The Five Elements

The ancient Chinese were keen observers of life. The processes, which they observed in nature during the course of the year, were also recognized as taking place within each of us.

If we take the course of a year as a time of cold and a time of heat, we see the workings of the alternating forces called yin and yang. We see this as winter and summer or night and day.

However, this same yearly cycle or period of time may be viewed as five different aspects or phases of life: birth, growth, transformation, harvest and storage. The Chinese referred to these processes or phases as the Five Elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water.


Is the energy of spring; it is the power of birth and renewal. It enables us to move forward with vision and determination. This is the unstopable rising power of nature exemplified by the bursting forth of plant life, from seed and root, after the dormancy of winter.
Spring is a time of renewed activity, of plowing and planting, of moving our bodies more vigorously. A time of awakening, of insects and many other creatures.
In the body the wood element corresponds with the liver and gall bladder and their respective pathways. It is associated with the eyes and from it we get our capacity for vision and our ability to plan and discriminate. The Wood element is also associated with the color green and the emotion anger, which is a natural rising up of energy, but one which can become too strong.


Is the energy of summer; it gives us warmth and the capacity to love and be loved. It enables us to grow and to blossom. This is the time of the year when our heavier clothing is shed and children and adults alike play and spend more time outdoors. We tend to be more social and outgoing, as the warmth is contagious and enlivening.

In the body the fire element corresponds with the heart. Joy is the emotion, which stems from it and when in balance, the radiance of the spirit will show in the eyes as a spark of bright light. Take care to notice the next time you look into the eyes of a baby!

When out of balance, the excess of the heart leads to too much excitation or agitation. If the heart’s energy becomes weak or deficient, one may become lonely or sad or experience feelings of isolation.


Is the energy of the late summer or what some call Indian summer. Summer has reached its peak and that which has flourished in the light of summer is now ripened and full of nourishment. This is a time of transformation. An ancient Chinese classic refers to this as a period of tranquility and calmness. It can be a glorious period where time seems to almost stand still. The mother is the archetype of the earth element, which gives us the capacity to nurture ourselves, and others.

In the body, the earth element is related to the spleen and stomach. It establishes our very center and supports our ability to think, concentrate and reflect. We may even say at times, “Let me chew on it awhile,” when we want to carefully consider a matter.

When in balance, we are centered, stable, receptive and able to serve others. The quality of our flesh and muscles is healthy. We feel satisfied and enjoy our abundance.

When the earth element is out of balance, we may suffer digestive issues or eat out of nervousness, as if there might never be another harvest. We may be pensive, feel apprehensive or engage in circular thinking.


Is the energy of autumn; it gives us our sense of quality and value and the capacity to look at what is beyond ourselves. There are two periods of the autumn season: the fullness of the harvest and the disappearance of all of that.

Nature's energies are no longer expanding, but withdrawing and concentrating. It is a time to reap the harvest and then to prune, to let go of that, which no longer serves us.

In the body, the metal element corresponds to the lung and large intestine. Both organ systems serve to keep us connected to fundamental life rhythms — taking in and letting go. Through the lung we take in from the heavens in the form of air, vital energy and inspiration. Through the large intestine we eliminate that which is of no use to us.

Grief or sorrow is associated with the metal element and most of us have experienced how sorrow can inhibit our breathing, make us feel withdrawn and cut off from life around us.

Yet with conscious attention to our breath, our inspiration, we may once again open to that which is beyond us and regain our connection to spirit and our own place "in the family of things," as the poet Mary Oliver says.


Water brings the elements full circle and is the energy of winter, providing a time to pause, gather our strength and consolidate our resources. It gives us adaptability and willpower and is the seedbed of all life.

In the body, the water element corresponds to the kidneys and the bladder and their respective pathways. The kidneys are said to contain our ancestral energy, our deepest and most fundamental store of energy.

The water element is related to our bones, our hearing and the emotion of fear. I recall a time of flooding, in my hometown and the headline in the paper read, "As water rises, so does anxiety." Water can manifest as a gentle, nourishing, life-giving rain, but it can turn into a torrent, giving rise to fear and panic and washing away everything in its path.