Wood Element


Emotion: Anger and Frustration
Season: Spring
Struggle with: Flexibility
Need: Justice
Strength: Assertiveness and Leadership
Organs: Liver and Gall Bladder

Nature of Wood:

The nature of Wood is to grow, it is expansive and determined, always striving towards the light. Wood symbolises the entire spectrum of plant life, from the smallest sprouts to the grandest forests. Rooted firmly in the Earth, plants draw strength from their deep connection to the soil, mirroring this bond in the Chinese character for Wood, which depicts half the plant below the ground. Unlike the other elemental forces, Wood is distinguished by its impermanence, subject to the same cycles of birth, ageing, illness, and death as us. It evolves and thrives through the cyclical rhythms of nature. Plants were here billions of years before we were and survived happily without us. Without them, however, and the carbohydrates and oxygen they produce, we would not last long (Mancuso and Viola, 2015). Wood encapsulates the resilience, adaptability, and commitment required to sustain through the hardship of millennia and the creativity and ingenuity required to support uncountable ecosystems.

Nature of Spring:

Spring ushers in the peak of Wood energy, where the natural world brims with vitality. It’s a season when fresh shoots eagerly stretch towards the sun, brimming with the promise of new life and the anticipation of another summer. Spring is the time of regeneration and growth, a very hopeful time full of movement and possibility. It promises progress and change, reflecting the Buddhist virtue of “Viriya” — the qualities of energy, diligence, vigour, and effort. Yet, amid this rapid growth, Spring’s new shoots remain vulnerable and tender; progress is not guaranteed. Flexibility is required to adapt to the ever-changing conditions of life.

Yang in Yin:
Spring signals the triumphant return of light (Yang) after the prolonged darkness of winter (Yin). The spring equinox, in particular, marks the pivotal moment when the nights finally yield to the advancing daylight, restoring balance to the world, for just a moment.

Liver – The General
In Chinese Medicine, the Liver has a comprehensive overview of the whole person allowing it to strategically plan systemic processes, much like a General. It is said to be responsible for facilitating the free flow of Qi, directing energy and resources both physically and emotionally to support growth, repair, and the breakdown and recycling of spent materials. The Liver’s energy is in perpetual motion, and any disruptions in its “supply lines” can have a profound impact on the entire system. In Chinese Medicine, the backlog in the free flow of Qi is termed Liver Qi Stagnation (LQS). LQS is associated with a wide range of signs and symptoms and is increasingly prevalent in the Western world.

Gallbladder – the decision-maker
While the Liver makes the plans, it is the Gallbladder’s responsibility to determine our emotional and physiological response to what happens along the way. This connection underscores the crucial relationship between the two organs, as a good and just life requires both strategic planning and the ability to meet the present moment with skill. Additionally, the Gallbladder plays a vital role in coping with life’s challenges by providing the emotional and physical “bile” necessary to dissolve Liver Qi Stagnation. Due to this relentless task, unlike the Liver which tends to become overloaded or stagnant, the Gallbladder can become deficient. A weakened Gallbladder will result in timidity, hesitation, and lack of initiative and drive. We lose the courage of our convictions.

Anger: The emotional consequence of LQS is often anger. Feeling stagnant and stuck is frustrating and can make us lash out, particularly if it feels unjust. Anger in this context varies in intensity and covers the full spectrum from mild irritation to rage, sometimes even evolving into hatred.

Lack of Anger: Conversely, the absence of anger represents the opposite end of this spectrum; a state of resignation and hopelessness. We no longer believe we are capable of making a difference so we stop trying and give up.

Sense Organs:
Wood is associated with the eyes. As always, this link extends beyond the physical realm, to include emotional and spiritual aspects. In this sense, Wood is associated with inner vision, our hopes and aspirations as well as our capacity for insight.

