Goodbye Rat, Hello Ox
The Year of the Metal Rat, 2020, was an extraordinary and tragic year. As Asian New Year began on January 25, 2020, China was already in lockdown and COVID-19 had begun its spread across the globe. The cunning Rat brought tragedy, suffering and sickness to humankind. As the Year of the Metal Ox begins on February 12, 2021, are we ready for change? Understanding and aligning ourselves with natural cycles and rhythms can help us heal.
Two New Years, Lunar and Solar
Western New Year falls in the depths of Winter, season of the Water Element. The new life and activity of Spring still seems far away on January 1. The Western (Gregorian) calendar is entirely solar, tracking the seasons based on the movement of the sun. The Asian calendar combines lunar and solar cycles. It brings our awareness to the lunar phases that influence much of life – tides, fishing, bird migration and planting crops, to name a few. Because of this, the timing of Asian New Year can vary by up to six weeks.
Whenever it falls, Asian New Year marks the arrival of Spring. If we pay attention, we may feel the first signs of plant life waking up. The days begin to lengthen, as warmth and light return to the earth. I like to think of the time between January 1 and Asian New Year as my “get ready” time, when I transition between Winter (the Water Element) and Spring (the Wood Element). I rest up, introspect, create plans and get ready to put them in action.
It’s Not Your Normal New Year
Asian or Western, there’s no denying that New Year 2021 has felt out of the ordinary. The usual New Year messages of renewal don’t seem to ring true. Around the world, the New Year is regarded as a time to celebrate. We shed the past and welcome new beginnings. We make resolutions, break bad habits and start better ones. We set goals and intentions, and we vow to be better people.
None of that seems to add up for 2021. We entered January 1, shell-shocked by violence and pestilence. We are still grieving what we have lost – not just the deaths of loved ones, but the loss of our ordinary lives and our communities. Like refugees, we are not yet sure we’ve found safety or that the future holds anything better. As we enter the Year of the Ox, we are still moving through a profound collective trauma. That makes it hard for us to find the trust and hope that we need for new beginnings.
From Water to Wood: Hope, Will and Fear
In the cycle of the Five Elements, each phase nourishes the next. Each season gets its strength from the one before it, like the mother nourishes the child. If the mother is depleted, she has less to give. A difficult Winter weakens the Spring.
Spring (the Wood Element) is the season of birth and renewal. The spirit of the Wood Element is hope and vision. We need hope to feel that the future is worth living, and that we can make plans. A healthy Spring requires vigor and active energy. Wood energy is the force that breaks through obstacles, like a seedling bursting up through the ground with determination.
The vigor of Spring depends on surviving Winter (the Water Element) in good shape. Winter is time to rest and endure. The season is harsh, and much of life survives by going dormant, limiting activity in times of scarcity. The spirit of the Water Element is the will to survive when times are tough. Deep rest and internal purification during Winter renews us for the coming activity of Spring.
Rest and renewal requires a safe place. If this phase of the cycle is disturbed by threat and danger, we cannot rest. Throughout 2020, and into Winter of 2021, we have been faced with ongoing existential threat. Responding to chronic threat overwhelms us and depletes our body and mind. It triggers the acute stress response, and calls up deep feelings of fear.
A Spring View
Yet, even through the worst of years, Spring arrives. The legendary Chinese poet, Du Fu, lived through devastation and war in the 8th Century CE. He reminds us that we are not alone in our experiences of loss and tragedy:
Though a country be sundered, hills and rivers endure;
And Spring comes green again to trees and grasses
Where petals have been shed like tears
And lonely birds have sung their grief.¹
Generations before us have endured hardship. We are part of a stream of human life, and the same energies work within us now. The Water Element within gives us the will to survive, and the Wood Element allows us to hope for the future. Looking to nature, we see that we are still here and we can move forward. May the Metal Ox, diligent and honest, help us plow our fields anew this Spring.
¹ Du Fu (ca. 750 C.E.), from A Spring View, trans. Witter Brynner
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