Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Late Summer Reflections: Transition, Earth, Spleen

There's been been a lot of change in the air during the past few weeks. The long, exuberant, sunny days of summer have suddenly given way to to a crisp coolness. In the Bay Area, hints of dampness and fog have begun to appear in the evenings and early mornings, broken up warm sunshine at midday. The angle of the light is becoming less direct and darkness falls earlier as the sun moves further on its southward journey with each passing day.

For family-folk, many of our kids just started another school year. Last week I tearfully dropped my daughter off for her first day of preschool. Many adults are making changes in, or recommitting themselves, to their routines of work and study.

Indeed, this is a big time of transition for us as a culture, in our yearly circuit around the sun. Things may feel very busy on one level with the reestablishment of routines. However, stopping for a moment to feel the slight coolness of the air or to observe the way the afternoon sunlight falls, one might notice a special sort of stillness amidst this transition.

The classical Chinese calendar has a name for this time of year, which we don't find in the west. It's called "Late Summer." In addition to the four seasons Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter, the Chinese calendar has a fifth season known as Late Summer, which starts in August and lasts for about a month.

Late Summer is actually the very center of the year, considering that the Chinese calendar begins in February, at the beginning of Spring.

As the "center" of the year, Late Summer marks the transition between the Yang part of the year (the growing, expansive energies of Spring & Summer) and the Yin part of the year (the retracting, receptive, inwardly-focused qualities of Autumn & Winter).

In the Chinese agricultural calendar, Late Summer was the time when the produce of the land became abundant as a result of the warmth and the labor of summer. People would pause momentarily in their work to enjoy the early agricultural returns, to rest and prepare for the great work of the harvest.

Late Summer is like the moment when the pendulum stands still before reversing the direction of its swing.

This moment is considered the biggest transition in the year; but the Chinese calendar also applies the "Late Summer" title to four lesser transition periods. These are approximately fifteen day periods surrounding the two solstices and the two equinoxes.

So, the ancient Chinese recognized a common quality, Late Summer, in each seasonal or cosmological transition. As with every other season, Late Summer has its own set of correspondences and, of course, considerations for maintaining health, happiness and well-being.

Late Summer Corresponds to EARTH

In the five-element system of Chinese philosophy, the period of Late Summer (and seasonal transitions) corresponds to the element Earth.

Think of the expansive energy of new ideas (Wood, element of Spring) giving rise to the upwardly-blazing energy of action (Fire, or Summer). The fiery flame of summer has now given way to ash, transforming into the rich, fertile soil out of which our food nourishment grows. This soil comprises the solidity of our earth.

Indeed, of the five elements, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal & Water, Earth is the one that is the most solid and material. While, Wood, Fire, Earth & Metal all correspond to one of the four cardinal directions, Earth corresponds to the Center.
It makes sense that in times of intense transition (seasonal, cosmological, cultural, personal), we reconnect with the Earth element to keep us "grounded & centered."

Late Summer Corresponds to Food Nourishment, Digestion & Assimilation

One of the most satisfying ways of "grounding and and centering" is by eating food. With all the great late summer produce coming to us through the farmer's markets, this is an especially delicious time of year to do just that.

Eating reconnects us with the earth on a daily basis. All our food nourishment comes from the earth. Food nourishment not only nourishes and regulates every cell in our body, enabling us to function on a daily basis, but on a subtler level, it reminds us of our humanity and of our connection with all species and with earth herself.

Earth Organs: Spleen & Stomach

The Spleen and the Stomach are the organs of the body associated with Late Summer and the Earth Element.

From a Chinese medical viewpoint, the Spleen (often said to include spleen & pancreas) and the Stomach can be thought of as encompassing the whole digestive system. They are responsible for break-down of food and assimilation of nutrients. Among the functions of the Spleen and Stomach are:
  • deriving usable nutrients from food, 
  • transforming the food we eat (as well as the air we breathe) into Qi and Blood, and 
  • transporting nourishment (in the form of Qi and blood) to every cell in our body.

Day-to-Day Energy 

The Spleen and the Stomach, i.e. the Earth organs, are the source of energy which fuels our activities and thought processes on a day-to-day basis. Because of this, they are also called, in Chinese medicine, the "Root of Post-Natal Qi." (or the "Root of Post-Heaven Qi")

The Kidney, by contrast, is considered the "Root of Pre-Natal Qi."  Pre-Natal (or Pre-Heaven) Qi encompasses the energy, qualities and characteristics we inherit from our parents, our ancestors and, if you will, our fate or karma. Pre-natal Qi (or Kidney Qi) is our deepest, foundational, resource of energy. It can't really be changed or augmented, but we do use it up over the course of our lives. It can not be easily replenished.

