The discussion of Summer in Chinese Medicine begins with a book written in somewhere between 400 and 200 B.C.E., called the Huang Di Nei Jing, called The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic of Medicine. This is the Old Testament of Classical Chinese Medicine, our oldest text, studied and learned from by the physicians of Chinese Medicine without a break to the current era. The ideas below are primarily from this text, so when I refer to Chinese medicine I am referring to the teachings of the Nei Jing that those of us who practice Classical Chinese medicine still adhere to.
Disease Formation in Chinese Medicine
Classical Chinese Medicine (and Ayurveda) is clear that illness does not erupt of a void. Illness is not abstract. One women’s IBS or vertigo is not identical to another man’s IBS or vertigo even though they may share characteristics. Ellen’s vertigo is a flower growing out of Ellen’s soil, in Ellen’s garden. Bernie’s IBS has flourished in the soil of Bernie’s garden. A good doctor has to ask, what is the soil like in Ellen’s garden. Is the soil in Bernie’s garden too wet, too dry, too unnourished, over-nourished, too acidic, too alkaline.
The soil you start your garden with, that is there when you first arrive to your yard or field is like your DNA or what Chinese medicine calls your Pre-natal Qi, what Ayurveda calls your Dosha, or constitutional type. Whether you water your garden appropriate the the amount of heat or sun or rain or cold; whether you nourish your garden with good organic compost, whether you add gravel or new soil to improve the drainage, whether you match what you grow to the season and available sunlight, whether you protect your fruit trees from the raging summer sun with straw mulch, is the equivalent of your diet and lifestyle, how you cultivate and preserve what Chinese Medicine calls your Post-natal Qi.
Chinese medicine believes that it is often the perfect storm of factors that create health, good DNA, appropriate diet, healthy lifestyle like getting enough sleep, rest, recreation, and exercise, and, as important as anything else, how you relax your mind and nervous system, whether you cultivate wisdom, whether you have a positive mental attitude that is capable of weathering the natural suffering we all encounter in this world.
Chinese medicine also believes, therefore, that it is the perfect storm of negative factors that create disease–the bad luck of a weak constitutional type, flawed DNA, and diets and lifestyles that do not respect natural wisdom, such as living in tune with the seasons. It is like this: what we can control is how we manage a poor constitution, how we respond to flawed DNA and random bad events in terms of our lifestyle, mental culture (meditation) and diet.
Qi in Chinese Medicine: Living in Tune with the Seasons as a Lifestyle
On aspect of a healthy lifestyle both Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda talk about constantly is living in tune with the seasons. This is very important, because our body minds are as influenced by or effected by the earth’s annual revolution around the sun, not to mention its daily spinning on its axis, as plants and animals are. For God’s sake, let us be humble for just a second. We are, in fact, just fancy pants mammals. We are so similar to dogs, wolves, bears, cats, pigs, dolphins, wales, chimpanzees, orangatangs, baboons, and gorillas it is not even funny. Its reality. They are our closest cousins on earth and its arrogance, the kind God talks about in the Bible all the time, that leads us to think we can create unnatural worlds of constant stimulation and light without being affected negatively. Human beings are, in fact, an integral part of nature. We don’t so much have dominion as we have the intelligence, if we would use, to make better worlds out of what nature gave us.
There are things we can do, even with the things that are inescapable. One is to follow a lifestyle that shows respect for nature, that is the seasonal changes, from the long days of hot summer to the short days of cold winter ,and the two hinges between these times of maximum hot yang light and maximum cold yin dark, autumn and spring, when the energies close and open respectively. Chinese medicine calls this dance of nature the relationship between Heaven and Earth, heaven here being, not the heaven of the Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but Nature in the sky that bring us gamma rays, neutrinos, the elements that found their way to earth from exploded stars, the tides that the moon produces, the day and night the sun’s presence and absence produces, eclipses, the seasons, wind, rain, sun, hail, desert dryness.
