By Hazel Appaqaq | 18 minute read
With an effect that never fails to please the crowd; from specks of primordial life teaming between bedrock and roots, through the ranks of photosynthesizers eagerly fanning out their unique version of the solar farm, to the super-terrestrial world of roaming, eating, acting individuals – Summer has finally made its entrance onto the scene.
Suddenly, there’s a feeling of imminence in the air, of all of it happening all at once. This sense of the present moment’s urgency can be noticed in the wild greenery that doesn’t waste any time manufacturing fruit and seed. It’s in the bees, the hummingbirds and the vampiric insects, that vibrate with an anticipation that propels them toward their respective nectars. Meanwhile, in the Linnaea fields, the zucchinis have kicked off their annual party in the heat, and the hungry tourists appear to have got the same memo, clumping conspicuously at Hague’s sandy beach. Multiple options of sports and oddball pastimes are back on the table, and the market stalls and store shelves are being filled to the brim with the island farmers’ earthly gifts and artisans’ needful luxuries. Sweet fruit items are starting to evaporate from the produce cooler (- if only they’d just stock themselves, too). There are more DJ’s sharing their favourite grooves on the freakish Cortesian airwaves than ever before, and in the virtual meeting rooms, CCEDA and FolkU add to the beat with a continuous lineup of curiosity-evoking, informative talks and workshops. We are one with a landscape of life that crowds into the niches and nooks of the world, reaching to absorb the Summer’s largesse, and incorporate it into higher levels of expression and fulfillment.
All of these goings-on serve to buttress the fact that, despite the relative decrease in gatherings and live events for this time of year, when the West coast climate draws back the curtain, achieving a feeling of a grand unveiling every time, the sense of “Nowness” is no less palpable. The full intensity of the bonfire in the sky bestows an acute, motivating awareness of aspirations to be realized, human connections to be made, the nuanced truth of an inner reality that longs to be communicated, and the delightful and delicious sensations of the climate to be felt. The persistent, rousing impulse with which Summertime calls us into these pursuits is akin to the strength and regularity of a blacksmith’s hammering at the forge. And rightly so: in the deep caverns of traditional Chinese knowledge, the Summer’s main associations are to the heart (“im-pulse”) and the element of Fire. The blacksmith’s fire, hot and controlled, and her driving, concerted blows are appropriate representations of the kind of embodiment we’re looking to cultivate throughout this segment of the seasons’ beautiful song.
Yangzi cave, Guangxi, China
All five of the Chinese elements – Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Metal – conjure up images of primal life cropping up from a matrix of inorganic matter and embarking on an endless journey of refinement. Tanya Krahn delivers a fascinating rendition of this tale in her February 23rd radio show – one episode, scoping in on the concept of Fire, in a four-part series exploring the Ayurvedic elements. A neuron-stimulating excerpt from her script goes as follows:
“And so if we look at our history, when we look at the earth, first it’s this rock of molten lava. And it starts to get cooled by the introduction of water, and this makes it more of a solid foundation, this mud formed by the vibrations of the cosmos coming together.
But that doesn’t create life. It’s the spark that is the electrical current that travels in the air, that mix of chemicals that ignite from the discharge between clouds. So lightning was the first fire, that incredible force of negative and positive charges colliding in the sky and striking the water mixed with earth. And four billion years later, here we are. We are the manifestation of these three elements, and when we left the sea, we became breath as well. […]
But the fire is what starts our heart beating, it keeps it beating. […] It’s where all our creativity manifests. It’s in procreation, it’s in birth, it’s in music, it’s in war. […]
Our entire molecular history has been about this activation of the agent of change by these changing molecules. After millions of years, one cell actively created a membrane, and this harnessed an environment capable of holding life. And this sparked the possibility of being a portable, collective container.
And then they multiplied and became hosts, where we were actively able to live within these molecules and within our digestive juices. And this is our body, actively sparking eventual changes to upgrade the container of our awareness. That spark of life continues with us as we grow and evolve. So to harness these qualities, to ignite the further development of consciousness, is what Fire offers us.”
