Five Elements: the Foundation of Traditional Medicine

The Five Elements: Earth, Metal, Water, Wood, Fire
To understand Oriental Medicine and its diagnostic systems, requires an open mind and humility because it is full of paradoxes; it is at once cerebral and physical, then clear and perplexing.  I remember well, my first introduction to this system nearly 18 years ago, I was beginning my study of shiatsu at the Ohashi Institute, my teacher was explaining about the relationships between the organ systems of the body, for example: the stomach, the large intestine, the kidney and how each corresponded to one of the five elements, ie. the stomach with the earth, the large intestine with the metal and the kidney with the water.  I had no background from which to understand this.  At the time, it did not make any sense to me, in fact it seemed like the stuff that comes from a child’s story book, a fable. That nature is comprised of five primary elements (the earth, the metal, the water, the wood, and the fire) and that these also exist in us and function in the same way seemed contrived.  Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to hold the possibility that there might be truth in this and that I simply did not possess the frame of reference needed to understand it.

Be humble and patient with the process of learning something new.  We don’t know what we don’t know.

The Process of Understanding
As time passed, I began to understand the significance of these correspondences.  They were to become the absolute foundation in my ability to comprehend not only this system of medicine, but the system that is life and death itself.  Like learning a language, that uses a different alphabet, these correspondences are the new alphabet.  Every day, by being present to how life moves, over time the truth of how these correspondences relate to each of the elements is revealed.  This process of learning never reaches an end.  The understanding is at first in the mind (it is intellectual, we have to learn it, memorize it) and then it moves to the body, that is when real understanding happens.

The understanding becomes simply knowing without thought.

Preventative Medicine
This system of medicine works because it is truly preventative; within its construct it explains what disease looks like long before it becomes a disease as we know disease.  Traditional Chinese medicine offers a way of understanding the nature of disease and suffering and of course health and well-being, in a way that modern medicine is not able to do.  (I will go into more detail about these differences in a future post.)

It’s All About Relationships
Each element has corresponding relationships; and it is important to keep in mind that these correspondences are all in some way in a relationship with each other, and that it is the nature of these relationships that determine states of health and disease whether it is in our internal environment or external environment.   This is a partial list of correspondences that fall under each of the five elements.

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