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The Metal Element: Inspiration for the Darker Season

By Sarah Clark, LAc 

            In Classical Chinese medicine, the element associated with fall is metal. Think of the sensual experience of metal: hard, cold, sometimes sharp, often heavy. The heaviness of the metal season can leave us feeling bereft. The leaves fall with abandon, the rain keeps coming. The sun seems to have walked out on us overnight without even leaving a note.

We may feel our losses more sharply through the longer nights and colder days. Yet if we’re in harmony with nature, we recognize the quickening within as well. We rake our leaves. We tend to our hearts with a fire in the woodstove, a pot of soup, a good book. If we are wise, we allow ourselves this variation in mood, this sadness, this grief that comes as naturally with fall as does the rain.

The sharpness of metal–the cutting away of the sun and warmth, which calls up our grief—also makes things more clear and, sometimes, more beautiful. Picture the gold of a wedding band, hear the resounding of church bells. Metal clarifies. Metal brings precision. It’s the angle of a skyscraper, the simple perfection of haiku, the knowing when to say “Goodbye, I’m done now” and then to say nothing more–because some partings are exactly right.

Yet that sharpness of metal, that adeptness at parting–when it’s unhealthy–can also become too sharp. When metal element is out of balance, we can be cold and critical, overly concerned about being right, overly focused on the wrongness of differing ideas. We find we’ve created this inflexible, metallic sense of self that feels cut off from the world.

Metal is associated with the lungs. And if we are feeling cut off and critical, we tend to breathe shallowly. Our bodies don’t get enough oxygen. We feel less inspired, less alive, more prone to illness.

Take a deep breath. Keep breathing. Do things that inspire the deepness of breath. To inspire is quite literally to breathe—and we can’t even begin to do the work of healthy metal until we have inspired our own lungs.

And once we are breathing, how do we work with the pathological metal in our own natures?

According to Wang Fengyi, it is by working with the virtue of metal: selflessness.[1] The person with healthy metal uses their clarity of vision to be selfless–to look honestly at their own shortcomings and to see and reflect the best qualities in others.

Here the balance is tricky. Looking at our own shortcomings doesn’t mean that we beat ourselves down with criticism. It means that we’re willing to look realistically at ourselves and to let go—or cut away—those misperceptions that keep us stuck. We don’t involute. We become real with ourselves—with the worst and the best in us. In this way, we befriend ourselves.

When we are not afraid to be with our own truth, we can be the bell that resounds with the beauty of the world around us. We can reflect the qualities of authentic rightness in our children, our partners, our parents—even in those whose ideas differ profoundly from our own. We might even inspire a new way to bridge with those we’d previously cast as antagonists in our lives. When we are truly selfless, we relate to others from an undefended place, a place of possibility and authenticity.

This fall, in his Waldorf school’s celebration of Michaelmas, my first-grader played the part of a meteor. He and his classmates dressed in golden yellow and wore delicate crowns of sparkly stars. As meteors, they were messengers of St. Michael, who represents courage and truth in the waning light of fall. Courage to tame our inner dragons, to go within and nourish our inner light in the season of darkness. The first-grader meteors beckoned the older children in the pageant—those who played the courtiers and knights–to tame the scary dragon, to use their swords to bring the many-legged beast to its knees. I got tears in my eyes at the truth expressed in this simple act. With laughter and tears–with the sword of our healthy metal–we can tame our dragons. Metal is the sword of truth, and it’s also the meteor flashing across the night sky reminding us of the light within.

[1] Liu Yousheng, “Let the Radiant Yang Shine Forth: Lectures on Virtue”, 2014, Happy Goat Productions, Portland, OR.