The Healers Journal
HJ: The mind and spirit are intimately connected to the body. Therefore, any disturbance in either the mind or spirit, will also have an energetic counterpart in the body. For instance, an imbalance in the kidneys will cause the mind and spirit to experience fear and variations on that emotional state… and vice versa — excessive fearful thoughts will cause an imbalance in the kidneys. It is not really important to identify which came first, the thought or the imbalance, but to simply recognize the interconnected nature of our mind-body-spirit triad. The power of the mind alone is enough to heal the body, but it requires great belief and trust, which many are not yet capable of (although we all have the potential to be). Therefore, treating the physical body through diet, herbs, physical manipulation and lifestyle modifications can greatly facilitate healing for most people.
Furthermore, our body has basic physical needs and requirements that must be met and any area of imbalance can impede and cause problems on many levels. For instance, severe nutrient deficiencies or dietary imbalances may throw an otherwise in balance mind and body out of whack, simply because the body is the vehicle for the mind and if the vehicle is faulty in any way, it will make the job of the mind more difficult.
These concepts have all been mapped quite extensively by the ancient Chinese traditional system of medicine developed over the last few thousand years by highly advanced Taoists and Mystics. They have created an incredibly useful and profound healing framework, which elucidates the interrelatedness of the various physical components of our bodies (the organs, for instance) and their emotional and spiritual counterparts. Imbalances in one area left untreated always lead to imbalances in others. Therefore, we can also trace physical symptoms back to their spiritual or emotional roots if we know and understand how they typically manifest in the body.
THE ORGAN-EMOTION LINK
By Ken Cohen | Sahej
Chinese medicine categorizes the major emotions as: anxiety, sorrow, fear, anger, joy, rumination, and empathy. Each of these, when excessive or fix (preoccupying the mind), harms an internal organ and disturbs the qi in specific ways.
Anxiety and sorrow both damage the lungs. The English word “anxiety” comes from a German root angst, “narrow,” referring to the narrowing of the bronchial passages. During times of anxiety, breath and qi are constricted, unable to flow easily in and out of the lungs. It is well-known that anxiety can contribute to the development or exacerbation of asthma and other bronchial conditions. The lungs are also affected by grief as demonstrated by the heaving that occurs with crying. Grief depresses and weakens the lungs and, like anxiety, disturbs the easy and full movement of breath. According to Chinese medicine, the lungs extract qi from the air, regulating the supply of internal healing energy. When the lungs are weakened by grief, one’s gen-eral health and vitality diminishes. However, this does not mean that we should suppress sorrow. It is not healthy to withhold one’s tears in response to an upsetting event. Both prolonged grief and unexpressed grief weaken lung qi.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the word shen, “kidneys,” includes both the kidneys and adrenals and, in some contexts, the reproductive sys-tem. The shen are most affected by fear. Fear causes pain and disease in the kidneys, adrenals, and lower back and creates favorable conditions for uri-nary tract disorders and incontinence. When one is afraid, the qi drops down toward the sacrum and in toward the center, away from the surface of the body. The body contracts in self-protection. The circulation of blood and breath slows down, resulting in conditions of excess and stagnation in the core and depletion in the periphery. A common sign of this is cold hands and feet. One is literally “frozen with fear.”
Chronic fear can lead to a host of debilitating conditions. Fear and stress; cause the adrenals to secrete large amounts of the stress hormones adrenaline and hydrocortisone, which signal the cells to break down stored fats and pro-teins into sugar (glucose). This makes energy available to fight or flee from a threat – a necessity during short-term threats to survival but devastating if prolonged. As the stores of energy are sapped, we become weak and fatigued, leading to “adrenal burnout.” The body’s reservoir of hormones is not infinitely deep. If we do not have time to rest and regenerate our supply, our ability to cope with stress is impaired.
The release of adrenal hormones puts many bodily processes on hold, in order to defend against the threat. This includes the shutting down of growth, repair, and reproduction by inhibiting or disabling essential chemi-cals and immune cells. If stress is constant, the body may forget how to re-turn to the healthy state, losing its ability to defend effectively against pathogens or to repair and heal damage.
