Acupuncture’s Philosophy

The philosophy underlying acupuncture is not terribly difficult. 

There are relatively few concepts to be understood.  Their power and usefulness comes from how they refer to key parts of our experience and how these terms are related to each other.

There are two main concepts that underlie acupuncture:
yin and yang, and
the five elements (sometimes called the five phases).
Here I’ll give a brief introduction to each.

1. yin and yang

yin and yang are the complementary opposites that make up the whole.  Any whole can be seen to be made up of yin and yang aspects.  Thus one day is made up of day and night, humanity consists of male and female, a book consists of paper and ink.  The subtlety of this way of thinking is that yin always contains a little yang and yang a hint of yin.  (This is pictured in the diagram of ‘the fish in the circle’, the ‘eyes of the fish’ being the opposite colour to the body of the fish.)  Thus there is some light (yang) at night (yin) and some shadow (yin) during the day (yang); each man (yang) has softness (yin) and each woman (yin) has resoluteness (yang), the ink (yin) contains some of the paper (yang) and the paper (yang) contains the ink (yin).

A good place to begin to understand yin and yang is the chinese characters.

The characters for yin and yang are of the shady and sunny sides of a hill. 

Yang is the sunny side and yin is the shady side.  So yin can mean: cooler, darker, rest.  Yang by contrast is warmer, lighter, active.

These characters are also a reminder that the same side of the hill can be sunny or shady depending on the time of day.  A person is more yin when resting or sleeping and more yang when awake and active. 

In our human experience the terms are usually relative
– something is more or less yin rather than absolutely yin or yang.
(Absolute yang is heaven and absolute yin is earth, while alive we are a mix of these two – the breath and the earth in the biblical image.)

This quickly becomes complex because each quality or part of a person or object can be classified into yin and yang also.  Thus a bodily organ like our heart has its structure (the muscles and so on which are yin) relative to its function (pumping the blood and so on) which is yang.

I hope this gives some idea of how these simple terms can be used in a subtle and diverse way.

2. the five elements

The five elements are:

  • water
  • wood
  • fire
  • earth
  • metal

These elements are used to classify just about anything, the seasons, animals, parts of our body and much else.

These elements can also symbolise the phases in a process of transformation.  Water symbolises the ability to adapt, and stillness.  Wood symbolises growth.  Fire symbolises full development.  Earth ripeness and metal contraction.  The cycle then begins at water once more.

When the elements are used as a classification system.
Different parts of our body are classified according to the elements.  Examples are: our kidneys belong to the water element, our liver to the wood element, our heart to the fire element, our stomach to the earth element and our lungs to the metal element.

These two systems – one a phase in a process and the other a classification of things – are used side by side.  They are somewhat different.  There is no idea that our kidneys will transform into our liver for instance.  However the flow of energy between these parts of our body does follow this cycle.  The kidney energy (something like libido) supports us taking initiative (wood energy) which leads us to activity (fire energy) which may lead to reflection and learning (earth energy) and then finishing with this experience (metal energy).  This is the cycle of nourishment and growth.

There is another cycle into which the elements are arranged, this is the cycle of control.  In this cycle the elements are arranged in the order:

  • water
  • fire
  • metal
  • wood
  • earth

Thus water controls fire, fire melts metal, metal cuts wood, wood holds earth and earth channels water.  Thus our stillness (water energy) stops our activity becoming manic (fire energy), our activity (fire energy) stops our firmness becoming overly rigid (metal energy), staying firm (metal energy) will stop us taking too many initiatives (wood energy), our initiating (wood energy) will stop us getting stuck in reflection (earth energy) and our reflection will guide libido (water energy).

This is only a very brief introduction to this part of acupuncture’s philosophy.  There is a great wealth of material on the elements and how they apply to all aspects of life (food, exercise and interior decoration to name only three).  But I hope this has been enough to give you an idea of how these simple ideas can be used with great subtlety and power.

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