The Five Elements and our Inner World

Five Elements and Our Inner World

This is Part 2 of my ongoing Five Element series. Read Part 1.

How am I today?

I’m feeling a bit energetically wobbly. My eyes are mildly stinging, my insides feel contracted, I’ve got a lump in my throat, I’m a bit stuck in getting started on writing this, I’m sensitively tearful and I noticed earlier a flicker of tightness, a glimmer of frustrated jealousy within my happiness at news from dear friend about some success in her life. My energy levels are good and balanced and I’m aware of a gentle and pleasant outwardly-moving internal pulse, but I sense that it is somewhat blocked as it moves towards my chest and throat.

Each day I observe (and record) my inner world – energetic, emotional, physical, mental, spiritual etc – with no expectation and no judgement. Just curiousity. Whether I’m feeling on top of the world or ready to curl up in a ball, I welcome my discoveries. They connect me to what is going on in the universal microcosm that is me and where I am in my own energetic cycle. And they remind me that to be alive is to be in a state of constant change, so there’s no such thing as a lasting state of perfectly balanced health. 

The dynamic equilibrium of good health

For balance is a fluid thing that we are constantly falling in and out of as we adapt to changes in our internal and external environments. These changes are endless, as nature’s energy ebbs and flows in its constant cycle, bringing its ‘seasonal’ shifts within us as it does without (see the first part of this series). These shifts create different energetic ‘moods’, along with a wave of fluctuation around our optimum health midline (a stable flat line is undesirable – it would, like on an ECG reading, indicate death).

So, when we recognise that it is OK to feel different each day and we accept and honour that flow in our lives, maintaining good, dynamically-balanced health becomes an art-form of gentle tweaking. The skill is to let our life shift with our cycle while keeping our wave within manageable healthy parameters around our midline, rather than allowing it to swing wildly, thereby draining our resources and requiring significant additional energy to pull it back to centre.

The foundation of such dynamic good health is living in a way that is not only aligned with the human organism’s basic needs, but that also respects our own cyclically changing constitutional and unique needs. So we all need undisturbed sleep, nourishing food, appropriate movement and a good balance between rest and activity, but the ideal levels and types will vary from person to person and from day to day (even the quantities of intoxicating foods/stimulants/drugs/chemicals that we can get away with varies, but these are best avoided by all).

By living in such a self-reverent and cycle-honouring way, our extraordinary bodies will – through the process of homeostasis – do much of the work of maintaining a smooth wave as universal forces bigger than us move through us, shifting us here and there. Sometimes that is not enough. Life is complicated and there are many other variables, such as our unique inborn strengths and weaknesses, past trauma and life’s bombardment of stimuli and stressors that are often outside our control. These influences can sometimes risk pushing us outside our safe parameters.

To start honouring our cycles and sensing when all is not well long before any clinical symptoms of ill-health have developed, we first need to be curious about our inner world. We need to develop the sensitivity to tune into its more subtle sensations and changes that signal our particular ‘mood’ in that moment and whether things are flowing smoothly or not. And we need to know how to decipher those signals and respond to them. This is made so much easier if we have a trusted map.

The Five Elements Map

The map that I turn to daily is that of the Chinese Five Elements cycle. I use it to recognise my energetic mood (and whether this is a time for emerging, for full expression, for stabilising, for reflection or for deep rest), whether I’ve got stuck somewhere in my own cyclical ebb and flow and which energies and organs are perhaps struggling and needing my attention.

For instance, right now (based on the way I am feeling) I know I’m in a phase of a rising Wood energy of creative activity, but today it’s a little blocked. And other signs are also pointing me towards my Liver (the organ of the Wood Element). So I’ll gently tweak my diet and lifestyle and my Yoga and Qigong practice both to honour and reap the gifts of this Elemental phase and to help my body clear that stuckness and keep my cycle turning and my wave hugging the midline.

To use the Five Elements map for your own well-being, you’ll need to develop a good sense of the essential energy of each Element and of how this energy relates to the moods and functions of your internal world. So I have created a table of correspondences and, perhaps more importantly, written Elemental pictures that I hope will help you grasp and recognise the root energy from which all their correspondences emerge.

