. The Small Intestine sifts and sorts information – the pure from the impure – before passing it on to the Heart (Emperor). Those with Fire as their Guardian Element are people you can see ‘sifting and sorting’ the information you are giving them before you’ve even finished. They have your answer almost before you stop talking. The Pericardium protects the Emperor from hurtful emotion. We know those people who ‘wear their heart on their sleeve’, inappropriately opening their heart to all. These are vulnerable people who have outer Fire as their Guardian Element. Like fire, they flicker high and sparkle and then fall cold into the ashes of what once was their happiness, burnt out. The season is summer. The emotion is joy. This is when spring stops its intense focus on the little bud in its charge and becomes aware that “There are other buds on the bough” (Franglen, 2001). This is the time of joyous, young adulthood. Romance and passions are aroused under the warm sunshine of summer. This is a vulnerable time for our heart can be full of joy one moment and broken the next. Out of balance, Fire manifests as heart problems, depression, circulatory problems, or speech impediment (the heart manifests on the tongue).
Earth is the third element in the cycle. The organs are the Spleen and Stomach. Earth gives us our ability to give and receive nourishment. Its emotion is pensiveness / empathy and sympathy. Earth gives us the capacity for clear thinking. It is our intellect. Its season is late summer, when the fruits are ripening and there is abundance. The passions of young adulthood have now reached maturity and we are able to care for the needs of others. When out of balance, this pensiveness becomes worry. Earth needs to be light and loamy in order to provide a bountiful harvest, so when worry and ruminating take over, those with Earth as their guardian element will be literally ‘stuck in the mud,’ unable to move out of their stuckness. Earth out of balance leads to an inability to either give nourishment to others, selfishly hoarding out of a fear that there will be nothing left, or over-indulging others to the point of pushing them away. People with Earth as their guardian element may suffer eating disorders, digestive problems, weight problems and varicose veins.
Metal is our fourth element on the cycle. The organs are the Lung and Colon. Metal gives us our ability to judge what is of value and what is not. We inhale new impressions, exhaling the information which has no value for us. The emotion is grief. In balance, grief gives us our ability to let go. Out of balance, we have a feeling of loss; something is missing, even if we don’t know what. The season is autumn. Metal makes order out of the activity of spring, the chaos of summer and the remains of the harvest of late summer. The rotting fruits left on the ground are gathered by Metal and turned into precious trace elements to be stored deep within the ground over the winter months, ensuring rebirth next spring. Out of balance people with Metal as their guardian element look back at the activity and beauty and harvest of the other elements work and grieve at the passing of all this beauty, seeing only barren earth and death around the corner in winter. Unable to let go, they fail to see their own true value in the cycle, for there is a diamond within metal that reflects the qualities of the other elements. Metal people look upward for an explanation, when they are the very ones who can look within to see the valuable diamond of their being. Quality and meaning is what Metal yearns for. Metal out of balance may suffer asthma, respiratory problems, sadness, allergies, skin problems.
Water, the fifth element brings us full circle. The Water organs are the Kidneys and Bladder. The emotion is fear. Water gives us our will for survival; our fright: fight or flight mechanism. In balance, we can act and survive. Water houses our constitution, the genetics we inherit from our mother and father (Heavenly Qi). The season is Winter, a time of storage of essence. Nature turns deep within, reflecting, storing nutrients, reconnecting with our source before we are called to rise again to the call of spring. Water wants to unify all life. Out of balance, people with Water as their guardian element, may be very fearful and need reassurance from us; or they may be fearless, taking unnecessary risks. Water out of balance may manifest with urinary problems, reproductive problems, inherited dis-ease, arthritis, endocrine and hormonal problems.
