Autumn in the Nei Jing Su Wen Chinese Medical Classic

The essence of Chinese Medical Philosophy, which underpins the practice of Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine, is the need to live in harmony with nature, what the classics call “heaven and earth.”

Heaven, because the sun and moon and weather all come from the sky (ndeed, when we think of each of our four seasons we think as much about what the sky looks and smells like–from the cold crisp nights of winter when the smell of snow is in the air, to the moist balmy days of spring, to thunderstorms and lightening of summer to the dry winds of autumn) and earth, because what we now call mother earth, responds to the climatic forces in kind–with harvest, storage, unfolding, and flowering, in autumn, winter, spring, and summer.

To live in harmony with nature, in harmony with heaven and earth, is to live “in tune with natural cycles, natural forces, and life phases.”

Our Chinese medicine classics like the Nei Jing Su Wen emphasize prevention, avoiding disease before it arises though healthy lifestyle. For example, cold causes contraction. The menses flows best with warmth. That is why a hot pack feels so good with menstrual cramps, because it relaxes and melts. So Chinese medicine is strict about keeping warm during the bleeding by dressing appropriately, not drinking or eating cold food like salads or big gulps, and avoiding exercise that makes you cold, like swimming. Not a good time to go surfing. You can do it, but you are ignoring your body and nature when you do and there will be a price that is paid at some point. Plain truth.

We all fail. Me, too. Its O.K. But its good to know what the ideal is so we can have a framework, a model, for living. Otherwise chaos. Especially in the USA where all the grandmother wisdom got left in the old country.

Here is what the 2,000 year old foundational text of Chinese Medicine,  the Nei Jing Su Wen, “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine” has to say about Autumn, adapted from the translation by Claude Larre, S.J.

The 3 month of Autumn
are plentiful.
But the Qi of Heaven becomes pressing,
while the Qi of Earth is resplendent.

…to soften the repressive effect of autumn,
harvest the spirits and gather in the Qi…
without letting the will be scattered outside,
clarify and freshen the Lung Qi.

So the 3 months of autumn are a reversal of the upward and outward movement that took its full measure in the fruits and flowers of summer. Yang, in this case the yang of the sun, of heat and light, withdraws, and the Yin of cold and darkness, with its contractile force, creeps in. Before you can say Jack-o-Lantern the sun goes down at 5:30. And then they kill us with daylight savings. I call it daylight killing. Why do they call it saving when in fact its losing? Now the sun is gone at 4.45 in places like Chicago and New York. You get out of work and its nighttime. How…depressing.

I am yet to meet a human being who prefers long nights to long days. And the ancient Chinese classic openly refers to the effects of autumn as difficult, even repressive, because as cold contracts our own body’s Qi is pulled downward and inward at the same time that a similar process occurs around us. We feel this during pulse diagnosis, every healthy person’s pulse feels a little deeper, with more emphasis on the falling wave.

To soften this effect of the loss of light and warmth, we are admonished to “harvest the spirits and gather the Qi.” Because autumn retains some of the splendor of summer, it is not, after all, yet freezing, even the falling leaves are beautiful, the foliage can be spectacular,  and late fruits like apples are harvested and canned, there are harvest festivals in all cultures, so also we can harvest and nourish ourselves, in spite of the season’s contractile force by looking around and enjoying the natural and cultural bounties of the season. This is harvesting the spirits. Stopping and smelling the wonderful odor of rotting leaves, and the moist that rises up from the garden in the morning. So the Su Wen is actually offering a basic psychological advice,  Autumn has a natural sadness, a harshness, even, that you remedy by  a) enjoying the beauty of the season,  b) having a healthy lifestyle which includes going to bed earlier as the days grow shorter and doing things like breathing exercises or exercise like Tai Qi that demands attention to the breath, and C) cultivating your mind so that your “will” which is associated with the kidneys and winter does not become scattered. All of our psycholgical probelms involve the scattering of the will, which can manifest in an inability to focus or an inability to be directed, to achieve goal, to even set goals.

Gathering the Qi is in Chinese Medicine, the specific task of the lungs, we in-gather Qi directly from the oxygen in the air, and we in-gather the Qi of air and harvest the spirits of the season when our mind is calm “without letting the will be scattered.” If our mind and its ministerial fire is scattered by multitasking, overwork, over-attachment to unfulfilled desires and by the 5 emotions, then we cannot gather the Qi or harvest the spirits. We are preoccupied, to busy with our delusions to look around and notice what we can be genuinely grateful for, where the joy is.

