Autumn, the Lungs, a look at Grief and the Metal Element According to Traditional Chinese Medicine
I’m sitting here thinking about how to begin considering what has transpired over the last few months since I wrote my last article. I am feeling overwhelmed with the world and its inhabitants at this time. From global pandemic to global protests all in the span of a few months. Some big emotions have been coming up for people. Trauma, grief, sorrow, anger, love and fear have been common emotions we are all feeling now. There is nothing more devastating to us humans as loss. There are many ways we feel loss. Loss of loved ones, relationships, loved animals, and loss of a way of life or a life dream that didn’t happen.
Loss/Grief injures the heart and leaves us with a void or emptiness that feels vacuous and difficult to fill. I want to discuss how Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can help alleviate that feeling of loss and how The Metal Element and associated organ systems can create some balance.
“Metal is as austere as a vast arid plain before winter rains as sharp as a high mountain peak slicing through mist into a clear empty sky”
I wish I could say that TCM can heal grief, but I truly believe time is the true healer and TCM can ease cycling through the stages of grief.
The introduction of the 5 Elements was discovered and envisioned by the Sages/Taoists in China over 2 thousand years ago. From observing and studying nature they found associations of Elemental energy connecting the seasons, the landscape including all the animals and humans as well as all the plant life. This was the foundation for many facets of understanding Traditional Chinese Medicine. There are many ideologies that make up the vast knowledge bank of TCM: 5 Elements Theory, Yin/Yang Theory. Theory of Qi, Seven Emotional Factors plus many more.
There are 5 Elements according to TCM and each Element has an organ system, colour and emotion associated to it: this cycle is known as the generating cycle.
Fire Element-early summer-Heart-Red-Joy
Earth Element-later summer-Spleen-Yellow-Worry- Overthinking
There is no start to the Elements, as they coincide with Mother Nature and all transform into each season seamlessly when everything is in balance. When there is a blockage, stagnation, stasis, physical accident or emotional trauma we start to see imbalances and health issues arise.
“The forces of Autumn create dryness in Heaven and metal on Earth; they create the lung organ and the skin upon the body…and the nose, and the white colour and the pungent flavour…the emotion of grief, and the ability to make a weeping sound”.
The season of Fall or Autumn in TCM is The Metal Element, the organ associated to this season is the Lung and the emotion connected to this Element is grief, sorrow, longing.
“In TCM we say the body is suffering from an Imbalance or disharmony. The emotions can be either the cause or the result of imbalance. For example - asthma can be caused by prolonged sadness (the emotion of the lung), conversely, a person suffering from chronic asthma over many years may develop grief (the cause of grief is asthma). It is a circle of interaction.”
In TCM there are paired organs systems that create a Yin/Yang balance. The organs for the Metal Element are the Lung and Large Intestines or Colon. The Lung is a Yin organ and the Large Intestine/Colon is Yang organ. The Lungs are responsible for taking in nourishing oxygen/air upon the inhalation, while the exhalation releases carbon dioxide. The Large intestine is responsible for the final digestion stage and eliminates the waste that the body has used to nourish itself. Both organs are responsible for taking in the new and letting go of the old, the constant cycle of life. The Large Intestine’s emotion is all about letting go. These 2 organ systems help each other balance homeostasis in the body.
In TCM we don’t really talk about the Skin as it’s own organ system but we group skin, sweat glands and body hair together as they are a direct reflection of the strength of our Lung Qi. Qi is a concept in TCM that has no direct translation from ancient Chinese but over the years we refer to it as vitality, energy, strength, or spirit. The Lung Qi another line of defence against harmful diseases from the exterior to the interior. We can look at the skin as a diagnostic tool in TCM. By different odours of the sweat gland excretions, or the tension of the skin(oedema, or hanging skin), colour, markings, rashes, pimples and overall sheen we can get a grasp of some underlying health issues. Sweat glands remove toxins and waste materials from our bodies. If there is some issues with the organs like stagnation for example; it might appear as a rash or acne. Skin issues show us there can be an external imbalance like bug bites, or something interior causing the skin problem. It’s always good to take notice if there are any changes on your skin. If you do find something unusual get it checked out by a professional.
Fall is a time for harvesting grain crops, root veggies from gardens, and fruit from trees like apples and pears. Leaves on trees start to turn to beautiful colours with various hues of reds, oranges and yellows. There can be heavy frost on the ground in the morning and you can start to see the end of the growing season. This season is about letting go, like the beautiful leaves that drift down to the ground from their tight hold of the branch. It’s a time to reminisce over the memories of the new growth of spring and the long warm nights of the summer. The days start to get shorter and noticeably cooler. Our wardrobe changes for cozy sweaters and scarves and we start to crave warm fall vegetables that are ready to be harvested like squash, corn and potatoes. Its a lovely shift of seasons from trying to cool off, eating lots of raw garden veggies to more soups, stews, teas etc.
