Saturday, September 14, 2013

Metal and the Autumnal Equinox

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower. ~ Albert Camus

Autumn is like a second spring, in that it is another still point in the annual cycle of seasons. However, instead of the resurrection of nature, we begin to see its inevitable and bittersweet decline. Crops are harvested, and deciduous trees blaze forth spectacular displays of transformation.Many of these colors are always present in the leaf, but are "hidden from view" until the diminishing light and cooler air trigger an alchemical transformation.  As the auxin and chlorophyll levels decrease with the shifting light and temperatures, carotene begins to shine through as yellow, and anthocyanin as red and orange.  Finally, cool winds usher in crisp dry air from the North, and the brilliant leaves are released from their summer's toil and scatter towards the skies and ground, reminding us of our own impermanence in this world.

Autumnal Equinox: September 22, 2013, 1:44 pm PDT

Officially the Autumnal Equinox occurs when the Sun once again crosses the imaginary celestial equator, heading south for the Winter months of the Northern hemisphere, on September 22, 2013.  The moment marks the instance when light and dark, yin and yang, are momentarily in balance.  Soon the light will wane allowing the yin forces of contraction to overtake the expansion of yang.  Nights grow longer than days until the next tipping point at the Winter Solstice in December. 

As I have mentioned in previous posts, these turning points are illustrated in the bagua and I-Ching, the Book of Changes.  Winter is associated with the most yin -- 2 K'un/The Receptive, Summer with the most yang --1 Chi'en/the Creative, and Spring 11 T'ai/Peace and Autumn 12 Pi/Standstill with equal yin and yang. In this hexagram, the three solid yang bars on top, and three broken yin bars on the bottom represent yang energy above giving way to yin below.  It is said to indicate perseverance over submissiveness. However, when it appears in an I Ching reading, the advice is to remain still instead of acting. It is a time to take shelter in integrity, quietly remain faithful to inner principles, which may be likened to the carotene and anthrocyanin pigments in the leaves.  These pigments remain quiet and are hidden beneath the chlorophyll during the summer, and are not revealed until the contracting forces have initiated in the fall.

According to the five element theory of  Chinese Medicine, these pigments are associated with the metal (mineral) element, which presides over the autumn. The Chinese character for metal, or jin, depicts a mine shaft covered by a roof containing two nuggets of gold. Similar to the Pi hexagram, the character jinportrays a shelter which houses one of the most valuable metals on Earth, gold. Historically gold has been reserved for kings as it was considered a manifestation of the light of the Sun on Earth, and symbol of divine kingship.  Now modern astronomy has discovered that gold is only created in the supernova explosion of a dying star. It seems fitting that the metal element is associated with a season of the Sun's decline. Gold is also the exchange token of the merchant class that is also ruled by the metal element.  A merchant must be able to assess the value of his wares, decide whether to keep it for him/herself, and then and determine a price if it is to be sold.  The merchant knows what to hold onto, and what to let go.

Thus metal season is characterized by ripening, contraction and slowing down, harvesting, judging, and finally letting go.  It is the letting go process that may give rise to the emotions of grief and disappointment which can deplete the body of its reserves. In the oldest acupuncture text, the Neijing Su Wen (The Yellow Emperor's Classic on Chinese Medicine), the wise acupuncturist Qi Bo advises:
In the months of Fall all things in nature reach their full maturity. The grains ripen and harvesting occurs. The Heavenly energy cools, as does the weather. The wind begins to stir. This is the changing or pivoting point when the active phase (yang) turns into its opposite, the passive phase (yin). One should retire with the sunset and arise with the dawn. Just as the weather in Fall turns harsh, so does the emotional climate. It is therefore important to remain calm and peaceful,refraining from excess sadness so that one can make the transition to Winter smoothly. This is the time to gather one’s spirit and energy, be more focused, and not allow desires to run wild. One must keep the Lung energy full, clean, and quiet. This means practicing breathing exercises to enhance Lung qi. Also, one should refrain from grief, the emotion of the Lung. This will prevent Kidney or digestive problems in the Winter. If this natural order is violated, damage will occur to the Lungs, resulting in diarrhea with undigested food in Winter. This compromises the body’s ability to store in Winter.

