The Watercourse Way:
Applying the Five Elements


Tom Wilson, Ph.D.

"Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste
the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of each. Let them be your
only diet, drink and botanical medicines. Be blown on by all the
winds. Open all your pores and bathe in all the tides of nature, in all her
streams and oceans, at all seasons."

                                                                   -Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau’s admonition to “bathe in all the tides of nature” seems to capture the very essence of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and its Five Element Theory. With its roots in Taoism, TCM views everything that exists—“the ten thousand things”—as interrelated parts of nature. We are inseparable from nature and mirror its elements, its seasons, and its cycles of transformation. Accordingly, the Five Elements give us a way to assess where humans or animals are at a given point on their journeys through life, and to assist them in harmonizing the elements that animate their beings. If we “bathe in all the tides of nature”—Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water—we can realign ourselves with our true natures and the higher aspirations of our beings.

When working with the Five Elements, sometimes the heart of the imbalance is very clear, especially in cases where the problem is acute, and restoring balance can happen easily. When the problem is chronic, however, when it has gone on for some time, the organ energies associated with the Five Elements all become affected, and assessment and rebalancing can be very challenging. One of the most challenging mystery tours of the Five Elements I have encountered in my work has been with my client, Victor.

Born in Romania, Victor was a successful banker—rich, married, fancy home, Mercedes, high lifestyle…and one day, suddenly, he walked away from it all. Since then he has never worked at a serious job, and hardly works at all. On a recent trip to his roots in Romania, he was hospitalized for additional liver tests based on preliminary lab work. He had a highly inflamed liver (Wood), but the Western medical cause was uncertain. In my work with him on his return, I found a pattern of Wood in excess with all other organs in a state of deficiency.

In Five Element Theory, the elements transform in cycles of nourishment and control. The following diagram shows the sequences of support and constraint:

At the risk of oversimplification, here is how the Five Element model works: In the diagram, the nurturing cycle depicts Wood as the mother of Fire. So Wood nourishes Fire, Fire nourishes Earth, Earth nourishes Metal, Metal nourishes Water, and Water nourishes Wood. This is the Sheng sequence. We’ve come full circle in transformations of energies that align us with nature and our true selves. Note in the diagram that Fire is the child of Wood, meaning that the child in the cycle can nourish or harmonize its mother.

In the Five Element model, we also have the Ko cycle relationships in which the elements act like grandparents with their elder wisdom counseling their grandchildren on proper behavior. Thus, the Metal element is the grandparent of Wood: metal can cut an overgrowth or excess of wood. So the Wood element can be harmonized by the Metal element. In similar fashion, Earth can contain excessive Water; Water can quench Fire; Fire can melt Metal; and Wood can break up Earth. Within each of the elements are organ meridians that contain acupoints that vibrate with myriad aspects of our being. The Five Elements speak to the interrelatedness of nature and offer us an effective tool for assessing and harmonizing imbalances.

Now, let’s assess Victor by applying the Five Element model of TCM. This assessment is based on TCM methods, including body, pulse, tongue readings, as well as what Victor revealed to me in actions and words.


From an emotional perspective, Victor’s Wood element in excess is reflected in an overarching anger at his mother, his partner, the world, and himself. His self judgments are critical and often unrelenting and brutal. He medicates his mind and the anger stored in his liver with the use of alcohol. He can tell you what he is against, but not what he is for. Victor never had a nurturing mother. His grandmother once told him that his mother did not want him from the time of conception; and he reports that his mother has been critical of him and distant for all of his 56 years. Anger is also reflected in perfectionism; nothing is good enough; no work is satisfying.

Victor is brilliant and talented. I know of very few people with his knowledge and erudition. He reads voraciously and sensitively: one sees the vestiges of a Renaissance man, a bohemian scholar. As a young man, he was quite successful in school and work where decisiveness, motivation, and a warrior’s determination flourished—all attributes of a healthy Wood element. Yet, at 56, he hasn’t worked at a meaningful job for over 20 years. Even with the Wood element’s desire to burst through the ground with ideas for growth and fulfillment, he can stay with no project. In excess, Wood is unable to express its natural genius for initiation, action, and creating a strategy for life. Life, as expressed in yin and yang, is about movement. Victor is stuck. He is not moving forward on his journey through life. When he speaks, you hear only shouting—the angry voice of an imbalanced Wood element.


Victor’s Fire element appears to be deficient. He lacks true passion. I do not correlate his “impassioned” railings about life and politics with passion, but with anger. He is attracted to women, but, he says, never for love. He lives in a tense, dysfunctional relationship with a woman whom he says he does not love. Fire’s deficiency is revealed in the lack of its essence—joy and connection. The only signs of passion I see are for ideas and literature (Metal), and for spending time in nature (Earth). There is, however, such a deep longing for connection, palpable but unexpressed in his life. He will tell you that he has written off the possibility of love because it just doesn’t work. Mary Burmeister, who brought Jin Shin Jyutsu to America, originally called the negative emotion of the Heart “the dissolution of all happiness.”