Post-natal Qi, on the other hand, is refreshed on a daily basis by the food we eat and the air we breathe.

While we have little control over our Pre-Natal Qi, there's a lot we can do to improve our post-natal Qi. Indeed, we have a new chance to do this every day through food and lifestyle choices. The Spleen and Stomach perform critical functions for us every day, but are prone to fatigue and overwhelm. Here are some ways to support the healthy function of your Spleen and Stomach:
  • Eating nutritious food (and this is a particularly delicious time of year to do that!)
  • Getting enough rest (your Spleen doesn't work well when you're tired & overworked!)
  • Reasonable amounts of exercise (help you break down and assimilate food)
  • Receiving acupuncture and/or herbal medicine
As an acupuncturist, when I want to boost a patient's day-to-day health, energy level, or immunity, or even to improve their mood or mental function, I most often look to the Spleen and Stomach, because it is the Spleen and Stomach which provide the energy we use every day. Indeed, digestive health affects nearly every aspect of our well-being.

Health and Imbalance in Late Summer

Let's return to the theme of transition. For people with strong digestion, or healthy Spleen and Stomach function, Late Summer can be a time of grounding, centering and flourishing health.

However, when Spleen and Stomach health is weak (and this is not uncommon, given less-than-stellar diets and high stress-levels that we face), Late Summer can be a time when health problems appear. Acupuncturists always notice more patients coming to the clinic at this time of year with "Spleen and Stomach imbalances": sometimes digestive upset; sometimes fatigue or malaise or exacerbation of chronic health conditions; sometimes complex emotional issues.

Some factors that weaken the Spleen & Stomach

In Chinese medicine we say that cold, damp foods weaken the Spleen, while (and I think this is of secondary importance) hot, dry foods can injure the Stomach. In terms of Stomach health, it is important to avoid very spicy, dry or deep-fried foods, coffee, alcohol, some vegetable oils heated to high temperatures. These can cause Stomach heat, an overproduction of Stomach acid and give rise to symptoms like heartburn. More importantly, one should avoid eating excessive amounts of cold or raw food. This includes raw food diets, raw salads, cold or iced drinks, soy that is not fermented, many dairy products, and.... yes, ice cream. In order to digest cold  or raw food, the body uses a great deal of Yang energy to heat it before it can even break it down into something usable by the body. This seriously taxes the energy of the Spleen. Spleen weakness, in turn, often results in formation of "dampness" and phlegm in the body. As the dampness or phlegm accumulates, it generates heat, which can lead to various inflammatory syndromes, etc.

Most western medications (i.e. antibiotics and vaccinations) are harmful to the Spleen. While critically life-saving in the face of infectious disease, they are often extremely cold energetically. If you have to take a western medication, it is advisable to work concomitantly with an acupuncturist or other holistic health practitioner to mitigate damage to your digestive system.

Eating too many sweets also weakens the Spleen and results in the production of excess phlegm. Many these days are also saying that grains are cold in nature and, eaten in excess, can weaken the Spleen. If you eat grains, take measures like pre-soaking or sprouting to improve their digestibility & availability of nutrients.

Other factors that damage the Spleen and Stomach include eating at irregular times, overeating, eating too little or not eating enough protein. Excessive pensiveness or worry, excessive use of the mind in the case of studying, and not getting enough rest also tax the Spleen. Finally, any chronic disease tends to weaken the Spleen.

Common Physical Symptoms of Spleen Weakness Include:

  • Poor appetite (the Spleen is responsible for digestion; appetite will be poor if the Stomach is weak)
  • Weak muscles (muscles and flesh are under the jurisdiction of the Spleen)
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal distension, bloating
  • Loose stools
  • Weight gain/overweight
  • Edema
  • Digestive problems
The energy of the Spleen is said to hold blood in its vessels. Some types of bleeding, such as excess uterine bleeding, as well as varicose veins and easy bruising, relate to Spleen weakness.

Another function of Spleen energy is to hold things up and to raise clear Qi to the body. Weakness of this capacity, known as "Spleen Qi sinking," can result in organ prolapse or diarrhea. Also, when clear Qi is not rising to the head, there can be headaches or we can feel dizzy or foggy-headed, depressed, or lack mental clarity and focus.

