Wu Xing: the Five Elements (or Five Phases)
The concept of the five elements, or five phases, has been an aspect of Chinese philosophy and medicine since at least 400 BC. This system represents the changing cycles of life as seen in the fluctuations of the seasons, in energetic tendencies, and the natural rhythm of growth, movement and rest in all things. There are five elemental tendencies, wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.
In Oriental medicine, the synergy of the elements and their integration in a person is defined by the relationship of one element to another. In what is referred to as the creation (sheng) cycle, each element phase leads naturally to the next, and the health of each one depends on, and is created by, the element that comes before. In the control (ke) cycle, each element controls the one two stages away, thereby preventing its excessive or over-controlling nature.
The elements or phases are perhaps most clearly represented by the seasons. Wood is correlated with spring, a time of birth and new growth. In the environment it can be seen in the re-emergence of plant life, and in animals with the end of hibernation. Yang energy is exuberant, full of activity and vitality. New green shoots are budding and movement is upward and outward. Wood is also a quality of energy in our bodies, and resonates in particular with the Liver and Gallbladder organ-meridian system. When wood energy is imbalanced it can lead to problems such as tension, irritability, depression, headaches, digestive disorders, and menstrual irregularities. When wood energy is harmonious the mind-body feels relaxed, flexible and optimistic, and activity is energized yet grounded.
After spring comes summer, the fire element. Nature reaches its zenith and plants that were just emerging in the spring are now at their height of growth and abundance. This phase is represented by warmth, joy, radiance and prosperity, qualities attributed to the Heart and Small Intestine meridian-organ system. When out of balance, the fire element can cause inflammation, heat, restlessness, insomnia, and anxiety, or difficulty expressing joy and laughter in life.
Following the height of summer is a fifth season the Chinese call "late summer". This represents the time of harvest. The element is earth, and it correlates with the Spleen and Stomach meridian-organ system. This system influences the ability to extract and absorb nutrition from food, and on an emotional level, represents being "fed" by the nurturing and generosity of others. Weight is sometimes a problem with people having an imbalance in the earth element, either over or under weight, or they may have particularly sensitive digestive systems. There is sometimes difficulty asking for and receiving support from others.
In the autumn, the season of metal, the weather turns cool, and it is a time of dryness as leaves, fruits and sap wither. Metal embodies contraction as energy begins to withdraw inward. Yang activity naturally declines and the stillness of yin begins to build. It is a time of letting go, and often people experience an inexplicable sense of sadness or loss as the summer recedes. The Lung and Large Intestine meridian-organ systems are most involved in this phase and when imbalanced can lead to respiratory system problems and skin disorders, melancholy and difficulty letting go.
The water element is symbolized by winter, a time of rest, darkness, and stillness. In nature, there is dormancy and decomposing plant matter. But this period is also about recharging and regeneration, and about watering and replenishing. It provides the essential groundwork and nourishment for the creation of a healthy wood element in spring, in order to once again bring forth new growth. The Kidney and Urinary Bladder are ruled by this element, and it especially influences the deep structures and regenerative functions of the body such as the bones and reproductive system, and the deep reflective tendencies of the mind and spirit.