In multiple traditions, the soul that is peaceful is said to be “balanced” by means of a system of elements. The Western training of Franz Bardon uses a 4-element system for this which corresponds to the five-element Chinese system. But bizarrely these two modern approaches are opposites, and even more so, the Chinese one is much closer in spirit to Ancient Greece than the Western one. I’m still not quite sure why that should be.
Katchmer’s great book, The Tao of Bioenergetics (1993), offers what I see as the basic view. Glenn applauded it as having “a good explanation of the workings of the Eastern methodologies and perspectives, with enough concrete Western examples to keep one scratching one’s head for quite awhile”. It’s built on the contrast between the Western and Chinese approaches to knowing in general. The Western approach is substantial and reified and seeks ‘the right answer’; the Chinese is an energy paradigm valuing flow.
It’s almost not wrong to say that for something to be ‘an answer’ in China, it must be flowing, whereas for something to be ‘an answer’ in the West, it must have stopped flowing (at least until Heidegger and Deleuze). However, when it comes to elements-systems, it would appear that the ancient West — Greece — bucks this trend.The Chinese five-element system works in cycles. The “Generative Cycle” arranges the elements in a circle with each element producing the next in turn — Water is said to produce or generate Wood, and so forth. In the job of balancing the elements, indirect action thus becomes possible — to strengthen the Metal element one may strengthen Earth, since excess Earth will become Metal. Metal corresponds, for example, to the lungs, and Earth to the Spleen/Pancreas/Stomach complex, so weak lungs can be strengthened by strengthening the stomach. In the “Destructive Cycle”, on the other hand, Metal has the effect of reducing or inhibiting the Wood element, of which the organ is the liver. Thus an overactive liver can be reined in by strengthening the lung. Each organ is associated with a complex of emotions, thus these interventions alter one’s psychology.
It’s all about effecting dynamic changes in an ongoing stream. As qi flows through the whole it clings or is overactive or else is weak, in this or that area, and the flow is warped out of true. Systems for getting it back in line using the elemental approach range from the purely meditative — like Chia’s Fusion of the Five Elements, work with the meridians, or stuff by Bi Yongsheng I’ll refer to later in the post — to the book I got those illustrations from, Chang’s The Tao of Balanced Diet (1987) which makes use of flavour, energy level and pH balances in different foods. Healing by eating, a nice thought which has worked for me. (Chia promised a similar system once but I don’t believe he has ever published it.)
When flow is clear, when all elements support each other and none is predominant, when the system is free of blockage, it has then become transparent and favours no direction, so can recover events and expressions. It has a dynamic homeostasis allowing a life of undisturbedness or ataraxia amidst any sort of motion.
What’s very interesting is that (from what we have left to us), the Western four element system seems to have begun with a similar attitude to flow. The elements, says Empedocles, “prevail in turn as the time comes around”. Heraclitus, so often the most Chinese of the Greeks, mentions that “the death of fire is birth for air and the death of air is birth for water” and so on. Anaximenes and Anaxagoras have certain relevant passages and Plato’s Timaeus includes much on the process of cyclical transformation of the elements (49-50), and how they make up the character of souls.
But the European approach has not kept up this interest in flow and Bardon’s 20th c. Western Hermetic technique shows the result. It’s so different that I actually have discovered I’m not able to combine the two comfortably, but it perfectly illustrates the ‘reified/static’ mien of Western European thought as sketched by Katchmer.
Bardon’s system is in the line of Agrippa and Fludd, Western occultism. The technique involves breathwork with four different elements as two pairs of opposite qualities — Fire and Water are hot and cold; Air and Earth, light and heavy, respectively. The practitioner first learns to handle each element separately by breathing it into the body. When seasoned s/he can then inbreathe all four elements simultaneously, focusing them in different areas: Earth in the legs and genitals, Water in the belly, Air in the chest, and Fire in the head. By concentrating the energies strongly, each simultaneously in its area, the practitioner brings the system into balance and harmony. Fludd shows exactly this elemental order. The Indians tend to put Air on top I think… more research coming.
This harmony is entirely static. There is no sense of interaction with the environment, only with a world of ideal qualities, and the four “flowing”, “becoming” elements of old Western lore are not to be found. Where the Chinese system involves carefully balancing motion in order to reveal harmony, the Western system makes a block of harmonised motionlessness to which the ordinary life energies must conform. I find it a telling difference and one that confirms Katchmer, although the latter doesn’t know Bardon.
Glenn Morris fans will note that the ability to run energy hot or cold at will is very much a part of his system. However, working with Bardon’s Fire and Water elements does not help for this as Bardon never runs energy at all — the West is quite destitute of a meridian system through which energy can be dynamic. The only qigong book I have ever seen with good instructions for running hot or cold at will is the one I quoted at the end of last post, which is rapidly becoming my favourite book on medical qigong of all time: Bi Yongsheng’s Chinese Qigong Outgoing-Qi Therapy (1997). (Glenn himself teases but doesn’t give a method for this.)
You can also find in that book a system for generating a form of qi corresponding to each of the five elements, which can be used for elemental balance exercises on the generating-destroying cycle I gave earlier earlier. (Mind you, I haven’t yet tackled the huge work of Jerry Alan Johnson who I believe studied with Bi. But Bi’s book is seriously good anyway.)
It’s interesting to think that the Chinese system reflects much more closely the fluid/becoming nature of the Greek elements, as given by many philosophers, than the later European occult systems seem to. As I say, I’m not sure what happened there, nor when the switchover to the static occurred in the West.
Sorry for tardiness and linklessness, plus fair warning that as I write the Webster rebuttal which is taking on large proportions, Saturday posts may become shorter/sketchier or occasionally absent. I do have a lot of posts in cold storage I can bombard you with but they may run out. Thx for bearing with me, think it’ll be worth it…