Our Emotions According to Chinese Medicine

A round metal image picturing two facial expressions

Emotions are complex reaction patterns that indicate to us how our present relationship with the world around us is. Humans are the only species able to bypass emotional responses and engage in self-reflection. Although we live in an era of high-tech, the history of evolution tells us that we humans have a long way ahead having the same biological needs that we used to have hundreds of years ago.

Mental health decrease is a worldwide phenomenon. The modern lifestyle standard is not one we’re genetically designed to live, neither psychologically nor metabolically. In the same way that we cannot change our genetic information overnight, the environmental and cultural context in which our genetics have been shaped shouldn’t be dismissed too fast.

Gladly, some of the ancient Chinese contemplative wisdom has survived many centuries of ideological changes, wars, and political conflicts, making its way up to modern days to show us a dimension where things have not changed that much at all.

According to the Chinese tradition, our emotions reflect our mental and physical health. Classic Chinese medicine gives us a basic, and yet profound definition system that can be used to measure our state based on mental and physical symptoms. In Chinese medicine, the mind is one with the body, and one influences the other in well-defined ways.

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Chinese Medicine Basics

Some of the oldest definitions of emotions are found in a 2,000 years old Chinese collection of treatises on medicine that are deeply rooted in Daoist views and practices, the Huangdi Neijing. Besides the Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor, there have been several outstanding works in Chinese culture which carry messages that remain persistently relevant throughout the years.

Chinese medicine is known as “a plot without a weaver”, referring to its many faceless contributors along thousands of years of philosophical and gnostic tradition. Chinese medicine speaks of yin and yang, two opposing and complementary powers that when balanced give rise to life and harmony, and destruction and chaos if out of equilibrium. This recognition that balance is frail and something to be maintained by equilibrium is a basic principle of Taoism that is meant to be taken literally.

Heat destroys cold and vice versa, positive destroys negative and vice versa, what is wet destroys what is dry and vice versa. Our existence lies within precise amounts of a myriad of opposing elements that if increased or diminished beyond a specific threshold would lead to the obliteration of all the other ones. This line of logic that stems from the observation of causality in the natural world is the general criteria for the attainment of equilibrium in any given domain, including within ourselves. This is is the basis of classic Chinese medicine.

Emotions According to TCM

In the Chinese medicine system, the zang (viscera) are the abode of five psychological traits; shen, zhi, yi, po, and hun. These five give rise to five healthy emotional responses, which are measured, natural fluctuations in one’s inner state. The healthy emotions are termed wu zhi; they are joy, fear, reflection, sadness, and wrath. When these responses are exaggerated and out of one’s control, they are termed qi qing. The latter are considered harmful, and are the cause of physical illnesses.

According to Chinese medicine, emotions are somatic states of mind and body that are directly connected to the zang. The Heart is considered the emotional centre of the body in TCM, it shelters the shen. Shen is the sum of the activities of thought, consciousness, self, insight, emotions, explicit memory, and volition. It’s inseparably linked to all other psychological traits. Shen is what feels the emotions and is the basis for the sense of self in TCM. When mental illnesses arise it is said that “the shen becomes clouded”.

The fact that there existed a flourishing spiritual culture throughout the history of China doesn’t mean that there always predominated the pure lifestyle expounded in the classical texts. The scholar Paul U. Unschuld comments briefly on how knowledge became distorted in China in his annotations includeed in his translation of the Huang Di Nei Jing Ling Shu:

"The qi of an organ, i.e. its resources, are depleted most easily by emotions. Undisciplined emotionality permits the excessive drainage of qi from the respective organ responsible for grief, joy, fear, etc., and leads to two possible yet equally unpleasant consequences. First, the unleashed spirit can inflict health problems on the affected individual. Even today in the societies of East Asia influenced by ancient Chinese culture, one is struck by the emotional restraint among the people. That may well be an aftereffect of the idea that emotional exuberance is a prime cause of illness.''