In qigong theory, the kidneys and adrenals also control brain function, especially memory. Scientific research has confirmed that fear and stress can weaken memory and create learning disabilities. The stress hormone, hydro-cortisone, damages the hippocampus, a region of the brain responsible for memory and learning and rich with hydrocortisone receptors. The connec-tion between the adrenal hormones and memory has also been shown in ani-mal experiments. In the 1960s, German physiologists found that these hormones damage the brains of guinea pigs. On the other hand, when the adrenal glands were removed from middle-aged rats, the hippocampal cells were spared the damage that one would normally expect with aging. The implication of all of this for humans is that by avoiding stressful situations or by resolving or changing our reactions to them, we can restore balance to the shen, the kidneys-adrenals, and preserve the health of body and mind.
Anger weakens the liver and causes the qi to rise. In fact, the common Chinese word for anger is sheng qi “rising qi.” Other expressions used to describe an angry person include huo qi da “fire qi great” or yang qi tao gao “yang qi too high.” Rising qi leads to muscular tension and various liver- and fire–related ailments, such as headaches, eyestrain, hemorrhoids, and irregular menstruation. It is interesting that in English, the word “bilious” also implies a connection between the liver and anger. Weakness of liver qi also con-tributes to mood swings, as the liver cannot perform its function of spreading the qi and harmonizing its flow.
In the West we distinguish between “healthy anger” and “unhealthy anger.” Whereas the Chinese simply say that anger is harmful, Western mind-body researchers have found that honest expression of even “negative” feelings is good for one’s health. Unhealthy anger is repressed, chronic, cruel, or violent. This kind of anger does not end after it is discharged; inevitably a trail of other feelings follows it, including resentment, frustration, and guilt. In my opinion, it is only this kind of anger that harms the liver. Many scien-tists have found that the inability to express healthy anger and other emo-tions conventionally labeled as “negative” may suppress the immune system and create favorable conditions for the development of cancer. Even mice exhibit different immunologic states depending on their behavior. More ag-gressive mice tend to have smaller virus-induced tumors. It may be that a strong, fighting (and feisty) spirit goes hand in hand with more aggressive white blood cells. It is important to note, however, that a fighting spirit is different from obstinacy and stubbornness. The challenge for anyone facing serious disease is how to balance determination and willpower with acceptance of human frailty and imperfection.
Lao Zi suggests a distinction between healthy and unhealthy emotion in his classic Dao De Jing; “The highest virtue is not virtuous, and is thus virtu-ous “; that is, true virtue is not self-consciously or compulsively virtuous. Compulsive do-gooders are really afraid of or denying their own aggression and hostility. They try always to do what is “best,” preferring to be placating, submissive, or self-sacrificing rather than expressing or fighting for what they genuinely feel, lest they “make waves.” “The sage is not a do-gooder,” says Lao Zi. The sage is true to his or her nature, neither compulsively following nor rebelling against rules of conduct. The sage is capable of expressing emo-tions, including anger, as necessary and appropriate to the situation. He or she practices self-acceptance and is thus more accepting and understanding of others. The first step in self-acceptance is giving oneself permission to feel what one is feeling; then inner resistance and friction is lessened and much of one’s anger is already gone.
That joy is considered a negative emotion is troubling to most Western students of qigong until they realize that in Chinese medical literature the term joy (1e) means excitability, a tendency toward giddiness, talkativeness, lavishness, and general excess. In some texts, another character for joy is used, pronounced xi. Etymologically, this character means the joy derived from eating. According to Chinese medicine scholars Kiiko Matsumoto and Stephen Birch, “In a medical context, xi accurately refers more to the notion of problems caused by overeating. . . .”” Thus, “joy” disperses and scatters the qi. It can create an uneven pulse and make one prone to cardiac problems.
The excitable, joyous person is the opposite of the Chinese ideal of the sage, who is able to maintain inner composure and calm even in the midst of a storm. There is a Chinese saying, “Though Mount Tai collapses at your feet, the qi remains calm, and the face does not change color.” Excitement places sudden demands on the heart. The most extreme form of excitement and thus the most damaging emotion for the heart is emotional shock, whether from a negative event such as the death of a loved one or from a positive event, like winning the sweepstakes. The epidemic of heart disease in the West may be symptomatic of our society’s preoccupation with le, “joy, excitement.” The heart is overstimulated by our quick pace of life, by fright-ening news reports, TV violence, and an infatuation with sex and romance.
