In the sheet of announcements and farm stories included in my family’s weekly vegetable share from our local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share from Wintergreen Farm the author struggles to understand when she knows that Fall has arrived in the Willamette Valley. In the end, she was talking about the energy of the season. Which got me to thinking about writing the article you’re reading right now.
When I conceived of this series on living with the seasons according to Chinese medicine, I knew I really wanted to provide something of value. It would be too easy to throw up a set of traditional correspondences, make some vapid suggestions about eating squash instead of tomatoes and just leave it at that. But, this living with the seasons thing is too important to me for that. Although it is commonly neglected by patients and practitioners alike, seasonal living is a clear command of the ancients. It is a primary pillar in the prevention of disease, and certainly plays a part in the rectification of illness already underway.
I am going to list and explain below what I believe to be the most important pieces of symbolic information commonly associated with Autumn in Chinese medicine. These relatively concrete items represent nodes in a web of representation – they do not complete the picture, they begin it. In the next article, I will expand on these slightly but mostly I will share how these symbols can be used to align yourself with the energy of the season so that you might live more healthfully and appreciate this ever changing world of ours.
Metal is the phase element traditionally associated with Autumn. The manipulation of ores from the earth to form metal is probably one of the most potent discoveries in human history. Metal is unique among the five elemental phases insofar that its symbolism is the only one to reflect a primarily human made product. Humans use metal for many things, but two of the most ubiquitous and important categories of metal objects are those used for attacking/protecting and those used for adornment.
Both of these categories give us insight into the energy of Fall. On the one hand, consider the tools of warfare. At some point in history, human beings figured out that they were better off using tools to defend themselves against attack than simply their fists and teeth – our native physical defenses are no match for those of a big cat or wild dog.
We extended this knowledge to realize that we could actively use these tools to hunt and, even, to take the resources of others. I’m not sure if that’s how it happened chronologically and certainly those first tools were not made of metal, but the point is the same. Metal is often used to create objects with which we can defend our own boundaries or violate the boundaries of others.
The maintainance of boundaries is a key theme of the Metal element and of the Fall. Where the summer is all about free flowing social activity and the exploration of everything and everybody, the Fall is about reestablishing our separation, reigning in the desire to go farther and farther out. It is time for recognizing what is ours (the harvest)
The other category, adornment, is also important. Probably all cultures that have access to metal have used it for creating beautiful jewelry and other ornamental pieces to display their wealth and status. This is part of boundary setting, but more importantly, it is a way of asserting our self-esteem. Because of the accomplishment of the summer season and the need to scale back energetically for the failing Yin energy, this recognition of achievement and admiration for one’s deeds, adornment is a critial piece of Autumn energy.
The two metal organs, Lung and Large Intestine, are both involved in the symbol field of Autumn. Lung is the Prime Minister, the second in command to the Heart and as such is an extremely important organ system. Its function as the upper source of water and distributor of Qi are so critical that even minor variations can cause system wide havoc. It is unfortunate, then, that the Lung is sometimes called “the sensitive organ” because of its pickiness about moisture and heat levels. Lung is easily afflicted by these environmental variations
As a symbol, think of Lung as a great glacier topped mountain. Imagine yourself at the top of this mountain, breathing in the almost painful cold – feeling the crispness and certainty of the thin air. The place has a feeling of finality, of ancientness, of purity – all of these are part of the Fall. The death energy of Fall brings with it a sense of finality, of going into more subtle phase of reality. The cool mornings and evenings bring a sense of cleanliness and purity, even as things lay all around decaying into the Earth.
In the Neijing line in Chapter 8 pertaining to the Lung, it is said that the Lung is the organ system of mutual exchange or mutual instruction (相傅). This evokes two Fall time rituals in many places, the commencement of academic instruction and the exchange of goods at harvest markets. Both of these add much richness to the symbolic energy of Autumn. Although as I’ve said the free flowing social energy of the summer has ended, we come together as a community in different ways in the metal season. The time has come to enter into more formal relationships with each other and to come together for the propagation of both life and culture.
It’s all to easy to ignore the Fu organs – TCM theory tends to conveniently forget that they are there! But there is no reason to believe that they are any less important than the Zang. What can we learn from Large Intestine? The Neijing Chapter 8 line on Large Intestine is particularly instructive! We are told that the Large Intestine is the official of the transmission of the Dao, and that change and transformation emerge from it. 大腸者．傳道之官．變化出焉
No small thing! Two of the most pivotal concepts of Chinese medicine are in this line – Dao 道 and Bian-Hua 變化! Many have translated this to suggest the more base functions of the Large Intestine, but I believe it hints at much more. I do not want to go into this in detail in this article, but let us see what it can tell us about the seasonal energy of the Autumn. I believe that this points us towards the need to begin our journey inward, to seek again the Dao – the universal mysteries.
Even more obvious is the reference to change and transformation. During this time, all things are moving from life to death, from outward to inward, from verdant green to multi-colored hues, from recreation to study! The energy of change is strong in the Autumn as it is in its companion season, the Spring. These are pivots in the shifting energy of our planet.
Tiger is the zodiac animal now associated with the Earthly branch that resonates with the Lung. As such, it is a metal animal. It reflects much of what I’ve already said about the Lung. Its beautiful pelt reminds us of our need to pay attention to our public face and admire our achievements. Its sharp claws and teeth remind us of the need to protect our boundaries. But there are a few more things about this noble beast that will deepen our understanding of Autumnal energy.
First, tigers are primarily solitary creatures. They defend territories fiercely, particularly the males. They do mingle at times to share food, but do not live in family groups with the exception of young cubs and their mothers. Although I have talked about the more social aspects of Fall, I do believe that this time is more for internal reflection.
Think of the solitary tiger, calmly patrolling territory in the early evening hours. Fall is a time of independence, and combining this with the energy of adornment, it is a time for us to assert ourselves as what we are. However, the second point I want to make about tigers will complicate this picture. Tigers do not waste energy looking for a fight. Although they will battle one another for mating or territorial purposes, they generally prefer avoidance of conflict. When hunting, they use stealth as their primary weapon – avoiding large expenditures of energy. This is an important aspect of Fall energy – preservation and conservation.
Organ Clock complications
I have written several times already about the Chinese organ clock. There is a complication in the organ clock that affects Lung and Large Intestine. Although five element theory places these two organs in the Metal element, and thus relate them to Fall, the organ clock actually finds both Lung and Large intestine at the initiating part of the sequence, in the spring!
What to make of this? First, we can simply observe that the intense integration of Yin-Yang philosophy into Chinese symbolic thought may account for the apparent aberration. Although Fall seems the polar opposite of Spring, they hold one another in complement. If you think about Spring mornings and Fall mornings, they do carry a similar energy. There is also the previously mentioned emphasis on change, it is simply that one is Yin changing to Yang and one vice versa. It shows us that we should emphasize the plunging into the Yin phase of our year and of our lives just as deeply as we plunge into the Yang phase of our year and our lives.
These are the symbols I find most helpful in thinking about Autumnal energy. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. In the next installment of this series, I will expand slightly on this symbol field and then make specific practical suggestions on how we might learn to live in harmony with this season so as to prevent disease and maximize our potential.
About Eric Grey
Hi - I'm the founder of Deepest Health. When I'm not writing here, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Community Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.