Sparks for Creative Life

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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 simple organs (eg Heart, Stomach, Lungs, Kidney, Liver). 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 Diagram, and that's the right place for it, because its heat rises upwards and the Chinese character for it, huo, symbolizes flames ascending. 

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:

  • Heart
  • Small Intestine
  • Pericardium
  • Three Heater

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 recognize that someone is in high or low spirits. In other words, how spirited is she, not how spiritual is she?!

Imagination and the Spirit

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, moveable, 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 over 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.

Heart Shen and Fire

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. 

What does Fire mean and do?

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 the 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 normal 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.

If the Fire Phase is Weak ...

When Heart Fire is weak, the individual lacks inspiration, lacks imagination, lacks spirit, lacks vitality, laughter and warmth.

They may even be cold-hearted. They lack colour in their complexion, lack warmth in their limbs and 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 the occasion off successfully.

If the Fire Phase is too Strong ...

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.

Recognising Imbalance in the Fire Phase


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, 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.


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.

Joy, the Emotion of Fire

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.

Cycle of Fire

In the annual cycle, Fire's season is Summer, when the flowers come out, the sun pours down 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, and usually couples meet, marry and procreate through love with joy.

Speech and the Tongue

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.

Don't confuse Fire with Heat!

Where you see the word 'heat' used in Chinese medicine it means something pathological - ie that it causes disease.

Confusingly, you 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 more with Stomach FireLiver 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

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Jonathan Clogstoun-Willmott Books

All the books in the 'Chinese Medicine in English' series should be fully accessible on Kindles and Kindle apps. (Or you can buy the softback print editions, of course.)

('Western Astrology and Chinese Medicine' published 1986, was never available in a Kindle version.)

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Here are some of the books I (Jonathan) have written.

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Qi Stagnation - Signs of Stress

Yin Deficiency - Burnout and Exhaustion

Yang Deficiency - Get Your Fire Burning Again!

Yuck! Phlegm! How to Clear Your Phlegm ...

Western Astrology and Chinese Medicine

Published 1986 and, amazingly, still selling. Western Astrology and Chinese Medicine was apparently used back then by at least one acupuncture college to help students understand Chinese medicine! See Reviews.

Seven Reviews so far for Yuck Phlegm. (Despite the lurid cover, it explains the five main types of phlegm and what works best for each type. I hope it's easy to read and will be much more useful than all the websites on the subject.)

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