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“The Autumn Wind”
Wu-ti  (157-87 B.C.)

Autumn wind rises; white clouds fly,
Grass and trees wither; geese go south.
Orchids, all in bloom; chrysanthemums smell sweet.
I think of my lovely lady; I never can forget.
Floating-pagoda boat crosses Fen River;
Across the mid-stream white waves rise.
Flute and drum keep time to sound of rowers’ songs;
Amidst revel and feasting sad thoughts come;
Youth’s years how few, age how sure!

“Three, Five, Seven Words”
Li Po  (A.D. 701-762)

The autumn wind is light,
The autumn moon is bright;
Fallen leaves gather but then disperse,
A cold crow roosts but again he stirs;
I think of you, and wonder when I’ll see you again?
At such an hour, on such a night, cruel is love’s pain.

“Boating in Autumn”
Lu Yu  (A.D. 1125-1210)

Away and away I sail in my light boat;
My heart leaps with a great gust of joy.
Through the leafless branches I see the temple in the wood,
Over the dwindling stream the stone bridge towers.
Down the grassy lanes sheep and oxen pass;
In the misty village cranes and magpies cry.
Back in my home I drink a cup of wine,
And need not fear the greed of the evening wind.

Autumn is a time of gathering and harvesting summer’s bounties, then storing them for use throughout the more barren days of winter.  The upward pushing energy of spring, the expansion of summer and the fruition of late summer are now replaced by a movement of gathering when vitality is drawn inside to prepare for the winter.  The warmth and light of the sun recedes as the air chills.  The actions of gathering puts limits on our vitality.  We tend to want to rise later.  Our vital thrust is towards storing and retracting rather than scattering our vitality.

The nutrients in the leaves are dawn further into the branches.  The sap of trees settles into the interior, toward the roots.  The squirrels are wisely collecting and storing their nuts.  The coats of our dogs and cats grow thicker for protection against the cold.  As we look around, all of nature in engaged in preparing for protection from the coming winter.  It is vital that we harvest and store in autumn, for if we leave the crops in the fields, they will rot, leaving us with meager winter sustenance.

At harvest time nature’s bounty has reached its completion and perfection.  If in autumn we are not able to gather this energy, we may then be more susceptible to colds and others illnesses, and in winter these health problems can be worse.  From the Chinese point of view, we ought to act according to the laws of the seasons.  Failure to do this produces a lack of preparation or support, most acutely felt during the following season.

There is also a splendor and richness to autumn in the brilliant and beautiful colors of the leaves, the crispy clear air and the clear blue skies.  We often think of autumn as the time of dying, yet it is also a season that is alive and vibrant with activity.  Yellows, rusts and reds vibrate in all forms and shades in the flickering and twirling leaves, shimmering in the wind.

The action of gathering in, or taking in that which is of value, is balanced by an opposite action, of letting go of that which is not essential.  The tree, having gathered in the nutrients that are essential for life throughout the winter and for rebirth in the spring, now lets go of its foliage.  The attachment is literally broken off as the chill winds blow through the branches, blowing the dead leaves into the air. The rain washes clean the bark, dashing the withered leaves to the ground.  Fallen leaves decompose along with fallen fruits and crops left on the ground, fertilizing the soil and nourishing seeds is preparation for next year’s growth.

For us, autumn is also a time of letting go, a time of preparation and of endings, a period of cleaning out; we are often aware of time passing, of how another summer has gone by and how the year is rapidly passing on.  With these feelings often come memories of our past and, along with the memories, the firm reminder of how long ago those days were.  Autumn is a time of transition that touches the sadness within us as we let go of the past.  For some people this awareness of the passage of time causes a sense of grief and an attempt to stop the transition, the change, to hold onto the past.

