Wu Xing, the concept of the five elements, or five phases, has been an aspect of Chinese philosophy and medicine since at least 400 BC. This system represents the changing cycles of life as seen in the fluctuations of the seasons, in energetic tendencies, and the natural rhythm of growth, movement and rest in all things. There are five elemental tendencies, wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.
The synergy of the elements and their integration in a person is defined by the relationship of one element to another. In what is referred to as the creation (sheng) cycle, each element phase leads naturally to the next, and the health of each one depends on, and is created by, the element that comes before. In the control (ke) cycle, each element controls the one two stages away, thereby preventing any excessive or dominating nature of a particular element.
The elements or phases are perhaps most clearly represented by the seasons. “To everything there is a season” and in each season, the corresponding element has its primary expression. Each of the five elements also expresses a part of ourselves, and we each have some element tendencies that are more well developed than others, and some that require attention and work in order to maintain balance. You may see some of your own strengths and weakness in the descriptions below.
However, the energy of all the elements express in each of us, and during each particular season we might find that the cycle of nature helps us to be aware of what stirs in us, wanting to be heard and expressed.
Wood is correlated with spring, a time of birth and new growth. In the environment it can be seen in the re-emergence of plant life, and in animals with the end of hibernation. Yang energy is exuberant, full of activity and vitality. New green shoots are budding and movement is upward and outward. Wood is also a quality of energy in our bodies, and resonates in particular with the Liver and Gallbladder organ-meridian system.
When wood energy is imbalanced it can lead to problems such as tension, irritability, depression, headaches, digestive disorders, and menstrual irregularities. There may be a tendency for stagnation on the physical and/or mental emotional level, and people may experience an excess of upward movement causing headaches or anxiety and restlessness. When wood energy is harmonious the mind-body feels relaxed, flexible and optimistic, and activity is energized yet grounded.
After spring comes summer, the fire element. Nature reaches its zenith and plants that were just emerging in the spring are now at their height of growth and abundance. This phase is represented by warmth, joy, radiance and prosperity, qualities attributed to the Heart and Small Intestine meridian-organ system.
When out of balance, the fire element can be excessive, causing inflammation, heat, restlessness, excessive thirst, insomnia, and anxiety, or blocked fire leading to a difficulty expressing joy and laughter in life. When fire energy is harmonious, there is a sense of enjoyment and fulfillment, creative energy is well expressed, and physical energy is strong and resilient.
Following the height of summer is a season the Chinese call “late summer”. This represents the time of harvest. The element is earth, and it correlates with the Spleen and Stomach meridian-organ system. This system influences the ability to extract and absorb nutrition from food, and on an emotional level, represents being “fed” by receiving the nurturing and generosity of the earth and others.
When out of balance, the earth element can express with a sensitive or problematic digestive and metabolic system, leading to excessive weight gain and the tendency to nurture oneself with food instead of through family and community connections. There is may be difficulty asking for and receiving support from others. When the earth element is in balance, there is a sense of connection with the earth and others in our world. There equal value and experience in life on both giving unconditionally and receiving happily.
In the autumn, the season of metal, the weather turns cool, and it is a time of dryness as leaves, fruits and sap wither. Metal embodies contraction as energy begins to withdraw inward. Yang activity naturally declines and the stillness of yin begins to build. It is a time of letting go, and often people experience an inexplicable sense of sadness or loss as the summer recedes.
The Lung and Large Intestine meridian-organ systems are most involved in this phase and when imbalanced can lead to respiratory system problems and skin disorders, melancholy and difficulty letting go. Releasing is the key to this phase, and is exemplified in the function of the large intestine releasing toxins through the bowel movements, and the release of CO2 in respiration and the exhale of the lungs. When the metal element is balanced, there is a smooth flow of letting go of what is no longer needed or appropriate, making room for welcoming the new – attitudes, relationships, activities and emotions.
The water element is symbolized by winter, the time of rest, darkness, and stillness. In nature, animals hibernate and their activity quiets. Plants are dormant and vegetative matter decomposes. The sunlight is low and days are short. This period is about recharging and regeneration, composting and replenishing. It provides the essential groundwork and nourishment for the creation of a healthy wood element in spring, in order to once again bring forth new growth.
The Kidney and Urinary Bladder are ruled by the water element, and it especially influences the deep structures and regenerative functions of the body such as the bones, the reproductive system, endocrine functions and immunity. The deep reflective tendencies of the mind and spirit are influenced by water. When this element is imbalanced, the fire of activity is not balanced with the water of calm, our reserves become depleted, sleep may not be refreshing and we loose essential vitality. When balanced, stillness and inner reflection nourish us, helping us bring depth and meaning to our lives, and the vitality to grow and flourish.