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                           The Five Elemental Energies


 

 

The Five Elemental Energies

By Daniel Reid

"The Five Elemental Energies of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water encompass all the myriad phenomena of nature.  It is a paradigm that applies equally to humans."

The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine

(second century bc)

 The Five Elemental Energies (wu sing) represent the tangible activities of yin and yang as manifested in the cyclic changes of nature which regulate life on earth.  Also known as the Five Movements (wu yun), they define the various stages of transformation in the recurring natural cycles of seasonal change, growth and decay, shifting climatic conditions, sounds, flavors, emotions, and human physiology.  Each energy is associated with the natural element which most closely resembles its function and character, and from these elements they take their names.  Unlike the Western and other systems of five elements, the Chinese system focuses on energy and its transformations, not on form and substance.  The elements thus symbolize the activities of the energies with which they are associated.

 As manifestations of yin and yang on earth, the Five Elemental Energies represent various degrees of 'fullness' and 'emptiness' in the relative balance of yin and yang within any particular energy system.  An ancient Chinese text explains this principle as follows:

By the transformation of yang and its union with yin, the Five Elemental Energies of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water arise, each within its specific nature according to its share of yin and yang.  These Five Elemental Energies constantly change their sphere of activity, nurturing and counteracting one another so that there is a constancy in the transformation from emptiness to abundance and abundance to emptiness, like a ring without beginning or end.  The interaction of these primordial forces brings harmonious change and the cycles of nature run their course . . . The Five Elemental Energies combine and recombine in innumerable ways to produce manifest existence.  All things contain all Five Elemental Energies in various proportions.

Let's take a look at this idea in terms of the basic seasonal cycles of nature, which influence every living thing on earth. 

Water is the elemental energy associated with winter, when a state of extreme yin prevails.  Winter is the season of stillness and rest, during which energy is condensed, conserved, and stored.  Water is a highly concentrated element containing great potential power awaiting release.  In the human body, Water is associated with essential fluids such as hormones, lymph, marrow, and enzymes, all of which contain great potential energy.  Its color is black, the color which contains all other colors in concentrated form.  In nature, Water is dissipated by excess heat; in humans, Water energy is depleted by the 'heat' of stress and excess emotions.  The way to conserve the potential energy of Water is to stay still and 'be cool'.

 The next phase of the seasonal cycle is spring, during which the Wood element arises from the potential energy of Water, just as plants sprout from the ground in spring rains.  This is the 'new yang' stage of the cycle.  Wood energy is expansive, exhilarant, explosive.  It is the creative energy of 'spring fever', awakening the procreative drive of sexuality.  It is associated with vigor and youth, growth and development.  In the human body, Wood energy is associated with the movement of muscles and the activity of tissues.  Its color is green, the vibrant color of spring growth.  Wood energy demands free expression and space for open expansion.  Blocking it gives rise to feelings of frustration, anger, jealousy, and stagnation.

 Just as spring develops naturally into summer, so the aggressive creative energy of Wood matures into the flourishing 'full yang' energy of Fire.  This is the most overtly energetic phase of the cycle, during which the 'heat' of full yang energy is sustained.  All life forms flourish in summer owing to the warm, stable glow of Fire energy.  Fire is related to the heart, which is the seat of human emotions and the organ whose constant warmth and pulse keeps blood and energy moving.  Its color is red, the warm color of fire and blood.  It is associated with love and compassion, generosity and joy, openness and abundance.  If blocked it results in hypertension and hysteria, heart problems and nervous disorders.

 Towards the end of summer comes an interlude of perfect balance during which Fire burns down and energy mellows, transforming itself into the elemental energy of Earth.  Neither yin nor yang predominates during this period; instead they are in a state of optimum balance.  This is the pivot of the cycle, the fulcrum between the yang energies of spring and summer and the yin energies of autumn and winter.  The Five Elemental Energies hum in harmony at this time, providing a sense of ease, well-being, and completeness.  The Earth energy of late summer is the phase and the feeling celebrated in the song 'Summertime, and the living is easy ...'  Its color is yellow, the color of sun and earth, and in human anatomy it is associated with the stomach, spleen, and pancreas, which lie at the center of the body and nourish the entire system.  If Earth energy is deficient, digestion is impaired and the entire organism is thrown off balance owing to insufficient nourishment and vitality.

