Autumn is the season of harvest when we reap what we planted during the spring. It is also the season of storage, when we gather our energy in preparation for the colder, darker months ahead. As the long, hot days of summer gradually become shorter and cooler, the yang energy of summer gives way to the growing yin energy of autumn and the approaching winter. During this season, crops reach their maturity, leaves turn and fall, and plants die back. Nature’s energy starts to retreat to its roots. It is a time of transition – from the bright, expansiveness of summer, with its relaxed and carefree attitudes, to the relative stillness of autumn and its more introspective nature.
Traditional Chinese medicine is rooted in observing the natural course of the seasons and their relation to our physical and mental well-being. Autumn is the time when we begin to slow down, turn inward, and let go of emotional baggage that may be holding us back. Outer-directed energy falls away, to be replaced by the inward-looking energy associated with reflection and contemplation. Consider that we even use the word “autumn” to describe a period of our lives – “the autumnal years” – characterized by beautiful maturity that is also verging on decline.
For many of us, the advent of autumn brings a sense of gathering-in and stocking up – mingled with a sense of sorrow – as the light begins to fade and the air chills. This is the time to eliminate what is unnecessary and become aware of what is essential. Although the darkening days can leave us with a feeling of loss, this process of “letting go” is important. Fall is a time of refinement and getting rid of things that no longer serve us.
As the days grow shorter and trees no longer stubbornly hold onto their leaves, nature acts out the process of letting go in front of us. Yet how many of us defy this quarterly cycle and hold onto what we’ve accumulated – decayed leaves that take the form of old hurts, destructive emotions, outdated attitudes, failed relationships or irrational fears? We cannot hope for a healthy harvest next year if we are unwilling to release the old and start fresh with renewed focus.
The lesson of this season, more than any other, tells us to liberate the old, stale aspects of our lives in order to uncover all that is meaningful and fresh. It is the ideal time to be mindful of letting go of things that are holding us back so that we can make room for new experiences that will help us learn and grow.
The Season of Metal
According to Chinese medicine, the season of autumn is associated with the element of Metal, which governs organization, order, setting limits, and honoring boundaries. Metal reflects our core issues and the most refined aspects of ourselves to ask: Who am I? What is my purpose? What remains constant in an ever changing world? People who have an affinity with Metal are drawn to examine these essential questions and guiding principles of life. Even if we do not personally identify with the Metal element, during autumn we are all called to deal with these core issues.
Our Metal nature is responsible for our capacity to discern and discriminate, defining and refining our sense of what is right, morally and ethically. It nourishes our capacity to be analytic, critical, methodical and disciplined. Autumn reminds us that we reap what we have sown, and that all of our actions have consequences.
The lungs and large intestine are the yin and yang organs most closely related to the autumn season and Metal element. Both are organs of (respiratory and digestive) elimination that quintessentially reflect the energetic and spiritual nature of autumn’s receiving and letting go.
As the organ of respiration, the lungs are responsible for taking in the “new” and supplying oxygenated blood to every organ in the body (as waste is eliminated from our cells through expiration). Consider that 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 releasing old stale air – along with old, preconceived notions of reality.
With each inhale, there is an exhale. Very simply, the lungs tell the story of receiving and releasing. Strong lungs help us maintain our purpose. The large intestine is the primary organ of elimination and is responsible for helping the body to eliminate waste. Only when the body is cleansed of toxic matter – physical or emotional – can it receive the more refined energy brought in by its partner, the lung. The large intestine is responsible for making distinctions between harmful and harmless elements as it discriminates between the nutrients the body needs and those it must eliminate.
In emotional and spiritual terms, the lungs and large intestine balance our ability to yield and demand, give and take, hold on and let go. This lesson of letting go can be observed by the simple, but profound, behavior of the lungs and large intestine. We take a breath in and it nourishes us with needed oxygen, but we cannot hold that breath for very long. Eventually, we must let go of that air, to make room for more as our body utilizes what it has just taken in. Similarly, the large intestine needs to let go of what it is holding so we can eliminate what we no longer need.
