Find an acupuncturist...

Acupuncture and five elements

Q:  I visited a qualified acupuncturist today. She mentioned different elements involved in Chines acupuncture. Fire, water, she suggested I 'represented' metal. it was a very good session but ran out of time so please what does my personality of metal mean?

A:  The Five Elements, or more accurately the 'Five Phases', are a way of understanding the energy of the body as a microcosm which reflects the macrocosm, the world around us. The elements, which are Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood, represent, for example, the different qualities which each season brings to the year but are also thought to be a way of understanding all phenomena. There are elaborate tables of correspondences which you can easily obtain by googling 'Five element acupuncture', which show how each of these elements represents an aspect of the whole.
The Five Element system appears in some form or other in all systems of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and can be as prosaic as a description of certain body shapes and as sophisticated as the central basis for a diagnostic system. In the UK one of the major founding schools of acupuncture was based on this as its core concept, and although this school has now closed, others have incorporated the system in their work and have graduated practitioners who choose to use this as their primary tool.
It is quite difficult to encapsulate in a paragraph or two a system of considerable sophistication, but when Five Element practitioners describe someone as a Fire person or a Metal person, they are often paying homage to the work of J.R.Worsley who pioneered what he called the 'causative factor' as a way of understanding the person and treating them. In his view, in each person one of the elements was the one which was primary one out of balance, and treating this part of the system would restore overall balance. This did not necessarily manifest in physical, mental or emotional problems which were associated with this particular element in the table of correspondences, because the complex inter-relationships often meant that the strain was expressed elsewhere. Worsley often likened the system to twelve people working in an office. It is highly unlikely that the two most incompetent would be showing serious signs of stress, but everyone covering for them would. Once you put the incompetent ones right, however, everything else would settle down.
We all 'contain' all of the elements, but the one which represents our primary area of imbalance often leads to certain characteristics which define us and which alert the diagnostician to what is really going on. These are not the same as 'faults' or 'defects', more a kind of unevenness in certain areas of behaviour. Having a problem with the part of the system which governs decision-making is unlikely to lead to no decisions or too many decisions, but much more likely to manifest as small decisions taking ages and life changing decisions being done in a trice. 'Inappropriateness' is a key word in Chinese medicine; when an element is out of balance parts of the system will react inappropriately at all levels, body, mind and spirit. 
The Metal element, for example, being associated with the season of autumn is often seen as the part of the system which is responsible for letting go what has been finished with and reabsorbing the essential and valuable traces which we re-use. The emotion most closely associated with the Metal Element is grief, and there are also strong associations with a sense of value and self-worth. If this part of the system is not working as well as it might one would expect to see challenges or problems in someone's life which reflect an inability to deal with some of these issues 'appropriately'. Some people might find it difficult to let go of people or things, and grieve long after the time for grief has passed. Others may have a poor sense of their own worth and seek solace in material possessions or in searching for teachers to give their lives meaning. There are so many possibilities, however, that it would be unwise to list out too many like this. We are all individual and unique, and rule one is that there are no rules. Diagnosis is a subtle and taxing art; one cannot go backwards from a single physical, mental or emotional trait and draw an immediate conclusion. That's why it takes a long time to train. 
However, it must be said that most people,when confronted with a description of what they are told is their main element out of balance are not at all convinced and  can even feel quite insulted. The reality is that we are all so complex that it is very rare for one part of the system to stand out as the only thing out of kilter, and the real skill of the practitioner lies in making sense of the whole.
The other thing to remember is that being out of balance is not in itself a pathological state. All of us are to a degree and it is the small degrees of movement away from the centre line which make us who we are. It is only when life changes and stresses push aspects of our being too far away from the centre line that the strain starts to show and we need help to restore our balance. A world full of perfectly balanced people might just be a little too uniform for our taste!
There are a number of extremely good websites which you can find very quickly by googling  'five element acupuncture', all of which will help to give you a better understanding of the whole.    

Post a question

If you have any questions about acupuncture, browse our archive or ask an expert.

Ask an expert

BAcC Factsheets

Research based factsheets have been prepared for over 60 conditions especially for this website

Browse the facts