As time goes by, practices change, perceptions shift and old ideas become new again. That is what has been happening for me with the Five Elements. I follow many different theories with my practice of acupuncture, getting information from the body as well as from questions I ask of my patients (and from their answers). I look at how their organs interact with each other based on TCM theory, but I haven't, until recently, put much thought into the Five Elements as elements and how their imbalances can disrupt the overall flow of Qi in the body.
Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood are the Five Elements of East Asian Medicine and they are seen in the body in many ways. Each internal organ is related to an element and how each organ interacts with the other organs is related to how the elements relate to each other. Water controls Fire, for example. When a fire rages too hot dousing water on it will put it out. In this way the Kidney energy (Water) can keep Heart energy (Fire) from rising (like heat does). If the Kidney energy is too weak, you see heat signs in the upper body (anxiety, agitation, insomnia, night sweats, hot flashes, flushed cheeks).
There are 2 cycles of how the internal organs interact: the Generating Cycle and the Controlling Cycle.
The Generating Cycle is one of support, where each organ feeds and is fed by another organ. Fire feeds Earth which feeds Metal which feeds Water which feeds Wood which feeds Fire. Water feeds the trees which burn down and feed the earth from which metal is made (from the minerals) and then condensation happens on the metal to water the wood again. (For you visual folks, imagine a circle, each element makes up a part of the circle.)
The Controlling Cycle is one of balance, making sure nobody gets over or under fed. Water controls Fire which controls Metal which controls Wood which controls Earth which controls Water. Water douses Fire which can melt Metal which can chop down Wood which can grow and take up the Earth which can dry up Water. (Visual folks, imagine a 5 pointed star, each element sits at one of the points.)
Each of these elements have a pulse quality associated with them. When I feel someone's pulse, I'm not counting beats per minute, I'm noticing the overall quality of the pulse. Does it feel weak, strong or moderate? Is it wide or thin? Is it superficial or deep? Is it "slippery," "wiry," "choppy," "surging," or any of a number of other poetic descriptions for pulse qualities. Some of these qualities relate to different elements as well. Common ones are "wiry" for Wood, "slippery" for Earth and sometimes I feel what I describe as a "metallic" quality which clearly relates to Metal. When I feel one of these qualities in someone's pulse (usually when I'm rechecking the pulse after the needles are in) I start to look at how these elements relate to each other. If I feel a wiriness in the Spleen pulse, for example, I look to balance the Wood on the Spleen channel or meridian. By using the Controlling Cycle, Metal controls Wood so I could use the Metal point on the Spleen Channel. Or by using the Generating Cycle, Wood is fed by Water, so by draining Water I can "weaken" Wood so that it is not so strong. I usually ask the body which one to do by seeing which one improves the pulse the most.
This is not a new concept. Many practitioners practice Five Element acupuncture or Five Phase acupuncture exclusively. But I tend to live in the grey area, not submitting to any one way of thought but encompassing many. Rather than staying right on the straight and narrow path I like to veer off and see what lies to either side. I'm a meanderer, a go with the flow type of person. I like to see where the journey will take me and soak up as much as I can along the way. I'm revisiting the Five Elements on this leg of my journey. Who knows where I'll go next!