Checks and Balances in Nature and Medicine

Nature has come equipped with a beautiful system of checks and balances.  To make this simple… when it comes to the relationships of the five elements: earth, metal, water, wood, fire (however they show up in nature), we are basically looking at two relationships (it is helpful to read the previous post).  One is a creation/generating/nurturing cycle of relationships and the other is a control cycle of relationships.

It is these relationships that are at the root of Oriental Medicine.  The creation and control cycles that I will discuss inform diagnosis and treatment plans in acupuncture and shiatsu.  My intention is to introduce these natural laws in ways that the general public can understand.  It is a fascinating system of medicine that uses natural laws as guides.

Follow the Arrows
The Creation Cycle of relationships:

  • images_3Water generates Wood (Water is the element from which birth and growth are able to occur)
  • Wood in turn gives life to Fire (the fuel that Fire needs to burn)
  • Fire generates Earth (think of the volcanic forces within the Earth that create earth/soil)
  • Earth gives birth/generates Metal (it is in the Earth that minerals are formed/created)
  • Metal gives life to Water (it is the minerals in Water that enable it to give life to Wood)

The Control Cycle of relationships:

  • Water controls Fire (it is Water that is needed to control Fire)
  • Fire controls Metal (the warming of the soil makes minerals available for plant life)
  • Metal controls Wood (it is Metal/minerals that control the growth of Wood)
  • Wood controls Earth (it is the Wood that “holds” the earth together)
  • Earth controls Water (without the banks of river it would flow uncontrolled)

Each of these relationships exist on a continuum; dis-ease lies at the extremes on one end or the other (deficient or excess).  Health lies in the middle, the balance point.  There can be too much “creation/mothering” or not enough “mothering” and there can be too much control or not enough control.  This is the foundation of balance that must exist in nature for nature to exhibit health and vitality; just as it must exist in our body in order for us to experience health and vitality.

Basically health exists when all the systems that make up an organism, whether that organism is a human being, a plant, a bird, a pond or the earth itself, are in balance.  Disease and disharmony manifests when one or more of these elements is out of balance.

What Out of Balance can Look Like in Nature:
Wood and Earth
We don’t need to have an understanding of Chinese medicine to know that it is wood’s job to control earth.   We can see in nature that without the roots of trees, shrubs, and grasses the earth would wash away.  So in this way the earth needs the wood to give it it’s boundaries.  Too much control, too many roots ie. never breaking up perennials and the earth is suffocated and can not receive nourishment and it ends up killing the wood (the very thing that is the cause of it’s own destruction).   Too little control and the earth will literally wash away because there is no wood to hold it.

Metal and Wood
In a healthy state Metal/minerals provide enough control (a balance of minerals) so that Wood/plant life can flourish.  An unhealthy state of control might be too much control, the minerals in the soil are too concentrated and affect growth or too little control, the minerals in the soil are depleted and normal growth cannot occur, either way there is a state of imbalance or we could say dis-ease.

No Beginning and No End
It is a circle, there is no “first” element, and there is no one element that is more important than another.  They are interdependent, each one gives life to the next and in turn maintains balance within the natural order of relationships.  These are natural laws and when they are disrupted/interfered with, when they are off balance, the result is dis-ease.  Keep in mind that dis-ease in nature is the same as dis-ease in people, something is off balance.  And it can look similar, for example, an imbalance between the function of Earth in holding Water in nature could manifest as boggy, stagnant ground where the water in unable to drain and plant life cannot grow.  In a person that could look edema, it’s the same bog.  This is just to offer an insight into the parallels that exist between nature and us.  These are not easy concepts to get across to a culture that was not raised with the five elements.   And modern China has no concept of this either.

A Little Bit of History
Traditional Chinese medicine only survives because of practitioners who carried it out of China around the turn of the century (early 1900s).  With the advent of communism in China at that time, all traditional medicine ie. doctors, libraries, schools were eradicated (in every violent sense of the word) to make way for modern westernized medicine.  The acupuncture practiced in China today, and in most of the world including the U.S. is simply western medicine with needles.  What that means is, the medicine’s objective is to treat symptoms not the root cause of disease.  Traditional acupuncture, also called classical acupuncture which is primarily five element style, is a system of medicine based solely on treating root cause, not symptoms.  This means that a practitioner from this style of medicine will search for the cause of the disease or the condition and not just treat the symptoms that arise.