Five Element Theory: Chinese or American?
Posted: December 13, 2013
Soon after graduating from acupuncture school in the summer of 2000, I was invited to a celebration of the autumnal equinox taking place at a friend’s home. The celebration was set up around a native American medicine wheel that had been set up for this purpose. As the talking stick was passed around the circle of people who had been using the medicine wheel as their spiritual orientation for many years, I listened to their acknowledgement of the season as it related to their minds, bodies and spirits. I was amazed to hear them speak so eloquently about what I had learned as the Metal element, or the autumn energy, from my studies of acupuncture and the Five Elements.
When the talking stick came to me, I shared my astonishment at how closely their understanding of the gifts of the autumn energy matched my own understanding of the season from a tradition that originated on the opposite side of the planet. It was their turn to be astonished as I shared what I had learned about the Metal element and how it relates to the organs of the body, to sound, to tastes and smells and foods, and to the human spirit. This similarity between the Native American Medicine Wheel and Chinese Five Element theory was new to them too!
During my years in acupuncture school I could not help but wonder from time to time about how the theories I was learning might be related specifically to Chinese history and culture, and whether these ancient ideas had the same applicability to my own time and place. After this experience at the Medicine Wheel, I read a beautiful book by Cherokee teacher, Dhyani Ywahoo, called Voices of the Ancestors. Once I again I was struck by the similarity of her teaching to the Five Element theory and I kept looking in the back of her book for references to acupuncture of Chinese medicine and found none. She claimed her teaching was only what she had learned from Cherokee elders about their own tradition.
As a new practitioner, these experiences reassured me that the ideas informing my practice of acupuncture were not culturally dependent upon a far-away place, but embodied wisdom that was shared by people around the planet. The knowledge of how nature affects our lives gave the ancient Chinese and ancient Americans the same understanding derived from shared stars, shared bodily experience, and a shared planet.