Fire, one of the oldest concepts in Chinese Medicine, is one of the Five ‘Elements’, or Five ‘Phases’. (I’ll use the word ‘phase’ from now on.)
Each phase (Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, Wood) symbolises a stage in life or activity, from birth to death.
The ancient Chinese noticed that the phases related to our organs, or zang-fu, a term that means a lot more than the organs themselves (eg heart, stomach, lungs, kidney, liver etc).
If our bodies failed to make smooth transitions from one phase to the next, it showed up in our health and could be diagnosed. Diagnosis leads to treatment.
This Fire Phase is at the top of the cycle, and that’s the right place for it, because fire’s heat rises and the Chinese character for it, huo, symbolizes flames ascending.
Heat arises as a result of work and movement, which transforms energy into more useful forms, from gross to fine shape.
Summer is the time of greatest heat, when life matures.
Maturity is needed for balance and the word ‘mature’ is defined as to ripen, to perfect, to develop fully.
Fire brings warmth to the hearth in winter, and the sun brings life to the fields in spring. In summer it ripens and in autumn it scorches and burns up the old stubble. It is the most common catalytic process in chemical experiments and in shaping metal.
In the body, each phase has a function. When a phase stops working properly we produce symptoms related to that phase. A skilled acupuncturist can identify this and with treatment and advice help you get it working again. Believe me, you’ll feel better!
The energy organs (Zang-Fu organs) of this phase have a major role in keeping us warm:
For instance, the Heart pumps Blood round our bodies and when it weakens, we feel colder. This pumping action comes from the phase’s Yang qi: it is Yang because it’s an active process: and it is Qi because it’s a form of energy.
The Heart is the best example of the phase’s energy organs. It houses the Shen, a word which translates roughly as ‘spirit’.
By ‘spirit’ we don’t mean ‘Soul’, an entity which many religions believe continues after physical death. By ‘spirit’ as used here we recognise that someone is in high or low spirits. In other words, how spirited is she, not how spiritual is she?!
This idea of spirit is important. I think it is arguable that nothing happens without a preceding idea. Our imagination occurs first, then we create or act.
Imaginations can be infinitely variable and full of potential, but they need action of some sort to bring them into being. Until then they are ideas only, ephemeral in form.
Ideas inspire and motivate us – but you can’t touch them.
Such qualities are very yang in nature: variable, movable, fleeting, empowering, full of potential, but without substance until acted upon.
In fact the Chinese character for ‘shen’ is made up of two characters, one meaning an influx coming from heaven, the other the idea of extending or expanding. Together they convey the idea of infinite potential given to us to develop. What could be a better way of describing our imagination?
The picture shown (‘Sun over Hampstead Pond’ by John Wynne-Morgan) is made of just oil on canvas but it conveys the idea of sun and warmth. The picture hangs near my desk, so I see it daily.
These ideas concerning health are very different from those of Western Medicine which often loses touch with the spirit’s importance for our health.
Our ‘Heart’ is where Shen is said to reside. Even in the West we recognise that joyful, big-hearted people help us see a larger picture in life, they inspire and enthuse us. They warm us with their easy laughter. Warmth and Shen are properly part of natural Heart Fire.
Think of people who attract friends and bring pleasure. The warmth they spread makes people they meet feel happy.
We like going to comedy shows because they make us laugh and we leave smiling. Laughter, happiness, smiling, warmth: qualities of this Phase when in balance.
Emotionally, a balanced Fire phase within us enables us to foster and enjoy relationships, to give and receive, to love.
Intellectually, an active Fire phase gives us inspiration and imagination, enthusiasm, the ability to stir and motivate. Our ability to create and perform, such as with artists, composers and actors, all derive from how well our Fire phase manifests.
Creativity doesn’t have to be artistic: new ways of doing things may lack excitement but they are still creative.
However, the Fire phase needs attention. It likes praise and applause. Think of how most children love to perform and receive praise. Success at any age in any endeavour rightly deserves recognition. It may be fleeting but it is a necessary part of the wheel of life.
When the Fire phase stops working harmoniously, you get too much or too little of it.
When Heart Fire is weak, the individual lacks inspiration, lacks imagination, lacks spirit, lacks vitality, laughter and warmth.
They may even be cold-hearted. Their complexion lacks colour, they lack warmth in their limbs and they often suffer from low libido. They easily become down-hearted.
Alternatively they may find it very hard to accept rightful recognition and respect, putting themselves down and, probably, not able to carry off the occasion successfully.
