Lately clients have come to me for help in alleviating their feelings of guilt. The guilt they are experiencing is a deep and consuming emotion that is difficult to lift. I guess this is a timely feeling for the season we are in: autumn. This is a time of emotions being directed inward, of slowing down and processing. According to the Inner Classic of Chinese Medicine, “The forces of Autumn create dryness in Heaven and metal on Earth; they create the lung organ and the skin upon the body…and the nose, and the white color, and the pungent flavor…the emotion grief, and the ability to make a weeping sound.” This is part of the five-element theory in Chinese Medicine; ancient practitioners translated the five elements they found in nature of fire, earth, metal, water, and wood, to human psychology, physiology, and pathology.
The metal element for example, is associated with the season of Autumn. Autumn conjures up images of dryness as the leaves change color and then fall to the ground. The environmental influence of the metal element is dryness which is also the pathway to disease that it represents, as we see the link between nature and the human body. When dryness enters the body, it usually affects the lungs. The organs associated with the metal element are the lungs and large intestine. Dryness affects mucous lining the large intestine and lungs causing sinus problems, asthma, poor digestion, and weak immunity. Pungent-tasting foods are associated with the metal element and protect and purify its organs. Pungent foods such as chilies protect the lungs; mucilaginous foods such as licorice and slippery elm coat and protect the large intestine. Fibrous foods cleanse the colon; green algae contain chlorophyll that cleanses the lungs.
The emotion of the metal element is grief. What is interesting to note is that “guilt” is not an emotion associated with any of the five elements. Grief is a contracting force, one that causes us to look inward and evaluate. We can focus on our sorrows and resolve them. What is the difference then, between grief and guilt? Grief is a sadness expressed for loss. It is a healthy and functional emotion; grief clears repression, heals areas where illness may otherwise develop, and strengthens the internal basis of health (Pitchford 2002). Guilt is linked to a sense of self and a negative view at that, which may be why it is missing from Traditional Chinese Medicine. Ancient practitioners and patients of TCM did not have the same exclusive view of the self that we do today, but rather a more socially-constructed paradigm (Macocia 2011).
Guilt is a negative emotion that brings us into a dark place of our psyche. It is a place of wallowing and is in a way, indulgent. Rather than functionally feeling our grief, going through the process of evaluating its source, sharing our feelings with others, and allowing ourselves to heal, it is easy to find ourselves feeling guilty: guilt for what we have done, or what we could have done differently. These are dramas playing out in our mind; the mind is indulging in its fantasy and we stop living in gratitude for the present moment. It may be more challenging, perhaps, to understand our grievance and to move forward with courage and faith.
I recommend that my clients practice positive thinking exercises, deep breathing, and meditation. Yoga advises us to look for answers within by calming and concentrating the mind. When we meditate we experience the infinite joy of the present moment and the abundance of the universe. The practice of Yoga helps us to withdraw inside and renew our connection with our divine Self. Relaxation gives us the possibility to let go of all our self concerns and to tap into the inner resource of peace and comfort.