When we do Tai Qi, Yoga, Mindfulness Meditation, or Qi Gong, the breath is always slow, focused, calm. This is what it means by “clarifying and freshening the lung qi.”  And this is vital especially in Autumn, since this is the time of year in which the Qi passes through the Lung and its associated channels, the Lung and Large intestine, which also explains why one sees more constipation at this time of year, and why it says that “to go countercurrent would injure the lung, and the harvesting of life will not be maintained. Come winter, diarrhea will arise, because of insufficient storing.”

While harvest is the action of gathering the Qi of Autumn, storage is the action of Qi in Winter. But life builds upon life. If you don’t harvest well, what is there to store? So each action of today affects your health tomorrow. For example, an excess of cold energy (cucumber, watermelon, milk, raw food, salad) cold temperature (refrigerated foods, ice water, frozen yogurt)  and damp foods (wheat, bread, cheese, yogurt, fatty meat, fried food)  in summer, like salads, raw veggies, milk, ice cream, cold beverages,  especially for folk with weak lungs will impede the Lungs ability to gather the Qi of Autumn because the lungs abhor dampness–they are light to go back to my first metaphor, like the leaves of trees. This will make you more susceptible to colds, flu, asthma, allergies, tonsillitis, etc. Children, especially, will suffer, because they are by nature very damp, think of how infants and toddlers are chubby and drool. Their bodies produce alot of everything–fluids, cold, heat, etc. They are so sensitive emotionally.  They cry easily, get angry easily, sad easily. We pretend they are not sensitive sometimes, but that is a pretending, a convenient denial. Kids pick up everything around them.

How Dampness and Cold Accumulate in and Damage the Lungs

When there is heavy rain (dampness, too much moisture where you do not want it) , snow (dampness plus cold)  the leaves of trees are weighed down and can not flutter. Its that fluttering action, which in the lungs-as-trees metaphor equates to the in-breath grasping of the Qi by the lungs,  the transformation of air into energy  which is inhibited by an accumulation of cold and damp from improper diet.  Its kind of like when you overwater a plant the earth is too wet so the roots rot, or the plant develops fungus. Eating a diet too rich in damp or cold foods has this effect. (Too much hot spicy food has a different negative effect; it overheats the blood. But i will save that for another discussion)

If this is accumulation of cold and or dampness is combined with any kind of emotive states that cause shallow breathing, like fear/anxiety, then the pathological process progresses even more easily, because you have a bellows that is alrady dysfunctional, weak, so your body is already not getting enough “clean air qi/Qing qi”  and this weakend bellows hasn’t the stregnth to fight off that cold or damp, so cold and damp accumulate and now your lungs become like a cold, damp sponge, rather than something light and gossamer-like.  Qi is warm, so when any system is weak it has a harder time dealing with cold. Just think of a really strong type human that can handle anything, jump in the ocean in cold water to make a rescue. Its their very strong warm Qi that enables them to endure.

Why does fear cause shallow breathing? Because fear makes you freeze. What does that mean? When the Nazi’s in the movies yell  “Halt!”, to the escaped prisoner, is she not afraid? Its the fight/flight/freeze response of our nervous system , once again. When there is a mountain lion sometimes prey animal can either fight (anger) flee, (fear) or  freeze…in fear. Fear turns you cold, too,  don’t we even say in stories that someone was “frozen with fear.” Anxiety,  is a fancy word for the physical symptoms associated with fear, both the nervous habits we use to distract ourselves from what we are afraid, a kind of civilized running away, like.pulling the hair, biting the nails, shaking the legs, shuffling the cards, arranging and rearranging the desk, if one is obsessive,ordering all the canned food by category,  all of which, you may notice, involve movement, a lack of ease, what Ayurveda would describe as Wind, because wind is air moving, and Vata types, and Vata is air and space, or air’s manifestion, wind, are more prone to fear. But key point, fear creates a lack of ease, think of the cartoon character’s shaking with fear, knees trembling. So on the one hand fear causes freezing of healthy movements like the in and out breath of the lungs, that deer in the headlights look in the eyes, reflecting a kind of mental freezing with fear,  and at the same time it may also causes hyperactivity, as above, and also more profound symptoms like hair loss, insomnia, even psychogenic neurological disorders like some types of siezures, all of which involve movement of Qi where there should be calm. Calm in nature is, in fact, the absence of wind. The ocean surface is flat and calm when there is no wind. Who likes a windy day at the beach, besides surfers? Its harder to swim, the air gets cold, sand blows everywhere.