Earth deficiency manifests in a lack of purpose, a lack of involvement with others in a common endeavor, and, in general, a lack of engagement with life. Earth in balance exhibits the emotion of sympathy: the interrelatedness and oneness of all life. Still, I have watched Victor gravitating toward nature, seeking solace in it, and longing for a nurturing home. He loves to be in nature picking wild fruits and berries. I see his relationship toward nature as a gravitational pull toward the Earth element. His love of nature, coupled with a feeling that he is really seeking the nurturance of a home, drew me to Earth as the element that could best nourish his healing journey. The essence of Earth is home, the matrix for containing and nurturing all of life’s processes. Earth is the place in time and space for expressing the longings of Wood element and the passions of the Fire element. He is in many ways, at this point, homeless. 


There are strong characteristics of the Metal element in Victor’s discriminating mind, his artistic nature, love of beauty, structure, respect for principles, high standards, and integrity. He also exhibits the Metal element’s tendency to disillusionment and indifference. In terms of Metal’s emotion, Victor has a lot of unresolved grief and sadness.

Victor has musical talent but doesn’t pursue it. His intelligence and discernment are distorted by a propensity toward negative judgments. He has a “drunk monkey” mind that will not turn off, and insomnia stalks him. I also see the Metal element in the extreme and repressed grief (Lung) and his unwillingness to let go (Large Intestine). Autumn reflects Metal’s gratitude for the harvest of one’s life. Grief and gratitude exist in a yin-yang relationship where one sees that to have the richness and gems of Autumn is to also accept life’s impermanence. Victor is not grateful. He grieves but never cries. The sound of Metal is crying or the absence of crying.


Victor’s Water element appears to be deficient and does not support the natural genius of Water: imagination, allowing, and the potentiality for new life, rebirth and renewal. He is in great need of a shamanic death and rebirth. I would describe his view of life as a “zero-sum game”—everything, all human endeavor, amounts to nothing.


Coming full circle, then, Victor exhibits all elements in a state of deficiency, with the exception of Wood, which is in excess. In excess, Wood is consumed with anger, and cannot express its healthy state of the life force through determination, action, and strategic plans for a life. Victor’s Fire element is deficient. He has troubled female and familial relationships. He doesn’t feel joy. When asked what he has passion for, he replies that he has no idea. Yet all the longing is there for love and life, but no fiery passion from the heart to kindle it. His Earth element is stressed by his lack of nurturing or being nurtured, along with not having a real home in decades. He often wanders alone in foreign countries for months.

Victor lives in the mind, judging, criticizing, naysaying—all of which seem a distortion of Metal’s gift for discernment and Water’s gift for allowing. Metal’s depletion is also expressed in much unresolved grief and depression. Water deficiency manifests in loneliness and isolation. He lacks Water’s imagination to rebirth himself in this life. He is attracted to, but skeptical of, spirituality.

Using the Five Elements for Healing

So far, this must read as a bleak picture. Yet what we as practitioners must remember is that our work is to help our clients reconnect with their true selves, with the higher aspirations of their beings. Victor is actually a beautiful soul. There is a shining sun somewhere behind all those dark clouds. And his longing to be out of his depressing mental, emotional, and spiritual gulag is strong.

My approach in working with Victor has been to focus on what’s here now by using the all of tools of assessment. In sessions, my approach has been to work with the whole being, so that I am not leading with or relying primarily on a single element, given that Victor’s condition is chronic and all of the elements in the cycle have been affected for years. In Victor’s case, he needs to “bathe in all the tides of nature,” all the elements must be brought back into balance. If I feel that wiry, taut pulse and hear that shouting voice, I will be called to harmonize Liver, with help from its Metal grandparent, its Wood mother, and its Fire child. Or if I hear the groaning voice and see a dissipation of energy, I may work with Water (Kidney and Bladder flows).

In Victor’s case, I have used Jin Shin Jyutsu and acupressure flows to work with the Five Elements’ Sheng triads for nourishing parent-child element relationships, especially Wood (Water, Wood, Fire) and Metal (Earth, Metal, Water). In this way I move around the circle of elements. I also work with the Ko triads for harmonizing the grandparent control and counterbalancing relationships: Wood (Metal, Wood, Earth) and Metal (Wood, Earth, Water). Again, though I work with these triad flows with a kind of classic textbook understanding of TCM, I try to use my senses of what’s here in the present moment in determining how to apply these relationships in a session.   