 As summer passes into autumn, the energy of Earth transforms into Metal.  During the Metal phase, energy once again begins to condense, contract, and draw inward for accumulation and storage, just as the crops of summer are harvested and stored in autumn for use in winter.  Wastes are eliminated, like winnowing chaff from wheat, and only the essence is kept in preparation for the nonproductive Water phase of winter.  If the harvest fails or falls short, there may not be sufficient energy stored during Water/winter to generate a strong and healthy cycle in the following Wood/spring.  Metal energy controls the lungs, which extract and store essential energy from air and expel wastes from the blood, and the large intestine, which eliminates solid wastes while retaining and recycling water.  Its color is white, the color of purity and essence.  Autumn is the season of retrospection and meditative insight, for shedding old skin and dumping the excess baggage of external attachments and emotions accumulated in summer, just as trees shed their leaves and bees drive drones from the hive at this time of year.  Resisting this energy by clinging sentimentally to past attachments can cause feelings of melancholy, grief, and anxiety, which manifest themselves physiologically in breathing difficulties, chest pain, skin problems, and low resistance.  Flues, colds, and other respiratory ailments are common indicators of blocked Metal energy, which is associated with the lungs.  Just as Metal is a refined extract of Earth forged by Fire, so autumn is the season for extracting and refining essential lessons from the activities and experiences of summer, transforming them into the quiet wisdom of winter.

And so the great wheel of nature turns in a continuous cycle of elementary energies, drawing all living things in its wake and proceeding in an orderly and rhythmic sequence:

Wood >                 Fire >                  Earth >                     Metal>           Water >

new yang            full yang            balanced yin & yang         new yin            full yin

spring                  summer               late summer                    fall                  winter

dawn                    noon                   afternoon                      dusk              midnight

Like yin and yang, the Five Elemental Energies maintain their internal harmony through a system of mutual checks and balances known as 'creative' and 'control' cycles.  Both these cycles, which counteract and balance one another, are in constant operation, maintaining the dynamic fields of polar forces required to move and transform energies.  The creative cycle is one of generation, like the relationship between mother and child.  Water generates Wood by nourishing its growth; Wood generates Fire by providing its fuel; Fire generates Earth by fertilizing it with ashes; Earth yields Metal by extraction and refinement; Metal becomes liquid like Water when it is melted.

The opposite force is the control cycle, a relationship of subjugation similar to that between the victor and the vanquished in battle.  The Internal Medicine Classic describes the control cycle as follows:

Wood brought into contact with Metal is felled;

Fire brought into contact with Water is extinguished;

Earth brought into contact with Wood is penetrated;

Metal brought into contact with Fire is dissolved;

Water brought into contact with Earth is halted.

 Whenever a particular elemental energy grows too strong, it tends to exert an excessively stimulating influence over the following element in the creative cycle, like a domineering mother over a child, and at this point the element which controls the excessive energy kicks in to subjugate it and restore harmony.  For example, if Wood flourishes to excess, providing so much fuel that Fire burns out of control, Metal steps in to cut down the supply of Wood and thereby re-establish normal balance.  The creative and control cycles maintain constant harmony and balance among the Five Elemental Energies.

 

Wood helps Fire, is helped by Water, hinders Earth, is hindered by Metal
Fire helps Earth, is helped by Wood, hinders Metal, is hindered by Water
Earth helps Metal, is helped by Fire, hinders Water, is hindered by Wood
Metal helps Water, is helped by Earth, hinders Wood, is hindered by Fire
Water helps Wood, is helped by Metal, hinders Fire, is hindered by Earth

 

Another cycle, not recognized in this essay, is referred to as the Tonification cycle, where the Earth element is considered to be the fulcrum during periods of transition.  As you can see, each element is dominant for four hours during the 24 hour cycle, except the Earth element, which is dominant for eight hours, but during these periods of transition the Earth element is 'combined' with the energies of the other elements preceding/proceeding those times in the cycle, hence, each of the elements remain balanced.

 

Theoretical Foundations of the Five Elements

Here is a list of all of the basic foundations of the Five Elements according to ancient Chinese tradition.

