| March |You fill as though to burst,
and then spring forth with heady abundance,
altering the landscape to something untamable,
fully ripe, and full of shakey certainty.
You do not look backwards
but stay in perpetual motion
and twirling into the sunlight,
inviting colour and fragrence to your dance.
You reach out for my hand,
to draw me into your dance,
that I may leap and skip and twirl.
That I may burst with song,
inspiration and love.
May I accept this invitation to dance,
knowing well that I may trip at any step,
and the music may be unknown to me,
but with my arms spread wide,
I accept it all with a smile.
Both Traditional Chinese and Āyurvedic medicine revolve around our relationship with the seasons and the elements. Whilst there are some fundamental differences between the two traditions, the principles remain the same. With the passing of each month we can witness the fluctation in the dominating elements and the arrival and departure of each season. Sensitising ourselves to these shifts and changes brings much greater awareness of our internal environment and more clarity as to our current state of health.
I always see March as the beginning of spring. As I write this, two sun drenched days have brought on a cool damp dawn. As if heralding the arrival of March, the dawn chorus welcomes the newly bursting daffodil heads into spring. Depending on where you are, or whether you consider yourself sitting in the end of winter or the beginnings of spring, one element is particularly predominant at this time. Water. Water and earth are the building blocks of Kapha dosha in āyurveda. They are also the main elements we associate with spring. Chinese medicine sees water as the presiding element of winter. So the two certainly overlap at this juncture.
The Spiritual Nature of Water: Zhi
The spiritual nature of water has a particular resonance for me during the month of March. Spiritual nature is that which is not the body, thoughts, emotions, or personality. It is the deepest and most subtle yet pervading aspect of one’s Self. The only thing that remains with us when we die. The spirit of water, in Chinese medicine, is called Zhi. The character of Zhi has two parts - the upper part depicts a growing plant, suggesting development, while the lower part depicts the heart. It is therefore a significant axis point where greater yin and greater yang mutually support each other. Zhi is most usually translated as ‘will’. Zhi means ambition, purpose, determination, knowledge, mind and memory. The ‘will’ referred to in zhi is not willpower or a forced effort or drivenness to achieve goals. Rather, as John Kirkwood describes, “it works indepentantly of a person’s volition, operating virtually below the level of consciousness, a force which moves a person towards his destiny without much conscious thought.” Under-pinning zhi is the desire to be alive. The zest for life. This is both survival driven and manifests as a human drive to reproduce, thrive, and be successful.
When there is an imbalance of zhi, we will arrive at one of two extremes. One extreme is the complete collapse of determination, resulting in a lack of drive, passivity, listlessness and desire for withdrawl. The other extreme is a hyperdetermination and unrelenting ambition that cause restlessness and other symptoms of overdrive. However if we develop an awareness of this imbalance, zhi can be brought back into harmony. When the perfect balance is achieved, a person seems to be gliding forwards without any apparent effort. The will is so effortless and unobtrusive that it tends to go unnoticed. One begins to manifest their goals and desires by simply being. One achieves the Chinese concept of Wu Wei - the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. Ultimately the highest form of Will (or zhi) is when our personal will is in alignment with Supreme Will, or the will of Heaven. This is the path by which we will manifest our greater destiny or attract opporunities into our lives.
Law of Attraction: Doing What Makes You Happy
Manifestation has become a buzz word for those seeking success, be it spiritual, material, or social. But what does it mean to manifest? Well, to me, manifestation links very closely with zhi. Whilst we can consiously have goals in sight, or have clear vision about what it is we are calling into our lives, manifestion is no material aqcuisition, but is achieved by reaching a certain state of consciousness.
Why fight? Why struggle to achieve your goals? There is no great secret to finding happiness. One must simply find the things that make them happy - little or large - and do them/be with them/act upon them. When you are doing something that you love, you come alive more than ever. You become the most authentic version of yourself. Whether this is painting a masterpiece, baking a cake, or walking in nature. You will find the truest expression of yourself in these moments. It will be effortless and spontaneous. If you enjoy your work you will do it well and you will work hard. Your won’t have to be out hawking your wears or compromising yourself in order to achieve recognition or success. When you are doing what you love in its purest expression you will be at your most attractive and this is when manifestion occurs. The things you were calling in will start to appear without you having to stuggle for them. People or opportunities will manifest apparently at random, with no conscious effort having been made on your part. Continue doing the things that crack you open to reveal your inner most truth, and you will find that in time (sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly) you will be rewarded by wealth. Perhaps literal wealth in the form of business opportunities presented by someone who recognises your unique persepctive, or perhaps in the form of community - like minded souls and potential new love.
