25 minute read / Hazel Appaqaq

On the heels of Summer’s apex flourishes a second season of harvest, this one sobered by thoughts of storing up, consolidating, and planning for leaner times. Having completed another round of self-replication, the fauna and flora now turn to securing their place in the forest’s ordered chaos. All things undergo a movement of contraction, as the proliferating, outward seeking character of the warmer months is reversed by the more austere, inward nature of the colder half of the year. The fallen fruit and foliage of trees, now shriveled and decayed, slowly become fertilizer for the seeds they encased. The responsible industry of bees has yielded a comb of sugar rations, and, like ancient Egyptians preparing their deceased for the afterlife, they seal off their eggs with allotments of their most precious jelly. In the blood of all creatures, a torpor is on the rise, causing animals to lose interest in the usual activities of their habitat. They are less absorbed in eating, mating and moving around, and instead become preoccupied with procuring safe and comfortable lodgings, following an instinct to isolate, preserve energy, and seek a submersion into quiescence. Reflecting such changes in the macrocosm, similar shifts occur in the microcosm of the human animal, such as the need to draw in and refine resources, to separate the valuable kernel from the devitalized husk, and to eliminate all that is not in service to life’s purpose. 

A certain logic dictates that every organ function is the most important. After all, how would we survive if the Small Intestine stopped sorting our food, the Bladder ceased flushing out fluids, or the Triple Heater took a break from regulating our internal thermostat? Yet the Lungs’ role in the cultivation of our vitality is, well, vital. So basic is the breath to our organism that we tend to overlook its foundational role. Our first contact to our environment, the Lungs are the organ associated with the Fall. Beginning after birth and ending at death, their movement enacts a rhythm that delineates our existence as individuals. This rhythm is an elaboration of the Heart’s drummed orchestration of the family of organs. The critical, enmeshed roles of the Heart and Lungs reveal how much the body’s systems are held together by its own internal clock, without which the harmony of functions would fall out of sync, falling instead into cacophony. The act of breathing implies this requirement to be constantly aligning and realigning with the flow of life. Trapping our outside surroundings a bit at a time into sensitive pockets within, the Lungs’ motto might be: “Life belongs to you, and it doesn’t.” As long as we practice habits that overtax and undernourish our qi, our life force will dwindle, like the sun’s thin, slanted rays in the Fall. For most of us, this gradual undermining of the basis of health is only a matter of time. The sense of time’s initially unnoticeable, but eventually unstoppable march, was expressed in Gustav Holst’s composition, “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age”. It’s usually only when age and illness inflict their begrudged curses that we miss the monotony of homeostasis, and perhaps become motivated to seek alternatives to learned norms. A study of the Chinese five phases makes the imperceptibly slow and steady onset of imbalance predictable, and manageable in more ways than would be considered by conventional means. And further to this, what is not determined by the limits of inherited constitution, and the expense to our wholeness incurred from life events that “knock the wind out of you,” is how well we channel a flow of value through our lives, achieve a unity of structure and function, and observe our interpretations of our experiences, in the generation of our life story. As we shall see, structure, value, and meaning are a trine of themes at the core of the Lungs’ host element, Metal.

The thin, slanted rays of the sun in the Fall

The relevance of Metal’s meaning to our day-to-day lives is more elusive to grasp than those of the other elements. An exploration of a number of images, then, augments our understanding of its place in the domain of human experience. 

Historically, in China, Autumn was the season when merchants would recalibrate the scales and weights used at market. The time of year when the life of vegetation funnels into the seed, and creatures tuck themselves away with just enough reserves, also speaks of the exactitude that is visible everywhere in the natural world. Myriad forms of previous generations die back, conjuring the old notion of a divine justice. Similar to a good merchant’s attunement to valuation and the risk of retaining items for too long, a fine balance must be sought between buying and selling, receiving and giving back. Nature is full of this form of justice, which at times seems poignantly beautiful, and at others, ruthlessly indifferent. Hence, the hard, sharp, and potentially brittle and rusty sides of this element come to light. 

