Introduction to Part One
Nature's richness lies in its power to nourish all living things; its greatness lies in its power to give them beauty and splendor.
--The I Ching
You are a unique individual, unlike any other human being on this planet. Just as your fingerprints are yours and yours alone, so are your ideas, opinions, and behaviors completely distinctive. Your eyes behold a different world from the one that others perceive. The sound, smell, taste, and touch of your surroundings fires your senses in unique patterns and intensities. No one else feels your impulses, thinks your thoughts, or dreams your dreams.
What makes you unique? Why does a Beethoven sonata move you to tears, while a Bach concerto leaves you cold? Stricken by fear or grief, why do you seek the solace of solitude, while others crave the comfort of loving arms? Why do you eat nonstop when you're feeling blue, while your sister goes shopping and your brother jogs for two hours? Why is spring--or summer, fall, or winter--your favorite season? Why do you crave sweet--or salty, sour, bitter, or spicy--foods? Why do you love the color blue--or green, red, yellow, white, or black? Why would you rather sit by a river--or a mountain, forest, meadow, or sun-drenched beach--than anywhere else on earth?
The Chinese believe your unique responses to the world are determined by your affinity to certain basic energy forces that flow through you in distinctive ways. The balance and interaction between these natural forces determine the risks you take or avoid, the goals you set, the fears and doubts that assail you, the situations that cause you stress or conflict, the talents you have or have neglected, the values that motivate you, and the dreams that inspire you. Just as you can't change the color of your eyes or the shape of your hands and feet, your nature is part of you--you are born with it, and every aspect of your life will be shaped by it.
Thousands of years ago Chinese philosophers created the Wu Hsing (the Five Element System) to explain how the primary powers of nature--Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water--ebb and flow within human beings. Wood is the restless, aggressive energy that gives a tiny seed the power to develop into a firmly rooted tree. Fire's passionate, radiant energy is symbolized by the sun, which provides life-giving warmth to the world. Earth is the stable, balancing force that keeps us grounded and centered within ourselves. Metal's strong inspirational energy is symbolized by the precious gems and essential minerals that give form and structure to the world. Water's adaptable, infinitely resourceful energy can be seen in the rivers that flow to the sea, cleansing and invigorating everything that they touch.
Each of the Five Elements depends upon the others, and life itself depends upon their intricate balance and interdependence. Water irrigates the fields and forests so that Wood can grow. Wood feeds Fire, which burns to ash, nourishing the Earth. Earth provides a firm foundation and stable support for the mountains of Metal that rise upward toward the heavens. Metallic ores and rocks underlie the river channels that give Water its direction, while minerals and trace elements give Water its nourishing richness. Each element nourishes and is nourished by the others.
Just as the elements feed and sustain each other, so do they restrain and inhibit each other. Water controls Fire by quenching it. Fire restrains Metal by melting it, allowing it to be shaped and molded. Metal inhibits Wood by cutting it (symbolized by the ax chopping the tree). Wood restrains Earth by covering it, literally rooting it in place and preventing erosion. Earth controls Water by absorbing it and forming natural dams and riverbanks to prevent it from overflowing its channels.
The Five Element System is ancient and exotic, yet it is eminently practical and immediately accessible. If you are energized by Wood, you can recognize the similarities between the force that drives the sap in the tree and the energy that pushes you to seek out challenges and adventures. If you have an affinity to Fire, the power literally burns within you, a steady pilot light that infuses your life with passion and joy. Earth types need only look out their window at their green, growing gardens to understand the nourishing, stabilizing nature of their energy. Metal types feel a powerful connection to the core issues and underlying structures of life, intuitively understanding that its most meaningful moments occur when movement stills and silence reigns. Water types know from observing the behavior of rivers that their power resides in remaining flexible and adaptable, always yielding to current conditions.
As you learn about the Five Elements, you will learn a great deal about yourself and your relationship to the natural world, but equally as important, you will learn tolerance for others. The differences between us are not flaws indicating that one of us has strayed from the norm, but symbols of the wondrous complexity of life. What would our world be like without rivers and oceans, without mountains, woodlands, and fertile fields, without the radiance of the sun or the reflected light of the moon?
The beauty and integrity of our world depend on all the elements, and each element expresses its basic nature in unique ways. The tree can no more melt like the icicle than the river can stay rooted in one place. The sun can't shine cold, the earth can't spin square, the mountain can't rise forever. The nature of things determines the way they grow, mature, change, and erode away.
Excerpted from Chinese Medicine for Maximum Immunity by Jason Elias, L.Ac., and Katherine Ketcham. Copyright © 1999 by Jason Elias and Kathy Ketchum. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.