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The Five Elements

Posted: 12 Jun 2017 by Chris Dance

The 5 Elements is a model that encompasses all human emotions, health, and how we present in the world. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, this model is used by some acupuncturists to help diagnose and treat our patients. It is one of 2 main styles of acupuncture - the other being TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), which is largely based on the Yin Yang model. My practice of acupuncture integrates both styles, which means I am always referring to and using aspects from both in how I approach my patient care.

I find that the 5 Elements model brings real depth of meaning to my patients, especially when framed in relation to their own experiences and individual being. It is often the thing in the treatment room that people really "get", connect to and take away as a lifelong tool for self-improvement and better health.

The model is based on the balance and interactions between 5 distinct energy types, called Elements, which are Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood. These Elements are metaphors for different aspects of our being, both physically and emotionally, that all combine together to make up a person. In theory, there is nothing about us on any level that doesn't "fit" into this system, so we can use it to gauge, understand, and treat the whole person in the most holistic way.

Many of my patients (all?) come to me with some kind of emotional experience related to their health. Even if the problem is purely physical, (for example tennis elbow), there is inevitably an emotional aspect: "It's so annoying I can't carry my shopping properly!". I listen closely to the language that people use when they talk to me about their health, because it can often point to an element or two that are affected, and are potentially out of balance. Treatment incorporating the 5 Elements, doesn't just aim to remove the symptoms, ("My elbow doesn't hurt any more"), but also the way it's affecting you, ("It still hurts a bit, but I'm coping well and adapting how I do things"). Nice outcome?

One thing I love about this 5 Element model is its apparent simplicity, which opens to profound insights about our own world experience. Patients will often have a vast vocabulary about how they're feeling, but in this model, there are only 5 emotions: joy, worry, grief, fear, and anger. Everything we experience emotionally will belong to one of these 5 emotional spheres, and identifying what that is with congruence can open up an amazing opportunity for healing. That needs some qualifying doesn't it...

So, each emotion is seen as a spectrum ranging from none of it through to too much. For example, one end of the Joy spectrum is complete lack of joy. People might use words such as despair, sadness, lonely, miserable, empty. Through to the "middle" of the spectrum ("I feel fine, normal, content, OK"). Moving gradulally through towards the "too much" end: happy, joyful, ecstatic, manic, crazy. In Chinese Medicine, all these emotions (and many others that you'll think of) are all still "Joy" (ie on the Joy spectrum), and there's no sense that having more is any better than having less. Quite literally - being "happy" is not seen as being more desirable or more healthy than being "a bit flat". It all depends on context and appropriateness.

What do I mean by that? Imagine a friend has just told you some fairly bad news that is concerning them, for example, "Looks like I might lose my job". Suppose we burst out laughing with glee? Not really appropriate. The experience of a bit of joy at that time would not be seen as energetically balanced (or desirable) in this context. Neither would simply trying to "cheer them up" or get them to "look on the bright side". These things are simply invalidating our friend's actual experience in the hopes of steering them more towards the upper end of the of the Joy spectrum. No need!

In future blogs, I'll write more about each element in turn, with more depth about the nature of each one. So just to leave you this time with an important notion we use in the treatment room connected to the 5 Elements: Each person is considered to have ONE of these elements at the centre of their being, from which most or all of their core virtues and vulnerabilities stems. In that sense, this single element really does "make us who we are". It is called the person's element type, or constitutional factor (CF). It's not like a horoscope; we are each of us made up of all 5 elements, but it is the one that goes right to the heart of us. Discovering what type we are, understanding it well, and using that knowledge in the world, is one of the first steps towards true healing, peace, and balances interaction with our community, family, friends, and self.

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