So what humans want and need is calm. You can’t have it all the time, but you need to have it sometimes. In our western American society, everything is geared towards movement, speed, change, 24/7, constant stimulation of music, noise, media, cell phones, computers. At the same time the number one drug prescription is for anti-anxiety drugs. Hello?

This is unbalanced. Its a nationwide Vatta elevation that effects everyone. You have to really make an effort to cultivate your mind under normal circumstances to deal with you natural faults and human tendencies, how much more so in this environment. When i lived in Sri Lanka all my Hindu friends had prayer rooms. One room of the house was like a shrine in which they would go and meditate and pray. Children and parents generally slept in one room. Family values. Simple living. At least have a meditation corner where you can slow down and calm. Slowing down is the remedy for excess speed. When you slow down then the knots appear that need un-tieing.

How Diet Leads to the Production of Dampness in the Gut that Accumulates in the Tissues and Lungs

When we eat a diet with too much heavy damp or cold foods, or even when we just overeat anything, it overwhelms and thus impedes the ability of the digestive system, (which Chinese Medicine named Pi/Spleen, and its associated mechanism the Triple Burner/San Jiao, which governs the movement of the essences of food through all the tissues of the body and mind) to process the stuff we are made of–food. You are what you eat. Garbage in /garbage out as they say in computer science.  So too much damp, heavy,  cold food gums up the works and the fat, acne, bad skin, bad breath, poor bowel movements on the outside are the mirror/indicator of what your insides look like down to the cellular level where all the transformations and assimilation that keep us living occur.  Ayurveda makes it simple and calls this transformative force Agni, which means fire, because its a kind of cooking, the transformation of raw foods stuffs into a fine soup,  and the gunk that occurs when either the fire under the cooking pot is too weak, or the material in the pot is wrong (too cold, too damp, too hard to break down, too toxic, or even just too much/overeating) is called Ama/toxins or gunk. And one of the roots of disease in Ayurveda, as in Chinese Medicine, is the spreading of this gunky/Ama throughout the body, typically according to your dosha, where it impedes the localized transformative processes or Agni. When you see malformed tissues or malformed processes you are looking at the effect of Ama, produced from the gut, when what you want is Agni, healthy physiological fire; not gunk

This toxic by-product of poor digestion/assimilation, damages the body’s ability to transform and assimilate Qi, and when it runs too damp and too cold (it can run too hot as in migraine, fever, siezure disorders, infectious diseases, angry hot tempered types, alcoholics) this increase susceptibility to colds, flus, allergies, asthma and other febrile illnesses. This is why diet is important but it is CRITICAL to note, that even with a good diet, mental states can damage the body’s Agni, Ministerial Fire, whatever you choose to call it, the ability to make Qi out of food and air, which is why some food obsessed health seekers need to just chill out a bit and lighten up. Obsession with food damages Agni. I have seen this over and over again, intense Pitta types eating wonderful food with terrible digestive issues. Worry, obsession is fear. Projecting that onto the diet is unhealthy. Eat healthy food. Love your food. Enjoy it. Allow it to be full of joy and pleasure. If you dont know how to do this, go to Spain or Greece and look around.

About cold. All Asthma is said to have “cold trapped in the Lungs.” The Lungs are easily damaged by grief, by cold, by dry, by heat. But in the case of asthma, cold is the operative evil/pathogen. One of the treatments in fact to prepare the lungs for autumn and winter for patients with asthma is the application of hot moxa on Lung and Kidney points at the summer solstice. Some doctors also apply hot mustard plasters at the same time. All asthma is conceptualized as having an underlying factor of cold trapped in the lungs, which, because we are warm blooded, obstructs the lung qi so that it can not grasp, leading to cough and shortness of breath.

And on that brief final note, allow me to wish all of you a sweet and warm autumn,

Eyton J. Shalom, M.S., L.ac.


copyright eyton j. shalom, san diego, ca, oct 2013, all rights reserved, use with permission.



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