What better time than blogtober to update the element series? This spring I expanded on the spring seasonal living post, adding additional information about the wood element and its disharmonies. Now that we are well and truly into autumn it’s time do expand the autumn seasonal living post with an exploration of the metal element.
In this post, we’ll do a deep dive into the metal element, the element associated with autumn and growing yin. Later this month we’ll do a follow-up post on the disharmonies of the metal organ systems.
Without further ado, let’s get started!
The Metal Element
So quick recap: metal is associated with autumn because it down bears and descends. Think of a diaphragm pulling in air from the outside down into your lungs. It’s sunset, harvest, consolidation, and discernment. It’s harsh and judgemental, but in the same supportive way the rules that shape our society are. Metal helps us decide what serves us and what doesn’t.
When we see these types of actions in our body and in the world, we classify them as metal.
The organ pair associated with metal is the large intestine and the lungs. The lungs are the yin organ system and the large intestine are the yang bowel.
Physically, our lungs are located in our chest protected by the ribcage. They lie on either side of the heart. The large intestine is in our abdomen, starting from the right lower quadrant, running up to just under our diaphragm, across our torso and back down to our rectums.
Our lungs help us to bring in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. The large intestine removes water from the food in our digestive tract while passing the rest though to be excreted as solid waste.
An Ancient Eastern understanding
The ancient Chinese attributed the same basic physiological function and anatomical position to the lungs; they are located in the chest, they open to the nose, and they connect to the throat. Their main function is governing the qi of the body and controlling breathing, just like with the Western understanding of the lungs.
The same basic assumptions are made about the large intestine as well. The large intestine is in charge of “passage and conduction” and receives food from the small intestine, transforms it into stool, and moves it through the digestive tract. There aren’t many actions given to the large intestine, mainly because pathologies in the large intestine are covered by pattern diagnoses in other systems.
But in order to understand the pathologies of both the lung and large intestine, we need to have a better overall understanding of what they do.
The lung governs qi
In the acupuncture 101 post from a million years ago, I touched on the idea that qi was better defined as “function” or treated like a particle that modified the word in front of it. The definition of qi as “energy” is too basic In some cases its appropriate but for this conversation we’re going to be using it as a modifier.
The true qi of our bodies is made from the combination of three different types of qi:
- the prenatal qi we were born with (how our body is designed to function)
- the postnatal qi we consume (the nutrients and calories we get from food and beverage that we consume)
- and the great qi or da qi we breathe in (oxygen)
The lung brings in da qi and manages the exchange of new gases the body needs to circulate throughout the body and old gases that it needs to expel. These “clear” gases are distributed throughout the body through “diffusion and down bearing.”
We can go several weeks without food, several days without water, but only a few minutes without air. The lungs are the gateway to the function (qi) of our body, and when they are in disharmony we can have issues that run the gamut from a simple cold to death.
The lung regulates the waterways
This function builds on the lung’s “diffusion and down bearing” ability. The lung moves fluids to the skin which allows us to sweat and moves turbid fluids down to the bladder.
The lung governs skin and body hair and opens to the nose
The lung governs our skin and the opening and closing of our sweat glands. This might take a little stretch to understand but if we take it step by step, the metaphor should be clear. There are two major defenses we have to disease: our skin and our mucous membranes.
If we were ancient doctors, we may not understand the concept of mucous membranes but we would understand that the nose is an entrance to our body. We would also observe that people can get sick by being around other sick people without touching them. A natural conclusion would be that the disease is entering the body by breathing it in.
So we say to ourselves that the people who don’t catch the cold or the flu that is going around have a strong defense at this gate. And for those that do catch it, their defenses are weakened. This is part of the understanding of wei qi, or defensive function. It’s not quite equivalent to our immune system as our immune system is a part of it, but it’s a simple way to understand it.
The skin barrier
Because we attribute the lung and nose to defensive function, other components of wei qi will fall into this category. One of the best and strongest defenses we have to infection is our skin. We can touch doorknobs, sink handles, dirty tissues, and other surfaces bearing viruses and bacteria all day long and not get sick if we keep our hands clean. Washing pathogens off of our skin is sufficient protection because in general, the skin is a sufficient barrier.
Another function of the skin we would notice as ancient doctors is the role that sweating plays in illness. Some people sweat profusely when sick and others don’t sweat at all. Some illnesses seem to benefit from causing sweating and for others, it makes it worse.
If sweating plays a role in defensive function, then it is attributed to the function of the lung even though there doesn’t seem to be a direct correlation to breathing.