Hardness relates to Metal’s ability to retain its shape under opposing forces, making it ideal for its role in structural integrity. In our bodies, this relates to the minerals we require that nourish our tissues and strengthen our bones. Metaphorically, it signifies the strength of one’s character, and having not only beliefs, but convictions. Unlike Wood, and Water’s solid state, ice, Metal can be reforged and recast repeatedly into any desired form, while maintaining a consistent durability. Once forged, it can be induced to create a sharpened edge, such as that of a knife or sword, and has the ability to cut to the quick of a thing. If we recall the Heart’s similar function of discerning self from non-self, the Lungs’ role can be seen to broaden that same process of separation. Like a winnower separating the chaff from the grain, this element represents our discernment of what conforms to the self, from that which only serves temporarily. As well as alluding to any period of reduction in our lives – those circumstances that demand sacrifice, discipline and restraint – Metal’s influence can also be understood as imparting a merger of form and function. Similar to the way organisms pass life lessons on through DNA, the collapsing movement of the Fall and the Lungs is replicated in Metal’s theme of a return to what is essential. Metal’s appearance in our lives comes after we’ve visited the height of Summer’s personal expression and actualization, and met with the need to come back in touch with that which gives rise to the full spectrum of our experiences. What is the source of our joys and sorrows alike, that which allows us to taste of both accomplishment and failure, contentment and lack, or wholeness and isolation? Metal’s mystical associations contain a reply to this as well.

Metal occurs in nature as raw minerals hidden deep within the earth. To access its useful and valuable traits, it must be refined into a pure substance. The refining process of physical matter into its purest form relates to the process of analytic, dualistic consciousness flowering into receptive, embracing awareness. The legendary quest of the alchemist, of turning base metals into gold, is the external science to the lesser-known practices of inner alchemy, an esoteric discipline interested in the transformation of common consciousness into enlightened awareness. Historians believe that the version of the exoteric science developed in Asia was derived from the notions of Chinese cosmology, including the theory of the five phases, in which the five elements transform into each other along the Creation Cycle. For the Chinese alchemists, the mineral cinnabar represented and made material this transmutation, because it was the only substance in their possession which was stable in both solid and liquid forms. Its flexible stability made it the perfect symbol for Metal’s strength, which draws equally from the complementary qualities of adaptability and resilience. These dynamic, mutually supportive virtues are illustrated by the incredible filaments of spider webs: the threads of some species are known to be stronger than steel, yet more flexible, and 50 times as light. The “springiness” and malleability of their silk comes from its structure, produced from the way the spider’s body “spins” the strands. In a similar adaptation, humans evolved the neocortex to house a model of reality, in order to give us an edge against all other organisms driven by instinct. Therefore, Metal’s significance can be linked to our neural and social networks – including the ability to communicate our needs and share resources, to negotiate and compromise, and generally achieve a balance between our selfish and altruistic urges. The image of the spider at the center of its web has long been used to symbolize the truly man-made structure of consciousness – in particular the bonds woven from the threads of language and storytelling. The mind’s warehouse of shared meaning, acquired through family, social institutions, and the social structures of morality, culture and spirituality, form the systems of meaning and value in our lives through which we channel the river of our life force. Yet the most powerful piece at the heart of Metal’s influence, includes an objective discovery of who or what is at the center of our webs, the one responsible for spinning the stories – and more importantly, a discovery of the one who observes the spinner.

Remember that these discussions center around functions, not organic structures, and the assessment of an organ’s health is gauged from a larger sphere of activity. So, while the lungs (anatomical) suck in air, the Lungs (functional) draw qi energy into our depths, sending it down to the Spleen, to be combined with the qi we’ve extracted from our food. This combined qi is distributed throughout the body, and plays a key role in nourishing the body’s peripheral tissues, such as the skin, hair, and mucous membranes of the nasal passages, throat, and lungs. These surfaces constitute a first line of defense against external environmental extremes, and invasion by microbes. Their health, evidenced by a lustre in skin and hair, determines their effectiveness at warding off or slowing the assault. Additionally, TCM broadens the definition of the Lungs’ role in vitality and immunity, and relates it to the metaphysical boundaries of our being: the outermost reaches of our awareness, and the furthest distance from whence we draw quality into our lives. To what do these last refer? 

We can experience the first as an evolutionary adaptation that might remind us to keep our wits about us in unfamiliar environments, such as when we’re walking along a trail, deep in the forest. Our ancestral memory tells us to stay alert to the presence of predators, in order to protect us from being eaten. For some of our ancestors, this would have involved glancing all about every few minutes, and the scope of a hunter-gatherer’s senses would have extended to such lengths which today seem superhuman. After all, most predators don’t just saunter up to their prey. Our foreparents would have had to contend with a cougar’s stealth, or a polar bear’s wiliness. My Inuit father recounted that a polar bear seems to know that, in order to surprise a human, it has to completely camouflage itself in the snowy settings. And so, it covers its black nose with a paw, as it slowly crawls forward through the whiteness. In the comfort and security of our highly controlled, fabricated environs, the need to stay highly attuned to our surroundings has vastly diminished. However, the current state of public health has evoked a stirring and reawakening of this instinct, by the need to be considerate of others’ personal space, as well as to protect our own. Yet the new threat is unlike that of a cougar or a bear, detectable by our senses, which we can choose to either combat or flee from. And, the critical moment of danger has also disappeared. Some of us might experience the new predator as an acute, ever present anxiety, surfacing as our instinct continually reminding us to check our surroundings. Others might encounter it as an uncertainty that lingers in the back of the mind, which cannot be fully ascertained, like a specter that they can only sense out of the corner of their eye. Trauma theory adds that anything that overwhelms us tends to shut down our awareness. However, unlike the Wintertime’s effect of concentrating us into a meditative state, a common feature of trauma is a narrowing of experience, more in line with the severing of contact with our outer and inner senses. Both trauma and grief can have this effect of bringing us inward and downward within ourselves. Instead of having this become a dissociative response, Metal’s role among the elements sheds light on the possibility of trusting in the contractive and descending force of grief. Where the capacity exists in each of us individually, the power of grief lies waiting to aid us to expel, expunge, and surrender the accretions of past painful experiences, while retaining the valuable lessons. Engaging with this difficult inner work yields a harvest of maturity toward future testing. It empowers us with a more diverse selection of available responses. In short, the harvest of grief work is a more abundant array of choices.

Our ability to hold space for this process, and to withstand it, has much to do with the support we’ve had throughout our lives, and which we currently have, from our friends, family, and community. In an introductory class to her 6 week course on Grief Work, Josea Crossley, a former Cortesian resident, explains that many of our ancestors had the support of their society to undertake the inner journey. She explains that in many indigenous cultures, there exists a commonly held valuation of the healing power of grief, not only for the individual, but for healing and strengthening the community as well. A village would facilitate a person’s transition through the loss of a vital relationship, illness or other kind of hardship, by allowing them to take refuge in seclusion, and not requiring them to contribute to the village’s daily functioning. The need to be functional creates delays in the grieving process, and arrests it completely where situations demand a high level of functionality. In this way, the structures and conventions of modern day society cut us off from our own inner resources of grieving where we are required or encouraged to stay busy and keep up with our normal schedule. Where these experiences have accumulated over lifetimes and generations, from the forces of colonization and industrialization, underemployment and homelessness, there is a compounding of grief and trauma underlying our modes of residing in the world that longs to be digested. Josea refers to the perpetuation of individual and cultural injury as the “trauma vortex.” Yet the containers which our friends and loved ones can hold for us can provide a critical, safe environment in which we can engage with our prima materia, or the prime material of our soul-work. The safe edges of this container, as well as any wisdom tradition which offers direction in the practice of conscious grieving, constitute the extremities from which we may pull quality into our lives from afar. Like the lungs’ action of suctioning air into their pockets, our ability to draw from the nourishing aspect of our social networks and our experiences, to find what feels good and okay in our sore and painful parts, is a vital source of what builds our capacity to process our hurts. Furthermore, our individual embarkation on engaging with grief as an essential life skill provides supplemental value of learning to create a safe container for ourselves. Eventually, only we will know what coping strategies work best for each of us, and what is beyond our current stage of readiness. For some of us, outside sources of aid assist us to come back in contact with ourselves, while some of us need to continually practice grounding back into ourselves in order to make contact with the outer world. Undeniably, we require layers of support for significant progress to be made, however, it’s also possible to work with the relative presence or lack of our social resources, and to slowly learn how to become more present more of the time, to be compassionately curious, and to feel our big feelings.

