Inner Alchemy: A Guide to the Teachings of Taoist Philosophy on Health and Higher Consciousness (3)


Read the second part of the article 

The Five Elements

Taoist beliefs suggest that once the Tao splits into YIN and YANG, it manifests in five distinct flavors of emanation that we call the five elements. The early Taoists were keen observers of their natural environment and understood that there was no separation between humans and the natural world into which they were born. The Taoists made observations about the cycles and patterns of nature, and this led to a profound understanding of medicine, agriculture, astronomy, astrology, martial arts, and philosophy. In fact, nature lies at the very core of the Taoist understanding of the universe.

Figure 4. The Five Elements

Through personal connection with nature and detailed observation of the seasons and the movement of the stars through the sky, the ancient Taoists understood all reality to be represented by five elements. These elements are related to material, emotional, and spiritual matters in that they represent the entirety of our experience on our planet. But it is always important to remember that they are all aspects of the One – that pure realm of consciousness that exists in a pure state. Through differential emanation, the five elements create the flavor and richness of life and how it moves and expresses itself. Remember, before the separation into YIN and YANG, there was the formless and unified whole – the Tao. The split into YIN and YANG created movement. With YIN and YANG, there are two complementary and opposing forces that dynamically flux into one another. They create the dance of life. Everything moves and exists through this dance, as it is the very agent of the life force itself. Now, we have further differentiated into the five elements, which give life its flavor and richness. The table below shows a basic impression of these elements, the broad range of their correspondence with the world, and how they map our experience of nature and ourselves.

We will use many of these Taoist beliefs when we discuss how to troubleshoot problems with this framework and, more important, how to correct energetic imbalances using this system.
The five elements provide us with a greater degree of distinction on where any given thing, subject, or thought will be within its balance point of YIN and YANG. They show where the flow of energy is and how it is expressing at any given time, as shown in Figures 4 and 5 (below).


Color: Red
Season: Summer
Internal Organs: Heart, small intestine
Direction: South
Emotion: Joy
Stage of Development: Growth
Virtues: Righteousness
Planets: Mars
Sense Organ: Tongue
Tissues: Vessels
Sound: Laughing


Color: Yellow
Season: None
Internal Organs: Stomach, spleen
Direction: Center
Emotion: Pensiveness
Stage of Development: Transformation
Virtues: Faith
Planets: Saturn
SenseOrgan: Mouth
Tissues: Muscles
Sound: Singing


Color: White
Season: Fall
InternalOrgans: Lungs, large intestine
Direction: West
Emotion: Sadness
StageofDevelopment: Harvest
Virtues: Prosperity
Planets: Venus
SenseOrgan: Nose
Tissues: Skins
Sound: Crying


Color: Blue, black
Season: Winter
InternalOrgans: Kidneys, bladder
Direction: North
Emotion: Fear
StageofDevelopment: Storage
Virtues: Courage
Planets: Mercury
SenseOrgan: Ears
Tissues: Bones
Sound: Groaning


Color: Green
Season: Spring
InternalOrgans: Liver, gallbladder
Direction: East
Emotion: Anger
StageofDevelopment: Birth
Virtues: Benevolence
Planets: Jupiter
SenseOrgan: Eyes
Tissues: Sinew, tendons
Sound: Shouting

In the Qi Gong system, it is recommended that we stand facing the south for our practice. This explains why we diagrammatically place the fire element on top and water below. Assuming we are standing in the Earth position, facing south would put fire in front of us, with metal to our right, water behind, and wood to our left.

Figure 5. The Five Elements with YIN and YANG Movement

This particular representation shows the essential alignment of the elements but does not show the movement of these energies. When we introduce the principles of YIN and YANG to the equation, there is movement (through polarity), and we begin to see the cycles of nature manifest. We then have the four seasons.

The earth element represents the center around which all of the other elements revolve, and the seasonal elemental correspondences are closely tied to the increase and decline of energy in the annual cycle. The YANG energy rises out of the winter, comes to a balance point in the spring, and is at its full expression in the summer before it begins to decline back through the fall and eventually to the cold, quiet stillness of winter. Similarly, the YIN energy picks up at the summer solstice and gains momentum through the fall. It is at its height in the winter and then slowly fades through the spring as the YANG energy comes up. This entire system is simply a circular spectral representation of the movement of YIN and YANG in nature. It is all the same phenomena. It has to be – there’s only one reality.

Now, this Taoist system is remarkably similar to many American Indian spiritual and medicinal traditions; in fact, with proper understanding, they can be used interchangeably. Nature is nature – period. Different cultures have evolved to understand and interpret its movement in a slightly different way, but we all understand what winter is, no matter where we are from. Of course, there is less fluctuation of these seasons at the equator (where the forces of YIN and YANG are more balanced), and there is more abrupt change at the poles.

