As an avid fan of meditation practices – and the body-mind connection generally – alongside being a 5 Elements acupuncturist, our 'inner' experience and the nature of the human mind was always fascinating to me.
I never really gravitated towards heavily scientific explanations of how the body and mind works as it's generally too abstract, I wanted something more relatable about what I actually experience.
On studying Chinese Medicine and the Taoist philosophy that it's based on I discovered a model, the 5 Elements, which helped to shed some light on and identify the various facets of self that we experience as a human being, in a way that made sense to me. Nearly 20 years later the model still deeply informs the way I see the world, helping me to identify not only imbalances in my patients but also as a way of understanding the natural world generally, and its intelligence is something I passionately share in workshops.
However, a large proportion of how we identify the various elements – which are comprised of pairs of internal organs – is through relatively 'external means'. For example, as an acupuncturist, I can identify the various elements through observing what we call the patients Colour, Sound, Odour and Emotion (CSOE) as each element comes with a different set of correspondences. For example, the Fire element would be associated with a strong or diminished red colour (mainly identified in the face) sound of laughter, scorched odour and joyful animated demeanour.
In addition to this, each element has many other physiological correspondences, as well as being associated with particular tendencies and behaviour patterns, such as with the Fire Element being associated with our ability to relate and passions in life.
But for me, as an avid meditator and explorer of my own inner world, it started to dawn on me that surely if the signs of the elements show themselves so clearly on the 'outside' then surely they must be something I can be equally as aware of on a moment to moment basis 'inside' myself too, asides from the more heightened responses outlined above.
So spending what must be thousands of hours watching my own mind in meditation practices I started to become conscious that the flow of my thoughts also seemed to follow a distinct pattern, that when I looked more closely, also seemed to resemble the energy and phases of the 5 Elements. This was seriously interesting to me due to my desire to understand my inner world, and the fact I was working professionally with the 5 Element model.
This also all made sense to me due to the body-mind connection. Essentially I see the mind as a giant processing station for the signals that come from both the outside and inside of the body, so you will experience in your mind signals and messages from your internal organs and elements just as you do your external senses of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell.
You can see this in Figure 1, where the blue arrows represent the signals from within the body, and the brown arrows signals from outside the body, and both sets of signals make their way up to the brain where we experience them in our mind.
Figure 1: Mind = Internal + External Senses (EDITOR PLEASE ADD IMAGE INTERNAL EXTERNAL SENSES)
This means that as different organs and elements come into ascendency within your physiology and express themselves it will also show in your thought patterns as well as the emotions, behaviours and physical signs that appear.
We can see this in more detail in figure 2, how specific signals from the organs make their way to the mind to create corresponding thoughts.
Figure 2: How Organs Relate to The Mind (EDITOR PLEASE ADD IMAGE 'ARROWS TO HEAD)
So, going back to our earlier observation of how the Fire element can present with the sound of laughter, feelings of joy, the colour red and odour of scorched, it also started to make sense to me that while this element is expressing itself you will also think congruent thoughts – joyful thoughts – at the same time.
I began watching my mind even more closely and started to relate thought patterns to the known qualities of the elements in greater detail. Some of these relationships seemed to be quite obvious as even in most people's everyday lives they articulate things like when they are feeling hungry and thinking of food it's their 'Stomach' talking to them. Or people say that when someone has hurt their feelings and they are feeling despondent that their Heart becomes hurt or closed. (And on the theme of our common language, I also find it interesting we say 'lily livered', 'having lots of gall' and 'being anal' which are all accurate to the Chinese Medicine context of how the balance of those organ functions influence our behaviour!)
But I started to detail the other less charted relationships between my thoughts and the elements. I noticed for example that in 5 Elements theory the Liver and Gall Bladder is responsible for 'planning and decision making' and 'creating a vision' in order to keep your life moving forward, so observing my mind when there was a great deal of planning and decision making going on, it made sense that it was me directly experiencing within my mind was the Liver and Gall Bladder 'talking to me', expressing itself in the moment.
Continuing on I was able to create a chart of the known properties of each of the 5 Elements, and marry it together with observing my own thoughts. As you can see from Figure 3 below, organs are paired together within each element, but each Element comes with a relatively distinct voice.
