So, friends, here we are. Finally squarely in autumn (for my fellow New Yorkers / Northern Hemisphere dwellers), the season where the metal phase reigns supreme.
(But first, a quick aside : the more common term is “element,” as in “five element theory” or “the metal element.” That’s a junky translation, from what I hear, and a better one is “phase.” I’ve been re-training myself to use “phase” because it more accurately describes that these five, Wood-Fire-Earth-Metal-Water, are not fixed objects, but transitions, transformations, experiences of life in action. They describe processes in our bodies and in the world around us. Always in motion. Phases.)
Anyways, metal though. What is metal, even, and what does it have to do with autumn? It tends to be kind of a head-scratcher for the Western mind, which is more familiar with the earth-water-fire-air framework, if you’ve even heard of such concepts at all.
In Chinese five phase theory, the metal phase deals with refinement, purity, beauty, justice. Perfection. Wisdom. The sharp blade of the sword cutting away the bullshit, the paring down to what’s most necessary and precious, sifting and sorting through the noise to get to the one nugget of truth. Slow and painstaking distillation, until all that remains is pure essence. And then, clearly proclaiming it so, possibly with a sharp tongue, not pulling any punches. If you’re into tarot cards, I find the metal phase very Queen of Swords.
Metal is about the balance between what we take in and receive (inspiration, or breath, associated by the lungs) and what we let go of when it’s no longer needed (exhalation, and elimination, associated with the large intestine). When out of balance, we hold onto things too long, which can look like something as simple as (you guessed it) constipation, or as poignantly tender as endless grief that never transforms into the wisdom to treasure and enjoy each precious moment of life.
Traditionally, the metal phase is also associated with such things as the West, dryness, the lung and large intestine, skin, and the nose, grief, the color white. (How can I pull these all together? The West is where the deserts are in China. Deserts are dry, and dry climates can damage our skin and mucus membranes, such as those lining our nose, lungs, and large intestine. Something about grief, something about the color white. Ta da!)
But, seriously though, read on for some actually connected and relevant information about how metal shows up in the world and in our bodies and health.
Metal in the natural world
The metal phase encompasses, well, the precious metals of the earth. Diamonds, gemstones. Anything that has been distilled down over time into a fraction of its previous size but a million times its concentration, strength, and value. Minerals, microscopic and needed in such tiny amounts, but without which our bodies do not function. The organizational intelligence of crystalline structures, perhaps. Things that shimmer and inspire. And, of course, gold.
It’s important to note that the best metals are hard but not brittle. Under the right circumstances, they are malleable, and then they hold their shape and integrity for a loooooong time. They are beyond strong, they are rare. They are treasures.
Metal in the body
I already mentioned that the metal phase is associated with the lungs and the large intestine, which are a pair in Chinese medical theory. It may look like the lungs receive and the large intestine releases, but, really, these two both do all the things. The lungs receive inspiration and let go of what we no longer need as carbon dioxide. The large intestine receives what remains of our food and conducts the final sorting and consolidating, absorbing the last precious nutrients, before letting go of what we don’t need as poop. Interesting pair, those two.
Both the lungs and the large intestine are very much affected by changes in moisture. Too much dryness wreaks havoc on our mucus membranes; when our lungs are too dry, we are not able to protect ourselves as well from exterior influences, and when our large intestine is dry, we have constipation and digestive discomfort.
Our lungs and large intestine are also affected by grief and the emotional process of letting go. Shallow breathing : being afraid to truly take in what we need, because we know we’ll only get to enjoy it for a brief time before needing to let it go again. You might also consider shallow breathing as not fully engaging with or savoring what’s available in abundance, because we’ve become afraid it’s actually limited.
When we don’t eliminate, we literally hold onto and reabsorb toxins. Waste ends up going back into our systems, leading to more work and problems as we work twice as hard to eliminate what we don’t need. Deep breathing, as well as the breathwork practice that I facilitate (next groups will be on 11/20 and 12/5), helps our bodies relax, fully oxygenate, and eliminate. It also strengthens the lungs, which in turn boosts immunity.
Emotionally, we’re talking about grief and all the ways that release is expressed or repressed in our experience of life. Western culture largely sweeps grief and loss under the rug, so a lot of us are walking around unable to safely grieve, ignoring our pain and trying not to let the process of confronting our losses fully unfold for fear that we’ll also become lost. Martin Prechtel talks about grief and praise being of the same coin, that grief allows us to fully see and praise what’s precious in life. Grief as the window into appreciation and wisdom, as we’ve contacted life, experienced the ephemera, and learned from our hard-won brave experience to recognize what’s truly important.
When a space is not made for grieving the big losses, we also don’t have a way to grieve the small ones, so they all get sequestered away into the same giant emotional holding tank in our bodies. And then what happens? Shallow breathing only, of course, because all the space is already taken by all the ungrieved losses! When this is happening, of course we become habituated to shallow contact with life. Of course.
Refining + cleaning
This is the time of year that the trees clean out their closets, I mean allow their leaves to drop away. The leaves are no longer needed, as the trees take their resources to the interior and prepare to hunker down with just the concentrated essence (seeds) remaining through the winter.
People think of spring for house cleaning, which makes sense, but fall carries an equally powerful but slightly different take : it’s time to clean away impurities, and let go of anything you don’t want to carry with you into the hibernation of winter.
In winter, your social circle will shrink and you’ll be sitting around the house a lot. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but this is the perfect time to casually let go of the objects and clutter you don’t want to look at when you’re homebound for months. You can let fall away, for now, all the people you don’t want to invite into the cozy intimate inner circle. Only the best, most treasured relationships get nurtured in winter.
Trying for perfection
People whose personalities are metal-dominant tend to be on the hunt for the platonic ideal of things, and maybe have accumulated closets full of black dresses that are all poor substitutes for the one they used to have and lost, or that they hold in their mind and can never actually find. This example may sound silly, but our deepest feelings are often displayed on the surface level, such what’s happening in our closets.
If this sounds like you, this is your moment to give away all those imperfect dresses, clearing the decks for the one perfect black dress. Shift the analogy as appropriate -- the perfect romantic partner for you also isn’t going to come in if your energy is full up with someone you’ve been kind of lukewarm on, hemming and hawing about whether you’re a match for each other. They’re taking up energetic space. Let ‘em go.
Turn it around, though, and that’s out of balance too. Perhaps you’ve been looking for a perfect little black dress for literally years, to no avail....and all this time, you’ve been missing the parties because you had nothing to wear! Or you’ve been dreaming up this idea of a romantic partner, so deep into and attached to the vision that you fail to see the amazing people who are right in front of you. As I mentioned earlier, the metal phase governs the balance between receiving, and letting go of impurity. Sometimes the impurity is our attachment to our own thinking.
Signs of metal out of balance : an incomplete list for casual pondering
- Shortness of breath / shallow breathing / asthma. Or phlegmy respiratory infections and coughs
- Frequent colds or flus
- Dry skin / eczema / psoriasis / rashes / dermatitis
- Weak voice
- Inability to grieve, or consumed by grief
- Inability to let go of projects (such as writing a book for 10 years and never finishing or publishing it)
- Being overly judgmental, strict, rigid
- All the rules / my way
- Overly formal
- Cold, like metal
You can balance your metal by consciously breathing, consciously grieving, turning your attention inward for some contemplation and meditation. Gratitude journaling galore. Wearing a scarf, keeping your immunity strong. Eating root vegetables, fruits with thick peels, pungent flavors. Receiving some acupuncture, some herbal formulas for the respiratory system. Breathwork in groups or private sessions. Saying "THANK YOU" and fully handing it (whatever "it" is) over to the universe.