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Dr. Aimée Derbes, LAC

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The Earth Phase is the center of it all

Blog

At my offices in Brooklyn (serving Gowanus, Park Slope, and Greenpoint) and Manhattan (Union Square), I see patients who are dealing with chronic pain (back pain, neck and shoulder pain, knee pain, hip pain, and ankle pain), headaches + migraines, digestive issues (IBS, colitis), infertility, stress, insomnia, PMS, women's health, and autoimmune conditions (Lyme, Hashimoto's, thyroid conditions, and many more).

The Earth Phase is the center of it all

Aimée Derbes

Earth is the medium in which everything else happens.
— Gail Reichstein, Wood Becomes Water

Mind doing me a favor? Take a moment and read through this list:

Persistent fatigue, lack of appetite, issues with digestion, sugar cravings, feeling of heaviness, difficulty thinking clearly or concentrating, bruising easily. Worry, obsessive thinking, challenges with nourishing yourself, challenges with holding appropriate boundaries, over- or under-serving yourself or others.

Does anything in there sound like part of your experience?

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Wait a minute...I do actually deal with all those physical issues. I’m tired, and I never feel like eating because I get full so quickly, my body feels heavy, and my digestion is often upset anyway. I’m exhausted by lunchtime and can’t think clearly or focus at work anymore.”

Or, you may not be focused on the physical issues at all, but instead find yourself noticing that you worry....a lot. You think in circles, you are constantly trying to anticipate other people’s needs and problems and solve them all, in advance. Perhaps you feel like you give, give, give, but maybe never really receive. Or maybe you often describe yourself as “depleted” or “drained,” and feel like it’s your natural role to take care of everyone else….but some part of you has been calling out to be taken care of.

Either way, we’re taking a deep dive today into how these physical issues, thought patterns, and behaviors all connect, how they can show up in your health and in your life, and how to shift your energy and health to something that looks more like...

Feeling truly nourished. Living in integrity. Allowing things to cycle through to fruition, harvest, and completion. Feeding your appetite for new experiences and perspectives. Easily digesting, assimilating, and integrating foods and ideas. Living from a bottomless well of energy that is constantly being replenished. Giving and receiving support in balanced exchange.

Sounds amazing, right? That’s what the earth phase, one of the five in Chinese five phase theory, looks like when it’s in full, glorious, energizing balance, and it’s the foundation and center of your best possible health and life. 


Earth is on my mind right now, not only because I am constantly working with how to be grounded, how to appropriately nourish myself and others in my life and in my healing work, how to give and receive in balanced exchange -- like many healthcare providers, caretakers, and healers, these concepts are central to my work, and they hum in the background, daily. Hourly. Sometimes with every inhale and exhale!

But the earth phase is extra on my mind because it is the name for this no-longer-summer, not-quite-fall in-between season we’re currently in up here in the northern hemisphere; it lasts from mid-August until the equinox or the first frost. The heat has started to dissipate, we’ve let go of the freedom and flexibility of summer schedules, and we are getting down to business -- coming back down to earth and getting ordered, stable, and grounded. This time of year is a giant cosmic re-centering pause. 

Beyond this time of year, though (and we’re about to move beyond it, by the way, into autumn, governed by the metal phase), the earth phase governs all transitions, not just the big annual ones. That moment after you’ve just woken up, and are getting out of bed. When you’re on the way back from a lunch meeting, standing in the elevator going back up to your office. Even the moment after hanging up the phone (wait, do people still even use phones?), before turning your attention to the next activity or task, is a transition. Our days are filled with pauses and resets, so there are a lot of opportunities for checking in with ourselves and getting grounded before the next thing starts.

You can think of earth as the center of the whole wheel, the axis around which everything else is able to turn.

Nourishment : receiving food

Obviously, food is a really big deal, being literally how we nourish ourselves and all. We make our qi from food, and then our qi becomes flesh and powers our bodies and experience. The earth phase organs are the stomach and the spleen/pancreas, which are in charge of receiving food (isn’t that one nice -- your own personal internal welcoming committee?!), digesting and absorbing nutrients, building qi and blood, and nourishing flesh/muscles.

