It is interesting to note that the celebration of the Jewish New Year, Yom Kippur, takes place during this season. To me, autumn has always felt as if a new year is beginning: the languid summer comes to an end, and we return to our more rigorous rituals and routines at school or work. This can be the perfect time to make resolutions for the coming year. On Yom Kippur, the tradition is to fast and cleanse the body and mind of toxins and negative patterns that do not serve our higher goals. We remember the past year and look critically at our lives: at the good things we choose to nourish and attend to, and at the negative or destructive habits and behaviors we resolve to eliminate. It is the opportune time to re-evaluate our lives and create a strategy for moving forward.
Autumn reminds us that flexibility and adaptability are crucial for staying healthy and balanced during the winter months ahead. During this time you will want to prepare for the challenges of winter by completing unfinished projects, clearing away clutter and debris, setting extra food and fuel aside, and making sure that you are physically and emotionally prepared for the cold, dark months to come.
The Metal Element
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, autumn is the season of the Metal element. Metal reflects our core issues, the most refined part of ourselves; an analogy is that of ore found deep within a mountain. Our core issues are those dealing with existential reality, with questions such as, “Who am I?” “What is my lifework?” “What remains constant in a forever changing world?” People who have an affinity to the Metal element are drawn to examine these core issues, essential structures, and the guiding principles of life. Even if we do not personally have a particular affinity to Metal, during autumn, the season of Metal, we are all called to deal with these core issues.
The energy connected with Metal is drawn to beauty, pleased with symmetry, and inspired by purity. Because we are taken with the purity and beauty all around us, we are more highly attuned and sensitive to our surroundings. We are more concerned with deeper issues, and small talk becomes annoying. The majestic, snow-capped mountain is the image that best captures the power of Metal; it is broad-based and firmly grounded in the earth, but reaches with power and authority toward the heavens.
The emotion connected with Metal is grief or sadness. In autumn we are saying farewell to the abundance of summer and preparing for the reflective time that is to come. Metal connects us with the ability to let go of the past and create the space for the new.
The direction connected with Metal is the West, reflecting the setting sun. The sound associated with Metal is weeping; the color is white. When a person appears whitish around the mouth or eyes, it usually reflects an imbalance in this element. The flavor of Metal is spicy or pungent, and the climate is dry; the sense organ and sense that reflects Metal is the nose and smell. See the chart below.
The organs connected with the Metal element are the Lungs and the Large Intestine, which reflect the spiritual nature of the season, the letting go and receiving. It is common for people to be more vulnerable to colds, bronchial infection and allergies in the cooler days of autumn. The pollens and mold in the air, as well as the cold winds of autumn, stress our immune reserves, making it a good time to support the immune system with some herbs and supplements.
The Lungs are the organs of respiration, responsible for supplying oxygenated blood to every organ of the body and eliminating the waste matter from the cells through our expiration. The word used for breathing in is “inspiration,” which is the main function of the Lung, both physically and spiritually. To be properly “inspired,” we must create space by getting the old stale air out, along with old, preconceived notions of reality.
In emotional and spiritual terms, the Lungs balance the ability to yield and demand, give and take, hold on and let go. When the Lung (Metal) energy is out of balance, order and discipline are rigidly maintained, the emotions are kept under tight control, rules and routines become inflexible, and the body begins to stiffen up. Physically we are more prone to bronchial infections and sinusitis. Our allergies are amplified and issues like asthma and heaviness of the chest can appear.
The Large Intestine
At first glance, the Lungs and the Large Intestine seem to have little in common with each other, as one is involved with respiration and the other with digestion. But Traditional Chinese Medicine views things energetically rather then purely physically. The bowel is the organ of elimination and is responsible for helping the body eliminate waste. Only when the body is cleansed of toxic matter can it receive the more refined energy brought in by its partner, the Lung.
Within the system of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Large Intestine is responsible for making distinctions between harmless and harmful elements, and it discriminates between the nutrients the body needs and those it must eliminate. Irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, flatulence, and abdominal pain, all reflect problems with the function of the Large Intestine.
The Metal Element: The Chart of Correspondences
Below is a table summarizing the basic correspondences associated with the Metal element in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
How to Keep Healthy and Joyful During the Autumn
- Organize your Life: As you work to organize your life, try to focus on what you have accomplished rather than fretting about all the work that remains to be done. Give yourself a task that you can finish in less than an hour, and then clip away at the mess and clutter one step at a time.
- Write it Down: Make a list: a list is a great tool for clearing away clutter. When you make daily to-do lists don’t expect to cross off every item by the end of the day. Congratulate yourself for finishing three or four items on your list. For myself, if I write a list at bedtime for the next day, it does propel me to be more productive: “Do it!”
- Practice Letting Go: Autumn is the season to unburden ourselves of old hurts and resentments. A good exercise is to write down the hurts and resentments we feel lingering from the previous year. Write each incident or event on a separate piece of paper. Realize that each of these pieces of paper weighs you down, and that the old resentments prevent the new from coming in. Then, tear up or shred the papers and throw them in the wastepaper basket or put them in your fireplace and burn them, watching the smoke dissipate.
- Create a Time for Meditation and Relaxation: Sometimes our lives appear to get crazy, and when autumn comes and we get back to our old routines, they often seem to hit us like a fast moving train. There is never enough time in the day to get everything done, so . . . take a few minutes to do NOTHING. Traditional Chinese Medicine says that this is the time of year when spirit is more accessible. If you have learned a meditation technique, use it, possibly in the morning before getting out of bed, or at a time during the day when you can close the door, hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, and for ten or fifteen minutes do your meditation. It makes a difference. If you have never learned to meditate, don’t worry, just put on relaxing music, close your eyes and breathe, trying not to get caught up in your thoughts, but watch them as if you are an outside observer. Try it, you’ll like it.
- Cleanse Your Body: As you move into autumn, do a gentle cleanse by fasting to give the body time to eliminate toxins; this will help your immune system be available for the colds and flus associated with the coming seasons. Don’t fast for long, but rather eat healthy fruits, vegetables, and only complex carbohydrates. Refined carbohydrates such as sugars and white flour products clog up the bowels and lead to constipation; so avoid them.
- Drink Plenty of Water: As autumn is associated with dryness, it is very important to hydrate by drinking at least 8 to 10 glasses of fresh water daily. Water also bulks the foods in our Large Intestine and promotes healthier bowel movements.
- Breathe and Smell the Scents of Nature: Breathing exercises—which strengthen the Lungs, increase energy, still the mind, and lift the spirits—are particularly appropriate for this time of year. In all breathing exercises, make sure that you focus on exhalation; when you exhale completely, the inhalation phase of breathing will occur naturally and spontaneously.
The whispered “Ahhhhhh,” is an exercise created by F.M. Alexander, the creator of a form of bodywork that I trained in, called the Alexander Technique. He believed that we can reestablish a natural breathing rhythm when we focus our attention on exhalation. So when you have a few minutes, perhaps sitting at your desk or on the train, allow a subtle sound of “Ahhhhhh” to escape your lips, until your outgoing breath feels complete. Do not consciously focus on the ingoing breath, but simply “wait and watch” as the breath comes in—a natural response to full exhalation.