Of all the elements, Metal is the one whose two associated officials, the Lung and the Large Intestine, have the widest reach, spanning the whole body from top to bottom, from the nose and the lungs down and through the colon as far as the body’s lowest point. The Lung, our organ of intake, is the element’s direct connection to the world outside, and establishes this connection through the act of inhaling air as well as through the pores of the skin, which are called the third lung in Chinese medicine. The Lung passes oxygen on to every cell of the body, before the Large Intestine takes over to carry out the final processing and elimination of all needless waste material from the body.
When we think of Metal’s season, autumn, we can see that nature’s work at this time is to filter as much goodness from what Earth’s harvests have left behind, before sending all this goodness down to the roots below ground, to the Water element, to feed the next cycle. Metal not only has to help the Lung inhale life-giving air, but help the Large Intestine sift through and discard all the waste material from the other elements, retaining only those few which are sufficiently pure to support the renewal of life. If we look at the components listed on bottled water, for example, we can see that they include a great number of essential trace elements, the products of Metal’s work in filtering all the purity from what has gone before. These trace elements leave no actual trace for the human eye to perceive, but without them no seed will grow. The Water element will then stores these trace elements as nutrients for the seeds it nurtures throughout the winter.
The process of breathing becomes what we can think of as an act of purification, as the nasal hairs catch as many impurities as they can, acting as filters to remove them, and expelling them in our sniffles and sneezes as we breathe out. The Lung is therefore one of the body’s purifying agents for all the physical activities involved in breathing, as well as for the deeper mental and spiritual activities for which it is responsible. It then passes on the residue of these activities which it no longer needs to Metal’s companion official, the Large Intestine.
The Metal element can therefore be seen as bearing a heavy burden, that of being responsible for ensuring both the purity of what we take in and the removal of all the impurities and waste material no longer of use to us. The wide range of its responsibilities has always made me regard Metal people as having to live their lives under a surprisingly great level of strain, for if they fail in their task, they will allow through that which the Lung should be filtering out. I remember well one of the most important lessons I learned about this element was from a Metal patient who told me one day, “I feel dirty inside all the time”, a description which could be seen as clearly reflecting her Lung official’s inability to maintain the purity which she craved. It was very significant that this patient always turned up for treatment to start with in what I could only imagine was a set of fresh white underwear, as if by wearing these she could somehow hide the pollution she felt deep inside her. I regarded it as visible evidence that her treatment had been successful when, after a few months, she turned up in coloured underwear, as if she now no longer needed to hide her body in what most of us would consider the purest colour of all, white.