Like Tao, Yin/Yang, and Chi, the Five Elements are a big deal in feng shui. According to Chinese philosophy, these elements – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water – are responsible for everything that makes up our entire universe. Every item in existence can be classified under one of the five elements. (Yes, even plastic!) Let’s delve deeper into what they mean for feng shui.
To Start, a Little Context
In introducing the concept of Tao, I discussed how Tao encourages us to live in harmony with the laws of nature. Well, nature is always changing, and it follows a predictable cycle that explains all life processes. At its core, a natural cycle is comprised of a beginning or creation phase; a productive or active phase; a waning or slowing down period; and an end or period of reset. There is an order of development for all things, natural and human-made, and nothing stays the same forever.
In feng shui, we believe that while we don’t necessarily need to impersonate nature, the rhythms of our life should model this sequential pattern of development. And this is where the five elements come in, as each one of these life phases corresponds to a different element (see the handy graphic below). Although this might not seem like that big of a deal at first glance, these life cycles are all around us (and within us), and we're constantly cycling through them. They can explain almost everything, from the flower outside your window, to how your college semester unfolds, and (the ultimate example) to how we are born and die, reinforcing the natural, intimate (and changing) role that the elements play in our lives.
Of Course, the Elements Are About More Than That
In feng shui, we not only look at the world as a series of life cycles; we define the world based on these five elements of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. We believe that they are the building blocks of the universe and that everything in our world can be classified according to one of the elements.
We define each element based on whether it’s a content or a catalyst. Earth, Metal, and Wood are the content elements, which means that these elements represent all the materials that create content in the physical world. They represent the solid physical environment. If you stop and look around, you’ll notice that all things are created from earth, metal, or wood (and in the broader sense, Wood represents all things that grow). Even plastics are made from the extracts of earth or metal.
Fire and Water, then, are the catalyst elements. These elements actually or metaphorically shape all content and instigate the shape and form of the other three elements. Fire can represent actual fire or any heat-producing action, such as sawing or carving a piece of wood. And Water can represent actual fluid or a vapor, forming paper from wood or steaming wood to bend. In all cases, the content elements have to be shaped by the catalyst elements to form the objects that we use. And there are fundamental differences between the two types of elements: content elements tend to promote deeper, more specific changes, while catalyst elements increase the likelihood of more sweeping, fundamental alterations.
Each element has its own influence and identifying features. And although they have their own attributes and personality, it’s important to not see them as fixed or separate from each other. They are meant to interact and combine with each other, and none are better or worse than the other. In fact, the way in which they are combined helps to explain why a space feels inviting or unwelcome.
The Elements Are All About Balance
The five elements are important tools that we use in feng shui to create desirable living and working spaces. We can use tangible terms like color, shape, and materials to help us understand the elements and identify them in a space (and I’ll get into the specifics of each one in the blog posts that follow). But they also have intangible effects on mood, conversation, and the behavior of a space's occupants.
As briefly mentioned above, how the elements affect us in an environment is mostly due to the way that they are combined together, so one of the most important goals in feng shui is to properly balance the elements in a space. The elements have a tendency to get out of hand when not combined correctly, leading to a room feeling out of sorts or an occupant not using the room as originally intended. Although it’s important to have all five elements represented in a space, it’s about combining them in the right proportions, and you’ll know you need to tweak the “recipe” if there’s too much or too little of an element in a space.
So how do we balance them? Well, there are a few different ways to do this, depending on which elements you need to have more or less of. When positioned correctly, the elements can be either supportive or challenging to each other, which affects their impacts.
Let’s break this down by looking at the Creative Cycle, which you can see in the graphic below.
The Creative Cycle shows the order that the elements follow so that one element creates another. In the Creative Cycle, each element helps create the element that follows it. Wood creates Fire (Wood is fuel for Fire), Fire creates Earth (ashes smolder and go into the Earth), Earth creates Metal (the contraction of Earth makes Metal), Metal creates Water (dew forms on Metal), Water creates Wood (Water nourishes Wood), and the cycle starts all over again. The Creative Cycle shows how the elements interact harmoniously.
Here’s how this plays out in a space: a room that has a predominant single element (let’s say Earth), a secondary element that stems from the first (Metal, which is created by Earth), and splashes of the other three elements will be harmonious. The room will feel and look balanced because the two predominant elements are next to each other in the Creative Cycle, with the primary element having created the secondary element, and all five elements are represented in the room. So…
But just as easily as the elements can support each other, they can also mitigate or challenge each other. And we can use either the Reduction Cycle or the Destruction Cycle to help reestablish balance when there is an overabundance of an element in a space. As you can imagine based on the names, the Reduction Cycle is a gentler way to lessen the effect of an element, while the Destruction Cycle is a bolder remedy and often produces more tension and a dynamic outcome. As a general rule, try to use the Reduction Cycle first because it’s gentler; the Destruction Cycle causes more energy and excitement in a room, which isn’t always appropriate.
In the Reduction Cycle, each element reduces the strength of the element that precedes it. Fire reduces Wood (Fire burns Wood), Wood reduces Water (Wood drinks from Water), Water reduces Metal (Water erodes Metal), Metal reduces Earth (Metal condenses Earth), and Earth reduces Fire (Earth smothers Fire).
In the Destruction Cycle, each element overpowers the element sitting two places away from it. Wood destroys Earth (Wood absorbs nutrients from the Earth), Earth destroys Water (Earth dams Water), Water destroys Fire (Water puts out Fire), Fire destroys Metal (Fire melts Metal), and Metal destroys Wood (Metal chops Wood).
Now that you know the basics about how the elements work together, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of each individual element, starting with Wood! Then, you can begin to examine your own spaces and determine which elements reign supreme.