As this passage indicates, the organs associated with the metal element are the lungs and large intestine. The lungs receive heavenly qi which is transported to the kidneys, the seat of dharma, and thus bring inspiration and divine energy to support our path; and like its co-organ, the skin, protects us from impurities in both the inner and outer world.  The large intestine lets go of post-heavenly qi impurities hidden in food, while keeping precious minerals like magnesium which is necessary for its smooth flow, as well as controls the contraction of smooth muscle in the digestive track and blood vessels, also ruled by metal.   In Chinese medicine, these organs are related in their ability not just to absorb or release oxygen, but also to absorb or release water through the lungs, and its related outer layer of the skin, and inner organ of the colon.  Thus the metal organs are the primary tool to support immunity. Acupuncturists use cupping, guasha (scraping) and expel-the-pathogen points like Lung 7 and Large Intestine 4, to trigger sweating and release unwanted passengers.  



Large Intestine 4

However, too much sweating can also deplete the system, especially since both yin and yang metal organs are associated with dryness.  According to Lonnie Jarrett, "On a psychospirtual level, dryness may embody a sense of loss and feelings of having be "burned" by heaven, which has taken away what one has valued."   Thus feeling abandoned or disconnected, or experiencing excess disappointment and grief can also stagnate energy, creating a "deficiency heat" that also dries up the fluids. Even certain activities like sauna and hot yoga should be done in a way that balances sweating by replenishing fluids and electrolytes (minerals).

One of the easiest, and most environmentally sound, ways to stay healthy in any season is to eat fresh local and seasonal foods.  The flavor of the metal element is pungent, like ginger, garlic, and onions, all excellent immune boosters.  The color white is also associated with metal and many of these pungent vegetables are also white.   Pears are a fruit that can restore the yin fluids and benefit both lung and colon.

Two of my favorite patent remedies that can stop an approaching cold in its track are Yin Chiao and Gan Mao Ling.  

As a practical matter, people often present at clinic when the cold virus has progressed more deeply into the body, in which case Yin Qiao San is one of several excellent formulas. Yin Qiao San disperses wind-heat, clears heat (treats fever), and relieves toxicity. It treats upper burner (chest / respiratory) disorders without injuring the stomach. It lessens sore throat, and relieves thirst. Yin Qiao San can also be taken as a preventative. 

Gan Mao Ling Wan clears heat, resolves toxins, dispels wind, relieves body aches, and cools lung heat to relieve cough. It can be used alone or combined with Yin Qiao at the onset of cold or flu.  Unlike Yin Qiao San, Gan Mao Ling Wan does not contain many herbs that boost immunity and, therefore, one does not benefit from long-term use once symptoms have resolved. Because Gan Mao contains several cold or cool herbs, it is not advised for very cold or shivering patients.

These herbs and Qi Bo's sound advice to gather one's spirit and energy are quite effective if we wish to stay in alignment with nature's eternal rhythms.  Just as the leaves have collected and stored the sunlight deep in a tree's core, we too must consider how to keep our energy strong when the sunlight is weak.  Thus the autumnal equinox heralds not only the fall harvest, but also the metal season in which we may assess what we have collected, what is worth keeping, and what needs to be released. As the sap of a tree begins to contract towards it roots, and releases its leaves that become compost for the next year, we too must slow down, turn our focus inward, and let go of what no longer serves us, returning to our core, our roots, our essence. 

