There are currently 118 elements listed in the chemical periodic table, and so when most westerners look at Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to discover it talks about Five Elements, there can be a puzzled look, followed by the thought that this “can’t quite be right”.
In my own training in the life sciences, we learned in the history class that in the 17th century it was only poor deluded savants who held onto the four Classical elements (referring to the concepts in Ancient Greece of Earth, Water, Air, Fire and later Aether), rather than embracing the new Corpuscular theories of matter which would lead to the Periodic Table of our own age.
The Chinese Wu Xing system is composed of five elements, and these are Fire (火 huǒ), Earth, (土 tǔ), Metal (金 jīn), and Water(水 shuǐ) and Wood (木 mù).
The western mind struggles with these until we realise that they are described as much as energies as types of fundamental particle.
It cannot be said often enough, that the reductionist mind always seeks a root cause — the smallest component or particle. We practice this reduction when we want to know why our horse is ill. We want to identify the root cause. And yet the Chinese way aims to bring these elements into balance.
The aims of Kinesiology, so close to those of the Chinese Five Element System, are indeed to balance. There is no such thing as a fundamental element, or the most fundamental meridian. For indeed, we are talking about a system. The Chinese intuition is to balance that system, and this not only determines an approach to both the body and the universe, but absolves us from the endless search for the fundament and the ultimate root cause.
As begins the Tao the Ching :
1. The Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao.
The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name.
2. Having no name, it is the Originator of heaven and earth;
having a name, it is the Mother of all things.
In this article, the first of two, I am going to introduce the Chinese Five Elements theory. We will look at the two great cycles, called the Shen Cycle and the Ko Cycle. And we will look at each of the five elements and become acquainted with their nature.
In a further article, I will look at how we can bring a FIVE ELEMENTS PRACTICE into our daily lives with our equine companions.
THE FIVE ELEMENTS — AN OVERVIEW
The Chinese Wu Xing system is composed of five elements, and these are Fire (火 huǒ), Earth, (土 tǔ), Metal (金 jīn), and Water(水 shuǐ) and Wood (木 mù).
The nature of the elements is as much in their relation to each other as to the nature of the elements themselves. It is in this sense that we can speak of the proper circulation of energy, and the process of balancing, which is inherent in energy work.
In the five elements approach there are two cycles. The Shen Cycle or the Generation cycle takes us on a journey from Fire to Earth to Metal to Water to Wood which then returns to Fire. The Ko Cycle or Control Cycle brings the Shen Cycle into Harmony. If the Shen Cycle runs around the exterior of the Mandala, the Ko Cycle forms a pentagram of energy flows which regulates the former. In the next section I will describe these in detail.
One important thing to remember is the central place accorded to the Yin-Yang symbol in the midst of the mandala. The YIN represents the aspects of — dark / inside / cold / wet / penetrated / passive / reflecting / gentle / conquered and closed. The YANG represents aspects of — light / outside / hot or warm / dry / penetrating / active / radiating / strong / conquering / open.
In the ancient symbol the YIN contains a spot of light, and the YANG contains a spot of dark. This reminds us that there is no absolute but a sense of becoming, the one moving into the other and then back. As such, all is in change or flux and it is worth remembering this.
THE SHEN AND KO CYCLES
1.1 The SHEN CYCLE
In the SHEN cycle the energy flows in a clockwise direction and is unimpeded. The term “generation cycle” is due to the notion that each element gives something to the next as in a story or transformation cycle. So in this case we have Wood which burns giving the Fire, which gives rise to ashes which become Earth, and within the Earth we are able to find Metal. Metal is cold and upon it Water in the air condenses. We can make containers from metal to contain that water. Water is then necessary for life, and it is Water that nourishes the plants, which in turn grow into trees providing Wood. And so the cycle of transformation repeats. Each element is thus the parent of the preceding, each element the child of the one before.
1.2 The KO CYCLE
If the cycle is in equilibrium, so it continues. But when one element is out of equilibrium with the whole, then the system can collapse. It is here that the KO CYCLE comes in to play as a regulator of energies. Here Fire controls Metal through the process of smelting, Metal controls Wood by cutting down the tree. The Wood controls the earth through the presence of roots which penetrate. Earth controls Water by absorbing it into the water table and carrying it away in streams and rivers. Water controls fire by putting it out.
In western terms, the two cycles together provide a positive feedback loop and a negative feedback loop. If there is too much Wood energy, we can either reduce the Water energy, or increase the Metal to cut it back to size. If there is not enough Fire energy then we can increase the wood energy or decrease the Water energy. We can thus intervene at two points to either stimulate or suppress.