Figure 3: The Body-Mind Connection: Types of Thoughts (EDITOR PLEASE ADD IMAGE 5E BODY MIND CONNECTION ONLY)
This understanding becomes priceless as instead of thoughts appearing to be a jumbled mass of often confused and conflicting words and images, it becomes possible to relate to them as extensions of your physiology and direct input from the organs in the body telling you what they need.
And this is the fundamental point! Since as we know each of the Elements is universal intelligence itself working through you to keep you balanced, it makes sense to get to know what each of these Elements is asking you for! Essentially the mind is following the body, and the body follows the patterns of nature, it's all connected together.
This was also very important to me in particular, as I was often told that I "think too much" and spent a great deal of time seeking ways and means to try and counteract this, usually using meditation or some other therapeutic tool to try and get above and beyond the thoughts. This was my method of choice to try and get away from my thoughts, but let's be honest, the forms of distraction that we all use to try and escape our own thoughts are endless, TV, phones, more food, more distraction and so on!
So building this new awareness I started to actually listen to my own thoughts and validate what they were trying to tell me, rather than escape them. I started to realise that not all of my thoughts are like 'junk mail' – which you can pick up from various sources around and we can do without – but some of what I think is directly from the intelligence of my organs themselves. 'Junk mail' thoughts – in some respects they can also be stored in the body – you could think of them as stagnant air or water which if not cleaned up or filtered can eventually pollute much more!
This ownership of my thoughts was also interesting in light of some of the 'spiritual' systems I was aware of at the time which seem to decry the mind as being some kind of useless tool that gets in the way of our growth and is something to transcend. But integrating this new knowledge, you take ownership for your thoughts, and it becomes about discernment, understanding some thoughts are important. Basically on this level, the mind follows the body, and the body follows the patterns of nature, it's all connected together.
It's important to note that while I've identified in chart 1 the generic types of thought that each element will present in the mind, you can of course be anywhere on a spectrum of excess through to deficiency with each of the elements and this will alter how you experience that element 'talking' to you inside your mind.
For example, while a balanced Wood element will present as the Liver and Gall Bladder creating thoughts to do with planning and decision making and presenting a sense of vision for how to proceed in your life, if the organs and element are in excess, you might experience yourself excessively making plans and having rigid thoughts about how you want things to be, and being preoccupied with moving forward in life and the future.
Or if the Wood element is deficient, you might find yourself not really thinking too much about plans, lacking an ability to make decisions, and not being particularly bothered about the future and lacking a sense of vision. And the same can be said of any of the elements, you can experience its voice in your mind across a spectrum. Or if the element is deficient, you might not really think much about plans, decisions, have a vision or be particularly bothered about the future. And the same can be said of any of the elements, you can experience its voice in your mind across a spectrum.
A tremendous benefit of developing this level of self-awareness is that you start to get to know when your elements are in and out of balance. If for example, you get used to hearing your Wood element in your mind gently giving you direction in life, giving you prompts to assert yourself where necessary, and then you suddenly start thinking about the future, excessively, the mind constantly planning, it can be a sign that the element has come out of balance and needs attention. And this scenario of inner imbalance can obviously relate to any of the organs and elements too. For example if your Kidney energy becomes imbalanced you might start thinking more fearful thoughts, or if your Heart becomes imbalanced you might begin thinking thoughts of isolation.
This is important, as if we're not conscious we have become imbalanced internally, it can result in us creating responses and taking actions in our life that might not be for our highest potential and related to the circumstances we are actually experiencing. Essentially, when we haven't built up awareness of how we are generally calibrated 'inside' we can tend to blame everything on the exterior circumstances in our lives, and make unwise decisions thinking it's the only scope we have to change.
However, in this situation where we 'know' ourselves and feel we have fallen out of balance on the 'inside', we can then of course reach out for support with an 'internal' therapy such as acupuncture or one of the many other systems which help to bring balance.
Conversely of course, sometimes the opposite is true! It can sometimes be clear, when you know yourself well, that an element is out of balance because of factors outside of you in your life that is creating strain upon them.