The Ancient Classic on Needle Therapy, The complete Chinese text with an annotated English translation

The Movements of Qi and the Emotions

When we take a look at the descriptions of the natural dynamics of qi, i.e. qi ji, we can find interesting relationships between movement and emotional manifestations. Beginning from the hanzi character that represents shen [申], which means “to stretch”, or “to extend”. This is the same character that represents “centrifugal movement”. Shen, therefore, corresponds to the qualities related to the heart as the organ associated with joy, love, and compassion towards others, even in Western society.

Xin [心] means heart, it refers to the organ, and also to superior spiritual intelligence and discrimination in all classic Chinese philosophical works.

Hun

Hun is the psychological trait that resides in the Liver. It’s related to intuition, irrationality and wrath. Hun is mobile, it is what leaves the body when we dream and is also the basis from which creativity, inspiration, ideas, and the ability to socialize stem. Hun is said to have its own independent agenda from that of shen, in order to have a rich psyche one has to integrate the two. Hun wanders, and shen has to be able to control it, while allowing the hun to come and go freely.

When the shen isn’t able to restrain hun we become unsettled and scattered. People who have many projects and ideas but never concretize them are said to have a hyperactive hun and a weak shen. According to Chinese medicine, in extreme cases, a hyperactive hun can give rise to manic episodes. When hun is suppressed by shen in the other hand, there manifests a lack of creativity and inspiration, and even depressive episodes.

Po

Po is referred to as the “animal soul”, it is connected to feeling-consciousness and is associated with charisma and “magnetism”, as human beings’ common characteristics with other mammals. The Lung zang is the abode of po. While hun is related to intuition and creativity, po is related to instinct and physical sensations of earthly experiences. Po is related to the emotions of sorrow and grief. 

"When someone leads an excessive life and [these contents] leave the zang, then [this person’s] essence will be lost. His hun and po souls will rise into the air; his mind and intentions will be utterly confused."

Lingshu, chapter 8

Yi

Yi resides in the Spleen, a zang that includes the functions of different organs of the gastrointestinal tract. Yi usually translates as “thoughts” or “reflection”. The hanzi symbol that represents yi [意] is the combination of “sound” [音] and “heart” [心]. Yi is “the sound of the heart”. From this definition, we can interpret our thoughts as the sound of our shen.

While shen is related to alertness, yi relates to the capacity to concentrate, learn, and remember what we have learned. A healthy yi will manifest as organized thoughts and structured reflection. When someone thinks too much about the same problems over and over again it’s said that their yi is weak.

Zhi

Zhi is the psychological trait that resides in the Kidneys. It is usually translated as “will”, or “perseverance”. The Kidneys in Chinese medicine are the organs that treasure the essential substance of our bodies, the jing. When we have enough pre-natal essence from our parents, as well as post-natal essence from the food we eat and the air we breathe our jing is well-nourished.

The etymology of zhi consists of the hanzi character 之, which means “going” or “going out”, and xin [心], meaning “heart”. Zhi, in the most literal sense denotes “going for what the Heart wants”. Physical strength represented by a well-nourished jing, combined with a strong xin (and shen) will give rise to a stable zhi, capable of pursuing one’s highest dreams and aspirations.

Emotions and the Body in TCM

Li Gao was a prominent Chinese physician who lived around 1180 – 1251 c.e. He proposed mechanisms explaining how what is now known as psychosomatic diseases become manifest. According to him, excessive emotions agitate the body and lead to a weakening in digestion. His theory on how emotional states affect the body later became integrated into the Five Phases Theory.

In TCM, when emotions are out of balance, exaggerated, or sustained for long periods they are called qing. The character that represents these unhealthy emotions is 情, consisting of the radical xin [忄] meaning “heart”, and the phonetic component qing [青], meaning “immature”. Qing [青] is utilized to refer to adolescents and the young. One commonly accepted translation for the hanzi character for unbalanced emotions is “immature heart”.

The qi qing are mainly seven emotions that cause illnesses. They are happiness, anger, worry, obsession, sadness, fear, and shock. Although each one of the seven qi qing affect a specific organ, ultimately all end up affecting the Heart and creating Heat disturbances. As the saying goes “all emotion in excess becomes fire”.

