Chinese medicine, the Earth and the Center

earth_in_wood_chinese_medicineWhen talking about the five elements, particularly as applied to the organ systems of Chinese medicine, it’s easy to find an angle from which to proclaim the supremacy of any of the elements.  Fire gets four organs, for instance, one of those being the Emperor – surely it’s the most important.  Water, on the other hand, lies at the depths – no element is more revered than water in the cultural literature of the Chinese (the Dao is often said to be like water, the supreme man is said to be like water in taking the lowest place, etc….).  Surely water is “top dog,” then.  But what of Wood?  Wood begins the cycle of the elements from most perspectives – it is the animating principle of the whole system – Wood must be the most important.earth_element_slug


So on and so forth.  The answer to the question, “Which is most important,” is the absurdly easy and frustrating, “None.”  However, Earth could have a better reason than the rest to lay claim to this elusive prize.  Earth is the center – the center is the axis upon which everything else spins.  Without the center, you just have a group of unassociated pieces, functioning on their own in vain.  The center brings it all together, ensures that it functions.

There are two ways to think about Earth seasonally.  One perspective holds that Earth is associated with a kind of “late summer,” just before the fall rains begin.  Another, which I prefer, holds that the Earth occupies an interstitial space between each season – the 14 days or so around each solstice and equinox – the transitions from one season to another.  I’ve heard a variety of perspectives about the actual length of time and the precise arrangement of those periods, but this seems to be a consensus.  Regardless, this “in between” nature of the Earth element makes it vital, it governs our transition from one energetic state to another.


Sunday, I went on a beautiful hike in the Columbia River Gorge.  I decided to try to open my senses and not impose anything in particular on my experience.  The overwhelming message, again and again, spoke of the Earth element.  The sweet smell of decay – cloying, almost – with the merest hint of rich wine or butter or something I can’t define.  No matter what part of the trail – metallic/mineral rock faces all around sharing their sharp, clean scent – deep, watery pools of clarity lending a weedy, fresh aroma – high and dry grassy plain full of pungency and heat… behind was the deep Earthen bassnote, emanating everywhere.

Now, we are not officially in the period around the autumnal equinox, though we are technically within that “late summer” period perhaps – but the working of the Earth energy was present everywhere I looked.

The overwhelming idea that came out of all of this exploration is simple.  Earth is at the center, and you must always look to its health.  This is why dietary therapy is the root of most successful treatment plans.  It’s also why so many of my patients seem to need a simple Earth tonification formula (such as Xiao Jian Zhong Tang) after any other series of formulas.  In fact, from now on, I will be carefully examining that possibility with every patient.  I feel that this is, in some ways, superior to the rampant practice of throwing some heavily tonifying formula at a patient after a big illness.  The idea behind it is the same, but it is actually looking at the source of weakness and not the branches.


(Photos taken by Eric and his family, August 2008)

About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

View all posts by Eric Grey - Website: