particular element together to ask them whether they agree or not with some of the characteristics we have come to associate with that element. This is a good way to reinforce our understanding of an element. It is also another way of avoiding one of the pitfalls which face five element acupuncturists, and that is of finding it all too easy to start thinking of the elements in terms of rigidly fixed stereotypes (“All Metal people are….), rather than continuing constantly to test our assumptions so as to ensure that they do indeed still hold good. Since we are composed of all the elements in different combinations and with different levels of importance to us, the unique interactions with each of the elements within us will vary and therefore colour the dominant element in different ways. Nevertheless, as we know, there are qualities which people of one element have in common, and it is useful to gain a good idea of these qualities as a way of helping us navigate through what can be regarded as being the often dense elemental undergrowth.
Some time ago I had the opportunity to ask several practitioners who were all of the Wood element what was important to them in terms of their interactions with others. After some discussion amongst themselves they all agreed that what they always wanted was to “engage” with people. Interestingly, two of the definitions given in the dictionary for the word are “to interlock” and “to bring troops into battle”. Engagement is making some kind of direct contact with another person, and also implies some kind of physical contact, like boxers engaging in a fight. It represents to me quite the reverse of somebody “walking on by”, which is more the action I associate with the Metal element’s desire to avoid just the kind of close encounter which the word “to engage” seems to describe. In their description of what they feel most comfortable with, this group of Wood people gave proof of their element’s enjoyment of face-to-face encounters. They are at ease with meetings with other people which contain some quality of a contest. Again, we can contrast this with another element, Fire’s encounters, which lack this sense of competitiveness.
What Fire wants of its interactions with others is instead not a contest, but to set up relationships, gifts which the Heart, buried within this element, wants to offer all it encounters. The challenges which Wood offers those it meets become in Fire’s hands offerings it hopes to give others, ultimately of course the gift of love. The warm smile with which Fire greets everybody is in itself such an offering, and if this is not responded to warmly in return it will be viewed as a rebuff, a rejection of this gift. Often we will see Fire people persist again and again with their offerings of smiles and laughter in an attempt to draw some reaction of warmth from the other person. Wood, in the same position of being denied the engagement it looks for from another person, will simply metaphorically shrug its shoulders and move on, something Fire will find difficult to do, as it will judge the lack of response to its approaches to be a reproach to itself and will therefore try even harder to extract a response.
It is not a response of any kind which Metal wishes for. Far from this. It will view all encounters with other people as a test of its judgement. They are still challenges, as in some respects all meetings with other people are, because they demand responses from each person’s elements, and in particular responses with which a guardian element feels at ease. Metal’s challenge lies in the area of how accurately it assesses the value of any encounter. This assessment will also consist in evaluating its own reactions, for all that Metal does includes a high level of self-evaluation, its task being to weigh up all things, itself included, on the scales of some value they assign to them.
Metal judges itself as harshly, if not more harshly, than others. And to judge you have to stand back and observe as impartially as you can. So there is nothing here of the close involvement of one person with another that Fire strives for, or the challenging encounters Wood enjoys. Instead, there is always a space around Metal which it builds for itself so that it can give itself some distance from which it hopes to view things in as detached a way as possible. Of course, the degree of detachment and the amount of space depends upon the level of balance within a Metal person. The more unbalanced the Metal element is, the less it can stand back and observe as impartially as it should, and the more its judgement will then be affected.
And what about Earth and Water, then? There is some similarity between what these two elements want to experience in their encounters with other people, and in each case they express more of a need than we have seen with the other three elements. Both of these elements enjoy being in the midst of a group, Earth liking to be at its centre with others around it, and Water melding more into the group, each Water person like a drop of water absorbed into the great oceans of life. Earth will demand more individual attention, whereas Water is most comfortable with safety in numbers.
This picture of Earth surrounded by other people, preferably at their centre, metaphorically echoes the original five element diagram in which the other four elements circle around Earth in their midst. Water likes to float as one with the rest of the world, which gives it a different quality from that of Earth. It helps us understand that each will want different things from their relationships with the people around them.
With Earth the most important thing is that those surrounding it face towards it so that they can take careful note of what it wishes to say. It is not enough, as it is with Water, for it to disappear into the group, for then its words will not be heard and understood as they should be, an understanding which is a necessary part of its need to process its own thoughts properly. Processing is, after all, one of Earth’s most important functions. It takes in, digests and then processes all that comes to it, both physically in the shape of food and mentally in the shape of thoughts. It then has to pass on what it has processed as physical food worked on by the stomach, and as mental food in terms of thoughts and words worked on by its mind, which it then invites others to hear.
I have always found it interesting to note the somewhat confusing messages Water seems always to be transmitting. On the one hand it has this need in some way to be swallowed up in the whole, to merge itself with those around it, and on the other, it has the quite contrasting, but less overtly obvious need to rise above the masses around it, and thus to rise to the top. It is known to be the element of ambition and will-power, and just as water in nature exerts by far the strongest force when it is unleashed in storms and tsunamis, so a Water person will tend to achieve whatever it sets its mind to, often pushing aside those who stand in its way, as storm waters submerge all in their path. Its relationship to others can therefore often seem somewhat ambiguous. Appearing at ease in the company of others, it can then surprise them by pushing them aside, determinedly and often unobtrusively, in its fight to get to the top. A Water person might well be the one in an office who, perhaps to others’ surprise, is offered the promotion these others had wanted and expected to be theirs.
And yet, despite this focused struggle to succeed, with little concern for how this affects others and often at their expense, it constantly seeks reassurance from those around it, to still the fears it always has, fear being its dominant emotion.