Firstly, here is a reminder of the basic Five Element correspondences that I shared in the first article in this series, most of which can be related to the human organism: (Click here for a full recap)

 WoodFireEarthMetalWater
SeasonSpringSummerEnd of SummerAutumnWinter
Cardinal directionEastSouthCentreWestNorth
ColourGreenRedYellowWhiteBlack
ClimateWindHeatDampDryCold
EvolutionGerminationFruitionTransitionSheddingStorage
Direction of movementUpward thrustingExpandingHolding the CentreContractingSinking down

And here are correspondences that relate more directly to our inner world:

 WoodFireEarthMetalWater
Yin-Yang PhaseGrowing YangMaximum YangDynamic EquilibriumGrowing YinMaximum Yin
Life phaseChildhoodMaturityMiddle ageEldershipDeath/Rebirth
Time of peak energy11pm-3am11am-3pm / 7-11pm7-11am3-7am3-7pm
Yin OrganLiverHeart / PericardiumSpleenLungsKidneys
Yang OrganGallbladderSmall Intestine / Triple BurnerStomachLarge IntestineBladder
TissueTendons, muscle strengthBlood vesselsConnective tissue, muscle massSkin, body hairBones, teeth, marrow
External signNailsComplexionFleshSkinHead hair
Sense organEyesTongueMouth, lipsNoseEars
SenseVisionTouchTasteSmellHearing
SecretionTearsSweatSalivaNasal mucousSpittle
Classic VirtueHuman kindnessProprietyIntegrityRighteousnessWisdom
Other qualitiesEmergence, innocence, vigour, exuberance, new beginnings, clear vision, sense of direction, holding to dreams, hope, optimism, aspiration, faith, initiative, ideation, creativity, good planning, breaking out, blazing news trails, self-esteem, independence, individuation, originality, spontaneity, flexibility, ease in stressful situations, clemencyLove, passion, joy, extroversion, gratitude, generosity, compassion, intimacy, ambition, confidence, courage to be self, stepping through limits, fierceness, right risk, decisive action, perfect timing, ripeness, climax, maturity, eloquence, no false modesty, full expression, manifestation, fullness of power, mastery, radiance, divinityFairness, groundedness, centredness, stability, balance, harmony, security, reliability, smooth transition, support, nurture, empathy, community, service, reciprocity, concentration, undistracted attention, sensuality, self-careSelf-transparency, honesty, value/truth-seeking, soul-searching, sense of poignancy, sensitivity, refinement, purity, discernment, reflection, memory, accountability, discipline, resolve, perseverance, sacrifice, seed of courage, self-confidence, direct mannerGentleness, fluidity, effortless-flow, pleasure, receptive, yielding, acceptance, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, humility, vulnerability, intuition, deep-knowing, connection to source, reverie, contemplation, imagination, sub-conscious, introversion, solitude, deep rest, just being, reunion
Classic emotionAngerEmotivityWorrySorrowFear
Other emotional, mental, energetic signs of imbalanceSense of being stuck, frustration, irritability, resentment, jealousy, envy, egocentricity, tension, stress, erratic behaviour, rash decisions, explosiveness, mood swings, rigidity, fixed ideas, stubbornness, eternal student, numerous unfocused and uncompleted plans, indecision, low self-esteem, easily swayed and discouraged, aimlessness, hopelessness, despairHilary, hysteria, inappropriate laughter (or speech or behaviour), poor timing, anxiety, restlessness, excitability, hyperactivity, mania, insomnia, bitterness, meanness, recklessness, hatred, cruelty, aggression, arrogance, tyranny, impatience, haste, losing heart, not following through, self-doubt, apathy, submission, joylessness, emotional flatnessPreoccupation, obsession, distraction, stuck in comfort zone, addictive, risk-aversion, slowness, complaining, smothering behaviour, hypochondriac, selfishness, self-indulgence, hyper-dependence, neediness, self-disregardPersistent or absent grief, sadness, longing, depression, denial, lack of self-worth, hypersensitivity, hyper-perfectionism, zealotry, militant discipline, dry, uptight, naysaying, hypercritical, unsparing judgement, lack of diplomacy, ruthlessness, emotional coldness, detachmentPhobia, panic, timidity, shyness, nervousness, restlessness, wired, anxiety, effortful striving, hyper-tolerance, spiritual laziness, indifference, non-opinionated, scatteredness, fantasy
Some physical symptoms of imbalanceJerky movements, wandering pain, cramps, lumps, swellings, eye strain, red eyes, poor vision, headaches, migraines, neck pain, pre-menstrual tension, haemorrhoids, allergies, sighing, sense of lump in throatCardiovascular issues (eg blood pressure issues, palpitations), too hot or too cold, inflammation, pale or ruddy complexion, stuttering, speech difficultiesDigestive issues, weight issues, loss of tone, prolapse, oedema, feeling of heaviness, yeast or fungal infectionsDigestive issues, respiratory issues, skin issues, immune issues, fatigue, asthma, shortness of breathReproductive and urinary system issues, lower back ache, exhaustion, low energy, coldness, flushed cheeks, hot flushes, palpitations, night sweats, bone issues, knee problems, poor hearing, premature greying
SoundShoutingLaughingSingingWeeping Groaning
SpiritHun (Non -corporeal soul)Shen (Spirit)Po (Consciousness of possibilities)Po (Corporeal soul)Zhi (the Will)

