五行 │ Five Elements
The Five Phases of Chinese medicine organize life into five archetypal energies that can be applied to different systems, including the body, seasons, directions, life cycle, and more. The relationships between these phases forms one of the foundational bases of Chinese medicine. Water nourishes Wood, which burns as Fire, whose ashes turn into Earth, where Metal is extracted, the minerals forming Water, which then continues the cycle all over again.
North. Winter. Fear. Wisdom 智. Will 志. Kidney. Bladder. Bones. Roots. Groaning. Ears/ Sound. Salty. Cold. Black. Skill. Resources. Death. Storage. Purpose. Ocean. Rivers. Rain. Lymph. Cycles. Rhythm. Flow. Depth. Regeneration. Generations. Ancestors. Possibility. Unknown. Limits. Boundaries. Essence. Adventure. Journey. Danger. Hibernation. Patience. Darkness. Vastness. Peace. Spine. Teeth. Future. History. Sleep. Dreams. Mystery.
Water is the mother of life, dripping small droplets from the sky into streams that flow into vast oceans. Water surrenders to the unknown, trickling down to the lowest point. Floating in the vastness of the ocean, anything can happen. Unbalanced Water can manifest as fear of the unknown. Water in balance manifests as preparedness. The coldest winds blow from the north, governed by the energies of Water, and winter. Winter welcomes hibernation, storage, and silence. Our energies draw inwards, as stillness and Yin nature blankets our worlds and beings. In our life journey, Water represents the liminal space between death and birth, that mysterious process of distillation and integration, of endings and preparing for new beginnings. It invites deep questions: where do we go after death? Where do we come from, before birth? Where am I going, now? Composing 80% of our physical bodies, and nourishing the parts of us that questions the meaning of life, Water connects us with our jing 精 Essence, pre-natal Qi, and will to survive.
East. Spring. Anger. Compassion 仁. Dreams 魂. Liver. Gallbladder. Sinews. Sprouts. Shouting. Eyes/ Vision. Sour. Wind. Rancid. Decisions. Planning. Ideas. Spontaneity. Curiosity. Growth. Birth. Pioneer. Actions. Goals. Creation. Movement. Stagnation. Trees. Forest. Courage. Initiation. Dawn. Sprouts. Youth. Drive. Stress. Organization. Flexibility. Resilience. Balance. Emotions. Alignment. Learning.
Wood is the bursting, rising, upward, yang, moving, manifesting, forward momentum, excitement, and birthing possibilities of spring. The energy of the East, of the rising sun, of the beginning of all things, of each breath and each moment, arise here. In balance, Wood energy is directive and purposeful, getting things done, knocking out amazing projects left and right. Out of balance, Wood energy can be overly angry and aggressive, like a plant growing out of control, and wreaking havoc. In the life cycle, it represents birth: new beginnings, and infinite possibility. This is the place of excitement and inspiration, moving forward into orientation and motivation. Wood governs the Liver, which makes decisions. It governs our 魂 (soul), which connects with our goals and higher purpose, actively manifesting that into this material world. How can we channel our energies in a powerful and focused manner, to achieve our desired goals? Wood moves forward and outward in bursting growth, like the 2 million cells birthing and dying each second in our bodies.
South. Summer. Joy. Propriety 禮. Spirit 神. Heart. Small Intestine. Blood vessels. Flowers. Laughing. Tongue/ Speech. Bitter. Heat. Red. Scorched. Love. Passion. Sex. Relationships. Sun. Intimacy. Fun. Play. Dynamism. Wild. Thrive. Desire. Mind. Intelligence. Humor. Authenticity. Confidence. Core. Opening. Chaos. Practice. Dedication. Devotion. Celebration. Communication. Excitement. Mastery. Art. Pleasure. Expression. Focus. Creativity.
In the middle of the day, the sun is at its zenith in the sky. It’s the hottest part of the day, like summer is the hottest season of the year. Here in the south, in the place of Fire, all is in motion, at the height of its' Yang energy. We move, run, jump, explore, play, and celebrate. Fire connects with Heart, which connects us to our communities, and the world around us. Heart connects with our Spirit (神), which sparks our life purpose, and how we move our purpose into the world through our actions and communications. In balance, Fire energy is playful, active, passionate, juicy, charismatic, engaged, and energized. Out of balance, Fire energy can be manic, scattered, chaotic, and soap-opera dramatic. We sweat and focus in the summer, with Fire energy. In the life cycle, it’s the time of adolescence, actively exploring all the possible ways to live fully alive with youthful exuberance. The heart pumps 1/3 cup of blood with each beat, pulsing life force to power our entire body, Fire literally coursing through our veins. What are we passionate about? How do we express our passions?
