Telling Time–and Finding Meaning–When the Clock Seems Like It’s Not Ticking

Here in Central Oregon this year, the early autumn sunlight filtering through my window had an eerie apocalypse hue to it. The smoke made me feel like every day was doomsday, adding insult to injury in an era when every day already feels the same as the last as the pandemic interferes with our routines and, most notably, our freedom to change them.

Sunlight through smog in Patti, India. Taken November 2011.

It seems as though our sense of time goes hand in hand with our sense of meaning. So how do we find meaning when time feels irrelevant?

During a traumatic experience such as looming threats to our existence (you know, like climate change or a pandemic), time seems to freeze. Finding new ways of seeing time, in order to help us feel like we’re moving toward something, may very well be one avenue by which we can manage stress to prevent the onset or exacerbation of illness.

In this post, I will discuss two ways of seeing time outside of the day-to-day. The first, based on lectures by my qì gōng instructor Master Liu He, views a day as a cycle of 12 two-hour segments; the second, informed by my background in anthropology, views a day as part of a cycle that takes about a month.

Part 1: Grooving to Our Circadian Rhythms with the “Organ Clock”

As I write this, it is 10:23 AM, but that’s not all it is.

In Chinese medicine, each of the primary organs corresponds to a two-hour segment of the day. On this “organ clock,” 10:23 AM is Spleen time. (For an explanation of the difference between an organ with an initial capital letter and the organ with the same name but an initial lowercase letter, see my blog post “The Tongue, Untied.”) Spleen time runs from 9 AM to 11 AM. The Spleen is one of the main organs of digestion, so it should come as no surprise that during this time we should be digesting. It is a good time to drink warm water or herbal tea. Cold has a contracting nature that could impede digestion, whereas heat (in moderation) supports digestion because it promotes activity.

Of course, in order to be digesting, we have to have some food in our stomachs, and that food is…breakfast! Before Spleen time comes Stomach time, from 7 AM to 9 AM. At breakfast time we should treat ourselves, within our means, like royalty. Breakfast should be the biggest and most lavish meal of the day, whatever that means for you. For optimum digestion, however, breakfast should involve food (and no, coffee doesn’t count), especially warm food. Consider thinking outside the (cereal) box: savory breakfasts are my personal favorite (with veggies too!), but perhaps you shouldn’t trust the nutritional advice of someone who only eats cereal after microwaving it into a mush (or perhaps you should try it for yourself and thank me later).

A sports field at my alma mater, Colorado College. Taken May 2013.

After Spleen time comes Heart time, from 11 AM to 1 PM. During Heart time we need to rest. The horse, the animal that pertains to the Heart, is so active it remains standing during sleep. Maintaining this high level of activity requires rigorous rest as well. We can let our hearts rest by meditating or napping, and then by eating lunch. Meditation does not mean we have to sit atop a pillow in lotus position, however. It can take many forms. Oddly enough, I like to exercise during this time.

Next comes Small Intestine time, from 1 PM to 3 PM. During Small Intestine time we should digest lunch. The Small Intestine, like the Spleen, is a key player in digestion.

Bladder time occurs from 3 PM to 5 PM. The Bladder is in charge of transforming qì, which comprises all matter, including humans. (For a brief explanation of qì, see the Qì Gōng page.) This is time to “study or sweat”–to work our minds or our bodies. Exercise releases endorphins, which counter the natural decline in cortisol levels during this part of the day. Cortisol regulates a number of processes in the body and keeps us going. Different cultures have different traditions stemming from its mid-afternoon nadir. For example, Spain has the siesta, while Great Britain has tea (and the tea has caffeine).

From 5 PM to 7 PM is Kidney time. This is my third favorite time of the day, because it’s time for the third meal of the day: dinner. The Chinese saying “half of dinner belongs to others; a midnight snack belongs to the ghosts” emphasizes the importance of a light dinner in order to digest it all before going to sleep, at which point the body’s attention is diverted elsewhere.

A door at Agra Fort in Agra, India. The Pericardium is like the door to the Heart. Taken September 2011.

From 7 PM to 9 PM is Pericardium time. As the layer of tissue surrounding the Heart and the gatekeeper of our relationships that decides whom we can and cannot trust, the Pericardium protects the Heart on both physical and emotional levels. This is the time to strengthen relationships with the people whom we do trust–ourselves or others–by sharing joy. You could go for an easy walk, talk on the phone with a friend, play a game, watch a comedy, etc. This is not the time for drama, although it can easily become that when we experience stress in our relationships.

The next time, 9 PM to 11 PM, pertains to an organ that has no corollary in conventional medicine: the Triple Burner. The Triple Burner is easiest to conceptualize in terms of function rather than form. The Upper Burner is likened to a mist, the Middle Burner to a mastication chamber, and the Lower Burner to a ditch. In essence, the Triple Burner compartmentalizes and describes the functions of the primary organs in the body as a whole, from top to bottom: respiration, digestion, and elimination. And what do all of the organs need in order to function properly? Sleep! Yes, this is time for the last round of Cards Against Humanity, because it’s bedtime! The Chinese character for this time period shows two people, one of whom is pregnant. If you’re in a romantic relationship, this is the time to go to bed in the biblical sense before going to sleep. Sex takes energy, and sleep replenishes that energy. As biological evidence that this is our natural bedtime, the body releases melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep, during this time.