General Foundations

Element Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Phase New Yang Full Yang Yin/Yang Balance New Yin Full Yin
Color green red yellow white black
Direction east south center
(nadir/zenith)
west north
Life Cycle infancy youth adulthood old age death
Hours 3 - 7 am 9 am - 1 pm 1-3am, 7-9am
1-3pm, 7-9pm
3 - 7 pm 9 pm - 1 am
Energy Quality generative expansive stabilizing contracting conserving
Season spring summer late summer
(between seasons)
autumn winter
Climate windy hot

damp

dry cold
Development Phase sprouting, leaves growing blooming, fruit growing ripening, harvest withering, seeds falling dormancy, storage
Smell rancid scorched fragrant putrid rotten
Flavor sour bitter sweet pungent salty
Mental Quality emotion, sensitivity willpower, creativity clarity intuition spontaneity
Negative Emotion anger hate anxiety grief fear
Positive Emotion patience joy empathy courage calmness
Other Emotions irritability, blame, rage, resentment, jealousy nervousness, shock, excitement worry, regret, remorse, obsessiveness, self-doubt sadness, shame, disappointment, guilt loneliness, insecurity
Virtue benevolence propriety, order faith, trust rectitude, integrity, righteousness, dignity wisdom
Expression shouting laughter song weeping groan
Yin (Zang) solid internal organ Liver (LV) Heart (HT) Spleen-Pancreas (SP) Lungs (LU) Kidneys (KD)
Triple Burner (TB)
Yang (Fu) hollow internal organ Gallbladder (GB) Small Intestine (SI) Stomach (ST) Large Intestine (LI) Bladder (BL)
Pericardium (PC)

Active Times

GB= 11pm-1am
LV= 1am-3am
SI= 1pm-3pm
HT= 11am-1pm
ST= 7am-9am
SP= 9am-11am
LI= 5am-7am
LU= 3am-5am
BL=3pm-5pm
KD=5pm-7pm
TB= 9pm-11pm
PC=  7pm-9pm
Body tendons pulse muscle skin bones
Aperture eyes tongue, throat lips, mouth nose ears
Bodily Fluids tears sweat saliva mucus urine
Expands Into nails facial complexion lips body hair head/pubic hair
Primal Spirit Green Dragon Red Pheasant Yellow Phoenix White Tiger Black Tortoise
Zodiac Gemini, Cancer Virgo, Libra Taurus, Leo
Scorpio, Aquarius
Sagittarius, Capricorn Aires, Pisces
Male Animal Tiger Horse Dragon, Dog Monkey Rat
Female Animal Rabbit Snake Cow, Sheep Hen Hog
Numbers 8, 3 2, 7 10, 5 4, 9 6,1
Planet Jupiter Mars Saturn Venus Mercury
I Ching Trigrams wind, thunder fire earth, mountain heaven, lake water
Hexagrams 51, 57 30 2, 52 1, 58 29

The organs and energy meridians of the body relate to the Five Elements through the functions they carry out, their associated emotions and overall qualities of energy.

 

 

 

THE CHANNELS AND BASIC PRINCIPLES

 

The theory of Channels and Collaterals was systematized by the ancient Chinese people in their prolonged Clinical practice.  It covers research into the physiological functioning and pathogenic changes of the system of Channels and collaterals in human being.  It is an important part of the theatrical system of Traditional Chinese Medicine.  The primary functions of Channels and Collaterals are running the qi and blood of the whole body; connecting the zang-fu organs and limbs, the upper part, lower part interior and exterior.  Therefore the Channels and Collaterals inter-connect all parts of the body into one organic entity.  The theory of Channels and Collaterals is highly significant to physiology and pathology.  It also plays a certain directive role in various Clinical subjects, especially to acupuncture, which uses this theory as its ration able. 

The Channels can be divided into four groups:

Group I: the twelve primary channels

The first group is the twelve primary channels, including the six yang channels and six yin channels.  The six yang channels are:  the Hand TaiYang (small Intestine), the Hand Yang Ming (Large Intestine), the Hand Shao Yang (San Jiao) and the Foot Tai Yang (Bladder) the Foot Yang Ming (Stomach) and the Foot Shao Yang (Gallbladder).

