It’s the Spring Equinox today, on March 19th, which means that the days are about the same length as the night right now. When it comes to the yearly cycle, this is the time of year of increasing harmony. The Spring is a time that is peaceful and life giving.
Of course, in 2020 it seems like things are disharmonious and chaotic this year. But remember that appearances can be deceiving, and that “this too shall pass”.
Chinese Medicine has dealt with epidemics all throughout its history. The oldest textbooks speak of them, and the oldest book on herbal medicine has this in its preface:
“My patriarchal clan used to be large and there were more than two hundred members in this family. But from the beginning of Jian An Era (196-220 CE), two thirds of them have died in less than 10 years, among which seven tenths of them died from cold damage (a term for disease caused by external conditions). Recalling the fall and great loss of my family and lamenting for those who could not be saved in the past, I determined to assiduously seek the guidance of the ancients (to study the classical medical texts).”– Zhang Ji’s Preface, Discussion of Cold Damage (Shang Han Lun), translated by Guohui Liu
Us humans have dealt with epidemic diseases for all of our history. We rise up to the occasion and learn about how to combat these diseases, in order to protect our friends and family members. Over time, as we’ve developed systems of writing, we have collect the information about what works against new diseases, and we gradually become better and better at dealing with them. The past has a lot we can learn from, just as current studies in Western epidemiology do.
It’s a teaching of Chinese Medicine that living in harmony with the season brings greater health. Here’s what the Huangdi Neijing Suwen says about the Spring time, with my own comments after each section:
“The three months of spring,– Huangdi Neijing Suwen, Chapter 2
they denote effusion and spreading.”
During the winter, we’ve been huddled up in our homes, due to the cold outside. Perhaps our emotions are “tense” as we’re ready for the warmth of Summer to get here, in comparison to the relaxed and carefree months of laying on the beaches when our tension is all gone. The Spring is a time of starting to open up and go out. It equates to a sprout that is just emerging from the earth, or to the first budding of trees.
Just like nature manifests in those ways beginning around this time, so do we, in every sense. We are starting to leave our homes – we want to get out and walk, bike or run; we want to travel, etc.
“Heaven and earth together generate life;– Huangdi Neijing Suwen, Chapter 2
the myriad beings flourish.”
When the Neijing says that “heaven and earth generate life” at this time, they’re referring to the obvious fact that the trees start to get leaves on them again as Spring comes into full effect. Things become bountiful from this point forward as we head from Spring into Summer, when things are fully in bloom. Instead of animals hibernating or instead of birds migrating South, animals come back outside and are more present where we live. This is all happening due to the increasing amount of sunlight at this time, with the day being equal in length to the night, and even becoming longer.
The “generation of life” is because of increased yang qi. There is a way for us to increase yang in ourselves, and that is through exercise. Exercise circulates blood through all areas of the body, bringing greater life to them. Getting more sunlight also helps us increase our internal yang.
“Go to rest late at night– Huangdi Neijing Suwen, Chapter 2
and rise early.”
This line is really suggesting that we wake up early, and not sleep in too long. To take more advantage of the day, compared to in Winter when we were in more of a hibernation and going-inward mode. So, get up in the morning instead of hitting the snooze button, and prepare yourself for the day. Just as the Spring is the beginning of the year, the early morning is the beginning of the day, and the two times correspond.
“Move through the courtyard with long strides.– Huangdi Neijing Suwen, Chapter 2
Dishevel the hair
and relax the physical appearance,
thereby cause the mind [to orient itself on] life.”
To move through the courtyard with long strides means to leave your house, and go for a walk…but just a little bit. No going on long excursions here, during this season. I would say, it’s fine to walk a half hour away from your house, then walk back, even if technically it’s only talking about the “courtyard” in this text.
We’re still not in the Summer season, which would be when we’re meant to be traveling long distances, and be outdoors all day. In Spring, we’re still halfway homebodies, emerging from the slumber of Winter slowly. Spring is more balanced, between going out and staying in. And it’s only natural to sometimes go out, because in the Spring we still have some cold days, and some rainy days.
Disheveling the hair and relaxing the appearance both indicate a relaxation in your attitudes. In Chinese Medicine, it’s well known that the Spring corresponds to the Wood element; when out of balance, mental and emotional stress is the most common correlation. It’s so common in our society to treat “liver qi stagnation” for stress. During the Spring time, we’re called to develop a state of relaxation, in order to be in harmony with the gentle and easy going nature of the season.