In qigong philosophy, it is believed that the heart likes peace and quiet. It needs a feeling of security in order to keep an even pace as it pumps energy through the body. When the heart qi is disturbed by excitement and excess, mind and spirit are both affected, creating the possibility of insomnia, con-fused and restless thinking, or in extreme cases, hallucinations, hysteria, and psychosis.
The spleen is damaged by pensiveness. The qi becomes knotted and stuck. Pensiveness means excess concentration, an obsessive preoccupation with a concept or subject. It is the kind of intellectual nit-picking usually required for Ph.D. dissertations. Needless to say, college students often suffer from what Chinese medicine considers spleen-related disorders: gastric disturbances, elevated blood pressure, weakened immunity, and a tendency toward phlegm and colds.
Excess empathy, bei, also harms the spleen. Empathy is similar to com-passion. The American Heritage Dictionary defines compassion as “Deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.” Empathy means that we also identify with that person’s suffering. This feeling is especially strong when we come in contact with individuals who are facing hardships we ourselves have endured. Empathy is a positive attribute and creates a heating trust in any relationship, especially a therapeutic one. Empathy is considered excessive and damaging to the spleen when we lose a clear recognition of boundaries, when we feel distraught and upset by some-one else’s problems.” Pensiveness and excess empathy, the two qualities that harm the spleen, are related. We are pensive when we are preoccupied with ourselves; we are overly empathic when we are preoccupied with others.
Empathy is an important and difficult issue for many healers. Too much empathy makes it difficult to treat the patient objectively and may result in “picking up” the patient’s physical and/or mental disease. A qigong student knows he is overempathizing when it becomes difficult to feel relaxed, centered, and rooted. To overempathize is to feel disempowered and out of touch with the earth, the element that corresponds to the spleen. Such empathy weakens the spleen, and conversely a weak spleen can create boundary issues.
The spleen carries the qi of the earth. Qigong masters say that the spleen needs grounding, time spent in nature. There is a wonderful cure for both of the spleen’s emotional pathogens – pensiveness and empathy. “Lose your mind and come to your senses.” Spend more time in nature, seeing nature as a positive model of health and balance. The earth supports all kinds of life impartially, without attachment. Let the mind become quiet and the senses open to the environment. Such a cure may seem too simple, nontechnical, perhaps even naive. The important point is that it works! I remember my old friend, Zenmaster Alan Watts, once remarking, “We believe that we haven’t thought enough about the difficulties of life. Perhaps the problem is that we have thought entirely too much!”
In summary, each of the major internal organs can be damaged by emo-tional excess. There are also positive emotions that can help heal the organs. These positive emotions are identical to the five virtues that, according to Confucianism, can make one a “Noble Person.” The Chinese word for virtue (de) was originally written with the same character as the word “to plant,” suggesting that virtue is a power that can be cultivated. Similarly, the English “virtue” comes from the same Latin root as “virile,” suggesting a power or potential that creates health.
The lungs are heated by yi, often translated “righteousness,” in the sense of integrity and dignity. When I studied Chinese philosophy, my professor was fond of a particular example of lack of yi – the way people push and shove on crowded subways during rush hour. Yi means giving yourself and others a kind of psychological elbow room, room to live and breathe. The kidneys are healed by zhi, wisdom. Zhi implies clear perception and self -understanding, a sure antidote for irrational fears. The anger of the liver is mended with kindness (ren). The Confucian virtue ren is a pictogram of two people walking together. It is sometimes defined as the natural feelings.
THE ORGAN-EMOTION LINK
Element Metal Water Wood Fire Earth
Organ Lungs Kidney Liver Heart Spleen
Harmful Anxiety, Fear Anger Joy, Shock Pensiveness,
Emotions Sorrow Empathy
Qi Effect Constrict Drop Rise Scatter Knot
Positive Yi Zhi Ren Li Xin
Emotions (Integrity) (Wisdom) (Kindness) (Order) (Trust)
that arise with companionship: benevolence and “human-heartedness.” In the Analects, Confucius says, “Ren consists in loving others” (Analects XII, 22). The excitability of the heart is balanced by peace, calm, orderliness, all implied by the Chinese word fi. Li is usually translated “ritual.” However, Confucian texts make it clear that li is not only ritual, but the state of mind required to perform ritual properly and evoked by the performance. Li con-notes “orderliness,” setting limits on one’s behavior as a means of fostering social harmony. Finally, the spleen is healed by the cultivation of xin. This is a rich concept that can mean trust, faith, honesty, confidence, belief. Trust is openness and acceptance, a feeling that emerges when one finds a common ground with another. Trust is a cure for the knotted qi that occurs from both pensiveness (an internal knot and stagnation) and empathy (one’s qi tied to another).
