Written by Hazel Appaqaq | 15 minute read
Mayday sidled casually by at the Co-op, as this year we left the seasonal rituals to the birds, the celebratory spirit to the land’s early blossoms. The earth whirls along its beaten path, proffering its upper half closer to the sun’s rays: a blue-green egg shifting in the nest beneath the ample heat of the mother’s underbelly. Meanwhile, the force of spring is everywhere pushing up.
Reflecting this annual upsurge, the equinox saw an unprecedented number of us rising to the challenge of the home vegetable plot, or upgrading our previous efforts. As well as grappling with the nuts and bolts of increasing our food security, this task can also be treated as an invitation to come into closer connection with the natural cycles: day and night, the seasons, and even the silent rhythm of our cells, at their constant work of importing and distributing our food, exporting waste, shipping in air, packing out gases.
Regulated as we are by the man-made structures of the modern world, we easily miss the rise and fall of the seasons around us, barely snatching moments out of our schedules to feel the change in light levels and temperature. But agriculturally-based societies remember ways of tuning in to the character that belongs to each phase in the process, and a study of their traditions can unearth the ways in which we can allow those universal traits a life and a flow in our daily busyness. The founders of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are proponents of this habit of perceiving the cyclic nature without and within, and learning to support it to our prosperity. In this body of knowledge emanating from the East, spring is the first stage in life’s eternal sequence of becoming. Since TCM is at once a system of holistic health and a worldview, it draws associations between the different facets of the human being, nature, and this physical plane of existence. Accordingly, spring is also the season of the liver (or the biological processes associated with the liver), as well as the key time to nurture the liver’s unique “virtues,” or positive qualities. These entail: smoothness, warmth, moisture, abundant vitality, the emotions of generosity and hope, and the higher capacities for kindness, decisiveness, and forgiveness. But the so-called “family of organs” also has “acquired emotions,” or conditioned reactions, which they accrue in a state of imbalance (see illustration).
For the liver, these attributes include: being physically frustrated and irritable, stewing in unresolved anger, resentment, and jealousy, and generally being stuck in an attitude of overcontrol. All of these associations are profound concepts to ponder, not easily bitten off and digested in a single sitting, so it helps to have them illustrated by example. And what better form of example do we learn from than that of a story? So I ask you once again, to settle in, and let me tell you another story: the Story of the Liver.
The first thing you ought to know about this one is that he’s all about the blood: storing the blood during periods of rest, releasing the blood to enable activity, and cleansing the blood between meals, and while we sleep. Due to this last function, a lot of importance is placed on the earliness and moderation of the evening meal. By not overburdening this “essential worker” with too much fat, sugar, or carbs, we allow him sufficient time to prepare for when he clocks in for his night shift of regeneration, between 11:00pm and 3:00am, by the reckoning of the Chinese Clock.
Ever wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble getting back to sleep? Take a peek at the time, and usually that will give you a hint as to the organ that’s being stimulated so much as to disturb your slumber. The dietary and lifestyle guidelines for supporting this character are especially important to heed in his own season. By this logic, the health-world fad of embarking on the Master Cleanse or a juicing cleanse in the spring doesn’t make sense, because the pure sugars of fruit and vegetable juices, and too much raw food on the whole, exert a strong overall cooling effect, and can reduce one’s digestive fire – never a good thing – and precipitate what’s known as a cleansing reaction: when a lifestyle change triggers your body to release so many pent-up toxins so quickly, as to overwhelm your system, and in turn unleashes many a deleterious effect (much like this run-on sentence).
Now, this virtue of “smoothness” refers to the liver’s ability to facilitate a free-flowing movement of blood from head to toe, as well as the ability to allow emotions to pass through unobstructed. The omega of this power – stagnation – is the most common way in which our protagonist displays signs of aggravation. Keep in mind that a liver in disharmony can manifest in many different ways, depending on a plethora of variables in one’s constitution and lifestyle, and so the remedial action to lead him back onto the middle path will be dictated by those very unique circumstances. But the number one dietary antidote to an angry liver is eating less. This, in contrast to the Master Cleanse, makes plenty of sense, since the springtime would often have been, for most of our ancestors, the time of year when the root cellar was the barest, and the land’s pantry the leanest, and our bodies would have been accustomed to an annual, mandatory trimming. Foods which assist our friend towards a steady coursing of physical and emotional energy, include members of the complex-carb clan; whole grains, legumes and vegetables. Local foods that are helpful (each in its own specific way) include; asparagus, romaine lettuce, radishes with their leaves, dandelion root, Oregon grape root, mustard greens, the entire onion family, fennel, bay leaf, dill, rosemary, mint, lemon balm, beets, strawberry, mushrooms, and all Brassicas. All chlorophyll-rich foods act as agents of renewal and rejuvenation, such as parsley, micro-algae, and cereal grass powders. Again, one’s choices in food-as-medicine should take into account the other conditions and imbalances that are present, as well as a study of the nutritional options “on the table” and their inventory of whole-being effects. Swimming on, this cantankerous stagnation can feel like one’s veins are hosts to “murky” blood, like a system of streams clogged by sediment. Common culprits in the American diet include overconsumption of cholesterol-laden animal products and saturated fats (eggs, cheese, cream, lard), denatured foods (refined oils, processed foods), chemicals in food and water, intoxicants and pharmaceuticals. This gang of antagonists should be limited or taken off the menu altogether (of course not without your doctor’s go-ahead in the case of prescription drugs).
