Autumn – The Metal Element

This is a series of articles, to show how we can support ourselves more effectively by living in tune with the natural laws of change.  The Five Element model of energy (Qi) flow is fundamental to Chinese Medicine theory and is based on thousands of years’ observation of the human condition interacting with its environment.   In the last article, we looked at the most Yang, active energy of the Summer.  This time the energy moves more towards the Yin, quieter, deeper, more substantial qualities. Subsequent articles will appear seasonally to examine the different forces, which act on us and within us, looking at how to use these to our benefit at different times of the year.

As the evenings start to draw in, so does the whole energy of Nature: condensing in and slowing down in preparation for the stillness of the night or of Winter.

We can see the cyclical nature of energy flow from the diagram below, which manifests clearly in the circadian, or 24 hour, rhythm or similarly in the annual change of seasons.  If we live closely with nature, we will be able to observe similar fluctuations in our own energy flows, in tune with our surroundings.  The Five Element model (or Five Phases of Qi flow) demonstrates the dynamic interaction of energy direction.  

To live a healthy, balanced life it helps to understand these flows and to co-ordinate the forces within us with those of the environment.  However, living a modern, Western lifestyle tends to not only ignore this all-pervading information, but is often in direct contradiction to it.  In order to prepare ourselves for the coming Winter (or for our night-time rest), we should be slowing down, drawing back to the centre, ready to reinforce the Yin qualities of stillness, rest and our deepest resources of energy.

When the Qi should be drawing in, many of us in our society are busy at work trying to get things moving after the summer break or maybe spending evenings: eating our main meal; just waking up ready to go out and socialise; or stimulating the mind with television or computing.

The ancient text, thought to be written around 2,500 BC, called The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine or Huang Ti Nei Ching Su Wen, describes the Metal energy thus:

“The three months of Autumn are called the period of tranquility of one’s conduct.  The atmosphere of Heaven is quick and the atmosphere of the Earth is clear.

People should retire early at night and rise early in the morning with the crowing of the rooster.  They should have their minds at peace in order to lessen the punishment of the Autumn.  Soul and spirit should be gathered together in order to make the breath of Autumn tranquil; and to keep their lungs pure they should not give vent to their desires……..Those who disobey the laws of Autumn will be punished with an injury of the lungs.  For them Winter will bring indigestion and diarrhoea; and thus they will have little to support their storing of energy in the Winter.”

The vital organ functions that are associated with the Metal Element are the Lungs and Large Intestine.  It is no co-incidence that doctors’ surgeries and therapists’ clinics in the autumn are commonly full of patients with Lung-related conditions, for example: colds, coughs, flu, bronchitis, tonsillitis, sinus problems, viruses, depression, skin conditions, weakened immune systems, bowel problems, fatigue.  So, why such a diverse range of symptoms?  

Zangfu (vital organ) function in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) covers more than just the physical viscera with which we are familiar in Western physiology.  It reflects a movement of Qi, which affects every aspect of our being: emotional, mental, spiritual, as well as the physical.  In a state of health and balance, all these aspects are working together in harmony, just as the Five Elements are nurturing and controlling each other.   As with the seemingly simple model of Yin/Yang theory, the interactive effects of these vibrational frequencies are complex and multi-dimensional: matrices of energy, creating webs of interconnected Qi flow.  If one Element or Organ function is either dominant or underactive, the implications have a knock-on effect on the whole interactive system.

So, let’s look at the broad remit of the Lung/Large Intestine function.

Physically the Lung Qi is responsible for the function of respiration (no surprise there!): the taking in of fresh air and the release of the unused or excess carbon dioxide.  This function represents the whole respiratory system, including the nose, sinuses, throat, bronchii and lungs.  If we breathe well, we have a sense of vitality and awareness.  If the chest is collapsed or the spirit is low, the breath becomes shallow and we feel tired, lethargic and depressed.  The emptying of the lungs is as important as the filling.  

The old oriental adage of always having “an empty cup” applies well to the Lung/Large Intestine function.  Unless we release and let go of the old, there is no room for the new and fresh.  This intake and release of Air Qi takes place via the surface of the inside of the lungs – a vast area that we commonly do not make full use of.  Consider that your lungs fill the whole of the rib cage, back, front, sides, all the way up to the collar bone.  How much of your thorax is mobilised when you breathe?