Happiness [xǐ 喜]

 

    •  [ kǒu ] opening; entrance, gate, mouth

 refers to an exaggerated exteriorization of happiness, as well as sudden explosive expressions of excitement. These altered emotional states are said to disperse Heart qi, causing exhaustion, lack of concentration, dissociation, mania, etc.

Anger [nù 怒]

 

    •  [  ]  servant, slave

 refers to a blind enraged reaction, as well as to its hues such as irritation, frustration, indignation, resentment, bitterness, cholera, etc. Anger affects mainly the Liver, causing Liver Qi Stagnation and Liver Qi Pathologic Rising (qi ni). The combination of those two syndromes is associated with the symptoms of headache, tinnitus, dizziness, vertigo, redness in the face and eyes, and bitterness in the mouth.

Other symptoms associated with Liver Qi Stagnation according to the Five Phases Theory are diarrhoea, vomiting, regurgitation, epigastric distention, pain, etc. Repressed anger and resentment can evolve into depressive processes.

Worry [yōu 忧]

 

    •  [ yóu ] particularly, especially

Worry in the context of Chinese medicine refers to being absorbed in negative thought processes, leading to the consumption of Lung qi. The symptoms that are associated with yōu are superficial respiration, the rigidity of the cervices and shoulders, chest oppression, etc.

Obsession [sī 思]

    •  [ tián ] field, arable land, farm; cultivated

This emotional state refers to compulsive thinking and reflection, or overthinking. To “ruminate” over a subject over and over again without a sense of conclusion and not being able to “let it go” is . This emotion affects the Spleen.

The symptoms associated with obsessive thinking are fatigue, lack of appetite, loose stools, heavy digestion, etc.

Sadness [bēi 悲]

    •  [ fēi ] not, non, negative-; to oppos

Bēi refers to being sunken in a nihilistic state of mind. It corresponds to the pessimistic emotions of sadness, pitifulness, and melancholy. Bēi affects primarily the Lung qi, causing shallowness of breath, apathy, indifference, depression, etc.

Sadness is very consuming. The TCM classic Swen mentions that “sadness agitates the Heart, disperses [qi] Lungs, and obstructs the Upper Burner.” The Upper Burner in Chinese medicine corresponds to the area where the heart and lungs are located.

Fear [kǒng 恐]

    •  [ gǒng ] to bind, to strengthen; to guard; firm, secure, strong

Fear consumes our organic Essence (jing), which is a vital substance necessary for a nourished and healthy body. The Chinese Kidney serves as a storage room for jing and is responsible for the opening and closing of the sphincters. Since all the organs are nourished by jing and fear affects primarily the Kidney, the symptoms associated with sustained fear are general lack of energy, incontinence, enuresis, sweating, etc.

Shock [jīng 惊]

Jīng means a sudden and alarming event that disrupts the normal circulation of qi in the Heart and Kidney. It’s usually translated as “panic” or “shock”. The symptoms that are associated with jīng are palpitations, insomnia, ragged breathing, etc.

Applying the Theory into Practice

Ancient knowledge tells us that human beings are an integrated unit with many aspects that require a harmonic alignment, like an instrument. The definition of emotions found in Chinese classical texts is limited when compared to the full spectrum of human emotions. Nonetheless, the classics lay down an empirical foundation based on symptomatology that serves as a useful frame of reference.

In TCM, qi and matter are considered two different states of the same substance. The relationship between the different types of qi and physical components is established in the Five Phases theory. By understanding the movements of our healthy emotional fluctuations, as well as their unhealthy exaggeration, we can better identify and address them.

Classical Chinese medicine helps us to identify with our bodies in a truly organic manner, and use it to solve complex mental entanglements. In the same manner, it also helps us to use our minds to heal physical problems. In TCM clinics for example, acupuncture treatments combined with herbal medicines are aimed at healing the body, however, it is part of the duty of Chinese medicine doctors to talk to their patients about the five wu zhi and the seven qi qing when it is appropriated.

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