The Gifts of Autumn

As much as many people yearned for a longer Late Summer season here in the Pacific Northwest, Mother Nature had her own plans. The rains have returned to replenish the earth whether we were ready for the drippy change or not. When the wind begins to whip and the leaves begin to fall, it signals the time for a perspective shift. If we’re in tune with nature’s changes around us, we begin to move from the external to the internal. A little less time outside, a little more inside. Less outward focus, more inward focus.

Last month I wrote the first in a series of five posts about the Five Phases recognized in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). 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 can seem a bit inaccessible to Western thinking until you realize that you inherently know it.

The last phase before the cycle begins anew is Autumn.

Diagrams are from a 2015 lecture series hosted by Learningherbs.com with Larken Bunce.

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

  • Element. Autumn relates to Metal. This element is the most obscure of the five elements (the others are Water, Wood, Fire, and Earth). Metal is often interpreted as precious metals, or the rare beauty that occurs deep in the Earth. As an element, Metal shapes and refines. Autumn is a time to pare down, let go, and identify what is truly meaningful, beautiful, and inspirational to us.
  • Personality archetype. Fittingly, Metal types are the Alchemists, or those who value rationality, self-control, structure, discipline and refinement. (Here is a link to a lengthy, but great, quiz to find out which phase you inhabit the most. )

The themes associated with Autumn or Metal are inspiration and faith: two qualities that indeed seem in abundance when deciduous trees cast away every life-giving leaf they’ve made, trusting they will be able to enrobe themselves again in the spring.  As Roman poet Juvenal said, “Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another.” The wisdom of nature is to keep only the most important things in Autumn and let go of the rest.

Each phase is also associated with organs in the body. Autumn/Metal relates to the Lungs and Large Intestine. At first, these two don’t seem related. But the Chinese are all about symbols, from their language to their medicine. When you look at it from that point of view, Lungs inhale (inspire) and exhale (let go), and the Large Intestine excretes (lets go – or should, if it’s working properly).

The gifts of Autumn or Metal include:

  • Inspiration.
  • Beauty.
  • Faith.
  • Letting go.
  • Being connected to a larger whole.
  • Wisdom to carry you back into the Winter phase.

In a full expression of Autumn, Larken says:

“[A] real bringing of Metal into our lives…will involve us coming into touch with what we value most and opening ourselves like a channel…to the heavens…. We really invite the sacred into our lives. We invite what is beautiful and what is inspiring to us so that we may, when it is time, let go of the things whose time has come to go, the things that hold us back, and also the things that we love dearly and would never wish to part with.

We find spaciousness, and we find a certain kind of emptiness that helps us to see our resonance with the divine, our resonance with the big cycles, the big laws that govern the Universe that we’re a part of here. We find an acknowledgment of what is, a peacefulness, as we move to the end of the cycle. Knowing that we have extracted every little last drop, and we have condensed it into a seed of our knowing and understanding, we are ready to pass it on to the carrier of the next cycle.”

In Metal, we’re reflecting and asking “What happened in this last cycle, whether it be a lifetime or a life lesson? What helped illuminate my journey that I’d like to use as insight in the next cycle or pass along?” This phase corresponds to the twilight part of the day, a plant shedding its leaves and pulling its energy into its roots, and to the release of responsibilities and passing of wisdom as an elder in the human life cycle phase.

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

  • Identify what you value, what you find beautiful or sacred.
  • Identify what inspires you, what you would like to pass on to the next generation or use as insight in the next cycle.
  • Connect to something you think of as sacred or divine.
  • Let go of losses or grievances that are holding you back.
  • Recognize this phase is part of the natural process that we all need to do.

Many people in this culture have difficulty with the Autumn (and Winter) phase. We like to spend our time in the busy-ness of Spring-Summer and sometimes the luxuriance of Late Summer. Letting go, grieving, reflecting on what is truly meaningful for us, and finding the beauty in being here even as we face loss are not as appealing, but necessary. This phase can be quite difficult, but as with many challenges, it has its own rewards.

How can you tell if you are under expressing Autumn (Metal deficient)? You may:

  • Have a lack of inspiration.
  • Lack faith in your value.
  • Not have faith in there being something bigger, some larger meaning.
  • May not be in touch with what you value or why.
  • Can have a problem with feeling grief or fully assimilating loss.
  • May have difficulty letting go.
  • May cling to the past, and have an inability to move forward.
  • May feel like even small losses are catastrophic.
  • May try to fill the void with material possessions.
  • May have difficulty breathing, especially inhaling.

How can you tell if you are over expressing Autumn (Metal excess)? You:

  • Can feel alone or cheated.
  • Can feel abandoned.
  • Might appear self-righteous, egotistical, or judgmental.
  • Can be very focused on spiritual aspects.
  • May be actively grieving and grieving – could be angry or feeling like a victim.
  • May find it difficult to breathe – especially exhaling.
  • May have bowels that are constricted.
  • May be vulnerable to dryness: hair, skin, lips….
  • May have a face that appears white, especially around the eyes.

Helpful practices to balance Metal include:

  • Practice breathing deeply (inhale, exhale, inspire, expire, breathe in, let go).
  • Make time each day to poop! This phase is about letting go, figuratively and literally.
  • Have a regular spiritual practice, whether it’s daily, weekly or seasonal. Connect with whatever it is you believe in that is bigger than you.
  • Find and appreciate beauty so you can understand your own beauty and value as an intrinsic part of Nature.
  • Practice doing a review at the end of the day and letting things go.
  • If you’re grieving or hanging on to something that no longer serves you, acknowledge your pain. Allow for solitude and don’t push yourself. Naming it can allow the grief to release, or at least start to move again if it’s lodged deep down.
  • If you can, use incense as a support to open and purify the lungs.

Herbs are also an effective remedy for bringing someone back into balance. The specific herbs to take to balance Metal depend on whether you are exhibiting excess or deficient conditions, and on your constitution. If you are under-expressed (deficient), roots – again with the symbolism – help with a deep dive into what is really important to you. Trees, with their large roots plus branches that reach for the heavens, are a wonderful ally here: frankincense, pine, spruce, even rosemary. Breathing in that resiny goodness at sacred times helps connect to the divine. They also open and purify the Lungs. Rosemary tea helps open the Lungs and encourage expansiveness of the chest to help find that sense of beauty and inspiration. Coincidentally (?), it is also good for memory.

If you are over-expressed, you probably also need to un-gunk your Lungs or your bowels. How many people do you know who have lost a loved one and then become ill shortly afterward? TCM says grief is directly linked to the clogging up of your Lungs and Large Intestine. Garlic and elecampane can help to open the Lungs and Large Intestine. If there is a lot of constipation, then stimulating laxatives like yellow dock are helpful.

To keep yourself balanced within Metal, try pungent herbs (aromatics like clove, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, or turmeric). Larken’s favorite plant to use for balancing Metal is angelica, or Angelica archangelica, whose very name speaks to the sacred. (So much symbolism in this phase!) Its herbal characteristics are pungent, warming, moving, and gently bitter – perfect for Metal. I also love her description of the plant’s “signature.” With a hollow stalk and huge branching taproot, it helps to relax all of our hollow tubes: blood vessels, digestive tract, lungs, bronchioles. It also relaxes the muscles and central nervous system. Everything constricted can release.

In addition to herbs and the practices above, energy work can be particularly effective in releasing what no longer serves you. If you need help with letting go of grief (or a grievance), consider a treatment that can help clear and balance emotional, mental and/or spiritual blocks.

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