The Five Element Theory of traditional Chinese medicine is also called the Five Phases Theory. As well as being evidenced in the five seasons of Chinese medicine, each element is clearly seen, felt and demonstrated in what are known as the five stages of life that we experience from birth until death.
Each stage of life has been identified by the ancient Chinese as 15 or so years long. Each stage of life is also under the influence of one of the five energies of Chinese medicine’s five elements. The number of years per stage of life is based on an average lifespan of seventy-five years, although in modern times, given our expanded life spans, it’s safe to say we can add anywhere from three to five years to each stage of life.
A factor adding to this three to five-year extension points to today’s children who do not have to assume adult roles in adolescence. Many of them are choosing to postpone taking on mature responsibilities that their counterparts of decades and centuries ago were forced to bear. For this reason, we should probably add about three years to each of the five phases of human life with each phase running approximately 18 years.
In traditional Chinese medicine, the five elements and stage of life are: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water.
The five-element stages of life presents a somewhat simplified model since traditional Chinese medicine also takes into account the moment of birth (hour, day, month, year) because specific energies of the moment of birth influence what is known as our individual energetic biorhythm.
Nevertheless, the simple model of the five stages of life can tell us a great deal about how we are likely to progress through life. Armed with this understanding, we can also proactively and resiliently meet, if not, overcome many challenges of life.
Wood Stage of Life
Youth is associated with the tremendous vitality and energy of Wood, the first stage of life—from birth to about age 15 to 18. It’s a time when the burst of yang energy drives the growth of the body.
During this Wood stage of intense growth and energy, the young person tends to feel emotions of frustration, anxiety and often anger. It's easy to feel restless in light of all the energy surging through the young highly energetic body.
The child’s vital energy is so very alive, almost wildly alive, and therefore needs to be directed. This is why children in this stage of life are very well served to take regular yoga lessons or martial arts classes where their chi can become more focused and directed. These enjoyable disciplines bring children into a more balanced state—physically, mentally and emotionally, while offering many other benefits as well.
Wood is the foundation stage of life when the child plants ‘seeds’ for growth in the next four stages of life.
Fire Stage of Life
Fire is the time we come to maturity—the second phase of life beginning around age 15+ to age 30+. Now is the time of great clarity as we allow ourselves to be seen.
Like the explosively growing flowers of Summer, we, too, continue to blossom as we learn life skills and build our lives.
Now is when we strive to find a way to express ourselves in the world. Now is when we probably will settle on a career though this Fire stage is also a time of endeavoring to discover our true path in life.
During the Fire stage of life, we start forming many meaningful relationships in which we may experience many ups and downs. We will have to rely many times on the heart, our center of calm, to protect us and get us through the rollercoaster ride of this stage in life.
We are the Lover archetype during the Fire phase—a lover not just of another person but of the senses as they draw us more into experiencing the joys of life itself. We’ll begin diving into and exploring with more abandon than older people things like nature, the arts, music, dining, wine, entertainment and so much more.
At the same time, we’ll also strike up a greater awareness of the world within ourselves—a sign of maturity.
We begin to know our inner self. We’ll develop more self-knowledge. And these are part of the Lover archetype for to love another is to love oneself.
If we don’t take care of ourselves and approach all our pleasure and love seeking in a balanced way where our inner self-exploration is vital to our daily life we can become manic. Our mood can swing wildly to over-the-top expressions of joy which are very superficial and not truly coming from the heart.
Earth Stage of Life
Earth is the next stage of life and one of more mature adults aged approximately 30+ or older to 45+.
The Earth stage of life is the time of the householder and presents a harvest on many levels:
motherhood and fatherhood
compassion and nurturing
Many adults in the Earth stage of life have already created many meaningful relationships with friends and coworkers but relationship building now branches off into starting families and nurturing not just children but all familial relationships.
This is also the time when we can reap the harvest of our career. We have developed our knowledge and skills to the point where we have something of real value to offer the world.
Emotionally, as we try to be all things to all people, we may go into overwhelm, an emotion that creates chaos as projects go unfinished and our creativity feels stagnated.
To prevent this chaos and overwhelm it’s important to stay grounded so we can truly reap the harvest of all we’ve sown thus far in life. By embracing the grounding and stability our homes and family provide us, this stage tends to be the time when our careers yield great fruit so long in the making.
Metal Stage of Life
The most visible phases of the aging process are witnessed in the Metal stage of life in our fifties and Water stage of life in our sixties and beyond.
Metal, the fourth stage of life and of spiritual fulfillment, comes after the Spring, Summer and Harvest of life and it begins somewhere around age 45+ and lasts to age 60+, roughly.
