The Gifts of Late Summer

The last days of August and first days of September are that wonderful time of year when summer is winding down but fall hasn’t quite started. In the Pacific Northwest, the heat of the sun calls forth the aroma of pine while simultaneously evaporating sea water, creating a smell unique to this area that one of my teachers poetically describes as “pine brine.” It’s a perfect time for taking a breath and savoring the final joys of summer before moving into the next phase of autumn.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Late Summer is a separate and distinct season, or phase, from Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. TCM uses Five Phases, also known as Wu Xing or the Cosmic Dance of the Seasons, as a way of explaining both the inner and outer worlds that we inhabit. It is based on many, many years of observation and used as a basis for determining health. It can seem a bit inaccessible to Western thinking until you realize that you inherently know it. We all live in and within cycles, although we can easily forget.

For example, here are the five phases in a day:

And the five phases of a plant’s life:

And we’re all familiar with the human life cycle:

In TCM, Late Summer is the time of first harvest and an overflowing sense of abundance. We are reaping the fruit – the reward – of the dreaming (resting/seeds) of Winter, the planning (planting/blooms) activities of Spring and the boisterous activity (growth/fruit) of Summer.

Each season, or phase, corresponds to a specific element and personality archetype.

  • Element. Late Summer relates to Earth, including harvest and bounty. Late Summer and the Earth is a time and place to integrate and come back to center. We are pulling together our lessons and experiences from the seasonal cycle.
  • Personality archetype. Earth types are the Peacemakers, or “Supporters” according to newer personality tests.(Want to know which phase or “type” you inhabit the most? Here is a link to a quiz to find out. It comes from “Between Heaven and Earth”, an oft-quoted Chinese medicine guide which synthesizes the Chinese Five Phases with Western thinking to create a powerful model for self-recognition.)

Each phase is also associated with organs in the body. Late Summer/Earth relates to the Stomach and Spleen, our primary digestive organs. Everything in this phase speaks to nourishment.

These diagrams are from a fantastic 2015 lecture series on the Five Phases hosted by with Larken Bunce. Larken is a clinical herbalist and founder of the Vermont Center of Integrated Medicine. In this series, she beautifully articulates the gifts of the Five Phases and explains how to know whether you are “fully expressing” the phase, i.e., in balance and alignment with it.

The gifts of Late Summer or Earth include:

  • Adaptability.
  • Resilience.
  • Empathy.
  • Generosity, without concern for reciprocity.
  • Clear mental processing: can mentally digest, have capacity for logic and problem-solving.
  • Being able to savor abundance.
  • Gratitude.
  • Unconditional loyalty.

In a full expression of Late Summer, Larken says:

“We’re comfortable. We feel taken care of because we have attended to ourselves. We’re able to attend to others. We feel that we can be of service without interfering with another’s ability to meet their needs. We really feel centered. We feel pulled in and solid in our own integral and solid and whole container. We feel in a place of deep nourishment and in deep gratitude.”

Whereas in Summer (Fire), we are focused on “me” time, as we come into Late Summer (Earth), we are moving into “we” time, asking “What can I do for others? What can I share freely out of my abundance?” Notice how these questions line up nicely with the corresponding plant cycle phase of harvest and the human life cycle phase of mature adult/parent.

How do you know if you are experiencing a full expression of the Earth phase? You are:

  • Able to nourish yourself. You’re able to identify your needs and get them met.
  • Able to nourish (provide for/care for) other people.
  • Also able to allow other people to care for you.
  • Attentive and thoughtful.
  • Generous and supportive, without strings attached.

TCM practitioners use the Five Phases to help assess a person’s dis-ease or ailment and help bring them back into balance, or a natural state of health. We tend to have a phase or two that feels most comfortable, where we like to “hang out.” That makes us susceptible to not honoring the other phases and their important lessons.

How can you tell if you are under expressing Earth (Earth deficient)?

Note: You don’t have to have all of these! Some are the flip side of the other.

  • Frustration at others for your own needs not being met, yet…
  • Reject sympathy and reject attention – refuse to allow others to nourish you.
  • Can feel very needy, like your needs are never met.
  • Constant looking outside of oneself to have needs met (if you’re looking to have your needs met by just one person, you might be co-dependent).
  • Feeling of a lack of abundance.
  • Not being able to savor the abundance of life. (People who jump from one thing to the other and don’t take time to rest, enjoy, or transition.)
  • Experience anxiety (don’t feel well-attended and can’t meet own needs).
  • Chronic digestive issues.
  • Can forget to eat, or just not eat.

How can you tell if you are over expressing Earth (Earth excess)?

  • Over-parenting or over-tending of others (smothering).
  • Interfering with other people’s self-care or identification of their own needs.
  • Excessive worry.
  • Thoughts that go round and round in your head (unclear mental processing).
  • Foggy thinking.
  • Sluggish digestion.
  • Feeling of being “stuck.”
  • Tendency to overeat.

Helpful practices to balance Earth include:

  • Identifying what your needs are. Make a list and review it regularly since your needs might change.
  • Tending to your basic needs of nutrient-rich food and sufficient sleep.
  • Mindful eating (practice being quiet one meal a week and think about assimilating your food).
  • Checking in periodically with your body: Am I fed? Am I comfortable? Do I have enough water? Am I sitting/standing in an awkward position?
  • Gentle exercise. Keep things moving: blood circulation, lymphatic circulation, digestion.
  • Self-massage, specifically on the belly in a clockwise direction. (Also check out this post on abhyanga.)
  • Singing or humming (humming stimulates the thyroid).
  • Gratitude practice: when you first wake up or before you go to sleep, write down what you are grateful for.

Herbs are also an effective remedy for bringing someone back into balance. The specific herbs to take depend on whether you are exhibiting excess or deficient conditions, and on your constitution.