The Energetic aspects of the Elements

In a previous post, I have introduced the gross elements, those that our sense perceptions can feel. Our sense perceptions are the bridges between the so-called external world and our inner world. And it is through them that we can access our energetic system.

We commonly think that we have five senses as we have five sense organs which connect us to the environment: eyes, ears, skin, tongue, and nose. Eyes for seeing objects, ears for hearing sounds, skin for touching, tongue for tasting and nose for smelling. These are the connection between the organs and our capacity to capture the information from the external elements. These connections are what I call the energetic system.

Energy is a bridge between the material objects and our mind as it gives shapes for our mental consciousness to make sense of the world. In Eastern traditions, there is a 6th sense with is consciousness. Indeed, without consciousness we cannot interpret the signals that comes out of our five other senses. In fact, each of the five sense have their own consciousness: i.e. a way to interpret the information. Even the 6th consciousness has its own consciousness as I will explain in another post. But for now, let me focus on the energetic aspects of the elements.

Our Energetic Web

Energy is a key concept in modern science from physics to biology, psychology, sociology and economics. The environment and our body are filled with two kinds of energies: potential and kinetic. Potential energy is for example the food and oxygen that we eat and breathe. Potential energy is hidden inside each of our cells, DNA, RNA and so on. It is called potential as opposed to kinetic because it does not move things but gives the capacity for movement. It is like a water tank: the water in the tank has the potential to move and this movement is expressed when we open the tap and water flows out. Kinetic energy is more easy to understand because it is linked with the passing of time and moving objects.

In Ayurveda, the kinetic energy is called prana. In Chinese medical tradition it is called qi, In Tibetan medicine it is called lung(*). prana, qi and lung circulates in our body through channels, like electricity is channeled through wires and light is channeled thought fiber optics. This kinetic aspect is complemented by a potential aspect which is not usually talked about. For example, the universal potential energy of Prana, Qi and Lung(*) are found in oxygen, nutrients, water, heat, light and even space itself. If you have read my first post on the elements, you will easily recognize them now in these potential energies. However, you should not think of potential and kinetic energy to be separate principles, but as complimentary aspect of a single energetic system.

Eastern Energetic Systems

These energetic systems were described in the early development of Eastern medicines some 2500 years ago or more in India and China. Energy was hypothesized to circulate in channels which were described in early texts of medicine and are called Tsa in Tibetan medicine, Nadis in Ayurveda and Meridians in Chinese medicine. Below are two illustrations of the channels in the Tibetan and Chinese systems.

The energy flowing in these channels is primarily the kinetic aspect energy represented by the wind element. The external manifestation of these channels can be associated with the blood vessels and the nerves which carries blood cells and electrical impulses. Blood cells and nerve impulses are related to the water and fire elements, while the flowing movement is related to the wind element. The conduit tissues are related to the earth element.

In Chinese, Ayurveda and Tibetan systems, the elements manifest in our bodies as three essential phenomena. In particular, in Ayurvera they are called the Doshas: Vata (wind, space), Pitta (fire, water) and Kapha (water, earth) in Tibetan medicine the Humors: lung (wind), tripa (fire or bile) and beken (water-earth or phlegm). I will dig into these three energies in more details in a future post.

Main Energy Pathways

qi, prana and lung(*) are considered to carry the life force in our body. In that sense, they have more qualities then the wind element. prana/lung further have five sub-divisions: upward moving (five senses, breathing, speech, swallowing), downward moving (excretion, menstruation), hub distribution (digestion), all pervasive (general coordination) and life force (connection between inner and outer body).

The complex web of thousands of channels is composed of main pathways and secondary ones. There are three main channels which the main one runs inside the spine and two other ones located on each side of it meeting each other at certain hubs which are called Chakras in Ayurveda, Tibetan medicine and Tantra(**). The system of Chakras will be developed in a later post but I present here the three main energy channels which are called Ida (left of the spine), Pingala (right side of the spine) and Sushumna (central channel along the spine) in Ayurveda and Indian yoga and similarly called in Tibetan medicine and yoga: Kyangma, Roma and Uma, corresponding to Kapha/Phlegm, Pitta/Bile and Vata/Wind humors.