Here she begins with an elemental narration of our bodies’ origins: how the random intermingling over millennia of the other elements, together with Fire in its different forms, such as lightning, the electrical charge of atoms, the processes involved in metabolism, gave rise to the circumstances of matter forming into molecules, molecules into proteins, and proteins graduating into organisms. Not entirely different from the theory of evolution. Except that the story told by modern reductionism ends at the evolution of species. What the age-old Indian cerebrations (the civilization that developed Ayurveda) confer, are the ramifications of being individuals, capable of sparking connections between life events and life lessons, of achieving an emotional, psychological and spiritual evolution as well.
The Chinese are another people that perceived the human being through myriad correspondences with the elements. But what are the elements, the seasons and the organs, really, in this system? If definitions don’t proceed from a clinical exclusion and teasing apart of one thing from another, as in the empirical path to knowledge, obviously these “terms” don’t simply mean: the table of matter particles, the fluctuations in the planet’s climate, and the anatomical structures that perform all our essential functions. By one explanation, they are, quite simply, processes – also called the Five Phases – which form the parameters of a contemplative interpretation of nature, and our multidimensional displays of health and disease. Another way of putting it is that they are a dynamic vocabulary to articulate a connective way of perceiving and describing the world. In this uniquely Eastern schema of categories, the Phases enable an ordering of our perceptions and experiences, through a complex web of interrelations. This continuum of inextricably integrated powers is a product of Taoist thought, a philosophy that has decided that the cycles of transformation observable in the outer world are reflected in our bodies and individual lives. There is an assumption of a sympathetic echoing of change throughout all levels of reality, arising from an essential, underlying unity.
In the barest of terms, Fire has come to represent for the Chinese mind the principle of life, the process of coming alive. Elaborating from this key notion weaves a melody of thematic variations: brilliance, warmth, activity, expansion, maturation, actualization – all of which places Fire under the Yang umbrella.
At the level of the body, Fire resides in the heat of digestion, the lightning-swift sparking of neurons, the electrical potential of every cell enabling the body to be in constant communication with itself, the strength and thoroughness of the circulation, the regulation of ones temperature, including an ability to perspire in balanced, appropriate amounts, and the capacity for sexual arousal. The ways in which the body manifests these and other operations tells a story about the vitality of Fire in one’s being. A ruddiness in the face speaks of an imbalance of Fire, as does a complete lack of red hue – a pallor of the skin. Any details presenting on the face contribute strong indications towards this element. The blood vessels are under its jurisdiction, hence, symptoms termed by allopathy such as varicose veins, hardened arteries, cold extremities, and any kind of inflammation relate to its being out of whack. These nutriment- and oxygen-bearing conduits would also be the sources of conditions such as contracted muscles, numbness, and loss of the use of a limb. Speaking of temperature, someone who hates the summertime heat or complains of being uncomfortable in warm environments, is probably expressing a state of imbalanced Fire. The same is also true of a person who craves heat, or can neither relax nor thrive in its absence. An oft-overlooked function that goes hand-in-hand with one’s thermal disposition is perspiration. The Chinese appreciated its life-preserving role, and took meticulous notes on the consequences involved in its secretion in sluggish, incomplete, or overabundant amounts. For that matter, countless indigenous peoples conceive of sweating as the body’s ability to cleanse or unclog itself, and rid the whole being of waste and excess – a potent image to meditate on for North American neophytes. Rounding out Fire’s sense associations include: any disorder of the ears, a person’s relationship to the bitter flavour, an attraction or aversion to the colour red, and the presence of a burnt smell on the body. For the latter two, the relation to Fire is more or less obvious and direct. For the former two, the connection seems to be via the internal organs that become accentuated during their moment in the sun. As mentioned before, the heart primarily sets the tone for a person’s state of wellness at this point in the seasonal wave (along with the small intestine), whereupon the state of that organ is magnified throughout the organ network for better or for worse. This is why Summertime can either feel like an ecstatic, expansive time, or alternately one that is hectic and overwhelming. One’s ability to fully enjoy and receive the blessings of any season is greatly influenced by the health of the organs that are literally “coming into their element.” The song transforms when one set of organs hands off the base rhythm, and another set takes over. Not like the way a political party comes into power, but rather, similar to a goat herd, whose matriarch leads from behind. The five organs take turns in supporting the synergy of the family unit, which means that the relative strength or vulnerability of the leader will transfer to the others, becoming incorporated into their contributions to one’s flickering experience of health.