Because of the lung’s diffusion ability and its characteristic of governing the waterways, it has another connection to sweat – it is responsible for moving sweat out through the sweat glands.
Finally, body hair. The hair of the head is associated with the kidney because we can lose it as we age and the color changes as we age. But after puberty, body hair kinda sticks around. Because body hair arises from the skin and not the head, the ancient doctor’s said, “Well, it makes sense that it’s associated with the lung, so we’ll say that.”
And it turns out they are not wrong. Our body hair tells us when potentially disease-bearing insects like mosquitos and ticks land on us, alerting us to their presence before they’ve had a chance to bite. Body hair has a defensive function! How cool is that?
The lung is the receptacle for phlegm
Anyone who has ever had an upper respiratory infection (so, all of us) can understand intuitively that mucous likes to accumulate in our nose and our lungs.
I think that’s all I have to say about that.
The actions of the lung are the actions of autumn
It’s through diffusion and downbearing that we see autumn. The lungs harvest qi from the world around us, judge what we do and do not need, and separates and disposes of the chaff. The descending and settling into yin echoes the down bearing motion of the diaphragm as we inhale.
Our bodies are microcosms of the world around us and if we pay attention, we can see the seasons in its function.
“Grief lingers like the autumn vapors in the lungs.”Five Spirits by Lorie Eve Dechar
Grief makes us think of funerals, loss, and bereavement. Like the end of the year, grief echos settling into an ending. Across the globe, autumn is a season of the time before death.
It’s not a comfortable emotion. Grief is painful wracking sobs, puffy and swollen eyes, and goodbyes. We can feel it for the loss of a loved one or a voluntary farewell to a favorite job.
In moderation, grief is healthy. Through processing deep and difficult emotions, we can let go of the things that no longer serve us or that are no longer available to us.
But this down bearing of emotions can become unhealthy when we hold onto these things. Like all emotions, grief is generated in the heart but the organ system it damages is the lungs. Our lungs help us to process everything from the air we breathe to the things we think. When we don’t allow this necessary release, things stagnate.
Holding onto chronic grief eventually depletes our lung qi. We take more shallow breaths, we hunch our shoulders to protect ourselves from negativity, and eventually, our immune system takes a hit as our defensive qi weakens.
Grief is an important process. Grieve the things you’ve loved, but remember to let them go. Let them fall away from you like the leaves from a tree. You will still be you, at the end of it all. You will continue to grow and thrive. The memory of what served you will become compost for your roots, nourishing you instead of draining you.
But you have to let go first.
The spirit, just like the mind and body, is divided into five categories. The spirit related to the metal element is the po.
The po is defined as our corporeal soul and it’s the part of the soul tied to our body. According to five element understanding, the po enters our body three days after conception and stays until our last breath. So while the kidneys and jing provide the actual substance we develop from and the energy to do it, the po is what provides the blueprint for them. The kidneys are the client who wants the building and will ultimately decorate it and use it, the jing is the construction crew, and the po is the architect.
The po also has another function. Its tie to physicality explains the po’s connection to our animal instinct. The po is our lizard brain. It’s the connection to the world that’s so deep within us that we don’t need to acknowledge it. We just act on it. The po relates to animal instinct, intuition and gut feelings. It’s related both to our individuality and our energetic connections to people. And it’s influenced by unconscious feelings, especially grief, as grief is the emotion of the lung.
And finally, our po influences our ability and determination to move towards our destiny, going all the way back to conception when the movement towards destiny is becoming a physical being.
Season of the Witch
Fall is a bewitching season. It forces us to confront uncomfortable ideas and emotions. It allows us to release with gratitude and to experience great joy in the things that serve us. And it gives us a way to connect with our bodies through breath, wood smoke, and falling leaves.
Whether you loved autumn before or not, I hope that this post opened you to a whole different way of thinking of this magical season.
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Resources and links
Five Spirits: Alchemical Acupuncture for Psychological and Spiritual Healing by Lorie Even Dechar
Disclaimer: I am an acupuncturist in the state of Minnesota, and the information falls within my scope of practice in my state. However, unless I have directed you here as your homework I am probably not your acupuncturist. The information in this post is for general purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. As always, check with your own acupuncturist or primary care provider before making any lifestyle changes. This post does not create a patient-practitioner relationship and I am not liable for any losses or damages resulting or relating to the content in this post.
Jessica Gustafson is a licensed acupuncturist in St Paul, MN specializing in women’s health and fertility. She loves working with patients through the Health Foundations Birth Center on Grand Avenue in St Paul as well as doing home visits in the Twin Cities area. Check out the services page for more information!
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