The Elements can help us understand the Phases in our lives. We have seen that Wood is the phase of our life that corresponds to our birth and childhood, and is the phase where we reach up and out to receive the impressions that will form our relationship to the world, and how comfortable or uncomfortable we will be in the other element phases of our lives. Fire is the time we form relationships and learn to relate to others in our young adulthood. The little bud opens and becomes aware of the other blossoms on the bough. Depending on how well our hearts are cherished at this time, Fire sets us up for happiness or heartbreak, warm heartedness or coldheartedness. Earth is the phase of mature adulthood, when we look for someone to settle with or have a family with. This can be a time of fulfillment and contentment, knowing that everyone’s needs are met, or it may be a time of feeling left out and no longer at the center of things. Maybe we forgot to nourish ourselves? Metal represents late maturity from fifty to seventy years. This is the time of transformation. It is the opposite element to Wood, yet Metal must draw on the courage of Wood to let go of things past and look forward to see its own value. We have a choice of spiritual fulfillment or to forever grieve the past. Water is our time from seventy years until death, when we return to Source. We can look into our own reflection, trusting what we see, or be terrified at the unknown depths below the surface. Wisdom or fear of the unknown?
LIFE BEGINS IN AUTUMN:
The metal phase of a woman’s life, seen through her five guardian elements is knowledge and life experience distilled. The Metal Phase is our opportunity to help ourselves through the transition from our life experience to wisdom.
Women’s Wisdom: Menopause is the time of a woman’s life when she should be fulfilled. She is a culmination of all her life’s experience and so, has something to give back to the world from a deeper part of herself. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) teaches us that women go through seven year cycles, while men have eight year cycles. We must meet each new cycle and let go of the old. If we don’t, we get stuck. The seventh and eighth cycles may be difficult to let go of for this is the time we let go of our youth, our fertility and nurturing young offspring. This is also the cycle that offers us a leap into our full potential. One of the four determining conditions with space, time, and eternity. The condition of existing in a state of sensitivity. It is associated with the operation of will as the conditions for exchanges, free choice and hence transformation. Here we have the idea of will- power. If we don’t let go of the past and also of anxieties we have about the future, we are in danger of our reality becoming the reality we fear – old age and death!
How many women reach their later years with a feeling of ‘something is missing’? Women may feel they have had a fortunate life, yet somehow they have arrived at a phase that sometimes seems to have happened almost overnight. One day we see ourselves in the mirror looking sassy, the next day we linger in front of the mirror, wondering where we went. It’s not just about the hormonal changes, cessation of menses or hot flashes. It’s about “me as a unique individual with value for who I am.” Our Metal Phase rests on our experiences of our earlier phases and transitions. If these experiences were positive and fulfilled, then we may embrace Metal with open arms. If our experiences were negative or left wanting, this transition could be the most difficult for us. Our transition from our Wood phase into our Fire phase is a delicate one, going from childhood through puberty and into young adulthood. We may have sailed through it or not, depending on the support we had from those who cared for us. But, it is a transition where we are looking towards the future because there is so much of it before us. Our transition from our Fire phase into our Earth phase often happens with the energy of a brush fire sweeping us off our feet into passion, marriage, career, expectations and before we know it we come down to Earth with a thump, caring for children, partners, colleagues all drawing energy from us in the form of breast milk, sex, solutions and extra hours! This may or may not have been a positive experience for us. Some women thrive, others become exhausted. This would depend on which element is out of balance. Here is where we may find the reality of the path we are walking is not leading to the destination we thought we were going to. The transition from our Earth phase into our Metal phase will determine our transformation from Metal to Water or, knowledge to wisdom. This is where the intellect of the Earth element can bring understanding and we can consciously act upon that understanding. Looking at the Five Element chart, Wood (spring) is opposite autumn. Fire (summer) is opposite Water (winter). Each element contains a seed of its opposite element. Like the interdependence of yin and