“Earth occupies the centre and is called the heavenly fructifier. It is the assister of Heaven. Its power is abundant and good, and cannot be assigned to the affairs of a single season only. Therefore among the five Elements and four seasons, Earth embraces all. Although Metal, Wood, Water and Fire each have their own particular duties, they could not stand were it not for Earth”. Tung Chung-Shu, Philosopher 2nd Century B.C.E.
Welcome to the second post on the Late Summer and the Earth Element, which arrives somewhat later than the end of that fifth season but, as the quote above indicates, (which I am happy to use again here to emphasize the centre), Earth’s remit embraces all and it cannot be assigned to the affairs of a single season – which gives me a bit of leeway!
So, as mentioned in the last post, we will now also focus on how the Earth Element manifests itself in our body, mind and spirit through the organs, meridians and Officials(1) of Stomach (Yang) and Spleen (Yin).
This relates, then, not just to the season of Late Summer, but also to those transition times (normally about two to three weeks) between each season around the two solstices and the two equinoxes, as well as throughout the year as it is that fundamental: “they (the other four Elements) could not stand were it not for Earth”.
Earth’s centering forces are present wherever transition occurs, so that in the Five Element cycle – whose very essence is about change – Earth provides continuity. In a sense, the growing environmental movement is a sign of our recognition of the centrality and continuity of Earth, which now feels threatened.
Though the global ecological illness we now face is a result of our neglect of the Earth Element’s passive virtues, the current emphasis on ‘saving’ the earth is a dramatic representation of our human culture struggling to honour its centre – to honour the Earth Element and all that it represents.
Coming back to the climate, it has been noticeable for its continued mildness – neither too warm nor too cold – and its high humidity, factors you may have read about last time as pertaining to the climate of Late Summer, that has led to a delay in a true autumnal feeling to the weather.
Earth Element in the human life cycle
It is in mid-life that we normally experience the energy of the Earth Element most strongly, as we raise families, create a body of work, or are productive in our jobs. It is a time of stability when we settle down and create a home for ourselves. After the hard work of youth and early adulthood, we begin to reap the rewards of our labours.
Thoughts naturally turn to nurturing the next generation, and the tasks of parenting, mentoring and solidifying what we have created. We need to ‘mother’ something at this phase of our lives, this being the season associated with ‘Mother’ earth, our primary nurturer.
This is a season in our life that can be one of great fulfillment, if we’ve planted our seeds well and tended them carefully as they grew. Conversely, it can be a time of great unhappiness and insecurity, if we have put nothing away for the Winter. Without a sense of harvest within, we may feel needy, desperate, disconnected and uncentered – ‘like a motherless child’.
Earth energies in our body: Stomach and Spleen Officials(1)
“…the stomach acts as the Official of the public granaries and grants the five tastes;…” Nei Jing*
“…the five viscera all desire their breath of life from the Spleen; it is the Spleen that is the foundation of existence for the five viscera.” Nei Jing*
The stomach – Official of Rotting and Ripening Food and Drink
Considering its importance to us, not least, as I hope you have begun to see from the Ancient Chinese Medical perspective, we currently seem to regard the Stomach as some sort of useful sack to fill up with whatever, that we often denigrate with the term ‘fuel’, showing a lack of respect to the stomach, and with little or no regard to the many vital factors for our health in the food and drink we consume.
These factors include origin(2), how seasonal is it, how local is it, how treated whilst growing (pesticides or organic) or in its lifetime (conditions of husbandry), how far transported, how was it stored, how long and under what conditions, in what emotional/mental state was the person when preparing/cooking the food (cooked with love?), how was it cooked (microwave or more natural method), and does it still contain any of its original vital energy (ch’i) and ingredients for health after all this (ie is it worth eating at all?) Not respecting our Stomach’s needs reflects, I believe, our attitude to the Earth, and now a growing awareness of the need for closer contact with the products of earth.
The Ancient Chinese would consider our behaviour as close to wanton self-destruction through lack of interest in being unable to know or have control over these factors. I have a strong memory during a visit to China in the mid-80’s, where I learned the grandmother (well into her 80’s) of the large family we were staying with, went to market every day to buy fresh food from farmers she knew, to ensure origin, freshness and vitality of the food for her family.
That said, it is encouraging to see the sterling efforts being made to move in the right direction. This will have a great benefit on the health of people over time, as they demand such information and control.
We generally have little idea of how far-reaching the work of this Official is. The extent of its influence over our body. mind and spirit is enormous – the meridian (superficial energy line) runs from just under the eye, terminating by the nail of the second toe and in its journey covers areas that include eyes, ears, throat, chest, lower abdomen and lower limbs, so in imbalance it can bring sickness almost anywhere in the body.