Original drawing from Wikipedia, redrawn for SATHeart (Creative Commons CC0 License)

The left and right channels are sometimes depicted as crossing at the level of the Chakras which correspond to outgoing nervous paths ways at certain vertebrae in the Western system (see below). The left and right channels in their gross levels can be associated with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

Western Energy Systems

As I have briefly exposed above, the concept of energy is essential to all life. The Western medical system has discovered different energy systems and the two main ones are the blood circulation and the nervous systems. As said above, these are considered only the superficial or gross channels related to the circulation of kinetic Qi. Eastern and Western systems are undoubtedly related and measuring these flow of energies such as the activities of our nervous system and blood flow and pressure gives us a partial but extremely important access to Qi.

The illustration on the left shows the circulatory system and the the image on the right shows the nervous system. Both systems are intertwined forming the web of our body’s information pathways. These channels runs from top to bottom and back constantly scanning the body’s state.

The main energy channel is inside the spine and composed of many nerves spreading out connecting organs, and recollecting the signals from these organs towards the brain centers. The spine is itself composed of many blood vessels and encapsulate at its center the central channel which is a tiny tube of about 1mm in diameter containing a fluid (the cerebrospinal fluid) which pervades brain lobes.

When viewed together, this web resemble the ancient channel systems of Eastern medicines illustrated above. Modern science now to study these ancient texts and indeed found similarities between Western science and Eastern wisdom. There are still however points of divergence regarding their anatomy, physiology and energetic interpretations.

The nervous system is usually divided into three main parts: the central system (brain), the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems (both part of the peripheral system). It is interesting to note the correspondence between these three nervous pathways and the three channels mentioned in Eastern medicine texts.

Elemental Energies

I have shown the energetic systems both from Eastern and Western traditions and illustrated their commonalities and some of their differences. The energies are essentially of two kinds: potential and kinetic. The the former is essentially connected to the water and earth elements, the later are linked with the fire and wind elements. Something which is a bit more subtle in Eastern system are the concepts of Prana, Qi and Lung. First they have all different historical and cultural origins and care must be taken when using these words according to the context. Also, while Prana, Qi and Lung are related to the wind element primarily, they are different in the sense that these energies pervades all universe, while prana, qi and lung with a small letter are more linked with human experiences(*). The table below is a summary of the correspondence between the elements and their energetic aspects.

Notes

(*) I use Qi, Prana and Lung indifferently and equivalent in the context of this post to refer to universal energies. I use qi, prana and lung for their manifestation in our human experiences.

(**) Tantra originated in India and is a set of teaching and practices linked to the use of the body’s subtle energies traveling inside the channels.

Further readings

  • Samuel, G. (2019). Unbalanced Flows in the Subtle Body: Tibetan Understandings of Psychiatric Illness and How to Deal With It. Journal of Religion and Health, 58(3), 770–794.
  • Loizzo, J. J. (2016). The subtle body: an interoceptive map of central nervous system function and meditative mind–brain–body integration. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1373(1), 78–95.
  • Wangyal, T. (2002). Healing with Form, Energy and Light. Snow Lion.
  • Jois, S. N., Manasa, B., Moulya, R., & D’souza, L. (2020). Pranic  energy sensations experienced by Indian adolescents: A cross-sectional study. Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge (IJTK), 19(3), 502–508.
  • Birch, S. (2021). Digging to the heart of things – An essay on patterns of diagnosis in traditional East Asian medicine: Comparing Chinese and Japanese systems. Integrative Medicine Research, 10(2), 100695.
  • Lee, C. (2018). How can mindfulness-led breathing of QiGong/Tai Chi work on Qi and the meridian network? Advances in Integrative Medicine, 5(3), 122–127.
  • Yao, W., Yang, H., & Ding, G. (2013). Mechanisms of Qi-blood circulation and Qi deficiency syndrome in view of blood and interstitial fluid circulation. Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine, 33(4), 538–544.
  • Fame, R. M., & Lehtinen, M. K. (2020). Emergence and Developmental Roles of the Cerebrospinal Fluid System. Developmental Cell, 52(3), 261–275.
  • Zappaterra, M. W., & Lehtinen, M. K. (2012). The cerebrospinal fluid: regulator of neurogenesis, behavior, and beyond. Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences 2012 69:17, 69(17), 2863–2878.
  • Celka, P. (2023). Wisdom of the Heart and Breath. SATHeart internal report

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