“Give life and do not kill.”– Huangdi Neijing Suwen, Chapter 2
The Spring is the season where life is coming back to the world, and just as that happens, so should we be life-giving toward others. It’s even hinted at in the Jin Gui Yao Lue (an early herbal text) that we should avoid consuming animal products during the Spring months, specifically. That would be one way of not taking life at this time.
“Do not kill” doesn’t only apply to not killing others, such as animals, but also applies to our attitudes. A very decisive and cutting attitude goes against the abundant and open attitude that Spring is meant to naturally have. Another way we could say it is: try not to be harsh during this time. Instead, be merciful and kind toward others, benefiting everyone.
“Give and do not take.”– Huangdi Neijing Suwen, Chapter 2
The season of “taking” is Autumn, where we gather everything we’ve harvested and store it for Winter. In Spring, the heavens give rain to the earth, the earth gives life to the plants, and so on. In order to be in harmony with the season, we should develop this same demeanor of giving freely to all. Not in a forced way of pretending to be someone you’re not, but just as a natural expression if possible. Just like it’s natural for the sky to rain during early Spring.
“Reward and do not punish.”– Huangdi Neijing Suwen, Chapter 2
This again has to do with the demeanor of Spring. It’s said that in the opposite season, Autumn, “killing winds” of dryness happen, and that harsh qi attacks our bodies and causes illness in the Fall.
But in Spring, in most years, beneficial qi is spread to all. In order to be in harmony with this season, we need to not be sharp toward others, but be beneficent. To be merciful and forgiving.
“This is correspondence with the qi of spring and it is the Way to nourish life.– Huangdi Neijing Suwen, Chapter 2
Opposing it harms the liver.”
Opposing it harms the liver because the Spring is associated with the Wood element (which the liver and gallbladder correspond to). To go against Spring is to go against the things within us which have correspondences to this season. The result of this is increased stress, and decreased ability to adapt to changes.
The Spring is said to be the season of nourishing life, or “yangsheng”. Yangsheng has been known in China for over 2,000 years as a way of positive cultivation and self-nourishment. It includes all the methods that help us live well and develop wellness of body, mind, and spirit. Thereby, it lengthens one’s lifespan.
To sum it up, during the Spring time we should:
- Begin to “open up”, and go out a bit more. Spread our influence to the world, instead of keeping it within. There are many different ways to do this in our current age.
- To generate and cultivate “life”, as opposed to anything that would correspond to death and dying. Also, to increase the life principle in ourselves through movement and exercise.
- To start getting up earlier and preparing for the day, as opposed to sleeping in too long. To appreciate the special time in the morning.
- To go for walks in one’s neighborhood, or even just outside the house. That is one way of getting some movement. Jogging is also good, but is more associated with the late Spring to Summer. During this Spring equinox, in the Chinese calendar we’re considered to be at the midpoint of Spring, so pretty soon it would be an ideal time to jog, especially on warmer days.
- Cultivating a state of relaxation, and a gentle and easygoing nature.
- Be more giving and generous, kind and merciful, and beneficent toward everyone. Try not to have a “cutting”, “sharp”, or “harsh” attitude. Be soft. Try not to take from others, but instead, give to others what you have to give.
In this year in particular, some extra tips are helpful.
We know that the Spring time corresponds to “spreading”, but with this current pandemic, we are dealing with an epidemic disease of “damp toxicity”, according to Chinese herbal medicine experts. This directly impacts the ability of “spreading” to happen within us.
Normally, the fluids of our body are clean and healthy, but dampness is kind of like mucus that we cough up. Just think of when you’ve done that before, and what the mucus looked like. It’s no longer healthy flowing water, but is stuck and stagnant fluid or gel. That stuck-ness directly interferes with the “spreading” and open nature that needs to happen with a healthy Wood element.
Just like we have different seasons within a year, during our lifetimes we all end up experiencing different types of years. The years go through a progression, too, and not all of them have the same manifestations – just like summer has different manifestations from winter.
