The Five Movements of Life

The five movements or seasons of life are a fundamental way in which the Chinese understand and observe life. These movements describe a continual cycle of energy–rising, falling, and rising again.

Life is movement. And life is oneness. You can’t know about the five movements unless you know about the one. The concept of yin/yang is not really about polarities or opposities, it’s about complementarity, the constant movement back and forth between night and day, hot and cold, soft and hard. As the martial arts teach, you don’t oppose the energy, you catch it and move it around.

The concept of “I” and “you,” so valued in our culture, is very different from the world of oneness. As a medical practicitioner oneness means I don’t treat you to make you better. We do something together for the sake of the oneness. The moment you touch someone you have given a treatment. We touch with the acupuncture needle or with a word. In Native American tradition, every word spoken must honor the parent’s parent’s parent and serve your children’s children’s children. If I touch you, I touch another and another. Life ripples out from anything any of us does.

This is different than saying, I’m going to fix you. I’m in control of nature. I’m going to stop death and pain. Our culture is in opposition to death. Currently a huge percent of our health care budget is spent during the last six months of people’s lives trying to hold off death. We need to say, yes there is death, there is pain. How do I live, how do I dance in the presence of it?

The key is to begin to observe life as it happens. To observe the energy as it rises and falls. Not to judge it, but to go with it. The five movements are a natural cycle like the seasons, occurring all the time, during every meeting, every dinner, every encounter, in everyone’s life. For example, we start this meeting tonight in Winter. There’s a sense of unknowing, I’m not sure what to say, you’re not sure about me. We’re listening and wondering. There is power in this unknowing, too. Something starts to push its way up out of the ground, and we move into Spring. The growing thing may be a tulip instead of the rose we expected, we may try to push it down. Judgments can arise at this stage. Then we move on, the meeting reaches some kind of a peak. There’s warmth, it’s Summer, we join together. Then we begin to harvest, picking up the pieces that are important. It’s late Summer, before the letting go of Autumn. And then the cycle of the meeting is complete.

Such it is with all of life.

The five seasons, movements of life correspond to the five elements (see illustration) and each of those movements have gifts to bestow on us and others, if we can observe and accept them.

Water is the winter. It is a place of unknowing, of quiet, of coldness, of hibernation, even of death if one has not stored up enough to last. It is also
a place of power, wisdom, of deep listening. In the body, we
associate this place with the kidneys, the taking in and
drawing up of water–in acupuncture language, the bubbling
spring that comes through the feet as we walk.

We know practically nothing about this movement in our culture. It is hard for us to stay in the unknowing. We love the rising energy. In fact, we are addicted to it. But there are gifts in Winter. The shiver of cold gets us moving again. The unknowing generates the spring. Wood grows out of the water.

The moving down of the the energy is essential to the upward movement.
The ability to listen and listen and to listen until the spring comes is the great gift of Winter. If we stay long enough in unknowing, it gives birth to creativity, to the Spring.

In the Spring, we make distinctions. Up come tulips or oaks or poplars. The rising Spring energies are associated in the body with the gall bladder. This creative time moves into the heat of Summer, symbolized by fire. There is joy, partnership, laughter. But even as the fire builds to its hottest and then begins to diminish, there is the inevitable downward pull. As in lovemaking, even at the point of passionate climax there is a connection to our vulnerability.

Then comes the bittersweet, letting go of what has come to completion, as we move into Late Summer. Late Summer is symbolized by Earth. It is a thoughtful time where we gather up the connectedness that we have, not the connectedness we wish we had. The only pain there is is expecting that life be other than what it is. We accept life as it is. We become more grounded in the earth. We become more thoughtful about how to take care of each other just exactly as we are. We bow to our fellow human beings as they are and wonder, will they let me be who I am?

Then we move into the Autumn of letting go. The Autumn brings the gift of Acknowledgment. In the body, it is about taking in through our lungs (inspiration) and letting go with our colon. You can’t hold onto the leaves on the tree. There is awe and respect as we bow to the end of the cycle of the year.

Each of us is particularly steeped in one of these movements or seasons. We are at home with some and less with others. Some of us are full of life and warmth. Others are best at listening. Still others see distinctions clearly and create. The point is not to stay at any one season, or to judge others who are at a different season, but to move through them. It’s not what you do well, but what is being called for by life. As practicitioners we need to learn how to give the gifts of all of the five movements, depending on what is called for at any moment. We need also to received these gifts without judgment. And always we are moving, like everyone else in the universe, in a dance between birth and death.

This article is adapted from the October 1995 workshop conducted by Dr. Robert Duggan as part of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine’s series, “The Healing Force of Nature.” Mr. Duggan, acupunturist and teacher of Chinese medicine for 23 years, is President of the Traditional Acupuncture Institute and chairman of the Maryland State Board of Acupuncture.

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Written by Robert Duggan

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