In Five-Element practice (5-E practice), we transmute the experience of tension or conflicts into fuel to intentionally evolve Self. We map our experience to five elements. They are Cognitive Story, Surface Emotion, Creative Vector, Subtle Feeling, and Operating Paradigm. Forming a self-regulating system, these five elements mutually generate while checking and balancing each other like an ecosystem. When functioning well, creative life forces are generated, cycled, and renewed within the system.
When we experience tension or conflict, the circulation of life force is stuck. We can restore the self-regulating function of the system through the 5-E practice. The systemic dynamic of the 5-E practice correlates with the Native Chinese’s cosmology model which was the foundation of acupuncture and Chinese medicine.
Phase I: Mapping of the 5 elements
For the purpose of illustration, I choose to present an extremely simple example here. Lee is a very successful and creative businessman. He has a fulfilling marriage and collaborates with his wife professionally. Yet the “small”, and repeating conflicts in their marriage feel very grating and upsetting. This was how Lee described his experience of such an event.
I asked her where she put the phone charger, because I knew she handled it last time. She not only denied that but also spoke to me in a very commanding and aggressive way. I was very angry. I am not the kind of person who likes to engage in direct confrontation. I really did not know what to do.
Three elements showed up in his description. His cognitive function carved out a sequence of details from the myriad of sensory, emotional and kinesthetic data that are highly contextualized by Lee’s perception filters. These details were strewn together on an implicit structure of logic and presented themselves as a Cognitive Story, a recapitulation of what had happened.
I often observe that our strong identification with our “story” as “reality” is one of the greatest impediments to resolve conflict. Stories as small as who put the charger where, or as grand as who we are and what our history is. At the same time, the greatest potential for the advancement of humanities also lies in our capacity to tell new stories to ourselves so that we can actively create new realities. However, despite our best or purest intentions, when we only rely on our cognitive mind to tell new stories, we cannot escape the tyrannical grip of rationality. The cognitive mind needs to be connected with all other four elements and learn how to be a servant instead of a commander.
The second element showing up is Surface Emotion. “I was very angry.” Lee said very plainly. If there is a conflict, usually Surface Emotion is apparent. In most cases, the Surface Emotion directs our attention to the “other(s)” engaged in the conflict. If we can somehow change their behaviors or actions, or gain a moral or intellectual superiority by proving they are wrong, we can stop feeling this Surface Emotion.
The third element showing up is the Creative Vector. In Lee’s case, his Creative Vector is blocked. “I did not know what to do.” Conflicts, especially those in intimacy or collaborative relationships, excite our neuronal systems. We feel compelled to direct these energies towards a new action or choice that would change the situation. We do that instinctively and successfully all the time. However, in conflicts or reoccurring patterns of micro-conflict, we have a sense that our default way of applying energies along the Creative Vectors is not working. We are challenged to wire a new pattern of action and choices.
Most of the time, people operate with these three elements when dealing with conflicts. Depending on our temperament and the situation, we are drawn to favoring one or two elements as the primary pathways to resolve the conflict. However, without the two other elements, we cannot fully access the potentials of this self-regulating system. The two other elements are usually hidden and much harder to access, as they are outside the realm of our everyday awareness. Next, I was about to look for Subtle Feelings.
I asked Lee, “We feel angry for a reason, such as we feel threatened or hurt by someone else. What makes you feel so angry?
Lee was still quite aroused with his anger, “I know she is wrong! I know she misplaced the phone charger for sure!”
I noticed that it was difficult for Lee to pass beyond the notion of right and wrong. I continued to empathize with Lee’s Surface Emotion, helping it to express while gently redirecting his attention towards his own inward, deeper experience. I consciously slowed myself down, breathing deeply and shifting my frame of consciousness towards the realm of Subtle Feelings which I have cultivated through my own practice.
Eventually, Lee started to relax and a shift in his attention occurred. Somatically he showed signs that corresponded to the shift I was making in myself. He was reaching for a deeper part of himself. Then, he presented me with the following information.
“In my formative years, I was always the leader among the kids around me. I am very used to being looked up to by my peers. When my wife directly confronts me with a commanding voice, I feel very offended, humiliated and oppressed.”
I asked, “which one of the last three words you said carries the most emotional charges for you?”
“Offended.” Lee answered.
Here we found the first doorway into the realm of Subtle Feeling. Offended pointed to a definitive pattern of awareness that formed in Lee when he was young and continued to sensitize his response to external events. Accessing this realm often induces subtle and yet powerful physiological changes, slowing down of breathing or a hypnotic-like state of awareness. If the Surface Emotion is the buoy, then Subtle Feeling is the anchor buried under the water. When we access Subtle Feelings, we are diving deep into ourselves.
Here, I also have seen the sign of a potential Operating Paradigm. I went ahead to check.
“I also hear that for you, to be the winner in competition is a paradigm that has been operating in your life. And it influences this interaction with your wife. Is that right?”