When the stomach and spleen/pancreas are working smoothly, and you’re eating regular meals, you are able to take in and enjoy the bountiful harvest. You feel energized, free of digestive problems. You feel at home in your body, your muscles are strong, and your thinking is clear.

On the other hand, when eating irregularly or going overboard on foods that don’t nourish (sweet, fried, processed, you know the list), your digestive organs start to get confused, then burdened, then no longer work so well. Instead of a bountiful harvest, the fruit starts to rot on the vine. This looks like stagnation and sluggishness in your digestion, maybe indigestion, constipation, or gas. You’re tired, your thinking is not as clear, and a heavy feeling starts to settle into your body. Perhaps there’s even some candida, chronic fatigue syndrome, or the onset of food allergies. 

If earth is the axis around which everything else turns, how smooth and complete can the rest of your health be if your earth digestive organs are out of balance?

Exchange : we are designed to both give and receive

Food satisfies one of our needs for nourishment. But it’s only part of the picture -- we also need to nourish ourselves, our souls, by living in reciprocity with other people and with the earth. A balanced, nourished soul looks like someone who is vibrant, at ease, living in integrity with their community, being of service in whatever they do, and doing so in a sustainable way, in which they both give AND receive love, appreciation, and respect.

When our souls are nourished, there is balance, but it’s important to note that in our bodies, as in nature, balance is just a highly refined, harmonious interplay of constant action, adjustment, and motion. Balance is actually flow.

Out of balance, you’re using up all of your energetic, physical, or financial resources in giving to others, whether your kids, or a family member or friend, your work, or causes you’re passionate about. You’re nervous, you’re depleted, there’s nothing left for you. You worry, a lot -- maybe that obsessive, ruminating, circular thinking that keeps you awake at night. There’s no flow, and all the energy is going in one direction only -- away from you.

(ASIDE : By the way, this is out of balance for *a lot* of people, especially the helpers and caretakers and healers of the world. Many of us were taught (nay, programmed) that receiving is somehow the same thing as “taking,” and it’s bad/selfish/ungrateful; we may have learned that making ourselves selfless/ever at the service of others was a great way to become indispensable, and therefore more safe and more likely to be taken care of.

The good news is that we’re no longer small, and we don’t need to prove our worth to anyone or earn our right to be here. We get to take up space, we get to thrive, we get to ask for things we need and desire, we get to say no, and we get to receive as much (or more!) than we give in order to nourish our souls and sustain our good work in the world. That’s the earth phase in balance.)

Receiving : it might feel optional, until it doesn't

So you might be thinking, “I don’t know about that receiving stuff; I am pretty self-sufficient, and it seems selfish given the general f*&$ery going on in the world right now.” I hear you, but keep landing on the following -- that we need each other, and that the world needs healthy, energized, loving people. I can’t be one of those people if I don’t feed myself and tend to my own needs (more on that here) so that I’m able to be present and supportive in my work. I know this because I learned it the hard way, the way where I tried to do everything myself for years, until I finally learned that I need to let other people be there for me. It takes a village.

One place where I look for clues about how I’m receiving is my breath -- lungs have so much to teach, which is why I am a Breathwork practitioner and guide others in connecting with their bodies through their breath.

In a fraction of a second, our highly capable lungs receive air, exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide, and let go of what we don’t need. In and out. Inhale and exhale. Am I fully inhaling? Exhaling? Does my breath get stuck or caught anywhere? How am I feeling when I’m breathing only into the top of my chest? How am I feeling when I’m breathing deeply? 

In my acupuncture practice, I have noticed that a lot of people have difficulty taking full inhales, or fully letting the breath go. When I see this in a patient, I’m not only thinking about the East Asian medicine indications and solutions that will best support the patient, but I’m also wondering about how out-of-balance exchange shows up in that person’s life, relationships, finances.