Please note that the Five Elements cycle is all about relationships, interconnectedness and movement. Imbalance in one Element has a knock-on effect on all of the others (one simple and important example is that a deficiency in cooling Water creates symptoms in the body that look like Fire’s heat). So these correspondences are not written in stone and you might see the same symptom under different Elements – in Chinese medicine, it is not the individual symptom that matters, but rather the overall picture.

Bringing the Elements to Life

Let me try to bring some colour these correspondences with my essential pictures of each of the Five Elements.

First a few important points:

  • These descriptions (and the above tables) are not intended as definitive or comprehensive explorations of each Element, but rather to give you a picture of their essential energy and some of their potential distortions.
  • While each of us has constitutional tendencies, these elemental pictures do not describe permanent places of being. The Elements flow within us in longer and shorter cycles eg over the course of a breath or a day or a month or a season (I’ll explore this more in the next part of this series). If we get stuck in one place, that is a sign that all is not well.
  • In imbalance, the energy of each Element can shift into deficiency or excess. My intention here was to give an overview of how each Element looks in our body in harmony and disharmony, so I have not distinguished between these either in the table or these descriptions (but this is why some correspondences and signs under a particular Element might appear to contradict each other). I may add this detail when exploring individual Elements more deeply in a later post.

Wood

The Wood Element holds the energy of Spring: “Nature re-emerges from Winter’s stillness, at first tentatively and then with an explosive, upward-thrusting energy that breaks through the warming and softening earth and out into vigorous, green creative growth. Seeds germinate and start the process of growing into the particular plants they are destined to be. The weather is changeable as nature tries to get its motor going again after the damp Winter and unpredictable Spring winds are common.”

Within nature’s endless cycle, Wood is the phase of new beginnings, of youth, of innocence, of exuberant growth and of dynamic, smooth and unimpeded movement of energy (or Qi). Just like in plants, Wood’s energy stimulates our unique seed to germinate and to surge upwards towards the truth contained in it. So is a time for individuation, acting on our childhood dreams, honing our vision, bursting with ideas and creativity, gathering skills and moving dynamically but methodically towards realising our plans for the future.

As we grow, we remain like a young tree bending in the wind – firmly rooted in our own ‘seed’ truth and strong, pliant and adaptable, responding with ease and conviction to obstacles and challenges. This firmness with flexibility is reflected at every level of our being, such as in our physical structure, in our movement and in our emotional make-up, which is dominated by kindness (towards ourselves and others) coupled with strong boundaries and clear intentions.

When our Wood energy is out of balance, navigating life becomes much more stressful.

Instead of smoothness and ease, we feel stuck. We find ourselves unable to move ahead or to direct our lives towards our truth (if we are even aware of what that is). And Wood’s exuberant, upsurging energy does not like to be blocked, so emotions of frustration and irritability build up in us like a pressure cooker. We may become prone to angry outbursts, erratic behaviour and mood swings and lose our capacity to flow through life with ease. Instead, we become fixed in our ideas and find even the smallest challenges a source of great stress.

