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The Five Elements

A Universal Theory Woven into Chinese Culture

Like Yin and Yang, TCM’s Five Element theory is ancient and Universal in what it embodies. The Five Elements are deeply woven into the fabric of Chinese culture. In fact, Five Element theory is the foundation of Chinese disciplines such as feng shui, the martial arts, and the I Ching (The Book of Changes, a text also Universal in its understanding and representation of the dynamic balance of opposites and the processes of unfolding events and change).

A Comprehensive Template Reflecting Natural Law

The Five Elements are a comprehensive template that organizes all natural phenomena into five master groups or patterns in nature. Each of the five groups—Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water—include categories such as a season, a direction, climate, stage of growth and development, internal organ, body tissue, emotion, aspect of the soul, taste, color, sound . . . the categories are seemingly limitless. The Five Elements reflect a deep understanding of natural law, the Universal order underlying all things in our world.

A Theory of Connection and Interaction

So what does the Five Element theory say to us about the world we live in? First, it speaks about how all things are connected. It’s easy to go through life without realizing or contemplating in a deep way just how everything is linked to everything else. The Five Elements tells us how.

Everything within each element is related. Let’s take the Water element as an example. Look at the Five Element diagram: Water is related to winter, a cold climate, the north, the color black, the Kidneys, the emotion fear. These are things that share a deep, sometimes invisible, connection to each other. When it is winter there is a cold essence, it relates to and impacts in some way the Kidneys, the emotion fear is linked, though not always in an obvious, visible way.

The Five Elements show us how the structures and systems in our bodies are connected to each other; how we are connected to our environment and the natural world; how our world is part of the greater universe. Many people today have lost this deep connection to nature and no longer are able to feel this truth resonate in their being. The Universal principle of connection still exists nonetheless.

The Balancing Relationships of Generation and Control

Amazingly, this comprehensive theory goes one quantum step beyond showing how all things are related and connected in five categories to reveal how everything is interconnected and interacts on a mega scale. The Five Elements are five fundamental energies in nature in motion. There is a dynamism between them; they are not static. Within the structure of the Five Elements there are two fundamental relationships: generation and control. Without the balancing nature of these two relationships, things would fall out of order in a flash.

When the Five Elements speak about generation, it means a relationship that nurtures and promotes growth. Think of a mother and child. The mother gives birth to her child and provides her energy to ensure the growth of her child. An example of generation is the relationship between the Heart and the Spleen (the Heart generates the Spleen).

Control, in terms of the Five Elements, represents a relationship that acts as a restraining energy or force, making sure that things do not grow too quickly or slowly, neither too strong nor too weak. Without control, things would fall out of proportion; balance would be lost. Both are needed to keep order: order at the individual level and on a cosmic scale. (Example: the Liver controls the Spleen.)

The Five Elements and TCM

Five Element theory is essential to the practice of TCM as a healing system. It provides a framework in which to understand, diagnose, and treat all health issues—body, mind, emotions, and spirit. The Five Elements include the internal organs, and the interconnected and interacting relationships between them often fall out of balance, creating health issues. TCM practitioners seek to rebalance these organ relationships with their treatment plans.

The Five Elements support TCM’s body-mind-spirit understanding of human health. TCM’s ancient Five Element theory is an incredibly detailed master blueprint that diagrams how nature interacts with the body and how the different dimensions of our being impact each other. Though we may not be aware of it, each action, thought, and emotion impacts in some way our being and health as well as the balance of nature.

» Download Five Elements Chart (PDF)