In looking at the 12 officials we have to start at the one which is at the centre, the Emperor/Empress of body, mind and spirit, the Heart official. It is given the number 1 in the numerical order of the officials, extending up to 12, indicating the importance of its role at the centre of the Fire element. It is the only official not only protected by its yang companion, the Small Intestine, but surrounded by two other officials, the Heart Protector and the Three Heater, which form a protective bodyguard around it. I call the Heart and Small intestine officials the two Inner Fire officials, and the others the two Outer Fire officials.
The Outer Fire officials are given different names in other branches of acupuncture, but I like to keep to the names which I was taught as a student all those many years ago, the Heart Protector and Three Heater, seeing them as part of a tradition which I feel it is important to pass on. This is why I insist on continuing to give each official a Roman numeral (from I to XII), which places the Heart, of course, in rightful first place, not, as in other traditions, with the Lung first.
It is important to have a picture in our mind of how the four Fire officials combine their work, before we look at each one in turn. Together they form an indissoluble unit, each with a very specific, individually defined task, but all working to one end, which is to to protect the Heart and allow it to function as it should. In physical terms, this is uninterruptedly to pump blood around the body to nourish every cell. But to do this it not only needs protection to ensure that it never falters, for even the briefest interruption to its work will usher in a speedy death, but that what reaches it, physically in the physical blood, and emotionally in the emotional impulses with which it controls our emotional life, remain as robust as possible. Here each of the three officials which surround it have their individual part to play.
It is helpful to think of the two pairs of officials as though linked together in forming the Fire element, and yet in some mysterious and significant way as separate from one another. One characteristic that they have, which I found slightly odd when I first learned of this, is that, though so closely associated with each other, they remain at a profound level detached from one another. When studying the concept of energy transfers between elements I learnt that it is theoretically possible to transfer energy between any one yin official and any other around the cycle of the elements, but it cannot be transferred directly within the Fire element between the Inner and Outer Fire yin officials. It is possible, though, to do this transfer by passing energy from yin to yin of each element around the cycle until it reaches the other side of the Fire element. In practice I have never seen this done, because the need to take from one aspect of Fire to give to the other aspect is too remote to be contemplated, since both Heart and Heart Protector need to preserve all their energy for the Heart rather than depleting themselves by passing some on. This does, however, help me to understand that there is a barrier between the two aspects of Fire which acts as a further protection for the Heart.
I have always liked to visualize the Fire element as a fortified castle, with the Heart, a yin official, in splendid isolation at its centre, surrounded closely by its yang companion, the Small Intestine, and the two outer Fire officials manning the castle ramparts, preventing unwelcome approaches to the Heart. The Outer Fire officials can be seen as forming a protective ring around the Heart and the Small Intestine in their midst.
I like to call the Small Intestine the Heart's secretary, with a wastepaper basket at its feet, rather than the weapons I visualize the two Outer Fire officials holding in their hands to protect the Heart. Its principal function is to select only what is appropriate to pass through to the Heart, and to discard the inappropriate by passing it on to the Large Intestine to expel from the body. In physical terms it does this through its work upon the blood, but in five element acupuncture it also has what we can consider an even more important role, which is to sift for any impurities at the deeper levels of mind and spirit. This makes it one of the busiest, if not the busiest, official of all, since it must work tirelessly at every moment of the day and night to prevent what might have passed unchallenged through the outer defences of the Heart Protector and the Three Heater from gaining direct access to the the Heart.