Figure 6. The Five Elements Overlaid on the Human Body

Figures 4 and 5 give us a relatively simple framework for understanding the five elements and their interactions with each other. They give us a reference point for our energetic practice, and they ground the entire system into something we can all relate to – nature. Now, there is another way to illustrate these correspondences that is quite useful in the realm of medicine and psychology. As shown in Figure 6, we can overlay this elemental system on the human body, which the Taoists consider to be a microcosm of the entire universe, to show how these energies interact when it comes to humans.

The elements relate to each other in different ways. The generating cycle, illustrated in Figure 7, comes from the Taoist philosophy that the energy of nature flows through a particular sequence in which each element is generated by another. Wood catches fire or decomposes and turns to earth, which over time settles to metal (minerals), which then returns to water (aquifer or rivers) and finally nourishes wood (plants and biomass) all over again. In this system, we call wood the “child” of water, and simultaneously, wood is the “mother” of fire.

Figure 7. The Generating or Nourishing Cycle

This system allows us to understand the proper sequence of our current situation and how that relates to the overall cycle of things. For example, say we are having digestive problems (earth) due to a weak system. We can obviously help bring energy to the earth element, which is the primary afflicted element, but we can also put energy “upstream” into the fire element, which will then naturally flow into the earth element. Along these same lines, maybe the metal element is what is really weak, and it’s draining energy out of the earth element “downstream.” In this case, we address the issue with the metal element, and the earth energy should fill back up naturally.

Teachings of Taoism highlight that in a cycle of life, a disharmony along any point in the circle has repercussions throughout the entire system. This applies to our mind, our body, our family, and our planet. The point is that everything applies to everything in the cycle of the elements, which is why we must constantly strive to maintain balance and harmony in everything we do.

The generating cycle (also called the nourishing cycle) helps us to see the correct flow of energy through the five elements and to understand how that energy pertains to us and our circumstances. This brings us back to the concept of basic awareness in all things. To properly perceive what’s going on around us, we need to look at the bigger picture and see the larger cycles of energetic movement that all things are related to. Only with this sort of bird’s-eye view can we understand the nature of our circumstances and help bring harmony to energetic cycles that are oftentimes larger than us.

Using the same basic framework and Taoist beliefs about the elements, there is one more relationship among the five elements that is important to understand, and that is the controlling cycle. This cycle, shown in Figure 8 (below), shows the “checking” or controlling functions of the elements and how they relate to each other.

In this sequence, wood controls earth, which in turn controls water, and so forth. This means that we can use a checking element to control another element that has excessive energy and is out of balance. For example, someone who is very stressed out has an overactive wood element (liver or gallbladder), which can be controlled by the metal element (lungs and large intestine). So, introducing energy into the metal organs can help control the overactive wood. This also works pathologically. Because the overactive wood element is out of control, it can easily exert a negative controlling influence on the earth element (stomach and spleen). We see this all too often in the modern world, where people who are chronically stressed out end up having digestive problems. In chronic conditions, in fact, the metal element gets drained because it’s constantly trying to exert control over the overactive wood element. Because of this, we also see a decline in the metal element, which oftentimes manifests as colds and flus (lungs) or constipation or diarrhea (large intestines).

Figure 8. The Controlling Cycle

According to the teachings of Taoism, this controlling cycle is also very helpful in understanding the interplay of emotions and our mental health. For example, if a person is overcome by the emotion of fear (water element), then that element is over-controlling the fire element (joy) and draining that system as well. We can bring in some earth energy (faith is the positive virtue) to pacify the fear and breathe energy into the corresponding organs to see a radical change in that person.

That is the basis of Taoist magic. The only way to learn this and to get it right is to assume that this mystery “person” is you. All healing must originate from within. As the masters of many traditions often tell us: “First help yourself, then help the people.” Much of our internal nei gong (or inner alchemy) involves learning how to harmonize these elemental energies within ourselves and to really use our body and mind as the workshop to figure it out and get it right. Once we learn this, helping another person will be the natural extension of this skill.

True, there is no separation, but most people will take that “abstract” notion and run with it. They will try to save the world without addressing their own energy first. This is where most seekers in our modern culture fail. The central tenet of Taoist alchemy is to turn the light of awareness inward and to explore the universe within. From this infinity within, we are then able to unlock all the secrets of the outer world and understand our true nature. From within, we find heaven.

The Taoist way is one of peace, harmony, and honesty. It entails being aware of the cycles and currents of nature and living by those precepts. It demands that we bring the balance within ourselves to everything we encounter and to act spontaneously out of the living, breathing moment. This serves as the basic framework for our understanding of Taoism and the Tao philosophy.


April 18, 2020



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