Yin and Yang, the Five Elements, and the Emotions
When I was a boy, a friend and I would bandy about the terms “yin” and “yang,” but it was not until I studied Chinese Medicine that I came to have a fuller understanding of their meaning. As I tell my audiences when I speak before civic clubs and other community organizations, the dichotomy of yin and yang is best explained by the dichotomy of matter and energy.
And the dichotomy of matter and energy is best exemplified by that of the earth and sun. From the earth we get all the matter or yin that we need to sustain life. From the sun comes the energy or yang that sustains us, the earth, and its creatures, and makes the plants that we eat (matter or yin) grow.
In Chinese Medicine, our bodies are composed of yin and yang. To be sure, there is a more elementary building block called jing or vital essence. People who are born with an abundance of jing may age slowly and live long lives, and vice-versa. One can supplement and conserve his vital essence by eating well, living wisely and avoiding dissipating his jing in foolish living.
In Chinese Medicine the kidneys are the repository of jing, yin and yang, and they supply the other organs with these vital and basic substances of life. From jing, yin and yang, the body makes blood and chi. We know from our Western educations and from cutting our fingers what blood is. Qi is an eastern notion often defined as vital life force energy.
The body makes qi in several of the vital organs from jing, yin and yang, the food that we eat and air that we breathe. Qi is primarily a yang (energy) substance, though it has some yin (matter) in it. Think of it as energy with some substance (yin) added.
Blood is primarily a yin substance (matter), but not entirely as it has some qi, a yang substance in it. So blood is substance made from both yin and yang, though it is mostly yang. Think of the qi in the blood as giving it more life, helping it to flow.
So in building our Chinese model of the body, we began with jing (vital essence), yin and yang, and now understand blood and qi. The qi flows through the acupuncture meridians and in so doing helps regulate the functions of the vital organs.
One of my earliest teachers told me that the meridian men (doctors) of ancient China could see the acupuncture meridians. This reminds me of the Renaissance paintings of Jesus and the disciples. I used to wonder as a boy in Sunday school why they painted the halos around these Biblical figures. Then one day in adulthood it occurred to me that maybe it was because people could actually see the halos (auras).
Over twenty years ago in Wichita, where I began my practice, I had just finished treating a patient, when she remarked, as she ran her index finger down her leg, “Oh, I see the meridian.” And her finger jogged exactly where the stomach meridian jogs below the knee. Whatever doubts I may have had about the actual existence of the meridians vanished. More recently researchers have discovered an actual physicality to the meridians such that they may yet end up in the Western anatomy textbooks. Now, that will be a paradigm shift!
Most of you have seen mannequins or graphics depicting the acupuncture meridians of the body. I have not included such a picture in this article as I want to emphasize other things.
The theory of Chinese Medicine was constructed two to three thousand years ago before modern science invented the electron microscope let alone the microscope itself. With their deep insight and wisdom, the ancient doctors related the emotions and character strengths to the vital organs and the five elements.
In Chinese Medicine there are five elements, reminiscent of the four elements in Greek philosophy. They are depicted in the graph as water, wood, fire, earth and metal. They nourish each other in the cycle as depicted. Water makes wood grow. Wood feeds the burning fire. Fire turns to ash (earth). And from the earth we get metal. That water flows from metal (unless you think of a pipe) is less evident. That water flows from metal is not as important in keeping the model neat and tidy when one reflects that water (the kidneys) is the source of yin and yang, starting the whole cycle over.
This cycle of the elements and organs nourishing one another is the tip of the iceberg in the interrelationship of the organs. There is a complex set of interrelationships such that when the body and the emotions are healthy, the organs hold each other in homeostasis and vice-versa.
The second chart shows the relationship of the five vital yin and yang organs to the elements, seasons, emotions and even, amazingly, virtues.
There is a correspondence between East and West in sayings or aphorisms of our cultures. I am one of these people who worries about the turtles getting across the highways after the spring rains bring them out in April. Once I pulled my car over, got out and picked up a turtle to get him quickly across the road before a car ran over him. Fortunately I held him at arm’s length, as he immediately urinated. We make jokes about people wetting their pants. Just look at the chart. Fear is the emotion of the kidney and bladder.
In Chinese medicine the liver is often said to be involved in allergies. I have a patient who in the spring (the season of the liver which is of the element wood) has her allergies flare up and, left untreated, she gets so angry she feels road rage when driving. Now this is a very intelligent spiritual woman just telling me how her body reacts. A college friend of mine is a liver patient if ever there was one. He can get angry easily, but his virtue is that he can be very benevolent to others.
The heart in Chinese Medicine is said to be the emperor or controller of the body. Now the emperor, in order to keep the respect of his subjects and rule wisely, must have the very best sense of propriety, otherwise the kingdom would not run smoothly. Notice in the chart that the virtue of fire or the heart is propriety. In Western literature and folklore, summer is the time of romance (joy of the heart).
My father had a wonderful expression, “He vented his spleen, ” by which he meant he expressed his anxiety. In Chinese Medicine the spleen and stomach are paired yin and yang organs, both of the element earth. We know that people who worry too much get stomach ulcers.
That our lung’s emotion is sadness should be self-evident. When we cry, it is a paroxysm of our lungs. When we are sad or tired we catch colds, as the protective qi set up by the lungs is weakened and the wind and cold invade our meridians. Ever notice when you or others have a cold that depression or fatigue is often involved?