This is also because we can, to some degree, relate different areas of our life to each element, and if there is an imbalance in that area of your life it can also cause imbalance in the organs which of course effects how you think.
Roughly speaking, I relate the Wood element to career and occupation, Fire to relationships, Earth to home life and basic needs, Metal to having space and letting go of what you don't need any more and Water to having space to rest deeply, as shown in figure 4.
So again, if you know yourself well, you can begin to discern the difference of whether it's your inner perception that is out of balance or whether it's the circumstances around you, by taking a good look at the corresponding areas of your life, which can, sometimes be an indicator. If for example you do experience yourself going into fear a great deal, and then you take a look at your life and realise you leave no time and space for deep rest and you are always on the go, then it can be a clue!
Optimally, when your perspective is in balance, your thoughts will be an accurate reflection of how a situation, an area of your life is impacting you, with respect to your individual nature. This increased awareness and management of your inner self enables you to have greater discernment whether this is the case!
Figure 4: The Lifestyle-Body-Mind Connection: How Areas of Your Life Relate To Your Thoughts (EDITOR PLEASE ADD IMAGE ENVIRONMENT BODY MIND CONNECTION ONLY)
The Mind as a Microcosm of Nature
Interestingly, in observing the mind so keenly I became acutely aware that the mind truly is just a microcosm of how nature operates round us. In exactly the same way that nature cycles through the seasons in order to keep balance, so the mind cycles through the messages and impetus from the organs in the body, each giving the inclinations and expressions they need to stay healthy. So if you were to watch the mind over a period of time, you will see it circulating between the energies and voices coming from each of the elements.
As well as the mind circulating between the energies of the 5 elements, it also follows the patterns of Yin and Yang. Again, if you watch closely how your mind works, you will notice your attention naturally moves between 'Yang' phases where your attention is on the 'exterior' in what I call the 5 external elements of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell, and then it naturally reverts to 'Yin' phases where your attention is on the 'inside' and your awareness moves between the 5 'internal' elements comprised of the organs we have been detailing above. And this is what the mind naturally does, it just moves between these aspects of self, and it isn't a 'fault' that you can't concentrate externally for excessive periods of time as the mind is just following natural laws – just like nature moves between day and night, summer and winter so the mind also has to honour these phases and to push against this just creates strain. While you may be able to discern some of the patterns of the mind that we have identified above in your usual, 'everyday' state of consciousness – particularly if some of the elements are in a heightened state – it's much easier to identify them when we alter our state of perception by using some distinct meditation exercises, as otherwise the mind can tend to be a bit too much externally oriented to pick up on the subtleties.
Importance of Meditation
I've been extremely fortunate in the past to both practice and teach at a retreat where I could roll all this together into one workshop. I'd explain the 'mind map' and then guide everyone into meditation to firstly observe how the mind moves between Yin and Yang phases (the internal and external senses) and then a second meditation tracking the actual thoughts. I'd then give people the opportunity to map out their mind.
Observing the mind, depending on the balance at that moment, sometimes you may hear 2 or 3 of the elements dominating, and of course if one element is out of balance it also shouts louder in the mind too. Just like when we feel hungry we relate to it being our Stomach 'imploring' us to eat, or when we need to express our passionate truth our Heart 'imploring' us to speak, so each of the other internal organs can dominate the mind should they be in a state of imbalance or heightened expression.
And sometimes you might actually hear all Elements talking back and forth with each other over the course of one minute, particularly if they are somewhat in disarray! I remember observing a late night dialogue in my mind one evening when I had a lot to do and not much time, that went something like this...
"I want to eat" (Earth Element) "well, I want to get the emails done ready for tomorrow" (Wood Element) "well I really want to call the girlfriend" (Fire Element) "well we really need to clean up the room" (Metal Element) "well I want to just go to bed!" (Water Element) was one particularly memorable internal exchange mapped on occasion! The point there is, is that if each element is being well maintained – both inside and out in your life, the internal narrative is healthy and not compressed or disconcerted like above!