A few simplified ways in which a languishing liver shows up in the body are: muscular stiffness and inflexibility, any issues involving the eyes, inflammation of the skin, and swelling. Allopathic medicine has conceded that bodily tension presents in people who experience stress on a regular basis (what a revelation…). According to TCM, this is a consequence of the body’s tendons being governed by the liver, and, when stuck in a constant state of congestion, as is the pervasive case in this age of over consumption, he’s caught in a Sisyphian effort to declutter his home. This incessant striving generates heat, which dries up the essential moisture in the body’s tendons, as well as the delicate muscles surrounding the eyes, and this fluidic reduction impedes their mobility. What follows next is that, if the star of our show can’t keep up the act of purifying the blood, the body releases blood-borne toxins through the skin, resulting in eruptions such as acne, eczema and allergies. Since the liver’s primary role is the smooth circulation of fluids and nourishment, if our actor is stuck in a stagnant mood and a sluggish demeanour, the natural consequence is that the fluids build up and produce swelling, distension and lumps, such as a goiter.
But the physical is just one side of the elephant, and to ignore the other aspects, or to assume them to be unrelated, would be a failure to appreciate the full animal of our being. Spring is widely rejoiced for its theme of rebirth, echoed all around by the light-green vegetation bursting into view. These refreshing displays of nature, eagerly greeting the next and new, in the steady turning of the proverbial wheel, become new sources of nourishment for the soul. Imbibing them through the eyes, we find ourselves relinquishing our attachments to eating, and generally less desirous on the whole. With this letting go comes a subtle feeling of sloughing off, as we might also find a willingness to release old behavioural patternings. It’s as though a wintertime shroud has lifted from our vision and our minds, allowing us to see things in a fresh light.
Other commonly sung undercurrents of the season’s expansive energy are an increased enthusiasm for getting out and getting active. We might feel drawn to simplify our diet by incorporating more raw and sprouted foods, and in Ayurvedic terms (a sister science to TCM), such foods promote quick, rapid movement. Activities that aid in creating a personal, inner spring might be brisk walks, running, Chi Gong sequences that involve pumping the arms powerfully, or the ‘staccato’ phase of a Five Rhythms dance. However, somewhat paradoxically, one of the things that our subject most abhors is the energy of hurry. Therefore, it is also very important during his hour on stage to slow down, in as many ways as one can conceive of: to avoid eating too fast, talking too fast, rushing off to work, or from one thing to the next. In the excitement of the spring upsurge, it’s easy to overload one’s plate with plans and commitments, with the result that we can end up manifesting the same personal experience of our poor, clogged protagonist. And once we get into that frenetic energy, it easily leaks into other areas of our life, like preparing a meal, or working the garden soil – tainting the rituals and projects that we used to enjoy, making them seem like a chore. And here we’ve struck upon the main identifier for a liverish personality: anytime a strong emotion confronts us, accompanied by a sense of difficulty or seizing up, that’s a sign of emotional liver disharmony. Our hero in his sturdy, upright glory enables us to feel that feeling and move it through. He gifts us with the embodied knowing that emotions come, and emotions go. This susceptibility to being stymied applies to all repressed emotion, but he also has his weakness, as those that he is particularly vulnerable to being thwarted by are the relatives of anger: frustration, resentment, belligerence, arrogance, stubbornness, impatience, rudeness… Reactions that mirror the hues of aggression are also part of the package: violence, impulsivity, edginess, explosiveness. Hence the existence of the word, livid. Whenever we bundle up those feelings (and the only place for them to be packed away to is the body), we inevitably carry them onward into other situations. Ater years or a lifetime of trundling our emotional belongings around, there’s the increased threat that they will burst out like a Pandora’s box onto any unlucky soul who inadvertently presses the unlock button. But when these emotions are forced and pounded down, like a batch of springtime cabbage being prepared into sauerkraut, and not given a chance to be channelled or aired, they ferment into depression and emotional extremes. You might also note that the physical limitation in flexibility is reflected by the state of being emotionally rigid. Circling back, it seems counterintuitive to slow down in this time of rising energy levels, but perhaps there’s something we miss, as above-ground animals, some insight we fail to notice in the sprouting of seeds. Perhaps the beginning of the growing season also entails a gentleness and a softening, which accompanies and balances the gesture of drawing up into a fuller expression of oneself.