I have encouraged Victor to have a regular schedule of going to bed and arising early, clearing all clutter in his life, simplify, eat whole foods, especially greens, to engage in Qigong, and to continue to be with nature. For the spiritual aspects of his being, I urge him to meditate on the word allowing, and to use the affirmation “It will come to us” to engender trust, to stop worrying and striving, and to let life be what it is.

The Earth element is vital to his healing process, though all elements need to be brought back into balance. Victor is looking for a home, to be grounded and comfortable in his own skin. Earth is the place where the desires for life of the Wood element burst through the ground to be fed by the passionate expressions of the heart, and given a place or container to manifest. What we envision, we can manifest; and the Earth gives us a supportive stage for the stories and passions of our lives to play out. It is our nurturing Earth Mother. For Victor, the Earth element appears to be the only one that nurtures him. 

Grounding as the essence of Earth is what called to me: to put good earth under one’s feet. I have suggested that he meditate by lying out fully on the ground in nature with arms and legs spread out, as Native Americans do, to allow the Earth to heal him. Victor is also allowing (Water) an awareness of his lifelong depression, grief, and broken-heartedness to come to the surface. I have urged him to “drop the story of me,” and to use his discerning mind (Metal) to see the story and its interpretations as just one more mind construct that will continue to feed what Eckhart Tolle calls the “pain body.”

I see Victor’s healing path as an engagement with life, to rebirth himself into the rhythms of nature. To find a way to engage life, I have encouraged him to adopt a one-word mantra: saying Yes to what arises in the moment, no matter how seemingly small, that has the potential to let life in and nourish him. And to visualize each Yes as a tiny candle flame next to the mountain of his problems and to consciously, and willfully, choose the small flame. This is the way of the Fire element of the Heart; or as Mary Oliver so beautifully offered up the heart in her poem “Wild Geese,” “You only have to let the small animal of your body love what it loves.”

The good news is that Victor has “stopped the show.” About four months ago he ended his relationship and left for Brazil. When he left, I wondered if he would find that he just took his mind and his anger to another place—as in, “wherever you go, there you will be." But then I got an email from him. I was surprised by the serene and peaceful tone of the letter. I will conclude with his words. You can hear the Five Elements vibrating within him: the philosophic Metal element; the nurturing and mothering Earth element; the small flame of the Fire element feeling love for his life; and the Wood element has stopped shouting. But if I had to choose an element that has stepped up as the key to healing, I give it to the Water element. Where I had thought that the Earth element was the key, I was surprised to hear the watery tone of Victor’s letter. It feels as if he were resting in a pool of water, allowing life just to be. He has stopped the negative spiral of his former life, and gone inward to rest, renew, and rebirth. His letter has the feeling of a joyous and gentle shamanic death, letting the old life die, and allowing new life to gestate. It does not really matter, however, if one element predominates. Thoreau had it right, as usual: Victor is bathing “in all the tides of nature, in all her streams and oceans, at all seasons.” This is the watercourse way of the Tao.

Hello Tom!

Hope this letter finds you in a comfortable place, inner and outer.

The sky is dark and vast, I can hear the ocean below my terrace, and I've been wondering for how long can one listen to the ocean before turning the radio on; or in my case, turning the laptop on; turning the thoughts on.

I have lain on my bed for a while now, completely naked, in the middle of the night. It is dark and warm, and the body basks in its newly found freedom. There is something about the tropics that puts one in a different state of body and mind, there is an intuitive knowing that you don't have to do, or to add, or to change anything, or to intervene in any way. You can let things be just as they are, you don't even have to cover yourself. Everything's been taken care of, courtesy of Mother Nature. There is an immediate sense of homecoming, not unlike entering a sauna or a hot tub on a winter's day. Maybe our true home is where the warmth is.

There is no apparent scarcity in the tropics, heat and energy seem boundless and ever present. Nature can be trusted to such an extent that local people not only don't have to close windows, they don't even build windows, or houses—or civilizations for that matter—in the European sense of the word. If humans don't have to busy themselves with survival strategies, the question becomes: what do they do then?

I remember habits of my mind, of course. I still remember all of my questions, my dilemmas, my drama. It's just that all of that has been somehow moved over to the back burner of the mind, so to speak. It has lost its urgency, its grip on my consciousness. As if I'm discovering that there is more "me" than what until just a few short days (or was it weeks?) ago I thought there was. As if I'm in a slow motion picture, or if I've embarked on some slow, slow train and I don't know how long the journey might last, or what's awaiting around the next bend.

OK, this is all for now. Hope all is well in your life.

Best, Victor. 

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© Copyright 2010 Tom Wilson, All Rights Reserved 



© Copyright 2010 Tom Wilson, All Rights Reserved
P.O. Box 2278 Nevada City, CA 95959-1945
Phone: (530) 913.1309