I leave you with a wonderful example of the metal season: Chet Baker plays Autumn Leaves with such exquisite sensitivity that we feel the metal sensibility of bittersweet -- the understanding that our experience is all too fleeting.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Wood Element and the Vernal Equinox

And Spring arose on the garden fair,
Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere;
And each flower and herb on Earth's dark breast
rose from the dreams of its wintry rest.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley
- See more at:
And Spring arose on the garden fair,
Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere;
And each flower and herb on Earth's dark breast
rose from the dreams of its wintry rest.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley
- See more at:
And Spring arose on the garden fair,
Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere;
And each flower and herb on Earth's dark breast
rose from the dreams of its wintry rest.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley
- See more at:

Spring - an experience in immortality.  ~ Henry D. Thoreau

And Spring arose on the garden fair,
Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere;
And each flower and herb on Earth's dark breast
rose from the dreams of its wintry rest.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley
- See more at:

The unpretentious crocus vernus quietly awakens in the early hours of spring heralding the resurrection of nature. Thoreau witnessed the immortality of the earth from the woods of Walden Pond and suggests that we all may share in its experience of eternal life: Shall a man not have his spring as well as the plants.  All across the world, the Spring Equinox marks the beginning of a new year. It is the season of planting, the time of year when people and animals come out of hibernation, venture outside to enjoy the fresh air, and reconnect with the stirring earth and warming Sun after a long, cold winter.

Each year spring arrives in March for those of us living in the northern hemisphere. As the Sun crosses the imaginary celestial equator, it marks the Vernal Equinox when day and night, light and dark, are momentarily equal.  During the previous three months, the light (yang) has been slowly increasing as the darkness (yin) recedes, reaching this point of equanimity. The spring equinox is one of four turning points of the year marked by the path of the Sun: spring equinox, summer solstice, fall equinox, and winter solstice. As I discussed in my previous post, the solstices mark the most and the least daylight in any given year, whereas the equinoxes mark momentary equilibrium of light (yang) and dark (yin).  In Taoist philosophy these four points are illustrated in Fu Xi's bagua and hexagrams of the I-Ching, theBook of Changes. Winter is associated with 2 K'un/The Receptive (six broken bars - most yin), Summer with 1 Ch'ien/The Creative (six solid bars -- most yang), Spring with 11 T'ai/Peace (three broken, three solid) and Autumn (three solid and three broken) with 12 P'I/Standstill.

The spring hexagram T'ai denotes a time in nature when heaven is upon the earth.  The trigram of heaven (three solid bars) is placed beneath the trigram of the earth earth (three broken bars), and their powers unite in deep energetic harmony.  According to the I Ching, its meaning is as follows:

Heaven exists on earth for those who maintain correct thoughts and actions. . . See yourself as a young tree now.  The ground around you is fertile; sun and water and wind are plentiful.  By maintaining your focus on moving upward toward light, clarity, and purity, you can reach great heights. If you become entangled in inferior things, you will not enjoy the full benefit of this gracious hour.  Stay balanced, innocent, and correct, and good fortune is assured.

The Wood Element

In Taoist traditions, the spring season is associated with the wood (mu) element, whose character is similar to its mother element water (shui), but the lines are more connected and rooted like trees, which the character resembles 

Bamboo is the iconic model of the wood element as it is known for its quick growth, deep roots, and flexibility -- all signs of healthy growth in nature. This innate urge for growth has a pushing or moving quality.  Think of seedlings pushing against the resistance of the earth and soil to expand around rocky obstacles, reaching toward the the source of life: light.  When the impulse for growth is obstructed, anger and frustration arise.  The high road is to remain flexible like bamboo and gently bend or grow around the obstacle; but if we become "entangled in inferior things" this expanding energy becomes stagnant leading to dis-ease.  During this period of rising energy, there is sometimes a feeling of restlessness in the air manifesting in nature as wind and storms.  The blustery winds of spring are another manifestation the rising energy of the spring season separating from its mother water energy of winter.  Winds stir up our energy fields on many levels.  Physical signs of wind include headaches, muscle twitches and spasms, or pains that change location. Diseases that are carried on the wind, such as colds and allergies, occur more frequent during this time.  The emotion most associated with wood is anger which the spring winds stir up like a storm that may clear the air, or unroot us.