yang. To make the necessary transition, each element must call upon the strengths of its opposing element to make its transformation; as when a woman gives birth and is at her weakest, she finds an almost superhuman strength from deep within to push her baby out into the world. And the first thing a baby does is to respond with its Metal by inhaling its new life into the lungs. A woman requires the same effort that only Wood can give her, only this time to rebirth herself at menopause. Acupuncture offers excellent treatment for the unwanted symptoms of menopause. It is interesting to note the names of the points used for women at menopause. We open the Extraordinary Vessels (energy channels, likened to a reservoir of energy deep within the body). These vessels derive their energy from Essence and are a link between Before-heaven and After-heaven Qi. They circulate essence all over the body and represent a deeper level of treatment. The Extraordinary Vessels also regulate the seven and eight year cycles of women and men. A combination of two points are used to open and Extraordinary Vessel. There are eight Extraordinary Vessels; two are predominantly used in treating menopause symptoms. The Ren Mai or Directing Vessel. The two points used exert an influence on the throat and the uterus, and also calm the mind. This gives us a picture of speaking out our truth in order to rebirth ourselves (the throat chakra is associated with taking responsibility for one’s personal needs). The Directing Vessel is also called the “Sea of the Yin Meridians,” which (like estrogen) treats such symptoms as night sweating, hot flashes, insomnia, tinnitus, feeling of heat, and irritability. The other Extraordinary Vessel used in menopause is Chong Mai, or Penetrating Vessel. It is an Earth meridian and is used to irrigate the channels with nourishment in the form of blood. It is coupled with an acupuncture point to supplement our constitutional Qi through the breath or Zhong Qi (Spiritual practices always include the breath) and is said to “open or relax the chest”. It also harmonizes Earth. This presents us with a picture of Earth taking nourishment, in the form of blood, to an Inner Pass where it will be transformed through the breath (Metal tempered by Fire) and returned to Essence. Or metaphorically, the mature woman takes the gifts of her unique qualities into her Metal phase, where they are transformed into Wisdom. Acupuncture may help us with all the unpleasant, unwanted symptoms of menopause, and even help us to connect to our Inner Wisdom. Sometimes during a treatment a person who has been looking at life through a misty window can just clear a little corner and catch a glimpse, a moment of clarity. The person may even think they have been sleeping through the treatment, yet there has been an insight, and a shift has taken place.
The guided visualization I have developed for my workshops helps women to retrieve the ‘gifts’ she may have forgotten she had. 1. The women are asked to sit comfortably and are taken through a simple relaxation exercise. 2. They are asked to go through a door into a great hall where there are five doors. One green, one red, one yellow, one white and one blue, representing the colors of each element. One by one we enter each door into a garden representing the season of each element. We meet ourselves in the corresponding phase and observe the positive qualities that we had in our dealing with situations at that time. Our younger self presents us with those qualities and we leave with them, bringing each one into the present moment. We give a symbol or a shape to each quality. Then we enter the fifth door, to Water. There is a still, crystal clear lake in front of us. At the far side is an old crone. She beckons us to come and we see there are stones across the lake for us to step onto. As we walk from stone to stone, we see our life pass before us in the reflection of the still water. As we approach the old crone, we hand her our ‘gifts.’ As she raises her head, she smiles, and we see she is beautiful. She receives our gifts, and we turn to walk back to the blue door. As we do, we see our reflection in the Water and realize that we had nothing to fear all along. We are beautiful. We turn to wave goodbye, and the crone has disappeared into the water. The emotion of Water is fear. We can be fearful of fear itself. We are too fearful to look at our reflection, but if we find the courage of our youth within us, that’s just what we find – the Water element offers us the fountain of youth. Metal finds her value, having given her gifts to be stored as essence out of which a new spring is born… and the cycle continues. “Water is where we began and where we end; it has the ability to rejoin and Water brings the elements full circle to begin again. You made a promise not to forget me.’ ” (Sufi teaching) References Franglen, 2003, Global Books, Acupuncture, the Five Elements
This post taken from a lecture by Lori Hillman. Some edits have been made and the article has been shortened.