Autumn energies in us are experienced in our ability to grieve and let go of the past, dismissing those things in our lives which are non-essential, those attitudes, feelings, possessions and life events which have served their usefulness.  This is a period for cleaning out and not letting our vitality be scattered, since the movement of autumn sets limits on our vitality and marks the beginning of the need for storing and conserving, the essence of winter.  At the same time the letting go allows us to renew ourselves and take in that  which is of value—ideas, feelings, inspiration, and ways of looking at things.  Finding the splendor and beauty of autumn in ourselves increases our capacity to radiate our richness and value as unique human beings.

The lungs and the large intestine

From the point of traditional Chinese medicine, each of the five seasons is a concentration of a particular type of energy. The passage of time marked by the seasons involves the succession of one type of energy to another (Larre, Schatz & Rochet de la Vallee, 1986).  This same succession, this movement occurs inside human beings as an organizing principle of life.  The energy of autumn is similar to the energy and functions of the lungs and the large intestine. Through these organs and their energies we find autumn brought within ourselves.

In this section we will explore the functions and activities associated with the lungs and the large intestine.  The metaphor of metal is traditionally used to encompass the functions and activities influenced by these organs and their energies.

These functions and activities include:

Physical functioning: respiration and removal of metabolic end-products; the rate of chemical reactions with acid/base balancing acid-base; the amount of oxygen available to our cells which determines the level of energy and formation of organs, for example, in the brain; the absorption of water and electrolytes in the large intestine as well as the formation of some vitamins, and the storage and elemination of feces; immunity and protection; the skin and the nose; the rhythm of all functions; automatic activities; renewal and replenishment of energy.

Emotional and psychological functioning: the ability to grieve; the capacity for letting go and releasing non-essentials; harvesting our life experience (wisdom); individuation; separation and detachment; deeper boundaries; renewal of bonds; relationship to father and males; self-esteem; valuing others; authority and respect; quality of life; beauty, aesthetics and refinement of self; refinement of reason and thought; inspiration;

Spiritual and renewal functioning: purity of values and maintenance of standards; appreciation for principles, methodicalness, precision and the value of ritual and doctrine; spiritual connection; energies—similar to those of autumn—of consolidating, inhibiting, and letting go processes.
Physical disorders may include respiratory, skin, and elimination problems; difficulties with structure and lubrication; and some types of headaches as well as sinus and neurological problems.

Lung functions

Breathing is initiated by the exposure to the outside world.  Following a normal delivery, infants begin to breathe immediately with a complete respiratory rhythm.  Having been held together by viscous fluid, the walls of the lungs require a large force to open the lungs for the onset of breathing. Owing to the resistance of the fluid inside the lungs, a large pressure is also required to deflate the lungs.  As subsequent breaths become much easier, breathing becomes normalized about forty minutes after birth.

During inhalation, contraction of the diaphragm muscle pulls the lower part of the chest downward.  This movement, along with the contraction of the intercostal muscles (between the ribs) which elevate the chest, allows for the lungs to expand and take in air.  During exhalation, the diaphragm muscle recoils upward, the abdominal muscles contract, and the ribs are extended forward, helping expel the air by compressing the lungs.

The primary function of the lungs is respiration.  This process helps maintain proper concentrations of oxygen, carbon dioxide and hydrogen ions in the body fluids in order to maintain a proper rate of chemical reactions in the cells.  Changes in the concentration of these ions will cause changes in the respiratory center of the brain (medulla and lower pons) to alter respiratory activity.

The lungs, the kidneys, the bladder and the large intestine are all involved in the removal of metabolic end-products; carbon dioxide is the most abundant of these.  The lungs release carbon dioxide during exhalation. The concentration of carbon dioxide in body fluids greatly affects chemical reactions of the cells and the pH of tissues, the acid-base balance.  The regulation of hydrogen ion concentration in the tissue is one of the most important aspects of homeostasis (Guyton, 1977).  Alterations in the hydrogen ion concentration can alter the rate of chemical reactions in the cells.  Too low a hydrogen ion concentration is called alkalosis, too high is called acidosis.  Alkalosis causes over-excitability of the nervous system, for example, nervousness and muscle spasms.  Acidosis, on the other hand, depresses the function of the central nervous system causing emotional depression, disorientation or coma.

