If you live in the concrete jungle, there’s a good chance you feel a separation between your day-to-day life and all the things we call “Nature” or “wilderness”. Humans evolved over millions of years in close relationship with the unforgiving environment, and its influence on us is still very real. And yet, we often live our lives as if we play by a different set of rules than those followed by every other living thing on Earth.
The rhythmic changes in our natural environment resonate with our bodies and minds on a deep level. Western science has found there to be a circadian clock within every cell in the body that keeps track of the cycles of day and night, and regulates cellular activity accordingly. The ancient science that underpins acupuncture and Eastern medicine deduced that, in addition to the daily cycles, there are seasonal cycles which have an equally powerful influence on our body and mind.
The various cycles in nature resonate with particular activities within us. However we, these self-conscious, tool-wielding mammals, have the choice to follow the cues of nature, or ignore them. The choice we make can have significant consequences for our health. This realization is the cornerstone of many of the ideas and practices of traditional Eastern medicine.
Respecting the changes of the seasons is the most important thing you can do to promote health and prevent illness.
The connection between the seasonal changes and humanity runs deep. It is physiological, psychological, and spiritual. Healthy young people can usually power through any sort of madness and recover before their health suffers and symptoms arise, but the rest of society would be wise to pay attention to what our environment is trying to tell us.
I remember, as early as 12 years old, staying up to two or three a.m., reading, watching movies, drawing, and wasting time in all the ways kids did before the Internet. In the summer, I could sleep in the next morning and still do something with my time. In the winter, however, with a long day at school dragging me out of bed before dawn, I was a zombie.
I remember waking up and stumbling to the bathroom, eyes half closed, cold all over. I would turn on the shower and lay down on the carpeted bathroom floor to wait for the water to get hot. We lived in an old farmhouse and my room was farthest from the water heater, so it took a good while for my shower to reach a de-thawing temperature. But before the little room could fill with steam, I was back asleep.
In my memory, this happened everyday throughout winter. I don’t know how I ever got to school on time. As a parent now myself, I feel sorry for what my parents had to deal with to get me out the door. Once at school, the entire morning was a write-off. Hours of my day that I could have spent actually learning something were lost in a cold fog. My middle school was not the best, and any motivation I might have had to challenge myself was gone in this state.
I stayed up too late and I woke up too early. In the summer, the days are longer, but in the winter we need more rest and more quiet time—we need to hibernate. Living in accordance with the seasons is simply about following the cues of nature and avoiding the pretension that we are biologically separate from the rest of the animal kingdom.k
In the classics of Chinese medicine, the highest level of medicine is that which nourishes life. Below that is the medicine that treats your habits and constitutional tendencies. And the lowest medicine treats disease after it has manifested.
Nourishing life (養生 yǎngshēng) is a rich subject in Chinese medical philosophy, and at its center is the principle of living in harmony with the seasons. Yangsheng is a term that applies to all sorts of practices that promote wellness. In an excellent book about yangsheng practices in the lives of regular Beijingers today, medical anthropologist Judith Farquhar explains:
Yangsheng wisdom often takes the form of rules of thumb. Its philosophy is less about freedom, transcendence, or providing theory for practice than it is about continuity, simply living on in a state of moderate well-being (xiaokang 小康). It advocates a craftwork of the well-formed life, not a quest for the ultimate meanings of life.
The Ten Thousand Things, 125-6
In China, wellness practices include taijiquan, meditation, moderate exercise, walking backwards, healthy simple diets and medicinal cuisine, games like chess and pingpong, playing music, keeping birds, using enormous sponge brushes and water to do calligraphy on the sidewalk that begins to fade as soon as it is finished, enjoying a good cup of tea or a glass of wine, even learning a new language. You can see that it’s pretty broad. Yangsheng is essentially anything you do that helps you feel healthy, happy and peaceful.
It is about enjoying life, and implicit within that is the result of preventing illness.
When it comes to the seasons, there is a yangsheng of time. Farquhar writes, “The seasons present a problem of tempo that is especially clear, especially closely connected to the rhythms of the Dao. Weather and its oscillations, the climatic regularities of warming and cooling, growing and dying back, provide both the best example of yinyang processes and the most proximate to bodily experience. Everybody shares the weather, and no one can really control it” (The Ten Thousand Things, 160).
The rhythms of seasonal change are fundamental
and inescapable for all living things.
The seasons matter to our physical and mental health.
Prior to the 20th century, there was no A/C, no central heating, no hermetically-sealed homes, no climate-controlled transportation. The weather did what it did, and people had to follow suit. The blessing was in its regularity. Every year, the environment would cycle through predictable changes.
Every society in history paid attention to seasonal changes. When they acted in accordance with the seasons, crops were planted and harvested at the right time and long journeys were started at the right time. For individuals, it was obviously important to stock up on food and firewood before winter, to dress appropriate to the weather, to take shelter when it storms. Yangsheng principles go further to categorize, according the seasonal cycles, which kinds of food and tea are best, when we should be going to bed and waking up, even what our emotional and mental disposition should be. All of this is aimed at harmonizing our lives with the basic natural rhythms in which we exist.
Living in accordance to the seasons reduces stress, helps to maintain a strong immune system, aids in recovery from illness, and promotes a peace of mind that is rooted deep in our physiology.
Occasionally, through hubris, societies have not heeded the seasons, and they suffered. Dynasties rose or fell on their ability to predict and sway the weather. Bodies thrived or died on their ability to navigate the seasons.
The Yellow Emperor, the mythical granddaddy of Chinese medicine, didn’t play when it came to the seasons:
The transformation of yin and yang in the four seasons is the basis of the growth and the destruction of life. The sages were able to cultivate the yang energy in the spring and summer and conserve the yin energy in autumn and winter. By following the universal order, growth can occur naturally. If this natural order is disregarded, the root of one’s life will be damaged and one’s true energy will wane.
Neijing Suwen, Chapter 2 (trans. Maoshing Ni)
The transformation of yin and yang simply means the oscillation between opposites: day and night, hot and cold, wet and dry, etc. As nature changes from one to another, there are specific things we can do to help our bodies adjust to the change. If we adjust well, we can avoid getting sick. Many illnesses can be prevented this way, such as the common cold and the flu, sleep problems, flare-ups of autoimmune conditions, and the wide range of diseases that are worsened by stress—because fighting seasonal changes causes stress on our bodies.
The first two chapters of the Nei Jing, the most important book in 2000 years of Chinese medical literature, are dedicated to living a moderate, harmonious life in accordance with the rhythmic changes of nature. No matter how thick our coats are or how controlled our interior environments are, humans are part of nature. Like it or not, our bodies and minds are inextricably connected to its movements. All the fancy treatments and expensive medicines are merely band-aids if you pretend that the rhythms of nature do not apply to you.