The Five Elements

Taoism and the Five Elements

Taoism is a philosophy of living in harmony with nature.  It embodies what could be described as a scientific formula for understanding the interactions of nature which which is portrayed in the cycle of the five elements.  When we understand the cycles and flow of nature it is easier to work in harmony with it.  This is exemplified today in permaculture farming.

In nature, each element feeds another of the elements in a continuous cycle: Water (winter) feeds wood (spring), wood feeds fire (summer), fire feeds earth (harvest time), earth feeds metal (autumn), metal (referring to rocks and minerals such as iron which fortify the water) feeds water. 

Ancient Taoists understood a relationship of the Five elements also existing inside our bodies.  As well as understanding that the organs had physical functions, they saw them as having emotional/spiritual functions and correspondences.They saw the organs as embodying aspects of our personality.  These aspects of personality are described as 'The Five Spirits".

As a Five Elements Acupuncturist (we treat on the level of the five elements and therefore the five spirits) the Five Spirits was something that I found really fascinating.  At first it seemed a little fanciful until I realised they were describing aspects of our personalities.  In Taoist theory we are born with our original consciousness or spirit, but when we move into the state of the acquired mind, our original spirit is refracted into the Five Spirit.  It is through these spirits that our emotions occur.

The aspects of the spirits manifest in our drive and thinking, and as both a Five Elements acupuncturist and chi kung practitoner, these are my understanding on the drives and values each provides within us.  There are many aspects and for more information there are several books on the topic:

Water: ZHI Our DNA, inherited wisdom and Jing.
Wood: HUN our creative drive and desire to achieve.
Fire: SHEN our desire to connect with others.
Earth: Yi balance, trust, our desire to nurture and be nurtured.
Metal: Po transcend death through spiritual connection

Virtue and Emotions

Each element is described as containing a virtue and emotional aspects.  The emotional aspects are wide and encompass many variants of different emotional aspects and virtues, the following list is not exhaustive:


Fear, paranoia, trauma

Peace, calmness, tranquility



Anger, jealousy, frustration

Kindness, gratitude, forgiveness



Impatience (self) hatred/cruelty, excitement, addiction, anxiety

Love, joy, patience, happiness

Propriety, maturity, contentment


Mistrust, worry, unbalanced, selfish/self neglect

Trust, openness, fairness

Empathy, compassion


Sadness, grief, perversion

Courage, appreciation, sincerity

Conviction, belief, faith

Taoist Inner Alchemy and the Five Elements

Taoist Inner Alchemy recognises that negative emotions can be a drain on our energy.  Taoism is preoccupied with energy and therefore seeks to balance the emotions by transforming negative to positive.  There is recognition of and a place for every emotion in Taoism, but it is realised that negative emotions (the emotions of the Earth on which we dwell) can quickly take over if left unchecked.

Spiritual Bypassing

There is a presumption that negative emotions are wrong and should be avoided, which results in their repression within the body and this ultimately leads to disease.  Feeling sorrow, anger or fear is not wrong and our feelings need to be acknowledged to learn, grow and heal.  Being stuck in these emotions will drain our energy.  They can be transformed through exercises like the Six Healing Sounds using sound, and through Iron Shirt Chi Kung they can be sent to Mother Earth where they are transformed.  I was asked recently if Mother Earth could be overloaded through all our negativity.  As a practitioner, I use the technique while giving treatments and ground the patients negativity into the Earth so that I am not affected, whilst at the same time charging myself with both cosmic and terrestrial energy.  Some traditions teach to scream out your anger, but the sounds used in Taoism are quiet and about transforming and refining, not losing energy.   I think that any desire to heal yourself is a good karmic path to take, and being overloaded with negativity will only harm you and those around you.  Doing this practice from a transformational rather than a 'dumping' standpoint is a higher vibrational frequency to operate on, so if you are concerned about creating a more karmically pure relationship, it is a better practice.