Sage Advice for the Summer Season
The ancients knew that keeping healthy meant staying in harmony with nature’s seasonal changes. The classics say that as people became civilized, they began to diverge from nature’s ways and thus invited disease into their lives. Everything moves cyclically. The sun rises in the morning, warming the earth, we call this baby yang. As it ascends we reach big yang, noon. At the highest point yang begins to wane and to turns into yin. At dusk, it pivots into baby yin. Baby yin grows into big yin at midnight, beginning the waning of yin. At dawn, yin pivots into yang.
Much of health revolves around proper opening and closing of the pivots. In an oversimplified explanation, when yin can’t pivot into yang, a person gets chills or feels cold. They have stomach aches and difficult digestion. When yang can’t pivot into yin, a person gets feverish and contracts ailments of constraint and blockage. This pattern of opening and closing is also reflected in the seasons.
We have another model called the five elements or, more properly, the five transformations. These are very different from the Egyptian or Khmetic elements we are used to that appear in Western mysticism. Each element corresponds to an organ. Five element theory is a way of understanding the relationships between the organs. We have two cycles, the generative cycle of creation, which looks like a circle, and the control cycle which looks like a pentagram.
The generative cycle mirrors the development of the organs in the womb as well as our human life cycle. The cycle begins with water. Water corresponds to the kidneys, which are the first organs to develop in the womb. We can imagine water like a seed, the subconscious, a fetus floating in the womb, also a new born baby. A new born will hold their breath and start making swimming motions if put in the water, evidence of our aquatic ancestry. Water deals with basic survival instincts, the realm of fear and willpower. Water generates the wood element.
Wood corresponds to the liver. We can compare wood to a toddler who begins to explore their world headstrong and curious. We sometimes talk about the terrible twos, though in my experience we could say the terrible threes, when children are learning about ego and how to say ‘No!’ Wood has a flexibility to it. Wood is curious, courageous, and insightful. Wood issues revolve around anger and ego games. If we can let go of our anger, our bodies will relax and energy will flow. If we hold on to anger or if we swallow our frustrations instead of properly expressing anger, we might develop issues of stagnation and heat. Wood generates fire.
The fire element (which we will be focusing on later, along with the earth) corresponds to the heart. The heart deals with the emotion of joy. The fire element corresponds to the time in a child’s life when they are just awakening to their rationality and beginning to become skillful about the world; roughly ages 5 to age 11. Fire is a laughter energy and brings peace and calm. However, too much indulgence in the fire element can lead to mania and exhaustion. The fire element generates the earth.
The earth element corresponds to the spleen and the sexual awakening that occurs at adulthood. In China, the spleen is considered the hardest working organ. Some Chinese teaching combines the function of spleen and pancreas together to explain what the ancients meant by spleen. The spleen transforms food and air into qi which moves and carries out metabolic functions. The spleen moves the fluids that spill out of the blood vessels and into the interstitial tissues. White blood cells governed by the spleen move these fluids into the lymph system to be recycled or evacuated. The emotion of the spleen is compassion. The earth element deals with making a home, a little nest. The downside of the spleen is worry and over thinking, which can create knots in our qi, often making us slow and sluggish. The earth element generates the metal.
The lungs are the last organ to form in the womb, still somewhat incomplete even at birth. Lungs represent the final stage of life. Metal represents letting go of all that we have accumulated in this life. The emotion of metal is sorrow, but also cosmic awe. Ultimately we have to give this body we have borrowed back to the earth. Resistance to this will only make us brittle like a dead tree branch. Metal also represents heaven which is our true home. We come to this earth to incarnate into solid form so that we might have a stable platform upon which to carry out certain work that is not possible as a spirit.
Our life cycle and our organ development are also represented in the seasons. The winter is the water, a seed buried in the cold ground. The springtime is the wood, the seed bursting out into the world. The summer is the fire, the flower and the fruit that comes from the mature plant. We sometimes consider the earth as representing late summer and sometimes we consider the earth as the center of the wheel around which the seasons cycle. The metal represents the fall, the time of restriction when we must begin conserving our energy or face the consequences during the winter when we are supposed to be holed up with all our stored food.
In the Chinese calendar, the seasons begin between the equinoxes and solstices. What we consider the beginning of summer is actually the peak of summer, when yang is at its highest and is beginning to yield to yin.
As we said before, summer is related to fire. The yin organ is the heart and the yang organ is the small intestine. The small intestine deals with choice and refinement. Physically, the small intestine is filled with what are called goblet cells, perhaps more aptly named ‘gobble it’ cells. They reach out with their little flagella and grab the bits of food they deem nourishing and let them enter the blood stream. In order to support the small intestine in this function, summer is a good time to eat lighter foods like fruits and vegetables, rather than the heavier meats and greasy fried foods.
Summer is the time of year we need the least sleep. The classics advise us that we can stay up later in the evening, but we still should rise earlier. Sorry you will have to wait for winter for Chinese medicine to tell you it is okay to sleep in. Resting at midday is advised. Take a little cat nap on your lunch break if your job won’t let you do a full siesta.
Summer is about abundance. The energy is at full yang. Fruits and vegetables are at highest variety. Generally in Chinese medicine we want to avoid too much fruit as the sugars can tax the spleen, but the summer is a time when you can indulge. In fact, it is recommended as heat is at its highest but does not include processed sugars or over indulgence in grains. Excess of these leads to heat, which can be especially bad for us in the time of heat.
Fish, other seafood and duck are the recommended meats for this time of year as they are more cooling. Pork is a good neutral temperature meat which can be indulged in all year round. Seaweed is a great thing to add to a summer diet. It is important to stay cool and hydrated during the summer. In the classics it says to avoid sweating too much, which can deplete the blood and lead to palpitations, orthostatic hypotension (feeling dizzy like you will pass out when standing up), nervousness, heart burn, poor memory and insomnia. Too much sweating will injure the heart, the commander of blood, so don’t exercise too vigorously and stay hydrated.
Some foods to eat during summer listed in the classics are apricots, cantaloupe, watermelon, strawberries, tomatoes, lemon, peach, cucumber, orange, asparagus, sprouts, bamboo, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, corn, white mushrooms, snow peas, spinach, summer squash, watercress, seaweed, mung beans, lotus root, and Job’s tears.
Avoid anger as it can create more heat in the body, evidenced by the red face some people get when overindulgent in anger. By the same token, heat can fuel anger as people become more irritable and fuzzy-headed as the temperature goes up. Remember, the emotion of fire is joy, so summer is a time to be joyful. It is a time for healing and letting go of old wounds. So get out there this summer and indulge in the yang energy. Following the advice of the sages will help cultivate a long and joyful life! Happy summer! Stay cool!
Donald Hughes is a licensed acupuncturist who earned his Master’s Degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine from the Academy of Chinese Culture and Health Sciences in 2012. He has 20 years experience in the martial arts and energy work and 10 years as a body worker. Before that, he taught high school biology in Richmond, California. He can be reached at Kamiyodojo.email@example.com or 510-923-0079. Visit his website at Shiningdragonancientarts.com
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