Because our bodies are not separate from our emotions or our lives, what shows up in one area will probably show up in another. The upside to all the interconnection is that reengineering your breathing changes your physical and mental states, and can shift you into a parasympathetic, or more receiving, mode. And if you’re in NYC and you’d like to give breathwork a try, I have a group coming up on October 12 in Soho. Similarly, reengineering your diet and improving your energy and digestion will also probably have positive and balancing effects on your mood, thought patterns, exchange, and boundaries.

Boundaries : "what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours" - my friend Josephine

In nature, earth holds space for everything else to take root and form. Earth provides the outlines, the structures, the boundaries around which things are able to grow. That’s why so many healers, parents, and helpers are earth-type people -- they are naturally gifted at holding the space within which others can grow.

The earth phase and this time of year are all about structures and boundaries. What structures in your life enable you to feel healthy, vibrant, connected? What structures make you feel stagnant, heavy, fatigued? What can you restructure to better support yourself and create space for more opportunities to be enlivened?

There are a lot of helpers and healers who feel drained after working with clients. Some find themselves "burned out" and stop doing healing work altogether; through the form of energy medicine I practice, Healing Touch, which is popular with nurses, I've heard a lot of stories about the depletion that too often accompanies care taking.

Putting aside things like unsustainable work schedules, this may be because they’re drawing on their own resources to help their clients, instead of relying on the energy and resources of something greater (what I call spirit). Or it could be that they just love helping others and somewhere along the line, became more comfortable giving than receiving support or staying committed to rebuilding themselves through their own self-care. Either way, there’s some kind of leak in the boundary.

Take a look around at the people, projects, and commitments you have in your life. It’s likely that some of them feel easy and uplifting, and others feel like a total drag. Which activities and projects are so fun they practically do themselves? Which people do you always leave a hangout with already looking forward to the next time? With those people and activities, I’m guessing that you are both giving and receiving, in real time. I’m guessing the structure of the relationship is sound and supportive, and that the boundaries are clear.

Other people might be exhausting for you to be around. Maybe you leave a hangout with them feeling tired, confused, irritated, or wondering what on earth they even want from you! Are you overextending yourself to support someone, without receiving much acknowledgment or respect in return? Are the boundaries of the relationship unclear, such as they need more than you have to give, but you’re trying to give it all anyway? Have you agreed to a relationship structure, either consciously or unconsciously, that’s not in line with what would really work best for you?

This can often come up with family members and old friends, because there’s so much tied up in those relationships, and the patterns were set long ago. Know that there’s nothing for you to do except start to notice how you’re feeling when around certain people. Ask yourself whether it’s time to shift the exchange or draw some new boundaries. Are you willing for it to shift? To be easy?


What to do

The earth phase loves schedules. Regularity. There’s a reason why the astrological sign we’re currently in (Virgo) is all about practicality and routine. This is a great time to look at your daily habits and check in with how they are supporting you in nourishing yourself and your soul. What structures need to be torn down? What space can you make for new habits that truly feed you?

Digestive systems also love schedules and regularity. Eating regular meals at consistent times provides a lot of relief to your stomach and spleen/pancreas, because these organs want to know there is food coming, and when. For more specific food recommendations to support the earth phase, download this cheat sheet!

You can support your digestive process by using supplements like digestive enzymes, bitters, and probiotics. Or, of course, herbal formulas prescribed for you by yours truly or your local herbalist (holler if you're outside of NYC and need a recommendation!).

You can start to address any excess anxiety, worry, and exhaustion with adaptogenic herbs.

You can peruse and try some new-to-you self care options, or practice receiving and building up your energy by getting a healing session, such as acupuncture, Healing Touch, or a massage.

You can explore breathwork, using your breath to feel your own energy, fully inhale and exhale, and get some insight into where exchange or boundaries may be off in your life.

You can practice getting grounded, which helps with holding boundaries.


I'd love to hear from you! Let me know how exchange, boundaries, digestion, and energy are going for you in the comments below or by email at aimee @ alignnewyork.com.