As I mentioned before, our friend comes from his own familial circle. This ring of kin consists of five relatives altogether, each positioned in balancing patterns with each other. In one pattern, their unique strengths and gifts flow into, and “feed” each other, in what’s known as the Creation Cycle. The flow of the opposite pattern sees each organ exerting a regulatory influence on its neighbour, in what’s called the Control Cycle. Like the liver, each family member has its corresponding season, as well as a natural element.
Ultimately, this system is an extremely simplified version of the vaster knowledge base of Chinese philosophy and health practice, yet it is used as shorthand to refer to basic principles for the purpose of dietary healing. Even naming the organs as separate systems is only a practical, diagnostic tool for referring to the incredibly interconnected facets within the body, and to the body as one form of the human being, and the human as an expression of nature, and nature as a component of the cosmos. Meanwhile, as well as serving as a reference structure to the organs in harmony and health, this vague etching also paints a picture of the organ systems in imbalance and disease. This is because each organ also has the capability of becoming so depleted that it’s unable to pass on nurturance to its son, while simultaneously drawing excessively from its mother. So for our illustrative intents, the kidneys are the benefactors, or “mother” of the liver, and the heart is the liver’s “son,” who keeps him in check. Here is where, with a terrible ferocity, the liver’s bloody tale spills out onto the societal stage. Remembering that the modern world is replete with stagnant and deficient liver-types, this can be seen as the physical foundations for the ways in which modern industrial society is stuck in a pandemic of imbalanced masculinity. This term has no connotation of body type, gender, or orientation – rather, it is the yang principle, present in every living human on the face of the earth. Our North American society is still contending with the challenge of moving forward with the threat of this wild organism in our midst, while, in the background, the signs are visible of our protagonist struggling to fulfill his role. As Tanya Krahn put it in her March 29th radio show, the virtual world of communication to which our social lives have been relegated is also the realm of the voice, of making ourselves heard. But since this mode is mainly a platform for spouting randomly at each other, it’s similar to the nattering of birds in a tree. However, unlike the original tweeters, some of us seem to be lodged in a culture of shouting and pecking at each other. Many people in my virtual and physical circles have shared their frustrations over the aggressive tones that are in common usage, especially regarding the bee in everyone’s bonnet these days. Instead of serving each other up our passionate expressions of opinion, there’s the tendency to vent in argumentative, critical, overbearing ways. It’s noticeable in the way we might cut someone off in conversation, discount and discredit another’s truth, and make no attempt to understand or embrace an opposing view. This kind of spewing only sows polarization, and it’s the kind of violent, competitive communication that is rife in male-dominated spheres. When you hear yourself blurting from this heady place, you know you’ve entered the realm of unconscious speaking. However, if you have the awareness to notice the habit, the path that leads back towards speaking and acting with care has already opened to you; all you have to do is follow it, one step at a time. The wisdom inherent in tuning in to the seasons runs deeper than most of us cognize. Like the pull of the earth’s gravity working on a swinging pendulum, having a yearly springtime cleanse brings us back to the centre of our being from such extremes as compulsive eating, reactive speaking, being led around by desires that aren’t serving us, or from addiction in its many forms. At the outset, the body inevitably fights back: it screams in indignation and tries to convince you that you’re starving. But by the simple fact of having fewer calories to run on, every time we cleanse, we’re forced to slow down. This is how the physical cleanse carries out a psychological and emotional shedding: we deliberately inhabit a situation in which we ask ourselves if we can be comfortable with having less, with being empty. After lingering in the silence that this space holds, we have the chance to come back in touch with our true nature – having the emphasis settle back on the second part of “human being.” Once this connection is renewed, it is from this place that the higher capacities for kindness, decisiveness and forgiveness flow freely. If more of us were communicating from this place, perhaps there would be more acknowledgement of the fact that in this life, there are no clean-cut answers, that we’re all doing our best to make sense of the mess of it all. So, instead of staying perched in the habit of pecking at each other, why don’t we strive to discover what inspires us to meet in this, to become impeccable with our words?
Finally, the dynamic of the liver “attacking” its mother, and “withholding” from its son is possibly a vivid reflection of patriarchal civilization, locked into its own societal structures, whereby it has been stealing from the earth mother, and squashing and suppressing everything that contains true heart, from the beauty of womanhood and the feminine essence, to indigenous lives and cultures. How, oh how to transform such realities? Our hero, and the spirit of TCM, offer us guidance relevant to this modern conundrum as well. The larger world has long been fraught with insanities, but today’s events are bringing the menace of that turmoil closer to home. What this highlights more than ever for our island dwellers’ existence, is the profound privilege that it is to live here. In April’s article, we delved into the quality of refuge that our beloved isle provides, as well as how this gift can be taken as a chance to escape, to turn away from those incomprehensibles and leave them forever.