Okay, but the last episode of the show you were watching ended on a cliffhanger and you just *couldn’t* stop watching, and now you’re feeling a second wind! Like, you’re not even tired anymore and you think you’ll watch yet another episode! Go for it–I’m not here to judge. I’m here to warn you that the Gallbladder, which also happens to be the master of judgment, is in charge of this time from 11 PM to 1 AM. That second wind has to come from somewhere, and it comes from the energy created by the Gallbladder for the next day. In other words, this is when the Gallbladder gives birth to tomorrow’s “qì baby.” As we will see, there is benefit to getting up early, but burning the candle at both ends is not sustainable. Today’s second wind blows out tomorrow’s flame.

I sent a stranger this haiku art I made as part of an art exchange my sister-in-law organized during the early days of the pandemic. It is called “Spreading Peace” and it reads: “Learn to live inside: / Memories of humans, but / There’s no place like home.” If nothing else, I think it made my Liver happy! Taken April 2020.

From 1 AM to 3 AM, it’s Liver time. The Liver is closely related to dreaming. This is the time to dream! How do we set ourselves up for healthy dreaming? We make sure we are getting enough (but not too much) cognitive stimulation during the day–easier said than done when we are all at various levels of quarantine, but there are ways! Take in the views on a hike, marvel at the ignorance of people not covering their noses with their masks at the grocery store…You may have to get creative, but that’s kind of the whole point.

3 AM to 5 AM is Lung time. The Lungs are the official of reciprocity and mutual exchange. They are like a “qì bank.” During this time they calculate the body’s qì needs and distribute qì accordingly. In order to support the Lungs in this task we need to be asleep during Lung time.

Coffee beans in Monteverde, Costa Rica. Taken February 2017.

Finally, 5 AM to 7 AM is Large Intestine time. This is time to wake up and “open the doors.” It is time to clear your “house” by removing the waste from the previous day. It is time to take a dump. There are a few reasons why you may not regularly go number two at this time. First, you may be sleeping. (The early bird gets the worm, but only if it makes room for it first!) Second, you may have become dependent on coffee in order for you to “float the boat,” as the Chinese expression goes. Third, you may have places to go, people to see, etc. Just know that, if you wait until later in the day to go, it means you are carrying around yesterday’s garbage until then, which is bound to cause a bit of a stink for you, such as irritability, abdominal pain, and lack of appetite. If your body is trained to drop a load at a different time of the day, my qì gōng professor recommends drinking one cup of warm water during Large Intestine time. As you drink the water, I would recommend thinking about any experiences in your recent and distant past that you need to let go of. Intention can go a long way with this ritual–hopefully, all the way to the toilet.

Part 2: Moon Time

“Moon time” traditionally refers to menstruation, or a female’s period. But you don’t have to have a period to use the moon as a way to tell time. The word “moon” bears relation to the Latin “metiri” or “to measure,” hinting at the historical use of the moon as a measurement of time. Here I will focus on the relationship between the lunar and menstrual cycles, although I will also discuss a mediator of this relationship that applies to all humans regardless of whether or not they have a uterus.

The moon overlooking an observatory in Colorado Springs, CO. Taken September 2009.

There is much folklore around the relationship between the lunar and menstrual cycles, but no consensus as to their synchronization. Some have argued that ovulation, when the body releases an egg for fertilization by sperm to propagate the species, occurs in the darker half of the lunar cycle (centered around the new moon); some have argued that it occurs in the lighter half (centered around the full moon); and some have argued, based on these apparently conflicting theories, that the proposed influence of this astronomical body on female human ones is absolutely absurd.1-4 But what if these conflicting theories meet in the middle–literally?

When the moon appears to be half full, it is called a quarter moon. The new moon waxes into the first-quarter moon, and the full moon wanes into the third-quarter moon, before the cycle begins again–on average, this takes about 29.53 days, while the textbook menstrual cycle takes 28 days. The theories of synchronization overlap at two points: the first-quarter and third-quarter moons. (See the following image for a depiction of the overlap between these theories). What if ovulation occurs at one of these points?

Overlap of dark phase and light phase synchronization theories at the first-quarter moon (center), and the third-quarter moon (ends). Adapted from a presentation I gave for my doctorate.

Sure, it’s not as black and white as having ovulation or menstruation occur at the new moon or the full moon, but from an anthropological perspective, it makes a lot of sense.

Imagine, if you will, that you do not have many of the modern comforts you have today, because no one does. Imagine that you do not have access to electricity and restaurants not because of wildfires, hurricanes, and a pandemic, but because electricity and restaurants have yet to be invented. Imagine that it is a really, really long time ago.