The ancient Chinese described the four seasons as the four “Qi” I am not sure what you would call Qi in physics, but in this context it is the sum total of everything that is different in nature in each of the seasons; it is what tells birds to migrate and bears to hibernate, it is what causes the changes in the ocean currents the Polynesians used to traverse the great Pacific, etc., etc. It is the interaction betwee Earth and Heaven, that gave birth and gives birth to life. And this process of exchange between what the ancient Chinese called Heaven and Earth is unceasing and involves different kinds of Qi accumulating, (like the hot Qi of summer), transforming, and sliding into each other. To live is to maintain harmony with universal life. To harmonize what we are as individual beings with universal life is to harmonize ourselves with the season in which we are, because the seasons are more than just a change in the LL Bean or J.Crew catalogue; the seasons are Qi, a very powerful influence, the opening and closing of bellows between the sky and land in which emanations rise, as plants do to combine with the emanations of heaven, exactly in this case the way plants make chlorophyll from the sun which is then eaten by herbivores who are eaten by carnivores who themselves then excrete waste products that fall back in to the earth to fertilize new plants all of which contain iron and other elements all of which were brought to earth by cosmic winds from the explosive deaths of giant stars.
Chinese medicine describes Qi as more important than time. We can waste time and nothing happens. But when we waste our Qi we become weak and malnourished, physically and mentally. One way we waste Qi is by fighting nature. One way we fight nature is by not respecting the Qi of the season. Simple things like overdoing cooling in summer through freezing air conditioning or giant iced beverages that overchill the gut and the Lungs so we get dampness where we want dry. Its also the emotional relationship with the season that you really start to feel when you spend time hiking over and over again in the same place through different seasons, or when you surf, or garden, or allow yourself to just be a kid.
Summer in Chinese Medicine As Described by The Nei Jing
The great scholar of Chinese philosophy and medicine, Father Claude Larre, describes Summer in Chinese Medicine in the Nei Jing Su Wen this way, “construction gives way to completion (this is an agricultural metaphor). Summer perfects what Spring had begun (another words we can now eat the fruits, like peaches, that began as flowers in spring). Fire and power are the dominant virtues of the season (as an ocean swimmer I relate to this personally. In summer, thanks to the fire of the sun, I bravely jump into the ocean even if, as is often the case in San Diego, the sea water remains cold).
The Bitter Taste of Summer in Chinese Medicine
It is interesting that in Chinese medicine the “taste” or “flavor” associated with fire, the taste of Summer, is the bitter taste. Charcoal, the taste of barbequed meat and vegetables, is bitter. It might seem paradoxical then, that in Chinese herbal medicine, almost all the herbs that clear heat and that are used for hot type skin, inflammatory, and infectious disorders from acne, to ulcerative colitis, to interstitial cystitis, to colds and bronchitis, range from bitter to extremely bitter. Bitter tasting herbs and vegetables clear heat from the body. This is why vegetables are considered to “keep the body clean,” because they balance the warming quality of grains and flesh foods, and prevent pathological heat from arising in the gut through constipation. But its no paradox, its actually the relationship between Yin and Yang, how everything in Chinese philosophy and medicine finds balance. The flavor of each season balances the effects of the Qi of the season. Bitter tasting foods pacify the fire of Summer Qi.
The 7 periods of the Summer in Chinese Medicine
Chinese medicine divides the year into 24 periods. The 7 periods of summer are “the filling of grain, the grain in ear, the solstice, the slight heat, the great heat, the beginning of autumn, and the end of summer heat. The middle three periods above show the height of summer. In Spring everything budded up with the energy of the earth in response to the longer days and greater warmth. But now in Summer the heat becomes a danger, just as it really does for people in hot climates, or even the temperate zones. Summer crushes everything under heaven with the enormous weight of heat. Plants shrivel and dry out if not watered, fruits ripen, and we must stay hydrated and cool. This is why in Ayurveda, Pitta types, who are themselves firey, people who get headaches from the sun, who burn easily, who are impatient and hot tempered, are advised to exercise in the shade and the early or late hours.
Seek Out High Places in Summer
The rituals of the summer in Chinese medicine give a sense of nature at flourish. Since everything on earth at this time has the nature of rising yang, we are advised to seek out high places in which to live and take walks. Another words, go camping in the mountains. Like my friend Alice who is a shepherdess in Ariege, in the Pyrenee Mts, follow the flock to the upper range. The contemplation of vast, profound landscapes from on high tunes our beings with the the vital principle of Summer, which is maximum Yang. And it is this vital principle that is reversed, even a little violently, as days shorten and Summer gives way to autumn.
The Lifestyle of Summer in Chinese medicine as espoused by The Nei Jing Su Wen, Chapter Two
I. The 3 months of summer
are called prospering and developing the flower.
The Qi of Heaven and Earth intertwine,
The 10,000 beings flower and bring forth fruit.