However, more importantly, all of this doesn’t necessarily mean that a pre-existing ailment of the heart will sentence a person to hard toil in the Summer sun, squirming like an earthworm that’s been evicted from its humusy home. Equally as important to arranging a lifestyle that proactively supports balance among the family of organs, is simply paying attention to their overt and subtle communications. This curiosity enfolds the practice of shifting in accordance with their cadence, the primal rhythm emanating from the abdomen, the middle section of the body that can resemble a drum, or the curvature of the coastal landscape. Dietary and lifestyle examples of tuning in would include eating less during hot days, and eating lightly – reducing heavy foods such as meat, eggs, too many nuts and seeds, and hefty loads of carbohydrates. One can create cooling atmospheres in the shade, and dazzling artworks with a meal. General food remedies for cooling the summertime heat are; mung and alfalfa sprouts, apples, cucumber, celery, tofu. In addition, the familiar Westerner’s tactics for cooling off are opposite to those practiced by inhabitants of fiercely hot lands. Instead of imbibing iced drinks, going for long swims in the lake, and eating massive amounts of cold food, one would take hot drinks and warm showers, add small amounts of pungent, spicy flavouring to food, which would be cooked at high heat for short amounts of time, using small amounts of oil and plenty of water. The sagacious strategies issuing from the globe’s sultry climes identifies that cold causes contraction. The effect of taking in too many cold substances causes the stomach to contract, and dampens the digestive flame, causing metabolic torpor. This concentrates and locks the heat into the inside of the body, further exacerbating the need to relax and chill out (not to mention a slew of excess heat-related symptoms). On the other hand, gently heating up the core does the trick of pushing the heat out to the surface of the body, where we want the skin to “be in touch with” (ie. match) the climate. Likewise, in the winter, the Chinese prescription is to switch the concentration of heat to the insides, when we would drink warm or cool beverages. Since Canadians don’t reduce their intake of ice cream in the winter, they can at least be said to have this one thing straight (though in small amounts only – this is a product that is easily overdone)! To benefit from the thermal nature of the above mentioned foods while not giving too much cold matter to the digestive tract, one could prepare them in the form of mung sprout soup, quickly sauteed tofu with celery, and gently stewed apple with cinnamon and lemon juice.
Finally, the key to achieving a balanced expression of Fire is maintaining a clean, controlled burn. In addition to avoiding things that diminish the metabolism’s simmer, the physical stamina, and the desires to be social and creative, we don’t want a blazing forest fire that consumes every ounce of our energy and willpower, leaving body, heart and mind in the straits of burnout. A pattern of yo-yoing between feverish excitability and exhausted indifference and melancholy would be the undesirable precursor. A person that starts many projects but struggles to see them through would exemplify a consequence. In the season when the living world is striving towards fruition – to producing fully formed ovaries that will be consumed or drop to the ground and continue the cycling of regeneration, a persistent feeling of malaise in which nothing gets done, or a scattering of attention that impedes the flow of accomplishment, points to the Fire within that cries for a more attentive regulation. Excited emotions eventually need periods of unwinding to nurture a baseline of calm. Thoughtful planning, if overly expansive and extending in too many directions, requires a complementary practice of being pulled back to the Here and Now. It seems important to point out that our culture produces masses of people with the inadvertent underpinnings of imbalanced Fire. This typical profile describes the person who might, for example, in a genuine inclination towards actualization, crave an elevated experience, and is caught in a pattern of sacrificing their precious Yin reserves, or actual financial reserves, in attempts that yields temporary fulfillment at great personal cost. Realizing our culture’s misplaced conventions, and noticing the ways in which they impede a harmonious flow through our choices, can give us the perspective to see how we are a part of our historical and natural landscapes, yet not completely at the mercy of the lay of the land.