The six yin Channels are:  the Hand Tai Yin (Lung), the Hand Shao Yin (Heart) and the Hand Jue Yin (Pericardium), and the Foot Tai Yin (spleen), the Foot Shao Yin (kidney), and the Foot Jue Yin (Liver).

The twelve primary channels are named according to the Zang and Fu organs, the foot and hand, and the yin and yang of the front, middle, and back locations.  When one stands naturally, the front of the body is yin, and the back of the body is yang.  The inner faces of the limbs are yin, and the outer faces of the limbs are Yang.

 

 

Group II: The Eight Extraordinary channels

The second group is Eight Extraordinary channels, including the Du channel, Ren channel, Chong channel, Dai channel, Yang Qiao channel, Yin Qiao channel, Yang Wei channel and Yin Wei channel

Group III. The twelve Divergent channels and fifteen collaterals

The third group is the twelve Divergent channels and fifteen collaterals, which branch out from the twelve primary channels.  The Divergent channel mainly runs deeper in the body, along with the collaterals being mostly distributed on the body surface.  They both strengthen and connect the internally-externally related channels. 

Most of them derive from the primary channels at the four limbs and then enter the thoracic and abdominal cavities.  The neck is the region where the yin and yang Divergent channels emerge and the head region is the place where yin and yang Divergent channels connect together and then join the primary channels.

The distribution of the fifteen collaterals may be summarized as follows:

Each of the collaterals has a Luo (connecting) point, pertaining to the channel where it derives.  The collaterals on the four limbs not only run to the internally-externally related channels but also possess other tributaries.  For example, the collaterals on the trunk and collaterals of the Ren channel disperse in the abdominal region.  The collateral of the Du channel disperses in the head and joins with the bladder channel on the back. All the collaterals have the function of transporting qi to different parts of the body.

 

Group IV: the twelve Muscle Regions and twelve Coetaneous Regions

 The twelve muscle Regions and Coetaneous Regions are the sites where the qi and blood of the channels nourish the muscles, tendons and skin.  They are divided into 6 yin and 6 yang of the hand and foot.  The Muscle Regions are deeply distributed under skin, while the Coetaneous Region is located in the superficial layers of the skin.

The twelve Muscle Regions and twelve Coetaneous Regions distribute the qi and blood of the twelve primary channels to nourish the muscles, possess the function of connecting all the bones and joints of the body and maintaining the normal range of motion.  They originate from the extremities of the limbs and ascend to the head and trunk, but do not reach the zang and fu organs.  In the treatment of diseases, the Muscle Regions are mainly indicated in muscular problems, such as the Bi Syndrome, contractor, stiffness, spasm and muscular atrophy.

In the forty eight article of the Divine Pivot, Lei Gong asked the Emperor:  “The Commandment of Teaching say:  all rules of needling begin from the channels, Doctors seek for their routes and measure the length of the channels that connect with the five Zang-organs inside, and link up with the six fu-organs outside.  Please tell me all the details? ”.

The Emperor answered:  “Every life begin as the mixed essences of the parents.  The brains are produced after the essences are mixed.  The bones support the body.  The Channels irrigate the body.  The tendons make the body strong.  The muscles protect the body like walls.  The skin become firmer and the body hair grow.  After grains enter the stomach, the ways of the Channels become free; then the qi and blood run in them”.  Lei Gong asked:  “Please tell me the functions of the Channels when they were produced?”

The Emperor answered:  “The channel can determine death and life, deal with the hundred different diseases, and adjust deficiency and excess.  Doctors must be proficient in knowledge of the channels”.

The Summary of Channels & Qi

The main significance of channel theory in pattern identification and treatment is found in a series of methods based on the laws governing the flow of channels and qi, interorganic connections, pathologic Characteristics of the channels, and channel relationships.

The most common are:

•           Determination of channel relevance involves relating the channels to a disorder based on proximity.

 

•           Pattern identification by channel involves analyzing symptoms based on the psychopathologic features of the channels.

 

•           Acupuncture points and herbal prescription by channels denote a method of deterring treatment through the psychopathologic feature of the channels.

The channel system is a representation of rivers, streams, reservoirs, and underground springs in the geography of the body.  The channels and their distributaries provide qi and blood and thus warmth and nourishment for the whole body.  They adjust the flow of qi and blood in the body and help maintain a balance of yin and yang, defense and construction.