As I reflect upon the health crisis now facing us, I keep hearing Qi Bo’s gentle, insistent voice: “In the past, people practiced the Tao, the Way of Life,” he said. “They understood the principle of balance … they maintained well-being of body and mind.” The words are thousands of years old, but the wisdom is timeless. If you understand the principles of balance and live in harmony with the natural laws of the universe, can you, too, discover the secret to health and well-being?
I believe you can, and I know from experience that the pathway to health and harmony is not as formidable as it may initially seem. “The brilliant gem is in our hands,” advises a favorite Zen saying. We don’t have the time to wait until . the ozone hole is mended, the groundwater is purified, and the air is once again free from contaminants. To restore harmony, we must initiate the change ourselves, taking control of our bodies and accepting responsibility for our health. If we can restore balance within ourselves, we will have taken the necessary first step to restoring balance without.
Five thousand years ago Chinese physicians developed a philosophical yet eminently practical approach to healing called Wu Hsitip or the Five Element System. This unique classification and diagnostic system was designed to help you understand who you are, why you behave and feel the way you do, and how the world inside you mirrors the energy and vitality of the natural world. Using this system you can learn to recognize imbalances in body, mind, and spirit and correct them before illness strikes.
The Chinese believe that the Five Elements-Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water govern the physical, emotional, and spiritual existence of human beings just as they regulate the cycles of growth and change in the external world. An excess or deficiency in anyone of these basic forces immediately and powerfully affects your physical health and emotional well-being. Once you learn how to balance these energies, regulate their flow, and adjust any excesses or deficiencies, you can create health and harmony in your life.
Each of the Five Elements has a unique nature and spirit, and every human being has a constitutional affinity to one or more of them. The aggressive, forceful energy of Wood is most obvious in the season of spring, when the buds swell to bursting and the seeds sprout into tender shoots that, against all odds, push their way through the earth to burst into vigorous life. If Wood is your predominant energy, you are like the greening stem of spring, driven by the need to stay in motion and reach to new heights, yet firmly grounded by a sense of self and home -the place where you fit and belong. Your roots are driven deep; your potential is unlimited.
The radiant energy of the sun, which is the power of Fire, is felt most intensely during the season of summer. Fire is the force that generates passion, compassion, and creativity. If you are energized by Fire, you are filled with enthusiasm and a blazing love of life. You draw others to you as the flame draws the moth, and you thrive on drama and excitement. Your intense craving for affection and close physical relationships will prove to be either your greatest strength or your most notable weakness.
The power of Earth is captured in the image of a garden: fertile, nourishing, solid, yet forgiving, the power of Earth is strongest in late summer and early fall-harvest time. If you are energized by the power of Earth, you are a natural mediator who thrives on harmonious relationships; discord and dissension throw you off balance. A sense of kinship and connectedness to others is essential to your health and happiness. Earth energy helps you find a center between opposing forces, teaching you how to resolve your differences and find sensible solutions to even the most difficult problems.
The power of Metal is symbolized by a majestic, snow-capped mountain. Reaching toward the heavens, yet firmly grounded in the earth, the mountain stands as a symbol of inner strength, endurance, and tranquillity. If you are energized by Metal, you are disciplined and precise, strong-willed yet willing and able to adapt to changing circumstances. Drawn to the core issues of life and the higher truths of art and philosophy, you seek to develop your character by devoting your attention to ethics, morality, and the acquisition of knowledge. Your season is autumn, the time of year when you begin to compress and contract your energy, pruning back and pulling inward in preparation for winter.
The power of Water, which is most evident in winter, can be seen in the raindrops that freeze overnight into icicles and melt in the morning, falling softly to the ground to dissolve into mist when warmed by the sun. Water changes shape effortlessly and yet never loses its essential character. If Water energizes you, you are dependable, infinitely resourceful, and single-minded in pursuit of your goals. Difficult or demanding situations do not cause you to hesitate or retreat, for you have a firm, unshakable sense of self, and you follow the path before you with strength, purpose, and determination.
Each of the Five Elements interacts in unique patterns and cycles to create your individual personality, emotional responses, spiritual desires, and physical strengths or weaknesses. When one power is excessively strong or weak, specific: physical, emotional, and spiritual imbalances may occur. Excess Wood energy,for example, can lead to aggressive behavior, impatience, explosive anger, arrogance, or greed, while deficient Wood energy is often associated with anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, fatigue, and lethargy. Physical manifestations of excess Wood energy might include high blood pressure, muscle cramps, heartburn, and migraine headaches, while deficient Wood energy can lead to insomnia, allergies, visual disturbances, low blood pressure, and digestive problems.
When I introduce my patients to this ancient system, I am always amazed to see how quickly they grasp its underlying philosophical concepts. Even more astonishing are their emotional reactions-their hunger to better understand themselves, their immediate response to the beauty and integrity of the Five Elements, their intuitive understanding of their intimate relationship with the natural world. The enchanting metaphors become realities, windows through which you can see and feel the energy forces within your own body, mind, and spirit. When you begin to feel that kinship with the natural world, you also gain a sense of your innate capabilities and potential.
(Special thanks to Gregor Younger for his Bagamati Cremation image which we used for fire under a Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons. All other photos were by Jason as per usual.)