In these discussions, it can seem like a contradiction exists in the creation of a safe space, because we live in a world in which harm is the historical ground on which we all stand, and is relentlessly being perpetrated in present time on a multitude of levels. However, in a way, the contradiction is a mysterious paradox: in fact, the corporeal journey isn’t safe, and never was. But as Josea offers, the cougar is a positive influence which causes us to expand and hone our awareness. Because of its presence in the depths of the forest, we can remember what safety actually is.

The Lungs’ capacity to gather life force, maintain strength, and unify against assailants is increased by a person’s ability to prioritize, be resolute, and together in himself. How well one holds on to commitments and principles contributes information pertaining to this organ’s health. Like a runner working herself up before a race, a person who demonstrates good Lung health is able to mobilize mindset and energies around a sturdy pillar of intention. The time of day when the Lungs come into their peak of activity is 5-7am, the significance of which is embedded into Chinese culture. The early morning is when the parks, courtyards and commons would normally become flooded with early risers, emerging to practice calisthenics and disciplines for the cultivation qi. At this time of day, the body’s energy is said to be moving both upward through the energy centers, and outward towards the musculature and exterior surfaces. At day’s end, the qi reverts back downward through the centers, and concentrates into the interior tissues and viscera. The cultural knowledge being demonstrated is that vigor is the Lungs’ middle name. In addition to being the organ function that is primarily at risk from the pathogen currently circulating amongst us, the Lungs respond to and are impacted by the unprocessed emotional responses of the people we interact with the most on a daily basis. People who self-identify as being empathic describe the hazard of becoming affected by the inner dynamics or turmoil of others, and suffering exhaustion and burnout from the attempt to process the mass of undifferentiated experiences. In the maintenance of healthy boundaries, a sensitive person can hold to the intention of not processing the grief from the energetic field around them, and instead engaging with their own body-mind state only.

The companion function of the Lungs is the Colon, and as the Lungs command one’s ability to hold on, the Colon empowers letting go. Through its obvious relationship to elimination, the Colon supplies a critical, opposing movement to the Lung’s intake. They mirror each other: the Lungs’ power to exhale mimics the Colon’s primary task, and the Colon’s function of reabsorbing nutrients imitates the Lungs’ main objective. The difference being that the one contacts the most substantial form of nourishment, while the other reaches for the most insubstantial form. By this distinction, air and qi are fundamentally related to the active, Yang principle of the universe, also named Heaven in Chinese cosmology, while food and blood relate to the receptive, Yin forces of the world, traditionally referred to as Earth. Thus, Heaven and Earth comprise a complementary set of poles, each intimately suffused into the other, and suffusing every aspect of material reality. In the miniature world of the human being, Earth is synonymous with the Jing (soma), the structural basis of our bodily existence. Heaven, in contrast, comes to us in the form of two kinds of life force, to which we have access in our hominid career: first, a one-time, irreplaceable allotment of a creative power, and second, the qi energy which we harvest from the combination of our food and air. The former is an essential reserve that “keeps our clock ticking:” endowed at conception, once our original store is used up, the story of our personhood comes to an end. The latter we acquire from conception onward, and it allows us to conserve our inherited reserve, instead of expending it frivolously. Furthermore, the moment of conception marks our endowment with another gift from Heaven: a personal purpose in life, otherwise known as a destiny. In a fateful interpenetration of the cosmic poles, Heaven is said to reach into Earth and place the seed of our purpose deep inside the soil of our being. As we mature into adulthood, the Shen (psyche) has the ability to radiate into the unconscious obscurity of the Jing and illuminate Heaven’s intent for us. This ideal life path that Heaven wills for us can also be understood as a personal, internal standard which only we can discover. Therefore, it is up to each of us individually to nurture and cultivate that seed as best we can. In this way, the pairing of the companion organs, in their synergistic support of each other, exemplify humanity’s task, and the ultimate goal of personal destiny, of blending and balancing the masculine and feminine forces within ourselves – the human equivalents of Heaven and Earth.