The liver is here to tell us, gently, with the service of his life’s work, that there is no escape.
The body and the psyche have this miraculous ability to compartmentalize, to cut off from feelings and experiences that are too painful to deal with in moments of overwhelm. This serves a critical survival purpose, to enable us to carry on and be functional, until a future moment when we don’t have to be so pragmatic. A slice of our time when we can just be. But if that theoretical moment never comes – that is, if we never take it – the act of packing experience away only amounts to removing it from our awareness and shunting it into the liver’s domain. Instead of using this evolutionary mechanism to “have our cake and eat it too,” as it were – to both survive and thrive, our culture has gradually conditioned us to lean on this tool, and treat it as a crutch for lingering in patterns of resistance and avoidance. And though the assumption underlying this unconscious attitude is that it will allow us to only partake of the sweet experiences, the reality is that, by removing the contrast and nuance of life’s flavours, our emotional palette is gradually conditioned towards numbness. From this narrowing of experience, dissatisfaction and boredom ensue, which our clever culture tells us to supplement with more: more entertainment, more consumption, more luxury, more acquisition… This vicious cycle of monotony and greed mysteriously mirrors the organs’ susceptibility to entrenchment in stagnation and hunger. Operating within society’s dry, temporal structures – the workweek and the calendar; the flat, linear progression of minutes, hours and years (epitomized by the “S.S.D.D.” attitude) – we miss out on a fuller manifestation that our life force longs to unfurl.
However, consider now the fact that the “movements” of the sun and the structures of the constellations in the night sky are a matter of perspective, and that an alien, perspecting from another solar system, would have a completely different cosmology. Paralleling this metaphor, a shift in inner perspective can unhinge a reordering of one’s personal narrative, and the reframing of events can mean the unfolding of a very different story. In stark contrast to the city’s conventions, nature demonstrates her unfathomable power in rolling the sum of each moment into the next, and increasing the totality of creation by the magic of transformation; via the law of cyclic change. By cycling energy and matter, she transfigures raw materials into life, and back again in a rhythmic flow, steady as the beating of a drum, all accomplished by the churning effect of night followed by day, the succession of the seasons, the water cycle and the currents in the oceans, the wind patterns, the formation of minerals and living soil, right down to the motion of the planet’s fiery core. The Chinese wisdom of moving in close contact with those earthly cycles, as if in an intimate dance with her, reveals the great teacher that our earth mother is. If only we can remember to slow down to her pace, to be sensitive enough to pick up on her subtle cues, and humble enough to let her lead, she can show us how to move through life graciously, through the beauty of her example. In surrendering deeply to this dance, there’s the opportunity of incrementally allowing those self-defeating behaviour patterns to dissolve away over many moons, and many years. Eventually, even with the cycle of a single breath, we can allow ourselves to be led back into contact with our unique position within the story of creation. As animals possessing self-awareness and minds, capable of assessing and selecting our responses, and learning from the ones who came before us, absorbing in moments the lessons that they distilled over lifetimes, we can understand the true meaning of privilege: the ability to choose.
Living in a tiny community, we influence each other by the power of example to a much greater degree than the urban norm of anonymity. Instead of just passing by another Cortesian who’s not part of your circles of association, the choice exists to take a more conscious appreciation of the teachers all around us. Like the countless volunteers who devote their free time to run community organizations for the benefit of all. Or like the node of women who were involved in the Co-op’s birth, selflessly working to develop our accessibility to higher-quality food. Or the courageous individuals who went up to Unist’ot’en camp, donating their skills and their labour, or simply observing and relaying a truthful reporting of events. By the bare fact that most other countries don’t even have the space to allow everyone the option of a rural existence, living in close communion with nature is a priceless gem, as is not being trapped in a relentless scrabble to make ends meet, and keep body and soul together. What we do with our precious time and energies can mean the difference between sitting on our layers of privilege, and transmuting them into opportunities for the betterment of the less fortunate in the world, or just around the bend of the road. The wealth of time that most of us have been forced into taking due to the current state of emergency is yet another endowment derived from our country’s position of power. In an alternate retelling of this moment in history, could this also be a chance for a shared, mutually supported emergence? By grounding gently and calmly down into the body, and lifting up into diverse expressions of generous, hopeful activism, the springtime and the liver are two modest teachers among many, demonstrating the continuous process of aligning with our compassionate nature, the inner sun of our human identity. The familiar dawn cacophony cascading from the new foliage is like an orchestra of high-pitched instruments, tuning themselves in preparation for the day’s concert. Later on, dusk brings on the lower spectrum chorus of nighttime ribbitors, punctuated occasionally by the soft call of a soloist asking, “Who?”
Summer is on the approach.