One of the fundamental insights of ancient Chinese thinking was that everything is always changing. The five phases are a way to classify those changes. The Yi Jing identifies 64 points along the wheel of change and is one of the more complex ways to classify the oneness of constant change. The five phases is a system that people can easily use to help give them insight into what dietary, exercise, and other lifestyle changes can help bring them into balance.
One pattern that can be useful to note is the order in which change is likely to occur. Now of course, change can occur in any order, however, it usually follows certain directions, such as the order of the seasons of the year.
Spring leads to summer and fall leads to winter. The stages of life flow in this direction from conception in the water of the body to growth during our youth, associated with the wood, leading to maturation and the desire to connect in young adulthood during the fire. The consequences of those connections lead to the work, labor, and care taking of the earth phase. After we have built material wealth, then we let some of that go as we hone the purpose of our life. A sharpening in the metal stage. In old age our wisdom emerges and we are again in the water.
The order of these phases is understood as the generating cycle. Wood creates fire which in turn becomes earth and around the circle. The Chinese word for this relationship is called 生 sheng. The meaning of this term is to give birth, to be born, to grow, or to be living. It can also be used to express the lighting of a candle or torch - giving birth to the flame. The earliest forms of this character come from a picture of a plant growing or sprouting. Understanding what creates the next phase can help us bring that change on for a client. If you want to create more earth for yourself feed it with fire.
In addition to the creating (生 sheng) relationship between the phases there is also a control relationship between them. If the five phases are drawn in a circle then a pentagram can be draw in the middle and control is revealed along this path. See the picture attached. The Chinese word for this relationship is 克 ke, meaning to restrain, to overcome, or to subdue. One might use sour or wood foods to control our cravings for sweet or earth foods.
Looking at a phase as an element in nature we can imagine how the wood roots of a tree can hold the earth and therefore control it. Water can, of course, control fire. The heat of a fiery forge can make metal malleable and the sharp blade of an axe can fell a tree. By considering these metaphors we can activate the restraint of one system of the body on another. The Kidneys as part of the Water can anchor the heart which is part of the Fire.
This insight can direct our choice of which meridians to needle as an acupuncturist and it can help people choose foods or exercise practices that can be helpful to them as individuals. I’ll explore more suggestions in later posts that will focus in detail on each phase.