If you know me, you know I tend toward having “deep talks” with everyone. No fluffy small talk for me, if I can help it. It shouldn’t surprise you that I have had a series of deep conversations with my acupuncturist while she’s working on my arthritis pain.
Most recently, we were talking about the current change in seasons, from Summer to Fall, here in northern New Mexico. We talked about how I’m in a Summer to Fall seasonal shift in my work and career right now. We talked about the Chinese medicine behind the seasons, and what the Chinese elements had to say about moving from Summer to Autumn.
We also talked about my river tattoo, which serves as a reminder that I can’t rush the river – that I have to let things unfold naturally in their own time. As much as I want to skip the current step and rush ahead in my life’s path, it’s futile. It’s less stressful, and more powerful, to simply be in the season where I find myself, and savor it.
In Chinese medicine, Autumn is a season associated with the element of Metal, and with the organs and meridians of Lungs and Large Intestine. The main activity is letting go.
The ways that Large Intestines are implicated with releasing that which we do not need, and transforming that which we do, those digestive metaphors are pretty obvious. But I’ve been concentrating my attention instead on the Lung elements of letting go. The exhale.
Exhales as Actual Lung Activities
I don’t remember where I learned that the diaphragm functions by contracting to cause an exhalation. The inhale is created by the empty space created in the lungs, the air rushes in to fill a vacuum. Of course, we can consciously use the diaphragm to inhale without exhaling first, but when we aren’t thinking about it – the exhale is the active part of the breath, not the inhale.
You hear plenty of people – from spiritual leaders to home organizers – talking about letting go of the old to make room for the new, and the new will “rush on in” after you truly release the old…. That’s the breath cycle. That’s precisely how our lungs work.
On top of that, I’ve been working very hard to self-regulate my nervous system. I spend conscious time trying to get out of stress mode, to deactivate the sympathetic nervous system and its Flight-Flight-Freeze-Fawn responses. I spend time thinking about how to activate the parasympathetic nervous system for Rest-and-Digest activities. One of the ways I’ve learned to do this is a biofeedback trick of extending the length of the exhale longer than that of the inhale. If you’re familiar with “box breathing” – think of it as a trapezoid instead of a perfect square. I hold-inhale-hold for the same counts but extend the exhale to be 1-2 counts longer than the other three parts of the breath cycle.
The exhale is the part that switches nervous system responses. The exhale – the part the diaphragm actually controls – is the part of the breath that allows us to relax. We think of this with a heavy sigh or a deep audible sigh. Those are relaxing. I’m just talking about the science behind what we already intuitively know about our bodies.
My Personal Autumn
There is a part of me that has a hard time letting it be an Autumn in my life. As much as I love leaf-peeping, apple cider, and cozy sweaters, I struggle with the slowness of the process of change. That adrenalized go-go-go part of my personality is impatient to start the next adventure. Ready to leap all the way into Spring if she can make the jump (she can’t).
While I am grateful for my inner Type-A Achiever, and I appreciate her ambition and drive, I’m trying to get out of the habit of her way of being. It’s not good for my body or my mental health. I want to slow down. While I know she’s inside me champing with impatience and ready to GET GOING, I know that a lot of her motivation is anxiety. A lot of what fuels her is discomfort with the unknown.
I want my inner Achiever to see that I’m still safe even when I don’t know what’s next. I want her to see that I’m still safe even when I’m not-doing, and not-going. I want her to see that contentment and peace are not scary. She is the reason I learned to breathe with longer exhales. Because the idea of sitting still and watching a fire in the fireplace for hours freaks her out a little bit. For the whole past year, I’ve been consciously trying to transform my Type A personality into a Type B way of being.
By taking a leave of absence from work (which really demands and rewards the Achiever and activates her whether I want it or not), and by slowing down and exhaling this fall, I’m making a major move toward this new way of life. I will still be a high-achieving person because it’s who I intrinsically am in many ways. I just don’t want to do it at the expense of my health and well-being anymore.
I’ve turned in my 2-week notice. I’ve finished my dissertation. It’s time to let go of both the work and achievements, as well as the pieces of my identity associated with being an SEO professional, a manager, a grad student. In the new year, I’ll be a Ph. D. and will have found, created, or discovered a new career path.
My Type A Achiever already wants to set goals for that person, envision her life, and start laying the groundwork for her future success. While that’s a lovely sentiment, it’s impossible. How can I set goals for a person I know nothing about? I do not know who I will be.
Exhales and Autumnal Metaphors
My challenge is to enjoy the last of the wildflowers before the grass turns bronze and golden. My challenge is to allow the leaves to change, to let them glow yellow on the tops of the cottonwoods and aspens before they finally fall to the ground to create compost. My challenge is to be patient with that process inside myself, and just exhale.
My Type A wants to shake the trees and speed up the purge with the hope that Spring will happen earlier. My Achiever – instead of simply enjoying the slim harvest from my little vegetable garden – wants to build a hothouse for the winter. Instead, I am pointing her at finishing projects. Getting out into the world those things that are on the cusp of completion. Exhaling in a different way. Leaves of paper falling onto the desks of editors rather than from the trees.
Autumn – both in reality and in my psyche – is a liminal space. I let myself acknowledge and feel the discomfort of being in a hallway – a place between places. Liminality is inherently uncomfortable. That’s why humans have for millennia created rituals to speed up our passage through that time of life. I have great practice in liminality. Living in a hotel for 2 months in 2021 gave me the skills to traverse that.
Autumn is a slow, natural process of letting go. Exhaling to invite the inhale.
I am hoping that perhaps this practice will help me get ready for Winter. Winter, which in the box-breath is the hold before the inhale. The stillness, composting, transformation, and quiet of the darkness.