The Essence and Lessons of Autumn
(Originally published as a newsletter for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)
Autumn returns us to our essence, moves us to eliminate what we no longer need,
and reveals again what is most precious in our lives.
Each of the seasons offers lessons about the world and ourselves. Autumn’s gift is to guide us in self-reflection, letting go, and spiritual connection. Fall signals the end of summer’s warmth and abundance. As the season of decline, it prompts us to release our attachment to the beauty and excitement our lives have been graced with. The treasure of our experiences is not the “stuff” itself – the leaves and petals which will inevitably wither and drop – but the essence of these connections, which cannot be taken away.
When we relinquish our attachment to past experiences, we find we are able to keep their value while letting go of their weight. There is a certain “cleanness” to this feeling, like the crisp of autumn air – hence the natural association in Indian philosophy of the fall season with the air element. Like “what’s left” when all the leaves have been shed, air is a symbol of what is essential, what really matters in life. We hardly notice it and yet we’d die in minutes without it.
When trees release their dried-out leaves, the minerals within them (the richness that remains) are able to enrich the earth below. This process is akin to the opportunity our elders have (those in the autumn of their lives) to give back richness to the world through the wealth of their life experience. However, while this process is universal for trees, it must be chosen by humans. We will all have a time of decline; we decide whether or not it will be graceful.
The main determinant of how smoothly this process flows is our relationship to grief. As fall means the “loss” of summer’s sun and blossoms, it is easy to see why various cultures have associated the season with grief. Grief is a natural and necessary part of human experience. Implicit in the grieving process is our recognition of the value that some connection had in our lives, and this can be a beautiful thing. But for some, grief becomes a major life theme. Nothing may seem worth going for or holding onto because of a sense that it will eventually be lost. The present may seem unable to live up to the glory of the past. Like those few trees which seem to cling unnaturally to the lifeless remains of their leaves, we sometimes hold on to remains of the past which no longer serve us. What perpetuates the grief is often a deep resistance to accepting what is gone. When we can allow ourselves to be at peace with whatever has come to pass, those last sad leaves fall and the pain of our grief goes with them.
Let yourself take a deep breath, filling your lungs with air and then emptying them completely. . . Our relationship with air is mediated primarily by our lungs. Through inhalation and exhalation, we take in and release the world, drawing in atoms which were once part of Shakespeare or Leonardo DaVinci or Abraham Lincoln. Inhalation is also called inspiration and thus the breath is considered a means by which we inspire ourselves through our connections with the world.
In Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine, the air element is part of a group of qualities which comprise the concept of Vata. Autumn is the Vata time of year, and like autumn leaves, Vata is considered to be dry and light. Vata is the aspect of our human makeup which helps us to be lighthearted and creative. Like the movement of the wind, our Vata also allows us to be changeable and adaptive. However, any of these qualities can become a detriment rather than a virtue when Vata is excessive.
Chinese philosophy has some interesting similarities to the Indian view on autumn. This is the season of the lungs and colon – the two organs related to the metal element. Of all the organs in the body, these two are the closest to the outside world. They represent our ability to take in and let go, to recognize the gold and garbage in life. The lungs take in the supremely valuable oxygen and let go of carbon dioxide. The colon absorbs water to help us stay hydrated and releases the stool.
While the Chinese call the element of autumn “metal” and Indians call it “air,” these symbols are not as different as they may sound. Both give lessons in discerning true worth. Air, as we have discussed, is a treasure we barely give notice to. It can be held only fleetingly in the lungs and yet there is nothing of greater value. The metals of the world, on the other hand – gold, silver, platinum – these are the things we fight wars for. Innumerable lifetimes have been spent in chasing shiny things, but these things can neither keep us alive, nor give us the real richness of spiritual and interpersonal connection.
One way of keeping Vata and metal in balance is by guarding against dryness and coldness in fall. Though Portland’s falls tend to bring rain, there is still a trend toward withering. The later years of life are also the Vata years, and it is therefore common to see symptoms of dryness and withering in the elderly. Be sure to eat plenty of nourishing seasonal foods like sweet potatoes, pears, yams, and squash. Asian pears are especially moistening to the delicate tissues of the lungs. Since these crops are what the earth is producing right now, they are naturally appropriate for helping us adapt to the present climate. Another wonderful practice is working rich, moisturizing seed oils (also seasonal) into the flesh. There are many ways to do this, including, foremost, oil massage, and also shirodhara (a gentle stream of oil poured onto the forehead).
It is natural to feel some reluctance to let go, perhaps because of a sense that we will be empty if we give our attachments away. For this reason, feeding ourselves in the ways discussed above is especially useful. By filling ourselves up with wholesome foods, healing touch, and deep breaths, we feel secure enough to identify what we’re carrying around that’s more of a burden than a blessing, and, with the grace of an autumn tree, let it go.