Respiration can eliminate more acid or base than all the other buffers in the body.  The pH of body tissues can be adjusted by a change in the rate of breathing.  Rectifying the acid-base balance in our system allows our body, mind and emotions to regain equilibrium.

In the brain, an increase of carbon dioxide or hydrogen ions causes an increase in cerebral blood flow which in turn carries these ions away ftom the brain tissue.  A decrease in oxygen concentration increases the blood flow thereby increasing the flow of oxygen into brain tissues.  These mechanisms help maintain a constant level of hydrogen ions and as a result maintain normal neuronal activity in the brain.  Thus, the amount of oxygen available to our cells, obtained through the lungs, determines the level of energy and function of our brain.

Oxygen plays a role in the blood flow not only in our brain but throughout the body.  Oxygen concentration in the tissues is the most important regulator of blood flow in most organs.  In order to restore the level of oxygen necessary when the oxygen concentration drops, blood flow increases to those tissues.   After oxygen combines with hemoglobin of the blood in the lungs, it is carried and released in the tissues.

Large intestine

The large intestine has the dual role of absorption of water and electrolytes and of storage and release of feces.  As much as 500–1000 ml. of chyme passes into the colon each day through the ileocecal valve.  This valve opens rhythmically at frequent intervals, a mechanism which can be affected by emotions.  In the first half of the colon, sodium and chloride ions and water are reabsorbed into the body.  The rest of the contents along with water are propelled by peristalsis (infrequent contractions two or three times a day) into the pelvic colon and then into the rectum.  In the absorbing colon, there are numerous bacteria which are important in the formation of vitamin K, vitamin B12, thiamin and riboflavin.  In addition, production of mucous secretions helps protect the walls of the colon and holds fecal matter together.  Emotional disturbances can cause excessive production of this mucus.

The pelvic colon serves as a storehouse for feces.  Defecation is initiated throughout the transfer of feces into the rectum by means of peristalsis and through centers in the medulla and sacral spinal cord.  The feces are about three-fourths water and one-fourth solid matter (dead bacteria, fact, inorganic matter, protein and undigested roughage).

Finally, the skin has several important functions including sensation, protection, temperature regulation and secretion.

In Chinese medicine, the lungs receive the vital essence (Qi) from the air we breathe.  The capacity to take in with regards to the lungs refers to the quality of what is received in our life—fresh air, new ideas and feelings, etc.  This organ and its corresponding energy pathway is termed “receiver of energy.”  It signals the beginning and the end of life, providing renewal and revitalization—a qualitative, not a quantitative, function for our health.  The replenishment of Qi energy through proper breathing can be more enriching than the food we eat.  We can only live three minutes without air, yet we can spend days without food.

The respiratory function takes place all the way down to the cellular level.  The rhythm of pulmonary and cellular respiration and the resulting animation of the organism are governed by the respiratory function of the lungs.  By governing the rhythms of the body and propagating energy, the lungs provide all the other organs with the possibility for optimal functioning.

In Chinese medicine, the lungs are responsible for the Qi of the whole body while the heart is responsible for the blood. Blood and Qi are two aspects of vitality.  One of the Chinese characters depicting the function of the lungs suggests an ability to be clever in the governing of life, an instinctive knowing  which corresponds to the basal energy connected to automatic activities that animate the body, for example, perception and instinctive reactions (Larre, Schatz & Rochat de la Vallee, 1986).
The second character showing the function of the lungs depicts a knot of bamboo.  The distance between bamboo knots marks the vitality of the bamboo; each knot permits the production of another knot and growth of the bamboo.  In reference to the lungs, the knots stand for a concentration of life force (Larre & Rochat de la Vallee, 1992); thus a function of the energetics of the lungs is to propagate or relay energy.