A classic Lung constitutional conflict occurs around the processing of grief. Typically this shows up in the context of mourning an experience of loss, or longing for an experience of gain. In this system, both are viewed as consisting of the same emotion, as either grief directed toward the past, or grief directed toward the future. As with the other organs’ predilection to their acquired emotions, a disorder is noticeable by a condition of excess or deficiency: in this case, in someone who is either constantly moved to grieve, or who lacks the ability to do so even at will. Those with strong Lungs experience an unhampered emotional process that enables them to keep to their goals and values, while releasing attachments to possessions and relationships when situations demand it. However, an important distinction must be made on how this balanced process is accomplished. As shall be further discussed later, letting go is not done by denying the scarring experiences of our past, or believing that we are over, through or beyond our painful losses. Someone who is all too willing to cut social ties and remain emotionally distant, in an attempt to maintain independence, self-sufficiency, or pseudo-enlightenment, is actually demonstrating a form of Lung/Colon imbalance. They might adopt a formality or aloofness in their demeanor, or a matter-of-fact, intellectual way of expressing themselves. Alternately, someone who experiences excessive, protracted longing might be driven to seek substitutes for the quality which they wish to contact, as with the person who nurtures a craving for objects of increasing value. Or, they might anxiously hoard and preserve their belongings, unconsciously striving to bolster a weakened self-worth with their possessions. It is the over-focus on the ephemeral form in which quality enters our lives that translates into an unwillingness to let go when those forms lose their value. Conversely, the conscious or unconscious attitude that all that is precious is doomed to be lost may present as an inability to hold on to what one values. Recall back to the Liver’s phase, that in the Spring, the return of the light and greenery inspires us to shed emotional baggage and outmoded behaviours. The Springtime experience of newness entering our lives encourages us to release the accretions of past painful experiences. In the Fall, we find ourselves on the other end of the bargain, when a wise relationship to reduction must facilitate our reversion into a simpler form of ourselves. Thus, a lesson in the inherent balance between gain and loss lies in the expansive and contracting energy of the equinoxes. We can either let go of something old in order to make room in our lives for something new, or the arrival of something new encourages us to release the old. Our ability to be motivated toward the latter method rests on faith, precisely demonstrated by the seed, which trusts that the relinquishment of its moisture will soon be rewarded with a return of the revitalizing Springtime rains. 

Release the old to make room for the new

Becoming wise to the depletion of the organs’ health is very difficult because the course of it spans years, progressing in inscrutable increments in all the choices of daily life. For most, the erosion of vitality over decades is unavoidable, given conventional lifestyles and attitudes. However, uncontrollably spiraling away from wholeness is not TCM’s concept of Destiny. It’s true meaning can be explained via some introductions with Chinese cosmogony. 

Much like the now-popular notions of the Big Bang and the Big Crunch, ancient Chinese philosophers conceived of the genesis of all existence as descending from a ceaseless, bellows-like motion of the universe. In a theory that predates the initial stirrings of modern science, an original state of unity spontaneously cleaves from, and returns to itself in a timeless period. This process is sourced from a state that is beyond any duality, or any form of differentiation upon which to base a definition. As such, its truest nature is unknowable to the human mind. This is because the sages realized that the mind’s attempt to understand reality by evaluating it in parts only fragments the oneness, producing a dichotomy, consisting of that which knows and that which is known. But, undaunted by the mind’s built-in handicap, the mystics named the unity, the “primordial Dao” – a handle to allow a discourse – and identified five stages of the Dao’s splitting from, and merging back with itself, which cause the manifestation of “the world as we know it.” 

These five stages can be understood as the cosmological underpinnings of the five phases: the five elements and seasons in the macrocosm, and the five organs in the microcosm of the human being. Keep in mind that the stages of the Dao do not follow the annual order of the phases (Water/Winter – Wood/Spring – Fire/Summer – Earth/Late Summer – Metal/Fall), because, being the theoretical basis of temporal reality, they necessarily exist outside of time. Occurring simultaneously, they describe different aspects of the Dao’s movement away from, and back to itself. Instead of implying a sequence of causality, the stages can be understood as polarities, or reference points, that create the possibility of such things as movement, progress, development, transformation, transcendence, etc., all of which would have no “traction” in a state of perfect harmony and integration. 