As we disconnect from our ‘seed’ and lose sight of our life vision, we may start flailing around with numerous unfocused plans or perhaps just stop looking to the future at all. We lose faith in our own gifts, feeling aimless, hopeless and worthless as our vigour, creativity and easy optimism fade.

Along with these emotional signs, our physical bodies will also indicate that our Wood energy has lost its smooth and easy flow. We may, for instance, start moving in a jerky, shaky and erratic way and experience cramping pains, intense headaches, lumps or swellings and eye strain.

Our Livers and Gallbladders are associated with the Wood Element, so any tell-tale Wood symptoms indicate that one or both of these organs is under stress. Angry outbursts, for instance, are a sign that our Liver is in need of care and are themselves damaging to our Liver.

Our eyes are Wood’s sense organs. Through them, we can bring harmony or disharmony to this Element and damage or heal the Liver. Bombarding children with visual stimulation – especially from television and computer screens – from the youngest age means that their Livers are overwhelmed and exhausted before they even reach adulthood. But, fortunately, Wood’s dynamic energy and the tissue of the Liver are highly regenerative. Spending time out in nature and ‘breathing in’ its green abundance through our eyes will help.

Fire

The Fire Element holds the energy of Summer“As we move into the hottest months of the year, nature reaches the peak of the expansive process begun in Spring. Plants come into their time of maximum energy and maximum growth and radiance, boldly and fully expressing themselves in the world through brightly coloured flowering and fruition.”

When the Wood phase reaches its fullest expression, it shifts into the cyclical climax of Fire. This is the phase of maturity, of maximum expansion, of heat, of love, of the joy of full and brilliant manifestation, of fullness of power.

At this point in nature’s endless cycle, we are overflowing with our own truth, giving us the energy, ambition and courage it takes to move from preparation (Wood) and into Fire’s glorious manifestation. When the time is just right, we step decisively through our fears and out into the limelight, where – with passion and with no apology – we bestow on the world the particular gifts we were born to share. Here, we are aware of our own beauty as a natural being and have the confidence to be ourselves and to express our truth with the eloquence of our own unique voice.

At the peak of our power, we remain humble, with our ‘True Yang’ Fire grounded in the depths of our self-knowledge and tempered by deep gratitude, love and the highest virtue of compassion.

Fire is a beautiful place but getting there is not easy. It requires us not only to know who we are, but also to take risks that bring us face to face with our deepest fears and to be ready to step through them down a road of whose destination we cannot be sure.

So the Fire phase is missed by many people, who settle for lives for contentment rather than reaching for its joy and abundance. They remain stuck and frustrated in Wood (the ante-chamber of Fire) – held back from their glory by self-doubt, by the belief that they do not have what it takes or that they are not quite ready.

But, when we are not risking, our Heart is dying – energetically, emotionally and physically.

Another common way of missing the Fire phase is by having no idea of who we really are or of our own particular gifts, but anyway having the dangerous ambition to be ‘successful’ (rich, powerful, famous etc). But when we recklessly push some distorted and ungrounded version of ourselves out onto the world, we spend our lives in a ‘False Fire’ state, trying to give the impression of being strong, while secretly feeling weak, without meaning and under attack. This insecurity can lead to intolerance, arrogance, hatred, cruelty, aggression, violence and great pain, as we seek to convince ourselves of our power by imposing ourselves on others.

Again, this energetic imbalance is reflected on every level of our being, with our Heart (and its elemental partners – the Small Intestine, the Pericardium and the Triple Burner, an ‘organ’ not recognised in Western anatomy) taking the physical brunt.

Earth

The Earth Element holds the energy of the Centre: “As the Summer draws to a close and the heat eases, the Five Elements recognises a stabilising, transitional ‘Indian Summer’ time when nature seems to calm and time seems to slow as the first rains sooth the scorched yellow Earth. This Earth energy actually brings stability to each seasonal transition and also holds the centre as the other four seasons cycle around.”

The Earth Element is the stabilising axis and the nourishing matrix, both connecting and underlying the other four Elements. In this way, it offers us a sense of security, of groundedness, of rootedness, so we can remain calm, centred and focused amid life’s constant transitions and uncertainties.

