||The 5 Elements in Taoism
by Daniel Reed
The 5 elements represent the activities of the Yin and Yang forces when they are alternating, manifested in the changing cycles of nature that regulate the Earth's life. Also known as the 5 movements (Wu Yun), they define the various stages of transformation that occur during seasonal change: growth and decline; climate change; sounds and flavors; emotions in human psychology. Every energy is associated with a natural element whose function is similar to these energies' function, and from whence they take their name. The Chinese system takes into account energy and its transformation, different from the way of naming elements by their form and substance as we do in the West and in other systems. The elements symbolize the energy activities with which they are associated.
As the manifestations of Yin and Yang energy on Earth, the five phases of energy represent various stages of emptiness and fulfillment through which these energies pass to balance a determined energetic system. An ancient Chinese text explains:
The five phases of energy or Elements of Wood, Metal, Water, Earth and Fire appear in their specific nature, during the transformations of Yang force and from their union with the Yin force. These energy phases are constantly changing activity, each one nourishing and controlling the other so that there is a constant circular movement without beginning or end. The interaction of these primordial forces creates harmony in the changing course of nature's cycles. The Five phases of Elemental Energy combine and recombine in countless forms and produce material life. Everything that exists contains the five elements in varying proportions.
Let's analyze these ideas observing the seasons of the year that influence the Earth. Water is the energy phase associated with winter, when the Yin force is prevalent. The winter is a time of rest and quiet, when energy is saved, gathered, condensed, conserved and stored. Water is a very concentrated element containing great potential, a great power waiting to be liberated. In the human body water is associated with essential fluids like hormones, lymphatic liquids, marrow, enzymes, all with great energetic potential. Its color is black or midnight blue. It is the color that contains all the other colors in concentrated form. In nature, water evaporates under excess heat; in human beings water's energy disperses because of excess stress and strong emotions. The way to conserve water's energy is with quiet and rest, by staying "cold".
The next phase in the seasonal cycle is spring. Wood grows as a result of the energizing force of water, like plants grown in the earth in springtime. This is the new Yang season of the energy cycle. The Wood phase is expansive, happy and explosive. It is a creative generation of energy, awakening the sexual desire to procreate. It is associated with vigor, youth, growth and development. The Wood energy seeks free expression and space to expand. To block its development creates feelings of frustration, anger, jealousy and stagnation.
Just like spring changes naturally into summer, the expansive and creative Wood energy matures into the fluorescent energy of the old Yang, fire energy. This is the fullest energetic phase in the whole cycle, when the hottest phase of the yang energy is full. All life forms heat up in this phase marked by the fire energy's growth. Heat is associated with the heart, which is the home of human emotions and the organ that pulses and distributes the blood and its energy throughout the body. Red is the color of blood's heat. This energy is associated with love and compassion, generosity and happiness, openness and abundance. If we block this energy, the result is hypertension, heart disease and nervous disorders.
At the end of summer there is an interlude of perfect balance when the fire energy diminishes and transforms into earth energy, neither very Yin nor very Yang, and a state of perfect equilibrium is achieved. This moment is the cycle's climax, the interval between the Yang energies of spring and summer and the Yin energies of autumn and winter. The temper of the 5 energy phases is in harmony at this moment, bringing a sensation of well-being and completeness. The energy at the end of summer is earth energy, its color is yellow, the color of the earth and sun. In human anatomy it is associated with the stomach, the spleen and the pancreas that are situated in the center of the body and feed the body's system. If the earth energy is insufficient, the system becomes malnourished, digestion is affected and the whole system becomes weak and unbalanced.
When the summer becomes autumn, Earth energy turns into Metal. During the metal phase, the energy again begins to condense, contract, accumulate and store itself, like we store food in the autumn in order to survive the winter. In this phase we release everything that is spent similiar to how trees let their leaves fall to conserve their essence, which is then stored to withstand the period when water is scarce in winter. If during this phase there is not enough energy to draw together, there will not be enough strength to survive the winter and the next wood/spring cycle will be weak. Metal energy controls the lungs, that extract the essential energy and expel toxins from the blood and the large intestine, that eliminates the heavy wastes while retaining and recycling all the system's water. The Metal phase's color is white, the essential color of purity. The autumn is the season of introspection and meditation, of recycling old feelings, external attachments and excess emotions built up during the summer, like trees drop dry leaves and seek the nutrients in their roots. If we resist this energy and remain imprisoned in the past we can fall into melancholy, sadness and depression that manifest themselves in respiratory difficulties, back pain, skin ailments and low resistance to disease. Just like metal is the refined energy drawn from the earth and formed in fire, autumn is the season when we should take lessons from our summer activities and experiences, transforming them in the quiet and wisdom of winter.
So the great wheel of life keeps turning between the elementary energy cycles, waking and giving life to things, following an ordered process of rhythmic sequence.
The five energy phases or 5 elements maintain an inner equilibrium and harmony between Yin and Yang energies throughout the check and balance cycles, called the creative cycle and the control cycle. Both cycles, each one interacting with and balancing the other, are constantly active, maintaining these polarized forces in a dynamic field that is necessary to move and transform energy. The creative cycle generates energy and nourishes the energy--like the relationship betweeen mother and child. Water generates Wood and nurtures its growth. Wood generates Fire by giving it fuel to burn; Fire generates Earth, fertilizing it with ashes; Earth produces Metal for extraction and refinement; Metal becomes liquid like Water when melted, acquiring special properties when mixed (like mineral water).
On the other hand, the control cycle creates a relationship of subjugation, like that which exists between victor and defeated after a battle. The Book of Classical Medicine describes the control cycle like this:
Wood in contact with Metal is cut down. Fire in contact with Water is extinguished.
Earth is penetrated by Wood.
Metal in contact with Fire melts down.
Water in contact with Earth stops flowing.
This is how one of the energy phases exceeds and tends to exercise an excessive stimulus on the following element of the creative cycle. In this precise moment, the element that controls this excessive energy goes into affect to restore harmony. For example: if the Wood generates too much energy, providing the Fire with too much fuel--which could cause lots of burning--Metal comes into play, cutting the wood supply and so reestablishing the balance. The Creative and Control Cycles maintain a constant relationship of harmony and equilibrium among the 5 energy phases or the 5 Elemental Energies.