The Religious Experience of SpringApr 25, 2022
The Five Elements are a vital, sacred vocabulary for our internal ecosystem, reminding us that the cycles of birth, death, and renewal live in our bodies as well as in the entirety of creation. Wood creates Fire, whose ashes become Earth, which forges and shapes Metal, whose mineral matrices dissolve into Water, which nourishes Wood as the creation cycle begins anew.
These old, primordial powers are not theoretical; they do not live in dusty books or in the minds of scholars, existing somewhere entirely outside of us. No, instead they are made potent and animate through us living them into being.
The truth is we all know the elements already; we all know the seasons. We know that still, parched feeling of deep summer, or the contracted, underground nature of winter. And right now, we know spring. We know its smell of hope, its innovative shades of green, the optimistic potential it brings in every blooming flower. We feel this in our bodies: a desire to move, to shake off the accumulated heaviness of winter, to reach for something new.
Take a moment right now to tune into what your body already knows about spring. What memories or smells buried within your dinosaur brain want to rise to the surface? What have your people known about this time of year? What stories, or songs, or secret yearning lived in their bodies that now live in yours?
When I tune into my body knowing, spring feels like an eruption of bright laughter in my cells. Where I currently live on unceded Abenaki territory in Northeastern lands, the winter keeps its contractive grasp over the land for a very long time. Its hard, stillness runs deep. And even into spring, winter is very hesitant about letting go. I have this image in my head of winter’s long bony fingers needing to be pried up, one by one, off the land. I am amazed by all the animals here, whose primary mating and reproductive months occur when it is often still below freezing. The ground, too reluctantly lets go with a bodily shaking, a rising and heaving, the twitch of muscles.
A lifting optimism does not come in flowers but in bird friends returning. For the first time in my life, this year, I actually caught the first morning of spring bird song. There was just the very slightest hint of warmth in the morning air and with it some brave, patiently waiting song birds decided the timing was Just. right. Now about a month later, I am ecstatically greeting old friends and noticing the very day they return: elegant queen Turkey Vultures riding the currents, their silvery under feathers gleaming when they tilt in the sun, Osprey come to hunt the lake and reorganize the wild disarray of their branch nests left behind from last year. Red Winged Black Birds vying for pond territories, once again home with their kin of cattails and hatching tadpoles.
So when I tune into spring in my body, I feel most aware of it arising through my shifting senses, particularly through my nose and ears. Yesterday, I was enchanted by the smell of wild garlic but I was never able to locate where it was coming from, it was just an ephemeral pungence on the breeze. The seemingly endless low tones of winter (the rubbing of stiff tree bodies, the sound of snow falling, the emptiness of animal song) is now overtaken by hustle and bustle of bird kingdoms in a riot of parade and celebration. Every morning I am so grateful for this ridiculous ruckus.
What do your animal senses know of spring? How is spring erupting up and out of your body? How is it showing up in your heart, in your mind, on your skin?
From an East Asian medicine perspective, springtime is associated with the Wood element, which in the physical body relates to the Liver channel or meridian. It's a little challenging to wrap up some exacting definition of a meridian because they are not just one thing: they are a system of spark or electrical conduction, they are pathways of life force, they are rivers of consciousness.
[And just a note, stay wise about not trying to equate your Liver meridian with your liver organ, they are not directly translatable.]
So what is the energetic signature of this Liver energy? When we feel into nature as a metaphor for the psyche, we find that we may already know (even unconsciously) about the soul lessons of this time. We know that it is a period of change, emergence, rising up, growing, expanding, freedom, clear vision, purpose and a sense of healthy initiation. We sense that our dreaming may take on a new found fierce exuberance.
The Wood element tells us that there is always a risk here, in the gamble of spring.
It can feel terrifying to chance ourselves into the vulnerability that life requires. An embryo of a seed holds the danger of waiting too long or the danger of leaving the seed too early- either of which lead to death. And yet, the embryo holds this impulse, this will to become.