Earth is the Mother of life, the fertile womb always there below us both to receive and to give, containing, nurturing and supporting. It is our comfort zone, a soothing place of familiarity and community where we feel safe, protected and held.

When the Elements are in harmony, this sure centre gives us a stable base from which to expand out into the world with confidence and equanimity – and to which we can return whenever we need some security. With this anchor, we can embrace change and uncertainty as opportunities for growth and delight in life’s endless dance between balance and imbalance, knowing that this state of dynamic equilibrium is the foundation of life as a natural being.

But Earth’s familiarity can be just too cosy, making it somewhere that it is all too easy to stagnate and never venture forth. Life’s uncertainties become terrifying and so we become averse to taking risks, instead living our lives stuck in the same old comfortable (but deadening) ways. We may become obsessive in those ways, with our fear of failure (imbalance) leaving us struggling for perfection – a fixed and unmoving state that is the opposite of true (dynamic) balance.

We may retreat to these narrow confines because we lack any internal, body-felt sense of Earth’s grounding and integrating energy. So we move through life with feeling forever off-balance and disconnected from our centre, in a state of easy distraction and confusion.

With no anchor, our desperate efforts to feel secure may make us needy or overly supportive/protective of others. And they may cause us to become obsessive hoarders, living buried in clutter (organised or disorganised) that we just cannot get around to clearing.

The Spleen-Pancreas and the Stomach – the key organs associated with the Earth Element – are the foundations of our physical nutrition and the source of both our Blood and our Qi. They are strongly affected by both sedentary and irregular ways of life, which can be reflected in our physical body by various states of imbalance, such as in our blood sugar levels.

Metal

The Metal Element holds the energy of Autumn: “The weather continues to cool and nature dims its lights, turning inwards after its Summer display and abundance. This is the season of threshing, of cutting through and shedding the waste, of sorting the pure from the impure. Plants get rid of what they no longer need in their dried-out foliage and contract their remaining precious, juicy essence down into their roots for the coldest months.”

Metal (after the stabilising transitional moment of Earth) is the difficult phase of letting go of Fire’s joyful shining and of turning back inward, towards a quieter place of memory and reflection. It is a time of looking back to extract meaning from all experience – happy or sorrowful – in order to use those lessons to direct ourselves purposefully and resolutely towards a future that is even more joyfully aligned with who we really are.

Daoism recognises that success has an expiration date, that we cannot stay in the limelight or sustain intense activity indefinitely or we will burn out and lose all connection to our source. So we – like nature around us – need to know when it is time to let go and to focus our attention inward. We can deploy our clear and right judgement in the Metal phase to take an honest look at our lives, to face uncomfortable truths and to resolve the unresolved. And, just as trees release toxins in their falling leaves, we can then shed whatever no longer belongs to us and hone in on what is essential, thus refining our seed.

In this way, the Metal phase is the vital step for our future blossoming in Fire. If this challenging soul-searching is not done, our seed is not refined back to its original truth, ready to be nourished in Winter (Water), to germinate in Spring (Wood) and to flourish into our highest self in Summer (Fire).

In other words, we cannot manifest our truth in the world if we do not know what that truth is. Metal’s cutting energy gives us the opportunity to go digging for the precious and sparkling gold that lies buried and hidden in our depths (the Chinese character for Metal depicts a mineshaft with a dot representing the gold in its bottom corner).

But we tend to skim over this phase, pushing down uncomfortable thoughts when they arise and filling our lives so we can avoid the solitude that might allow for honest reflection and the painful truth it might reveal. Instead, we tend to swing wildly between periods of intense activity (never quite reaching the radiance of true Fire) and exhausted collapse (a distortion of the deep rest in the Water phase that is possible when Metal’s work is done fully).

As Metal’s energy slips out of balance, we may find that its natural discernment gives way to hyper-criticism, directed at ourselves and/or at others; that resolve born of self-love and the joyful pursuit of our destiny gives way militaristic discipline; and that honest directness gives way to detached emotional coldness.

Our Metal energy may also lose its alchemical capacity to transform sorrowful experience into the potential for a brighter future, so we find ourselves wallowing in inconsolable grief, losing our sense of self-worth and sinking into depression.

