Water freezes, Wood spreads, and Fire? Fire explodes onto the scene in a blaze of glory, consuming all that’s gone before, dazzling us, then fading to ashes and leaving us blinking away retinal afterimages wondering what just happened. What did just happen? Someone probably got burnt. And it was a heck of a show.
Fire ain’t like the other elements.
It’s in a class of its own–an exclusive, volatile club of one. The rest of the five phases (a more apt translation of wu xing) are basically earthbound: Earth is an obvious case, but take the other three: Metal descends, cools, clarifies. There’s something of the sky about it, but something earthly as well: it’s momentum is decidedly terrestrial, its manner sober. Wood is lively and full of life; like Metal it spans Heaven and Earth, this time in the upward direction. It is rooted down below even as it stretches upwards toward the stars. Hence still earthbound. Water is a beast of another color: the essence of stillness, the lurking subterranean potential awaiting rebirth.
It’s otherworldly, but not in a transcendental sort of way. Water has depth and mystery. Water has Soul. Fire, on the other hand, has Spirit.
As humans we crave fire: its warmth, its beauty, its ineffability. We speak of the flames of passion; of being on fire, in the sense of ‘in the zone,’ somehow unstoppable, as if sponsored like a blazing NBA jam character by an unseen force that unerringly guides our every move. To put it simply, fire is magic: an agent of transformation and a portal to other realms. As such, fire is inherently dangerous, We can’t stay away, but we know not to get too close.
All the five phases are essential to life; they are on one level descriptions of life’s cycles in the first place. But Water and Fire stand out; they are if possible even more elemental than the other phases. They hold down opposite and complementary poles, the North and South positions of the Post-Heaven Bagua. In our bodies, they form our central core: Kidney and Heart.
Water is everywhere synonymous with life, a fact which demands no elaboration.
But Fire is equally essential to life. Our bodies don’t contain raging infernos the way they are made up of 75% plus H2O. But they are warm, or else they’re dying, dying, dead. We depend on the subtle fires of transformation in every cell. Fire digests, gives heat, color; fire illuminates and animates and enlivens.
It can actually seem as though Chinese Medicine gives short shrift to the crucial importance of Fire. Outside of specialized enclaves such as the Sichuan Fire Spirit School of herbalism and Daoist teachings on the interaction of Kan and Li (the Water and Fire trigrams), I feel fire could get a little extra love within CM. Granted that twice as many organs belong to Fire as to any other element, and that Fire gets two types (ministerial and imperial) where every other element has only one. Still, I find myself turning to Southasia for full glorification of this transcendent element.
Ayurveda wastes no words: “Agnih Ayuh,” says one of its ancient texts: Fire is life. Plain and simple.
In households across Southasia, the kitchen fire is held as sacred, and never used as a casual waste disposal (the way an American might casually toss a cigarette butt into a campfire). Brahmin priests conduct fire ceremonies, called homa, for purification and healing, amongst a host of other purposes for which the power of fire can be harnessed. It is no accident that ghee, one of the most revered foodstuffs in Southasia, is also considered both the best fuel for the body’s agni (metabolic fire) and as the sacred lamp fuel par excellence for ritual worship.
In the Ayurvedic tradition(s), it is recognized that when our inner fire is burning clean, we have abundant energy, pa
ssion, and enthusiasm for life, whereas when the fire is compromised (by the wrong fuel, perhaps, or by rainy or windy internal weather), we suffer from accumulation of toxins that clog our bodies and minds. The first responsibility of an Ayurvedic practitioner is to tend to the patient’s agni, feeding it when weak, stabilizing it, keeping it contained and steady. In so doing, they are treating the body, mind, and spirit at once, for it is through fire that these aspects of ourselves are strung together.
Let’s explore the juicy relationship between Fire and Spirit.
When we are filled with spirit we are ‘on fire.’ Indeed, spirits (alcohol) are flammable by definition. Accessing spirit means breaching the boundary of the material world through a dangerous portal that promises ecstasy and beauty along with the potential for life-threatening burns. These generative and destructive aspects of fire go together, as “only a brush with death can allow more life to enter,” as mythologist and elder Michael Meade writes.
In his inimitable way, Meade describes the dynamics of Fire and Water in the tempering of the human soul, which he describes as an initiatory process: “Initiations open up the world this way, through sudden flashes, visitations, insights. A person gets foreknowledge of events or everything happens at just the right time. Knowledge arrives with wings, from an eerie voice croaking somewhere inside or in a dream. But, integrating the effects and meanings of the flights of spirit takes a lifetime; and initiations move by way of both spirit and soul, fire and water, flights of confirmations and descents full of doubts” (Meade, Men and the Water of Life).
Here we have a hint of the intensity and transformative capacity of Fire, its essential importance for a fully, richly-lived life that encompasses the extremes of human experience.
Of course we can’t really separate out Fire from Water, even for the purposes of discussion; they need each other too badly. We need the water of soul to quench the raging fires of spirit, and we need fire’s essential spark to illumine and warm the murky depths of water. We need them both, working together, or we might as well have neither one.
Let’s look beyond the core dynamics of Fire and Water (here capitalized to reflect the specialized CM usage) to the way Fire interacts with the other phase/elements. Fire and Earth have a beautiful relationship, with Earth serving to contain and ground the volatile energies of its parent. A fire pit gives bounds to a blaze; a clay pot allows us to harness fire’s heat in a way that is useful for cooking. Liu Lihong likes to say that zhi gancao is the key herb in Sini Tang, as it is the sweet, earthy gancao (licorice root) that allows the heat of the other two, more firey herbs to become useful.
Likewise, Earth is an essential element in mental–or let’s say psycho-spiritual–health. Fire is our shen, the light of consciousness itself, without which we’d be mentally vacant. But Earth is once again the container that holds our brilliance together. Part of the danger of stoking our mental fires becomes apparent when those fires test our Earthy capacity to keep it together. The notorious line between genius and insanity has everything to do with Earth’s ability to contain Fire. This is a key theme when it comes to the initiatory dynamics mentioned by Meade, as the kinds of initiation he’s talking about have everything to do with close encounters with Spirit, brushes with Soul.
Journeying through Fire’s portal demands that we have some terra firma to come back to, or we risk courting madness.
Fire has a very different sort of relationship with its grandchild, Metal. Metal is a cool customer, prone to obsession with appearances. Mirror, mirror…the reflective quality that worries what others think, or that convinces itself that it knows best. The specter of Metal is judgement and self-righteousness–the crusader in shining armor. Fire is just the ticket for melting down such pretensions and having a roaring laugh at Metal’s anal quality. Metal erects barriers, Fire destroys them. It’s a beautiful thing. Of course, Fire doesn’t just ruin what Metal so carefully attempts to construct; rather let’s say Fire in moderation can lend Metal some welcome softness and warmth, some ductility to be technical about it, to prevent over-crystallization of structures and thought forms.
Fire and Wood–this powerful duo holds down the yang half of the cycle. The relationship here is intuitive; Wood feeds Fire, Fire consumes Wood. The devil is in the details: how much wood, and how dry? Stacked log-cabin style (for a slower fire) or in a teepee (tall, quick and hot)? Taking a more organic perspective, we can say that full flowering expression (Fire) depends on adequate growth (Wood), while that upward and outward growth phase occurs to enable flowering and fruiting.