Chinese medicine is fundamentally the study of the natural rhythms and symbols in the universe and how they are manifested in the human body, physiologically and pathologically. Even though our modern lifestyles consistently remove us from the rhythms of the natural world, our physical form and function are part of and influenced by the movements in nature. By observing and contemplating the energetic movements of the seasons, we can learn how energy is manifested within the body and how our habits and focus can shift to support greater balance in the current season.
We are currently in the season of autumn, which is associated with the metal element. (The 5 elements in Chinese medicine are water, fire, earth, metal, and water). In nature and the body, the metal element is associated with downward movement. In the outside world, we have moved from the peak yang, or sun energy at the summer solstice on June 20th , to the midpoint of the cycle at the autumnal equinox on September 22nd , where daylight and darkness are in balance. Autumn is descending toward more darkness, the peak of which is associated with the winter solstice on December 21st and peak yin energy. (Yang is the universal energy of expansion and yin is the universal energy of contraction). We see a lot of descent and downward moving energy in autumn when we observe the plant world. Trees begin to turn beautiful shades of red, orange, yellow, and brown and lose their leaves, which is a sign of the inward turning, or descent of the tree’s energy. Trees, and most living beings, take a more internal focus in autumn, drawing energy inward and shedding what they no longer need, to preserve life and survive the depths of winter. For humans, this is traditionally a time to start turning inward as well, by slowing down the pace of life, simplifying tasks, canning and preserving the abundance of food from the harvest in preparation for the restful and restorative winter months ahead. Yang metal is physically condensed earth and has a cutting and separating energy, like a sword or a dramatic mountain range cutting through a landscape. The yin aspect of metal is symbolized by precious stones and gems and represents the clarity and beauty that comes from the energy of refinement. Autumn is a great time to let anything go that no longer serves you, physical clutter and material excess, emotional grudges and resentments and mental disarray, which can all lead to increased clarity and peace when we consciously cut these things loose from our world. This also includes getting rid of or reducing the many toxins that creep into our lives and affect our longevity, which are present in our food, water, air, and personal care and cleaning products when we are not conscious of our everyday choices.
In the body, the organ systems that reflect the autumn energy are the lung and large intestine. When functioning normally, both organ systems have an overall downward movement. The primary function of the lung is to inhale and descend vital oxygen from the universe for use in the body and exhale the waste we no longer need. When the qi or energy of the lung is not descending properly, symptoms such as coughing, and shortness of breath will occur when the lung energy is moving up and out instead of down and in. The function of the large intestine is to absorb the last remaining nutrients and water from the food we consume and descend and eliminate waste and all that doesn’t serve the body. When the qi of the large intestine is not descending properly, a common symptom is constipation, which is a sign that the large intestine cannot let go of accumulated waste. The metal element is also associated with the climate of dryness, which we can observe in nature on an autumn day with crisp, dry air. Both the lung and large intestine are influenced by the amount of dryness present. The lung prefers to be dry, when it is too moist, there is often excessive phlegm production with cough or chest pressure, but if the lungs are too dry normal breathing patterns can also be affected. Similarly in the large intestine, the environment should remain relatively dry for optimal function, but too much dryness and too much moisture will inhibit normal physiological function of the large intestine and the quality of bowel movements.
There are many other symbols associated with the metal element we can contemplate when thinking about the human experience. The metal element is associated with the emotion of grief, the color white, the pungent flavor, the sense of smell, and the skin of the body. There are so many ways we can think about these symbols and how they connect with the energy of metal and autumn. The connection of the lung to the skin is also relevant, as they both play a role in our immune system and our outer and direct connection to the outside world. When these systems are not functioning well, our defenses are down, and we are more likely to become ill by pathological climatic (or microbial) influences. When these systems are functioning optimally, we are more equipped to handle the changes in our environment. It’s also interesting to ponder what climates or natural elements, or even emotions, activities, and foods, you gravitate to, and how that can indicate what elements are too strong or too weak in the body. For example, if one is averse to the heat and humidity of summer and prefers a cool, dry climate, that can be a sign of too much heat and dampness in the body, so there will be a natural affinity for the cool, dry season of autumn.
Chinese medicine practitioners utilize acupuncture, herbal medicine, and other modalities to help balance energy within the body. During the autumn, we often select more lung and large intestine meridian points and herbal formulas to benefit these organ systems, especially when a patient is not having any specific symptoms and coming in for their seasonal tune-up. If one has issues with these organ systems, such as chronic cough, asthma, allergies, constipation, or bloating, the autumn is a good time to focus on these imbalances as the season is supporting this work energetically. Having the intention of letting go of any emotional weight you have been carrying during a meditation practice or acupuncture session would be an ideal focus during this time. Eating more pungent foods with your seasonal meals can help keep fluids from stagnating and keep an optimal dry environment for the lung and large intestine. Spending time observing nature, specifically the changing of the leaves, the mountains or a still lake are all excellent settings for contemplation in autumn.
This is a mere glimpse of the depth to the symbolism associated with Chinese medical theory, specifically related to autumn. I would love to hear what connections you make when thinking about these symbols and energetic movements in your own life. I intend this to be a seasonal blog series and eventually I will develop more educational material where we will dive deeper into the symbolism of Chinese medicine together and how it can bring greater balance into your life. Becoming more aware of the natural world and its patterns is a great way to improve your health and lifestyle to feel a greater sense of well-being. When we are in a constant state of opposition to the natural flow of the universe, disease will undoubtedly arise. Enjoy the autumn and be well.
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