The power of the Five Virtues to impact our health according to TCM
Updated: Aug 15, 2021
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) our emotional and physical health are intimately connected. This integrated, holistic approach to health and healing recognizes the power that our emotions have to impact our physical health, and our physical health influences our emotional equilibrium. This dynamic relationship of the mind-body-spirit is considerably more comprehensive than the limited, (and largely) functional way western medicine views the organs within the body.
According to TCM, each of the five major Yin-Yang organ pairs is associated with a cardinal element from nature suggesting an intricate web of emotional aspects that extend far beyond their physical function. Moreover, each elemental organ network pair offer the opportunity to cultivate specific virtues within ourselves as we tend to the mind-body-spirit as a whole. The Taoists referred to these virtues as the courageous spirit of the organ. With conscious awareness, we can cultivate these virtuous qualities within ourselves to bring about greater health and vitality to our body and our lives.
The difference of being in command and losing command over the emotions
is the root of life and death, and the starting point of living and dying
- Lu Shi Chun Qiu
The five virtues
TCM argues that the original spirit and its five virtues – compassion, order, trust, integrity and wisdom – are housed within us at birth and specifically correspond with the five major Yin organ systems – the Liver, Heart, Spleen, Lungs and Kidneys.
Unfortunately, the accumulated toxic emotional energy from life, as well as emotional and/or physical trauma, often obstructs our ability to nurture these five virtues and the health of their corresponding organ systems. The accumulation of toxic experiences / emotions impedes the natural flow of Qi – our life force energy – within the body, and blocks these virtues from thriving.
Specifically, the five Yin organs (considered to be “solid”) each embody specific toxic emotions:
Liver: anger, jealousy, resentment, depression
Heart: anxiety, shock, unforgiveness and long-term memory of emotional trauma
Spleen: worry, rumination, obsession, self-worth issues
Lungs: grief, sorrow, shame, guilt, despair
Kidneys: fear, loneliness
These toxic emotions, which can take a significant toll on our physical health and well-being, can be contrasted with the original virtues qualities each organ is said to manifest when in a healthy, balanced state:
Liver: compassion, empathy and benevolence
Heart: order, ritual, propriety, peace, forgiveness and love
Spleen: trust, openness and resolutio
Lungs: integrity, justice, righteousness and courage
Kidneys: wisdom, willpower and the ability to root Divine Will to human will
Because the Yin organs hold the spiritual and energetic properties of the five virtues, removing blockages and stagnation, re-establishing vital flow of Qi energy, and restoring overall balance, is the foundation to achieve spiritual, physical and emotional well-being.
The five virtues allow each of us to express our authenticity, dedicate ourselves to a higher goal / dream, feel connected to everyday wonders, and be the conscious co-creator of our destiny. They represent the intangible, but powerful, inner spark that activates our imagination, ambition, intention and awe with the world around us. Together, they help determine how we show up in the world, connect with others, and navigate all the experiences life has to offer.
Health that has been restored due to the cultivation of virtue
is not the same as health that has been restored due to the dispelling of illness.
- Thea Elijah, The Perennial Medicine
Exploring the elements, emotions and virtues of the five Yin organs
In TCM, five element theory outlines the relationship between the different organs, elements in nature, and life force (Qi) that flows through them. The basic elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Every person is a unique blend of these five elements, and in order to be truly healthy, they all need to be balanced.
Importantly, the five elements are not static. Rather, they are constantly moving and changing, each becoming dominant at different times in the natural cycle, affecting our health throughout the year. The five elements are used to interpret and explain physiology and pathology. Each element is associated with different body organs, colors, flavors, sense, emotions, seasons, weather and virtues.
Disease and illness arise when the five elements become imbalanced – when one element becomes too strong or active and dominates another. To help heal the body and combat disease, nurturing the virtues is a powerful prescription.
Liver - Wood - Spring - Compassion / Empathy
The Wood element is associated with the Liver organ. The emotions of the Liver include frustration, aggression, irritation and anger. Experiencing any of these emotions occurs when Liver energy fails to move smoothly or evenly throughout the body. The virtue associated with the Liver is benevolence and compassion. This is a type of kindness that is genuine, soft and gentle – unprompted and unexpected. Spring is the season of Wood and the Liver, when nature’s energy is bursting forth and the entire world is being reborn.
