Chinese Medicine is based on the notion that humans are connected to the cycles of nature,and that everything that happens in nature also happens with us. Each of our internal organ systems resonates with a particular season of the year (and an element of nature, a color, an emotion, a taste, etc.) In the season of autumn, the days grow shorter, the weather gets cooler and the leaves begin to fall off the trees: nature moves from the fullness expression of yang to yin. In our bodies, the season of autumn, the Metal Phase, resonates with the Lungs and Large Intestine, those organs in the body responsible for letting go of what we no longer need. The Lungs breathe out carbon dioxide which allows us to take in fresh oxygen, the Large Intestine eliminates the waste products from digestion. To do this requires discernment: knowing what is valuable and what is not, which is another virtue attributed to and empowered by the Lungs.

So right now, nature presents to us the opportunity to discern what is the essential sap we’d like to bring down into our trunks to nourish us through the winter, and what aspect of our lives, belief systems, and behavioral repertoire can we drop like the autumn leaves? This process can be helped along by being a little less busy, as we begin to gather our energy inward for the winter as nature herself is doing.

Autumn is nature in decline, slowing down, letting go, dying. The emotion associated with the phase is sadness, loss, loneliness – -what we often feel when we have to let go of an experience or a person we have cherished. (And, incidentally, what many people are currently experiencing without knowing why, simply because it’s part of the qi of the season.) As emotions are all simply qi, feeling whatever comes up, experiencing it, crying it out or otherwise expressing it, and letting it go allows the sadness to move through and not weigh down the Lungs.

But there may not be sadness; there may be gratitude and joy. There’s a lot to appreciate about the Metal Phase, the season of decline and death: I’m grateful for the death happening within my body: right now, cells that have mutated or dysfunctional are dying off. (Cells that do not die are cancer — hooray for cell death!) My immune system (aided greatly by my Lung qi) is killing off viruses and bacteria to keep me healthy. I appreciate that I as pay attention to what thoughts cause me stress — usually old beliefs that I no longer need, I am able to weed them and let them go with mindful exhalation. And I’m grateful for the finiteness of life that gives meaning to how I spend my limited time on the planet.

May you receive the gift this season has for you.

It’s starting to feel like spring here in the Willamette Valley. Plants are emerging from their winter dormancy, flowers are budding, the days are getting longer. This same seasonal cycle that we  observe in the outer world of nature is also happening inside our bodies. The enlivening and renewing of spring is associated with the Liver and Gallbladder system in Chinese Medicine. This system encompasses not only your physical liver and gall bladder that you know and love, but also with the tendons and connective tissue, the eyes, and the free flow of emotions, the creative drive or as the beginning phase of a new endeavor and the envisioning, planning, decision-making that go along with it, and the emotion of anger (short temper, impatience, frustration also). The upward and outward movement of qi in spring resonates with those same energetics within us.

How can you give your liver a break and move with the natural rhythms of spring?

  • Go outside and breathe some fresh air, exercising for 30 minutes. Healthy lung qi helps invigorate stuck Liver qi.
  • Do some qigong or yoga to allowing your qi to flow freely, and to maintain flexibility in the tendons and connective tissue, which is associated with the Liver.
  • Forgive someone. Holding onto anger and resentment constrains the Liver Qi. Let it go!
  • Eat Lightly.  Our Livers help us get rid of the heavy stagnation we might have accumulated during the winter (which might manifest as seasonal allergies as the sludge moves up to eyes and nose). Leaving behind the heavier foods of winter, especially heavy meats, dairy products, and wheat, can help you move into spring feeling lighter.
  • Consider cutting down on your liver’s workload by eliminating alcohol, refined sugar, and anything artificial like fake sugar, alcohol, pesticides and herbicides. Even if you don’t want to do this  forever, consider giving your liver a week or two off from known toxins — a spring vacation from toxins.
  • Eat green and pungent. Foods with a pungent taste like onions and garlic, peppermint, basil, dill, fennel, turmeric, rosemary, parsley resonate with the upward, outward direction of the season and can be helpful in eliminating venting the winter sluggishness. Young, tender shoots and green leaves, like asparagus, rabe, bean sprouts, and pretty much anything green and leafy kale, collard greens, watercress, romaine, dandelion, parsley are tremendously beneficial to detoxify that liver. If your digestion is weak, stick to cooked vegetables as opposed to raw, which require more energy to digest.
  • Drink hot water with lemon first thing in the morning. A little bit of the sour taste helps to gently help the liver slough off toxins. But too much sour will not be good for the liver, so think moderation.
  • Enjoy life!

