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Water Phase from Dragon Rises Red Bird Flies

March 28, 2017

Over the next few weeks this blog will be presenting five short essays on the five-phase system outlined in Dr. Leon Hammer’s extraordinary work, Dragon Rises, Red Bird Flies. The book is an effort to bring together two disparate psycho-spiritual diagnostic systems, the psychoanalytic and the Wu Xing five-phase model, and put them into dialogue with one another. Dr. Hammer’s extensive training in both psychiatry and East Asian medicine traditions situated him uniquely to provide such a synthesis.
The essays that I will be presenting are not an attempt to communicate the material that Dr. Hammer has already elucidated in his book – it would be implausible to condense the work in that way. Instead, my intention is to present each short essay as a personal response for how I understand, and have worked to integrate, these different presentations and characterizations as he describes them in the source text.

Dragon Rises, Red Bird Flies (hereafter DRRBF) is not a book to be read quickly, or to read only once. Like any masterwork, returning to it over time shows you as much about how you have changed and grown in your own understanding as it does help to reinterpret and remind of concepts and ideas that you took from it originally. To that end, these essays are not meant as a stand-in for inviting the reader to take up the text themselves and find where it speaks to them, and how, even where they may come to markedly different conclusions.
I intend to begin the series, as Dr. Hammer does, with the Water Phase, simply because it is the source, the origin point, from which the others come and to which they return. Wood might be a more classic way to begin, as it is birth and growth, but it arises from Water, and if we do not know what has shaped our trajectory, we cannot understand where we might go.
Bear with me, in this first essay, as the Water Phase is the longest of these, as perhaps makes sense when we speak of the phase that is associated with our very ground of existence. The article on Zhi can help illuminate some aspect of the Water Phase, if a more thorough investigation of the existential component of this phase stands out as interesting.

Water Phase

Blue ocean water

Kidney Yin Deficiency

Fear, as with all Water phase characterizations, is at the bottom here, though it manifests as aggression and hostility. The pivot, for me, is that this person reduces the world to a question of survival, a black-and-white affair of brutal necessity, the classic, if always misguided, “nature red in tooth and claw” understanding of our most primal nature. Perhaps, as the text suggests, this person may manifest as brutal, “crude and savage”, likely to be “soldiers and killers and bullies”. While easier to do on paper than in person perhaps, I would prefer to understand the underlying need of this person. If hostility and aggression are defensive postures wrapped around a core emotion of fear, then the need that this person is ultimately trying to fill is a need for a sense of security, a fundamental sense that their existential survival is not threatened at every turn. Certainly the constant play of birth and death can give rise to the sense that survival is in no way assured, but Kidney Yin-Essence, should they not be so diminished, would help this person recognize that they are never other than the whole cycle of being, over and over, and that, in whatever religious or spiritual tradition they find meaningful, there is a constant renewal, a coming forth and a falling away that is Life, which they wholly and fully are, and as such can never have their existential survival threatened, even if the smallness of their individual ego and identity will, of course, change and ultimately dissolve.

Kidney Yin Excess

I have found myself currently very moved by Non-Violent Communication ideas, and as such the effort to “look for the need” expressed by particular behaviors and even by a particular orientation to the world is something that I am finding more and more inspiring and generative of an open space of understanding and compassion. To that end, as with the Kidney Yin Deficient person above, it is more meaningful for my engagement with the material to discuss where I see the need being expressed by the Kidney Yin Excess persons here, and with the other pattern characterizations throughout.