In the first stage – the pristine, undifferentiated Dao – there is no movement toward generation. In a “paradise state” of pure potential, all of existence is said to reside in complete interpenetration: everything existing implicitly within everything else. Named in Chinese mythology as the Cosmic Egg, the Dao is an ultimate principle of material reality, of which chaos is one of its properties, making it the source of all originality and randomness. It is associated with the Water element, and Winter, the lowest point in the Creation Cycle. Its chaotic nature allows it to be the cause of material existence, while having no cause itself. Thus, it is simply destiny, irrational and unpredictable, that the Dao separates from itself. This stage’s character involving the image of everything being reflected in everything else, describes TCM’s way of viewing reality, comparable to the different sides of a hologram. For example, human qualities have associations with the principles of the elements, the traits of the seasons, or different aspects of the world we call planet Earth.

Suddenly, the egg hatches. In the second stage, the Dao spontaneously splits from itself, and gives birth to a polarity of opposites. Still: no ‘thing” yet exists – only the potential for differentiation, and so, this stage is also characterized as escaping the grapple of cerebral apprehension. Yet, all things that can be understood intellectually, owe their existence to the Dao’s formation into a duality. This second stage is similar to the upsurging, life-begetting force that is Fire, propelling itself against Water’s gravitational pull, as it soars to the peak of creation and consciousness. In this initial separation, Heaven is said to rise like a shining star out of the infinite ocean of the Dao, and cast an illuminating influence into the depths, a cosmological event which creates the poles of the world, Heaven and Earth. Technically, although it gives rise to “the two,” this stage can also be understood as the first true stage, while the original, undefined Dao may occupy the placeholder of zero. Even for the Dao to be named calls something out of the obscurity of nonbeing, since in order for there to be even one thing, there must necessarily be the shadow of nothing to define its existence. Therefore, a fine distinction can be made between the “unnamed Dao” and the “named Dao.”

At the third level of enumeration, the one undergoes a natural, spontaneous reversion back to its original, unnamed nature. This facilitates a blending and mixing of all apparently dichotomous aspects between the poles, the effect of which relates to Wood’s mediating position between Water and Fire. The contrasting energies of Heaven and Earth recombine and mingle to produce a third aspect: primordial qi. This primal form of qi can be understood as the universe’s intrinsic dynamism, and is likened to a deep, dark whirlpool. The cyclicity of this primal motion, circulating between Heaven and Earth, implies an inherent order to existence. It can be associated with the negentropic force of evolution, a most basic of organizational, motivating forces which fosters life’s activities toward growth, development, functionality and reproduction. This order can be attributed to the named Dao’s reversion back to the unnamed Dao, in which the former mirrors its ancestry and duplicates the latter’s unified harmony. Hence, this “whirling vortex” is also described as being empty, a description reminiscent of the original one’s totality of potential. There is an allusion to the space in between separate things, as well as a fundamental emptiness and qi lying at the center of everything that is. Therefore, in contrast to the completely chaotic nature of the original Dao, the quality of the third stage is of ordered chaos.

The first three stages together form a kind of Daoist trinity, all residing beyond the reach of normal comprehension. It is out of this trinity that all things are said to come, flooding the universe with their being. So, Chinese cosmology postulates that from the unnamed Dao emerges the named Dao, which can also be called the one. The one gives rise to the two, the two create the three, and from the three are born “the ten thousand things,” or, everything that is in the material world. 

In the fourth stage, the three spontaneously fall back to the one. Therefore, the Dao returns to its roots, and the whole cycle begins again, repeating the stages simultaneously in an eternal loop extant to time. The fourth stage, also called the return, or the fall, corresponds to Metal’s position of engendering Water. Meanwhile, the fifth stage constitutes a central axis around which the first four revolve – the cosmological counterpart of the Earth element. Thus, the Dao’s journey is of forever becoming itself.

