the original kStyle blog.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Part Two in a Five-Part Series

Five Element Theory (or Five Phases Theory) is an important aspect of many schools of Eastern medicine. Although Mao et al (you know, the Communists) diminished its importance when codifying TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), it remains a vital part of many schools of Classical Chinese Medicine, Shiatsu, and so forth. Every week for the next five weeks I will be contemplating an element and writing a brief essay about it for class--how it acts in nature, how it applies to the human. I direct the curious to an overview or two of Five Element Theory.


Then there appeared to them tongues as flames of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues…
New American Bible, Acts, 2: 3-4

I find it curious that both the early Christians and ancient Chinese associated Fire with speech and also with Spirit or Shen. Likewise, the ancient Greeks saw Fire as a divine gift brought by the god Prometheus, great friend of man, who was eternally punished by the Olympians for giving mortals a gift that made them too powerful. (Prometheus was chained to a cliff for eternity, vultures eating his liver, which, being immortal, unfortunately grew back every time.) There is, then, something universally precious and powerful in Fire and in human mastery of it.

Fire has proven more difficult to grapple with than Wood for two reasons. First, there seems to be a sad deficit of Fire in my super-safe, super-efficient modern life (I dare say, our modern culture): I cook with electricity (at best, only “sort of” fire); I light electric bulbs to see; I heat my living space with electricity. Even the sun is far from shivering Massachusetts right now, and a lit candle produces a lovely, but relatively staid, flame. Secondly, fire is a chemical reaction rather than a thing. I can touch wood, soil, water, or metal, but fire would burn my hand, gives nothing to hold, and can disappear in a second. As such, I believe it to be the most yang of all Elements; perhaps this explains its association with the Shen, a relatively yang part of the human.

After staring at a few candles and looking for sun on overcast days, I set out to do what my Earth-y self does well; that is, to research fire. I learned a lot from a textbook on fire fighting.

The first surprising thing I discovered is that fire never burns directly on a solid or liquid fuel, but rather in the atmosphere slightly above it. Individual molecules of solid or liquid must be vaporized in order to combust. As such, a certain amount of heat is necessary to spark a fire. This makes sense in the context of Chinese medicine, where warmth from the Kidneys is necessary to spark Heart Fire and Spleen Digestive Fire. A similar reaction happens on an emotional level between people, as well. There must be some initial warmth to spark a bond. It is good news for our internal Fire that once combustion has begun, it usually produces enough heat to sustain itself until it runs out of fuel or oxygen.

It is the nature of fire to spread itself, which it does by heating the potential fuel nearby so that it will also combust. It has three methods of spreading heat: convection, conduction, and radiation; fire is excellent—maybe even clever---at self-propagation. Fire behaves in a predictable pattern. Its heat primarily rises, although some heat escapes directly to the sides via convection or radiation (in a structure fire, the highest sustained temperatures will always occur at the upper corners of the room). We can see that people with Fire imbalances often exhibit red faces because of this rising nature. Combustion seeks out more fuel and oxygen to sustain itself. It gains momentum. Really, it gobbles everything in its path. Most striking is the moment known as flashover, when every remaining combustible object in an enclosed space catches fire simultaneously because the entire room has reached a combustible temperature. Flashover, terrifyingly dangerous for fire fighters, represents the fire’s peak. After flashover, if the fire cannot find more fuel and sufficient oxygen, it will begin to decline.

And that is the nature of fire: to spread over everything it can, using it all up, until it cannot sustain its own size, its own need and, perhaps sated, or perhaps overstretched, it declines, finally disappearing entirely. A person, then, must be careful with his Fire element, to sustain it gently without stoking it too high, in which case it would consume itself and himself with it. We must be sure to give our Fire the fuel, heat, and oxygen it needs, through proper diet, exercise, and breathing to nourish the Xue and Heart. We should take care that we burn clean fuel in our Fire—good air and food—lest we create the internal equivalent of toxic smoke.

But what does fire give us? Fire allows us to cook, gives us heat and light, and once kept the wild animals away from our ancestors at night. And so our Fire allows us to digest, keeps us warm and safe, and gives us the civilizing light of reason and compassion. We humans used to gather around our fires to tell stories, sing, and create community; thus, Fire is tied with speech and relationships. The Greek god Apollo embodied all of this nicely: He ruled light, music, and reason, and was often associated with the sun god, Helios.

Writing this essay has made me realize that I should increase my contact with the Fire element. The winter has been long and cold, and I rely too much on waiting for the sun to return and bring me fire. I have no physical Fire symptoms, no palpitations or heat or purple coloring, but I do feel a little gloomy this time of year and my moods can be erratic. Recently I reached out to various friends (who were similarly shivering at home) to see them more often—I think it’s been beneficial for all of us. I know it’s cheered me considerably. Now I’m going to light a candle.


Blogger Emma Goldman said...

Some questions and thoughts:

1. What are Zang and Fu and how do they fit in?
2. I absolutely insist on living in an apartment that faces south and gets a lot of sunlight, which is absolutely invaluable at this time of year.
3. Does joy cause fire, or does fire cause joy? Or is the relationship something other than causal?

3:41 PM  
Blogger kStyle said...

Ah yes good, ask me questions! Answering them reinforces the concepts for me.

1. Zang are the 6 yin, or solid, organs. Fu are the 6 yang, or hollow, organs (bowels). Each element corresponds to a zang and a fu organ, except for Fire, which corresponds to 2 Zang and 2 Fu. As follows:
Element: Zang, FuWood: Liver, Gallbladder
Fire 1: Heart, Small Intestine
Fire 2: Pericardium,Triple Burner (this is an organ with function but no form)
Earth: Spleen, Stomach
Metal: Lung, Large Intestine
Water: Kidneys, Bladder

These organs are the actual physical organs, plus some other stuff. Each one has a corresponding meridian or channel.

2. Absolutely!

3. In Taoism and in Chinese medicine, most things co-arise. Like yin and yang, but that's another whole essay for another time.

7:28 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home