Right now, the abundance of the Earth is being harvested. In Chinese Medicine, this time of year gets its own label “Late Summer,” and corresponds with the Earth element, the Spleen and Stomach, the digestive system. It’s distinct from the fullness of intense heat and activity of the summer, and yet it’s not quite autumn. This is harvest time. Here a few questions for reflection inspired by the season of the Earth element:

1) Digesting your life. A primary job of the Earth element (the Spleen and Stomach) is to produce qi by transforming food into nutrition, to convert input into something useful to the body. There are two aspects to this equation: 1) the quality of the input itself and 2) how you are processing it .What have you been filling your life with? What have you put your energy into that is nourishing you? And what are you having a hard time “digesting” and integrating into your life?

2) Enjoying the fruits of your labor. What have you put your energy into this year, this month, this week, or this day that you can appreciate? After climbing up a mountain, it’s worthwhile to stop, stand back and take in the view.

3) What goes onto your plate? Are you living solely on one dish over and over again, expecting it to provide you with all that you need? Are you sampling from everything that the life’s bounty has to offer? Are you piling your plate too full with “good stuff” that nonetheless is far too much for one person to attempt to consume? Are you happy with the portion sizes? Is what’s on your plate providing a balance of nutrients for your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual dimensions?

May you feast on your life

I spent five days last week on a qi gong retreat with Masters Liu Dong and Liu He.  As preparation for learning a new form, we practiced a walking meditation and a standing posture in an attempt to get grounded. The walk was very simple, but stylized walk, where every step is put down carefully, deliberately, and yet with a solid connection to the earth.  As I attempted the walking meditation, I could feel my mind wandering. Actually, “wandering” is putting it mildly.  The first day, my mind was racing, top-speed, considering the loose ends of my impending move and potential week or two of homelessness. “Just walk!” I told myself, in an attempt to call my mind back.  I heard my mind’s insistence that this transitional time means that I’m fully entitled to worry, to spend this time going through the motions of walking, instead of feeling my feet connecting with the earth.

“Feel your feet connect with the earth”  another inner voice encouraged. I tried again.   And again.  It’s astounding how many thoughts can arise in the time it takes to pick one foot off the ground, touch it to the standing leg, and connect it to the ground again. “Walk on the Earth.  Just walk – -nothing else.”  It took two days of practicing qi gong upwards of six hours a day, but finally, I felt the thoughts downshift from fifth gear to maybe second.  That’s the magic of qigong: moving the body with breath and intention changes the mind.  I could actually pay attention to walking, and moving the qi, more than anything else.  I got out of my head and into my body, out of the thousand possible futures and into the present.  (At least for a little while!)

The two primary sources of the qi that we use every day are our food and our breath.  (I’ll talk about food in another post.) Eating and breathing are ways in which we take in energy from the outside world and make it our own. Breathing happens automatically, thankfully. It would be very hard to get anything done if we needed to interrupt ourselves every seconds to tell our bodies to breathe. Because it is one of those functions relegated to the background for us by our autonomic nervous system, we tend to overlook its importance.

Have you ever become so engrossed in working something on your computer that you fail to notice that your shoulders are tensing up around your ears, your back is rounded with your head craned forward?  This is not a comfortable position, but you find your way there because your attention is on your work, not your posture.  An hour later, you notice that your shoulder is kind of sore, and only then do you realize what an unnaturally uncomfortable position you somehow adopted.

An equivalent thing happens with breathing.  The breath gets rapid and shallow as part of the stress response.  Sometimes the breath gets held as the body tries to hold it all together.   By tuning into what’s happening, you shine your light of consciousness on what’s been going on behind the scenes.  Once you become aware of what’s happening, you can change it.  The first step, therefore, is to practice tuning into your breathing several times a day.  Starting now:

Take a moment for a 60-second inventory.  What parts of your body are breathing freely right now?  What parts are not?  If you close your eyes and visualize your body, what parts can you feel or see your energy flowing easily, and what parts are harder to sense?  Can you breathe into your lower belly? Your back?  Your brain? This is excellent information to mine.  Lack of free flow of energy is what leads to pain and other problem.  We call this “qi stagnation” in Chinese Medicine.  This right here is a simple qi gong exercise: practice of cultivating awareness of how your energy is moving within.  The simple act of bringing your awareness to that which is usually handled unconsciously can by itself lead to profound insights and changes.

I invite you to take breathing breaks at least three times a day. Most of us make at least a little time each day to eat — a primary souce of qi.  Why not take three minutes to breathe with awarenss, to mine this other overlooked source of vital energy? Try it and let me know how it goes.