To use a baking analogy, somewhat relevant at the moment, the Stomach in its function of rotting and ripening has to make a blend that is palatable and appetising to the body, to the mind and to the spirit. Someone can take eggs, flour, milk, butter and fruit and make a mouth-watering cake, as we may have seen on the ‘Great British Bake Off’. However, it is possible to take those same ingredients and get the blend wrong, making something inedible!
Since it is the Stomach’s function to provide all the other Officials with their nourishment, being their direct link to the Earth, what is prepared has to be palatable and appetising. We constantly need to replenish our energy (ch’i) for every activity our Officials undertake. When they can depend on the Stomach to do this job without fail, it is a source of great comfort and security – it is like having an anchor:
Physical Anchor – It provides a point that grounds us to the Earth, guaranteeing the same sense of connection we had when we were babes in arms, totally dependent on our physical mothers.
Mental Anchor – We live now in the information age and are required to ‘digest’ so much more than previously – it all needs to be broken down so as to extract what we need, otherwise we will suffer from mental indigestion. We need to take in this sort of ‘food’ and assimilate it so it gives us the same sense of peace and security we get from our physical mothers, and not be overwhelmed by the quantity and intensity, leaving us bloated or ungrounded.
Spiritual Anchor – When strong, there is no greater sense of balance and equilibrium. We can easily follow our path in life because we have the constant stability of earth beneath our feet. When we experience feelings arising from the certainty of the harvest within us and truly have our home and place on the earth, then we feel cared for and can move with balance and stability along our individual path. Our spirits can radiate that security and stability to others, as we are in touch with the abundance and riches of life coming to us through our connection to what the Native American Indians called the Great Mother.
The Spleen Official – Official of Transportation and Distribution
Referring back to the last post, I mentioned how a new role comes into play when all the activity of previous seasons produces a harvest: that of transformation (Stomach) and transportation/distribution (Spleen). This is of course occurring on a daily basis when we eat and drink, creating a ‘harvest’ or ‘bounty’ for these Officials to deal with.
The Spleen distributes the vitality of the food that has been transformed in the stomach to where it is needed. Without this distribution by the spleen, the work of the stomach in harvesting and storing cannot go anywhere, so their work together as a team is vital.
From its function of rotting and ripening mixing hydrochloric acid, pepsin and mucus, the Stomach creates chyme, a milky semi-fluid and acidic paste, which contains the partially digested food in a form that can be handled by the rest of the digestive system. This food of the Stomach is something that is very fine and subtle and so refined it has the power of penetration to nourish every cell in the body, giving us the energy to move.
“When the Spleen is in excellent condition there is nothing that can be perceived, but when it is in an evil condition it can easily be seen”. Nei Jing*
Pi, the character for Spleen, is drawn as flesh and an ancient drinking vessel with a handle on the right. It represents a serving girl who humbly serves others, going about her task largely without notice but enabling everyone to feel satisfied. The Spleen, then, is seen as tirelessly moving the stomach’s transformed food, unceasingly through our body, mind and spirit to where it is needed.
This Official can be likened to an urban transportation network, distributing goods all over the world, far more than the anatomical structure of the physical spleen, as it distributes energy to every part of our being. It naturally plays a big role in Chinese medicine.
Further guidelines for Late Summer and the Earth Element:
“The stomach rules over the mouth”. Nei Jing – Chew your food well, as digestion begins in the mouth. By hurrying through the processes that occur in the mouth, we leave more work for the rest of the body to do, often overtaxing it.
“Breakfast like a king/queen, lunch like a prince/princess, dine like a pauper” – This quote is well known in our own culture and attests to an inner knowing of how to eat through the day. Earth times are 7am to 11am (GMT), with Stomach from 7 to 9am and Spleen from 9am to 11am, so the Chinese would concur with this statement. So eat a healthy breakfast and don’t skip the most important meal of the day!
The low point for the Stomach meridian’s energy is 7pm to 9pm, just when most of us have our dinner. See if you can shift your food consumption slowly but surely towards the earlier part of the day by making some changes, at least some of the time, and see how your energy responds.
Don’t eat late at night – If you do eat your main meal in the evening, it should be finished at least three hours before going to bed. Eating late will also cause weight gain, indigestion, poor sleep, constipation and grinding teeth.
Food should be cooked – In general, try not to eat too much cold and raw foods as they damage the Spleen. For instance, eating salads and yoghurt as ‘healthy’ food is considered quite unhealthy in Chinese medicine. I know there is a movement for eating raw food and in the warm to hot weather that may be ok, but in our climate (cool and damp on the whole) it may not be so good for many of us, unless our Spleens are in excellent condition. Otherwise they create dampness and phlegm, and ultimately, excess heat which the body keeps generating to try and warm up so as to break down the cold and raw.