Counterpointing the growing seasons’ ascending, anti gravitational force, the TCM classics describe the energy of Autumn as the “killing energy.” Sharp as a saber, retracting like a ghost from the shell, it involves our conveyance through a passage of inexorable finishing. However, what is killed and brought to a close is the relevant question – to which our lives are the answer. Chinese cosmology submits that one eventual outcome awaits us all sooner or later: reunion with the Dao. However, two ways exist by which this journey can happen: by our embracing of the Dao, or the Dao’s reabsorption of us. The Dao has no preference over how the merging is accomplished, its only spontaneously arising “agenda” is that it does. An integral part of this restoration, and our enactment of Destiny, is the supersedence of the mundane. Here is a concept associated with the Jing, and all of those formative influences which a person inherits, is molded or conditioned by, and what they’ve experienced and have been exposed to. Or, in a word: the personality. Regardless of the time of year, a person who achieves a balanced Autumnal experience releases themselves and others from past realities and invites the possibility of growth toward an unknown future. 

What is meant by “release from past realities?” Cortes resident and transpersonal psychiatrist, Donna Dryer, explains it well: “At night when you go to bed, you take off your [your name here] suit. In the morning, when you wake up, the first thing you do, as soon as you open your eyes or even before, is to put your [your name here] suit back on.” Dr. Joe Dispenza, a physician and author, expounds on this subject at great length, in many of his written works, including: Supernatural, and Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself. He calls attention to the fact that the brain is a remembering organ. So much of our activities in every moment of our lives involves recalling what we’ve previously learned. In the daily enactment of our normal routines, the hazard exists of becoming primarily creatures of habit, and more to the point, of believing and behaving as if we are the sum of our reactions to our past experiences: our personal history, our preferences and antipathies, the influences of our environment, and the body. TCM defines this as becoming identified with the personality. In the morning, when we wake up, the very first thing we do is recall who we are, whatever that means to us. But if the personality is made up from the matter of everything we’ve lived through up until today, it’s more likely that we’ll run through the same sequence of motions, recreate similar experiences in our day, and, as the good Dr. puts it, “at night, you do it all in reverse.” When this happens, we’re stuck in our temporal condition, our environments, and our bodies.

The rising trend of Grief Work adds to the picture. Josea imparts that when we experience trauma which we’re not able to process and recover from soon afterward, it’s as if a part of ourselves gets frozen in the timeline of our lives. Immobilized by the painful experience, a part of us is lodged like a stick in the mud, despite our sincerest efforts to move on. If a past hurt isn’t shifted from its spot – that is, if we don’t digest it, and reunite the past version of ourselves with our present self, after a time it tends to get left behind in the mists of memory, and covered over with the continuously arising goings-on of the present. We feel out of sync, less integrated, or disjointed. Part of us might be continually reliving the painful event at a barely conscious or unconscious level, or it might be like a button under our skin, that, when pressed, triggers us to recapitulate the grief and our initial reaction to it, so that the past part of us believes that it’s still ongoing, that it’s still alive and active in the present. Josea calls this, “washing machine trauma,” because the grief keeps tumbling us through the event and the emotions, over and over.

TCM also recognizes this defining event, in the language of becoming disconnected from our true nature. The esoteric branches of Chinese medicine pinpoint the formation of the separate self to be the initial crack in our connection to the original, unnamed Dao. Occurring at some point in infancy or early childhood, something eventually happens to each of us which we cannot immediately process or comprehend, and which spurs us to form some kind of interpretation about ourselves or the world. Other peoples and other cultures also have very similar ways of describing this cosmological fracturing or rupturing of the self, and the effect that it has on our sense of belonging in the world. Moreover, not having the support systems and other containers we need to interact with our injured nature can accentuate our sense of lack of belonging. Later, events which resemble the initial experience set us up to reiterate and reinforce our assessments and judgements, thus widening and deepening the crack. Eventually this process manifests into the formation of the individual’s constitutional type. In the Chinese worldview, it is Destiny that we become estranged from our original identity. Yet the healing force is fueled by our memory of once being whole. The truth of this is apparent in a moment of being suddenly struck by the beauty of something, like a waterfall or a landscape of deciduous trees, aflame with their autumnal colours. If it weren’t for a past experience of beauty, what else would speak up in an instant, telling us, “that’s beautiful.” Our innate movement toward greater integration, healing, growth and evolution, derive from a similar connection being made, in the recollection of the separate self’s imprint of the Dao. Josea elaborates that the more we step into a life path that more truly reflects who we are in our depths, and “grows us toward our essence,” the more we can bring the past and present parts of ourselves back into contact. This enfolds the second part of the Chinese notion of Destiny. Every moment presents the choice to either reinforce our old, characteristic interpretations, thereby perpetuating the fall from paradise and the fulfillment of another round of the Dao’s separation, or to focus our attention on the ultimate unity of reality, and in so doing, restore the Dao to its original state of perfect oneness. Chinese cosmology, and concurrently TCM, constitute a worldview that centers upon the human being, and, more precisely, human consciousness.