Aspect of the Spirit:
Wood is associated with the Hun. The Hun is described as the part of our spirit that departs from the body during sleep and when we die. It is what links Wood to dreams, purpose, and hope.
Taste: Sour

Emotions of Wood

The vigour of Springtime is abundant with, what the Chinese refer to as ‘free-flowing Qi’. Qi that flows freely, follows the rhythms of nature, like the sap moving up the tree in spring or the leaves falling in autumn. It is expressed in the cycles of the moon and the ebb and flow of the tide. As we have seen, in our bodies, it is the Liver that is in charge of the smooth flow of Qi, both physically and emotionally. In most of the organs, energy travels either up or down depending on their function, but for the Liver, the energy travels out and greets the world. When it is in balance, we live our lives with ease. We respond effortlessly to the challenges life throws at us with integrity and courage, continuing our journey towards the light.

However, in reality, more often than not in our increasingly hectic lives, this is not how things turn out. Often things do not work out how we envision, and the energy we send out into the world is rejected or blocked leaving us frustrated and disappointed. We are like a new shoot of spring, growing up through the ground only to find itself hitting a rock. Ideally, at this point we relax, regroup and find a new path, but often the result is the opposite of this. Feeling stuck leads to the accumulation of tension in the body that inhibits our flexibility and makes us feel frustrated. Brene Brown explains we feel frustrated when we believe that:

“Something that feels out of my control is preventing me from achieving my desired outcome.” (Brown, 2021, p.54)

Imagine that feeling you get when you’re already late and the lights all seem to be red… This contracted and tense sensation is what the Chinese refer to as Liver Qi Stagnation. It is also known as stress…
Brown explains: “We feel stress when we evaluate environmental demand as beyond our ability to cope successfully. This includes elements of unpredictability, uncontrollability, and feelings of overload.” (Brown, 2021, p.5)

This aligns with fascinating studies that have shown that stress only significantly impacts health when individuals perceive it as harmful. For example, a study on highly stressed individuals revealed a 47% increase in death rates, but this increase was only observed in those who considered stress detrimental to their well-being. (McGonigal, 2022)

Further research explored the possibility of reframing stress perception. Participants were encouraged to associate positive meaning with the physical sensations of stress, viewing them as preparations to cope effectively with forthcoming challenges. These individuals were then subjected to stressful tests. Intriguingly, those who successfully reconfigured their view of stress did not exhibit one classic physiological symptom of stress: vasoconstriction or the contraction of blood vessels. They somehow managed to remain internally relaxed even in the face of stressful situations. This is particularly interesting because this physiological state, characterized by the absence of vasoconstriction, is what we normally call courage.

Another factor that makes the Liver particularly susceptible to disappointment is its role as the General and its association with the eyes. These links mean our Wood energy tends to focus on the future. However, many times, the plans it assists us in crafting involve goals and expectations that are entirely beyond our control. Brene Brown aptly terms these “Stealth expectations”. They remain unexamined, unexpressed, and largely unconscious… We think about the future and imagine how things will go, even though many of the aspects of this ‘movie’ our outside our control: what other people will do, how they will feel, what they’ll say… Consequently, when things don’t turn out how we imagined we are disappointed. We unknowingly set ourselves up for this disappointment, and instead of recognizing our role in it, we frequently deflect blame and find ourselves frustrated, sometimes venting our feelings through anger.

According to the teachings of the Buddha, all human suffering originates from Tanha, (craving). Tanha can be craving to get something, or craving to get rid of something (referred to as aversion). With “Stealth expectations”, it manifests as both. We formulate a plan because we crave a particular outcome, and when this plan encounters obstacles or fails to unfold as anticipated, we develop aversion toward those obstacles, aversion to “what is”.

The crucial insight here is that the Buddha also asserted that where there is Tanha (craving), there will inevitably be dukkha (suffering), anatta (ego), and contraction. Contraction is what makes us tense and inflexible. We double down on our preconceived notions of how things should be, and become increasingly angry and defensive.

People with predominant Wood imbalance, take the disappointment associated with “Stealth expectations” particularly hard and can see it as a sign of personal failure, which they may well react to with defensiveness. As Brown explains, defensiveness can lead us to:

“Over justify, make excuses, minimize, blame, discredit, discount, refute and reinterpret. Defensiveness blocks us from hearing feedback and evaluating if we want to make meaningful changes in our thinking or behaviour based on input from others.” (Brown, 2021, p.196)

That is, we become harder to help. We also become increasingly ego-driven, crave more, and become more miserable. We’re in a vicious cycle of dukkha (misery).

