The Five Elements Theory in Taoism and Traditional Eastern Medicine
The Five Elements theory is a very important concept in Taoism. It also constitutes the fundamental basis of traditional Chinese, Korean, and Japanese medicine. However, the Five Elements still remain relatively little known or misunderstood in many parts of the world.
What is the Five Elements theory?
The Five Elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. According to Taoist cosmology, the Five Elements are generated by the interaction between Yin and Yang. The Five Elements are not so much the actual substances of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Instead, each of the Five Elements can be understood as an expression of qualities and as building blocks of life and matter.
The Wood Element and the Fire Element pertain to Yang, while the Metal Element and the Water Element pertain to Yin. The Earth Element represents perfect harmony between Yin and Yang. Conceptually, we can understand the Five Elements as energetic forces created by interactions between Yin and Yang.
Traditionally, Easterners used the principle of the Five Elements to shed light on various phenomena in the Universe, such as seasons, directions, stars and planets, plants and animals, as well as the weather and temperature. The following is a brief description of each of the Five Elements.
The Wood Element is an energy that promotes growth and development. The Wood Element manifests after midnight and at dawn, in the east, in the windy weather and in spring, according to the Taoist Five Elements theory. It is the beginning of a budding new life and the beginner of the Five Elemental cycle.
The Fire Element is an energy that promotes passion, development and expansion in all directions. Fire manifests in the morning, in the south, in the hot weather and in summer, according to the Taoist Five Elements theory.
The Earth Element is an energy that promotes nourishment and balance. Earth manifests in the midday, in the center, in the humid weather and in late summer, according to the Taoist Five Elements theory. Spring and Summer are Yang, while autumn and winter are Yin. In the late summer, the transition from the Yang season to the Yin season takes place. With its serene nature, Earth energy makes a seamless transition possible from the Yang season to the Yin season.
The Metal Element is an energy that promotes order, organization and the completion of tasks. Metal manifests in the afternoon, in the west, in the dry weather and in autumn, according to the Taoist Five Elements theory.
The Water Element is an energy that promotes conservation and inner development. Water manifests in the evening and at nighttime before midnight, in the north, in the cold weather and in winter, according to the Taoist Five Elements theory. It is the energy that has an unbounded potential even though it may appear to be inactive from outside. The Water Element is comparable to a small seed that has a potential to bloom into a towering tree.
The generation cycle of the Five Elements
There are constant interactions among the Five Elements, which, according to the Taoist Five Elements theory, affect the whole human body system and the Universe at large, given that the Five Elements are basically energetic building blocks of all physical matter in the Universe.
According to the Five Elements theory, there is a generation cycle, as well as a control cycle, of the Five Elements. In the generation cycle, energy circulates from Wood to Water in the order of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and back to Wood, forming a circle. Think of it this way: Wood, combustible in nature, burns itself to produce Fire. Fire engenders ashes to enrich Earth. Earth generates Metal. Metal can be liquefied to enrich and vitalize Water. Water nourishes Wood.
The relationship among the Five Elements is comparable to that of mother and son. We can understand it this way: Wood gives birth to Fire; Fire to Earth; Earth to Metal; Metal to Water; and Water to Wood.
It is not much different from the four seasons on earth. Spring gives rise to summer; summer to autumn; autumn to winter; and winter to spring.
The generation cycle applies to internal organs in our bodies as well. The liver (organ of Wood) stores the blood that nurtures the spirit that resides in the heart (organ of Fire). In Taoism, this spirit is referred to as Shen. Shen provides a link to the Universe and a path to intuition and spirituality. The heart nourishes the spleen (organ of Earth) by transmitting the energy and blood that are needed. The spleen nurtures the lungs (organ of Metal) and the lungs nurture the kidneys (organ of Water).
Due to this generation cycle, a disorder in a particular organ will affect other areas as well. For example, a problem in the liver will, over time, affect the heart, which, in its turn, could cause a problem in the spleen. The problem in the spleen will be transmitted to the lungs which will affect the kidneys. In the end, the kidneys will transmit the problem back to its source – the liver, further weakening the organ.