Drinks should be drunk at room temperature or warmer – The modern habit of drinking liquids straight from the refrigerator, or with ice, is harmful to the Spleen, which cannot tolerate these temperatures. Ideally drink water at room temperature or only very slightly chilled, enough to feel pleasant in the mouth, and tea/coffee etc. warm to pleasantly hot – to gauge the right temperature (by hand i.e. hand hot) Chinese tea cups have no handle for that reason.
“The mysterious powers of the earth create…. of the flavours they create the sweet flavour…” Nei Jing* – Chinese dietary advice emphasizes a balance of foods and flavours, rather than a strict adherence to any particular foods, to maintain health. As mentioned in the last post, we take in too much processed sugar. Ensure your diet is healthy by including sweet in moderation and from a more natural source.
“…to be in sitting position for too long a time is hurtful to the flesh…” Nei Jing* – Flesh is the part of the body governed by the Earth Element, and of the five exertions that hurt the body, sitting is the one related to the Earth Element. We do lead more sedentary lifestyles, so to counterbalance this, take a long walk. Movement is the ‘language’ of Earth, so keep in touch with it through your movement.
“Yellow is the colour of the centre; it pervades the spleen.” Nei jing* – ‘Huang’ is the Chinese word for yellow (as in Huang Ti Nei Jing… see below) and it includes oranges and browns, especially the colour of soil or earth. If you feel your own Earth energy is weak, try wearing yellow or surround yourself with it at home or in the work place to foster feelings of security and comfort.
Examples of Earth’s foods in relation to colour include corn, carrots, sweet potatoes, yellow squash, pumpkins, brown rice, millet, barley and spelt.
Are you ‘at home’ in your home? Is there any way you could make it feel more like home?
Spleen transporting time: 9am to 11am (GMT) – At this time in the morning Spleen is busy transporting the energy to every part of our being, providing energy for the day’s work. Is this your most productive time and do you see yourself as a ‘morning person’, or do you drag yourself out of bed and get going slowly, sort of ‘waking up’ around 11am.
Try taking a walk between 9am and 11am. Be aware of Nature and your connection to it and the earth. Notice any differences between how you feel at this time and at other times throughout the day.
“Man does not live by bread alone”. – In our well-off western societies, real hunger may not be physical for most, but perhaps there is real hunger at the emotional and spiritual levels. Many people are starved of affection. Recently on the radio an elderly lady described a visit from her carer, where time pressure meant she could either has this done or that, but no time for precious human contact – that, she said, would make a world of difference to her day. Spiritually we have seen a widespread searching for a deeper sense to life than just material success, suggesting a real spiritual hunger amongst the material riches many enjoy.
The emotion of Earth is sympathy – “…of the emotions they create consideration and sympathy.” Nei Jing* – a feeling of empathy, compassion and thoughtfulness, which flows best when we have plenty of nourishment to offer. Do you feel supported by the people in your life? Do you support others? Is there more that you can do?
“…the spleen harbours ideas and opinions…” Nei Jing* – Each of the five energetic phases (Five Elements) ‘harbours’ a spiritual quality that is unique. For the Earth energy, it is Yi, particularly associated with Spleen. This translates as thought, with the idea of setting one’s intention, and implanting and gestating ideas, so as to cultivate true purpose. It includes the ability to consider all the possibilities of a situation, leading to the best way of realising something.
When your Earth energy and the Spleen are strong, your ‘thought’ is clear and coherent. When imbalanced, our thoughts become muddled, obsessive or scattered, with worry and anxiety lurking to undermine us. Spleen imbalance can think about things a lot, but not select an option, accumulating possibilities but unable to transform them. This accumulated material then weighs down on us and stop us from moving, the very possibilities of change becoming a burden.
If you are unable to move due to this burden and are worrying, anxious or feel obsessed by something, make an effort to get out of your head and get your feet back touching the ground – take a walk whilst breathing deeply, to get life back into perspective again and then note your thoughts afterwards.
These are just a few of the many correspondences of the Earth Element, but I hope ‘food for thought’! Next will be the Autumn Season and the Metal Element – before too long!
* Nei Jing – the short form of Huang Ti Nei Jing Su Wen or The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine – the essential text of Chinese Health and Healing.
(1) The ancient Chinese view the Five Elements at work inside the body as the Officials, Ministers of an imperial court, for a simpler/easier way of understanding.
(2) You might like to read: ‘NOT ON THE LABEL’ by Felicity Lawrence