Monday, October 3, 2011

The Metal element

The Metal element is associated with the Lungs and Large Intestine. Autumn is its season, its color is white and its emotion is grief. Metal's sound is crying, and its musical note is "shang," like the sound of a gong. Metal's positive attribute is organization, but this can be over-done and then you become anal retentive. If you are constipated, the Chinese say you need to “order your qi.” Following these bowel dynamics back to Metal’s emotion, some people are sloppy with their grief, crying all over everyone and making people want to avoid them, while others repress and withhold their grief, acting out in crazy ways or making themselves physically ill. There's no getting around grief in this life, but we can wallow in it or try foolishly to avoid it and make its sting that much worse.

Grief comes into every life, and we all need to have some degree of organization to get through our days. The trick is to know yourself – to know what you need, when and how much. I've always been fairly good at organizing things and have never had any issues with constipation. However, I’ve always had a problem with processing grief, and have had many lung problems. I have tended to try to tough it out, then utterly collapse at some inopportune moment, with the wrong person or in an inappropriate situation. What can I say – I was born in Texas, and cowboys aren’t supposed to cry. As I’ve gotten older and seen how much withheld grief has hurt me, my loved ones and my patients, I’ve tried to anticipate my weakness, but it’s not easy. On one hand, I am much more sentimental about children, animals, athletes, injured veterans and dead loved ones, ready to tear up at a special memory of my late brother or, for that matter, a well-crafted cellphone commercial. But when recently faced with immediate, real grief -- news of the life-threatening illness of an old and dear friend -- I didn’t do so well. I am ashamed to say that I acted stoic for a few days until I arranged to drink too much and totally ruin my wife’s Friday evening tv-watching with my blubbering.

I also generally have a hard time with the autumn -- I am always impatient and discouraged with myself, feeling like the grasshopper in the fable of the Grasshopper and the Ants. I am moody and grumpy, and want to make up for all the lost time swimming and picnicking in the summer by getting ready for winter, dammit! When I first realized this tendency in myself, my darling wife helped me figure out a strategy so I wouldn't be so blue (and grumpy) in the fall. First of all, I'd try really hard to avoid injuring myself on Labor Day weekend, trying to squeeze one last bit of summer joy in before the autumnal curtain came down. Second, I'd paint my toenails (usually metal flake sky blue) so that every time I put my shoes on for the next month, I'd see my toenails and remember the last days of summer with a smile. I haven't painted my toenails for the last couple of years, thinking I was doing better, but maybe I was fooling myself. “Doctor, heal thyself” sometimes means, “Doctor, keep on trying to heal thyself.” Sigh.

As I described in my last seasonal post, there is some confusion about how to deal with the Earth element, and therefore some variability about when the Metal season begins. According to the Chinese Almanac, Metal season began on August 7th this year, but that totally left out the Earth season, late summer. However, here in Central PA, where we have such a clear late summer, I would say that Autumn began this year around September 9th, after the recent flooding, or it may have just begun with the cool snap at the beginning of October. The storms that came with Tropical Storm Lee were tropical in nature, as were the recent heavy rains we were experiencing, but we’ve also had some bona fide cold snaps. I don’t think this blurring of the seasons is such a bad thing – even though the weather was (Earth element) humid and sweaty at the beginning of August, many of my patients were already very impatient to begin (Metal element) organizing their garages and basements for winter, and I also saw a spate of respiratory issues and grief-related conditions at that time. Writing this blog has been very useful for helping me to observe such correspondences between the seasons and my patients' behaviors and ailments.

Maybe if I was more anal in my practice -- a numerologist or astrologer, perhaps -- I would be more concerned with the precise astronomical moment when the seasons shift, but I’m not. I feel my way through all of these Chinese principles more than I religiously observe them. Maybe this Metal season I can transfer some of that organizational ease into my grief-processing and quit being so (ineffectually) rigid in how I try to deal with the grief life brings to me. My wife is worried I'll die of a respiratory disease some day, and she's got some reason to fear such an outcome. From poor processing of grief, to infantile pneumonia, to being the child of cigarette smokers, to being a young adult smoker who held a variety of jobs that used toxic and volatile compounds and wore little or no respiratory protection, I have certainly been rougher on my lungs than my other organs.

However, I have also come the furthest in my life with my lungs. My entry to the world of healing came via breath-centered exercise therapy -- yoga and, especially, Gyrotonics. Using my breath to make myself stronger, quicker, more flexible and more in tune with my body and spirit was one thing, but I really came into my own when I began working with others to help them understand how to expand their use of breath. Therefore the background photo for this post. Yes, as an inexperienced blogger I am limited to the photographic options that offers to me, but the more I think about it, the more pleased I am with the dumbbells. Obviously they are metal; the photographic highlights make them look very white; and they refer to exercise, which got me started on a breath-centered and more balanced life. Done with mindful breathing, exercise can make one less prone to constipation and depression. Being in tune with ones breath can make one less likely to kill oneself with poor judgment and self-destructive habits, less prone to poor grief management and less likely to ruin someone's Friday evening tv-viewing. In other words, my darling wife might say, less likely to be a dumbbell.