In late 2019, it was a year of strong earth element deficiency, which correlated with excessive dampness inside the body. That was the condition we were all in worldwide when this virus developed, according to the Neijing Suwen. (See this very detailed article by Bryan McMahon for more info in regard to the classical Chinese theories about that phenomenon)
Now we’re in 2020, and the way that COVID-19 has presented itself within the US is slightly different from how it first presented in Wuhan hospitals. In China, patients’ tongues originally had incredibly thick coatings, which is a visible sign of excessive dampness. Here in the US, a couple of months later, the coatings of COVID-19 patients are mild in comparison, while the disease is still happening.
The climate and geography has changed as time has passed and the disease has spread to a different location, yet it still appears that it’s a damp toxicity disease, in my opinion, due to the way that it impacts the digestive systems of the patients who experience it here. Another thought is that since it’s a new form of pathogen, it was able to bypass the detections of our immune system, and almost directly hit the shaoyang and taiyin channels, causing an interior-exterior immune response, with digestive issues.
Human bodies relate to the environment, for better or worse. A person with excessive dampness already in their body will be more affected by dampness outside – for instance, if they have arthritis in their knees, they might feel when the rain is coming. Whereas a young kid never has that experience, because they don’t have the accumulated dampness inside of them yet. Chinese Medicine says that those people with arthritis have “damp bi”, and if the dampness is successfully resolved, then their symptoms improve. They would no longer experience the sensitivity to external dampness, because their internal dampness wasn’t there.
This can be done preemptively, prior to catching a virus. If we know that many people are being affected by a dampness disease around us, we can optimize our inner landscape so that it’s not damp, but has clean flowing waters, as a way of protecting ourselves. It will be one thing that could help us manage becoming ill and recovering better (although it’s incredibly important to take every precaution to not catch the virus in the first place, since epidemic diseases are not something Chinese Medicine ever takes lightly!)
So, here are further tips for this particular Spring time, on how Chinese Medicine says to reduce internal dampness:
- Most important tip regarding dampness: when eating a meal, chew your food fully. Take 30-50 chews per each small bite, or in other words, until your food is as liquefied as possible. This will help your saliva mix with your food, and the enzymes in the saliva will start the process of digestion. Also, the mechanical motion of chewing more will more fully break down the food, so that the Earth element (stomach and spleen) isn’t overwhelmed with large chunks, so that they can more cleanly digest. Furthermore, it will help your appetite signals work better, so that you’re not overeating, which is a direct cause of dampness. If you do nothing else, do this!
- Avoid dairy products as much as possible, if not entirely. Lots of people, even outside of Chinese Medicine, have experienced milk making them phlegmy. This is a direct observation of dairy products having the effect of increasing internal dampness. Even if you haven’t had that personal experience, it’s very common, and it’s still happening invisibly within you.
- Avoid wheat, because it contains gluten. This is a sticky substance, and it causes a sticky result in our bodies. Try to have foods that don’t have or cause a sticky effect; for instance, spinach isn’t sticky.
- Sweets directly increase dampness in our bodies, avoid them. Have more whole foods instead of foods made from processed sugar. Sweet foods in general increase dampness, whereas more vegetables would have the opposite effect. For instance, swiss chard doesn’t have a sweet flavor.
- Grains in excess can increase dampness. It’d be better to have more vegetables than grains. This is because grains have a subtly sweet nature. Having some in moderation can be fine. Basmati rice is known to have a slight dampness reducing effect when taken in moderation; it’s thought that this is due to its aromatic quality, as well as the fact that it’s a long grain and not short grain rice (which would worsen dampness).
- Avoid raw vegetables. They can be hard for the stomach to digest, weakening it and increasing dampness as a result. More importantly, at this time there’s also the risk of the virus spreading on uncooked foods. Be sure to cook anything you get for over 15 minutes, in at least 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Chinese Medicine always considers cooked vegetables to be healthy. When this virus has passed, and when we’re in the Summer time, then it’s okay to have more raw vegetables.
- Overly fatty and greasy foods can cause heat in our bodies (fat contains 9 calories, compared to carbs or proteins which contain 4 calories). Try decreasing your fat intake during this time, or really limiting it. If having animal products, have as lean of cuts as possible to reduce the amount of fat taken in – but better yet to go without animal products at this time, if possible.