Metal’s organs are the Lungs and the Large Intestine, which, like the Element itself, are focused on assimilation and elimination, on sorting the pure from the impure. The Lungs mark the meeting point – via our breath – of our internal environment with the environment around us. As such, they are very sensitive organs that are damaged by unresolved grief, which settles within them, creating dark, cold pockets of sorrow.

Water

The Water Element holds the energy of Winter: “Nature moves into its coldest, darkest, stillest and most contracted and internal state. External signs of life disappear as plants become dormant, expending minimum energy. In this time of rest, seeds and roots are nurtured and replenished. So it is this period of doing nothing that prepares them for emerging – once the weather again starts to warm – into their next cycle of vigorous growth.”

The Water phase takes the inward-turning movement of Metal to its extreme. It invites us to return to source, to flow gently downward and inward to the darkest, most Yin, recesses of our being and to bathe in the nutritious soup of absolute rest.

Water’s cool darkness is the essential counterbalance to Fire’s intense heat. It is in its state of acceptance, of non-doing, of just being, of reverie that we nourish our essence, connect to our deepest knowing and resources, and replenish our cup of vitality, creativity and wisdom ready for the next cycle of doing.

The quiet, internal virtues of the Water phase (and the universe’s Yin feminine principle) are much overlooked and dishonoured in our culture, with just being regarded as laziness and acquiescence seen as capitulation. Value is placed instead on the masculine Yang qualities of being active, productive, ambitious, wealthy and successful (or at least appearing to be).

But it is, in fact, Water’s darkness – which brings us in contact with our deepest fears and vulnerabilities – that offers us the opportunity to return to the source of true power and success (ie fulfilling the potential of the person we really are). For those tender places that make us feel weak and unacceptable are actually the gateways to the essential parts of ourselves that we have kept hidden away, and thus portals to returning to wholeness.

When we submit, as most of us do, to cultural pressure to keep going and to push on through – even when our body is screaming at us to stop – we never give ourselves the time or space to explore and to walk through those portals. Instead, we keep moving further and further away from our true selves and become paralysed, not guided onwards, by our fears. Rather than recognising them as signposts pointing us along the road to wholeness and destiny, they become self-imposed limits that we dare not venture beyond.

If we are not progressing in life towards becoming the person we were born to be, then we are depleting our precious inborn reserves and moving steadily towards ill-health and death.

Our Kidneys (the organs of Water, along with the Bladder) are the guardians of those original reserves – the life force granted to us at conception and the source of the energy animating all our other organs. Our Kidneys are our batteries and they (together with the adrenal glands that sit above them) are drained by our constant doing and failure to recharge, as we try to live our lives in a linear way rather aligning ourselves with nature’s cyclical flow. 

When we do settle into that flow, the very act of doing nothing in the Water phase becomes itself the pregnancy that births the upsurging energy, creativity and flourishing of the Yang aspect (Wood and Fire) of the next cycle. Without dropping into it regularly, our cup eventually runs dry.

Homework

In the previous part of this Five Elements series, I suggested checking in daily and starting to closely observe nature’s seasonal changes, to become more familiar with the flavour of the seasons and, thus, the Elements.

I invite you to continue with these observations and to steadily honing your sensitivity to your internal world. You can use both my table and my descriptions to practise identifying the coming and going of different Elements in your unique personal cycle.

As complex living organisms, the signals our bodies send us are of course not always obvious or clear cut, so this process can initially be a bit confusing and frustrating. But, with practice, you’ll start to pick things out and recognise patterns, so I urge you to persevere.

Next time …

I’ll continue on the theme of the Five Elements, exploring how they relate to our female menstrual cycle and to the cycles of the moon. Then I will offer some Yoga and Qigong practice, diet and lifestyle tips to help you when you feel your own rhythm has slipped out of balance.

Would you like some direct support in building your Five Elements awareness?
– Join one of my Five-Elements Yoga classes or Qigong classes, 
where each session focuses on the energy of a different ElementSign Up here for my 4-week trial offer.
Come to see me one-to-one.

Find out more about all my Yoga Classes, Qigong Classes and Women’s Circles

If you have any questions, get in touch. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

 

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