To sum up, any signs of bodily extreme, including addictions to mind-altering substances, a habit towards overstimulating the senses and engendering nervous exhaustion, heart palpitations, or hypoglycemia, usually constitute the various pleas of a person’s imbalanced Fire. The same would follow for the other elements with their associations – extremes indicate a lopsided condition. But perhaps the degree to which a person is integrated displays most clearly through their manifestations of Fire, because being the element which expresses the force of life, Fire most potently depicts the innate striving in every one of us towards greater health and happiness – words which have the telling alternates of balance and peace.
Summer’s correspondences shine into the abyss of the individual’s intangible components, and this too is included in the expansive dominion of the heart. Here is another intersection where East and West can agree: the heart is not only the body’s built-in pump, it’s also our emotional centre. At least it is so in common verbiage – by such expressions as; “having a light heart” or a “heavy heart”, “being soft-hearted” of “hard-hearted”, “speaking from the heart”, “wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve”, a cultural avowal of our subject as a feeling organ can be surmised. When we consider the power that thoughts have to stir up feelings, and feelings to stimulate thoughts that reproduce their tone, as well as the well-known fact that feelings affect the way that the heart actually functions, and the direct effect that calming the autonomic system has on calming the mind, the conceptual expansion of the heart as intimately involved in thinking becomes further accessible to the Western mind. Thus, the TCM definition includes that it controls consciousness, and houses the Shen, a Chinese concept translated as “heart-mind,” most closely described by our notion of the psyche. It’s counterpart, Jing, could be likened to the soma, the Western term that refers to the body. The Jing points to a person’s bodily matter, structural makeup, and inner world of sensations. Some schools of acupuncture begin a treatment through specific points along the heart meridian with the understanding that any effects at healing begun from a state of agitation or tension will be minimal. Calming and soothing the heart brings the bodymind back into the healing state, known in allopathy as rest and digest. Food can be said to “heal” our hunger, hence, the practice of saying grace before a meal is another example of this same intent, which yields a shift in the heart’s inhabitant, the Shen, by raising the spiritual ambience of the setting.
More specifically, the Shen refers to the organizing force behind one’s personhood, as it is reflected in one’s complete expression through the personality. My own thinking apparatus stalled a few times on this one. Instead of listing a tenuous string of linguistic comparisons, let’s come back for a moment to the concept of Fire. Picture an old house with a hearth that serves as a continual source of warmth, as a milieu for the production of food, and a gathering place of family and friends – a hub where discussion, nourishment and connection take place. The hearth (which out of no coincidence contains the word “heart”), conjures the feeling of this force, around which all activities are organized. It satisfies all sorts of critical needs of the inhabitants, and beyond this, it could be said to bring a spirit of home to the house. Accordingly, another translation of the Shen is spirit, but not in the religious sense of being a separate, discarnate entity. Ever seen the Miyazaki movie, Howl’s Moving Castle? The main character’s living house, which walks along on mechanical legs, is animated by a friendly fire demon. In a scene in which the fire is taken out of the basement hearth in a shovel, the entire structure immediately falls apart without the demon’s animating magic. This is the perfect dramatization of the consequences of someone letting the flame of their spirit die down. The personality’s self-containing, self-uplifting design undergoes a breakdown, and it is from this collapsing state that the deeply dysfunctional forms of the human being degenerate: cruelty, criminality, violence, disrespect and disdain for life. Obviously the importance of maintaining a sufficient, life-affirming heat is just as important as containing the expulsion of energy, somewhere in between a warm crackle and a hot blaze. Another word for maintenance is tempering, which calls to mind the process of tempering chocolate – bringing it up to a certain temperature and back down again a few times to create the lovely bubbles in a well-made bar, not present in a brick of baking chocolate. Or, that’s just where my chocolate-infatuated heart goes.