In this eutopia (eu- means “true”–this truly was how people lived), the full moon was a fundamental part of life.5 People relied on the light of the full moon to hunt and gather food.5 It was, therefore, not an ideal time for a female to be ovulating. When you have to choose between food and sex, there is only one answer that won’t ultimately kill you, and your species. Even when you’re just starving (as opposed to dead from starvation), you can’t reproduce. For biological females, insufficient nutritional intake suppresses the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis, which governs the hormones involved in ovulation.6 This could lead to amenorrhea, the medical term for lack of menstruation, which means ovulation does not occur either. The classical Chinese characters for amenorrhea translate as “woman having no moon” or “moon affair not coming,” indicating early recognition of the connection between menstruation and the moon.7

The full moon continues to impact us today, though we have lost touch with it and may not put two and two together. The distance to the nearest full-moon phase significantly influences our sleep, with the most disturbed or least restful sleep occurring at the full moon, when the light reflected off it appears brightest to us.8 The full moon doesn’t make us act crazy so much as it makes us have difficulty sleeping, which can make us act crazy.

A bed I slept in at a hotel in Rishikesh, India. Taken October 2011.

Intriguingly, sleep disruption also increases in the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, from ovulation to menstruation, with the most fragmented sleep occurring in the middle of this phase.9 Combining these observations suggests an adaptive advantage of synchronization between the menstrual and lunar cycles such that the point midway between ovulation and menstruation aligns with the full moon, putting ovulation at or around the first-quarter moon and menstruation beginning at or around the third-quarter moon. This way, humans would not have to starve from missing out on the ideal hunting-and-gathering opportunity provided by the full moon in order to try and capitalize on the peak fertility provided by ovulation, nor would the scent of female humans’ menstrual blood instigate an attack-or-avoid reaction in potential prey.10

Fascinating, right? But how do we apply this practically?

All of us, including males, can appreciate that the moon impacts our behavior. You can track your sleep patterns throughout the lunar cycle and see if the finding that the most interrupted sleep occurs at the full moon holds true for you.

The gnomon, the part of a sundial that casts a shadow, of the ginormous sundial Samrat Yantra in Jaipur, India. Taken October 2011.

For the biological females between puberty and menopause in particular, who aren’t taking reproductive hormones (i.e. for birth control), I encourage you to get in touch with the moon above, especially if you have an irregular or even absent moon below. This will help you notice the effects of the hormonal shifts throughout the menstrual cycle on your body, mood, diet, etc., so that your period isn’t just something that “happens” to you. If you are feeling out of control, it may not be you; it may be the moon–especially if you have a history of mommy issues, trust issues, or any of the other issues affiliated with the acupuncture channel that starts in the uterus, as the body’s memories of the traumatic experiences from which these sorts of issues derive may become stored in the “menstrual wound.” (For more information about the effect of core experiences on our physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral wellbeing, see my blog post “Not What, but Where: Piercings, Tattoos, and the Map of the Subconscious Mind”).

I will conclude by sharing an anecdote from the experimental procedures section of the aforementioned study on the relationship between lunar phases and sleep. As it turns out, the study authors never intended to explore “the influence of different lunar phases on sleep regulation” in the study.8(p1846) They “just thought of it after a drink in a local bar one evening at full moon, years after the study was completed.”8(p1486) Hey, if you’re going to be awake during the full moon anyway, why not make the most of it?

References

  1. Criss TB, Marcum JP. A lunar effect on fertility. Soc Biol. 1981;28(1-2):75-80. doi: 10.1080/19485565.1981.9988443.
  2. Cutler WB. Lunar and menstrual phase locking. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 1980;137(7):834-839. doi: 10.1016/0002-9378(80)90895-9.
  3. Dewan EM, Menkin MF, Rock J. Effect of photic stimulation on the human menstrual cycle. Photochem Photobiol. 1978;27:581-585. doi: 10.1111/j.1751-1097.1978.tb07649.x.
  4. Strassman BI. The biology of menstruation in Homo Sapiens: Total lifetime menses, fecundity, and nonsynchrony in a natural-fertility population. Curr Anthropol. 1997;38(1):123-129. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2744446. Accessed September 2019.
  5. Foster RG, Roenneberg T. Human responses to the geophysical daily, annual and lunar cycles. Curr Biol. 2008;18(17):R784-R794. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2008.07.003.
  6. Fourman LT, Fazeli PK. Neuroendocrine causes of amenorrhea—An update. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2015;100(3):812-824. doi: 10.1210/jc.2014-3344.
  7. Maciocia G. Obstetrics and Gynecology in Chinese Medicine. 2nd ed. Edinburgh, Scotland: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier; 2011.
  8. Cajochen C, Altanay-Ekici S, Münch M, Frey S, Knoblauch V, Wriz-Justice A. Evidence that the lunar cycle influences human sleep. Curr Biol. 2013;23:1485-1488. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.06.029.
  9. Sharkey KM, Crawford SL, Kim S, Joffe H. Objective sleep interruption and reproductive hormone dynamics in the menstrual cycle. Sleep Med. 2014;15(6):688-693. doi: 10.1016/j.sleep.2014.02.003.
  10. March KS. Deer, bears, and blood: A note on nonhuman animal response to menstrual odor. Am Anthropol. 1980;82(1):125-127. https://www.jstor.org/stable/676137. Accessed September 2020.