As well-established adults, we have also become the Sage. We needed wisdom all along throughout every stage of life until now, but at this stage, with all the life experiences we’ve gathered and countless mistakes we’ve made, we are now a Sage through and through.
We’ve developed an awareness that enables us to rise above naĪvete, especially when it comes to relationships. We’re able to better maintain balance in the world of love as we quickly assess another’s motives and personality in order to determine whether the person should stay in our life or not.
“Through fully expressing the energies of the Wood, Fire and Earth stages, the quality and spirit of the Metal time is then attained. It is indeed tragic the way Western culture diminishes the value of this phase when in societies more in touch with nature, those in the autumn of their lives are more revered for bringing the community meaning and wisdom.” —Gary Dolowich, MD in Archetypal Acupuncture
Many people begin to feel grief, sadness and regret more acutely during the Metal stage of life. It’s important to be aware of these potentially debilitating emotions and find ways to bring such emotions to balance.
Water Stage of Life
Water, the element and energy of Winter according to traditional Chinese medicine, is also the energy of the peak of yin—a time of quiet and rest. It’s the fifth and last of the five stages of life (after sixty+ years of age).
With even more heightened wisdom than than in the previous Metal stage of life, those in the Water stage of life arrive at a sense of fulfillment, deep inner stillness, letting go, consciousness of the meaning of life, a profound understanding of the qualities of the eternal, and continuity of the soul.
And yet they are still curious, still open to learn and explore as if a child.
The out-of-balance emotion of the Water energy during the Water stage of life is fear relating to the inevitable death of the body. During this stage, one realizes the only way out of such fear is to go through it. It will be on the other side of fear that we realize we have truly lived and loved and because of these contributions we shall always live on. Slashing this fear with a sword of truth brings to the one living through the Water stage of life an authentic sense of serenity.
In the Advanced Stages of Life
When we come to understand the energetic influences in our current stage of life and what might be possible for us in the next fifteen+ year cycle phase, we can anticipate and even mitigate many likely undesirable issues.
Especially as we advance in life, we must focus on the power of the mind and our attitude and how we may harness both for more uplifting, vitality-filled lives no matter what age we are.
We truly can create a happy, confident, contented, long wonderful life by making certain lifestyle and conscious awareness choices such as these calming, soothing practices that surround and fill us with life:
Practicing yoga, qi gong, or tai chi several times a week
Regularly exercising in a way that resonates with us and that we can enjoy
Frequently immersing ourselves in nature such as taking meditation walks, hiking or forest bathing, gardening, moon gazing, and communing with nature, literally
Walking barefoot on the earth as much as possible
Living in harmony with the five elements and seasons
Eating well. We can make quality non-processed food choices our priority and learn what that is if we're unsure.
Making reinventing ourselves and self-care exciting priorities in life. Enjoy new body scrubs, massage oils, musical artists, restaurants dedicated to healthy delicious food, style of dressing, hairstyle, and past-times.
Slowing and deepening our breathing. Focus on taking six longevity creating breaths a minute.
Allowing plants and flowers to share their vital force energy with us for greater life and vitality
Sharing our lives with a pet who loves us
Keeping art and beauty in our lives. Don’t buy it or bring it inside if it isn’t beautiful and life-affirming.
Cultivating the habit of appreciating every small or big thing you love even a little bit. Eventually, it becomes second nature and you’ll be smiling involuntarily.
Developing enriching relationships and holding them as sacred
Being in selfless service to others. Volunteer at your local food bank, assisted living facility or homeless shelter. Teach adults to read and write, plant trees, give of your time and talent at your town’s community organizations.
Continuing to create through work you love with no goal of retirement. Maybe you’re not the type to retire. You don’t have to just because others are doing it. You have developed the most valuable and contributable skills and know-how at this point in your life. They’re worth continuing to share.
Letting go. The urgency we’ve been programmed to believe in and accept is not totally necessary. Someone else benefits from that, not you. Consider relaxing, savoring and enjoying life.
“Studies in elderly people who have been active all their life such as the Lapps* in Finland and Sweden show no decline in functions until the date they sell their reindeer and sit down, whereafter they quickly decline to the level of other people of the same age.” — Mikael Fogelholm in Physical Activity: A Part of Healthy Eating? Report from a Nordic Seminar
Dolowich, Gary. Archetypal Acupuncture: Healing with the Five Elements. United States, North Atlantic Books, 2011.
Fogelholm, M, "Physical Activity: A Part of Healthy Eating?" Report from a Nordic Seminar, Lahti, Finland. 52. 2001., http://www.sciepub.com/reference/239294.