A strong Shen is recognizable in a person whom we might describe as “lion-hearted”, an image that speaks not only of someone exuding an emotional warmth, but who also has the ability to feel grief and sadness. The heart endows us with the ability to stretch towards either end of the spectrum between joy and sadness, depending on what’s being called for from life’s events. It follows naturally that a difficulty to feel either, or to feel a lack of emotional warmth towards oneself or others, even those who are close, would indicate a dis-ease of the heart. One measure of the heart’s health previously employed in conventional medicine was the evenness of the beats. Today that standard has shifted away from regularity, and become the measure of HRV: heart rate variability. It continuously seems that modern science is wending its way towards explanations for the wisdom of the ancients. The ancient Chinese knew that both an overabundance of any emotion – joy included – was injurious to the heart, as was not feeling enough of it. They cultivated a finely moderated, dignified emotional stance, striving to preserve and protect the essential emotions, while balancing them with their counterparts. What this way of life speaks of is an availability towards life’s pleasures and a resilience to its blows, as well as an orientation of responding with intention to one’s story, rather than reacting automatically or submissively. As opposed to being an existence reserved for the adepts, this integrative, equanimous emotional life is accessible to us all. When the human condition requires us to encompass any emotion that seems difficult to feel, instead of falling back on socially ingrained attitudes, we can recall this internal terra firma as our true inheritance, a spaciousness in which emotions may visit, be seen, and witness each other.
The classics of TCM literature describe the heart as a sovereign ruler who presides skillfully over his kingdom by employing the power of insight and understanding, sowing order by clearly perceiving solutions through any conflict. If the monarch falls ill, one can extrapolate the ensuing chaos throughout the realm: anxiety, agitation and loss of control. Because the heart is said to house the intellect, the impairments that one would accumulate from living in a house in disarray might be: memory loss, an inability to focus or a tendency to be easily distractible, a mental confusion as well as confused speech (stuttering, excessive laughter/laughing in moments of stress, being a “chatterbox”). The common way in which the thinking/feeling imbalance occurs in our culture is by hyperactive thought and circuitous worry reverberating through the head, making us feel like we’re walking around with a miniature model of the Whispering Gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral lodged between our ears. Meanwhile, the scattered, wandering Shen is said to be homeless, and the heart experiences a version of “empty nest syndrome”. This “home,” by the way, is said to be the blood itself, which should be an educative point for the Westerner, as this situates the present mind’s abode in the whole body. When relentless thought is brought to a tipping point, the Yang components of the heart – heat, chi, and Shen – overwhelm its Yin barrier, and flow upward, invading the head. When this happens, an overabundance of raw energy coursing through the delicate [reticulate] of the brain can cause disjointed thinking, senseless babbling, headache, fever, irritability, and insomnia. The due courses for treating this condition might involve: simplifying the diet, reducing one’s intake of stimulating foods (coffee, alcohol, sugar, refined carbohydrates, very spicy foods, fatty foods), avoiding late night eating and large evening meals, and of course, soothing and hushing the chatterbox upstairs. Foods to emphasize would include: oyster shell (available in supplement form), whole grains, any kind of mushroom (but particularly reishi), foods high in silicon (oatstraw, barley, lettuce, celery juice), chia seeds, and soothing, calming herbs (thyme, oregano, rosemary, dill, basil, chamomile, catnip, scullcap, and valerian). With these dietary guidelines and any simple practice that resonates for centering the spirit, one can repossess oneself of the mental tranquility and lucid thought of the serene ruler. And more than just regaining control over the mental faculty, a person can notice a transition from thinking about reality on a surface level, to integrated reflection that is experienced as the beginning of the creation/manifestation process.