According to the oldest acupuncture text, the Neijing Su Wen (The Yellow Emperor's Classic on Chinese Medicine):

The months of spring season bring about the revitalization of all things in nature.  It is the time of birth. This is when heaven and earth are reborn. During this season it is advisable to retire early and arise early. Also go walking in order to absorb the fresh, invigorating energy. Since this is the season when the universal energy begins anew and rejuvenates, one should attempt to correspond to it directly by being open and unsupressed, both physically and emotionally. On the physical level it is good to exercise more frequently and wear loose-fitting clothing.

This is the time to do stretching exercises to loosen up the tendons and muscles.  Emotionally, it is good to develop equanimity.  This is because Spring is the season of the Liver, and indulgence in anger, frustration, depression, sadness, or excess emotion can injure the Liver.  Furthermore, violating the natural order of spring will cause cold disease, illness inflicted by atmospheric cold, during the summer.

As this passage indicates, the organs associated with the Wood element are the Liver and Gallbladder.  In Chinese medicine, the Liver, and its yang mate the Gallbladder are considered responsible for the smooth movement of qi, or energy.  Taoists believe that the Liver stores the blood when it is not being used for physical activity.  During exercise blood is released to nourish the muscles and tendons, like the sap of a tree.  Thus any stagnation of energy will effect the muscles and tendons causing inflexibility, twitches, spasm or pain.  In Chinese Medicine these wood conditions are treated by moving the Liver and Liver qi with acupuncture, cupping, and moxibustion.  In particular, cupping  effectively pulls out toxins stuck in muscle tissue by opening blood vessels and suctioning the stagnation out of the body to the surface of the skin.

Traditional fire draining cupping

An example of cupping results which may indicate the level of stagnation.

the astral body
In my last post I described how each yin organ also houses an aspect of shen, or spirit.  The Liver governs the hun, meaning "cloud soul," or ethereal body.  According to the Chinese meditation treatise Tai Yi Jun Hua Zong Zhi (The Secret of the Golden Flower), the hun resides in the eyes during the day, and in the liver at night.  During the day it provides vision to the external world and allows us to see, during the night it gives vision of the internal or ethereal world of dreams.  According to Five Element practitioner Lonny Jarrett, this illumination, or ming, is the functional relationship between the Liver and Gallbladder.  The Liver empowers our internal vision, or intuition, and the Gallbladder executes its plan in the physical world, and conveys the results back to our inner depths. Thus any inbalance in the wood energy may effect not only our sleep, but also our ability to make decisions and carry out our vision for life.

In addition to seasonal acupuncture treatment, the best way to keep our Liver healthy is to unburden it by investing in a detox cleanse every spring and fall.     

The color green, and sour flavor is associated with the wood energy.

As you can see from this image, green fruits, leafy vegetables and sour flavors, like lemon, are the food remedies for the Spring.  By taking a break from consuming fatty foods and stimulants like sugar and caffeine, the Liver doesn't have to work so hard and can focus on restoring the blood and our vision.  Taking long walks increases circulation and moves out the toxins that may have accumulated in our lymph, tendons and joints during the winter, while each breath brings in fresh air to rejuvenate our spirit.  Use the Wood energy of spring as an opportunity for renewal.  By following nature's way, we may emerge into spring raring to go, with clear vision and a sense of purpose. Now is the time to plant seeds for a future harvest, to look ahead and make new plans, formulate new ideas, make decisions, and determine our direction for the coming year - and, most important of all, to take action.

Remember the I-Ching message for spring: Stay balanced, innocent, and correct, and good fortune is assured.


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Water Element - Winter Solstice

