Monday, October 3, 2011

Autumn: symbols and meanings

This article discusses the spiritual and symbolic meanings of Autumn in relation to Chinese medical philosophy. The next article, as the weather grows colder, will focus on common illnesses of Autumn, home remedies and health practices for the season.

Autumn: Yin Overcomes Yang
The gigantic squash plant that took over one of my garden boxes has finally stopped producing enormous green squashes. One of my tasks this weekend will be to cut back the squash plant & turn the remains into the soil.
Today, September 23rd, marks autumn equinox. Tonight's darkness will equal the length of the day, and the nights will continue to grow longer until winter solstice, the longest night, on December 21st.
Even while the fruit & vegetable harvest continues (my tomato and pepper plants are still producing), our summer food plants have stopped their exuberant growth of spring & summer and are drawing energy back to the roots.
So, autumn is a time when the energy of our environment pulls inward and down, when yin overcomes yang. It is a time of gathering in the harvest and storing the excess for the winter ahead.
In the sense that our lives reflect the patterns of our environment, autumn is a time when our energies might be directed more toward home and family. The routine of school & study re-begins for some of us. It's a time to wrap up and clear away projects begun in spring and worked on over the summer, “to begin to edit and then store what has been accomplished.” We might turn to activities like contemplation, reading, writing and nurturing family in preparation for the winter months ahead.

Autumn in Chinese Medical Theory: Metal-Lung Time
Traditional Chinese Medicine is built on an intricate system of correspondences. There are considered to be five seasons in the Chinese calendar: Spring, Summer, an extra one called Late Summer, Autumn and Winter. Each of these seasons corresponds to a long list of qualities and aspects which takes us deeper into the contemplation of that season.
Here is a list of correspondences for Autumn:
Autumn's direction is West.
Its element is Metal.
Its color is White.
Autumn's emotion is grief.
Its sound is weeping.
Its taste is pungent or spicy.
In relation to the human body, Autumn corresponds to the lung and large intestine organs, to the nose as a sensory orifice. It also corresponds to the skin and to body hair. Of the body's various fluids, autumn corresponds to mucous.
Now, what does this all mean? And why does it matter?
When I started studying Chinese medicine, this all seemed weird. But as I reflect on the correspondences with each passing season, I begin to draw out themes which help me to understand the human body, to care for myself and my family, and to be more at peace with the constant change that is fundamental to everything.

Autumn as a Time of Endings:
Living according to the Gregorian calendar, we're used to thinking of December 31, the depth of winter darkness, as the time of endings & beginnings. Or maybe we think of September back-to-school time as the start of the new year.
Autumn equinox was a time of ending in many traditional calendars. The ancient Chinese agricultural calendar once considered Autumn to be the end of the year. The festival marking the end of the year was celebrated with chrysanthemums—probably accounting for the association of the color white with autumn.
In Indigenous European and New World traditions, festivals like Samhain and Dia de los Muertos marked the end of a year and beginning of a new year. (The latter happens also to have chrysanthemums/marigolds as symbols.) They also evoke the theme of death, reflecting the dying back of the agricultural bounty at this time of the year. Along that line, Rosh Hoshanah/Yom Kippur in Judaism are festivals of atonement, renewal and new year.
So, Autumn's theme one of endings, death and new beginnings.
Autumn corresponds with West, which is the direction sunset and the end of the day.
And autumn corresponds to white, which in many cultures is associated with death and grieving, or at the other end of the spectrum, with the purity of birth and renewal.
Autumn has something to teach us about grief, which is the emotion related to autumn in Chinese philosophy. Grief is associated with endings and loss. Weeping is the sound associated with autumn, and weeping is an outlet for grief. In Chinese medicine, we say that too much grief and weeping can damage the lung and the intestines. So, Autumn is a time to honor feelings of grief we might experience. But it is also a time to recognize endings and to let go and resolve grief so that it does not consume us. We might consider the ways in which endings are also new beginnings, as birth and death are two sides of the same coin.
What is the significance of Metal? Metal is perhaps hard for us westerners to wrap our minds around, especially those of us who are more familiar with a four-element system of Earth, Air, Fire and Water.
I think of Metal in terms of structure, boundaries, and demarcation. Metal can also be associated with clarity. Think of a chrystal gem. Or separtion. Think of a metal blade. Metal can be likened to the Air element in western metaphysics, representing writing, speaking, mental clarity or clarity of communications.
To bring all of this around to Chinese medicine and the human body, let's look at all the parts of the body associated with Autumn: lung, large intestine, skin, body hair, nose, mucous. All relate to these themes of boundary, demarcation, ending and separation from that which is not us or that which is not useful to us.
The lung is responsible for breathing. In Chinese medicine, particularly associated with exhalation--ridding the body of CO2 waste and airborne pathogens. The large intestine, obviously, rids the body of food waste. Skin, body hair and mucous, as components of the protective system, demarcate what is us and what is not us and help the body remove that which is harmful and not useful.
How do we summarize all of this?
In many ways, this beautiful time of year is a time of ending, a time of grief and loss of the abundance of summer. To maintain health and balance, we may grieve and weep appropriately, but we also need to invoke the boundary aspect of the metal season. With clarity we let go of what no longer serves us. We pull back from the exuberance of summer. We draw our focus inward and garner our reserves for winter. In these ways, we can move forward in health through the end of one cycle into the beginning of the next.

Here is a short anecdote about grief in my life and the life of my community this autumn.
Shortly after I wrote the above "Autumn: symbols and meanings" essay, I was wondering to myself, "What forms is grief taking for me this year? Am I dealing with grief adequately? And how would I really, usefully help to guide my patients through periods of profound grief?" The following set of experiences came to me, and I thought I'd share them.
One September morning this year, my daughter and I were visiting a local community garden where we frequently spend time volunteering on Fridays. The community garden is run by a local non-profit, Berkeley Youth Alternatives, and offers opportunities for low-income and marginalized youth to learn and earn income by working in the garden. Unfortunately, this year, BYA has been struggling financially and has determined that it will no longer be able to fund the position of its wonderful garden staffperson after October, 2011. All of the people who love the garden program are grieving and hoping to find a meaningful way for the program to be reborn.
On a personal level, my grief was encapsulated in a single moment where I watched my daughter running with ease down the garden pathway. The garden staffperson commented to me about how quickly she had grown so big. It was true. I remembered spending lovely summer mornings in this garden the previous year, just after Eva had learned to walk. She was still so small and clumsy then that I'd have to lift her over the grasses and furrows or she'd fall down among the rows of plants. The sad end of this chapter in the community garden history and the lightening speed of my daughter's maturation hit me like a rock that day. 
Since then, I've been trying to honor grief around these things, along with trying to see possibilities for new beginnings. That includes talking with other garden volunteers about our dreams for a new community program to arise from the garden. It also includes turning my focus from grieving the loss of my precious little baby to savoring and taking pride in all the ways that my daughter is growing into a bright, wonderful and spirited "big girl." Finally, I'm learning to appreciate that her growing independence means that I can begin to focus my helping more people as a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine.
Resources for the article:
Elson M. Haas, M.D., Staying Healthy with the Seasons.
Penelope Ody. The Chinese Herbal Cookbook: Healing Foods from East and West.
Liu Ming. Santidao: The Way of the Three Treasures. Oakland: Da Yuan Circle, 2008.