The Five Elements (Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, and Metal) is an essential foundation of both my coaching and bodywork practices. It’s a comprehensive philosophy developed by the sages in China thousands of years ago that uses the creative cycle of the natural world as a lens to observe, interpret, and understand the human experience of life. It serves as a foundation for many eastern practices including acupuncture, feng shui, Chinese astrology, and various martial arts. While the philosophy itself is ancient and can seem mysterious and complex to the western-oriented mind, for those open to receiving its wisdom it offers profound insights into creating greater health and wellbeing on every level. It’s also a powerful means by which we can begin to restore trust in self, in humanity, and in the profound regenerative and healing capacity of nature itself.
The Five Elements connects us to the dynamic and cyclical energy of the natural world, helping us to slow down and transcend our linear experience of time. The Water Element represents wintertime, when everything in nature seems dead and dormant but beneath the surface deep renewal and regeneration is occurring. The Wood Element represents springtime and the raw life-force energy that rises from deep within, thrusting upward with new growth and rapid development. The Fire Element represents summertime, the season of abundance and the fullest expression of that life-force energy. The Earth Element represents late summer when nature is in a state of complete stillness and utter perfection, a time of grateful rest and reflection. The Metal Element represents autumn and the drawing in of resources, letting go of what’s old and no longer serving while building reserves for the coming winter and the beginning of another cycle.
In today’s busy world where success is too often measured in terms of productivity, it’s easy to live in perpetual spring and summer mode, neglecting the other seasons of self that create balance and harmony. The ancient wisdom of the Five Elements reminds us that it’s essential to take time to rest and renew, to relax and enjoy, to balance productivity and busy-ness in the outer world with still quiet time nourishing and soothing the inner self. In doing so we can begin to experience what it means to be whole and truly healthy.
The Five Elements allows us to transcend linear ‘clock-and-calendar time’ by reconnecting to the natural and organic rhythms of our own soul. As the late, great Pete Seger sang in the 60’s, “To everything there is a season – turn, turn, turn.” It may seem clichéd, but there’s profound wisdom in nature and we too often forget this in today’s complex world of technology, speed, and material gratification. Going out into nature takes us out of our overburdened minds and allows us to use our other senses. Whether we go to a high mountain meadow, a backyard garden, an ocean shore, or an urban park, when we connect to the natural world through sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell we are more present in our bodies. Being in nature grounds us in the now and gives us access to a deep eternal wisdom that we can’t access with our thinking minds.
How can we apply the ancient wisdom of the Five Elements to the nuts and bolts of stressful everyday life in the 21st century? A gifted artist who rushes from one creative project to the next without space in between eventually finds himself burned out, disconnected from his capacity to generate new ideas. Learning to pause after a project is complete (honoring his Earth Element), to reflect on and appreciate what he’s created and to seek feedback from others, will create the energetic fuel he needs to sustain his creative capacity over time.
The over-extended woman who has oriented her life toward others – whether spouse, children, parents, co-workers, work itself – and who feels that ‘something’s missing’ can benefit by spending time in inner exploration to nourish the seeds of her own needs and desires (cultivating her Water Element). This in turn will help her feel fulfilled at a much deeper level, as well as provide her with the resources she needs to continue to contribute to others in meaningful and more balanced ways.
In my own life the Five Elements have helped me heal from chronic PTSD, the fallout of severe medical trauma I experienced shortly after birth. At 3 days old I underwent 2 blood transfusions after a well-intentioned autoimmune reaction caused my body to reject my own blood. I spent my childhood feeling profoundly disconnected from others and life itself. As a teenager and young adult I battled chronic depression, fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, debilitating headaches, and had difficulty maintaining relationships, following through on creative impulses, or thriving in any of my jobs. The Five Elements helped me understand that my very trust in life and in others as well as my ability to act on my creative impulses (the domain of the Wood Element), had been severely thwarted by that early experience and that I sought to create safety by retreating to that womb-like, pre-birth state (the domain of the Water Element). In order to heal and feel productive and successful in my life, I had to learn to trust my body and to create the structures that allowed me to feel connected to others and the world around me. It was a long – and often quite painful – process. I gained a tremendous amount of courage and fortitude by focusing on the enduring power of the creative cycle and the regenerative capacity of life itself. The ancient wisdom of the Five Elements taught me that life itself had my back and I could create success in my life simply by moving forward one season at a time.
Stay tuned for my next post, where I’ll talk about the Wood Element and springtime. In the meantime, as we move into spring, think about how you handle the powerful – and sometimes chaotic – energy of this time of year. How do you handle change? What’s your relationship to structure and routine? How do you stay grounded when your plans go awry? As always, I welcome your comments and questions.