Metal phase in the Wu Xing Cycle
& the 5 Elements theory
In Chinese Medicine, and in particular what is commonly referred to as Five Elements Theory (Wu Xing), the element of Metal comes to represent a moving away from the outward Yang like energies of the Wood and Fire elements that came before it and the grounded central point of Earth.
In the Metal stage of the Five phases we begin to see a retraction back to the introversion of Yin like energies. As the nurturing and containing warmth of Earth fades leaving in its place that which is contained; a somewhat colder and harsher energy, much sharper and more cutting with its judgment than that which came before.
One of the defining characteristics of Metal is its ability to cut through life; separating the unnecessary, spent and impure from that which is worth retaining and refining. Metal urges us to let go of that which doesn’t serve us anymore and to refine and purify that which does. It organises our daily experiences and discerns the crucial from the non crucial. However it’s worth noting that in spite of this phase’s virtuous strength in correct and proper judgement, an imbalance in this phase can result in one being overly judgmental or self righteous. Like the glistening edge of a masterly crafted sword, Metal shines bright with refinement, brilliance and stored potential. But its edge can sometimes be brutally sharp and its boundaries overly defined as its cuts through life’s clutter and debris.
Earth, Metal’s mother element, feeds into Metal’s character with its nurturing nature. This creates a stable foundation for Metal to use the wisdom acquired from the three preceding phases to bring any cycle into its final stage. Fire, its controlling element, melts Metal’s sharp discerning edges with its more open hearted approach to life by not allowing the head to completely rule the heart, and by balancing the opposing human instincts to both pull away from others but also to connect with them.
On a physical level Metal is linked to the Lungs and Large intestines. Both of these organs play a role in the separation of the pure from the impure within our bodies. The Lungs are intrinsically linked to the formations and distribution of Qi around the body. All things related to Qi begin and happen in the Lungs. It is in the Lungs that the prenatal essence (Jing) from the Kidneys and nutritive Qi from the Spleen, ascends to meet the Qi drawn in from the outside via our respiration, which is then further purified through the process of inhaling and exhaling. The Lungs then disperse and descend this purified Qi throughout the body in the form of vapour, like a fine morning dew that reaches all of our organs and tissues, our pores and our skin, and descends all the way back down to the Kidneys.
The Lungs are home to our Corporal soul (Po) and are our most readily available connection to the present moment. Every inbreath and outbreath its own micro cycle of experience representative of the Wu Xing circle itself. Within this breath we hold our earthly spirit, as well as our aspirations and inspirations (the Latin root to these words spirare means breathe). The lungs are our link between our earthly presence within and something more ephemeral outside of us.
The Large Intestines take charge of the transportation and transformation of bodily waste, whereby they receive the material sent down from the small intestine and extract its fluid so that the impure may be excreted from our body. An inability to let go of something, or to grieve a loss, may affect the function of this organ and manifest physically as constipation or diarrhoea. Both the Lungs with breath and the bowels with food work to isolate pure essence and to illuminate impurities.
In contrast to the humidity found in the Earth phase before it, the reductive and dispersing nature of Metal brings about a dryness; as the unimportant or toxic is drained away in the form of sweat, exhalations,urine and excrement. In nature this process can be seen in the Autumn season Metal represents, whereby the leaves of the trees begin to fall to the ground so that important nutrients can be redirected to the roots of the trees to be stored for Winter; the element connected to Water and the child of Metal in the Five elements cycle. Conversely the lungs and trees perform very similar roles in that they both exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. In the case of our body this oxygen once converted by the lungs, is then released into our blood and back into our heart to be pumped around our body.
Metal ultimately represents the closing of any project or endeavour, the later years of our life such as retirement, and the coming to an end of a relationship that no longer serves us. The inability to finish off projects, to let go of redundant behaviours and thought patterns, and to grieve for something that is ending, goes against the natural flow of this stage of any cycle, potentially causing us to harden and chill like the mineral element that governs it. The recognition and embodiment of grief is not about regret, it’s about release, and it must be honoured when the time requires it in order to stay in contact with ourselves and to be able to move forward to the final death of a cycle and the emerging birth of a new one. This release allows us to move full circle into the most Yin like of phases, which we find in the Water element that succeeds it.