The critical barrier that the heart maintains, in which the Shen can rest and replenish, also serves the dual purpose of informing a healthy person’s engagement in regards to relationship. How someone relates to their own feelings, as described before, will naturally set the stage in how they relate to another. But the insightful ruler’s ability of “seeing to the heart of a matter” stems from the same gift of the heart, which endows someone with the capacity for forming social bonds that are both open to the possible and grounded in the authentic, both trusting and resilient to upsets. And this gift is the membrane-like container of the self. In the pulse of our everyday interactions, the heart is in continuous negotiation between the polar opposites of our necessary boundaries and our need for connection, between the organism’s instinct to preserve and the soul’s yearning for transcendance. At the peak of Summer, we feel drawn into a zenith of our social energy, stretching into our most outgoing, courageous, graceful selves. At this time, the heart steps into a spotlight of its own, facilitating a balanced, harmonious expression of what healthy relating can feel like. Incredibly, the cell membrane’s original template for organic life, as it drifted about in the soupy matter of primordial Earth, retains a materiality to our macro existence of eating, acting, interacting individuals. Gradually, a distinction was made between an inner and outer environment, and it became necessary to know what to let in, and what to keep out, when to incorporate and when to expel.
Er Wang Dong cave, in China, a cave that is so huge it contains its own ecosystem.
In TCM, the power of assimilation is associated with the individual’s power of discernment and differentiation, not only through the body’s metabolic functions, which sorts our food matter from the crude to the finite, but also in finding a balance between a sense of self and a sense of other. As in all forms of holistic medicine, balance is key. But how is this balance achieved? There are many ways of explaining this, but let’s look at the physical form of the friendly old heart we know. As citizens of the information age, we are growing in our awareness that information comes in all sorts of packaging and branding, but without much evidence of its veracity or relevance. But when you really learn something through the lessons of your life, you can be said to have “learned it by heart.” This is an oblique reference to the work you’ve done in absorbing the knowledge and integrating it at the level of the Jing(soma), at which point you don’t need to repeatedly recall and remind yourself of the thing you’ve learned. A personal meaning has been consolidated, at which point the intellectual knowledge is surrendered (because it’s actually less useful). Appropriately, one alternate connotation of the word, “express” is, “to discharge by squeezing”, a.k.a. pumping. What this all points to is that the heart is essentially empty. Like the lungs, it performs its own feat of alternately becoming large enough to make space for the act of creation, and becoming small enough to partake of the self’s role in experiencing. In this way, all of the organs are hollow, quietly (but not silently) performing an oscillating motion for our benefit. As Wim Hof would say, “inhale relaxation, exhale stress.”
In picturing the varied meanings with which Fire has been imbued by peoples the world over, images that might flash before the mind’s eye might include our proto-human ancestors clustering around a blaze for warmth, and figuring out the miracle of cooked food.
Entire cultures were moulded into the worship of sun deities and the flame’s life-giving symbolism.
Depiction of Amaterasu, the Japanese sun goddess.
Not only does Fire literally warm and brighten our lives, it also reminds us of our capacity to get fired up, and be on fire with our passions – to powerfully channel our own creative source, and become a catalyst of inspiration and insight for others.
The Hermit card of the tarot
Have you ever noticed that different people and different environments seem to elicit from you very different characteristic responses, to the extent that it makes you think that you, yourself, are different among different people? Well, the Five Phase way of interpreting that observation would say that it seems that way because it is so. And that the same is more subtly and powerfully true about the interchange of the seasons. With the ephemeral bloom of each Spring, Summer, Late Summer, Autumn, and Winter comes an opportunity to experience ourselves anew – in a sense, to be reborn every time they turn over into each other. The Five-Phase way of looking at the articulations and flares that pervade our lives is to perceive them as the Summertime moving through all the various components and levels of our being. They are the communications of the Fire within everyone, as it seeks an ever-evolving harmony with the other elements in our organ system. It is the heart providing an equilibrium in flux. A study of traditional Chinese correspondences can wake us up to these transformations, making them visible in ourselves and in others, empowering us with an understanding that connects, and begs the question:
“Is this me?”