But sometimes it isn’t clear what it is that makes us happy. And this is why we have to be open to a journey. An exploration of the internal landscape to find those things that excite you.
Image via Samara Vise
Journaling: Areas to Explore
Make a list of the things that make you happiest.
- What is preventing you from residing in your True Nature?
- What limiting beliefs or familial/societal pressures are holding you back from doing what makes you happy?
- What practices do you struggle to commit to and why?
- What practices are you drawn to, regardless of talent or qualification?
- How can you make more time for the things that make you happy?
Do you know what makes you happy? I mean this on a soul level. The things that inspire you, drive you, and excite you from the deepest level. Not superficial and short lived activities like drinking or partying. But things that make your heart sing. That give you a feeling of empowered purpose and individuality. Unfortunately a lot of us have lost contact with what it is that truly lights us up. We are not taught in school how to be happy but how to be “successful”. But is success defined by degree, qualification and income? Or by making a bold proclaimation that you are engaged in the activities that make you happy?
We also put ourselves under an immense amount of pressure when we decide that the thing that makes us most happy should somehow become our means of making an income. In certain scenarios people are very fortunate to find that the thing they love is also an economically viable way for them to make a living. But this doesn’t have to apply to each of your passions. If you love to sing but have been told you have no talent for it and will never become a professional singer, should you stop singing? Of course not! And yet we do. We so often deny ourselves the things that we enjoy if we feel they are not materially progressing us. But in doing so we are cheating ourselves of an integral part of development of relationship with self, without which we can never really find our place in the world. Take some time to write down your answers to these questions. To allow yourself the space to explore you inner childish desire and tastes. Try to release ahold of any judgement of feelings of inadequacy as you revisit or learn new activities that fell by the wayside. Get to know yourself as a stranger to a new environment and be loving in your exploration of what it is you are being called to do. Become the artist, the sustainer, the nourisher, the maintainer. By allowing your imagination to extend beyond its usual realms you increase your potential to be inspired and develop new relationships with yourself and your environment.
In the Body: The Kidneys
The kidneys are closely related to the water element, both physically and subtly. A person who is well balanced and in harmony with the water element will likely have strong kidneys. And having healthy kidneys leads to a strong kidney spirit - a drive to be alive and to achieve without having to push oneself. The kidneys are the house of zhi, and therefore anything that harms the health of the kidneys will deplete zhi. In the Febraury Journal I talked about fear and how we process or digest it. Fear that does not flow freely and is not healthily released from the body will be stored in the kidneys. Fear, trauma, ongoing stress, addictions, exhaustion and penetrating cold will all contribute to the delpetion of kidney health and the resulting zhi.
So how can we nourish our kidneys and sustain or increase the zhi? Well, there are many ways. Below I have listed herbs, breath work and meditation practices, all of which will benefit the practitioners connection with zhi. But the matter is one of consciousness first and foremost. Bringing more attention to the kidneys within the body, but also learning to recognise the signals sent from the organs as emotions or prompts. When you know you are physically, spiritually or inspirationally depleted, look to the care of the kidneys. Keep them warm, keep them hydrated and take the breath into the kineys during meditation.
Plum Blossoms and The Moon, Woodblock Print, Koho c.1930
Medicine: Ashwagandha & Ginseng
Both of these herbs are greatly supportive of kidney health as well as containing many other properties to aid us in a healthy transition into spring and to support the awakening of a more active period of growth.
