Today is the first day of the seventh lunar month. In the traditional Daoist calendar this is the day that Yama, the King of Hell, opens the gates of hell to allow all the spirits of the deceased to wander the earth – basically a one-month vacation for ghosts. This happens until the gates are once again closed at the end of the lunar month. The culmination of the month is the 15th lunar day (this year August 25), which is known as Zhong Yuan Jie (中元節).
Throughout this month there are many taboos that Chinese culture observes. These include not allowing the elderly, the very young or generally physically weak people to do various activities outside at night. This is the time of day when ghosts are most active! Qigong should also not be practiced outside late at night during this time.
Whether or not we believe that this month is the time of ghosts, what this custom perhaps does is remind us of how the natural balance of Yin and Yang is shifting in a very real way this time of year. A few days ago I posted a blog about the beginning of Autumn. Even though days are still hot in August, it is true that we are in the beginning of the Yin portion of the year. After the Summer Solstice the days start to slowly get shorter. By August here in northern New Jersey plant growth is mostly over. Even the grass is growing more slowly than before. In the environment we are seeing a significant increase in dampness and humidity – water being a Yin substance. Now, one of the main pathological environmental factors our patients face is dampness, or summerheat-dampness (a combination of pathogenic Yin and Yang together).
When I look at customs like the ghost month, I see other interesting health recommendations. For example, I usually practice Qigong in the evening, but I am certainly not practicing outside at night this month (my kitchen is my usual practice spot these days). Ghosts or not, there are so many mosquitoes and insects outside that there’s no way I can practice Zhan Zhuang (standing post) outside! These types of insects, as vectors for disease, can cause serious problems in people who might be more vulnerable – such as the elderly, the young, or the sick. This week New Jersey had its first confirmed case of West Nile virus, a disease spread by mosquitoes. While most health people are fine when bitten by ticks or mosquitoes, people who are weaker, or those with some sort of compromised immune function are at greater danger. Interestingly, modern research has shown that some traditional taboos during ghost month actually lower mortality rate for the month (click here for some research).
Other health recommendations this time of year also focus on counteracting the growing Yin. In some parts of China around the time of Summer Solstice there is the custom of hanging herbs such as Ai Ye and Shi Chang Pu above doors. Both Ai Ye and Shi Chang Pu are aromatic, and the aromatic nature is Yang that can disperse Yin influences as well as ward off insects. Some people will also put powdered Xiong Huang (realgar) at the bottoms of doors to keep bugs out of the house (realgar is a very toxic medicinal).
In terms of internal herbal medicine, this is the time of year when a lot of patients benefit from formulas such as Huo Xiang Zheng Qi Tang. This formula contains aromatic and Qi moving medicinals such as Huo Xiang, Hou Po, Chen Pi and Bai Zhi to transform damp. It also includes medicinals that likewise strengthen the Spleen so as to allow for normal movement and transformation (the Yang functions of the Spleen). This idea of expelling the Yin and supporting the Yang is the same principle underlying the use of San Fu moxa (see previous blog posts).
So, please be careful out there and avoid the Yin, ghosts or not. But, just to be sure, I for one will be burning some joss paper outside later today to appease some ghosts!