Autumn and the Metal Element in Taoist Thought

The Taoist five element system consists of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. It is based on observation of the natural world and on the movement of energies throughout the year, where each season represents the energetic characteristic of a particular element.

Autumn is the season of metal.

When the air begins to cool, the shadows lengthen, and the leaves begin to change, I often think to myself, “Autumn is my favorite season.” One of the characteristics of the metal element is refinement, and after the heat of the summer and late summer months, I love putting on layers of clothes, donning vest and scarves, and dressing for the metal season.

Autumn is characterized by dryness, where the heat of summer has depleted the moisture in the environment. The ground is harder, the air is drier, the vegetation begins to dry up, and the streams run low. As our bodies are intimately woven into the fabric of the environment in which we live, these changes also affect us physically, as well as emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

The Lungs and Large Intestine are the organ networks that correspond to the metal element. In the clinic, we see more upper respiratory issues, a dry cough is common, and people often present with drier skin, especially people who are more prone to heat and dryness, such as women going through menopause. Our therapeutic strategies often include the use of foods and herbal medicines that moisten dryness at this time of year.

The Lungs are our most direct connection to life and to our mortality. We can live for days without water, a little longer without sleep, and for weeks without food, but we can go only a few minutes without breathing before our mortality becomes imminent. Autumn can bring about a deeper awareness of our mortality and invites us to consider the passing of our physical bodies. The metal element is associated with feelings of sadness and grief as we consider loved ones who’ve passed, and the loss of the fullness and beauty that spring and summer often bring.

We use an ax or a saw to cut wood, we use shears to trim a hedge, and in autumn, the leaves fall from the trees. These examples are all representative of the controlling relationship between metal and wood in the five element system. While wood, represented by springtime, is a time of outward, creative growth, metal is a time of consolidation, of cutting away, and preparing for the coming winter. Some of the virtues of the metal element are balance, non-attachment, purity, righteousness, and receptivity.

As we prepare for the coming winter, the return to origin, I encourage us to embody these qualities as we follow the natural way of things.

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