As in western medicine, the lungs are seen as working in cooperation with the heart.  In Chinese medicine, they are described as a minister to the heart, providing it with energy and influencing its rhythm.  In addition, the lungs assure hematosis in the pulmonary lobes thereby influencing the proper functioning of the blood.

The Chinese also attribute to the lung’s energetics the function of defensive energy (Wei Qi) which protects the body from external invasion (bacteria and viruses) and safeguards its resources.  Parts of this protection is furnished by the skin which is viewed as a third lung and whose condition is deeply influenced by the lungs through its movement of defensive Qi.  The skin acts as barrier to external invasion and it also limits the expansion and loss of energy and vitality of the organism as evident by its thermo-regulatory function.

The lungs also influence the quality of what we receive at the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels of the individual.  The revitalization and replenishment that we experience from deep breathing of fresh air is vital to our organism, but even more important can be the renewal from taking in fresh ideas, feelings, sensations and interpersonal and spiritual connection.  These experiences bring quality into our lives and help free us from staleness and stagnation.  J. R. Worsley (1982) refers to these functions as the “quality and spirit” in our lives.  When our connection with spiritual life is restricted, we suffer.

The word “inspire” denotes the connection between the lungs and spirit. Through the breath we are inspired.  It is not surprising that in most spiritual traditions breathing exercises are used as means to quiet the mind in order that we may enter our inner dimensions.  Many ancient writings depict the breath as the link with the Spirit of God.  Quality of life is enhanced by our spiritual growth through self-development, meditation and prayer.

The large circulations and movements in Heaven that make up the universe, from the Chinese perspective, have a correspondence in our lives.  The lungs are viewed as carrying the movement and will of Heaven (the spiritual influence) in our bodily life.  The lungs attract and transmit this influence to other organs.  They are depicted as the “father” of the other organs besides the heart.

Letting-go, releasing

On a physical level, the colon performs the collection, storing and letting go functions as it clears out the waste products of our system.  This also involves the movement by which the letting go occurs.  The process involves assimilation as well as dismissal or elimination.  As with autumn, some things are harvested and used and much is released.  In every cell of our bodies, a similar process is taking place; the cells release what is not of use.  Imbalances arise when there is too little retention or when there is too much retention—diarrhea or constipation.

The letting go function complements the taking in function of the lungs.  Elimination makes room for taking in food of good quality.  The eliminative function is not only essential for our physical health, but also for our emotional, mental and spiritual well-being.  Like the leaves that drop off in autumn severing their ties, we may need to let go of a belief, a feeling or a relationship that is no longer valuable so we can make room for something new, something of value.

The colon at deeper levels allows us to sever ties when appropriate and necessary, rather than continuing to hold on to relationships and situations that may be contaminating us, like fecal matter impacted in our bowels, as we hold on to things of the past and want to stop the passage of time.  The elimination process also takes place in the realm of thoughts, ideas, opinions and feelings that are negative or useless.  As with physical elimination, we can experience emotional imbalances, for example, eliminating or cutting off a relationship or a thought too quickly or holding on much too long.

Spiritually, as we let go of our fears of dying and separateness, we can then have “spiritual room” to experience connection and oneness with spirit.  Confronting aging, the dying of ideas, feelings and self along with the harvesting of life experiences produces wisdom which is the understanding and experience of a life well lived.


Grief is the emotion and natural reaction associated with loss—what is not there or what could have been.  A poverty or a loss of connection to spiritual life, fresh stimuli, ideas and feelings, and interpersonal interactions produces grief.