When the Wood element is healthy, Liver Blood is abundant and circulation of Liver Qi is smooth — marked by a healthy flow of ideas and creativity for the mind to receive and integrate. A person will be connected to their intuition, able to envision a goal, and feel like they have a direction for their life. They can plan the steps necessary to actualize their dreams. In essence, healthy Wood energy provides the courage to pursue one’s potential and regulate emotional ups/downs. When Wood energy is balanced, roadblocks can be faced with flexibility and frustrations met with resolve.
When Wood becomes stifled due to a weakened Liver (such as Liver Qi Stagnation or a Liver Blood/Yin Deficiency) the mind will lack stimulation, leaving a person feeling apathetic and depressed. They may lack direction or purpose. Because of the Liver’s connection to the eyes and “sight,” there can be a lack of vision for life-dreams, dream-disturbed sleep, and a disconnection from one’s intuition. This can cause discouragement and a lack of desire to move beyond one’s “stuck-ness” and circumstances in life.
Heart - Fire - Summer - Order / Propriety
The Heart is associated with the emotion of joy and its potential transgression (over-expression) into mania. The virtue associated with the Heart can be thought of as properness, politeness, respect or honor. The reminder that there is something greater than self is the defining character of this virtue. Striving to live in a state of deep, genuine gratitude is a way to cultivate the Heart’s virtue all year long.
When the Fire element is vibrant, there is clear thinking and consciousness, sharp insight, good intellect, self-awareness, a strong sense-of self, and sound sleep. A person will exhibit good judgement expressed through wise action, and feel inspired. They will have an alertness in the eyes, make eye contact during conversation, use clear speech and confident self-expression, and feel compassion and empathy for others.
When the Fire element is imbalanced and the Heart is affected, a person will have: cloudy consciousness, poor insight, inappropriate/erratic behavior or speech tendencies, socially awkward interactions, low self-esteem, difficulty expressing one’s self, hypervigilance and paranoia, poor self-awareness, a hard time relating to others (including little-to-no eye contact in conversation), lack capacity for compassion / empathy, irrational thoughts and phobias, panic, and disturbed sleep.
Spleen - Earth - Late Summer - Trust / Integrity
The Spleen is associated with the emotion of worry, over thinking or ruminating. Its virtue is commonly translated as faith, trust, belief or integrity. If we define faith as trusting our own deepest experience and our most unshakable beliefs, we naturally begin to feel trust settle in our bones. That faith and trust can then percolate into our interactions with others as we stand tall with integrity. It is honoring the seasons of change in our lives, knowing deeply that all that is needed will be provided.
A strong Earth element promotes the virtues of faithfulness and loyalty. If Earth is imbalanced, these virtues can become skewed to the point of ‘stifling’ loyalty, unwarranted blame, exaggerated sympathy, and even self-destructive generosity.
Supporting the Spleen can help to cultivate clear intention, insight, creativity, motivation, and appropriate faithfulness (to your goals and to other people).
Lung - Metal - Autumn - Integrity / Justice
The Lung is associated with the emotion of grief and its virtue is grounded in fairness that emphasizes our universal brotherhood and sisterhood. There is an aspect of surrendering personal desire for the benefit of others, as well as trusting our instincts. When we listen to our gut response to situations and put others first, we cultivate Metal in our Lungs and in our lives.
When there is weakness in the Metal element, we might see lingering or unresolved grief, a lifeless voice, lethargy, depression, or feelings of loss / incompleteness. In this case, a person might be stuck in a moment that is far in the past, keeping them from being present or moving forward. We might also notice the presence of chronic respiratory issues like frequent colds, long standing cough, or asthma associated with this aura of sorrow.
When Metal is supported and reintegrated with the present moment, we see the ability to process grief in a healthy way. Impulsive reactivity is exchanged for responsiveness and trustworthy instincts. We see the shroud of sadness and heaviness lift, giving way to the ability to appreciate the beauty and fullness of the present moment, to experience awe and wonderment, and to grasp a flash of inspiration.
