When Fall Brings Grief: The Nature-Body Connection

As the leaves turn color signaling the change of the seasons, for some of us this is a grand time of the year, for others it is a struggle. During the fall, many people experience negative physical, emotional and energetic changes for which Chinese Medicine offers a unique perspective and helpful explanations. In Chinese Medicine there are really only two seasons, summer and winter, with spring and fall being the transitions between the two. As we move into fall, the energy of the summer begins to recede, taking with it daylight and the warmth of the sun, the earth begins to store energy, bears store fat for hibernation, trees send their sap to the roots allowing the winds to kick off the leaves that are no longer needed. All of this happens in preparation for winter.

In Chinese Medicine they don’t use definitions, but analogies. So, to translate the phenomena of the transition called fall, summer represents the heart, and winter represents the kidneys. The heart can be thought of as one’s sovereignty of spirit, one’s ability to have control over one’s life and to move with one’s own individual purpose to fulfill a destiny. It represents possibility and meaningful relationships. Winter represents the kidneys, or the water element. The kidneys can be thought of as one’s fate, the accumulated experiences of one’s life. Thus, where the heart is sovereignty, the kidneys are mystery; like when you look into a body of water, you don’t really know how deep that water is, you don’t really know if there’s anything swimming in it.

Between summer (the heart) and winter (the kidneys), there’s the transition which we call fall, which is represented by the lungs. The main attribute assigned to the lungs is the act of letting go, or exhaling. In some ways we can see the cycle of respiration as a mini cycle of the seasons. In summer our lungs are full, and in winter they are empty. Spring represents the inhalation moving toward summer, and fall represents the exhalation moving towards winter. In a very literal way, fall is asking us: “can we exhale, can we Let go?”

Like the beginning of an exhalation, at the start of a seasonal transition there is a movement of air. We can call this wind. Wind represents change, an unseen force that moves branches and leaves. This can be thought of as the same unseen force moving our lives and our relationships. Too strong a wind, or too stiff a branch, can cause a branch to snap. Much like too much change or too much attachment to one’s fixed reality can be disruptive and harmful.

As humans, we sometimes struggle with acclimating to the changes in our lives whether they be work, relationships, health or even what is going on in the world. Our attachment to what was (i.e., the summer) disrupts this natural process of letting go, of exhaling, of moving through fall. This disruption in the human experience is expressed emotionally as grief. Personally, I don’t like the term grief, as it can feel too overwhelmingly heavy and difficult to move through. I prefer the term vulnerability. For example, when a loved one dies, we have grief; but instead of saying we have grief, what we can alternatively say is that there are now certain possible futures to which we don’t want to be vulnerable. Acknowledging our grief in this way could enable us to better access more specifically what we don’t want to let go of, why we might not want to be vulnerable, or to exhale.

In short, the desire to be invulnerable to certain futures would be the disease of the fall, often producing fatigue, depression, a slowing down, and perhaps a ceasing of doing the activities that we once enjoyed. This can be called depression, or grief. However, when we look at these above signs, slowing down, sleeping, fatigue, these are also the natural movements of nature and the earth at this time of year; and maybe our difficulty is actually our inability to exhale, to let go when the winds of change start to blow. Maybe our attachment to the summer is producing a loss that’s preventing us from “falling” into winter. Perhaps this grief is preventing us from taking what little warmth there is left over from the summer and bringing it with us into the winter.

When we look at the points along the lung channel, which I will discuss in greater detail in the next article, we get insight into how Chinese Medicine can help someone move more easily through this process. The names of the lung points themselves describe and speak to the various universal struggles we may experience within the cycles of change. Understanding these can help us to understand why we may be struggling with the exhalation, or an inability to let go. As acupuncturists, we evaluate which type of change is causing the grief a person is experiencing and we tailor the treatment to support them just where they are in the moment along the continuum of change that they are experiencing. The body and mind may be simply responding to the changes in nature; and the change of the seasons may be an invitation for us to go within ourselves for healing and our own self-discovery, and with a little support we can experience the process with greater ease.


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