Grief or sorrow is also described in Chinese medicine literature as oppression, an experience where the Qi is closed or blocked.  In autumn, when we witness the death of leaves, the passing of summer and time, there can be a sense of grief.  Nothing is left in the fields.  The expansive movement of summer is gone, and now there is a gathering or constricting movement, an inwardness.  The sorrow that can go with this is not unhealthy, if it is brief.  If prolonged, it causes “autumn” in one’s heart which goes counter to the nature of the heart—to provide illumination and hope to others ((Larre, Schatz & Rochat de la Vallee, 1996).  Excessive grief or sadness involves denial or a refusal to accept reality as it is.  Mourning rituals are intended to regulate the expression of affliction so that it follows in normal course.  They help people accept and deal with a new reality.  Too much grief or sorrow drains our vitality, “oppresses” the functioning of the other organs, since the lungs cannot distribute its energy properly.

At its most extreme grief can turn into obsessive thinking, rage, loss of purpose and will to act (since oppression and tightness prevent the emergence of life and vitality) even causing physical illness.  A deep form of grief, conscious or unconscious, is the experience of loss of the deeper self, the essential self.  This can be felt as emptiness or disconnection, and in the body it is felt as a hole.  Incomplete or absent grief is also a form of imbalance.  This is a disturbance of the normal process of resolution; and denial, inhibition and inner conflict may also play a role in this disturbance.

Grief allows us to let go of what is no longer there or what is no longer useful (ideas, feelings, relationships, etc.).  Grief is a natural response to the ending of a bond, a readjustment to the new reality and the subsequent formation of new bonds. When we grieve the loss of a relationship and feel the fears of separation and loneliness, we can then make room to experience new connections as well as to discover deeper aspects of ourselves.  Our loneliness, for example, can become aloneness—an experience of being only with ourselves and yet fulfilled.


The idea of metal in Chinese medicine is used to describe the various activities and functions associated with autumn, the lungs and the large intestine and their associated energetic pathways at different levels within the person.  Metals are created as a result of a pressure of concentration within the depths of the earth, an energy or a movement not unlike that of autumn.  This idea of metals includes not only ores like iron and copper but also precious stones like diamonds and jewels—all valuable resources or objects of beauty.  Metal connotes both, something hard and strong like iron for making structures but also something malleable that takes different shapes under the hands of a craftsman.

In talking about human lungs, we stressed the importance of quality and value in what we receive.  In nature, minerals enrich the earth, giving quality to the soil.  The precious quality of jewels shows us the beauty, value and worth that is associated with the function of the lungs and large intestine in our lives.  In us this quality is manifested in a sense of self-worth.  If we are not in touch with our inner value and essence, we may try to compensate for this feeling of “poverty” or “ugliness,” for example, by acquiring materialistic possessions of great worth or by associating with others we consider to be more important or valuable.

The other aspect of metal is associated with structure and substance.  Without structures that provide uprightness and strength, buildings would not be possible.  In us, structures are necessary for maintaining integrity, from the cell to our entire organism.   Problems with degeneration or rigidity of the spinal column, for instance, would compromise our sense of strength and structure.  Substances such as copper wire and crystals provide the main ingredients for systems of communication such as telephones and computers.  These materials connect all sorts of things.  In us, inner and outer communication and connection are vital for health.  Physically, for example, oxygen combines in the lungs with hemoglobin and is carried to all the tissues; the integrity of this communication network is vital for all the tissues.

The idea of metal also reflects other psychological functions associated with the lungs and the large intestine.  When we lack a real quality, we turn instead to an imposed standard.  A lacking of balance, refinement and aesthetics turns into perfectionism; a lack of real purity and quality yields correctness.  Lacking integrity, principles and values we turn to rigid adherence to rules; without authority we turn to authoritarianism and arrogance.  Rituals lose their elegance and spontaneity; individuality and healthy detachment turn into separation and cut-off.

Our ability to connect and communicate not only with our environment and with other individuals but also with the deeper aspect of our selves, our spirit, is essential for our health and well-being.

Acupuncture services offered by Carlos Durana Ph.D., M.Ac. are available in Reston, Virginia, Bethesda, Maryland and in Washington D.C.