The, correspondences between the five elements, the organs, harmful and positive (healing) emotions are reviewed in Table 1. This network is also the basis for a powerful qigong meditation called, very simply, “Healing the Emotions.” You may wish to either memorize or record the instructions, so you can practice with eyes closed.
HEALING THE EMOTIONS
Sit in qigong posture for a few minutes, with the eyes lightly closed. Make sure you are relaxed and breathing naturally. Bring your mind to the lungs. Use your inner senses to feel the lungs in your body. As you inhale, draw in, integrity and dignity into the lungs. As you exhale, let the breath carry away all worries, anxiety, and grief Repeat this several times. Inhale integrity, ex-hale anxiety and grief…
Now focus on the kidneys. Let the inhalation fill the kidneys with wisdom, with the confidence of inner knowing – Exhale all fears. Repeat several
Locate the liver with your awareness. As you inhale, draw in kindness, filling the liver completely. As you exhale, release and let go of anger. Repeat.
Bring your mind to the heart. Inhale, filling it-all the chambers, valves, the heart muscle-with peace and calm. Exhaling, release excitement, zealousness, excesses of any kind. Inhale peace again. Continue…
Now find the spleen. Locate and feet it inside. As you inhale, fill it with trust and acceptance. As you exhale, let go of pensiveness and Let go of excess empathy, so you can be secure and rooted in yourself. Again, inhale trust. Repeat.
Then bring your mind to the center of your being, to the stillness and silence of quiet abdominal breathing. Let all images and thoughts disappear. Stay with the feeling of pure being, “hanging out with yourself” as long as you wish.
You can also use Inner Nourishing Qigong for emotional heating. As we breathe, think of a heating phrase, for instance, “My emotions are balanced and calm.” Inhale, gently expanding the lower abdomen, thinking, “My emotions are . ..” Exhale, letting the abdomen relax, thinking, “ba” and calm.” Repeat for about five minutes.
I FEEL; THEREFORE I AM
We can see that qigong approaches the emotions from a very different p than traditional psychotherapy. Qigong considers the way emotions affect posture, breathing, and visceral health. Rather than viewing psychological problems in terms of past influences on present behavior, qigong focuses exclusively on present energy blockages. Frequently, psychological problems seem to just evaporate as physical tension dissolves. Although memory is stored in unhealthy tissue, one need not always analyze these memories to achieve psychological health. Many qigong students note, in retrospect, that emotional difficulties they had at the beginning of mining are simply nonexistent a few years later.
This is not, however, to denigrate the need for insight-oriented therapies. Serious psychological problems often do require delving into rea-sons and causes. Even if the energetic blockage is released, the patient may still need help breaking a loop of repetitive thought or a behavior that reinforces the problem. It is here that both Chinese medicine and qigong are seriously lacking and must took to Western psychotherapy to fill the gap. Dr. Mark Seem’s poignant commentary about acupuncture applies equally to qigong:
“Acupuncture therapy, while unblocking an energetic zone, simulta-neously frees up the psyche trapped in that zone, and if attention is not paid to the underlying psychological issues in the patient’s life experience, a new energetic zone will soon become disturbed. This results in constantly shifting or wandering symptoms, a kind of ener-getic hysteria due to the practitioner’s inability or unwillingness to focus on the soul as well as the body.”
Several years ago I was discussing qigong teaching strategies with a well–known Chinese qigong master, visiting from Guangzhou (Canton). I brought up one of my favorite questions. “How do you help a student who has serious emotional difficulties? Let’s say a student who cries every time she begins Standing Meditation.” The master replied, “I would tell her Fang Song, ‘Relax.'” “But what if this only made matters worse? What if relaxing the shoulders also relaxes the tension that controls her emotions and holds back the tears?” Again, the master said, “She needs to relax.” No matter how I ap-proached this subject, the answer was the same, like a broken record. I have heard the same answer from more than 99 percent of the Chinese qigong in-structors; I have questioned.
