Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Late Summer -- the Earth element and the Chinese Almanac

Late Summer is the fifth season on the Chinese calendar, and it is associated with the Earth element. The Earth element has to do with existence right here and now on this earthly plane. In the Late Summer, when the air is warm and humid and when the local harvest is just beginning, we are immersed in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and thoughts of plenty, but we also worry about the colder, leaner times to come. Late Summer is a pivot in the calendar, from the active yang energy of Spring and Summer to the subdued yin energy of Autumn and Winter.

The Earth element is associated with the stomach and spleen (most Westerners believe the Chinese spleen actually refers to the pancreas), the two primary organs of digestion. Earth's climate is damp, its color is yellow, its flavor is sweet, its sound is singing and its spirit and emotion are both Thought. This may seem strange, as either a spirit or an emotion, but when you consider that on one hand thought can be obsession and on another it can be thoughtfulness or sympathy, it makes more sense. The Earth element, being concerned with earthly existence, also deals with boundary issues -- making sure that you are fulfilling your potential without spilling over into other people's territory or being distracted by earthly delights ("Guilty, your honor! Please have mercy.").

Given that Late Summer is such an important transition time, it is curiously difficult to locate on the calendar. This is due to two things, one philosophical and the other practical, if frustrating. The philosophical issue has to do with two different ways of understanding the Earth season within the five elemental view of the calendar. One way sees the Earth as having its own season, Late Summer, which marks the transition from yang energy to yin energy within the year. The other point of view sees the Earth season as the transition period between each of the other four seasons -- so you'd have four 18-day Earth transition periods per year, one between each season. In practice, an acupuncturist uses both models as they fit the particular situation, but as theory it's pretty messy. However, here in Central PA we have such a clear Late Summer that I always observe it as a distinct season, separate from the Summer and Autumn. Since we can have damp, humid weather any time in the summer, I mark the beginning of Late Summer by the appearance of the first locally grown sweet corn. That should be any day now. In addition, usually the Chinese start their seasons on a new or full moon. Since there is a new moon coming on Sunday, July 31, I figure that Late Summer begins this year on July 31, 2011.

However, the definitive authority, the Chinese Almanac, does not back me up, and in fact says that Autumn begins this year on August 7th. This is the second, practical (and frustrating) reason for the difficulty in knowing the date for Late Summer. The Chinese Almanac is available on paper or online, and is the absolute authority on matters ranging from Chinese fortune telling to what day of the Chinese year it is (July 31, 2011 is the Chinese Lunar Date 7/2/4708). There are various formulas for figuring these things out, but mostly anyone interested in the Chinese point of view simply consults the Almanac, and its word is law. I use
http://www.chinesefortunecalendar.com/FarmerCal.htm, and encourage you to check it out. As you'll see, the Chinese Almanac doesn't currently recognize Late Summer as a distinct season, so it doesn't list a date for the beginning of Late Summer. My guess is that this reflects a general trend in modern China to streamline and "make more reasonable" Chinese traditional medicine and philosophy. Both philosophical points of view regarding the Earth season have solid historical backgrounds, but as I noted, it's messy to have two competing points of view. Especially when you're trying to write a simple reference guide like an almanac.

In spite of the Chinese Almanac's silence on the topic of Late Summer, though, it is a really good time to treat certain conditions, and it would be a shame to miss the opportunity just because of a disagreement about scheduling. If you are having problems with digestion, boundaries, concentration or obsessive thinking, now is a good time to come for an acupuncture treatment. Addictions are pretty much a combination of appetite and poor boundaries, so they would be usefully treated in this season. Furthermore, if you are dreading the coming Autumn and Winter ("I said I'm guilty!"), now is a good time to work on smoothing out the transition. Warm weather and plenty will leave and cold weather and need will take their place whether we want them to or not -- the Earth keeps on a-turning. We can, however, work on our responses to the realities, harsh and sweet, of life on this mortal coil.