Over time our Liver energy becomes stagnant from relentlessly ‘banging our head against the wall’ or our Gallbladder becomes deficient and we lose the will to keep trying.

But the teachings of the Buddha also offer the antidote to this malady. If we can learn to let go of the contractions that come with frustration, we can lessen the craving, the ego, and the misery. A great place to start is noticing what makes us contract, what makes us defensive and what habitually leads to disappointment. By examining our reactions and learning to become flexible, relaxing into challenging situations, we can gradually break free from the cycle of misery.

Importantly, developing this skill isn’t just beneficial for personal (and planetary) well-being; it’s also essential for nurturing hope, another vital aspect of flourishing Wood. According to Brown:
“Hope is not an emotion, it is a way of thinking”(Brown, 2021, p.97)

To reduce misery and to hope effectively, we must possess the ability to set realistic goals, determine how to achieve them and maintain a belief in our own agency (Snyder, 2000). We need to drop “Stealth expectations”, master the art of confronting stress without physiological contraction, and learn how to be our own realistic and courageous General.

Key Question: Why isn’t life Fair?
Fairness and justice are very important for those governed by the Wood element. The Liver’s association with the emotion of anger often originates as righteous anger in response to the perceived injustice and indignity of life. The Liver adheres to a strong moral code (Sila) and possesses a clear vision of how it thinks things “should” be. Anger is a “full contact emotion”, it activates our nervous system, sending cortisol throughout our body, making us want to act. Unfortunately, we do not always act skilfully!

The pitfall here again lies in rigidity. Chronic anger blocks Liver Qi, leading to stagnation. Similarly, righteous anger can devolve into self-righteousness when individuals begin demanding that things align with their personal preferences. Self-righteousness is characterized by an unwavering conviction that one’s beliefs and behaviours are superior to others. It tends to breed closed-mindedness, intolerance for ambiguity, inflexibility, and a reluctance to consider alternative viewpoints. Ironically, we become judgemental, intolerant and unjust.
In this scenario, we observe craving, ego, contraction, and misery coalescing once more. We harbour aversion to injustice, cling rigidly to our perspective, and suffer the consequences of conflict, which gets us further from where we want to go.

“Anger is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” (Anon)
So how can we respond skilfully to the injustices of the world, without creating more suffering for ourselves and others?

emember Viriya the Buddhist term for energy, diligence, vigour and effort that we associated with Spring? This is also known as Right Effort. It signifies effort that propels us away from suffering (dukkha) rather than towards it. Could this be the effort that is characterized by a lack of contraction and vasoconstriction; a flexible and free-flowing effort that exudes confidence in handling life’s uncertainties, ignites the flames of courage and accepts the challenges life hands us? Remarkably, the physiological state we associate with courage; the presence of all the markers for stress minus vasoconstriction is also the state experienced in moments of joy. There is another translation of the word Viriya: “To Find Joy in the Noble.” This sounds much more like the way justice.

This brings us to the final strength of Woods. Those who cultivate their inner General along with the attributes of hope and courage through Viriya make excellent leaders. As Brown explains they also need one more important ingredient – vulnerability:

“There is no courage without vulnerability. Courage requires the willingness to lean into uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure… If we can’t handle uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure in a way that aligns with our values and furthers our organization’s goals, we can’t lead” (Brown, 2021, Pg 14).

Now, the visionary clarity associated with the Wood element finds its rightful place. Flexible leaders who are guided by values can offer direction and inspiration to others, without making rigid demands. They can nurture Viriya, hope and courage in others by modelling vulnerability and showing the difference it makes. They can move people not by force but by something deeper. They understand as Antoine de Saint Exupéry, put it:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

This exemplary quality of Wood empowers us. It makes us want to be “better versions of ourselves” (Brown, 2021, p.24)

Brown, B., (2021) Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. 1st edition ed. London: Vermilion.
How to make stress your friend. (1378306783) Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend [Accessed 8 Apr. 2022].
Mancuso, S. and Viola, A., (2015) Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence. Washington: Island Press.
Snyder, C.R., (2000) Handbook of Hope: Theory, Measures, and Applications. Academic Press.