Ashwagandha is used in a very similar vein in āyurvedic medicine as Ginseng is in Chinese medicine, but it is far less expencive. Calming of the air element and supportive of the earth element, this root is ideal for the pacification of vāta dosha (air/ether) which can get easily aggrivated during the cold, dry winter months, and for supporting a healthy kapha dosha (earth and water). Ashwagandha is there for an excellent grounding agent, promoting a healtheir sleep pattern as it is a mild sedative (however most people will have no problem taking ashwagandha in the morning - if you are very sensitive perhaps evening is best). It is a greatly rejuvenating herb, particularly beneficial for the muscles and marrow. It is used in all conditions of weakness from tissue deficiency to exhaustion due to lack of sleep, overwork, or an overriding of the nervous system. It is a useful herb for supporting the immune system during seasonal shifts or periods of travel. As we move into spring, we enter the realm of kapha dosha, meaning we become more susceptable to imbalances of the earth and water elements at this time - colds, flu, etc. - and therefore a healthy immune boost is advisable.
Ashwagandha aids us in keeping grounded and connected through this period of transition, growth and renewal. But just like with all medicinal herbs, not all work or are advisable for every body. If you are in the throws of a heavy cold with lots of congestion, ashwagandha is best left alone. In general the herb has very few contraindications, however, as always it is best to consult a doctor if you are dealing with any symptomology before adding a new herb to your reportoire.
Ginseng is beneficial for the health of all dosha types, however if you suffer from any symptoms relating to excessive levels of pitta or kapha dosha you should use caution. Ginseng is one of the best tonic and rejuvenative herbs for promoting growth and revitalisation of the body and mind. It is therefore an excellent herb to take in the spring time as we leap back into life and set our projects into motion. Sensitive people may experience a stimulating property to ginseng that feels similar to caffeine. It is good to bear this in mind when considering what time of day to take the herb. American ginseng has similar properties however it is slightly cooler in energy and is therefore a better demulcent and tonic to the lungs - better for pitta predominant people but more likely to cause kapha aggrivation.
Just as I said above, it is important to take your health into consideration when thinking of assimilating a new herb. People who have high blood pressure, fever, inflammatory conditions caused by high levels of pitta, or excessive vāta of the mind, should be cautious if they choose to engage with ginseng.
Prānāyāma: Kapalabhati (Breath of Fire/Skull Shining Breath)
‘Kapal’ - forehead; ‘bhati’ - light/perception/knowledge
As established earlier, the predominant elements during spring are water and earth. These are the same two elements that compose Kapha Dosha in āyurvedic medicine. The qualities of earth and water combined are heavy, dense, slow, moist, sticky, and cold. These are the qualities that anyone who has kapha as their predominanting dosha might notices within themselve, body or mind. These are also the qualities present in the environment during the spring. The cool, heavy damp earth - lots of mud and lots of building. Kapha dosha is essential for building. Whether its building roots of a plant or building the muscles and bones of the body. Kapha is also principally responsible for our immune system. The simple principle of āyurveda is that like increases like. Therefore when the environment is presenting these very kaphic tedancies, our bodies are more likely to fall out of balance also and we can experience symptoms of a kapha imbalance - mucousy coughs and colds, feelings of heaviness and sluggishness.
In order prevent kapha from creeping into our bodies and minds during this seasonal shift, we have to work with the opposing forces. This means practices that stimulate heat, lightness, and dryness. The aim is to build energy, support the immune system and keep the body and mind in a harmonious balance. However, excessive heat or lightness is not desirable. If you find this practice brings any lightheadedness or faint feeling then perhaps stick to an ujjayi breath, which is detoxifying and heating but with less intensity than the kapalabhati, breath of fire.
The best time to practice this prānāyāma is during the kapha predominant hours of the day early in the morning, between 6am and 10am and certainly on an empty stomach. Not only will this help to shake off stagnant kapha that has accumulated in the body over night, but it will kickstart your digestive system and get you feeling energised for the day ahead. Kapalabhati brings lightness and clarity to the mind, eliminating distraction and inviting a one-pointed focus, boosting memory, concentration and intelligence, making it an excellent breath to practice before meditation. On a more physical platform, this breath greatly benefits lung health, stimulates the circulatory system and cleanses the blood, as well as toning the digestive muscles and stimulating synovial circulation in the joints.