- Don’t eat foods cold from the fridge. That directly fights against your stomach’s warmth, and if you do it during a meal, it directly causes dampness from the food digesting poorly. Instead, have small sips of a warm drink with your warm meal.
- Don’t eat too late at night. At the end of the day our bodies are winding down, and it’s not the time for digestion. Digesting food late at night will cause a weakening of the stomach, and will cause the food to sit in the digestive system as a result, directly causing dampness.
- As I said in the tips for this season – get some exercise! That’s something which combats against dampness.
I would think these tips would be helpful during illness with this virus, too, since in general they all simultaneously reduce internal heat (which can be experienced as fever, a common symptom of this disease) and dampness. Not that the tips are a cure for the disease, but that they could potentially manage symptoms in addition to being a preventive measure against worse symptoms.
By reducing dampness this year, we will help restore order to this season of Spring, so that our qi can flow freely through our bodies.
Qigong for Spring
Go for a walk! It’s especially important right now, as we’re currently being asked to stay indoors and avoid other people. That can be unnerving, so it’s important to get out and release that pent up energy.
Instead of walking in crowded areas, walk in nature. That will help your attention spread outside, as you look at the natural scenery. Walking away from people will help you be more relaxed, too, instead of nervous about being too close to them. If it’s necessary to help you get away from an overpopulated area, drive to trails where no one else is walking, and spend some time being absorbed in the natural world. I suggest walking for an hour at a time.
If you end up stuck inside your house during a quarantine, you can find ways to walk around and move indoors. Aim for 20 minutes at a time, after each meal. Sometimes when the weather is bad, I do movements indoors while watching a movie. If it’s hard to walk around the house so much, you can move in other ways, just to warm up your body. You can look up different methods of qigong on YouTube.
Meditation for Spring
Since “taking” is the opposite of what we want to be like during this season, I think it’s important to focus on cultivating a sense of “giving” and a merciful and beneficent attitude.
Chinese Medicine isn’t religious, but anyone of any belief system can pray. That’s what this meditation will be – a prayer of compassion.
This year, say prayers for others in your country and around the world who are strongly affected by the current pandemic. Bring them to mind. These are people who are scared that they might not live, as they lay in hospital beds in Intensive Care Units. They are grandparents, who have been hearing that this virus only kills the elderly, as they watch the world continue on without caring for them. They are doctors who are overwhelmed with the amount of critically ill patients they’re seeing, who are watching them all die. They are people who don’t know if they will be homeless due to not being able to afford rent, who have young mouths to feed.
Bring all of these people into your mind, and pray that all of their suffering can vanish instantly. Pray that they can find solutions to their problems, and that they can feel the support they need to make it through any tough situation they’re in.
By thinking of them, your compassion wells up within you. You naturally want those people to be helped out of their situation.
This is what it means to be “giving”.
I also encourage you to practice a more external form of giving – one which actually helps them in real ways. The Spring is a season of still being partially internal, yet also emerging to be external. As you feel this compassion within you for others who are affected, give and help in effective ways that you can.
As an example, if you don’t personally know anyone who needs help, you can join Nextdoor.com and ask if any families with kids to feed need a small financial donation to help pay rent. Lots of people are in need right now, and if you have some small way to help others, now is a better time than any to be a helper.
By not focusing on ourselves only, and by starting to be giving toward others, we are harmonizing with the life giving season of Spring, when “heaven and earth” provide for all.
In our very small way, we are bringing the world into harmony again by thinking of others. It’s a rare belief within Chinese Medicine that the human body is a microcosm which can have an impact on the external world (the macrocosm). As you move your body into a state of greater health, by harmonizing with the nature of Spring, the world around you shifts into a greater state of health as a result.
You might think that you’re only one person, that your body isn’t perfect, and wonder how could a small change within your body have an impact on the larger world, which is filled with so many people? Yet, it can have a large impact, because how many of those people are living in harmony with the seasons? Think about the theory of the butterfly effect, where one small action you take has an impact on the entire world. That’s what healing within Chinese Medicine by utilizing the seasons can potentially be like. You can change the world.
Keep that in mind when you do the meditation of thinking about others in need, when you give to those others in a real way, when you follow the guidelines for how to reduce dampness, and when you take the steps to harmonize with the Spring season. Doing these things, you will be helping to bring order to everyone and everything, including yourself.