The Five Phases of Chinese Medicine for Balance and Harmony
Earth, Metal, Water, Wood, Fire
Once summer has reached its height, the year's cycle begins its inevitable decline into the season of late summer - the season of Earth.
Late summer is a welcome relief from the intense heat and brightness of summer. From the Chinese perspective, it is a season unto itself with a unique energy and function in the cycles of the year. The Chinese associated the power of "decrease" with late summer and, at the same time, referred to it as the period of abundance. The full expansion of summer begins its decline in this season. With the coming of late summer, Nature returns the fruits it has made, which are ripe and ready to be picked. A good harvest fills the larder. It means autumn and winter can be survived without scarcity, and that energy can be conserved during the cold period when outer growth ceases. Late summer is a time for slowing down and gathering in. It is a time to recognize and hold the fruits of our labors.
As it is for the seasons of the year, so it is for life’s seasons. The work done on ourselves during the earlier part of our lives - the growth and strengthening of the body, cultivating meaningful relationships, challenging and developing the intellect, spiritual practice - all determine the quality of the harvest we reap - and what we have to share with others. Whether at the breast of the physical mother or the breast of Mother Nature, the Earth and the archetype of Mother have always been connected - survival would be impossible without the nourishment both freely give. Though most of us today may not grow our own food, we ought to keep sight of the fact that prior to being put in packages and stacked in supermarkets, the food we consume is nonetheless a gift from the Earth. Despite the abuse it has to endure, the Earth is forgiving and continues to feed and provide for us.
In our spiritual lives, the Earth element grants us the ability to internalize the mother by learning to nourish and care for ourselves. Imagine a child who hasn't experienced the security derived from being properly loved and cared for; an imbalance in the Earth element may well be a result of this lack of mothering. The infant nursing at the breast, receiving the milk and (as importantly) the love of its mother is the very perfection of Earth. A healthy Earth element allows us to feel “at home” anywhere.
Mothering does not stop in infancy. The patience and compassion that come from the mother are needed for years, as we grow and learn how to care for ourselves. What if this essential teaching and nourishment are missing? A preoccupation and search develops for the mother that we lacked. If we have had no nurturing, there is a feeling of being deprived and misunderstood. We are in continual need, seeking from the external that which is lacked internally. Unless the imbalance caused by this trauma to the Earth element is resolved, a search for mothering may continue right through life.
The emotion associated with the Earth element is sympathy, an important emotion when expressed in appropriate circumstances. Compassion and empathy arise spontaneously when the moment is right. I marvel at how my six-year-old knows in an instant just how to comfort a friend who is hurt or crying.
As well as the ability to express sympathy toward others, however, we must be able to receive it. We need to know that others understand how and when we hurt and what we are going through. When a child is in pain, it calls immediately for its mother, the first source or nourishment, sympathy and understanding. But with an Earth imbalance, the need for sympathy can become excessive and insatiable; or, in its opposite manifestation, sympathy may be completely absent. We all know people from whom we can expect no compassion, regardless of circumstance. And there are also those who cannot receive sympathy or help at all - the sort who say, "No, I can do it myself."
An identical imbalance can be created by over-mothering, which can stunt a child’s capacity to care for itself and to learn from its own experience. In either extreme, rather than expressing real needs, a person develops manipulative ways of relating to others - exaggerating, over-complaining, whining to attract sympathy, or keeping silent and denying real needs, distrusting other people’s motives, and feeling that no one understands.
In our bodies, the Stomach and Spleen are the organs that receive food and drink and enable us to be nourished by its essence; these organs represent the Earth within us. As the process of digestion begins in the mouth, food should be chewed thoroughly and mixed with saliva, the bodily secretion of the Earth element. Icy cold foods and drink should generally be avoided, as extreme cold strains our Fire element (whose job it is to maintain a normal and healthy body temperature). The period between 7 and 9 am is the time in which nature gives the Stomach a measure of extra energy, so that this is the optimum time to take in nourishment. Yes, breakfast is the most important meal of the day - we should instinctively begin the day as we did when we were infants, with fuel in the tank.
