If you’ve read the Seasonal Tea Club, attended a Living Tea event, or followed us on Instagram, you’ve heard something about the Five Elements. This is the philosophy that guides all we do at Living Tea, a cornerstone of Chinese Medicine, and the key to living in harmony with the Earth and the seasons. But what are the Five Elements? Start with a few simple concepts below.
The Five Elements are the natural cycle of the Earth’s seasons.
Even though we can relate to each of the elements in its material form, they are most clearly understood as the different seasons in the calendar. This is why the Elements are often called “phases” – because they are different expressions of the same energy of Nature.
In studying the elements as Nature’s calendar, we see that the Five Elements are not some mystical or dogmatic philosophy. They are simply expressions of the natural ebb and flow of life on this planet.
The Five Elements help us understand ourselves.
As you read above, Nature’s many manifestations give us a framework for understanding what phase of life we are in, how our habits and personalities tend to express themselves, and where we can nourish and improve our lives.
For instance, a particular dislike of one season or another invites us to reflect on the qualities of that season and that element: if I’m not a fan of the energy of summer, do I have a similar aversion to the qualities of the Fire element – connection, expansion, high-energy activities? If I find myself most at home in the spring, might that indicate that I have the gifts of foresight and envisioning to offer in my community?
The elements are not a personality test. As products of Nature, each human contains each of the elements – but we do tend to have our own particular combinations and expressions of them. The elements act as a mirror and guide for reflection, bringing us back to the source of our existence – the Earth.
The Five Elements guide our practices.
When we learn more about the particular energies and resonances of each season, we instinctually adjust our behaviors and practices to align appropriately with the times. In our modern lifestyles it’s very easy to spend most of our time indoors, at the same temperature, eating the same foods. However, seasonal shifts still affect us: winter’s early sunset, summer’s heat, and spring’s flush of new growth have dramatic effects on our moods, not to mention all the physiological changes throughout the body (energy, sleep, hydration, and seasonal allergies, to name a few). Simple shifts like eating seasonally and waking with the sun help ease these changes, but what about psycho-emotional health and spiritual practices?
In more active, yang seasons, we might explore moving meditations instead of sitting still. In winter, the season of water, we practice boiled tea and embrace the invitation to slow down and go inward. In spring, inspired by intrepid seedlings, our self-reflection may take the form of healthy goal-setting and long-term plans.
By living in alignment with the natural flow of things (the tao), we can significantly reduce the tensions and aggravations caused by forces outside of our control. “Going with the flow” takes on a new meaning: we are not just passive doormats or victims of circumstances. Instead we recognize that there is an appropriate season for everything, and if some effort feels particularly challenging or misaligned, it might be because it is better suited to another time or phase of life.
Though we likely will never live the way our distant ancestors did, profoundly married to the Earth in mind, body, and spirit, we are nevertheless creatures of this planet, deeply influenced by its way of being. The Five Element map is simply a way of organizing and giving language to the most fundamental of practices: mindful awareness. In observing and learning from the Earth, we learn about ourselves. We become familiar with the forces that are already working in our lives, and learn to work with them with grace and compassion.
Written by Rachel E. Maley, leader of Living Tea and creator of Still Life Meditation.