"Healing With Nature" Revisited

"Healing With Nature" Revisited,

Ten years ago, in the Summer edition of my newsletter, Root & Branches, I wrote an article which was well-received by patients and friends. A couple of weeks ago a friend reminded me of the article and how much he had enjoyed it. This peaked my curiosity, so I dug out a copy of the newsletter, reread the article and realized that it's as timely now as it was then. I've reworked the article a bit and want to share it with you here. I hope you enjoy it...

Healing With Nature & The Five Elements

I went for a drive recently along the Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway, up to Crown Point and then down to Latourell Falls. It was a Sunday, so both places were crowded and at times it felt like I had never left the bustle of Portland. Eventually, I found a quiet spot along the trail leading to the falls and stopped to rest. Although all the waterfalls in the Gorge are beautiful, Latourell Falls is a very special place for me. When I go there, I like to sit quietly and listen to the thunder of the falling water and the rush of the stream that flows below it. I watch the sun as it crests overhead, sending ribbons of light flickering over the basalt boulders at its base. I breathe in the smell of wet rock and vegetation, and the rich humus of the canyon floor. I soak in the cool mist that bathes my face and watch the falls dance snakelike to the rhythm of the breeze. I always feel calm and renewed when I leave there.

In the early years of Chinese medicine (2000-5000 years ago by different estimates), it's likely that people experienced a much closer connection to Nature than most of us do today. They subsisted by farming, hunting and gathering. They collected water from streams, springs and wells. They lived in much more primitive and exposed conditions. Their existence depended on their abilities to understand and harmonize with the natural landscape, with the cycles of the sun and moon, and with the changing of the seasons. They honored the spirits of the Earth.

Today, we seem much less aware of Nature's influence in our lives. Most of us live in densely packed cities, in houses with central heating and air conditioning, with water that's piped in from distant reservoirs. We gather our supplies from shelves and bins at super markets and eat food which was grown in places named Locally, California, Mexico and Chile. We rarely look up to the sky to notice its shifting weather patterns, the stars that fill the night or the ever-changing phases of the moon. Many of us get up in the morning, go to work, stop at the gym, come home, watch television, check our emails and go to bed. It's easy to understand how we've become disconnected from the natural world and less aware of its influence on us.

Yet, this Spring I was struck by the number of people who mentioned how delighted they were to be back working in their gardens. All of them commented on how good it felt to spend time digging and planting again. In a couple of instances, they remarked on how grounded they felt when working in their yards. When they're anxious, upset, preoccupied, stressed or feeling scattered, a bit of gardening helped to reduce these emotions and regain their senses of centeredness and calmness.

I'm sure that the soothing effects of Latourell Falls and working in the garden can be ascribed to a variety of factors: the engaging effect of the activities, the fresh air and increased oxygen, the negative ions created by the waterfall, a bit of light exercise and aerobic activity, as well as the beauty of the surroundings. It's difficult to feel bad when surrounded by Nature. In my experience, however, there's another factor at work here which goes unnoticed: the influence of the Five Elements - Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood.

Traditionally, Chinese medicine places special emphasis on our relationship to Nature and its Five Elements. Each of these elements has an affinity to specific organs in the body: Fire aligns with Heart, Earth with Spleen, Metal with Lung, Water with Kidney and Wood with Liver. I've studied Chinese medicine for twenty years and have spent at least forty years developing a closer relationship with Nature. I've come to realize that when we spend time in Nature and pay attention to its sights, sounds, tastes, smells and textures, we actually interact with and take in a bit of its healing energy. Nature affects us not only because it calms and relaxes us, but because these Five Elements exert a powerful influence on our bodies, minds and spirits.

The elements of Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood are a way of describing Nature's influence within us. These elements become more alive and their impact on us becomes increasingly evident when we pay attention to their influence on our health. When we develop an awareness of these relationships, we can utilize the Five Elements to our benefit.

When I visit Latourell Falls, I'm actually bathing myself in all five elements: the Water element of the falls and stream, the Metal of the basalt walls, the Fire of the warm sun, the Wood of the green trees and the Earth of the rich humus. Because my Kidney energy tends to run low, I probably receive the most support from the Water influence which dominates there, but Liver (Wood), Lungs (Metal), Heart (Fire) and Spleen (Earth) are all supported by the time I spend there.

During the cold, wet Portland winters, when we lack joy or "fire" in our lives (think seasonal depression in February), spending time in a sunny location like Hawaii or Arizona brings warmth into our bodies and Fire back into our lives.

In the case of gardening, the grounding effects of digging and planting are also related to the act of working in the soil, the Earth element which nourishes the Spleen and Stomach. But without realizing it, we're also interacting with Metal (rocks), Fire (the sun), Wood (plants) and Water (in the watering can and the rain).

We often use the Five Elements spontaneously, without conscious thought or planning, like working in the garden or walking in the sun without really knowing why we feel so good when we do it. Sometimes we get the most benefit from things when we don't work at it, but do it simply for the joy of doing it!

Here's a little exercise that I use to connect with the Five Elements when I'm out hiking:

Let's say I'm hiking the Upper Salmon River trail. If you've ever been there, you know that the sound of rushing water pervades your experience. As I hike along, I extend my awareness to the sound of the river, become aware of my low back (where my kidneys are located) and imagine the sound of the water flowing into my kidneys, filling them with the color blue, which in Chinese medicine is the color associated with Kidney. Or I might just imagine water flowing into my kidneys, along with the sound of the river. I play with the images, letting whatever seems to work at that moment be my guiding image. My intent is usually to increase Kidney energy because of its ability to help strengthen my low back and hips, so I might also imagine the water penetrating my pelvis, hips and spine.

On other occasions, I might become aware of the plants and trees, trying to draw in the energy of Wood. Taking in Wood energy can help cleanse and revitalize the Liver, a great thing to do when I'm irritable, frustrated or feeling depressed. All of these emotions are tied to Liver, so providing support to the Liver when they're dominating my life can be helpful.

If I'm having digestive difficulties, I might become attuned to the smell of the dirt and humus, using that to draw in the Earth element to strengthen the Spleen.

If I'm recovering from a cold, I might sit on a rocky overlook, feel the warmth radiating from the rocks underneath me and imagine the Metal element movingĀ  into my body to warm my lungs. The warmth opens the lungs up, allowing fresh blood and oxygen to diffuse through them and into my body, while clearing the cold and strengthening my lungs.

It never hurts to bring Fire to my Heart, as the Heart's Fire provides vitality to all my organs. I might feel the warmth of the sun on my skin and allow it to penetrate deep into my body until it reaches my heart, filling it with the color red and the emotion of joy. Red is the color associated with the Heart and joy is its emotion.

There are no rules about how to do this. The trick is to use your imagination, visualize using your mind's eye and extend your senses to the natural world. Follow your curiosity and most times it will lead you to the element which will most support you and in the way that it can best do this. Be open to using images, sounds, smells, tastes, colors and sensations. Using more than one sensory channel can strengthen the effect, but don't make it too difficult. Play with it and have fun.

So, the next time you're working in your garden or visiting the beach or skiing at Mt. Hood or camping in the Alvord Desert or fishing in the Deschutes or even walking the dike path along Marine Drive, bring attention to your natural surroundings and awareness to the influence of the Five Elements at work in the landscape. Let their energy permeate you and enjoy the healing potential they offer. It's Nature's gift to all of us.