Women who are menstuating or pregnant should avoid this practice, as should anyone suffering from significantly high or low blood pressure. Epilepsy and aggressive migranes are also contraindications for this practice. If you are new to prānāyāma excercises, I would recommend beginning with the breathwork practices from the previous journals or recieving instruction from a teacher before attempting kapalabhati unassisted.
Practice... begin by sitting comfortably on the floor in a cross-legged position with the hips slightly raised on a blanket or pillow. If this posture isn’t comfortable for you then try sitting upright in a chair with the feet flat on the floor and the spine long. Closing down the eyes begin by finding stillness and simply becoming a witness to the qualities of the breath as it is, before any intervention. Notice whether the breath is short or long, deep or shallow, even or sporadic. Sit witnessing the breath for a few minutes without becoming attached or making any efforts to change the breath.
When you are ready begin lengthening the inhales and exhales through the nose. Filling to fullest capacity and emptying entirely. Feel the ribs expand and the heart open on the inhale, and the slight activation of the core and pelvic floor on the exhale. Continue this breathing for several rounds with the option to retain the breath for a few seconds at the top of the inhale before releasing.
Once you are ready to begin kapalabhati, forcefully exhale the air out of the nose and simulataneously draw the navel towards the spine, engaging the abdominal muscles and the pelvic floor. As you release the abdomen allow the lungs to fill as a passive inhale. Repeat this process of rapid, forceful exhale with passive inhale. You may find it helpful to place one hand on the abdomen as you practice. Begin the excercise slowly with 20 repetitions. When you complete the round, exhale entirely and allow the breath to come back to normal. With practice, as the abdominals grow stronger, you may feel like increasing the number of repitions per round and perhaps practicing multiple rounds with small breaks in between. You can practice with the speed of the breath increasing with each round.
Once you have completed the practice, allow yourself to sit in stillness for a while to regulate the breath and notice any changes that have come over the body or mind during the breathwork. Now would be an excellent time to move into this months meditation practice.
Meditation: Silence and Heightened Awareness
In traditional medicines, as well as having properties and energies that effect us, elements also have virtues. In Chinese medicine the virtue of water is Wisdom. Wisdom is normally considered to be the accumulation of knowledge through experience. However the viture of wisdom is more like a contact with a deep inner-knowing that lies below conscious thought. Therefore in order to be wise within our endeavors, we must first still the chatter of our thoughts on a conscious level and dive into the unconscious realm, with the confidence that ultimately the truth will be revealed.
The ancients taught that when a human loses contact with his True Nature, then the purity of the virtue of an element is also lost, and we are then left purely with the emotion of that particular element - which in the case of water is repressed Fear. Fear is a reaction to the unknown, and like a viscious circle, the more afraid we become the more awareness we lose and our perspective and ability to process life are damaged. Early Taoists regarded wisdom not as an abstract concept but as a psychic bridge between instinct and conscious awareness.
So if we are to find our ‘zhi’, to engage with determination and purpose whilst remaining true to ourselves and not getting lost in a battle of material entanglement and the resulting stress, it is essential that we take time to drop into the unconscious mind and work on subtle awareness to strengthen our intuitive muscles.
With the arrival of spring, our projects and plans roll out before us as a momentum begins and we find ourselves in perpetual motion. After the sleepy winter months of introspection, our gaze is suddenly pointed outwards, and we engage with the world in a much more tangible manner. So ensuring that we hold moments of stillness sacred and make ritual surrounding silence and sensitising ourselves to the rhythms of the world around us, right down to the minute, is greatly beneficial.
If you do not currently have a regular meditation practice, or even if you do, it can seem a challenge to sit in silence and find stillness without anything to focus on. There are many apps, such as headspace, that can be really supportive in constructing a regular meditation practice. Or you can simply begin by focusing on the breath, perhaps counting on the inhales or exhales. Eventually the idea for this particular form of meditation is to drop focus even on the breath and find total stillness of the mind. This is far from simple and can be frustrating unless you are self-forgiving and just keep trying with dedication and humility. Whilst guided mediations and mantra based meditations are incredibily powerful in their own rights, learning to how to be completely still and free from the cycles of your own thoughts is hugely beneficial for maintaining perspective and tuning into the intuition. It is my biggest challenge but is also my go-to meditation practice this month as I start projecting more and more outwards and need that call back in once a day to connect with the unconscious mind. So perhaps to begin with this practice only lasts 5 minutes every day. Thats okay. Be kind to yourself. And maybe every week it gets a little longer until you can sit for a full 20mins in complete stillness and silence. If you do not allow frustration to cloud the mind when the inevitable thoughts roll through, you should eventually come to find a space of clarity, acceptance and heightened awareness.