These moments fascinate me. What do we really know of a seed’s decision to tear at its chest, to crack its heart wide open to the world?
How could we possibly understand when it has gathered the energy to initiate this great pushing forth? It is a fury of effort but also a complete surrender to transformation.
It feels like there is a spark of sheer will in this act. It is not the will of power or force, but an aligned will of resolute backbone and divine timing.
I have felt this timing in my body when my daughter finally felt ready to swim through my dark birth canal. We may also recognize it in the fresh-faced Maple bud, prepared to unfurl itself to a loving, unforgiving world. Or the Turkey Vulture’s knowing it’s time to travel South on wise wings itching for a sun recharge. Or the shaken torpor of a Hummingbird, the very moment it knows there are flowers waiting.
I wish we could give up our relentless efforts to understand every private riddle and secret chamber of this world. We do not need to have all the mysteries perfectly pinned down, contained, and forced into the light.
But what happens if this timing is never acted upon? Something in us may start to rot or stagnate. Anger, frustration, irritability can all arise, ultimately leading to a deeper sense of not expressing something essential within us. And this is an itch that comes up frequently for many of us- a feeling like we are holding ourselves back or that we are lacking in ways of sharing ourselves fully with the world. There is medicine in asserting ourselves at the right time, in the right way, otherwise we stay a small, cold seed stuck in the ground, too scared to try, too scared to grow, dying without ever having lived.
Now that sounds a little dramatic to my ears because I certainly don’t believe that our life needs to be expressed with some heroics or grandiosity. But let's explore, even in the most subtle of ways, how we can move our lives with the wood element.
We strengthen our Liver energy when we have regular experiences of flow activities, where we are neither bored, nor anxious, just immersed completely in the moment. In this place we are allowed to creatively express ourselves without self-doubt, but instead riding waves of intense interest, motivation, and concentration.
We strengthen our Liver energy when we move our bodies regularly, when our qi is able to circulate, when our hearts squeeze, when our fluids swirl, when breath and blood spread through all of our nooks and crannies. Breathing in deeply, we open our rib cages, release our tight diaphragms and enable ourselves to feel inspired, to have hope.
We strengthen our Liver energy when we allow ourselves to feel the therapeutic nature of anger and let it move through us organically. Instead of keeping it deep inside, we punch pillows, we sing with the radio blasting in the car, we frustratedly weep, allowing our tears to fall to the earth. We feel, we release, we allow our anger to move through us like a creature in its own right, with its own timing. We do not honor old inner stories about anger being bad. We do not repress, fester, or clam our mouths shut because we know that we can either explode or implode. We can move the qi up and out, otherwise it will go in and stay deeply unmetabolized. We do not tell ourselves to “just calm down” because we know that this angry energy (as uncomfortable as it might be) wants to create change.
We strengthen our Liver energy when we speak our truth. When we straighten up, take a stand, open our throats and let our voices be clear and amplified. This may be true for timid voices or when we are holding back feelings. It may also be true for initiating difficult conversations, when we are making up excuses for moving forward with, or leaning into voicing our truth.
We strengthen our Liver energy when we hold a growth mindset. When we embrace mistake-making, even failure, as a necessary and normal part of all growth. The victim attitude of the wood element may show up with a story of life continually cutting us back, grinding us down, stunting us into a sense of despair, hopelessness, and self-doubt. We need to stop expecting everything to go so easily, like life is a perfect line graph upwards.
This is the spirit question of Wood: how do we grow through our lives and into our soul’s full expression? When we become too controlling and inflexible, healthy liver energy reminds us to step back, take a breath, and get a wider perspective. It invites us into clear sight, taking the time to plan and vision before we act and to be willing to flow around obstacles instead of exhausting our resources in a direct assault against them. When in balance the wood element in us is attentive, releasing mental rigidity, and instead empowering us to see all possibilities.
Perhaps the standing people, the indigenous term for trees, are the best teachers of this wood energy, the way they flex their roots, stretch their branches, plump their buds and run life-giving sap-blood through their vessels. These channels ensure that the tips of the outermost fingers and the deepest toes of each tree are joined in a way that promotes emergent health.