So the true challenge in life is to listen to the calling of each of the elements and then you will also have a nice balanced mind as the elements will be in peace and harmony. And of course, when an element isn't getting what it needs it starts to shout louder! On that note, it's worth being aware, that ultimately, in Chinese Medicine, we see the Heart as the 'Supreme Controller' when we are in balance, and interestingly, the Heart often comes with the quietest voice inside our mind. So if you are wondering which internal voice to follow, it's not always the one that shouts loudest! In fact, a lot of the other organs become distressed and start to 'shout' when the Heart loses control of directing us clearly, hence why practices like yoga and meditation along with therapies like acupuncture (or a good hug!) are helpful as they either help you to hear the Heart more clearly or help put it back in it's ascendant position.
It's also important to note here, that we all have a slightly different balance of internal elements, we're not looking to achieve a situation where everyone is thinking the same thoughts in the same amount! Some people naturally have more Fire, so may think more passionate thoughts, others more Wood, so more interested in planning and decision making, some more Earth, so thinking about food and sustenance more and so on. It's about each person achieving their own optimal balance.
This inner awareness allows people the opportunity to not only get to know themselves better, but also to understand themselves better! I've found the model can be great for people who are more cerebrally oriented, who rather than tracking their emotions or physical expressions might have greater awareness of the nature of their thoughts.
This way of understanding the contents and patterns of the mind can be helpful in a natural medicine context, or for those interested in self-development, but it could also be of tremendous value in conventional psychological support too. This is because the model is radical in its simplicity (just like nature?) and it's also easily relatable for both the person experiencing the thoughts and those trying to help them. And now it's your turn to map your own mind!
"True achievement is in balancing ALL elements of your life. It's the place where you can look across all aspects of your life, social, work, personal, professional, home and your state of health and wellbeing and think yes, all is well, I am achieving as a well-rounded human being!"
Exercises: Observing the Patterns of The Mind:
Exercise 1: Observing The Natural Movement of Yin and Yang Within the Mind
Choose an external 'sensory anchor', to bring your awareness to. I often recommend using touch – for example the clothing resting on your abdomen just below the belly button (or the sensation of the flesh in that position itself) or you can also try using an external sound to focus on – or even a few minutes of each.
Ultimately you could actually use any external sense – the odour in the room, the taste in your mouth, or even sight, but for now, try touch and sound.
This external sensory awareness we relate to as being a 'Yang' focus. So by choosing an external sensory anchor to focus your awareness you can then become aware of when the mind naturally transitions from this Yang focus and pulls you back 'inside' into a Yin orientation. When the mind transitions to a Yin state you experience your inner thoughts, or a drifting within your thoughts and feelings with little or no external awareness.
Observe how the mind moves between these inner and outer states. Sometimes the mind moves rapidly between them – you can focus on the abdomen and then a moment later be lost in thought, then back to your abdomen, or sometimes much more slowly, particularly when the nervous system slows down.
Sit in self-observation for 10 Mins, (7 mins using touch as an anchor, 3 mins using sound) which should be long enough to notice this natural pattern.
Repeat this exercise daily for 1 week, both in the morning and evening to gain self-awareness of how your mind naturally moves between the interior and exterior and also how both your levels of alertness in these states can change at different times of day. Often in the morning, we can have a much clearer external awareness, at night, we spend more time 'inside'. Again choose an external 'sensory anchor', to bring your awareness to. Again we'll use touch – the sensation of your clothing resting on your abdomen just below the belly button (or the sensation of the flesh in that position itself) However, in this exercise track the specific nature of your thoughts while the mind has moved to the interior and is producing internal dialogue. You can often become aware of what you have been thinking about when the mind moves naturally back to an external focus.
Exercise 2: Observing the 5 Elements Within The Mind
It's essential that the attention and focus is diligently placed back on the external sensory anchor of touch or flesh beneath the abdomen as it's this focus on the exterior which then creates the polarity (or rebound) for the mind to then head back 'inside' again – without the focus you essentially just drift in thought with much less distinction between internal and external states.
After the exercise make a written note of the actual themes and dialogue that you heard in your mind and which elemental category they fall into.
Sit in self-observation for 10 Mins which should be long enough for you to begin to notice natural patterns.
Repeat this exercise daily for 1 week, try moving the time around so you can see that you tend to think of different things at different times of day (as different elements are more prominent at different times of the day)