When Heart Fire is too strong, they may seem over-inspired: they talk incessantly, forever exploring ideas, have crazy laughter, burn with zeal and indeed they may become manic. Usually their libido is high (‘hot-blooded’) and their complexion often redder than normal.
Here you can see two sides of the bipolar or manic-depressive personality. In one case, Heart Fire is low, in the other too high.
In health, laughter and joy occur when appropriate, and they are infectious.
But when, no matter what is being said, a voice sounds as if it is on the point of laughter, as if it’s about to tell a joke, almost hysterical, then it doesn’t sound right: an acupuncturist might say the Fire phase was imbalanced.
Also, when there is no laughter, no merriment in the voice even when telling a joke: Fire out of balance. Sometimes, if you’re listening, you don’t know whether to laugh because you get no clue, apart from the words spoken.
Of course, some people are dead-pan: they don’t let their voices betray the laughter within, but usually you’ll recognise from the merriment in their eyes that they look to you to acknowledge their wit, and will enjoy it when you do.
People who don’t get a joke, such as some individuals on the autistic spectrum, may have Fire imbalance.
Red is the colour of blood, pumped round by the Heart, the ancient symbol of life. ‘Pure blood’ of a nation is still an emotive description. The arteries carry the life-blood to all parts of the body.
So the natural colour of Fire is red so when there is too much of this – or too little – an acupuncturist may suspect Fire imbalance. Too much is usually obvious, but too little red?
A lack of red is not always easy to recognise because it can be confused with too much white, a Metal imbalance. However, too much white is quite marked, so a lack of red beside or under the eyes or in the laugh lines is not so hard to see.
However, many of the attributes of Fire and Summer are yellow, as in flowers.
Joy and laughter are common amongst children, in whom the fire of life burns strongest. Healthy happy children exude joy. (Mind you, they can quickly turn on misery too, but if it’s a performance, that’s still the Fire element working well!)
However, the state children get into when anticipating, say, a visit to Disney World, is Fire slightly out of control. They can’t rest, they can’t sleep, they’re over-excited and uncontrollable: hysterical perhaps.
Or take someone who wants to be recognised and to be applauded, but is too shy to let himself go and throw himself into the performance: again, this shows Fire not burning fully.
The ability to increase joy, produce joy in themselves and others, then return to normal, shows joy under control.
Control is also a Fire matter, particularly of the Heart, and when the Heart isn’t in control, panic ensues as the pulse seems either to stop or to race out of control.
Taste in Chinese medicine is an important subject.
For health, what we eat needs a contribution from all the different tastes. For the Fire element, the taste is bitter. You don’t need much, but you do need some.
Bitter drinks refresh us in hot climates, such as Indian tonic, strong black coffee, lime and citrus. Some members of the cabbage family are bitter.
For more bitter tasting foods, click on Bitter Taste.
Through the annual cycle, Fire’s season is Summer, when the flowers come out, the sun pours down warmth beneficently and lovers kiss.
In life, maturity is the time of Fire. In balance, all parts of the life come together in creativity and pleasure, work and play, couples meet, marry and procreate through love with joy.
Purification by fire is an ancient method of achieving a measure of maturity, particularly emotional maturity. Integration of this contributes to a peaceable society.
The way we speak and our use of the tongue come under Fire. When Fire is out of balance, our words don’t flow naturally: we speak too fast, or perhaps we stutter or speak incoherently or disjointedly.
Where you see the word ‘heat‘ used in Chinese medicine it means something pathological – ie that it causes disease.
Confusingly, you may sometimes also see the word Fire used that way, even though when used to mean one of the Phases (or Elements) it is natural and not pathological.
For instance Heart Fire means something in excess: in this case the Heart is too ‘hot’, producing an unpleasant feeling of heat, with a bitter taste, thirst, tongue and mouth ulcers, dark urine, palpitations, insomnia, dream disturbed sleep, and mental agitation.
Here the natural Fire in the Heart, which normally produces warmth and laughter, friendliness, joy and humour has gone too far and become pathological.
Likewise there is a condition called Phlegm Fire harasses the Heart, where the symptoms go beyond even those of Heart Fire. Here we move into manic behaviour, with phobias, red complexion and a sense of oppression in the chest.
Theoretically any of the organs can experience Fire but it’s associated mostly with Stomach Fire, Liver Fire, (and Heart Fire, as explained above).
Heat has symptoms which include inflammation, often dryness (though the body may produce phlegm or pus in response), redness, and occurs in many syndromes, such as
For more about this, click on Chinese medicine clock.
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