Expounding Upon the Five Elements

Last week we introduced the Five Elements during a thought experiment and discussion on living harmoniously. We received enough questions that we thought it would be a good idea to go over the Elements in a little more detail here. The Chinese Five Elements are also referred to as the five phases, the five transformations, the five manifestations or the five agents of change. The Five Elements represent patterns of movement which support, nurture, unite, control, divide and destroy one another.

The Five Elements are:

木 wood

火 fire

土 earth

金 metal

水 water

The purpose of the Five Elements is not to pigeon-hole anyone into a certain type or label. It is important to remember that no one is exclusively one element. Everyone is a rich, complex blend of ALL Five Elements. The goal is to recognize our natural elemental persuasions and use that wisdom to guide us through all of life’s many permutations, phases and cycles. However, the goal is NOT to balance all the elements within ourselves. Instead, the point is to cultivate certain elements during certain times of our lives. To be appropriate to the situation and to adapt to an ever-evolving landscape is the value of understanding the Five Elements.

Yin and Yang

There is some overlap between the Elements and the modern taiji diagram, or “yin yang” symbol as it’s known in popular culture. Firstly, Wood and Fire are considered yang elements. Next, we consider Metal and Water to be yin elements. Finally, Earth holds the middle ground and is where the yin and yang elements overlap, mingle, embrace, shove and fight. Each Element corresponds with an archetype, which is a basic, generalized kind of person. For example, if we think about the captain of the football team, a similar mental image pops into our collective brains. If we think about a cheerleader, a clear image emerges in our minds. Class clown, nerd, mamma’s boy, all are modern day archetypes. The famed Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Gustav Jung primarily pioneered these standardized snapshots. The Five Elements are likely the oldest of such archetypes!

“Each One of Us Is a Brain…and an Athlete…and a Basket Case…”

Now we have some unpacking to do. We will peel back several layers of detail for each Element: from the season it is associated with, to the internal body organ it represents, to the chemicals/substances most likely abused by each. Bear in mind, these are generalizations. No one person fits into a single elemental category. The human experience is far too rich and varied. Humanity defies any simple categorization. We all change and our dominant Element changes with us. This is not a hard science. Wandering with the Five Elements is more akin to poetry. Knowledge of it gives each of us a new flavor to ponder, a different perspective to consider and a fresh scent to tickle our senses and stimulate our minds. The human condition is lavish and textured.

How We Walk Our Path

We mentioned “wandering” earlier. There is a much-misunderstood concept in Eastern thought regarding “wandering.” It was said by a youthful, old man once that a good traveler has not set a destination. They just wander. When our hearts are pure and we love our own company, no matter where we go, we will find success, friendship and open arms. This is what is meant by being a good traveler. We have no preconceived notions, no expectations and no resentment. The destination is the same for all. We all arrive at the same mysterious end. It is the quality of how we walk our path toward the mystery that has meaning. There are so many ways to live a life. Additionally, there are so many ways to love and be loved, so many stones that need un-turning and so many mountains that cannot be turned no matter how hard we try. Try anyway. Indeed, try with every ounce of vigor and passion you possess.

The Whirlwind and the Rapture

All of it is waiting there for us. Like ironic, warm-hearted Sirens beckoning us to the shore, but instead of rocky harbors and false hopes, a calm port and a warm embrace awaits us. Certain things can only have significance in the current moment. Dancing, wandering and compassion are only meaningful as they exist right now, in the present. To dance we only dance. Good dancers are immersed in the moment; enthralled in the whirlwind and the rapture. A devilish, English philosopher with an infectious laugh once said that dancing has no goal in mind, no destination. We just dance for the sake of dancing.

Compassion Is Wealth

This is exactly the same mindset we should bring to our wandering. In wandering, we accept the moment as it is, with no regret; completely unedited and raw. Whatever crosses our path, we accept it, for we crossed its path too! When the road leads to odd places and strange faces, we welcome both with an open heart. Compassion is the greatest of human emotions. To have compassion for another means we suffer their pain with them. We join them in their suffering and take a bit of it ourselves so that they can breathe a little easier knowing they are not alone. “We are here with you,” whispers the compassionate. Compassion does not stand across the room empathizing from a safe distance. It is right there with us, holding our hand as we plunge into the bitter suffering that always, always, always leads us to rebirth, joy and sweet redemption. This is what it means to be truly human.

We just wander. Compassion is wealth. Join the dance.

“In separateness lies the world’s greatest misery;

in compassion lies the world’s true strength.”

― Siddhārtha Gautama