Autumn…the year’s last, loveliest smile. ~William Cullen Bryant
Today is the equinox, ushering in fall in the temperate climate of the northern hemisphere. (Apologies to my friends in the southern hemisphere – this post will be out of sync with your entry into spring, and to friends in the tropics who have a different seasonal rhythm.)
In Chinese medicine and qigong practice, there are certain associations made between the five major organ systems and five elements. These associations are expanded to include connections to emotions, energies, animals, colors, sounds … and seasons. I thought you might enjoy knowing some of the associations of autumn.
Let’s start with two of the things we most often think about when we think about this season. Harvest, a time of gathering the fruits of summer’s labor to store for winter. And leaves, turning color and falling from the trees. Now let’s see how these two aspects are reflected in the Chinese system of associations.
Autumn is associated with the lungs. The lungs are linked in the Chinese system with the large intestine. Together they create a balance of pure energy being drawn into the body through the breath and of waste being released. Autumn is a time of gathering the energy we need to sustain us through the winter, just as our breath gathers the oxygen necessary to our survival. Autumn also invites us to release whatever we no longer need. This could be a literal release, like exhaling the breath, or a figurative one, like releasing judgments or resentments. Like the trees dropping their leaves, we don’t need to force anything. We can just let them go.
The element associated with the lungs is metal. I was surprised by this, because I think of lungs as being very “air-y” and light, while metal is heavy and found deep in the earth. Then I thought about how we value metal. Think about gold, for example. For a long time, our economy was based on the gold standard, making gold not only a thing of beauty, but a measure of value essential to our financial health, just like the lungs bring in air, our most essential necessity for life. Metal is also a strong element, giving the lungs stamina and power during the time of year when we might be vulnerable to respiratory colds and flu.
The emotional associations are often categorized as positive and negative, but don’t think of this as judgments of good or bad, but more like a polarity, or a balance. For the lungs, the negative emotions are sadness and grief. The positive ones are surrender and courage.
Sadness and grief are a normal part of life. Sometimes people experience these emotions in the autumn, as the light fades, the rain comes (in the Pacific Northwest at least), and the lush green vibrancy of summer gets swept into piles of brown leaves in the street.
Sadness and grief are not “bad.” On the contrary, they can open our hearts and connect us to others by stripping away our facades. But they can become debilitating and unhealthy if they become stuck. This can happen when we try to deny or avoid emotions that feel painful or uncomfortable. This is the beauty of the positive (again think polarity and balance) emotion of courage. Courage allows us to surrender to the experience of our sadness or grief, allowing it to move through us and be released, in its own time, like the leaves falling from the trees.
Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point. ~C.S. Lewis