(Just a quick note: When I first began to study the five elements, this element was the most confusing for me. I was used to the four element cosmology of air, earth, fire, and water. The Chinese system is wood, fire, earth, metal, water. Many things overlap, such as the wood element shares things in common with the earth and air elements of the other system; metal shares characteristics air and water of the other system. [There are of course many other cosmologies of elements as well, such as earth, air, fire, water, ether, but for today we’ll stick with the Chinese Medicine cosmology.] For some time I was confused about how the idea of metal could relate with breath, the most obvious function of the Lungs. A teacher explained that the idea of “metal” relates with something precious and sometimes ephemeral, and used the image of a crystal, made from air and element. Others talk about the world of elements, which can include both air and solids… And then there are all these other connections; see below!)
Yes, we’ve been sinking into Fall, time of Metal. Metal is the element of the Lungs and Large Intestine in Chinese Medicine. The direction related to the Metal element is West; the color is White; the animal is a white Tiger; the climate is Dry. The emotion is Grief; the sound is sobbing. The smell is fishy or rank; the taste is pungent or spicy. Lung relates to the skin, to body hair, to the nose, to pores opening and closing. Lungs of course also relate to breath, especially exhalation, to immunity and the body’s defensive qi, and to qi in the body in general (the Lungs are said to govern the body’s qi). Common ailments of the Lungs include frequent colds, coughing, wheezing, hoarse voice, asthma, shortness of breath, allergies, dry skin, phlegm (the Lungs are the container of phlegm). Large Intestine, as one might imagine, relates to digestion and elimination, and also relates to the body’s immunity. Common ailments include constipation or diarrhea, intestinal grumbling, and sometimes sinus and other lung-related issues. Because these organs partner, congestion in one often affects congestion in the other.
Breath, exhalation; digestion, elimination. The Metal element has a lot to do with letting go. White, the color of Metal element, is also associated with death; in other nearby cultures we see Halloween, Dia de Los Muertos, Yom Kippur/ Sukkot, etc. which all have life and death themes. Fall is a perfect time to sink into this process of letting go, just as in nature we see the process of plants turning inward, letting go and dying back into the earth; beginning to let energy gather into roots, or becoming compost for the next cycle. In the generating cycle of the five elements, Earth generates Metal, just as we find precious metals, stones, and crystals created in the earth. The Metal element is also connected with the quality of preciousness. The process of letting go of what has already been used, what is no longer needed, also lets us discern what is precious, to be treasured. Also, letting go, completing the exhale, allows us to be fully in the moment, ready for the next inhale, or for whatever might happen in between. Walking this morning and breathing in the sweet unique air of that moment reminded me how attending to our breathing does allow us to enter more fully into the very moment of the present. And isn’t it interesting how smells (a form of breath) evoke the memory of a particular moment more than anything else?
The Lungs and the Metal element are very much related to this ability to find what is precious in each moment. The soul of the Lungs and of Metal is the Po, sometimes translated as the corporeal soul. This is the level of soul most connected to our animal selves, our breath, the aspect of our life force that is connected with moment-to-moment living on the most visceral level, the part of our soul that dies when the body dies. Grief is the emotion associated with the Lungs, which seems appropriate for this idea of letting go, yet the Po is also the part of our soul related with our most basic and visceral experience of all of our emotions. The Po lets us experience our bodies and emotions as animals of the moment, the essence of sensation, embodiment, and embodied knowing. All of which I think segues well into a poem I really love any excuse to share:
By Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Ahhhh…. So how do we nourish and strengthen our Lungs, Large Intestines, and Po? Practices of connecting with our body and our animal self, through breathing practices, touch, smell, and all of our senses, are excellent for this purpose. Massage is really lovely for this time of year, both for helping us inhabit our bodies and for toning and invigorating the skin, which is related to the Lungs and our defensive (immunity-related) qi. The practice of brushing is alsogood. Keeping the Large Intestine/Colon moving regularly is important, but things like colonics and cleanses can often be too much of a shock to the system; diet and exercise are better methods as far as TCM is concerned. This is a time of year for staying warm and bringing our energy a bit more inward and restful-- moving still but protecting our qi from cold and overexertion. Using the energy of metal to refine what is precious in our lives; what patterns to let go of and what to store for winter.
Foods this time of year can begin to be cooked a bit longer and slower on a low heat. The appetite now is invigorated by warm fragrance and little bits of spice, which also help strengthen our defensive qi. Emphasize early harvest root vegetables, leafy greens such as cabbage, kale, and chard, fall fruits, garlic, scallions, and onions. Sour foods in small amounts also can help bring the energy a bit inward for the season, such as sauerkraut, salt plums, some apples, grapes, or plums, apple cider vinegar, sourdough bread, etc. Continuing to strengthen Spleen (see the last blog Earth) is also beneficial, as the Earth element gives birth to the Metal element. To counter dryness during this season, moistening foods such as pear (steamed is good for moistening and at the same time transforming phlegm), persimmon, honey, eggs, millet, barley, peanuts, seaweeds, pork, herring and other fish, mushrooms, marshmallow root, slippery elm, can be helpful. Adding a little bit of sea salt can also moisten dryness and regulate water metabolism. Phlegm congested in the lungs can be helped by fennel, garlic, onion, horseradish, turnip, fresh ginger, radish, seaweeds, nettles, mullein, elecampane. For strengthening deficient lung qi, we can use sweet potato, mustard greens, rice, oats, carrots, fresh ginger, garlic, licorice root. White sesame seeds are excellent for the lungs.
The qi in our bodies which is created on a daily basis (rather than the qi we’ve inherited), is based on a mixture of the vital force of the air we breathe in and the vital force of the foods we eat. As we honor death, and letting go, this time of year, we are also called upon to continuously remember and retune with our aliveness, through every breath and in every precious moment. Considering that Chinese Medicine considers the Lungs to govern the qi in our bodies, is another reminder of how important it is to—
With love and fall blessings,Shoshana