An interesting fact that Autumn is usually the cold and flu season. Which in turn is the time of the Lungs. When the Lungs are healthy from the food we eat mixing with good breathing techniques we can protect ourselves from boosting our immune system. If we are out of balance for many different reasons this weakens Lung Qi and can lead us to being susceptible to colds, flus etc. The Lungs open to the nose where the mucous membranes are one of the first lines of defence and protecting the Lungs. The Lung system can be in harmony or disease according to TCM.
Protecting and nourishing the Lungs and the Large Intestine consist of eating the foods for the season. The Flavour for the Metal Element is Pungent. The pungent flavour can protect and cleanse the Lung/Large intestine by helping to disperse the stuck, mucus-laden energy of these organs.
Here are some beneficial Pungent foods to add that can help move through grief and support the organs. Notice that the colour associated with the Metal Element is White as a lot of food on the list are white.
Garlic, Onions, Ginger, Radish, Leek, Navy Beans, Soy Beans, Celery, Broccoli, Almonds, Walnuts, Sweet Potato, Cabbage, Pears, Cucumber, Mustard Greens, Asparagus, Black/White Peppercorns, Apricots, Banana, Eggs, Cardamon, Turnip, Horseradish, Cinnamon.
Foods also that are high in natural fibre are fantastic for the Large intestine health. Add some whole grains, brown rice, and ancients grains to your cooking. Plant based diets support these organs. Animal products lack that fibre that assist in digestion so please add lots of the above items to create balance with your meals so you are supporting Lungs and the Large intestine to operate optimally.
As stated above, a good diet and breath work are beneficial to overall health. Breathing is something we all do automatically. We don’t think about our breath it just happens. In the treatment room I have noticed most of us are all shallow breathers, almost panting even holding our breath doing our daily activities. This does not help with lung function on so many levels. Short shallow breath panting puts us in Sympathetic process and keeps us in fight, flight or freeze mode. Breath work is very helpful in moving Qi throughout the body to assisting with the heaviness of grief and sorrow.
Let me explain deep breathing, taking breath into the diaphragm and filling the lungs to capacity. You can do this by taking classes in Yoga, Qi Gong and Tai Chi to name a few. Another way to move the stagnation of the lungs is to do some deep breathing with visualization which helps to detoxify and release grief from the body, essentially letting go of those feelings. Here are 2 breathing exercises you can do anywhere to help ease the tightness in your chest and move the stagnation of the emotions.
Breathing exercise 1
Sitting comfortably, take a moment to feel your whole body. Be aware of any tightness. Through your nose, take a deep breath let it fill your diaphragm up and moves your chest outward, fill every bit of your lungs, hold the breath for 5 seconds and breathe out thought your mouth slowly getting rid of all the air in the bottom of your lungs, repeat 5 times. Do this at least 5 times a day if you are feeling that tightness.
Breathing exercise 2
There is a healing sound for the Metal Element that is the sssss sound, like a slow leak in a ballon or a tire or a snake hiss. Find a comfy place to sit. Feet flat on the ground, hands in your lap, left hand over right. Visualize your lungs in your chest and connect with them, love them. Practice the breathing technique from above by filling your lungs to capacity and breathe out through your mouth. Do this a few times a few good breaths, then on the exhale make the sssss sound from your teeth being together, tongue at the roof your mouth. Your breath out is releasing the emotional toxins like grief, sorrow and sadness. Repeat this at least 5 times, do more if it feels good. Let the tears come, let whatever has been pent up come out. The more clearly you are connected to your lungs the better and quicker the results. Emotions might come up like tears, let whatever feeling come flow out like a stream, letting those feeling go and flow. Crying is wonderful for the soul. Remember if your are crying to hydrate after. It takes a lot of energy to move emotions. Be kind and gentle with yourself as you move through these emotions.
A Friendly Reminder
Self care should be your priority, I believe we are multifaceted humans and we need more than one healing modality to get to all those unique facets of our humanness. Complimentary medicine is key and I suggest seeking the following; counselling, psychology, TCM, acupuncture or massage from a registered professionals in their fields of expertise. Seek out whatever modality that resonates with how you are feeling at the time. Please, always remember you are not alone and there is help for every situation.
Stay well, be healthy
References for article:
Healing with Whole Foods, by Paul Pitchford
Between Heaven and Earth a Guide to Chinese Medicine, Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold
The Web That Has No Weaver, Ted Kapchuk
The Five Spirits, Alchemical Acupuncture for Psychological and Spiritual Healing, Lorie Eve Dechar
Dealing with grief, A TCM perspective, Emma Suttie