‘The castle grounds were gleaming in the sunlight as though freshly painted; the cloudless sky smiled at itself in the smoothly sparkling lake, the satin-green lawns rippled occasionally in a gentle breeze: June had arrived’. ― J.K. Rowling
Summers in Beijing were often a reminder of the importance of balance. When I lived in Beijing in the ’90s, I remember summers as carefree and easy. Very little seemed to happen in Beijing during the summer. People sat around (or squatted) on street corners fanning themselves. During the hottest points of the day, any space of shadow was often occupied by someone napping. Back then, summers also came with a sense of thrill and adventure. China was starting to open up to the West, and many young Chinese artists, musicians and students were eager to mingle with expatriates. Rock concerts were officially banned, bars non-existent, and clubs illegal. There was one ‘disco’ in town called Juliana’s at the Lido hotel. Expatriates were allowed in, but Chinese were not. Summer nights usually meant prowling down night markets or searching out an ‘underground’ concert.
Yet if I am true to my memory, the primary focus of any Beijing summer day was a desperate search for air conditioning or a pool. Summers in the capital were hot and sticky. Only a few places at that time offered air conditioning: large, Western hotels, and one floor of a department store in downtown Beijing. This 5th floor was famous as it allowed ballroom dancing to Western pop music such as Michael Jackson and George Michael. The only pool open to the public then was at the Friendship Hotel. My friends and I often sweated our way across town on our Flying Pigeon bicycles to find respite from the suffocating and debilitating heat.
Beijing in the 1990’s was also a time when bicycles ruled the streets. Though free-market drives and economic reform had begun in the late ‘80s, few people had experienced its benefits or effects. As such, there were very few cars on the street. I remember when I first started riding my bike, I rode quickly and often sped past everyone else. Then I would overheat and feel terrible. Very quickly, I understood that the Chinese attitude toward riding in the heat was to slow down. People peddled at a leisurely pace, riding calmly and steadily to wherever they needed to go.
So how, then, can we learn to relax and enjoy good times – whether that be in the season of summer itself or within the peak of a day – without the negative consequences of feeling restless or anxious? According to qigong and Chinese medicine, we can look to fire’s qualities when in balance. Fire in balance nourishes, uplifts and enlivens us rather than burns us out.
Openness is also an important quality of fire. With balanced fire, we learn to respond skilfully to those who give us love and warmth and open to qualities of love. We live in a world where love is overly associated with romance. This makes discovering the beauty of other types of love, such as love between friends or a deepening love for nature, elusive. It is universally given love that begins to kindle warmth, ease and what Chinese medicine and qigong refer to as the ‘divine spirit’, or shen. Shen animates our life, bringing qualities of laughter and joy to the way we live. It also begins to awaken in the summer months as the heart qi rises.
Openness and love are not always available to us though, and this is understandable. If you are reading this, chances are you are old enough to have been hurt deeply. With hurt, we close down to love and to fire’s sources of warmth. This is natural, and thankfully in qigong and Chinese medicine, any tendency to close down, is not viewed as a permanent condition, but rather as a deficiency that can be met by nourishing and supporting our body’s innate need for fire. Since learning about qigong and Chinese medicine, I have noticed that on the numerous occasions when I have been devastated and feel like my heart has shattered into a thousand pieces, remembering this perspective has helped me regain my bearings and start to open once more to all that life offers. Through qigong and other practices such as acupuncture or herbs, we can gradually rekindle our fire and our capacity for love. This is done by providing the right conditions and patiently nourishing our constitutional fire back to a healthy, strong flame.
It is important to remember, however, that fire – like all the elements – is a powerful force. It can keep us warm but also scorch and burn. It is a tool that our species has learned to use and apply to our evolutionary advantage and development, but we know that it must be contained so as not to burn down all that we build, such as our livelihoods, communities and homes. Fire therefore needs boundaries to help it be directed and put toward good use.
Fire is both a positive and destructive force. Dragons, for example, have historically been symbols of the destructive nature of fire in the West. Their fires represent chaos, evil and wrath (fortunately films such as How to Train Your Dragon that show how dragons are actually kind, loyal, misunderstood creatures have dispelled such lopsided notions!). In China and the East, however, dragons are auspicious, spiritual creatures. While prone to drama, dragons symbolise power, strength and fortune. In many Chinese dynasties, dragons were a symbol for the emperor.
In qigong and Chinese medicine, we want to build and maintain a steadily burning flame that keeps our body and heart warm. This will enable us to experience an inner radiance that allows us to feel more open and relaxed. For example, with good fire, we may be inclined to spend more time with people we like and naturally wish to be social with them, and we may develop more caring and compassionate relationships with ourselves and with others. So how do we begin this? First by recognizing and realigning with fire’s natural inclination to move toward an extreme, and reign it in gently.
Working to meet maximum yang
In Chinese, there is an expression, wuji bifan. This means that when things reach their extreme, they naturally move in the opposite direction. The fire element is an expression of maximum yang. This means that within the cycle of creation, we reach a peak and maturity. After the surge of rising energy of wood’s growth, summer is a season where spring blossoms begin to mature. As crops ripen, plants no longer strive to grow upwards like a young teen but rather start to settle into their size and come of age. A fullness has been achieved. Yet just as this fullness is reached, it begins to fall away. This is the movement back in the opposite direction.
This movement toward an extreme and back again generates and sustains balance. It is fire to water, summer to winter, Heaven to Earth. It is the man recognising the light of the sun because there is rain and night. These ongoing movements are represented by the presence of yin within yang, and yang within yin. In the yin and yang symbol, yang is light and yin is dark. Within the lightness of yang, however, is always the seed of yin, and likewise within the darkness of yin, the lightness of yang is always present. Understanding this and orientating our lives toward this ongoing movement toward wholeness is the underlying intention behind all forms of qigong practice.