Five Elements – Vision; Theory; Practice

Holistic is a word that is used a lot these days. It is used to mean taking a broader perspective, a more inclusive vision, an attempt to acknowledge more interconnectedness, and the wholeness of something. For me, to understand true holism in practice, there’s nothing that expresses it better than the Tao. Taoism rests on knowledge of the ultimate undivided oneness that underpins all being; the great ground of being that really is impossible to speak about but can be felt and acted upon, if we are alive to it.

Shiatsu practice is informed by a system of thought derived from Taoism. Its language is elemental, there are Five Elements within it and it is fuelled by observations of how energy moves the natural world. We know from physics that energy changes states – chemical or kinetic energy becoming heat, light, sound – as it moves through matter. And matter changes state when energies act upon it. Everything we know, every possible manifestation of any thing in the world is made up of a finite number of chemical molecules that behave in different ways, depending on how they are bonded and how energy can move them. Energy and transformation are sisters that are never far from each other.

The language of the Five Elements describes this endless process of transformation, energy moving through and changing how the ground of being (molecules) takes shape. It codifies energies in a circular movement from still Water, to growing Wood, to combusting Fire, to solidifying Earth, to compounding Metal. It’s simple and its beautiful, because it expresses how it feels to relate to energy in its different states. When we witness the movement of energy in nature beyond us, and when we feel the equivalent movement of energy inside us (which is also nature!). We have all the movements of the circling Elements within us. They generate each other and they balance each other, for example we can enjoy the speed and expansion of Fire energy for a time, but before long we need the gathering stillness of Water energy to rebalance the whole, or we will be consumed and burn out.

Balance is key, energy will always balance itself however it may. This is true of nature outside and inside. In this balancing act, finding an equilibrium can be explosive at one extreme or stagnant at the other. This is when we might find we have ‘symptoms’ – elements out of balance and looking to re-find their healthy expression. The dance between the Five Elements helps us understand the interdependence between, for example, striving toward a bright vision of the future in the upward drive of Wood energy, and nourishing the Earth energy with simple acts that satisfy the needs of our body today: safety, comfort and sensuality. One can’t happily exist for long without the other.

There is poetry to this vision. It expresses something of the ineffable conscious – and unconscious – experience of being Life! Poetry is not a science, but it moves you. That is it’s special and inexplicable power. So, the theory and practice of Shiatsu have poetry in them, which is part of what enables Shiatsu to act on you deeply. The kind of transformation that Shiatsu can support, can’t in its entirety be explained by science. Its more akin to alchemy, that is, less about splitting things into small parts to understand their mechanisms and more about drawing together in a mysterious process producing a whole that’s more than the sum of its parts, just as all Life is.

I love practicing with poetry because it is present, it is surprising, and it is moving, quite literally. It contains beauty and love, and these are the most healing qualities I have found to be in relationship with. Incidentally, there is some pretty good science around that… But I have been transformed enough through my own encounters with them that I will take it on trust.

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