Left Brain Dominant

For this person as characterized there is, what I experience to be, a stultifying kind of obsession with orderliness, linearity, and rationality. While within their spheres logic and reason can produce extraordinarily beautiful abstractions of the geometric, the fractal, this person has often lost touch with, or never been properly introduced to, the irruptions of the unexpected that give life and dynamism to their static and unchanging rationally ordered cosmos. The problem is that, given the limited scope and scale of possible human knowledge, especially as this is contextualized and constrained to particular culturally described viewpoints and modes of establishing the validity of “knowledge” as such, all models for knowing the universe and holding it still for analysis and observation will forever prove inadequate, misleading, partial, and ultimately producing little more than studies in particular forms of cognitive aesthetics – however temporarily useful or even deeply beautiful – while remaining mute to the fundamental nature of the world and ourselves. When the logical and rational can paint pictures of the world that open up understanding, that generate space for compassion and wonder, they are brilliant tools. But the Kidney Yin Excess Left-Brain type has a deep need for stability, for orderliness, for a kind of certainty that the world is not chaotic, and as such finds ways to attempt, via rationalistic processes, to hold the world as still and stable as possible, and can, when pressed, demand that others do the same. What is fundamentally needed here by this type is to extend beyond the binary of order and chaos into a space that was never bounded by either one, to recognize the futility of that binary, and look at the ever shifting dynamism of the world as itself alive, bearing within itself neither order nor chaos, but a kind of self-generated and generating set of patterns that are always mutable and shifting, capable of change and dynamic growth, but without the need to reduce such dynamism to a randomness that provokes the anxiety of meaninglessness.

Right Brain Dominant

This is in many ways simply the mirror image of the above. However, it is possible here that the reliance upon, and requirement for, an inductive reason and intuitive knowing to the exclusion of rational engagement suggests a fundamental need to experience and express a personal agency that they see as threatened by an overdetermination of existence by order, linearity, and rationality. That is to say that where the Left-Brain dominant type may well have a deep-seated fear of chaos and meaninglessness in the universe, the Right-Brain dominant type has the mirror anxiety of a predestined and agency-less existence in which the patterns that are observable in the world speak to them of inescapability and determinism. Their need is to express their felt agency and possibility of novel engagement with and co-creation of the universe around them. Unfortunately this has a tendency to provoke a need to reject all systematization and patterning, including those patterns that can be themselves generative of life, whether social, ethical, economic, political, etc. Again, what is needed is to go beyond a freedom-and-chaos or determinism-and-order binary, recognizing these to be artifacts of particularly human conceptual modes, especially human conceptual modes dependent on and derived from particular historical-economic and philosophical-theological organizing principles.

Kidney Yang Deficiency

Of Dr. Hammer’s many characterizations, none bring home the notion of “we are not all born with equal ability” as Kidney Yang Deficiency. The danger in our thinking here can be twofold – either we reject the notion that different degrees of capability exist, which sets us up to expect impossible things from others and ourselves, or we over-identify others and ourselves with our “innate” capacities and do not grant space or possibility to grow and develop beyond our original “given” state. To this end, though the Kidney Yang Deficient characterization may fall on the low end of innate energy and even ability, this lack of exuberant energy does not need to paint an unavoidably grim picture of their lot in life. Like anyone, this person has a need to be creative, to find fulfillment and self-expression. There is an invitation here, from their lack of robust energy, to find the area of their passion, the thing which makes them feel most alive and engaged, and put themselves into it fully. While those with relatively greater Kidney Yang energies may find themselves robust enough to do many things, these scattered interests are as likely to drain away the vigor of life into channels that do not inspire them as they are to produce profound, world-changing, or life-affirming work. Robustness can lead to distraction by many possibilities, without ever coming home to who you are and what you can best do. The relative lack of vigor in the Kidney Yang Deficient person is, in some ways, an opportunity and invitation to finding and focusing on that which will give their lives the most complete expression. Given fundamental inability to match pace with their more robust counterparts, what must be affirmed is the same drive toward expression of being, and therefore the way in which we address and engage the person must be toward nurturing that life force, that will toward the expression of being. In some ways that will mean participating in an educational process for this person, to help them recognize that their energies must be spent more wisely and sparingly, but it must not simultaneously be to condemn them to failure before an endeavor has even begun.