Relaxation is an answer but not the definitive answer in every case. In the West, we tend to view psychological problems as having to do almost ex-clusively with the mind. In China, the reverse is true. Psychological prob-lems are somatized, interpreted and regarded as physical sensations. This belief could be the foundation of a true mind-body science, but it is not. The attitude throughout most of Chinese history has been that anxiety is only a problem in the lungs, requiring acupuncture, massage, herbs, or some other physical remedy. If you have a phobic avoidance of certain situations, your personal experiences in childhood are irrelevant. After all, everyone knows that fear is located in the kidneys. And so on. The five element theory be-came a way to pigeonhole phenomena in terms of one all-embracing system of thought. It is ironic that a system originally designed to show connections and relationships eventually stunted the development of creative approaches to mind-body health.
The five element classification could be applied to almost everything, sometimes in bizarre ways. If an individual was suffering from uncontrollable anger, the Chinese doctor might recommend a healthy dose of anxiety and worry, since metal (associated with lungs-anxiety) chops and destroys wood (associated with liver-anger). Or if a patient was thinking too much and had a tendency toward obsessive behavior, then anger could be the cure. Again, the rationalization is that in the cycle of the five elements, wood (anger) penetrates and destroys earth (rumination). This system of therapy, called “checking one emotion with another,” is still practiced in China.
Somatization is reflected in present-day Chinese medical terminology.” Grief is suan, “soreness in the joints.” Insomnia and irritability are WU yun, “head dizziness.” Depression is men, a Chinese character that pictures the heart napped in a doorway, suggesting a feeling of being closed in or suffo-cated. The catchall phrase for most psychological problems is neurasthenia, shen fing shuai ruo, literally “weakness of the nerves.”” This can include anxi-ety, depression, and hysteria. David Eisenberg, M.D., notes that between one-third and one-half of all patients he saw at Beijing’s Dong Zhi Men Clinic complained of “suffering from neurasthenia. Thus most problems a Westerner would consider psychological are defined as physical, requiring exclusively physical interventions.
There are historical and philosophical reasons why emotional individu-als may not receive adequate attention in Chinese society. They are difficult to predict and control and care little for convention; thus they are perceived as threats to government stability.” In Confucianism, the state religion through much of China’s history, emotional expression was disdained in fa-vor of decorum, orderliness, and the performance of one’s social obligations. Social roles took precedence over personal experience and fulfillment.
In present-day P.R.C., as in the past, emotional difficulties are first ad-dressed within the family. If no resolution is found, the problem is brought to the attention of the local political leader, who oversees both political and so-cial aspects of his community. As a last resort, the truly disturbed individual might be referred to a physician. If the physician practices Western medi-cine, the course of treatment is generally medication and/or electroconvul-sive shock therapy. Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine will use acupuncture, herbs, massage, and qigong. Still, the personal thoughts and feelings of the individual, so valued in the West, have not been discussed or considered.
Arthur Kleinman, M.D., notes that during research conducted in 1980 at the Hunan Medical College Department of Psychiatry, most depressive pa-tients “did not improve their perceived disability, and few experienced sub-stantial improvement in family, school, or work problems.” In a follow-up study of chronic pain patients, conducted in 1983, Kleinman found that none of the patients had experienced a cure due to medical treatment and none of the psychiatric diagnoses had predicted a positive treatment outcome.”
Fortunately, there are indications of improvement and broader treat-ment options. Bogged down by an immense population and complex bureaucracy, changes are occurring at a tortoise’s pace. Individual and group talk therapy have made some inroads.’ Standard diagnostic labels of Western psychiatry are being adopted in research and, gradually, in clinical practice.
Perhaps both China and the West can begin to harvest the best of both worlds. We can combine the energy medicine technology of qigong with the insights and methodology of psychotherapy to create a new and truly effec-tive system of mind-body healing.
Note: The Yogic concept of Prana and the East Asian concept of Chi or Qi are identical.