This is also an important point that we will develop as this notion of stimulation and suppression is also one of the fundamental characters of the Meridians. Each Meridian has stimulation and suppression points. Tapping on certain parts of the body can thus stimulate the Meridian flow, or decrease it.
You may now begin to realise the power and subtlety of this system as each element is linked to two or more Meridians. In the system, we then have the five fundamental energies, and their primordial relationship as expressed by the SHEN and KO cycles. These govern the energy flowing through both you and your horse. By invoking these in our daily routine, we can thus achieve a fine degree of subtle balancing.
YIN AND YANG ORGANS
A final point about the system, concerns the yin and yang organs. The Yin organs run around the inner wheel, and the Yang organs run around the outer wheel (see figure 1). The Yin organs (Heart, Pericardium, Spleen, Lung, Kidney and Liver) work constantly to keep the body alive. The heart pumps the blood, the Pericardium wraps and protects the heart. The Spleen helps to control body fluid and acts as a filter for blood as part of the immune system. The Pancreas is involved in balancing sugar levels. The Lungs ensure a continuous flow of oxygen. Kidneys filter toxins, whilst the Liver stores nourishment and its fundamental in the detoxification process.
The Yang organs in contrast only work in short bursts. The stomach represents one of the most active parts of the digestive system, mixing foods with acids in its digestion, after we have eaten a meal. The Gall Bladder creates Bile which neutralises the stomach acids. The Small Intestine then receives neutralised Chyme. The Large intestine absorbs water from the passing stool… The Yin organs are continuously active, the Yang organs are stimulated to act at specific moments.
But before we can explore further, we need to know something about the individual elements. Let’s look at each in turn.
FIRE AND ITS NATURE
The Fire element reflects the fact that animals, both humans and horses, are metabolic furnaces, breaking down food compounds, liberating energy. The body is by nature hot. The Fire element contains four Meridians that are associated with our internal furnace. These are the Small intestine and the Triple Warmer (Yang), the Heart and Circulation Sex (Yin).
Emotionally, Fire can be all consuming, passion, wild and out of control. It can also run deep, like glowing coals. When someone has been on fire, they can find themselves exhausted. They need to replenish their spent energy. Fire can also be anger or rage. And at the same time, if it is not expressed in a healthy discharge, it can burn deep within leaving lasting wounds.
Let’s look at the Yang meridians. The nutrition contained in our food is absorbed by the Small Intestine. Many complex compounds are simplified into sugars via the Glycolysis pathway and the Citric Acid cycle. The Citric Acid cycle captures the energy stored in the chemical bonds of acetyl CoA (processed glucose) in a step-by-step process. Finally, this energy is captured in the form of the high-energy chemical bonds in the molecule ATP. We use the energy stored in ATP to move, breathe, make our hearts beat… If this process were not regulated we would simply burn up. The Triple Warmer is here to actively regulate the process. It acts like a thermostat.
The Yin Meridians, Heart and Circulation Sex, are to do with distribution of heat or energy (Heart) and protection the energy balance. Circulation Sex also regulates our hormonal balance.
EARTH AND ITS NATURE
This element is a grounding element, as its name implies. Interestingly the act of singing is linked to the Earth element. The emotion most linked to the Earth Element is that of sympathy. We can feel this in the image of the Earth Mother, but it is important to remember that we each have an Earth Element. We are all called into relationship with the Earth.
Imbalances in digestion are very often linked to imbalances in the Earth Element, which is not surprising since the Yang Meridian here is the Stomach Meridian. The Earth produces the food we eat, as the Stomach governs its digestion. Having butterflies in the stomach, indicates where fear can hit us (in our digestive system,) and we talk about finding things hard to stomach, or hard to digest.
The Spleen (Yin) is in charge of transportation systems in the body. The Spleen is considered not only to distribute energy to the other organs, but is central to our balance of sugars. Emotionally, this gives an aspect of sweetness on the one hand, and Melancholy on the other (venting one’s spleen).
METAL AND ITS NATURE
Metal, cold and hard, is identified with minerals that are mined from the earth. Metal here is symbolic of strength and of structure. The images of pipes, of metal bars, come to mind.
Emotionally, Metal is associated with grief. As with each emotion there is a positive pole and a negative pole. The sorrow one feels during a film, or for example, regarding the loss of a dear friend or family member. And there is a morbid sorrow, which lingers many years after the event, the person becomes a prisoner to this energy which is stuck or blocked.
