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.