One of the most significant ways that practitioners of Chinese Medicine understand the balance of the body, mind and spirit are the five phases or wu xing 五 行. The most basic way that Daoist thinking divides the universe is into yin and yang. This two part division is know to many in the common symbol. The five phases are a way to subdivide the universe into five stages. This understanding can then be applied to seasons of the year, stages of life, and systems of the body as well as many other things. The origins of these ideas have been part of Chinese philosophy as far back as the second or third millennium BCE.
The five phases that lie at the heart of Chinese Medicine are actually a simple concept that is also profound - the circle. The phases of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water are stations of that circle. The circle represents the oneness of the Dao, a wholeness without beginning or end. By its nature a circle reflects the sun and moon and earth itself. Additionally it has a connotation of passing time or seasons. This meaning has been denoted by many different cultures from the circular nature of Stonehenge in prehistoric European culture to complex Aztec calendrical systems. Labyrinths and mandalas also use a circle to represent our inner journeys. The circle is a map for us to follow to bring us into harmony with the flow of the seasons and cycles of life leading us to balance and good health.
The five phases are a way to align human activities and organ system with the natural rhythms of the universe.Many times 五行 (wu xing) is translated as five elements from the Greek system of humoral elements, however, the Chinese character 行 is actually composed of a left and right foot stepping and therefore has a connotation of movement much more like a phase of energy than a static element. The transitory nature of everything is a long standing theme in Daoist philosophy and fully explored in the Yi Jing (I Ching) or Classic of Change.
The order of the phases has changed over time, but by the Han Dynasty the cycle of wood becoming fire becoming earth becoming metal becoming water has become standard and corresponds closely to the energetics of the seasons of the year. In my next post I will explore the energetics of the elements and the relationships between them.