The Language of the Seasons

This article was originally published by The Dragontree


Sometimes I think about moving to a place where it’s always warm, like southern California or Hawaii, but it seems that every time I mention it, there’s someone around who insists that it would be boring without having four distinct seasons. And as I imagine myself being bored while swimming in the ocean in December, and being bored while picking oranges off my trees in January, and being just so incredibly bored as I go on a hike in flip flops and shorts in February, I shudder and get back to shoveling my driveway.

I’m still undecided about a future in a warm place, but I am very glad to have gotten the experience of four very distinct seasons. Growing up in New England each season was so unique. If I were magically transported to a random time of year in Massachusetts, I would have no trouble determining in an instant which season it was. That might be trickier in, say, the Pacific Northwest, and even harder in San Diego.

Part of why I appreciate my exposure to the seasons is that the world displays so clearly the prevailing dynamics of the Earth and Sun. Daoist sages developed a language around these expressions, and applied this language to everything – including human lives, politics, and relationships. Knowing some of this language encourages us to tune in to what’s happening around us and to apply our observations of Nature to our inner and interpersonal processes.

Winter is the season of dormancy. Plants die or go to sleep. Most of their energy is down in their roots or stored in seeds. So, it’s a time of emphasis on potential energy. For humans, it’s a good season for taking inventory. In wintery places, we’re often confined indoors and there are no food sources available except what we’ve put in our cupboards. The season is ruled by Water, and often there’s a lot of it, in the form of rain or snow, falling from the sky and blanketing the ground. The healthy emotion associated with Winter and Water is awe, and when out of balance, it becomes fear. Our core fear is the fear of death, and in many ways Winter is kind of like death – cold, quiet, and dark.

Spring comes next, and it’s a season of new growth, awakening, and planning. In the Pagan traditions, Spring is marked by fertility festivals, with symbols such as bunnies and eggs. In Christianity, Spring brings Easter, the holiday of rebirth. And in Judaism, there is Passover, which is full of references to fresh Spring greens, eggs, and new hope after a time of despair. The season is ruled by  Wood, which is represented by plant growth – especially eager buds exploding on trees and pushing through the crust of the earth, and vines growing rapidly as if on a mission.

The healthy emotion associated with Spring and Wood is vigor – like the vigor plants employ to break out of Winter’s dormancy in Spring. In imbalance, this becomes anger, which is a feeling that is likely to come up when our plan encounters an obstacle or when we’re thrown off our trajectory. Plants encounter obstacles all the time, and they usually display some of the virtuous characteristics of healthy Wood – flexibility, and the ability to stay on their purpose instead of getting indignant.

Summer is the greatest expansion of the growth that started in Spring. In the plant world, it’s a time of flowering, and therefore, communion and sexuality. Flowers are not just sexual organs but a plant’s time to express its beauty, radiance, and glory. Summer is ruled by Fire, which has a similarly expansive and radiant nature to a flowering plant. Fire is also the element that presides over sexuality and connection. It’s a transformative, exciting force. It illuminates darkness and obscurity. The healthy emotion associated with Summer and Fire is joy. When out of balance, we feel hysteria, anxiety, or jitteriness.

Late Summer is a season unique to Chinese philosophy. It’s the latter portion of summer, when nights tend to get colder and flowering gives way to fruiting. It’s the season of ripening and the harvest of crops. Late Summer is ruled by Earth, the element that presides over nourishment. In the human body, the primary digestive organs also correspond to Earth. The healthy emotion associated with Late Summer and Earth is contemplation. It also relates to our capacity to focus and analyze. When out of balance, it becomes worry.

Finally, Fall is the season of decline. It’s the season when activity diminishes and outward growth stops; we begin to focus inward and reflect. Fall as associated with Metal or Air, both of which are good reminders of a lesson in real value. Metals, like gold and silver and the other “shiny stuff” in life, is often valued above all else, yet it is almost worthless when it comes to sustaining life. In contrast, Air is invisible and insubstantial. It’s so easy to miss and take for granted, yet we’d die in minutes without it. Hence, a main challenge of this element, whether we call it Metal or Air, is to remember that it’s the intangible things that are of greatest worth in life. The healthy emotion associated with Fall and Metal is reflection – the capacity to reflect on what has passed and gain value from it. When out of balance, it becomes grief.

There are many ways to apply these characteristics of the seasons and their associated elements in order to better understand ourselves and the world, and to more gracefully move through periods of difficulty. I created these diagrams to more clearly depict these phases as part of an ongoing cycle. The first diagram shows how each season leads to the next, and some of the key dynamics of each.

In this next diagram, we see how the characteristics of the seasons could be seen as phases in a life or project. In the Winter/Water phase, for instance, a new project is just an idea or a seed. We might call this the resting phase or the conception phase. Conception perhaps occurs near the frontier between Winter and Spring. In Spring/Wood, the project is launched (the seed germinates). The structure is defined, a plan is created. Growth begins. In the Summer/Fire phase, growth is at its maximum, and the project “blossoms.” In the Late Summer/Earth phase, the project comes to fruition. It yields a desired return on all the energy that was invested in it. We “harvest” the fruits of our labors. In the Fall/Metal phase, we “release” the project, either because it is over or because it moves to a new phase in which we are no longer attached to it. Here we are able to reflect on the value gained from going through the cycle. As we move into the Winter/Water phase again, there is the need for stillness and rest before the cycle begins again.

Every human life follows this cycle, and within every life, there are many smaller cycles, and cycles within cycles. Consider contemplating the cycle of the seasons and applying it to a few of your own endeavors – past and present. What season is trickiest for you? Is there a season you tend to skip over completely? For instance, do you plant seeds, tend to them for a while, but then neglect them and plant new seeds? Do you nourish your projects and invest your energy in them, but don’t let yourself actually celebrate the “harvest”? Do you go from one cycle to the next without ever letting yourself have a fallow period, when you let yourself do nothing and feel okay about it?

I encourage you to invite Nature into your life and see how much more colorful, alive, and right things feel.

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten


All text and images copyright 2017 by Peter Borten