Lee looked surprised. He hesitated for a moment, and said, “Yes.”
Now we have identified the last element, Operating Paradigm. Operating Paradigms are emotional and cognitive and behavioral patterns programmed into us to respond to the constant pressures and problems of life. They are both generational and cultural as well as deeply personal. Living in our unconscious realm, they carve deep ruts along our path in which the wheels of our habit and behaviors churn with little control from our rational mind. One way to think about Operating Paradigm is to imagine that one’s life is part of an epic story where one plot unfolds after another. The story’s plots and themes are the grid lines of our Operating Paradigm. Accessing Operating Paradigm requires a dexterity to examine oneself outside the plots and themes, shaped by current perspectives and social forces, while developing the ability to interact with them fluently.
Up to the modern time, few people have had access to interact with their Operating Paradigm. One of the gifts of the modern culture is people are living their lives with wider and wider range of choices. From marriage partner, gender, sexuality, to profession, faith, where to live or travel, how to entertain ourselves… we have far more choices than any generation living in any era of our known history. With these choices, people are exercising and experimenting with greater agency to “direct” their own life, which requires conscious participation in shaping one’s Operating Paradigm.
This Subtle Feeling of Offended was a very intense state in Lee’s early year’s experience. His innate drive and aptitudes enabled a paradigm to “win the competition” so that he does not need to feel offended anymore. It generally worked well for him. Yet his loving wife presented him a challenge where this paradigm does not work. Maybe she subconsciously was seeking for a more collaborative relationship. How can he free himself up from the grip of the old Operating Paradigm?
Phase II: Mapping and Moving of Subtle Feeling
To restore the flow of creative force, we employ a process called Feelingwork to map and move Subtle Feelings. The detailed theoretical elaboration on Feelingwork will be presented elsewhere. For now, I will present the most essential information.
Again this process requires my conscious slowing down and facilitation of the shift of awareness. Guided by a series of carefully crafted questions, Lee mapped the actual felt sensation of Offended to a series of sensory parameters. Here is his description of Offended. A fist-sized, grey, cotton-like substance, dense, opaque, located in the chest, neutral temperature, compressing inward, with a slight sound. From his place, he was able to access additional thoughts. “I feel wronged in this situation. I have the impulse to leave this situation. But I can’t. This is my family.”
Now we have mapped the intangible Subtle Feelings, connected with numerous memories, events and patterns into a tangible map with physical parameters. This map now is free of the cognitive mind’s interpretation. Next, using this map as a handle, we proceeded to move the Subtle Feeling of Offended.
One by one, I asked Lee to change these physical parameters to a setting that felt the best, starting from temperature, to texture, substance, color, location, movement and sound. In the end, I asked him what new thoughts arose. Here is what he experienced.
Numerous strands of wind like substance, blown from the right to the left side of my upper body, transparent. Slightly warmer than before. I feel very relaxed.
He looked very relaxed, enjoying the sensation of this internal “breeze”. I asked him what if the direction of the wind was reversed. He said, “That feels like as if the fur of an animal was stroked in the wrong direction.”
Clearly, this new feeling map was very specific and not at all arbitrary. At this point, Lee commented about the new thoughts arising, “I could apply humor in situations like this. No need to win over her. Nor do I need to suppress my own thoughts. Humor would be the best strategy here!” Moving one Subtle Feeling Offended has already opened up the channel of Creative Vector and led to a new choice.
Moving only one Subtle Feeling is usually not sufficient to change the underlying Operating Paradigm thoroughly. An Operating Paradigm may be anchored by a cluster of different Subtle Feelings. However, moving one feeling state have already generated momentum towards a new direction. This direction is not guided by a concept or a “should”, but by an embodied felt-sense, spontaneously emerged from the body in the moment. It also opens up new channels of communication between Lee and his wife. Now the conflict is no longer about who put the charger where, but how to co-shape a different Operating Paradigm in their relationship.
Using the experience of conflict as a leverage, the 5-E practice harmonizes the circulation of energies in realms including cognition, emotion, behavior and subtle feeling. The last realm Operating Paradigm belongs to a realm of consciousness that is least understood. Purely based on my intuition, I feel that this realm of consciousness opens up our direct access to collective consciousness as a felt, bodily sensation which catalyzes new thought patterns. This is one of the exciting potential of the 5-E practice as it provides a tool to refine, adjust or refine the Operating Paradigms using one’s feeling/sensing faculty as a homing device, empowered by one’s cognitive function once it understands its function to serve instead to judge. Riding the powerful wave of emotions, one can begin to enjoy the creative moves through challenges of life like a surfer.
The 5-E practice does not fix or heal anything. Much like yoga, TaiChi, or any other energy practice, one only reaps benefit with diligent practice. The actual practice has many layers of complexity and nuances. This article serves an introduction for the fundamentals.