Practice... Ideally for this practice you would sit cross legged on the floor with a straight spine, however a chair or any other props necessary to make you comfortable is fine as you begin. I really urge you, however, not to lean back onto anything but to try as hard as possible to sit upright. If you find there is pain in the spine after sitting for a while, try placing a pillow or blanket on the lap and resting the forearms on it - often by relieving the weight of the arms from the shoulders, the back finds a little more space. Make sure you are as comfortable as can be before beginning the practice, so there are no niggling distractions.
Taking several rounds of deep breath, without moving your head, take in your surroundings with soft eyes. When you are ready gently close the eyes and start to simply recall your environment. Not necessaily the specific object but the configuration of the space. Keeping the body still, the chin slightly tucked, begin to go through each of your sensory perceptions. What can you feel? Feel your clothes on your body, the air on your skin, the connection of your seat to the ground. What can you hear? Listen carefully, near and far, external and internal, sometimes you will hear the pumping of the blood through the body. What can you smell? Taste? Take time going through all of these senses, exploring each one fully, without distraction before moving on to the next. Once completed, begin a scan of the body. Depending on how you are feeling on any given day you may choose to begin your scan from the ground up or top down. If you are feeling heavy and sluggish, begin from the ground and work your way up to the head. If you are feel jittery, excitable or anxious, work your way from the head down to earth connection. Take your time to feel into each corner of the body, each organ, each joint. To feel every sensation on the skin and every pulsation of the blood. Do not get attached to the practice but simply be witness.
When you have completed a scan of the body, draw the attention to the breath. Following the inhales and exhales. Make no attempt to change the nature of the breath. Just allow it to move naturally. You may like to remain in this part of the practice for the rest of the meditation. If it helps to count the breath that is an option, perhaps counting up to 10 and then back down again and repeating. Otherwise, if you are feeling ready, allow the attention to rest away from the breath and come to a space of stillness. Perhaps placing focus on a point in the head between the eyebrows. When thoughts come just allow them to float past and come back to stillness. Some days will prove more challenging than others, but by commiting to a set practice everyday you will notice a shift in consciousness.
Continue to sit in practice for your chosen period (you might like to set a timer on your phone, or allow it to be more fluid). Once you feel you have sat for long enough, or your timer goes off, reverse the process. Finishing the meditation by scanning the body for any changes, and then by connecting with each of the senses, allowing the world back into your space before eventually opening the eyes very softly. Sit in stillness for several rounds of breath and allow the practice to absorb before getting up and go about your day.
Responsibility: Remedy for Disillusionment
What is happening to the world?
Why does contemporary society wear the face it does?
How can I stand by and watch the atrocities that are commited daily to the earth and humanity at large?
Feelings of helplessness and utter despondancy about the state of the world seem to be rife at the moment. We have become people who hate people who hate people. This viscious cycle of blameology and intolerance will never be resolved until people take up responsibility. And I don’t mean politicians or oil companies. I mean you. And me. If you are asking questions like these or are finding yourself physically, emotionally, or spiritually affected by what’s happening in the world around you, then the best remedy is to take up some responsibility in life. And this doesn’t just mean acquiring the trappings of a virtuous being (although there is now no excuse to still be using plastic bags for your shopping). This means making a list of what you consider to be the most important characteristics of good person. Kindness, compassion, resilience, self-sufficiency... whatever comes to you. And then you take on a responsibility to be an example of all of those things. To raise you family to value these things. To encourage positive actions to promote well being. Because you are not an isolated being. No amount of yoga, or herbs, or a good diet is going to make for a healthy life if your community is not healthy. Just as no healthy body cell can remain healthy if there are cancerous cells surrounding it, so we are similarly impacted by our society. We must be responsible active praticipants of restoring our communal health.
