The Essence and Lessons of Spring / Sensible Cleansing

(Originally published as a newsletter for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)

This spring I would like to encourage you to get in touch with the essence of the wood element.  Early Daoist and Five Element Acupuncture philosophies see the world as a blend of five fundamental energies – water, wood, fire, earth, and metal.  These five elements are the literal and metaphoric basis of everything that is.  Each of the elements is dominant in a particular season, and spring is the season of the wood element, which is represented by all plant life.  The qualities of this element can be seen in the dynamics of spring:  the ground thaws, fresh green shoots poke up everywhere, buds erupt on trees, and birds become active and chirpy.  Winter’s sleepy dormancy is broken by a surge of new growth, determination, and hope.

As the season that lies between the quiet potential energy of winter and the vibrant peak of flowering in the summer, spring can be seen as a kind of journey.  For each plant to make it from a seed to maturity depends on the virtues of the wood element.  The primary virtue could be called vision or perspective.  In each seed lies a built-in “plan,” and as a plant grows, it must maintain clear sight of its own plan and the big picture.  Throughout its journey, a plant is likely to encounter many obstacles, and it is this vision which allows a healthy plant to find a way to grow around each obstacle.  If it cannot see past an obstacle, its plan is effectively terminated.

Like trees, humans are rooted to the earth and strive toward the sky, toward something intangible.  The virtues of the wood element help us to stay on course.  The qualities and lessons of spring appear in our lives whenever we start something new.  In humans, the wood element is associated with the liver and gallbladder.  The liver is called the “general” within the community of our organs.  Like an army general, it is responsible for our vision and determination.  It gives us our ability to develop a structured life plan and stick with it.  The gallbladder is responsible for seeing the plan through, giving us the courage to project ourselves into the world and the decisiveness to prune and change course to adjust for any obstacles that come up along the way.  (As an expression of this association, Chinese people will sometimes say a timid person has “small gallbladder” or a brave person has a large one.)

Bamboo is considered the ideal archetype of healthy wood.  This plant maintains such a clear focus on its plan that it grows with stunning speed in a straight line toward the sun.  And while the liver, like a fierce general, can be hard and forceful, even to the point of stubbornness, bamboo demonstrates how power and determination can coexist with flexibility.  It can be blown by the wind but doesn’t break.  It knows when to yield to outside forces without compromising its plan.  And though it is hard on the outside, it is empty on the inside – a symbol of its open and unattached attitude toward its goal.

Each element is associated with an emotion, and the emotion of wood is anger.  When we encounter an obstacle to our life plan, the primary choice presented is this: to view the obstacle as an injustice or to see it as an incentive to grow.  When we see a life obstacle as an injustice, we make the obstacle wrong in our minds, and we may waste huge amounts of energy on our insistence that it is unfair, that the obstacle shouldn’t be there.  When anger arises our vision tends to decline.  All we can see is the obstacle and we lose sight of the big picture.  If we resist our anger or indulge in seeing ourselves as victims of injustice, we can become like a tough, gnarled root, butting up against a “rock” that seems to have obstructed our path.

If we have a healthy relationship with anger, this energy can be quickly released or transformed to more productive qualities like assertiveness and determination, and our vision comes back.  We remember where we are going and we get back to growing.  This choice tends to hinge on one momentous step – getting off it.   Humans like to insist that obstacles are responsible for our not getting what we want, when the truth is usually that we ourselves are responsible for not getting our goals by choosing to engage with our obstacles in an adversarial way.  When we get off it, we remember where we were headed and we get back on course.  The way of the Dao is the path of least resistance, and the less we resist life, the broader and longer our lives become.  When we live this way, we grow to be like great old trees whose perspective, above the canopy of the forest, is unparalleled.

Sensible Cleansing

Spring is the season of the liver, the main detoxifying organ of the body.  Hence “spring cleaning” can apply to our bodies as well as the rest of our lives.  Spring and summer are the only time of year I recommend fasts for Portlanders.  Furthermore, in my experience, a total fast (water only) is depleting for most people.  A sensible fast has a specific therapeutic intention – usually to eliminate accumulated toxins and/or other disease factors.  Unless a client is quite robust, the unhealthy matter that is removed in the fast should be replaced with nutrients supplied in a form the body can easily assimilate.  Ideally, the food or liquid that is consumed during the fast should be chosen based on the particular health needs of the person who is fasting.  When done properly, the cleansing process will ultimately result in renewed health and energy.

A good basic cleanse is a one-day vegetable broth fast.  (I tend to discourage fruit juice and carrot juice fasts because of their high sugar content.)  Choose a few fresh greens, such as: kale, collards, swiss chard, nettles, green beans, celery, parsley, spinach, etc.  Do not include any vegetables from the nightshade family (tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, potatoes) since sensitivities to them are fairly common.  Simmer the vegetables in a large pot of water until you have a nice broth, then strain.  If you want some salt in it, use Bragg’s Liquid Aminos (available at most groceries) rather than table salt.  Drink the broth warm as much as you like throughout the day.  Meanwhile, take it easy.  Do some gentle stretching or yoga if you want.  In addition to the broth, drink plenty of pure, room-temperature water, spread out evenly through the day.  A general rule is to drink half the number of pounds you weigh as ounces of water daily.  (For instance, a 100 pound person would drink 50 ounces of water a day.)

A fast is best viewed not just as abstinence from food, but as a real rest from all your usual activities.  Fast only on a day that you can relax.  This is a time for restoration, when all the body’s energy can be devoted to cleaning and rebuilding.  It is normal to feel tired.  Don’t push yourself too hard.  Break your fast with some steamed vegetables.  For at least a day after your fast, avoid processed foods.