In acupuncture theory, understanding of your health is associated with all sorts of phenomena which may seem completely unrelated with your human body. Acupuncturists litter their books and diagnoses, for example, with natural-world terminology like Heat, Wind, Damp, Fire and Cold.
In particular, the "5 Elements" - or more accurately 5 "Phases" - of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water are invoked with deep reverence and mystical importance, as if possessing some metaphysical power.
It may sound like some kind of arcane Tarot or astrological belief system, but nothing could be further from the truth. In reality these phenomena were simply the everyday language and experience of the people at the time these theories were developed. Their daily existence was lived in far closer proximity with nature than we modern Urbanites.
Just as our physicists & biologists today, they observed the world around them and used their available language and knowledge to build models of complex systems they wanted to understand. In today's Information Age we might use metaphors like "Internet" to describe our nervous system. The brain is often described as a "CPU" or "neural network", or a chemical factory used to describe the Liver.
For the ancients it was the intimate observation (and lived experience) of the forces/ cycles of weather and the qualities and interrelationships of natural phenomena that formed the basis of their metaphor building blocks.
However, our ancient Chinese sage was intent on more than simply metaphor. He was a remarkably adept observer of his environment. He managed to come up with an amazingly accurate model for how all phenomena in the universe behave and interact. The result was a distillation of the laws of physics in 5 simple words (and the concepts represented by them:
Wood - Fire - Earth - Metal - Water
Applied to medicine, the theory allows an understanding of the interrelationships and working characteristics of the various "core" organs known as "Zang". Wood: Liver; Fire: Heart; Earth: Spleen/ Pancreas; Metal: Lung; Water: Kidney. The Zang organs then relate (again in as 5 Phase matrix) to other organs, body tissues and mental/ emotional states and the physiology and pathology of the body can be understood to a detailed degree.
Actually, they managed even better than this by achieving the same with just 2 words: Yin and Yang. But as a descriptive template to consider "stuff" (and how stuff interacts and evolves) 5 provides a level of complexity which is both useful and at the same time accessible to human mental processing capacity. Apparently systems of about 7 interacting parts is about the outer edge that we can cope with and 5 is about the sweet spot. So, 5 it is*. Which is handy as we are pretty familiar with that number, having 5 fingers on each hand to count with.
The language may seem simple, but this belies the power and flexibility of the theory and its practical application. Things may be changing with the advent of artificial intelligence and its capacity to deal with far more complex interacting systems, but for now, the ability conceptualise and envisage an entire ecosystem in one human brain is pretty darn useful:
The splintering of modern medicine into multitudes of specialisation is simultaneously its greatest strength and its achilles heal. This is especially true from the perspective of the patient who often feels lost in the gaps between. Perhaps you are familiar with this frustrating experience?
The system of 5 inter-related parts results in a matrix of relationships which can be represented graphically as shown.
The outer arrows represent influences which strengthen/ support or lead naturally onwards. It is sometimes expressed like this:
Wood feeds Fire, which becomes Earth (ashes), which bears Metal, which condenses & enriches Water which nourishes Wood...
The inner arrows represent influences of temperance which calm or control. It is sometimes expressed:
Water cools Fire which melts Metal which cuts Wood which binds/ holds Earth which holds Water...
Actually, each arrow should point both ways, representing (i) the effect of the interaction on both parts and (ii) the eventuality that the primary direction of the influence (as shown in this diagram) is reversed. This can represent the situation when a system is out of balance - for example in ill health.
So How Does it Work?
The typical western approach to understanding a complex system is to dissect it into constituent parts, checking out how each part seems to behave in isolation, and then to put it all back together again - whilst hoping not to have too many bits leftover!.
This method has had amazing success but it does have its limitations. Putting it all back together again can be tricky. There are interactions between the multiple parts that can be unexpected or completely misunderstood.
A good example of this was the discovery - in 2018! - of a completely new human organ. Yes, its true!
The "Interstitium" had somehow evaded microscope, ultrasound, PET, x-Ray, MRI and dissection until only a few months ago. You may be forgiven if this escaped your notice as our friend Donald Trump was particularly keen on hogging the headlines that week.
Anyway, the Interstitium is nothing new to Acupuncture. The "Triple Warmer" (basically the Interstitium in all but name) is described in Acupuncture texts written long before Jesus was kicking around and causing a headache for the Roman empire. This organ system and its function was discovered over 3000 years back in large part through the application of the 5 Phases model. The 5 Phase model points to the existence and characteristics of the Interstitium (Triple Warmer), just as modern physics points us to the existence and features of otherwise difficult to discover phenomena like black holes or dark matter etc.
Thus we can see that a model which describes the actual interactions and interlocking of a system as a whole - without pressing pause or pulling it apart - can provide very powerful insights.
Grand Unified Theory?
One of the real strengths of this system is the application to almost any endeavour or phenomenon. For example, apparently diverse fields such as music, politics, art, military strategy, martial arts, medicine etc. can be viewed through this prism. This allows knowledge to be leveraged easily from one field to another providing insights and accelerating understanding.
It's clear that the natural phenomenon of weather and element are still well beyond our scientific explaining and control. What better blueprint to use then, for exploring and understanding the infinite complications of human health?!
*Incidentally, the ancient Greek philosophers (physicists) also went the way of dividing world into 5 elements before later cutting back to the 4 we commonly associate with them.