It can't be overemphasized that the Spleen is, in many ways, the foundation of the body's energy and health on a day-to-day basis. By "transforming and transporting" nutrients throughout the body, the Spleen ensures the integrity of each cell and organ. Weakness of the Spleen can lead to weakness of other organs. It is frequently an aspect of many, many conditions seen in the acupuncture clinic. There is increasing consensus, in eastern and western medicine, that digestive issues lie at the heart of many health concerns. Some that I've seen in my clinic recently include: eczema, psoriasis, autoimmune conditions, reproductive health, asthma, lowered immunity/frequent colds, chronic sinusitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and mental/emotional health concerns. Of course, all of these conditions require specific treatment protocols based on individual presentation; however, in each case, improving the function of the Earth organs was an important element of treatment.

Mental and Spiritual Qualities of Late Summer/Earth

Symbolic associations with Late Summer and the Earth element include:
  • stability
  • material manifestation
  • strength
  • adulthood
  • maturity
Ability to Manifest/Executive Function:
Late Summer is the time when the ideas and inspiration of Spring, through the energy and hard work of Summer, begin to manifest in material form. If Spring corresponds to childhood and is characterized by dreaminess and idealism, and Summer to youth (enthusiasm, vigor), then Late Summer corresponds to adulthood -- ideally, our time of greatest material productivity and accomplishment. Late Summer is the time of our lives for being productive adult citizens in our societies & communities.

People who are good at bringing ideas and inspiration to material fruition are said to have a strong Earth nature. They possess a strong ability to discern their life's purpose(s), and to transform ideas and thoughts into commitments and actions. Earth qualities and skills include:
  • clarity of thought
  • concentration
  • study, memorization
  • reflection, evaluation
  • decisiveness
  • intention-setting
  • clear expression of needs and ability to get support
The Earth element appears in our lives as our ability, in the words of Lorie Eve Dechar, to "apply our spirit to the world of forms."

People with a weak Earth element may have trouble transforming ideas and thoughts into commitments and actions. Spleen weakness gives rise to dampness and phlegm in the body. Mentally, this will manifest as worry, obsessive thoughts and rumination, an obsession with what other people are doing & thinking of us--which can result in trouble sleeping, and an inability to move ahead on projects.

Healthy Relationships:
The Earth element represents the Center. Positioned in the center, Earth relates to our ability to be in relationship with other human beings and our environment. It relates to our ability to nourish ourselves and to give and receive friendship and love. People with strong Earth element have healthy relationships and a strong relationship to community. They are able to nourish themselves and to help others without being drained. The effectively express their needs and get help from others.

People with weak Earth have a harder time forming relationships or being in community. Either they do not form relationships, or they have trouble setting limits and boundaries in personal relations. A weak Spleen gives rise to the production of damp and phlegm in the body. In interpersonal relationships, a person with weak Earth may form unhealthy attachments. He/she may be clingy and co-dependent.

In Chinese medicine pediatrics, children with overly permissive parenting typically have weak Spleens and dampness-related conditions. Excessive permissiveness and a lack of firm boundaries has a similar effect to eating too many sweets. (By contrast, overly strict parenting can produce children with excessive Liver fire. Physical symptoms include headaches, poor sleep. Mental characteristics are anger and aggression.)

Weakness of Earth may be a constitutional attribute, or the result of personal history or lifestyle issues, such as:
  • overwork and fatigue, 
  • excessive worry, 
  • early childhood or family issues--particularly needing to care inordinately for needy family members,
  • dietary issues (especially excess sugar consumption), etc.
In Chinese medicine, there is no separation between spiritual qualities and mental abilities. Acupuncture and herbal treatment aimed at boosting the Spleen Qi and Blood will also improve focus, clarity, and executive function and bring about more balance in personal relationships. On a physical level, improving the Spleen's function will help the body digest, assimilate and utilize nutrients. Spiritually or mentally, the Spleen relates to capacity for digesting experiences and impressions, and transforming these into values, ideas, actions, interpersonal relationships and material manifestation.

There is much to say about Late Summer, the Earth element and the Spleen and Stomach in Chinese medicine. Future blog posts will expand on some of the ideas introduced here.

Here are some links to more information on:
functions of the Spleen & Stomach in Traditional Chinese Medicine from Subhuti Dharmananda, Ph.D., Institute for Traditional Medicine.
Earth Element in relation to spiritual & mental health from Lorie Eve Dechar, M.Ac., author of Five Spirits: Alchemical Acupuncture for Psychological and Spiritual Healing.