Southwest/ Center. Mid- Summer. Between seasons. Contemplation/ Sympathy 思. Integrity 信. Intention 意. Spleen. Stomach. Muscles/ Flesh. Fruit. Singing. Mouth/ Taste. Sweet. Damp. Yellow. Fragrant. Pensive. Food. Digestion. Belly. Family. Adulthood. Maturity. Grounding. Stability. Body. Feet. Community. Support. Mother. Gratitude. Belonging. Care. Nourishment. Hunger. Honesty. Responsibility. Integrity. Mountains. Foundation. Delicious. Comfort. Trust. Cozy. Home. Abundance.
In the Pre-Heaven diagram of the five phases, and the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches (天干地支) diagram, Earth takes care of everyone as the solid ground that holds all else, sitting in the middle of all of the other phases. It also sits in the transition period between each of the phases and their corresponding seasons. In the Post-Heaven diagram of the five phases, how we commonly view the 生剋（sheng-ke ）cycles, Earth is placed between Fire and Metal, in the southwest, in the season commonly known as Indian summer, right between summer and autumn, when the shadows are preparing to lengthen, the plants are at their greatest height, and it’s time for relaxation and internalization, harvest and celebration, drawing community together to eat the fruits of the summer’s harvest. Dust to dust, Earth to Earth, our bodies are made of this very Earth, and made ever more Earth with each bite of food that we take, which is nourished from Earth, too. Governing the Stomach and Spleen, Earth relates to digestion and nourishment. In balance, Earth energy is loving, nourishing, practical, grounded, and caring. Out of balance, Earth energy can be needy, stagnant, slow, worrisome, and messy. Governing the 意（consciousness）, we ask ourselves how we can be of service. What is our role in our community? Who are we, in our relationship with the greater whole?
West. Autumn. Grief/ Praise. Righteousness 義. Intuition 魄. Lung. Large Intestine. Skin. Seeds. Weeping. Nose/ Smells. Pungent/ Spicy. Dry. White. Transformation. Inspiration. Release. Hope. Sacred. Spirit. Truth. Wonder. Respiration. Breath. Elders. Ancestors. Authority. Respect. Harvest. Compost. Logic. Alchemy. Utility. Precious. Money. Possessions. Power. Sky. Space. Solitude. Stillness. Transience. Heartbreak. Father. Regrets. Grudges. Defecation. Tradition. Cleanse. Surrender. Ritual.
The sun sets in the west, in the place of Metal, the autumn, when everything is composting back into their original nature, and death is in the air. Here, the veil between the worlds of living and dead draw thin. The proximity to death connects us with our own mortality, and the inherent understanding that suffering is a part of life. Relating to the Lungs, Metal governs inhalation and inspiration. Relating to the Large Intestine, Metal also governs releasing what no longer serves us, and expiration. Here, in this place of release and reflection, we let go. In balance, Metal is clear, precise, organized, and discerning. Out of balance, Metal can be cold, unfeeling, detached, distant, and lost in grief. Metal governs the 魄 (corporeal soul), or animal nature. This animal nature recognizes what is true, real, and correct, resulting in clear and fair actions, clear discernment. It also connects with a sense of the sublime, of the ceremony, and sanctity inherent in each moment. Metal draws clears lines, and asks what am I? What is not me?
We contain all of the phases and their corresponding patterns and qualities. But, we are born with proclivities toward certain phases, and their inherent gifts and downfalls. Environmental and other life factors shift and shape us. Our natural tendencies can be our greatest weakness or strength, depending on how we dance with them. Let us live powerfully and beautifully, noticing, observing, and intentionally designing and sculpting our lives, aligning with our greatest gifts within the capacity of our limitations. Like our humble yet powerful feet that perfectly balance tension and compression to support 100+ pounds of weight daily, we stand poised between various internal and external forces to live a life walking between Earth and Sky, at once grounded and uplifted, supported and supportive, manifesting our life purpose, buoyed from within and without by the five phases that reflect multiverses within multiverses.