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The Five Elements in Chinese Philosophy

The yin and yang philosophy was further refined into the system of the five elements to gain a deeper understanding of how the body, mind and spirit work and acupuncture.

The microcosm of the body is linked to the universe and is affected by the daily and seasonal cycles of nature. (Think about the seasonal affective disorder which manifests itself in winter or when the light is not sufficient). The individual and the world are changing all the time. But Chinese believe that these changes are occurring in certain order and in cycles. (We can think about these like our economic cycles or agricultural cycles. A period of growth is always followed by a period of stagnation or unemployment. In the stock market, a bull market is always followed by a bear market etc.) In the same way, a seed planted in spring blooms in summer, seeds itself in late summer to autumn, dies in winter, and a new seed grows again in spring. It is part of a never-ending cycle and each phase has its role to play in maintaining the balance of nature. The same process of change occurs within the body. Cells grow and die to make way for new cells, and body systems depend upon each other in a similar way to the seasons, working together to ensure the balanced functioning of the body, mind and spirit and the healthy flow of life through the whole person.

Five Elements
Representation of the Five Elements

Chinese philosophy recognizes five distinct elements of cyclical change called water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. These five elements can be related to our four seasons (with a fifth late summer season) as shown in the table below. The elements can also be related to different colors, emotion, taste, voice and various organs. These can also be related to the selection of food and herbs. Notice the correspondence between the Chinese philosophy and the underlying Indian philosophy, which also classifies everything in the universe under earth, water, fire, air, and ether.

Season Element Yin-Yang Phase Yin Organ Yang Organ Energy Pattern Color Emotion Taste Voice
Winter Water Full yin Kidney Urinary bladder Conserved Black Fear Salty Groans
Spring Wood New yang Liver Gallbladder Expansive Green Anger Sour Shouts
Summer Fire Full yang Heart Small Intestine Culmination, completion Red Joy Bitter Laughs
Late Summer Earth yin-yang balance Spleen Stomach Balance Yellow Sympathy Sweet Sings
Autumn Metal New yin Lungs Large Intestine Contraction and accumulation White Grief sadness Pungent Weeps

Each person's physical and mental constitution can be described as a balance of the elements in which one or more may naturally dominate. The proportion of the elements in a person determines his or her temperament. Oriental medicine considers the ideal condition as one in which all the five elements are in balance or in harmony. Wood is said to be the mother of fire and the son of water. (Water allows wood to grow, wood provides fuel for the fire). Using these relationships one can describe all possible yin-yang imbalances within the body. The thrust of five element diagnosis is to isolate and treat the imbalanced element, because an imbalanced element is like a weak link in your energetic chain that can undermine the strength of your mind, body and spirit.

How the Five Elements are Manifested Internally and Externally

Element Universe Individual
Wood Growing, flourishing, rooted yet pushing upward Striving, controlling, flexible strength, self-assured
Earth Productive, fertile Solid, stable, reliable, tenacious, grounded
Metal Hard, structured, symmetric Organized, substantial, strong, durable
Fire Dry, hot, ascending Dynamic, sparkling, enthusiastic
Water Wet, cool, descending Flowing, adaptable, pliant

Related Topic:

bulletThe philosophy of the Dao
bulletYin and Yang

Next Topic: How the Imbalance of the Elements Affect Us?

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