Friday, May 25, 2012

Spirit of Summer: Notes on Summer in Chinese Five-Element Theory

In the traditional Chinese calendar, as in traditional European calendars, May marks the beginning of summer. Old European traditions celebrate May with dancing, flowers, bonfires, the maypole and rituals of exuberance, courtship & flirtation – all in the spirit of the ascending yang energy of summer.

During springtime, yang energy rises, while yin energy recedes. Daylight hours, in the northern hemisphere, become longer and warmer. Yang energy will reach its peak on the summer solstice, June 21st, before it begins its descent.

According to classical Chinese five-element theory, summer is a time of activity, forward motion, creativity, growth and change.

What is Five-Element Theory?

Five-element theory arose in pre-industrial, agrarian China where humans closely observed and depended on natural cycles of the earth and climate. In five-element theory, the five seasons of the year – Spring, Summer, Late Summer, Autumn and Winter – each correspond to a specific set of qualities and energies. In agricultural society, survival depended on a sophisticated understanding of and adaptation to the patterns of nature. Our modern, urban lives are less directly tied to agricultural cycles, but we still find greater health & happiness when our activities are aligned with the prevailing energies of our natural environment.

In traditional Chinese philosophy, summer has the following correspondences:
element : fire
color : red
direction : south
weather : heat
animal : red phoenix
life phase : youth, growth
emotion : joy / depression
sound : laughter
organs : heart, small intestine
tissue : blood, blood vessels
sense organ : tongue
taste : bitter

Summer in the Flow of the Seasons:

In five-element theory, the season of spring is associated with the wood element. We can visualize “wood” as the upward, outward energetic movement of new springtime plant growth. In spring, new sprouts arise out of the earth after the dormancy of winter. Similarly, among humans, spring is a time for new ideas and new visions. However, our energy to act on those ideas, to make changes in line with new visions, is still limited in springtime. It's still cold. Traditionally, in springtime, we are still surviving largely on stored food from last year's harvest. So, our energy is still fragile and new activity should be limited.

Summer, on the other hand, brings robustness. Longer hours of sunlight warm the earth. The gardens we planted earlier in spring begin to produce substantial food to nourish us.

Walking through nearly any neighborhood in Berkeley in May, I'm stunned by multi-colored show of flowers. California poppies, the first roses --- all portraying the vibrancy of early summer. Brightly-colored fruits and berries begin to appear in the farmers' markets.

How might this season be reflected in our personal and communal lives?

The Spirit of Summer:

Summer is a time to get to work on new ideas. It is also a time for physical activity, sport and recreation. Words associated with summer energy are motion, creativity, intuition, energy, enthusiasm, vitality, ventures.

Stephen Scott Cowan, M.D., in the book I'm reading right now Fire Child Water Child, (which applies Chinese five-element theory to understanding pediatric ADHD) writes this about the summer season:

"Fire corresponds to the season of summer. In contrast to the push of spring, plants have now reached the culmination of their growth and have burst open in flowers displaying rich colors and fragrances, attracting bees and butterflies. This is the time of great consummation, of pollination. It's party time! The weather is hotter, forcing us to slow down and take it easy. People go on vacation, distracting themselves with sightseeing. It's time to have fun, to try something new. Fire brings light and excitement to all our celebrations. Think of the fireworks of the Fourth of July, the sky bursting with flower-like explosions of light...."

The element associated with summer, according to Chinese five-eleement theory, is fire, and the associated color is red: bright red or red-orange. The sun, which becomes so powerful at this time of year, is made of fire. The light, heat, warmth and upward movement of fire mirrors the enthusiasm, energy and vitality we might find in our lives and in relation to our favorite activities at this time of year.

Despite its enthusiasm, however, fire is still somewhat youthful. It is still dependent on earth and wood for its existence. So, our work and our pursuits may still be immature at this time of year. Summer is a time of growth and change. Despite the unbridled enthusiasm of this time of year, we have to be tolerant of change and instability characteristic of fire. We have to accept ourselves, our projects as works in progress--with all their shortcomings and imperfections. It is time to dream, to listen to our intuition, to try new things. Summer progresses into the Chinese season of Late Summer, which is associated with the earth element. It is in the earth phase that our the visions and ideas born in spring and worked on in summer achieve a level of solidity, maturity, or manifestation.

The emotion associated with summer is joy and the associated sound is laughter. At this time of year, we find joy through work and activity, through physical movement and recreation. Joy comes as we develop clarity about our life's purposes, and as we make desired changes according to our visions.

Summer Imbalances:

If our internal energies are flowing smoothly, summer can be a time for joyous growth and productivity. However, every quality has  its flipside. If we suffer from imbalances of the fire element, we might experience hardships at this time of the year. On a spiritual level, deficiency of fire can result in sadness or depression (opposite of joy), resulting from lack of alignment with one's life purposes. On the other hand, fire can easily become overly exuberant. Excess of fire can manifest in what the Chinese call an excess of joy. Mania, anxiety, restlessness and insomnia are common modern-day manifestations of unbalanced fire energy. In Chinese medicine theory, summer and the fire element correspond to the heart organ and the blood vessels. Pathologies related the physical heart (coronary issues, hypertension, palpitations, etc.) and to the heart spirit (insomnia, anxiety, depression) can become pronounced at this time of year and deserve special attention.

Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine can help to rebalance and restore the function of the heart. Please stay tuned to my blog for more articles on summer health and heart health.