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Book Excerpt: The Chinese HeartFrom a purely medical standpoint, we usually think of the Heart as an organ that pumps blood and is prone to heart attacks as we get older. In Chinese medicine, however, the Heart is the organ system that houses the Shen, which is the mind, memory, consciousness, and spirit. While these activities are attributed to the brain in Western medicine, we tend to intuitively know that the Heart is also an organ of feeling or spirituality. In fact much of our language about the Heart refers to it as an organ of feeling. Terms such as someone "tugging on our heartstrings," "knowing things in your heart" or having a "broken heart" are speaking to an emotional organ rather than simply a muscle that pumps blood. Of course, the Heart does move Blood throughout the body, but that function is secondary to its job of housing the Shen.
The health of your Heart is reflected in your face. It is said that you can look into someone's eyes to see the spirit, or Shen, of that person. The sensory organ related to the Heart is the tongue. Your Spleen is assigned the sense of taste, but your Heart's relationship with your tongue is in its ability to form words–a way of projecting your Shen.
The element associated with the Heart is Fire, and as such it is a warm and active organ. Its activity is responsible for moving Blood throughout your body, but it is also the activity of your mind and the warmth of your body which animate you as a human being. The color related to the Heart is red (an obvious choice) and its season is summer.
The emotion associated with the Heart is joy, which can be a double-edged sword, in that too much joy can become mania. As the home of your Shen, your Heart is your connection to your spirituality, your connection with the universe, and your relationship to the divine, however you choose to define it.
Because the Heart is the home of consciousness, it has some relationship to most emotional disturbances, notably anxiety and insomnia. When you become out of touch with reality to the point of mental illness, your Heart is always involved. When you are unable to connect with reality, it is considered a "misting" of your Heart, a term for loss of clear thinking and cognizance.
Pathology associated with the Heart includes palpitations, insomnia, vivid dreams, chest pain, and gum problems. Heart pathology may also reflect the Fire element, including signs of excess heat in your body, such as feeling hot, thirst, dark urine, craving cold foods and drinks, and a red face.
Carrie came to my office a few years ago because she had a habit of laughing inappropriately and being unable to stop. At the beginning of Carrie's first appointment, she seemed joyous and happy, but after about twenty minutes, it became apparent that she was unable to calm down and stop laughing. In fact, the harder she tried to control her laughter, the worse it became.
Carrie was in the process of looking for jobs in her field and was worried that she wouldn't be able to stop laughing during job interviews. She shared that the more overwhelmed she felt, the worse the laughter became, but that she could control this to some degree by thinking peaceful thoughts. She had an important interview coming up the following week, and was trying acupuncture as a last resort.
Carrie was in her twenties and very healthy, but she had been in a traumatic car accident about six months before coming to me. She had healed from her physical injuries after the accident, but she was still troubled by the traumatic nature of what had happened. Carrie said that after the accident, she had become very jumpy and the laughter had begun.
During her first appointment, I learned from Carrie that she felt hot most of the time and was very thirsty for ice-cold drinks. She had difficulty getting to sleep and once she was asleep, she would wake during the night hot and sweaty.
I diagnosed Carrie with a Heart pattern, because her Shen, or spirit, had been greatly disturbed by the accident. After three or four appointments, in which I treated Carrie with acupuncture, she was much calmer and able to control her laughter almost completely. She was able to successfully interview for positions in her field, and had some job opportunities that she was considering.
Nourishing your Heart
The key to nourishing your Heart is in connection. Connecting with your sense of purpose through journaling and self-exploration, connecting with others in social situations, and connecting to the divine through prayer and meditation are all nourishing to your Heart. Celebrating the seasons and spending time in nature are also ways of connecting with creation. Finding ways in your day to be joyous is honoring your Heart and the Shen within.
Nutritionally, foods that bring joy feed your Heart. Meals that have been prepared with love, foods you love to eat, and gathering with friends and family for a meal are all Heart nourishing. The taste associated with your Heart is bitter, the taste of that which has been burned. Bitter foods such as especially dark chocolate and bitter greens are stimulating to your Heart. Red foods and beverages derived from red foods are also good for your Heart, so stock up on tomatoes, red peppers, apples, a little (very little) red meat and red wine.
The next time you are full of joy or feel something with all your heart, remember that in Chinese medicine, your Heart is actually the keeper of all your feelings.
About the Acupuncturist:
Lynn Jaffee is a licensed acupuncturist in St. Louis Park, Minn. She
practices at Acupuncture in the Park and specializes in treating
emotional conditions such as stress, anxiety, and depression, as well
as other conditions (such as IBS) that are aggravated by the emotions.
For more information, visit http://www.acupunctureinthepark.com