The Chinese did not view the vital organs as physical entities only, but also as Officials, with functions that manifest on a non-physical level. Parallel to body functions, how information and feelings are taken in and "digested" is largely a function of the Stomach official, seen as the agent who receives and processes emotional and mental "food." A failure of this function means that thoughts and feelings may churn endlessly, ultimately developing into obsessions that can’t be processed and rendered useful.
There are forty-five acupuncture points on the stomach meridian (energy pathway). Each point has a unique and specific purpose in restoring balance and harmony to the Stomach function as Nature ordained it, healing in ways that are often suggested by the name of a point. The following are examples:
Stomach 20: "Receiving Fullness"
The experience of an inner harvest may be unknown and unavailable to someone whose Earth element has been traumatized. Feeling barren, such a person seems to bring nothing to fruition. Even in the presence of caring friends with helpful ideas, or in any other nourishing environment, nothing can be received or made one’s own. For a person in such a state of depletion, Stomach 20 can open the empty storehouse so the person can begin to receive the abundance that Nature offers to us all.
The other Earth Official, the Spleen, according to Chinese medicine is the official of transportation and distribution. As such, it takes what the stomach has prepared and moves it on to nourish the cells in the body. A healthy Spleen not only nourishes us at the physical level, but also makes sure the nourishment reaches our minds and spirits. In the following example, we see how an acupuncturist may use one of the twenty-one points on the Spleen meridian to assist in restoring health to body, mind, and spirit.
Spleen 8: "Earth Motivator"
This point gets the official of transport moving. Even if the granaries and storehouses are full, we will starve if the means of transportation fail. "Earth Motivator" invigorates and prepares the earth within us for planting. Imagine scattering seeds on hard, unyielding soil - few, if any, will take root. Like a bulldozer, this point breaks up, moves and turns the soil within us. Then new growth can occur, promising a richer harvest. A new vitality begins to be felt. Hardness and stubbornness, which manifest as selfishness and lack of sympathy, are transformed into greater thoughtfulness and care in relations with others.
We can see that if the Earth element is out of balance, we may be prone to digestive disorders - as well as illness in any other organ or function of the body, for all are dependent on the stomach and spleen for nourishment.
Consider these everyday expressions, heard but often unnoticed, from someone whose Earth element could be in distress: "I just can’t stomach it… I can’t digest it… Let’s get down to earth… The ground was pulled out from under me… Stand on your own two feet… I have to care for everyone else but nobody takes care of me… I’m always hungry… Nothing fills me up."
In summary, every process must invariably pass through its period of harvest, grand or small as it may be. Physically and spiritually, the period of late summer is a time for slowing down and gathering in. It is a time when we recognize and hold the fruits of labor. Imagine the farmer filling the silo after the harvest: Now that the heavy work is over, he can reflect contentedly on all that has brought him to this moment and this season.
It is appropriate for us, too, to acknowledge this stage of our own life cycle. From the harvest of our experience, we develop a natural inclination to share and serve others. Well nourished ourselves, we can recognize where needs exist and how best to fill them. Exercising our compassion, we can become caretakers of the earth.
Suggestions for living in harmony with the late summer season
Enjoy the abundance of fruits and fresh vegetables
Be aware of their special qualities, each succulence different from the next. Carrots are crisp, cucumbers cool, tomatoes luscious, peaches sweet. Look at the seeds, and reflect on the fact that within each harvest lie the seeds of the next.
Be thoughtful of how you can nourish others.
In this season when nature gives her bounty, we also rejoice in giving, with attention to the special needs of others. You need not wait until you can give a "great gift." A word, a courtesy, a thoughtfulness - given today - is a great gift.
Be conscious of the harvest of your life.
Think about yourself, your relationships, and your work. What parts of your life are bearing fruit? Where is the harvest rich? Where do you find it stunted?
Consider what you need to do to make ready for the letting go of autumn.
Holding your harvest in mind, ask what is overgrown or unneeded. What distracts you from your dearest concerns? What might you wish to simplify in yourself or in your life?
Copyright 2018 by Neil Gumenick