Kidneys - Water - Winter - Wisdom / Willpower
The emotion of the Kidneys is fear while the virtue is commonly translated as knowledge, wisdom and humble-ness. There is an old adage: how did the ocean get to be king of all the water? It lay lower than all the rest. There is great wisdom to be found in humility.
Water is the element of the Kidneys and the basis for our willpower. This virtue is stored in the Kidneys, which house our deepest “essence” and stores of energy, our inherited traits, and our reproductive potential. The Kidneys are said to house the “life gate fire” which is Yang in nature, yet they are also associated with the Water element which is Yin.
When healthy, the strengths of water include courage and resourcefulness, as well as skill and ability. These gifts help you to be prepared for anything life can throw at you. One common symptom of an imbalance in the Water element is fear or anxiety – the feeling of not being prepared for what life may bring.
The emotion of the Kidneys is fear, which might be thought of as the opposite of wisdom and willpower. When you look back on your life, do you recall experiences where fear of the unknown transformed into experience-based wisdom? Will is related to our destiny or fate – our relationship with and journey into the unknown of the future – and it involves trust and faith.
Another aspect of the Water element is involved in the way we set boundaries for ourselves. For vibrant health, we must guard our precious resources, spending our energy wisely and knowing when to stop and replenish. One possible sign of imbalance is ignoring signs that it is time to rest. For example, instead of taking a break when tired in the afternoon, one might be tempted to drink a cup of coffee and push through. The healthy way to add to our reserves of energy is through drinking water, eating nourishing food, correct breathing, and restorative rest. Not paying attention to our boundaries often reveals itself via telltale physical symptoms correlated with the Water element, such as knee or low back pain.
An imbalance in the Water element may appear as restlessness, a desire to run away from life, a vague or existential fear, a desire for things to be different than what they are, like a fear of aging, for example. When the Kidney / Water element is weak, there can be a lack of willpower and drive, which is an important aspect of chronic depression. On the other hand, out-of-balance Water can also become destructive, resulting in recklessness and excessive risk-taking. These symptoms can coincide with premature aging, low back/knee pain, bladder issues, burnout, chronic exhaustion, recurrent or lingering illness, ear ringing, thyroid imbalances, memory loss, or edema.
On a physical level, the Water element corresponds with the back, knees, ears, head hair, bones, teeth, kidneys, bladder, and fertility. On the mental level, Water corresponds with cleverness, persistence, setting limits for oneself, risk taking, intelligence, trust, faith, and the ability to overcome obstacles. On the spirit level, Water corresponds with resourcefulness, courage, will, power, stillness, calm, and reassurance.
Essentially, Kidney Will gives us the perseverance to set out on the journey to reach our goal. A healthy Water element invites us to faithfully wade into the unknown, take the reins of our destiny, and realize we’ve had the power to be the co-creator of our life all along.
How the elements and virtues can help us to heal
The theory of the Five Elements originated centuries ago from observations of patterns in the natural world. The five virtuous qualities spring from these Elements. Indeed, the ancient Taoists believed these virtues live within our tissues and have the ability to transmit, or transform, dis-ease. When we are true to ourselves, we will be natural and spontaneous. When we focus on cultivating and nurturing these virtues, we have the power to break free of entrenched negative / harmful patterns that do not reflect our true nature – and remake the world and ourselves to better reflect our innate truth.
We live in a culture where we are taught to value pushing our boundaries, doing the most we possibly can with our time. We are easily distracted by the demands and responsibilities of life and work. Few of us take the time to be still and question whether we are being the people we want to be and following our purpose. Make the time to self-reflect on what part of your life needs to change, how you can be better, how you can include more joyous activities in your life, and acknowledge all that you have to be grateful for today.
The wisdom of the Five Elements says that slowing down, nurturing a balance between movement and rest, and fostering 'being' equally with 'doing' will bolster our health, extend our lives, and allow us to live more fully in each moment. Cultivating the five Elements in a clear and balanced manner helps us to adopt and express the five virtues of wisdom, justice, loyalty/faithfulness, propriety and kindness, rather than be consumed by fear, anger, reactivity/impulsiveness, complacency/boredom, or disconnectedness. They allow us to have authority over our thoughts, actions, health and life path. Together, they guide us find our unique individuality and foster connections that make life meaningful.