The Five Elements represent the five phases of Qi as it moves through nature and our bodies. The Elements work interdependently in an elegant and systematic balance, each one sustaining and supporting the next in the cycle. This cycle can best be seen in the change of seasons: Wood corresponds to the birth and growth of plants and trees in the spring.
What is planted in the spring comes to maturity under the heat and vitality of Fire in summer. The warmth of Fire creates the abundance of the harvest of the Earth in late summer. After the harvest comes the decay of autumn, where the leaves falling from the trees nourish the soil and produce the mineral resources of Metal. The mountains and mineral rocks create and bind the flowing streams of Water, moving quietly under the surface of the ice in winter, which, in turn sources the germinating seed of Wood.
The interdependency of this natural cycle is delicate. Even small disruptions can wreak havoc on growth and development. And so it is with the cycle of Qi in our bodies. When the energies of the Five Elements are functioning in harmony and balance within ourselves, we feel healthy, nourished and fully alive. The extent to which we live according to these natural laws is the extent to which we live in health. When one or more of the elements move out of balance, we may feel a reduced sense of well-being. We may develop various symptoms that show up at every level of well-being: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.
Summer is the season of Fire. The young trees and plants of springtime grow to maturity in summer, manifested in their full flowering. We flourish in the warmth of summer, going outside into nature and becoming more social. The energy of Fire is expansive, or rising, and it reaches out to embrace those around us. This is a time of communication and the strength of human connectedness.
Red is the color associated with the Fire element. The odor is scorched, the sound is of laughter and the emotion is joy. Fire has two organs and two functions associated with it: the Small Intestine (enables the processing of information, food, etc.), the Heart (the Emperor of all officials), the Heart Protector (protects the Heart) and the Triple Heater (oversees circulation of physical and emotional functions).
When our Fire element is in balance, our ability to love, laugh and connect with those we love is at its strongest. We enjoy a sense of vitality in the realization of hopes and dreams that are coming to fruition. We are able to give and receive in equal measure, developing and cultivating our relationships. Fire’s heat promotes our circulation (both socially and physically). It stirs our passions and expands our Hearts so that we can experience healthy intimacy and compassion for others. We can revel in the sense of joy and love that comes from balanced Fire energy.
Imbalances or blocks in our Fire energy can lead to extreme sadness, a lack of joy and the fear of being lonely or rejected. When our Fire burns too low we lose its warmth and can no longer reach out to others, or connect with those around us in an appropriate way. A person with an imbalance in Fire may appear ashen in color- the absence of a flame. Alternately, just as a natural fire can burn out of control and cause destruction in nature, the Fire within can also blaze uncontrollably and lead us towards self-destructive behaviors.
Reciprocity is an important tenet of love. It requires trust to love and be loved in equal measure. We must allow ourselves to be open and vulnerable. If we nourish our inner Fire, we can be present in our hearts and with those around us. In doing so, we have the strength and the courage to realize our hopes and dreams.
The season of Earth is late summer, the time of the harvest that occurs in between the height of summer and the beginning of autumn. We have put in the hard work of sowing seeds in the spring and cultivating them throughout the summer. Now is the time to harvest the abundance we have created. It is a time of decrease: decreased activity as the heat diminishes and the daylight lessens. We have time to appreciate our bounty and recognize that we will have enough to get us through the seasons ahead.
The color of Earth is yellow. The odor associated with Earth is fragrant, while the sound is singing and the emotion is sympathy. The Spleen/Pancreas and the Stomach are the organs and officials associated with Earth. They provide for the proper breakdown, digestion, and transportation of nutrients and information.
Balance in our Earth element allows us to stand grounded on our own two feet. We feel secure in knowing that we have enough. We can stand in the center and comfortably hold all that is going on around us with integrity. Earth energy enables us to nurture ourselves as well as those in need. The Earth element is closely associated with the archetype of the Mother, or Mother Earth. It is the mother who feeds and sustains us.
An imbalance in the Earth element leads to a fear of scarcity, the fear that there will not be enough food, money, love, etc. Excessive and sometimes obsessive worry results. A lack of mothering early in our lives can lead to feelings of deprivation and emptiness, which can result in the constant search for attention from others along with their external approval. Alternately, we may stop nourishing ourselves because we are too busy nurturing those around us. This can lead to clinging or smothering behavior.
Trusting that one has enough, or is enough, is essential to our sense of stability and security. When we stop fearing scarcity, we are grounded and able to support ourselves as well as those around us.
Autumn is the season associated with the Metal element. It is a time of inhalation and exhalation. We take in the pure, crisp air and eliminate that which is not pure. It is a time of letting go and making room for what is to come, just as the trees let go of their leaves in preparation for the following year’s growth and harvest. The decaying leaves put minerals and richness back into the soil. The air becomes clearer and purer as it becomes colder. We can breathe in more deeply than we can in summer’s heat. As Nature strips down to her roots and branches, so do we. We begin to reflect on the year as it shows its age, determining what is of value to us and what no longer serves.
The color of Metal is white. It is associated with a rancid odor, the sound of weeping and the emotion of grief. The Lungs and the Colon are the organs/officials associated with Metal. The Lungs affect our ability to take in (to inspire) and the Colon is in charge of eliminating that which is impure.
