Greetings dear Readers,
Autumn is upon us, the entrance way to the cooler and more introspective phase of the year. For some this brings sadness and longing for the return of warmer days and so I thought I’d share my thoughts on the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective on how to live in harmony and actually enjoy fall, also called “Metal” season according to the TCM 5 Element system.
In the 5 Element system, spring corresponds with the Wood element, the colour green, new beginnings and vigorous energy. We can see this evidenced in our world during spring when many little plants are pushing forth through the earth with great vigor, green buds on the trees that looked so lifeless only a few weeks prior, people coming out of hibernation and taking to the outdoors on bikes or walks in the park, birds laying eggs and the whole celebration of Easter as a resurrection, new life.
But how are we to understand the Metal element in our daily life? Nature seems to be betraying us with the death of much greenery, the end of the harvest, the shorter days and the need to be indoors. Metal seems to represent loss, death and the shrinking of life which sounds anything but health-promoting. In the TCM view, in order to promote balance in one’s body, mind, spirit and society as a whole we learn to embrace each phase of the year through harnessing the virtues of each element.
Standing in front of a polished brass sculpture I see my own reflection. Of the five elements, only two, water and metal, have the capacity to reflect surrounding images. Metal and water, being the two most yin elements of the 5 Elements (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water) can be associated with the yin capacity for reflection, a quiet time of inaction to allow for deeper insight. Reflecting on one’s being, one’s life, is part of the inner journey, a yin journey. Reflecting is also yin in the sense of receiving something, more passive, as opposed to yang which is more active and acts upon things. A visual message is received and is imprinted on to the shiny metal in a passive way unlike what the Wood element does when it actively pushes out roots and branches or the way fire spreads “like wild fire”. No, metal is not that. Metal sits and reflects the surroundings.
Metal, although malleable, holds its shape under most conditions. It is quite stable. It is strong, perservering and holds it’s value. Metal coins were perhaps the first monetary system of civilization to replace barter and trade economies because the stable element metal can “hold” the value of goods and services. Even during an economic recession like the one we are in now, we can see how gold trading is at its’ prime. It is the stable value that makes people want to invest in metals such as gold when many other investments are volatile and risky. During hard times and economic collapse, gold is unchanging, holding lasting value. The expression, “born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth” expresses how metal’s quality of holding value is shown in the way we associate refined or higher class culture with precious metals such as silver and gold. Similarly, on the mental plane the virtue of metal is the capacity for integrity, maintaining one’s value system even under difficult conditions.
On the human level we can also see the virtue of metal in those that have a strong sense of self-worth. When metal energy is unbalanced, a person looses sight of their own value, their self-worth. It has been suggested that a person with a metal imbalance may seek out external things like money, reputation, fame, and respect from the outside in order to compensate for the lack of self-worth they feel within. It is also suggested that such a person may have a hard time letting go of various outdated attachments, achievements, possessions and attitudes because their self-worth is so strongly tied to these things.
This last point brings us to another quality of Metal: letting go. This quality is personified quite clearly in the two metal element organs: the lungs which take air in then let it go and their partner organ, the large intestine which holds the end products of digestion, then lets them go. A 500 mL tin can hold two cups of water only, any more will spill out. Metal is often used to hold things, a metal airplane holds cargo, a car holds passengers, a pail holds water. Metal brings us down to the essentials of life in preparation for the next phase after Metal, the time of Water, or the winter season, a time of conserving energy, hibernation and retreat. I have seen this process in my own life as my dear grandfather passed away at the end of summer. As a family we must let go and grieve for a family member who has passed on. Interestingly, in many parts of Asia, the colour worn at funerals is white, the colour associated with Metal.
This transition from Metal to Water reminds me of the way Theravadan monks and nuns live their lives with a lot of metal themes such as their vow to have only five personal possessions such as a begging bowl, a razor to cut their hair, notepad and pen. Their way of concentrating on the bare essentials of life gives them the time and energy for their spiritual pursuits such as meditation, helping others and gaining realizations. Here we see the meaning of the ancient TCM view that “Metal is the mother of Water”; metal (concentration) gives birth to of water (spiritual realizations).
Even in the west we have a very metal expression “to cut dead wood” meaning to let go of aspects of our lives that will no longer bear fruit (unworkable projects, useless possessions, meaningless activities) to allow enough time and energy for important things we need to do. In other words, we let go (Metal) of what is not beneficial to us to avoid wasting our time and resources in preparation for the winter season. In winter there is less daylight time and sun (yang) energy to invigorate the body to accomplish tasks. One prepares for this period by using the fall season to pair things down. Interesting while metal often holds things, it also lets them go: many tools used to cut things down or off are made out of metal (scissors, knives, saw, axes).
