Over the next few weeks I will be posting a series of what students of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) call “The Statements of Fact”. Expect about 1 per week with my unstoppable commentary (unstoppable as in ‘this guy never shuts up’). Ok that was a dumb joke, but I think you know it to be true! Look forward to these… they can be quite interesting, and can certainly get you thinking about common things in new ways.
There are many of these statements from various sources by various authors at various times in TCM’s history. Since TCM is borne out of early humanistic philosophies actually, many of these statements are philosophical in nature. Some statements are quite straightforward while others are true mind-benders. For the humble student of TCM, all statements of fact are profoundly interesting, even though some are elusively simple.
For a start let’s look at this simple one, then let’s look a little more deeply:
When water is depleted, fire becomes effulgent.
This is a very basic concept of TCM. The terms “water” and “fire” are representations of different aspects of the body. Each refers to both substances and actions in the body and its physiology. “Water” refers both to the inert fluid substances of the body as well as the body’s potential and ability to source and provide those substances to the tissues. “Fire” refers both to the transformative substances of the body (e.g. enzymes, acids, bile salts, ATP, etc.) as well as the body’s potential and ability to manufacture those substances and drive them to combine with the fluids which are the medium for movement. This could all be grossly oversimplified by saying: water represents the fluids and fire represents the actions of the physiology (such as circulation, muscle contractions, nerve impulses, etc.).
I chose this statement today because we are in the middle of the summer. In TCM it can be said that we are in the heart of the fire season. And with all the heat here, the management of water becomes important. The more heat/fire is present, the more water is spent. Put a bowl of water on the porch in the winter and it goes nowhere fast. But put that bowl of water on the porch today, and before long the heat itself will disperse the water, causing it to eventually go dry if not restored.
It’s the same in the body. Sufficient water allows the fire substances to move and do their active thing. The blood, for example, carries enzymes and other transforming substances around the body. But if the water is depleted due to excessive heat exposure (e.g. excessive sweating) without refilling the water, then the heat/fire is left unchecked. The fire is not limited by water any longer, and is allowed to express its true nature which is to rise, expand, and disperse. Just picture the flames of a large camp fire. The upper portions of the flames do exactly this… rise, expand, and disperse. The flames vent out upward into space and disappear. This is fire expressing its nature without being held back by the tempering effects of water.
If one’s body fluids actually become so deficient as to be labeled ‘depleted’ (which is a significant statement, clinically speaking), then that basically means that workings of your fire element (which describes all actions, transformations of substances, and activities of the body) have gone excessive and unchecked by water due to the low water. It’s a pretty simple concept, actually. Another way to picture this is to visualize an oil lamp with a single flame. The flame burns nice and steady while the oil in the lamp is sufficient. Then, as the oil in the lamp goes low, you will notice the flame becomes unstable and fitful. But here’s the most important part: when the oil burns out, the immediate next thing is the fire goes crazy, flaming upward chaotically for a moment until it is unchecked by the lost oil and the flame expresses its nature: it rises, expands, and disperses out into space and is gone. So, this is why body fluid depletion is a significant clinical finding… because the next step beyond fluid depletion is fluid expiration. At the point of fluid expiration, the fire is fully ungrounded by any other force. In other words, there is no force grounding your active life processes to the body any longer, so these life force processes, your fire element, is allow to express its nature of rising/expanding/dispersing. This leads to one’s life force leaving the body, which is the end of life.
Seems like something minor, right? Like a little poetic description of something insignificant, but no… we’re talking about life and death potentially.
Another example of fire going nuts due to depleted water? How many stories have you heard of someone trapped in the desert without water and the ensuing hallucinations and delirium they experienced? This is the fire going nuts. If the fire was less and the water was more, hallucinations and delirium would never come up since they are a manifestion of unchecked fire.
In this season it is particularly important that fire and water are at a balance somehow. One of the primary points here is that, when either becomes excessive, then the other is relatively deficient, and the problems from this imbalance show immediately and quickly. Once these forces are at an impasse, things go south very quickly and take the body’s systems to dangerous states, potentially.
If you have any questions or comments about any of this, speak up! Stay tuned for more in the Statements of Fact Series…