Galignment -- Winter Solstice 2012
It seems appropriate that my first post on taoworlds is timed with the upcoming 2012 Winter Solstice, as it has been a recurring topic in my astrological blog, starworlds. Although the primary focus of this blog will be healing traditions of Chinese medicine and yoga, it is impossible to separate the two because the macrocosm is reflected in the microcosm.  As ancients alchemists might say, "as above, so below."  Even the great modern astronomer Carl Sagan recognized the underlying source of creation:
The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars.  We are made of star stuff. 
The column on the right side of this blog illustrates the basic Taoist cosmology.  The primary Taoist text that I will allude to is the Tao Te Ching, or The Classic/Canon of the Way/Path and the Power/Virtue, written by the legendary mystic Lao Tzu in the 6th century BC.   It begins with a creation story:  "Tao gives birth to one. One gives birth to two. Two gives birth to three. Three gives birth to ten thousand things."  In my mind's eye, I can almost see the birth of stars, the creation of helium (2) from hydrogen (1), and the exponential explosion of galactic life.  I also rely heavily on the wisdom of the I Ching, or Book of Changes, an ancient divination system, which pre-dates written history.  This collection of 64 trigrams illustrates how yin and yang shift and change, and how these energy phases manifest on the physical plane.  There are many modern studies that reveal the extraordinary similarities that link the I Ching to modern knowledge of DNA structures.  The underlying philosophy at the root of this oracle system is Taoism.  And finally, another valuable treatise that I often will refer to is the Neijing Su Wen, or The Yellow Emperor's Classic on Medicine.  It is the primary original source for any study of Chinese medicine.

The Winter Solstice and the Water Element

In Taoist traditions, the Winter solstice is considered the most yin day of the year, when the forces of contraction strike a still point and give birth to yang, barely glimmering with its promise of light and expansion.  This year the Winter Solstice also coincides with the last day of the Mayan Long Count Calendar.  Its synchronicity with the end date of this 5,125 year calendar, which is one fifth, or one season of the Great Year (26,000 year cycle) in fact marks a galactic still point.  While the Earth-Sun relationship finds a still point of yin and yang at the Winter Solstice, so does the Sun with the Galactic Center.  On the darkest day of the year in the northern hemisphere of Earth, the Sun rises on the horizon in exact relationship to the center of our Milky Way Galaxy.  Many believe this alignment signals a shift in the galactic season known as world age -- literally the return of galactic light during the winter season of consciousness.  No wonder there has been so much media hype about this upcoming point in time and space.  In any case, this once-in-many-lifetimes cosmic configuration has the potential to bring forth a new light that I hope my blog will reflect.

In Taoist traditions, the winter season is associated with the water (shui) element, whose character resembles the phase shift of ice to water itself .  Dr Masuru Emoto has captured a piece of ice about to melt forming a shape that looks remarkably like the Chinese character shui.  Emoto's controversial research suggests that water takes on form reflecting the thought-energy directed at it.  Because it changes shape with different thoughts, Emoto theorizes that water acts as a messenger medium.  Its ability to transmit information is expressed in many ways in the physical world.  For example, it is called the universal solvent because of its tendency to form weak bonds with other molecules.  This ability of water to disassemble and rearrange other molecules is essential to the chemistry of life.  Water is also a perfect conductor of electricity and this becomes important in the day to day operation of our bodies, which certainly depends on this messaging element. In Chinese medicine, the water element is said to govern DNA, our stores of ancestral wisdom.  And most fascinating of all, unlike Ayurvedic traditions, the water element is associated with the planet Mercury, the traditional indicator of communication.

In Chinese medicine, water is one of five elements (wu xing), or energy signatures, that describe interactions and relationships between phenomena.  For example the water element is expressed in the winter as a period of retreat in which stillness pervades, whereas the fire element is expressed in the summer as a period of blossoming in which expansion pervades.  Each element has associations or resonances with a certain key emotion, a particular time of the year, a time of day, a climate, a color, a sound, as well as control over specific organs and areas of the body. Water resonates with the emotions of fear/courage, the sound of groaning, the season of winter, the time of evening (3 pm-7 pm), the color of blue/black, and the body structures of ears, teeth, and bones. Over the course of the upcoming year, I plan to discuss each element during its season and how we can tune our bodies to its wave form in order to harmonize with these inherent forces of nature and the eternal Tao. 