I see this element playing out for me this autumn season as I let go of old projects from the summer that will never get completed or “bare fruit” so that I can concentrate on what is most essential. The abundant growth and fun and frivolousness of summer gives way to an energy of structure, concentration and settling, getting down to business. It is a sobering, contracting and minimalizing energy, as well as a grieving one as one must let go of the warmth and fruits and joys of summer for a more cold and barren (externally) season ahead. Nature is less bountiful at this time so one must use one’s limited resources more carefully.
I also notice the quality of refinement in Metal. To “sharpen the saw” is an expression about fine-tuning or refining one’s talents and skills. In the same vein, the Metal element in TCM is said to represent the adult years in the life cycle, a time when one has already acquired many skills and abilities from one’s youth (Wood and Fire phase) which can now be refined and used in the service of humanity. Similarly, the phrase to “separate the wheat from the chaff” (presumably accomplished with metal tools or machinery) expresses the same quality of letting go of what is not needed, refining, concentrating, getting down to the essence.
Metal holds structure. On a societal level structure takes the form of routines, discipline and formality. The Metal season of autumn marks a return to school for many young people, a place where academic disciplines are taught and there is a lot of structure to the day. Similarly, a marriage is a ceremony that takes a relationship to a more formal level and is often seen as the foundation of the structure of the family, and interestingly, the occasion is marked by the exchange of metal (such as gold) in the form of a ring.
Finally, with all of its structure, Metal also represents boundaries. The skin is governed by the Metal element where the lungs control the pores’ opening and closing. Our skin is the dividing boundary where the outside world ends and we begin. Skin is where we make contact with things outside of us and where we first receive other’s contact. When a baby leaves its’ mother’s womb it first feels the world through the air on it’s skin and takes its’ first breath through the lungs. Similarly, Metal forms what TCM calls our “Defensive Qi” or another word for immunity. The lungs help form the defensive qi that resides below our skin to keep pathogens out.
On a mental level, Metal’s virtue of boundaries is conveyed in the expression “good fences make good neighbors”. A person with healthy Metal can maintain healthy boundaries in relationships. They know what they are responsible for and what they are not. They know where to respectfully draw the line and stay within the boundaries of one’s roles in relationship, family, or community as friend, parent, worker, employer. ect. A person with a metal imbalance is more likely to verge on the side of co-dependence where they experience fuzzy, unclear, indistinct boundaries. They have trouble maintaining the Metal quality of respect for themselves and others in their relationships.
So here are some things you can do for yourself to experience more health and contentment in autumn:
For the physical plane:
1. Keep some sort of exercise routine. The Lungs correspond with Metal and one major way to enhance Lung energy is through deep breathing. Practicing Qi Gong, Tai Chi, yoga
or any such mind-body exercise that includes deep breathing, breath awareness and a more introspective approach will enhance Metal.
2. Thyme tea benefits the Lungs.
3. Eat orange and dark green vegetables. The beta-carotene benefits with Lungs while
the fiber-richness of the vegetables gently cleans the Large Intestine, the Metal element organ pair of the Lungs.
For the mental plane:
1. de-clutter. If you haven’t done so already, it’s time to put away the summer clothes, shelve some projects, shred old papers, clear the email inbox, pack things up and practice some “less is more”. The goal here is not to be an aesthetic or any kind of extreme, it’s just about creating some “breathing space” for the mind. With a mind less encumbered by all the junk lying around and never-ending “to-do” lists, you will have mental space to have gratitude for life’s gifts, the real meaning of Thanksgiving which is right around the corner.
2. Think about where your boundaries are (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual) and decide what in your life right now is crossing your boundaries and stressing you out. You will feel this in your body when you are in stressful situations. Your feelings are guides to where your personal boundaries are. Give yourself permission to redraw those boundaries. This can take the form of learning to say “no” to certain activities that are no longer supporting your growth, or deciding which foods do not benefit your health and deciding not to eat them or paying attention to your thought patterns and re-directing your thoughts in more positive, hopeful direction when you notice negativity creeping in.
For the spiritual plane:
1. Clarify your value system. Ask yourself “what do I believe in?” and “how do I uphold this value and belief in my daily life?” Seek out a counsellor or spiritual teacher for help.
2. Think about things you’ve had to let go of in the past that served a greater purpose. Reflect with joy and how you let go of those things you didn’t need. Celebrate the courage it took to have faith that the letting go could be beneficial. For example, as kids we lost baby teeth, it hurt for a while but then we got adult teeth which were better suited to our soon-to-be adult body. We had girlfriends or boyfriends that we broke up with. The loss hurt at first and later we felt glad to have room in our life for someone more suited to us.
I look forward to hearing your comments and questions.
Hope you have a happy fall!!