The strength of voice also reflects the strength of the Lung Qi.  A weak, quiet, unprojected, breathy quality of voice shows a weaker Lung Qi.  At the other extreme are the “boomers”, who nearly knock you over when they speak! Ideally, we should have the capacity to regulate the power of the voice according to appropriate circumstances

The Lungs are said to be the most Yang of the Yin organs because of this surface contact with the exterior environment.  This includes the skin, through which we also breathe and sweat.  Skin conditions can, therefore, be related to a Lung imbalance.  Note the now accepted link between eczema and asthma.  The skin and body hair are our physical external boundary and protection.  Energetically, we also have a boundary and defensive shield, which is governed by the Lung/Large Intestine.  In TCM, this is known as the Wei Qi or Defensive Energy.  It flows between the skin and muscles and protects us from environmental conditions, classified in TCM as Cold, Wind, Dampness, Heat (and Summer Heat) and Dryness.  This also includes pathogens which we would term viruses, bacteria, etc.  If we are feeling low, not getting enough fresh air, not releasing efficiently through the Large Intestine, the immune system can become compromised and we succumb to coughs, colds, viruses, etc.

As we inhale, the Lungs descend the Qi downwards to connect to the Tan Tien (or Kidney energy).  With shallow breathing, there is no sense of fulfilment through the breath and the Tan Tien, which is the centre of our energy resource, is not being nurtured and energised.  In TCM, the Qi is said to be formed from three main sources: the air from the Lungs, food and drink via the Spleen and Stomach and the Original Qi from the Kidneys.  So, the Lungs are a major player in the production of Qi and, if they are not functioning well, we quickly become fatigued.

The Large Intestine also provides a function of intake and release.  Physiologically, it absorbs remaining nutrients and fluid, not dealt with by the Small Intestine, before releasing waste in the form of faeces through the rectum.  Anyone who has been constipated for any length of time will be familiar with the feelings of lethargy, fatigue, depression and fullness, which it engenders.  

So, this quality of vitality that a healthy Lung/Large Intestine brings to us gives a feeling of aliveness, of really being in our body and using the senses to their full.  Spiritually it is linked to the P’o or Corporeal Soul, which is that part of our spirit which thrives on the experience of just being alive.  We can see it in children and young animals, where they are learning to explore the wonders of life: seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, experiencing for the first time.  Many spiritual disciplines advocate “seeing through the eyes of a child”, that is, letting go of all our preconceived ideas about how things are and experiencing them afresh, as if for the first time.  To marvel at the wonders of Nature and to know that we are part of that – this is the Corporeal Soul.  It engages when we take the first inhalation when we are born – the Lungs giving our first independent experience of the breath of life.

To truly experience the senses, we need the quality of being in the moment.  If mentally, you are always thinking ahead or pondering over the past, you miss what’s going on right now.  To train the focus of being in the moment, we can use practices such as Tai Chi, Qi Gong and meditation, but equally we can engage with it by going for walks in nature and interacting with everything that life has to offer us.

Emotionally, these type of experiences can give us a tremendous sense of euphoria and well-being, but if we lose the capacity to be aware of the present, the opposite occurs.  The emotion associated with the Metal Element is that of grief.  Grief, in itself, is a natural process through which we all have to go when we lose someone or something dear to us.  It is a withdrawing away from the moment, whilst we deal with things of the past.  However, if we get stuck in this mode and the grief fails to resolve and we constantly think of the past, the Lung Qi becomes weakened.  Just visualise the body posture of someone who is depressed.  The chest collapses, the breathing becomes shallow, they do not engage with the outside world, the spirit in the eyes goes flat and life is no longer a great adventure.  The consequences are commonly a weakened immune system, fatigue and Lung/Large Intestine related symptoms.  The letting go has not happened to make room for the new. 

Since this is the time of year, when the immune system could do with support, here are some ideas which you can use any time to protect yourself and strengthen the Wei Qi via the Lung/Large Intestine energy.

How to Strengthen the Wei Qi

Protect the body, from wind, cold and damp, especially head, neck, shoulders and back of the wrists.  

Be wary and protective of wind and cold combined, including draughts and air conditioning.

Exercise your Defensive Energy (Wei Qi) by imagining you’re breathing through your skin.

Pump up your energy on the surface.  Or just do Tai Chi practice and expand………..

Stimulate the LI 4 (Great Eliminator) point regularly (providing you are not pregnant).  See diagram 2 and Acupressure points below.

Find ways to destress your life.  Tai Chi can be useful!

Start to slow down during the autumn ready for much more rest during the winter.

Avoid, and/or take extra care when exposed to plane journeys.  The combination of sharing a small amount of recycled air, the dryness of the atmosphere, having restricted space and being surrounded by metal can commonly lead to Lung related problems.