The season of winter is considered the most yin time of the year because yang is low producing cold and dark, during which much of nature goes into hibernation. Thus the water element is related to slowing down, being still, and getting rest.  Energy is condensed, conserved, and stored.   It is a gestational time of replenishing our resources so that when spring comes, the growing yang force will burst forth with new growth.  According to the oldest acupuncture text, the Neijing Su Wen (The Yellow Emperor's Classic on Medicine):

The three months of winter are called closing and storing.
Water freezes earth cracks. Do not disturb the yang at all.
Early to bed, late to rise. (One) must await the daylight.
Make that which is of the heart/mind as though hidden,
as though concealed, as though (one) has a secret intention,
already obtained. Leave the cold, seek warmth. 
Do not leak the skin (sweat).  Urgently hold onto the qi.
This is the winter compliance of qi and the cultivation of the Tao of storage.
To oppose these principles injures the kidneys.
(Consequently) spring will bring paralysis and fainting (and) there will be little to offer one's sprouting.  ~  (Nei Jing Chapter 2)

As this passage indicates, the organs associated with the water element are the kidneys and its yang mate, the urinary bladder.  Functionally the kidneys control water and the bladder controls of the storage of water.  During the winter it is critical to hold on to qi, the life force of every living being.  Activities like over-exercising and sweating, not getting enough sleep, and over-working use up valuable stores of qi and can manifest as adrenal exhaustion, depression, and weak immunity.  In healing traditions of Taoism, Chinese medicine, and Ayurveda, it is considered essential to follow the natural cycles of the seasons as much as possible in our own lives.  Thus in winter we should aim to rest more by going to bed earlier than we would at other times of the year, to eat warm, kidney tonifying foods like black beans, seaweed, and fish, and sip on herbal teas like angelica and ginger.

The color black is associated with the water element and kidneys.  Therefore, in Chinese medicine black foods like black sticky rice, black beans, and black sesame seeds are considered kidney tonifiers.
Each yin organ also houses an aspect of consciousness called shen, or spirit energy (kidneys-zhi, liver-hun, heart-shen, earth-yi, and lungs-po).  The zhi, or will, resides in the kidneys, where it holds our destiny stored in the DNA.  One of my favorite Five Element authors, Lonnie Jarrett, writes:

As with many concepts in Chinese medicine, zhi has both an internal and external aspect. When the will is turned inward, the mind is channeled into an act of introspection to know and then to manifest through the governing of qi (which leads to actions) heaven's will as stored in the jing [ie DNA].  With the manifestation of heaven's will, the individual establishes ming in the world and emanates the light of inner illumination.  This light can be seen in the brilliance of the heart spirit sparkling in the eyes.  When the will is turned outward, the jing is consumed as the individual expends qi, striving to satisfy the mind's worldly desires.  Actions performed solely in the service of ambition undermine the integrity of the individual, ultimately leading to ruin and never to the fulfillment of destiny.
Thus the zhi connects us to the unified field of consciousness, to our instincts, and to our life's destiny.  The water element gives us the courage to to follow our innate wisdom and align with the Tao.  When we turn our will outwards to satisfy the sensory desires of the mind, we are at risk of losing our connection with the eternal Tao and of not fulfilling our destiny. On an emotional level, unsteadiness, fear and an unwillingness to face our spiritual pain are all symptomatic of  this type of disconnection from the deep wisdom of our bodies. While kidney issues can manifest any time of year, the winter is our season to take extra care with them.  I see many patients who complain of the increased need for sleep during the dark months of winter, especially in Seattle, a city ruled by the water element.  Their bodies are begging them to realign with nature and the Tao.  Instead of running around wasting precious qi during the holiday season, I suggest more meditation, adequate rest and exercise like qigong water practice, gentle yoga, or yoga nidra (the yoga of sleep). One of my favorite remedies are mudras.  These simple hand exercises activate the meridians and can be done anywhere.

Varuna Mudra (water), click here for directions
Shivalinga Mudra

The shivalinga mudra is one of my favorites.  It can be used to heal the water element with the following affirmation (from Hirsch's Mudra): Healing light illuminates every cell of my body, dissolves everything that should be dissolved, and builds up what must be built up again.

Perhaps the greatest  advice for the water season comes from the famous martial artist, actor, director, and philosopher, Bruce Lee.  Listen closely, and you can hear the sound of water in his voice:  Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless - like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

Be water my friends. Be water.