The days are slowly getting longer, and my tree peonies are looking like they will bloom soon. A lot of April was rather chilly this year, but in the last two days we have had a taste of warmer weather with the days being in the 80s and 90s. This weather is right on time because in the traditional calendar today, tomorrow, May 5th, starts the Beginning of Summer (Li Xia 立夏) seasonal node.
The bursting out of life in nature is incredibly palpable now. Plants are quickly sprouting up from the ground, and leaves are appearing on the trees. The days are really are much longer and brighter, and at this point in time, in only about 1 ½ months the days will start getting shorter again. Right now the Yang of the natural world is close to its fullest, and correspondingly the hexagram that represents this time of year is Qian Gua (乾卦) – six solid-Yang lines.
Summer is associated with the Fire phase, although the 4th month belongs to the Spleen (the 4th month in the Chinese calendar is May, since February is the first month). This is interesting as in ancient times the Heart was associated with the Earth phase as well as the Fire phase. For example, in the Shuo Wen Jie Zi, the Han Dynasty dictionary that gives the etymology of ancient characters, the definition of Heart is 人心土藏 – “human Heart, the Earth zang-viscera.” The Spleen channel also has a direct connection to the Heart Zang. Many of you who practice Tung’s acupuncture will notice that the main Heart Dao Ma group is located in the space between the Spleen and Stomach Channels; this Dao Ma group is the Zu San Tong consisting of Tong Guan 88.01, Tong Shan 88.02 and Tong Tian 88.03. In Tung’s acupuncture all of the major Heart points have some relationship with Pericardium channel, the original Heart channel from the Neijing (e.g., the Source point of Heart in the Ling Shu is Da Ling PC-7, not Shen Men HT-7). One needling technique we can use during this time of year with otherwise healthy patients is to incorporate Pericardium channel points (such as Nei Guan PC-6) or the Zu San Tong Dao Ma group into point prescriptions. These points help the body harmonize with the movement of the season right now.
To remind everyone, each of the 24 Seasonal Nodes has a traditional set of health guidelines where we should focus on certain things and avoid others. For Beginning of Summer the traditional things we focus on are preserving a good mood, nourishing the Heart, and thereby entering stillness (保持良好情緒，養心入靜). The things to avoid are allowing Heart fire to become too exuberant and intemperance in food and drink (心火過旺，飲食沒有節制).
As we just mentioned, the Heart is the fire organ. This means that occasionally it is prone to excess heat, signs of which include insomnia, irritability, dry and hard stool, red eyes, and thirst for cold beverages. One way to avoid excess Heart Fire is to dress appropriately for the warmer weather as it starts to come. Avoid strenuous work in direct midday sun, instead taking advantage of the slightly cooler temperatures in the early morning or later afternoon. Be sure to consume plenty of clear fluids such as water or herbal teas. Mint tea and chrysanthemum tea are both gently cooling to the body, and additionally they help with allergies that are so prevalent right now in northern New Jersey.
Another way to avoid problems of Heart Fire is closely tied in with traditional meditation and body cultivation practices (such as Neidan, or in modern terms, Qigong). Early medical texts such as the Ma Wang Dui manuscripts taught the importance of sinking the Qi down to the lower part of the body, a place in cultivation literature known as the Dan Tian (丹田; Tanden たんでん in Japanese). This idea later became vitally important in meditation schools such as those of Internal Alchemy, and then was inherited by modern Qigong practitioners. The flaring up of fire is seen to be an extremely harmful problem, and one of the main ways to counteract this is by focusing on the space in the abdomen – the Dan Tian. This can be done during standing meditations, such as standing post (站樁), or in seated meditations (坐禪). Doing these types of practices regularly is perhaps one of the best ways to deal with the upflaring of Heart Fire. For those in New Jersey or New York, we discuss these techniques frequently in our weekly Neigong/Qigong and Taijiquan classes.
Diet for Beginning of Summer
With the new seasonal node come new dietary suggestions. One of the first is to avoid intemperance in food and drink. Overeating, especially of very heavy, sweet or greasy foods, places a burden on the Spleen. Overeating these foods, and overconsumption in general, also create internal heat that can worsen Heart Fire.
In terms of flavors, this time of year we should focus on eating slightly more sour, a little more bitter, and light or gently cooling foods. Eating sour foods helps build fluids and blood so as to nourish the Heart, and bitter can drain fire. As heat in the environment increases it is understandably important to eat more light / fresh vegetables and other foods that will gently cool the body. Specific foods to consider this Seasonal Node include bananas, peaches, plums, umeboshi (Japanese salted plums), asparagus, cucumber and corn. Since this time of year is associated with Fire and Heart, red foods are also good to incorporate – think of strawberries, tomatoes and hawthorn berries.
It is appropriate to increase slightly intake of water or herbal teas. Patients who tend towards excess heat can drink chrysanthemum tea. Even though the beginning of Summer means more heat, some patients still may be cold and vacuous internally. Since Summer in many places also has increased environmental dampness, these people can drink a very light ginger tea or fennel seed tea, sweetened if desired local honey. Allergy sufferers (right now in New Jersey we are in the middle of a allergy season) can take mint tea with local honey, as local honey is used as a traditional allergy remedy.
Two traditional Beginning of Summer recipes are Celery Congee (芹菜粥) and Suan Zao Ren Congee (酸棗仁粥). For Celery Congee take several stalks of celery, remove the leaves, clean and cut into small pieces. Take an appropriate amount of white rice and cook in water to make a porridge (i.e., congee), and then add celery for the last 10-15 minutes of cooking. Add salt and pepper to taste. This recipe clears heat and extinguishes fire, reduces blood pressure, and eliminates vexation. However, it should be avoided by those with Spleen-Stomach vacuity cold patterns. Celery Congee can be taken daily in the morning as a warm breakfast. This recipe originally comes from the Ben Cao Gang Mu.
For the second recipe, Suan Zao Ren Congee, use about 50g of Suan Zao Ren 酸棗仁 to about 100g of white rice. Add an appropriate amount of water and boil until you have congee. At the end, add a small amount of sugar or honey to taste. This recipe can be taken as an evening snack as it can treat Heart vacuity and vexation to help sleep.
And one last recipe for Beginning of Summer...
Pickled Cold Lotus Root 清涼藕片
- 1 lb. lotus root
- 3 cups rice vinegar (or white vinegar)
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ tsp salt
- 1 small red chili pepper
- Peel lotus root and then slice into VERY thin slices; soak for a few minutes in a bowl of cold water with a little white vinegar to keep from discoloring
- Slice red chili pepper in to very thin slices, or julienne; if whole pepper is not available then substitute with red pepper flakes if desired
- Combine vinegar, sugar and salt in a small saucepan, bring to a simmer for just one minute, and stir to be sure salt and sugar have completely dissolved
- Bring another pot of water to boil and parboil lotus root for several minutes; then drain in colander and cool with cold running water
- Put cool lotus root and sliced chili pepper in a clean bowl and cover with the vinegar solution; cover and then refrigerate at least overnight or up to a few days before eating; to eat, remove from liquid and serve chilled
This recipe nourishes yin, clears heat, supplements vacuity and awakens the Spleen. It is good for those with poor digestion as well as those with dryness symptoms.
I hope you are all enjoying the gradually improving weather. Happy Summer!