Almost two weeks ago, January 25th marked the Chinese New Year in 2020 as well as the first month of Spring. It is hard to imagine that Spring is taking shape when snow blanketed the region only last week, and it still feels as if we are shrouded in interminable darkness. Shovels and winter boots still line the front door and wet gloves hang over the heating vents. Nevertheless, the days have been lengthening for the past month since winter solstice, and the sun now appears higher in the sky. I have already seen the green tips of tulips and daffodils barely poking through the snow, and just yesterday, I noticed magnolias budding on the Whitman campus.
This seasonal transition is akin to the early morning when you first open your eyes, but are still warm in bed. It is that moment when you are trying to decide whether to hit the snooze button or beeline for the coffee pot. The energy of the day is awakening in you, but it is mostly still an idea that has not yet manifested. At this time, though you may look almost the same as when you were sleeping, change is happening within you. If winter dormancy is like the deep sleep of night, then early spring is like the transition between sleeping and waking. By the time we see the visible manifestations of spring, we have already had our coffee and shower, read the newspaper, and are on our way out the door. Just as we each have our morning rituals to shake off sleep and prepare for our busy days, we also need to transition between seasons. The day never feels right when we oversleep and jump out of bed in a frantic rush to get to work, hair still a mess, shirt on inside out, and two mismatched socks.
Last month, I discussed looking at our gardens for cues about how to adjust our behaviors and lifestyles to mimic those of the natural world for better health and longevity. In winter, the plant and animal kingdoms go dormant and embody the yin qualities of stillness, quiet, storage, darkness, contraction, and material substance. The material substance of life has been stored, nourished, and safely protected in seeds and roots beneath the soil. Hopefully, this winter you were also protecting and nourishing your deepest stores with restful and introspective activities. Right now as we transition to Spring, the yin energy is still predominant, but the yang energy of the sun that embodies light, growth, action, life-force and movement is slowly returning. The first month of Spring is represented by hexagram #11 (based on I-Ching Chinese cosmology), which depicts Heaven (yang) and Earth (yin) coming together. Chinese classical scholar Heiner Fruehauf describes, “heaven and earth intercoursing and spawning life.” Spring is the time of birth be it plants, animals, or ideas. Right now with the beginning of Spring, seeds and eggs have been fertilized as yin and yang come together, but for the most part, they have not yet sprouted or hatched.
If you set yourself New Years’ goals or resolutions and are now beating yourself up for already falling off the wagon, you have another chance. In fact, January was not the right time to pursue new goals or projects, which may explain why so many people get frustrated and fed up with them. Although it was a good time to meditate on ideas, now is actually the time to give your ideas the spark of life. Over this next month is when you will naturally start to feel inspiration. Remember, when plants and buds emerge too early in the season, they are often damaged by a late frost. Timing is everything.
The energy of the Spring season is embodied by the wood element and the Liver organ. The Liver along with its yang pair the Gallbladder are about planning, decision making, and bringing dreams to fruition. The Liver also relates to the eyes both on a physical level as well as providing vision for our lives. So the energy of the Liver in spring is what animates and directs newly germinated seeds, ideas, and projects. Just as plants and trees reach up towards the sun, Liver/Wood also marks a determined upward and outward movement in the body. Even in New York City, weeds bust up through the concrete, often heaving and cracking the sidewalks. It is this determined energy of Liver/wood that helps us accomplish our goals and manifest our dreams.
Another primary job of the Liver is to freely “course” the qi (and blood) of the body, much like a free- flowing river. As the snow and ice melt at this time of year, the rivers flow freely again and indicate that we should do the same. When a river stagnates, it is a breeding ground for insects and disease. leaving lakes, ponds, and reservoirs unfulfilled. Similarly, when Liver qi stagnates, especially in Spring when it wants to shine in all its glory, we tend to get depressed or experience other Liver related pathologies. Hence, in spring, it is time to start moving again. The Chinese classics recommend letting down your hair and roaming at a leisurely pace through nature. It is time to let go of thoughts and behaviors that bog you down. It is also time to move away from the heavy winter diet in exchange for a lighter diet rich in Spring greens that naturally cleanse the Liver. In winter, we contracted along with the earth, but now we can start to expand again.
Yet not too fast! While modern Chinese medical theory associates the Spring season with Liver/Wood, classical Chinese medical theory associates each month of the year with one of the 12 organs. The first month of Spring is associated with the Lung organ which, in turn, is associated with the qualities of the metal element. In 5 element theory, the elements give birth to one another in a circle that follows the seasons, but the elements also exert control over one another like a system of checks and balances. We say that metal controls wood the way an axe is used to chop a tree. So in the first month of Spring, the effects of Lung/Metal mitigates the determined energy of the Liver/Wood..
Surprise! This matches up perfectly with seasonal gardening chores which can guide our own seasonal behaviors. Gardeners have two primary activities in February: pruning dormant fruit trees and bushes and planning for the upcoming season. In this metal month, we use our metal tools to prune away what no longer serves the health of the plant. We remove dead and diseased branches and remove crossing branches that entangle one another. We try to envision a structure that will maximize light and airflow. We also limit the number of primary branches to create a scaffold that is strong and balanced and can support the weight of a fruit laden canopy. When we do not prune trees appropriately, they become susceptible to disease, insect infestations, and weather damage. Uncontrolled growth will produce more fruit than can be sustained—fruit that is often small and bitter. Have you ever seen the morass of branches and tiny worm-eaten apples in a wild apple tree that has never been pruned?
Sounds a lot like Spring cleaning! We seem to have the natural urge come Spring to get rid of the “stuff” that no longer serves us and takes up space. I remember as a teenager, my mother would constantly yell at me to clean my room. She would look in horror and say in exasperation, “IS THIS A REFLECTION OF YOUR MIND!” I realize now how right she was. Our home spaces often are a reflection of our mind or at the very least affect our mind. I find it difficult to focus or feel settled when my space is disorganized. It is not only a good time to “prune” our stuff, but also our projects and goals. Just like a tree, if we put our energy into more projects than we can sustain, we tend not to complete any of them. We end up feeling drained and burnt out. So while the Liver and Wood energy of the Spring season is a good time to start projects and pursue dreams, we need the metal energy to help us make choices. We must pace ourselves and direct our growth so that come summer we can enjoy an abundant harvest.
Emily is a Chinese medicine practitioner with Thompson Family Acupuncture. Emily works with people to become more comfortable in their bodies and flourish in their lives. Our greatest sense of health and well being derives from living according to our true nature. Emily is honored to partner with patients along their path of self discovery so they may live to their greatest potential. When Emily is not working she can be found exploring nature with her dog or playing guitar (and singing to her dog).