Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water; The Chinese/Taoist system of the Five Elements is strange.
Usually when we talk about “elements” in the West, we are referring to either the weather, or the 118 Chemicals of the Periodic Table of Elements. Many westerners are also familiar with the 5 Elements of the ancient Middle East and India: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Space. Oddly enough, the closest concept we have to the Taoist 5 Element system is the weather.
This is because the Taoists were speaking of processes, activities, and behaviours, rather than inert building blocks or substances. Essentially, they were looking at the world in terms of Energy, as opposed to Matter. The Taoists had an incredibly advanced perception of the energetic nature of the universe. As the French Consul in Shanghai wrote, in the year 1919:
“The Chinese call the positive energy Yang and attribute its origin to the sun and stars; the negative energy is called Yin and they attribute its origin to Earth...How could the Chinese (for these ideas are from works that date from 2800 BC) have perceived these forces, and under the name ‘Yang Energy’ distinguished positive atmospheric electricity, and under the name ‘Yin Energy’, the negative charge of the Earth?”
Fire, Water, Earth, Wood, Metal; Metaphors for the processes of nature, the cosmos, and the human body, mind and spirit. Patterns of energetic behaviour, interacting with, conflicting with, and supporting each other. This is very much in step with what Physicist are telling us today: That matter is simply made up of energy, and the whole universe is a sea of energy - One energetic body, moving as one great interconnected unit.
So why these particular symbols? Don’t Space and Air seem like more fundamental components of reality than Wood and Metal? To the Taoists, Air was actually equated with Qi, Breath, and Energy. “Prana” in India, and “Ruah” in Hebrew, also translate to “Breath”, which is seen in most healing traditions as a medium between the body and the soul or spirit. So Air was seen more as a metaphor for the fundamental nature of Qi, or Life Force, to the Taoists. Space was seen more as the medium which different energies occupied. So, to describe the behaviours of Qi, energy, and the universe, the Taoists chose (or discovered) two completely different elements: Wood and Metal.
So what exactly do these elements represent? Here is the typical poetic Taoist description of the Five Elements Generating Cycle, as seen in Nature. The Generating Cycle is the pattern in which these elements feed, enhance, and support each other:
Water flows down the mountain to be absorbed by plants and trees (Wood), causing them to grow upwards towards the light in the sky. Eventually, Fire consumes the woodlands, releasing the energy in a blazing inferno of pure unbridled energy. The fire creates ash, which settles into the ground to fertilize the soil, thereby enhancing Earth. Bacteria and fungi in the soil synthesize life supporting minerals (Metal). Over a longer period, soil is compressed into stone, and eventually crystals, gems, and mineral deposits (Metal, Metal, and Metal). Through underground springs and waterways, and through topsoil washing into rivers, lakes and oceans after rainfall, these minerals are absorbed into Water, thereby vitalizing and enhancing Water. This enriched Water is then absorbed by plants (Wood), and the whole cycle starts again.
Beautiful metaphor, isn’t it? Starting to understand what process each element symbolizes? Let’s look at another example:
Winter is represented by Water. Plants and animals move downwards and inwards to hibernate and conserve energy. Seeds remain hidden in the ground, waiting for the perfect moment to awaken.
Wood represents spring, when plants and seedlings push up through the snow and dirt to meet the light. There is an expansion of energy upwards and outwards. There is a newness to the world, and fresh energy and life is everywhere.
In the Summer, symbolized by Fire, nature is alive with energy and activity. The sun is the brightest and the days are the longest.
The end of a long summer, sometimes called an Indian Summer, is the season of the Earth Element. Here nature is the most stable. The weather is fair and the food is abundant. There is a sense of peace and contentment. Sometimes Earth is also seen as the time between seasons.
In the fall, the time of Metal, nature begins to cool down. Trees lose their leaves, and animals begin storing food and fat reserves for winter. Here, life begins to condense, holding on to only what is absolutely necessary to survive, and letting go of all the rest.
In this example, the 5 Elements as energetic processes is a bit more obvious. We can see Water/Winter represents Energy Conserving, Wood/Spring represents Energy Activating/Accelerating, Fire/Summer means Energy Radiating, Earth/Time-Between-Seasons is Energy Stabilizing, and Metal is Energy Condensing/Organizing.
Water - Energy Conserving (Ex. Matter, Atomic Particles)
Wood - Energy Initiating/Accelerating (Ex. Nuclear Fission)
Fire - Energy Radiating (Ex. Qi, Energy, Light)
Earth - Energy Stabilizing (Ex. Gravity)
Metal - Energy Condensing/Organizing (Ex. Nuclear Fusion)
To put things a more modern perspective, I came up with a new
metaphor for this process using our current technology, and more obvious forms of energy as an example:
Image a closed loop solar energy system. We have a battery connected by a wire to a lamp. The lamp is pointed at a solar panel, which is connected by a wire back to the battery. When the light is turned on, it uses the power from the battery. It’s light is captured by the solar panel, which feeds the energy back to the battery. Can you guess which elements represent which parts? If you guessed the lightbulb is Fire, you’re close! However, none of these parts are elements, because the Taoist Five Elements represent processes, not particles! So let’s apply the Five Elements to these processes:
The energy stored in the battery is behaving like Water. It is conserving energy and applying the least possible effort. When the light switch is turned on, and the potential energy stored as matter in the battery is awakened and converted into electricity, this is the behaviour of the Wood Element. When this electricity meets the filament in the bulb, and goes from a focused, directed stream of electrical energy moving through a wire (Wood) to the radiant energy of heat and light, it is behaving with the temperament of Fire. When this light makes contact with the solar cells, it is slowed down and stabilized (Earth), and begins to reestablish itself into a form closer to matter. The energy then moves through the wire as electricity, and is stored in the battery through a chemical reaction that organizes the electric energy into atomic structures (the Metal Element’s organizational power at work).
So here, the 5 Elements as poetic symbols for natural processes is most obvious. The Taoists categorized seasons, colors, flavors, organs, and emotions into these 5 different “elements”, based on what pattern of energy most accurately described its behavior. Anger, for instance, is an emotion of Wood because it instigates swift and decisive action (energy initiating).
The Taoist Five Elements create a beautiful mental framework for understanding the workings of ourselves and our relationship to the world around us. But in a way, they are more than that. They are real forces, basic patterns of energetic behavior that underlie the workings of the entire universe. The best way to get in touch with them is through your own body, and your own Qi. Try the Holden Qi Gong Five Element Mediations or the Five Element Energy Flow, and feel these Powers as unique, life giving energies within yourself, and all around you. The more you explore Qi Gong, the more you will find the Five Elements reveal themselves to you, bringing you greater health, abundance of energy, and inner wisdom.