We see representations of the Metal element in the rocks and minerals of the earth, in the sweeping mountains that ascend to the heavens. We “see” it in the air that we breathe. Healthy and balanced Metal energy manifests in our ability to take in what we need (inhalation) and eliminate that which we don’t (exhalation). We are receptive to what we take in. We can feel our emotions but then let them go so that they do not weigh us down. We grieve without excess and there is balance between our sense of loss and acceptance. We are able to see the value in ourselves and in the world around us. With clear illumination we are able to perceive our higher purpose and seek a higher standard.
Imbalances in the Metal element may lead to an over-valuation of material objects, a need to fill the empty space where our internal sense of value should reside. We lose our sense of a higher purpose and get lost in “what could have been” or what was. Our ability to grieve appropriately changes, either becoming excessive and out of proportion, or non-existent. We start to close ourselves off. The lack of receptivity can impair lung functioning, affecting our ability to take in what is pure. We may also lose the ability to let go or eliminate that which we no longer need. Constipation of the spirit and the emotions occurs just as it does in the physical body when we hold on to objects and emotions. As a result, many physical, mental and spiritual processes back up, or are blocked.
The treasures of life are not measured in material things, whether those material things be the outward trappings of wealth and power, or the people in our lives. When we are able to let go of the material and not be blinded by the sparkle of gold, or clouded by excessive grief, we are able to see and achieve our higher purpose. A true sense of value comes from within.
Winter is the season associated with the Water element. The life force of nature goes underground in the winter, resting and replenishing its reserves so that it can shoot forth with all the vitality that the spring growth requires. Trees and plants go dormant, but they do not die. Ice forms over ponds and rivers, but the water below the frozen surface does not stop circulating, the fish do not stop swimming and breathing. There is movement in the watery depths, even though it does not show on the surface. Nature is stripped of its ornament, revealing its essence and the seeds of potentiality within it. It is a time to journey inward, to get back in touch with who we are at our innermost being.
Blue/black is the color associated with Water. The odor is putrid, the sound is a groan and the emotion is fear. The organs/officials associated with Water are the Bladder and the Kidney. While the Bladder acts as the reservoir, the Kidney is in charge of our strength, power and energy resources.
When the energy in the Water element is balanced, it flows freely. We have the capacity to circumvent obstacles and adapt to our constantly changing environment. Think of the river weaving and churning around the rocks in its bed, abiding by the boundaries provided by its banks. It is persistent and enduring. That is the flow that we seek for ourselves. Healthy Water provides us with inner wisdom, courage and will. It gives us the ability to balance our caution with courage. We can heed our gut reactions that check us to be cautious. Our fear is kept in balance. The inner calmness of Water can be tapped if we go deep within ourselves and plumb the mysteries we find there. Water also has restorative powers. It comprises our reserves, but we can only draw on those stores if we have taken the time to replenish them.
While water can be a strong, calming force, it can also be chaotic and destructive. Flooding and heavy rains can cause extreme damage, as we have seen in recent years. Alternately, when it stops flowing, we have drought and stagnation. When our resources have been depleted, we may lack the will to persevere, which stifles our ambition and desire. Imbalances in our Water element can drown us in fear and a sense of hopelessness, creating paranoia or paralysis. We may simply stop moving because we are frozen by our fears. The resulting excessive need to feel safe and control our boundaries may lead us to see only the worst-case scenarios, not allowing us to take a leap of faith. Or, an imbalance may make us reckless, engaging in death-defying behaviors that deny our fears.
Water is the source of all life. It provides us with the strength and force to carry out our lives. When we push too hard for too long, we drain our resources and we lose the ability to flow and adapt. We react by trying to control the flood instead of “going with the flow.” But as Lao Tzu pointed out, soft is strong and only the “flexible overcome the adamant.” We must take the time to nurture and replenish our stores so that we will have the ability to bring our creations to life.
The season of the Wood element is spring, when the world wakes from winter’s slumber and is reborn. Thus, Wood is the season of rebirth and new growth. The energy rises up and out of the ground with strong, creative force, exemplified in the green sprouts of grass that shoot up from the ground.
Green is the color of Wood. The odor associated with it is rancid, the sound is a shout and the associated emotion is anger. The organs and officials associated with Wood are the Liver and the Gallbladder. The Liver oversees our planning and execution capabilities, while the Gallbladder is in charge of decision-making.
When the energy of our Wood element is flowing, we are capable of vision and creativity. We are able to make plans and execute them with determination and efficiency. Our sense of purpose in the moment and in life is clear. There is also flexibility to this energetic action, the same flexibility that allows the trees to bend in the wind without falling, the grass to sway without breaking. We move forward without hindrance, able to see obstacles and react accordingly.
When our Wood element is out of balance, though, our vision becomes clouded. We may procrastinate in the ensuing frustration of not being able to move forward or see the future. Alternately, we may push too hard, or become rigid and inflexible in our pursuits. This can lead to a sense of hopelessness of ever achieving our goals. It may make us stubborn or irrational. And our anger grows out of proportion and is no longer productive in achieving momentum.
Anger is an important force. It can be helpful in our pursuits, but it can also stymy those pursuits it if becomes excessive. Properly acknowledging and channeling our anger can help us remain focused and flexible. We can balance the anger with forgiveness and understanding, thus aspiring to a state of benevolence. True leaders know when to bend because they do not fear being broken. They can adapt their plans as needed and still achieve their vision without ruling from a place of insecurity or desire for power. Acting for the good of others, without thought of benefit to the self, becomes the ultimate goal.