the original kStyle blog.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Part Four 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.

The Virtue of Metal

Anthropologists classify cultures according to their relationships with metal. First comes the Stone Age: no metal. Tools are made of stone, wood, or clay. Stone is usually followed by Iron, once a people learn to mine ore and manipulate it with heat and tools. The Bronze Age represents a culture’s mastery of metal, when the culture has learned to create strong alloys from various pure metals. Even the ancient Trojans, despite their advanced, wealthy civilization, used spears made of ash wood and had not invented metal coins. In many ancient cultures, the people wealthy enough to afford some metal--maybe gold jewelry and a few coins--took that metal with them into their grave.

We live in the Silicon Age.

We are surrounded by metal everywhere we turn, and we no longer take all of it back into the earth at death. (I picture gaping holes in the planet where ore once sat.) Cell phones jam the airwaves, cars jam highways lined with metal signs and guardrails, and jewelry jams bureau drawers. We slide coins or tokens into metal slots in order to travel on (metal) subway cars or buses to offices where we manipulate computers run by (metal) microchips, and then go to the gym to lift (metal) weights and run on (metal) machines, and then home, to cook dinner on (metal) pots and eat it off (metal) utensils. Sometimes we turn on the (metal) radio or television. I have metal permanently in my mouth where a cavity one was.

Our culture runs on metal.

And yet, for all the metal surrounding us, how well do we know Metal Qi? We relegate into the background and take it for granted; or, perhaps it is metal’s nature to fill its role quietly, to appear non-substantive despite its solidity controlling the structure of our days. This quiet importance of Metal fits nicely with Lung—the very first organ of the circadian day, it takes in invisible air to sustain life. Air is our first need for survival. We can survive for a few days without taking in water and a few weeks without taking in food, but only for minutes without taking in air.

The Lung and Large Intestine are classically metal. Metal conducts heat and electricity. The Lungs “conduct” air, qi, and mist throughout the Upper Burner and to the skin. Large Intestine conducts food waste out of the body. The Lung also directs fluids downwards to the Kidneys, rather like the gutters on a house. Like a lightning rod, the Lungs take qi from the air and send it downwards to the Kidneys for grounding.

I learned sometime around sixth grade that metal is malleable and ductile. Although metal is very strong and naturally keeps its shape, with deliberate action, we can hammer it into flat sheets or draw it into long, thin wires. Add heat, and metal can be transformed into almost any shape. This paradox of strength and malleability is perhaps my favorite thing about metal; it allows us to build steel bridges! It allows the Lung to maintain its shape even while expanding and contracting to breathe; it allows the Large Intestine to coil through the abdomen and create peristalsis without losing its form. It allows human skin to move and bend, grow and change, while still remaining a protective coating, holding everything inside. This strong malleability allows our emotional borders to shift as needed. To dig into Masunaga, it is the flexible structure of Metal that creates the barrier separating self from other, allowing exchange between self and the outside world (just like coins do!), and, I will add, allowing self to interact with the outside world. (I feel a special kinship with this aspect of metal, because my last name comes from the Latin ferrous, meaning iron. My clan were smiths. Or swordsmen. I’m not sure which, but it brings me to my next point.)

Another aspect of the border formed by Metal is defense. We build fences, armor, swords, spears, and missiles from metal. Likewise, the Lungs are in charge of wei chi. A good sign of Metal imbalance is either too much defense, such as people who have difficulty interacting with others, taking in deep breaths, or allergies. On the other hand, insufficient defense will make for a very vulnerable person, emotionally and physically. (As Robert Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.”) And so we must seek the proper balance between defense and exchange, which calls to mind a set of metal scales, tipping back and forth to rebalance.

Metal is so quiet and resolute (yet malleable) that I have trouble thinking of a specific person I know with a Metal nature. I suspect, however, that we are suffering from a cultural metal imbalance. Much has been made of the loneliness of modern American society, and I’ve long thought that, if this loneliness exists, it has to do with cars, the metal barriers we use to fly through space in isolation. Depression has increased—or at least been recognized more—in the last few decades. Putting aside Big-Pharma conspiracy theories, American lives have become more isolated, more defensively metallic, over the past few decades (cubicles, cars, suburban flight), and sadness is the emotion corresponding to Metal.

My prescription for our culture’s Metal imbalance:
1. Tonify the Kidneys to reduce fear leading to excess defensiveness.
2. Turn off the cell phones (which are often an excuse to avoid face-to-face connection with others).
3. Allow for quality alone time (no TV!).
4. Eat spicy/pungent foods with people you like. Maybe European-style cafes would help.
5. Appreciate the value of metal’s positive qualities.
6. Reduce bling-bling. Bury some of it.


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