Emotionally, we are challenged with the same lessons. If we are unable to let go and move past previous hurtful experiences, then we are likely to experience sadness and depression. These emotions will often lead to an imbalance in the lungs that can manifest as chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and frequent colds or flu. When the large intestine is similarly affected, constipation or diarrhea can often results from unexpressed sorrow or heartache.
The emotion associated with Metal is grief or sadness. While many people associate these profound feelings with the heart, these emotions are actually housed in the lungs, according to Chinese medicine. Old grief can accumulate in the lungs like stale air and needs to be regularly expelled by deep pranayamic breathing (often associated with yoga practice). If grief or profound sadness is repressed, it will fester in the body and over time, cause the lungs to contract and weaken.
When the lungs are weak or out of balance, you may find that you have a hard time letting go of old relationships, experiences or memories that are anchored in the past. If the energy (Qi) of the lungs is deficient, you may experience an overwhelming sense of grief or sadness that does not ease. With time, this deficiency, if prolonged, can lead to more serious issues including depression.
Just as the ancient Chinese lived in harmony with nature and the change of seasons, here are a few simple ways to be more in tune with autumn:
Clear Out the Clutter
Autumn is the perfect time to take stock of your life – to let go of negative energetic patterns and make room for positive new ones. Go through your closet and clean out all those old clothes you haven’t worn in years and donate them to a local charity so that they can be new for someone else. Delete old files that take up space on your laptop that can be better used for new ideas. Organize your kitchen pantry with foods that reflect autumn’s bounty. All of these activities can be incredibly liberating and are in harmony with the season’s imperative of letting go of the old while ushering in the new.
Wear a Scarf
Keeping the lungs healthy and strong is particularly important during the fall. In Chinese medicine, the lungs are considered a “delicate organ” because of their close relationship with the external environment. Wind – an element that is said to carry a hundred diseases including cold – can easily enter the body and drive external pathogens deep into the organs. Wearing a scarf can help to ward off cold that often penetrates the neck and help keep the lungs protected.
Return to the Breath
Breathing exercises – which serve to strengthen the lungs, increase our energy, still the mind, and lift the spirits – are particularly appropriate for this time of year. As with all breathing exercises, make sure that you focus on the exhalation: when you exhale completely, the inhalation phase of breathing will occur naturally and spontaneously.
Practice Letting Go
Autumn is the season to unburden ourselves of old hurts and resentments. Consider writing down all of the frustrations you’ve felt over the previous year on a separate piece of paper. Realize that each of these pieces of paper weighs you down, and that this bitterness prevents new joy from entering into your life. Throw them all into your fireplace and burn them, watching them dissipate with the smoke.
Drink Plenty of Water
Drinking more water is, of course, good advice all year around. But since autumn is particularly associated with dryness, it’s extra important to hydrate during the season by drinking at least 8 to 10 glasses of fresh water daily. Water also bulks the food that’s sitting in our large intestine to promote healthier bowel movements.
How we cook our meals affects the body and impacts the energetics of the food we eat. With the transition from summer to winter, replace cold, raw salads with slower cooked soups and stews. These methods generate internal warmth for the body and supply us with greater energy. If you suffer excessive dry conditions, use more stewing or poaching – which add-in extra moisture. If you suffer excess dampness, use dryer cooking methods such as baking and roasting.
To embrace Autumn, choose foods that ripen during the season. As the energy of autumn moves down and in, so too should we eat more foods that have downward moving energy. Onions, carrots, turnips, parsnips, radishes, beets, potatoes and yams are all great choices – if it’s a root or grows underground, then it is an ideal autumn food. Heavier grains, seeds, nuts and squashes will also help move the body’s energy inward.
Autumn is also the ideal time to choose foods that help to help moisten and clear the lungs such as pears and apples. Pungent foods such as garlic, radish and horseradish (used sparingly) can help stimulate and clear the lungs. Herbs like reishi mushrooms and astragalus support lung energy and the immune system.
Autumn reminds us to release the old, unnecessary or stale aspects of our lives in order to make space for the new. Take this opportunity to use autumn’s abundant, yet inwardly-focused, energy for quiet reflection and personal contemplation. This is also the time to plan those things you would like to achieve during the winter and remainder of the year. Make time for centering activities such as yoga, meditation, slow relaxed breathing, or taking walks in the glorious autumn sunshine.