Metal is linked to the Season of Autumn, and to the idea of release. This is about when to hold on to things, and when to release them.
This brings us to the Yang Large Intestine Meridian, and in a symbolic sense, one can be either too loose (letting go of things too quickly) or constipated (holding on to them indefinitely). The fluid associated with Metal is Mucous, and this is the fluid that lubricates both the Large Intestine (Yang)and the Lung (Yin Meridian). Again, balance is all. Too much mucous and the lungs are filled, too little and the lungs dry out leading to a dry cough. The Large intestine is contiguous with the skin, and this gives us the correlation between Eczema (external) and Asthma (internal).
The Lung is perhaps our most notable organ of rhythm, and the inhalation, exhalation of our breath, followed in our meditation, is for Traditional Chinese Medicine the first organ. The lungs need moisture. We think of the difference between deep and shallow breath. One is full of energy, the other weak and lacking life. Taking a “deep breath” before we launch out on a new endeavor is symbolic of the power and penetration of the Lung in our daily action.
WATER AND ITS NATURE
We are fundamentally about 70% Water. We cannot function without water. We begin our lives in a watery environment, and then we must moisten and humidify ourselves, drinking for the average person 3 pints of pure water (not juices or teas, or coffees) per day. The emotion associated with the Water element is that of fear.
The organs associated with Water are the Kidney and the Bladder. The Kidney is about purification and filtration. Interestingly in the human, it is linked to the Psoas Muscle which is the only muscle to link the upper body with the lower body. Most people are chronically dehydrated, and a practice of regular water drinking is essential for good health and also for good intracellular communication.
Water comes into the body and then leaves it, via the Bladder. If we are dehydrated, we shut down our porous system and stop sweating to keep essential water inside. Yet sweating is an important part of the detoxification system. Water is also related to our own degree of flexibility. Water imbalances can therefore be linked to rigidity, and resistance to change. They are also linked to our sexual functions.
WOOD AND ITS NATURE
The tree starts out from a tiny seed and after many years will both shade us from the sun with its canopy of leaves, and bind the soil together with the dense interlinking of its root fibres. The trees push forth in Spring and yet, whilst strong, are also flexible, able to bend with the wind, and yet remain firmly rooted. We often talk about people having solid roots, or being rootless, being blown from pillar to post. The trunk of the vertebrate animal is the spine, and so any problems or issues in the spinal or support system can be related to Wood issues.
The Wood element is linked to the question of our power, and this manifests through its organs, the Liver, associated with Planning, and the Gall Bladder, associated with Making Decisions. If life is chaotic, we can suspect liver issues to be present. Poor planning, chaotic decision making, all are signs of Wood issues. If the Liver makes Plans the Gall Bladder considers alternatives.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER FOR OUR HORSES
This very brief survey of the Five elements shows us two things.
First that the five elements are linked by two cycles, The Shen and Ko Cycles. The Shen Cycle or the Generation cycle takes us on a journey from Fire to Earth to Metal to Water to Wood which then returns to Fire. The Ko Cycle or Control Cycle brings the Shen Cycle into Harmony. If the Shen Cycle runs around the exterior of the Mandala, the Ko Cycle forms a pentagram of energy flows which regulates the former.
Second, we note that these elements relate (1) to organs and meridians (ie: the body)‚ (2) to emotions and behaviours. This is where we are really cut loose of the reductionist approach to the body. We can see that a season, a colour, or an emotion is as much a part of the functioning of the element as anything else. There are not fundamental units, as we have in western chemistry.
The power of this system is to take us on a journey that enables us to work with our horse in a very holistic sense indeed. There are many ways of looking at their behavior – let’s take for example a tendency to spook – we might associate this with fear, phobias or anxiety. Whether or not this has a root cause in some event, or for example something that took place with a former owner, the actual phenomenon might well be linked in practice to the Kidney Meridian.
When we see this link between a behavior and one of the five elements, it is here that we can begin to work in a holistic sense for we have found the door by which to enter. By communicating with the Kidney Meridian and working with it in any of several ways, we can enter into the energy path that our horse has shared with us. In my own work, I am truly amazed by the fact that a behavior or response can indeed be not only linked to, but locked into a meridian. Our horse will give us clues!
Being able to read the Five Elements in your horse is thus a wonderful way to deepen your relationship. With patience, trust and understanding, the Five Elements can open a path to intimacy and to healing.