II. At night, one goes to bed (which here means you can stay up late)
at dawn one rises (which means get up early, with the sun)
One does not let oneself be overcome by the sun,
Exerting the will, but without violence,
Assisting the brilliance of beauty and strength which thus fulfill their promise.
One must assist the flow of Qi, which like to go to the exterior.
III. This corresponds with the summer Qi.
It is the way that maintains the growth of life.
To go against the current of Summer’s Qi would injure the heart (the organ in which Qi flows most in Summer),
Causing, in Autumn, intermittent fever, through an insufficient supply for harvesting,
When winter comes, the illness will get worse.
translation from the Chinese by Father Larre, from the French into English by Peter Firebrace
Commentary on the Nei Jing Su Wen Chapter 2
Here, in stanza I, the ancients describe the deliciousness of summer, how everything is in flower and fruit, from baby mammals to warm seas full of fish. We, too, feel good in summer, dwellers of the temperate zones tend to love summer with it long days and ample sun. Its when we take our long vacations most often. We fill our lives with late nights, there are so many festivals and activities from the night time zoo to the late hours at the museum from June weddings to summer baseball.
But, as stanza II says, and this is the big “but” for us United Stateseans, used to doing whatever we want regardless of the season, one musn’t over do. Summer is not the time to run the marathon or hike in the desert. Exert your will, another words take advantage of the delight which is summer, but don’t be stupid. Don’t get sunstroke. Don’t over do it. This is why, for example Asian culture is full of cooling summer foods that not only clear heat but replenish fluids from sweet rice with white ginseng to the juice of Gotu Kola leaves. The violence here is the loss of Qi that occurs through excessive sweating and exposure to heat, full stop. Nothing complicated. This leads to exhaustion and a weakened system for winter.
Remember people lived close to the land then, but this still applies. It also refers to the way people over cool in summer, with excessive amounts of raw foods, cold foods, iced beverages and air conditioning. In ancient times people overate fruit in summer. One can still do that, but for most people its over consumption of even worse things that damage the healthy metabolic fire of the body and weaken our physiological yang. The stanza continues, with the acknowledgment that, as the Qi flows to the surface in summer (in Summer our radial pulses feel more superficial), we flow with it by giving ourselves over to the release of yang, but without excess.
Finally, in stanza III, our author describes what happens when you go against the flow of summer through over exertion, and exhaustion of ones fluids in Summer, in terms that describe the way people develop, over time, many of the autoimmune disorders and strange functional disorders of modern living, often beginning with the gut. Remember, the author does not necessarily describe one summer only. This pattern of fever and overheating can happen though yearly, repeated, overheating.
Basic Lifestyle Errors of Summer in Chinese Medicine
The author describes how going against the Summer’s Qi, whether with a woody, taciturn nature that cannot let go and have fun outdoors or with other people, or by staying locked up in the house playing video games, or by not going out and experiencing the joys of nature and the garden, or by overdoing exercise and sweating in the hot sun, or by overdoing cooling with too many raw foods or refrigerated beverages, in the end you body’s Qi, symbolized by the heart, which should be so full of summer joy (indeed many herbs that replenish the Qi and fluids in summer, like white Ginseng RenShen, are said to benefit the Heart Qi) becomes drained and leaves not enough Qi for the Lungs to harvest in Autumn. This describes how the Qi in a human flows through the seasons from the Heart in Summer to the Lungs in Autumn to the Kidneys in Winter to the Liver in Summer, corresponding to Fire, Metal, Water, and Wood. The period of change between each season is Earth, where energy passes through the gut. This is why we practice special kinds of moxibustion and acupuncture during each seasonal change to strengthen earth, which is shorthand for our body’s fundamental ability to process and digest change.
So if you waste and lose your Qi in Summer, which is like depleting the bank account of your postNatal Qi, a fundamental lifestyle mistake akin to getting a chill over and over again in winter while drinking iced smoothies and eating raw foods, then you will be in a weakened state in Autumn and get the kind of low grade fever seen often with certain kind of disease. Now your resistance is weakened, and you are more susceptible to colds, flu, and bronchitis (Autumn energy fills up the lungs, so your lung qi is left weakened), but in Winter it will get worse. This is one example of how autoimmune disorders, especially involving fever and exhaustion begin. We see this in the clinic frequently. A long period of low grade fever, like 99 degrees, preceding a more severe illness.
Next! Ways to Keep Cool in Summer without overdoing the Cold.
copyright eyton shalom, july 2016, san diego ca all rights reserved use with permission