Kidney Yang Excess

In this characterization, a desire and affinity for power has eclipsed awareness of the more fundamental and deep connection to compassion. The capacity for action, the robustness and vigor of a Kidney Yang Excess type allows for a very real charisma, the magnetic draw of those who change the world around them with seeming ease, confidence, and purpose. At a more profound level, I would assert that Love is not other than the dynamic motion of the whole universe, the energy and power of Life itself. But within the limited sphere of human consciousness, it is possible to lose sight of the implicit simultaneity of compassion and strength as elements of Love, such that the capacity to move and change the world becomes estranged, if only in our minds and limited scope of experience, from its ground where we always must walk side-by-side and hand-in-hand, and mis-identified as power to dominate. As such, the Kidney Yang Excess person feels in themselves the power/strength of the universe itself, and they are not wrong in that experience, but they have lost sight of the purpose of that power – pouring it out into the world for all others, who were never truly separate from oneself to begin with. There is a terrible isolation in that experience, where the Kidney Yang Excess person feels themselves at a great remove from the compassion for and of the vast world, able to identify only with their own intense energies. They are, in a tragic way, lost, but unlikely to see themselves as needing to be found, or to endeavor to find themselves, their more intimate and truer selves. Their need, as it is for all of us, is for connection, for compassion and companionship, which they have lost sight of in their own intense experience of power and strength.

Kidney Qi Deficiency

Again, fear is at the bottom of the person characterized by Kidney Qi Deficiency. The text describes it as a lack of faith. There is a necessary capacity and willingness to take a step, to make a move, to act where the outcomes are not known and certain, where there may not be absolute right or wrong answers – this capacity or willingness can be meaningfully understood as a kind of faith. Without this capacity and willingness, life remains at a step removed. There is, in it, a kind of grasping after certainty, a strong desire to take the necessary step to be fully engaged in life, but with an overwhelming need to prove the certainty of the outcome of the maneuver before it has begun. Faith is, in a sense, a receptivity and openness to possibilities beyond oneself – acting on possibilities is never assured, but life stagnates and moves toward death without such efforts based on the possible, not only the certain. The need here, as with many Water-phase fear conditions, is for connection, for a sense of safety without threat of obliteration or annihilation, when taking a step beyond the known and established. Small steps, a kind hand reached across to the person, but without taking hold and forcing movement, is the best and perhaps only way to meet them where they are. Faith opens up naturally and easily, a birthright from the beginning, when the small limits of the ego-self can be recognized as inherently limiting and, at best, provisional.

Kidney Qi Excess

Noted of Kidney Qi Deficiency, faith is a necessary part of human life. Faith, however, is an actively engaged process of dynamic and willing openness to that which is beyond ourselves, whether other humans, other beings, or the divine, however we conceive of these, whether we consider them even distinct one from another. But the impulse to know that which is beyond ourselves can find itself expressed in terms too narrow to allow space for a multiplicity of experiences, becoming dogmatic and rigid. This is, in some ways, an effort to reach toward that which is beyond us, to act in concert with faith, but still control and manipulate the unknowable into terms and ideas with which we are already familiar. While a Kidney Qi Excess may, on its surface, present itself as a disharmony in a person that has them over-identified with elements of faith, it is still, in some ways, actually a lack of open and willing engagement, a lack of faith, even, and instead a hardened identity around a particular experience and expression of the divine or the other. It is still a way to attempt to make the infinite play of the universe smaller and more contained, more amenable to human zones of comfort in terms of what ideas and possibilities can be admitted of, and thereby what behaviors and activities can be understood as permissible. This is not to suggest that the experiences of those with a Kidney Qi Excess are not legitimate – their experience of the divine or other may well be quite profound. It is, rather, their rigid inability to expand those insights to an open and accepting space for the world around them. In the “yin” excess type, this absolutism of thought may not always express itself as active contradiction and condemnation of others, because their absolutism has stilled and weakened their own interest and even capacity to reach out to or understand others who do not participate in their own belief. In the “yang” excess type, however, this absolutism has a confrontational and aggressive edge, a evangelical and even domineering capacity where their own experience of the divine, and the terms within which they have structured their understanding of that experience, become the only ones available to them, or allowable by them. These expressions mask a need for authentication, for verification, of their own experience of the divine – they mask a fear that their own experience may not be the only experience, and if their experience is not the only one, then it is provisional and conditional, and hence not ultimate or absolute. The provisional and conditional nature of our experience of the divine is an artifact of our attempts to communicate it back within the language afforded a relative and partial human consciousness. Of course our experience of the absolute comes through to us in ideas, images, and terms that are communicable only in relative and partial language. But this simple insight causes a profound existential doubt that needs to be descended into and not run from. The death of our dogmatic clinging allows us to be reborn into a space where our experience, and the terms within which we describe that experience, can be vibrantly alive, without rigidly enforcing their exclusivity.