Consequently, when you have a certain problem in your organ, this will affect other organs in one way or another. For example, if you have a pulmonary disease, it will not only affect your lungs but could end up debilitating other organs. Therefore, the longer you are afflicted with a certain disease, the more it will affect other areas. This may not be immediately noticeable because even after it creates problems in other organs, it could be dormant before it develops into a diagnosable problem.
Traditional Eastern medicine views that everything is interconnected in the human body. Therefore, it is important to maintain balance among the Five Elements in our body, according to traditional Eastern medicine.
The control cycle of the Five Elements
According to the Five Elements theory, each of the Five Elements not only nourishes but also restrains each other, thus preventing the dominance of one particular element. In this cycle called the control cycle, Wood controls Earth; Fire controls Metal; Earth controls Water; Metal controls Wood; and Water controls Fire.
Think of these five substances in nature. Wood affects the earth by taking roots in the soil and absorbs nutrients from the earth; fire has the power to liquefy metal; earth (soil) can fill up water and thus turn it to land; metal can cut wood into pieces; and water can extinguish fire.
The Five Elements and the human organic system
The control cycle also applies to our internal organs.
– The Wood Element governs the liver. If the Wood energy of the liver becomes too strong, it weakens the spleen (organ of Earth).
– The Fire Element governs the heart. If the Fire energy of the heart becomes too strong, it weakens the lungs (organ of Metal).
– The Earth Element governs the spleen. If the Earth energy of the spleen becomes too strong, it weakens the kidneys (organ of Water).
– The Metal Element governs the lungs. If the Metal energy of the lungs becomes too strong, it weakens the liver (organ of Wood).
– The Water Element governs the kidneys. If the Water energy of the kidneys becomes too strong, it weakens the heart (organ of Fire).
Five Elements theory: How food affects human organs
With this in mind, we can deduce how foods can affect the Five Elements and internal organs in our bodies, based on the Five Elements theory.
– Sour foods are associated with the Wood Element. Therefore, the consumption of sour foods nourishes the liver (organ of Wood), but when excessive, weakens the spleen (organ of Earth).
– Bitter foods are associated with the Fire Element. Therefore, the consumption of bitter foods nourishes the heart (organ of Fire), but when excessive, weakens the lungs (organ of Metal).
– Sweet foods are associated with the Earth Element. Therefore, the consumption of sweet foods nourishes the spleen (organ of Earth), but when excessive, weakens the kidneys (organ of Water).
– Pungent foods are associated with the Metal Element. Therefore, the consumption of pungent foods nourishes the lungs (organ of Metal), but when excessive, weakens the liver (organ of Wood).
– Salty foods are associated with the Water Element. Therefore, the consumption of salty foods nourishes the kidneys (organ of Water), but when excessive, weakens the heart (organ of Fire).
<Five Elements Table>
|Yin/Yang||Small Yang||Big Yang||Balance between Yin and Yang||Small Yin||Big Yin|
|Yang Organ||Gallbladder||Small Intestine||Stomach||Large Intestine||Bladder|
The Five Elements and the human body
According to traditional Eastern medicine, the human body is governed by the dynamics of the Five Elements. The state of these Five Elements greatly affects our physical, mental and emotional dispositions. In fact, balance in and among the Five Elements is vital for our physical, mental and emotional well-being.
Many Taoist teachers have advised us not to identify with our personalities and emotions. The reason becomes clear when we understand the Five Elements theory: Our personality traits and emotions are immensely affected by a particular interconnected relationship among the Five Elements. When we improve the health and balance of the Five Elements in our system, our personalities and characteristics could change accordingly.
In modern days, the majority of medical scientists would look at this theory with skepticism. The concept of the Five Elements is often looked on as something of a superstitious nature. Personally, however, I like the way how Eastern medicine views the human body. It looks at the human body as a microcosm of the Universe itself.
Traditional Eastern medicine acknowledges that all our body parts are interconnected with one another like the Universe itself. Traditional Eastern medicine does not separate the mind and body and pays close attention to the mind-body connection. In fact, many of the mental disorders are treated as physical disorders.
The proper understanding of the Five Elements could enlighten us because the philosophy of the Five Elements teaches us not to identify ourselves with our thoughts and emotions. According to the five elements theory, certain emotions and personal traits are associated with the Five Elements and thus, are affected by the general balance of that particular element.