TCM: Wu Xing

五行 Wu Xing (“The Five Movements” or “Five Phases”) are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. Though broadly and superficially similar to the Ancient Greek elements (Air, Earth, Fire, and Water), the Wu Xing are not static categories but descriptions of relationships and interactions — and are in that specific order.

Additionally, the Wu Xing manifests in two distinct but related interaction cycles — generating and overcoming (or creation and destruction, or nurture and control, or nourishment and invasion):

  • The ‘creation’ cycle: Wood feeds Fire, Fire creates Earth, Earth births Metal, Metal cradles Water, Water feeds Wood.
  • The ‘destruction’ cycle: Wood penetrates Earth, Earth channels Water, Water quenches Fire, Fire melts Metal, Metal cuts Wood.

The five movements are commonly pictured as a ‘pentagram’, with the ‘creation’ cycle forming the outside circle and the ‘destruction’ cycle the star-shaped spokes within.

In medicine, the five phases equate to five fundamental systems in the body. Classical Chinese Medicine linked the movements directly to a pair of organs (the yin and yang):

  • wood yin is the liver, wood yang is the gall bladder
  • fire yin is the heart, fire yang is the small intestine
  • earth yin is the spleen, earth yang is the stomach
  • metal yin is the lung, metal yang is the large intestine
  • water yin is the kidney, water yang is the bladder

However, this is the most basic representation of the five phases; each represents various aspects of the cosmos (the macrocosm) as well as various aspects of the body (the microcosm). Some of these relationships are obvious or intuitive, while some may not seem immediately related (especially if you’ve been raised in another culture).

For example, Wood also represents the directions left and east, the numbers 2 and 3, the color green, the spring season and growing in general, ambition, anger, tradition, wind, sour, and various body parts and systems including hair, head, hand, vein, muscle, vision, neck, and eye.

This is an ancient practice. Once again, the reason it as still such a vibrant practice even now in the age of modern medicine is because is actually has the results people are looking for. They do not continue the art through the ages because nobody finds benefit. They do it because it works. Many professionals have agreed that for most life threatening illnesses that if the patient is comfortable with both the old treatment & the new treatment as well. The combination helps to heal the body & the spirit. Something which western medicine is lacking. Hopefully as we look into the future we will come to find new ways of understanding the old practices & that will lead to revelation about how they work.

This dual approach would be helpful in many situations where Western methods are not successful. Take the medical treatment for alcohol. Think of the number of people you know who have a drinking problem that is serious enough so they ended up in rehab or are trying to follow a 12 step, abstinence free program, but have failed. That was my brother, until I learned about the drug Baclofen and how doctors in Europe have been prescribing baclofen as the primary treatment for people who drink excessively. Unlike 12 step programs in the US that require abstinence, the most well-known one is the AA program, doctors in Europe are trying a new approach. They say that alcoholism is not a disease, but a symptom of a larger psychological issue. Compare that to how the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD: a “chronic relapsing brain disease”. Baclofen removes or strongly suppresses cravings for alcohol in 92% of people. On the site, LifeBac that promotes a pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy approach, they say that initial clinical trials show that Baclofen has a 65% success rate for treatment-resistant alcoholics , allowing them to return to low- or medium-risk drinking. This treatment doesn’t even require abstinence, although apparently, many people do stop all drinking. Suffice to say my brother agreed to try this new program at LifeBac, that combine medication (baclofen) to remove cravings along with behavior changes via psychotherapy to rewire one’s habits. So far, he is doing very well and we are hopeful that this time he will be able to take back his life and move on successfully. Now if he combines this new approach to excessive drinking with traditional Chinese medicine, who is to say how far better off he will be? We will just have to wait and see.

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