I don’t want to over simplify and lump all trees together as if they are all the same. Each tree has its own timeline, its own ancestry, its own personality, its place within its larger family and community.
What can we learn from this kin of ours, these watchful creatures with slow heart beats, these guardians of vast consciousness. What do they have to tell us about living? We can sit with these beings and tune in with presence to better understand where wood lives in us. How do we contain bark, sprout, bud, chlorophyll longings and wise rootlings?
Bark seems so hard, so permanent, but it is growing, malleable, porous, kind of like our own bones. What do you know of stretching your roots down first, deep into the dark, before feeling stable enough to emerge into the light? Did you get enough time to strengthen your reserves this winter so that you have the energy to grow through this next cycle?
This can be a lovely time to go into deeper relationship with a tree in the place where you live, or in a park close by, or if that is not possible, seek out conversation with wood as an animate being, the wood in your home, the wood of your table, the wood of your floor, the wood of your toilet paper.
The easiest way to break down our mental barriers with these slow-moving, social trees is through our breath. Our breathing cycle exists in an exact opposite pattern from that of trees: we release carbon dioxide and they process this to, in turn, release oxygen as an offering of life. In turn, we have evolved biologically to mirror these plants, our lungs the holographic image of two living trees.
It is through the release of their aromatic, volatile oils that we are gifted with their ancient pranic intelligence, as well as their pharmacopeia of immunological genius. These respiratory tree oils contain antifungal, antibacterial, and antimicrobial medicine; having soaked up all the wisdom of their ancestral history, as well as all of the energy, sunlight, and moonlight in their environment. So just taking a deep breath outside is an opportunity to entangle our bodies with those of trees.
We might go even further by engaging in conversation or apprenticeship with a tree or wood, disrupting our conscious and unconscious beliefs in the human/nature split by speaking out loud to other living beings. Deeply psychologically problematic, when we don’t value the lives of other-than-human beings they become lifeless “things” or “resources” meant only for consumption and exploitation.
Humans have a place in the spiral of life but we are just one kind of being in a much wider field of relationship. Other-than-human beings have their own cultures, intelligences, languages, communities, and ways of being in the world. We don’t have to understand them to offer respect, appreciation, even awe. Definitely awe. I don’t know about you but unlike plants, I still haven’t figured out how to make food and medicine from light and water, just giving it all away in the end.
It seems like such a small thing, but this speaking out loud is a ritual skill, a subversive act that breaks our cultural agreement that plants are inferior to humans. In a way, it is an act of decolonizing, cleansing our psyches from the premise that humans are the most legitimate of all beings.
If you feel ready you might ask outloud:
“what can you teach me, friend, about the primal nature of wood?”
One aspect deeply illuminated to me in my apprenticeship with the old grandmother oaks on the land where I live is the blatantly vast interdependent interrelationality in which we exist. It is always present but perhaps most obvious during the spring as everything seems to be reaching for everything else. It is a party of polyphony, when there are so many voices blended together that no individual voice steals the show. Each a different melody, a different tone, but still finding a way to harmonize with each other.
There is no lone song. Many voices coalesce to make one louder all-song. Talking about individuals makes a lot less sense than it used to. These old grandmothers have secret intimacies that I will never know.
So we have been talking about the wood element all along here, but the true magic comes when we realize that wood must be nourished by water to grow, it burns to ash with fire, and on and on, each point along the wheel is supported by everything else. We are so much more than lonely parts.
Especially the places in the cycle that feel more liminal, in-between, the unnamed transitional spaces. These almost, what we perceive as empty gaps, are where the true relational juice lies, like the dark matter spaces between the stars. We can practice better seeing, really searching out with intention, these webs of interrelationality, and the way that they make all beings, big or small, blessedly essential.
Excerpt from Woman Who Rubs the Mountain Podcast: Spring and Our Longing to Become (4/22).