Give yourself plenty of regular breaks from the computer screen, machinery or during long drives.

How to drive out an External Pathogen (cold, wind, germs)

If you do succumb to externally contracted illness, there are often a few early warning signs e.g. stiff, aching shoulders/muscles; alternating feelings of chilliness or heat; sore, itchy throat; tickly nose; aversion to cold and wind.  If you act quickly, it is often possible to stimulate the Wei Qi to drive the problem out of the system before it gets a hold.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s because you’ve been out on a cold, windy day or whether you’ve caught a cold.  The effects and resolution are the same.  Try the following:

Lightly tap across the top of the shoulders and down the backs of the arms, leading down to the thumb. (Large Intestine and Yang channels).

Stimulate acupressure points: Large Intestine 4, Triple Heater 5, Lung 11 (diagram 2).

Increase pungent tasting foods/drinks: e.g.ginger, onions, garlic, lemon

Drink fresh ginger tea:        grate about the end of a thumb (nail upwards) size piece of            fresh ginger and infuse in boiling water.  Can add honey and            lemon, if you wish.  Have a few cups and go to bed and sweat!

(NB Check with an oriental health practitioner first if you already have strong feelings of Heat in the body.)

Take short term doses of: Echinacea, Vitamin C, Zinc (available from health food shops).  

(Not strictly Chinese medicine, but it’s worth having a go at everything!

How Tai Chi practice can maintain a healthy Metal energy

a)  Develops P’o, by strengthening the focus of being in the moment and developing all round awareness.

b) Regulates the breath and opens the chest.  As we practise, the breath settles and deepens.  Certain postures, such as Single Whip, are good for opening the chest and making more lung capacity and awareness.

c) Harnesses the Air Qi in the Tan Tien.  The practice of sinking the chest (not to the point of collapse) and of sinking the shoulders, allows the energy from the Lungs to be grasped by the Kidneys, which powers the Tan Tien.

d) Opens the upper back.  The lungs extend to the back, as well as to the front.  There are major Lung related acupressure points in the upper back between the scapulae.  A good Tai Chi posture should keep this area open and alive.

e) Develops the quality of letting go.  Possibly the hardest part of Tai Chi practice!  We have to learn to let go of so much: our preconceived ideas, trying too hard to get it right, trying to do something, muscular tension, mental tension, thinking we know something, the ego, the emotions.  All this comes under the remit of the Metal Element, as well as the regular “letting go” by exhalation and emptying the bowels.

f) Strengthens Wei Qi.  The quality of expanding Qi and projection brings the energy out and reinforces the Defensive Energy (immune system).  Most Tai Chi practitioners will find that their vulnerability to catching colds, flu, etc. will be greatly reduced.

g) Energises.  Tai Chi gives us that Metal quality of vitality by maximising the use of Air Qi by breathing into the Centre and incorporating all the benefits listed above. The hand posture of keeping the thumb open stimulates the flow of Qi in the Lung channel, which ends in the thumb.

h) Promotes the functioning of the Large Intestine by relaxing through the lower abdomen and the movements centred around the waist, kwa and Tan Tien.


How to look after your Metal Element

So, in conclusion, here are some basic recommendations to incorporate into your life, which will benefit the Metal Element.  Many of them are simple things but which get easily overlooked, if we are leading a busy life.

Breathe well: check your posture;

check how much of your lungs you’re using;

let the breath sink into the Centre/Tan Tien.

Breathe fresh air: check ventilation in rooms;

get outside whenever you can.

Exercise your lungs: take exercise to increase your breathing; 

sing (in the car or shower, if you’re shy).

Use your 5 senses:   be aware of all that’s around you – see it, feel it, smell it, hear it, taste            it (when appropriate!)

Get out more: don’t get stuck indoors for too long.

Wind down: in preparation for rest at night or in the Winter.

Contact Nature: make regular contact with your natural environment and feel your            connection with it.

Let go . . . . . . . . of anything you don’t need any more: e.g. stale breath, faeces, old         

                                           ideas, possessions, habits, grief, resentment, any sense of holding  


Make space . . . .  for the new: e.g. breath, ideas, things in your life.  

Be in the moment:  practise just being on a daily basis (Tai Chi, meditation or Qi Gong).

Take breaks. . . . . particularly from being around too much metal e.g. computers, 

                                           machinery, in the car.

Feel the freedom, joy and vitality of being alive and interacting with everything around you.

Quotes from: The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, translated by Ilza Veith, University of California Press.