The integrity of the Lungs derives from their qi, as well as the efficacy with which a person enacts their manifestations through the personality. The quality of those combined functions then translates into their ability to direct qi throughout the whole being. Otherwise put, Lung qi nourishes overall qi. But as has been repeated before, the healthy functioning of the personality, such as maintaining supportive social connections, observing thought patterns that weaken mental health, and ridding oneself of grudges, contribute to the Lungs’ ability to direct chi throughout the Jing. What this relationship illustrates is, firstly, the Chinese conception of the human being as a continuum of organ functions, as opposed to the allopathically conceived units and systems of units cooperating together. Secondly, it highlights the bi-directional path that healing can take. The physical avenues of medicine are emphasized together with emotional and psychic therapies, as well as self-cultivation of a spiritual nature. Analyzing habitual behaviours, questioning unconscious attitudes, and cleansing the body-mind of circuitous thoughts and feelings, are examples of inner self regulation, a practice which – very much like gardening – undercuts the perpetuation of tenacious disease patterns. Where such patterns of a global and latent nature are not resolved, it can be very difficult to adhere to health goals or personal growth in the long run. After a period of change is accomplished by initial inspiration and willpower, the risk increases of resuming ingrained ways of eating and living. Often a deeper sincerity is required in rooting out the sources of illness, or unwanted character traits, that are traceable to life experiences, and one’s reactions to them. In fact, the opinion espoused in many traditions of holistic medicine is that forms of metaphysical integration is where the true healing resides. Of primary importance to a doctor of TCM, is a patient’s enactment of destiny, via redirecting their perspective and assisting them in the evolution of awareness. Even in extreme circumstances, where a patient’s imbalances have progressed beyond the possibility of reintegration, the practitioner may continue to support them in resolving the conflicts at the core of their personality, potentially until their last breath. In addition to the value that this places on every day of our earthly existence, what this also emphasizes is the acknowledgement of self-empowerment at the heart of preventive medicine. Any treatment offered by a practitioner, whether it be acupuncture, herbal remedies, or dietary advice, only amounts to suggestions whispered to the soul of the patient, whereupon it’s up to the patient to receive and accept those “course corrections,” and heal themselves. 

In the ever-shifting bodily presence that characterizes our appearance in the world, change is the only constant. Together with the Heart and the peristaltic rhythm of the other viscera, the Lungs orchestrate an order over the astronomical number of functions occurring in every second. If humanity embodies a microcosmic version of the forces governing nature, what then observes in the universe the ordering of energy into matter, particles, proteins, DNA, all the way up to the levels of planets, solar systems, galaxies and systems of galaxies? Many hundreds of years ago, Daoist philosophers intuited answers to such questions. In the present age, widely characterized as the bearer of imminent ecosystem and societal collapse, the wisdom traditions of many ancient cultures are experiencing a revival of new meaning to modern minds, and relevance to modern problems. Stemming from Daoist cosmogony, the fulfillment of Destiny is made manifest in how well we blend the poles of opposites inherent in every aspect of our being, and heal the cosmological injury inflicted on our sense of unity with and placement in the universe. TCM asserts that every moment presents opportunities for restoring a connection to original nature, the paradise state of the unnamed Dao. The process of orienting to our environment is reminiscent of the directions and dynamics that the Dao creates in its journey through the five stages. A profound privilege exists in living in a place resembling a natural Eden, as it offers the opportunity to go out and reorient ourselves by its chaotic order when we feel full. The ephemeral beauty in the crystalline lattice of a single snowflake as it falls before our eyes, and dissolves seconds after touching the body, evokes Metal’s message of reduction into a state of pure simplicity, and awakens an ancestral memory of Winter’s complete embrace.