For a long time I felt that my dissatisfaction with the actions of the people around me meant that I should just go somewhere else. Keep travelling. Never set down roots. Be ‘free’. Reject the misshapen and broken society that was on offer. But this was a fantasy. Because we cannot run for ever. One day we will run out of track and have to stop and learn how to navigate the environment in which we find ourselves. We cannot single-handedly change the world. I know this. And it is important we don’t put this pressure on ourselves or allow ourselves to get emotionally entangled in a world full of illusiory and transitory happenings. We must remain detatched but aware. And educate ourselves. For if we do not like the look of what is coming, we must accept the responsibility to become an educator and must also don the humility of a student. To be articulate, patient, and peaceful. To embody what it is you are claiming is possible. We are nurturers not destroyers. Lovers not haters. Somewhere along the line we forgot. Rather than closing our eyes or fighting hate with more hate, we must become the gentle guides encouraging the restoration of that forgotten part of ourselves.
There is responsibility on a large scale - the joining of commities or local politics. Or there is responsibility on a personal level, relating to the everyday needs of every living being. Being responsible about feeding community, physically, emotionally and spiritually. And nothing gives one more of a sense of responsibility and an impetus for change than have responsibility for another life. Whether it’s a friend, partner, family member, dog, or plant. We have to remember how to nurture relationships, boldly and compassionatly, because ultimately this is where the key to living healthily lies.
Growing Plants: Living in Harmony
“Then there are the plants that we eat, which are benign to all animals on this planet, providing energy for us to live. They, too, can teach us if we are listening. All the ancient farming civilisations believed that the food plants were gods, died and born again - recognising that what we eat is the transcendent Spirit, supporting us in time.”
- Wu De, Tea Medicine
- Wu De, Tea Medicine
When I talk about restoring relationships and becoming both educator and student I can’t help but think of one of the most obvious relationships in jeopardy. Man and Nature. The land sustains us. From it we get the air we breath, the homes we build, and the foods we eat. In general, Western society has lost its connection to the medicinal, spiritual art of farming and eating. This is a devastating loss of tradition that has had an enormous impact on our relationship with food and the natural world at large. We need to reconnect, to restore these sacred ties to the land and it’s offerings in order to build a new relationship to the way we grow, harvest, prepare and consume our food, for the health of our bodies and our communities. This revolutionising of consumption to “conscious consumption” is already in motion and is evidenced by the growing number of young people buying from farmers markets or taking up an interest in sustainable agriculture. However the movement is still in its infancy and perhaps seems inaccessable to many. I strongly urge you to take a small piece of responsibility for Nature that provides for us. Whether this means planting a forest or buying a plant for your window sill. Not only will you find yourself in a committed relationship with something that relies upon you for its survival - which is a deeply humbling expereince if you let it sink in - but you will find your entire life becomes more attune to the rhythms and cycles of nature. This, in turn, has the capacity to revolutionise your relationship with consumption and with your community.
Words of Note
“Some say the creative life is in ideas, some say it is in doing. It seems in most instances to be in a simple being. It is not virtuosity, although that is very fine in itself. It is the love of something, having so much love for something - whether a person, a word, an image, an idea, the land, or humanity - that all that can be done with the overflow is to create. It is not a matter of wanting to, not a singular act of will; one solely must.”
- Clarissa Pinkola Estés
“If all you can do is crawl, start crawling.
If you have a hundred cynical fantasies about God, make it ninety-nine.
If you can’t pray a real prayer, prayer hypocritically, full of doubt, and dry-mouthed.
God accepts counterfeit money as though it were real.”
“Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”
- Leonard Cohen
“He taught the young monk the names of the animals and the plants. He showed him what he could eat and what was for the Earth. This life was truly in harmony, they say. And that was why he was the ruler of all rulers. He had no greed. No stake in the outcomes of the world below, just the answers of the Earth, Sky, Sun and Stars.”
- Wu De, “Tea Medicine”
This month is a month of playfulness. Of reawakening. Of the rekindling of relationships, new and old. We must learn to move with dance whilst keeping our feet on the ground. As the land comes back to life, so too are we reanimated and reinvigorated, filled with excitement for what is to come.