I’ve been reflecting recently on what it was like for me to learn Chinese Medicine in midlife years. I recall wanting so desperately to understand the concepts, to make them fit in the scaffolding of my views of and beliefs about the world. Some of them did, and many of them did not. Chinese Medical philosophy has some operating assumptions that are just flat different than those of Western philosophical commitments. I have decided one does not supersede the other. And I recognize that the questions we ask determine what sort of answers we get.
This very present moment illuminates for me again what my assumptions about life are, what quality of life means, and how challenging it is to balance fear with resolve. We all have our favored direction of defenses I suppose, and mine are all in my head, especially thinking, which brings me to the element on my mind these days – the Earth.
Earth element is grounding and central. Literally in some eras of Chinese Medicine the earth was pictured at the center of all elements, a go between in all communications, much as the hearth or kitchen might be the central place in some of our homes. The Earth element stabilizes and squares up the changes and shifts present in other elements by gathering together and drawing inward.
The sound of earth is singing, as one would soothe the distressed, and the taste is sweetness like the nourishment of breast milk to a newborn or a bowl of steaming rice. If you’ve been soothing yourself with baking, or gathering up supplies, or craving sweet treats, you may be conversing with your Earth element.
The physiology of the earth element is manifested in digestion. Is there not so much to digest these days? I often feel overwhelmed by the news of the day, or the tasks before me, which though fewer than before I was staying home, are not necessarily simpler. The specific parts of physiological digestion we associate with the Earth element are the work of the stomach and the work of the spleen and pancreas. Digestion is aided by light cooking to begin breaking down the fibers of our food so that our bodies don’t have to generate all the fire to do that. Our digestion is also aided by drinking plenty of fluids as the stomach hates to be dry, and a gentle pace of eating so the enzymatic chain has time to activate. Our bodies don’t know the difference between physiological, psychological and emotional stress, so overwhelm of any of these can compromise our digestion. And when we are experiencing indigestion, that can impact our emotional and psychological balance.
The emotion for Earth is translated in a few different ways. Some refer to it as ‘worry’ or ‘pensiveness’ or ‘overthinking’. I call it the ‘spin cycle’, when your thoughts spin around and it’s difficult to make them stop. Sitting long times without using our muscles can exacerbate this inclination, while getting up and moving around can reduce our distress. Making use of our muscles is valuable to supporting the Earth element.
The positive aspect of the Earth element mentally is learning. Study and learning new things is the work of the Earth element, so if you are at the stage of this new way of life that you are learning to bake sourdough, or practicing a new instrument, or learning to go to school on Zoom your Earth element is engaged.
Take heart that your Earth element is working very hard these days, and leaning on one aspect may make less energy available for other aspects. If you find yourself worrying quite a lot, perhaps choose foods that are easily digestible for a time, choosing soups over salads for example.
The Earth element in Chinese Medicine is associated with the flesh, with muscles. I will digress for a moment to note that in the history of Western Christian “New Testament” theology, flesh and spirit were split apart conceptually as a philosophical gift from the ancient Greeks. This split does not exist in Chinese Medicine. The flesh gives form to the spiritual, emotional, intellectual and psychological constructs of a person. My friends and patients and my very own body continue to be my teachers of this, and I am grateful for the lessons. This journey of embodied understanding has been one of my greatest to date.
An invitation of the Earth element is to evaluate, recognize, and indulge in that which nourishes you. It is a good and holy thing to nourish yourself, to give your belly time and nourishment to digest what life will bring to you today, and to give your spirit refreshment and your busy mind some quiet. Earth is the season of harvest, when the steamy hot summer wrestles itself into bounty and a last burst of life before settling into the letting go of autumn.
The fabric of life as we knew it in 2019 is unraveling and we will be reweaving our communities, our beliefs, and our thoughts as we continue to move through this time. Take heart, my friends. Find those who need your soothing song, find delight in the learning before you, and celebrate connections. Our way through will be made clear.
Be grounded in your life and be connected to what you cherish most. Please be in touch if I can offer you any specific support.
Peace be with you abundantly and always,