On grief, on beauty, on Autumn
Part 1: Entering through the front door
Honestly I hate talking about the “Five Elements” because it always makes me feel like I’m one of those white people who gets a henna tattoo of a “sun goddess” while on vacation at Club Med. Or a character on a 90’s sitcom they name “Gaia” so you know that she’s sensitive/weird.
“Element” is a terrible, terrible word, that is almost completely meaningless and yet also instantly grosses me out.
I also hate the way we learn the Five Elements in acupuncture school. Our first semester, they hit us with a rapid-fire checklist of wild correspodences and expect us to connect them: “METAL ELEMENT. Emotion: grief. Taste: pungent. Color: white. Season: Autumn. Sound: crying. Organs: Lung and Colon.”
This is a terrible, terrible way to understand the 5 Elements.
It’s perfectly backwards for students because it divides a medicine whose strength is viewing life through anti-Cartesian wholeness and connectivity into exactly the opposite: a Microsoft Excel-style spreadsheet of Cartesian categories. I get why they teach it this way–because schools are exclusively trying to organize our brains toward multiple choice questions– but it is literally the most poetry-draining, depth-killing, sour perspective that separates the Five Elements from actual, lived experience.
And the Five Elements are precisely about lived experience! The better translation is “Five Transitions,” because that is what they are detailing: they are metaphors for how we how we change, how we develop through time, through the year or just the day. How life rises and how it falls away. How Yang turns to Yin, and then comes back again. The five great Transitions are a language to see our own developmental process–how we become–through a universal lens.
But this is heady stuff! So to jump in from the place of vague, macro Burning Man-esque concepts like “Metal” or “Wood” just makes no sense. TCM school teaching that rapid-fire checklist the first year (“Metal is Autumn. Metal is grief. Metal is Lungs. Don’t you get it???”) is like a realtor taking you into a new house through the garage door and then immediately asking “Don’t you LOVE the layout?” and I’m like “Is there even a bathroom in here??”
It’s completely backwards and distorts our relationship to the material: I didn’t get it, even if I got the multiple choice question right.
But then I crooked my neck and started to look at it counterclockwise. I started to study the seasons, which aren’t vague at all, which we intuitively understand because we experience them cyclically in our senses and in our bodies. I started to pay attention to Autumn, to sunset, to the changing colors of Fall, and then I felt my Lungs, and then I recognized grief, and then, finally, at the very end, I started to grasp Metal.
So that’s why I start at Autumn.
Autumn- the “Fall”–is the dusk of the year. The leaves turn red and then brown and die. The bang and bust of Summer is over; we are past life’s fulmination and now the bloom fades, Yang “fall”s to Yin, and the bright light of Summer’s Fire recedes to the dark void of Winter. We lose our grip on the thing we had–the value of Summer’s joy and brightness– and are asked to make peace with that recession, to see the loss not as pain, but as the natural course.
In this regard, Autumn is a model for how and why we let things go–to release that which doesn’t actually belong to us–when it is the time to let them go. Autumn asks that I see myself as part of the same cycle as a tree that loses its leaves, recognizing my own losses as part of the natural course of development.
The deaths of people I love, the aging of my face and thinning of my hair, the comings and goings of jobs, relationships, my savings– of course feel personal and devastating, but in a sense are no more so than the leaves of the tree turning red and brown and dying. It is a cosmic shedding, a paring back to reveal what is essential and fundamental, what lasts forever inside us. The leaves all die but the tree, even bare and fallow, remains.
I don’t believe the universe takes from me because I am pretty when I cry. (Though I am, very pretty.) Or because I deserve pain. Or because my broken heart nobly serves mankind. I experience loss because there is virtue in it for me: the purpose of loss is that it allows us to identify and refine our values, to hone that which we cherish, and to transform grief into beauty and poignancy: "I love what I love because I've felt what it is to lose it."
I value the green leaves because I have seen them slip away. The colors of Fall are beautiful, and that beauty is born from their decay–because it is dying–not despite it. Loss reveals the treasure of living, the pot of gold at the center, the Metal. The curriculum of Autumn is to see that the loss isn’t personal, we don’t own anything, and that there is nourishment in release: it hurt, but there was treasure in it.
The gift of Autumn is the sense of poignancy that emerges from the dynamic coincidence of appreciating the magnificence of living while simultaneously mourning its loss. Summer could never–with all those corndogs and hot nights and fireworks and laughter! What is dark and cold about Autumn precipitates its depth and its beauty.
My early understanding of Autumn and grief was that it was all pain; that the retching of watching things die–of feeling them ripped from me, too soon, too abruptly, unfairly and before I was ready–is all grief could be.
The longer I practice, and pay attention, the less I think this is so. The lesson of Autumn is that the pain isn’t from the loss–it’s not the grief, itself. The heartbreak is from refusing to let go of something that was never yours–and ultimately the suffering that comes with mistaking that anything belongs to you, or that ownership itself is real.
The trees don’t call foul when the leaves go: Autumn is only painful when we are clinging to Summer, digging our feet in in the hot sand and begging for one more day at the beach. But we don’t own Summer days just because we personally like to bathe in their sun.
So, we exhale and invite in Autumn, something beautiful turning into something else that is beautiful. And we hear poet Mary Oliver’s words:
“to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go”