Category Archives: Spirit

Endings

The autumn equinox in the southern hemisphere finds us deep into Autumn and the Metal Element. Their falling energies teach us about how to be true to ourselves in the face of endings.

This blog marks the completion of a cycle of 8 articles over the past year as I’ve marked the passing of two solstices, two equinoxes and the four cross-quarter days that lie between. It seems fitting that we end this series in the depth of the Metal Element which resonates with endings, with letting go, and with dying.

Many people find these subtle autumnal reminders troubling. Western cultures tend not to dwell upon the ends of things, particularly the end of life, preferring instead to focus on the yang, rising side of the cycle, on the explosive upward movement of Wood and the wide, expansive, proliferating energy of Fire.

And yet there can be an exquisite savouring of the Metal phase, with its clear, spacious nature. When all that is superfluous has dropped away, we are left with that which is essential, the distilled essence of things. Like appreciating and valuing a small measure of a fine old liqueur.

I am not far away from becoming a septuagenarian and like most others in my age group I can’t believe that number on the board. Still, the evidence is reflected in the mirror, and in the subtle ways the body is slowing down. I can no longer pretend otherwise: I am fast approaching, if not already in the Metal phase of my life.

Each life stage has its age appropriate activities, and we can map these through the Five Element model. Water is the period of life before conception (wherever it is that we come from), our 9 months in the womb, and infancy. This is a time of potential and patient waiting. Wood is the phase of rapid upward growth that occurs in childhood and adolescence, when we explore possibilities and push edges. Fire is the time of our adult maturity, our blossoming and flourishing. It is usually a busy time of career orientation and/or creating family. Earth is the phase of late maturity when we reap the fruits of our life, and transition into retirement to savour the harvest of our life’s work. The Metal phase is when we naturally reflect on what meaning we have distilled from our lives, on what it is to die, to end, to pass on from the world. We anticipate the next cycle and the movement back to the Water phase, the great unknown that beckons after we take our last breath.

Some, possibly many, find these reflections on death to be uncomfortable, morbid, not a topic for polite conversation. Certainly it is a consideration commonly postponed, pushed off into the long future, when we imagine we will have plenty of time at the nursing home to contemplate our demise; or maybe hope for a quick end so we won’t have to think about it at all.

And yet, in many traditions, contemplation of death is a regular part of spiritual practice. Buddhists in particular meditate throughout life on this inevitable event. Indeed, death is the most important thing about life. Death provides meaning and context to life.

I vividly remember these words of my teacher Hameed, his opening words of the Death and Dying Retreat:

“To die is to live. And to live is to die.’ (He proceeded to elaborate for 10 days!)

This profound thought really communicates the depth of Metal’s spiritual lesson: only by letting go of all that we hold on to, can we truly live the depth of a human life. We are given countless opportunities throughout life to let go of our attachments:  the loss of some prized object, the job we really wanted but didn’t get, a big financial loss, the end of a relationship, the death of a loved one, the loss of body function. Each loss is a little death, each a preparation, a training for the big death that will come, when we are called upon let go of it all.

Letting go does not mean abandoning our possessions or relationships. We don’t need to become wandering ascetics. Giving away all we own will not address our attachment to things. Abandoning our relationships does not change our inner relationship to others. Rather, letting go means allowing, surrendering, making space for everything that life brings us. It means living in the present moment, neither hanging on to a past that cannot be changed, nor holding on to ideas about what we imagine the future will be. It means dying to the past. Dying to the future. And living in the only place we have, the now.

Change

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus is famous for his declaration: Life is Flux. In other words, all things change. At the same time that Heraclitus was contemplating his navel, on the other side of the world, ancient Chinese philosophers were articulating a similar view from their observation of nature. In times ancient and modern, people see changes occurring on a daily, seasonal and annual basis. We notice changes in our bodies and minds as we age over a lifetime. Cultural shifts occur over generations. Nowadays we are constantly being called to adapt to the changes brought by the pandemic and by climate change.

Today, February 4th, marks a pivotal change in the course of the year. It is a cross-quarter day, the half-way point between equinox and solstice. Here in the southern hemisphere it marks the beginning of autumn, while in the northern half of the globe, spring is springing.

The ancient Chinese classic of medicine the Nei Jing states that the last 18 days of a season are the province of the Earth Element which provides a period of transition between four seasons with very different qualities. We have just spent the last two and a half weeks making the transition between summer and autumn, or winter and spring. This is a time when we are more likely to wobble in our health, especially if we are moving into a season whose Element is a challenge to us.

It is helpful to support the Earth Element at these times. A function of Earth is to facilitate transitions and to mediate. In this capacity it can help us to manage change by providing a grounded centre of orientation.

One of the buzz words to arise from 2020 is pivot. Governments, businesses, families and individuals have all been challenged to adapt to the constraints that the pandemic has wrought. Pivoting suggest a change of direction or orientation, a swivelling around to point in another direction. This same word of pivot can be applied to the Earth phase: it is the axis or fulcrum to which the other Elements orient.

In times of change when we are pulled away from our centre, wobbling like a spinning top, dizzy or giddy with the sudden reconfigurations of life, then supporting the Earth Element helps us to maintain a centre when all around is changing. We can use acupressure to support the Earth’s organs of Stomach and Spleen and to help reconnect us to centre. Some helpful acupoints that have been discussed previously include

Stomach 36, Earth point

Stomach 40, Connecting point

Stomach 25 Heavenly Pivot

Spleen 4 Connecting point

At a deeper level

 We come into this world as pure droplets of the Tao, dropping from the infinite into a world of time and space and limits. In our first years of life, we develop an ego structure in order to give coherence to living in this world. This egoic self becomes a fixed conglomeration of memories, ideas, beliefs and identities. It is a structure that is challenged by change, both external and internal. Change is challenging to the ego structure which regards itself as the centre of everything. Its very existence is threatened by change. For who are we if we are not who we thought?

The more we grow spiritually, and the more we can unhook from the delusion of ego, the easier it becomes to roll with the change, to swim with the stream. Practices that help us to de-couple from ego and support our Earth at the same time include meditation, movement meditation, belly breathing, microcosmic orbit circulation breathing, taiqi, qigong and mindfulness practices. Also we can enquire into our resistance to change. What is it that prevents us from flowing with the river of our life, a river that is constantly changing?

As Heraclitus put it, “No man ever steps in the same river twice”.