Closeness, Connection, and Boundaries
In East Asian medicine, certain emotions are correlated with different organ systems. For quite some time while in graduate school studying acupuncture and for quite a bit longer after, I didn’t fully understand these relationships. I thought they were fairly arbitrary, made-up, and full of woo-woo nonsense. I even spent a few years studying a branch of East Asian medicine that takes these correspondences very seriously called Five Element Acupuncture, and I still was not all that convinced.
But I had a very interesting experience in a training not long ago that convinced me to reconsider my thinking in a very deep way. In this training we spent time fine-tuning our ability to use our hands and feel the visceral organs of the body. Doing this requires the person palpating to have a soft, non-judgemental presence and to engage the tissues of the body in a way that doesn’t cause them to guard or go into defensive mode. While my partner was practicing on me, I could feel the resonance of certain emotions reverberate through my body as my partner was gently making contact with that organ.
Does that sound weird? Yes, it is kind of weird. But where else do we experience emotions but in our own body? Our body is the arena where our whole emotional experience plays out - the good and the bad.
In East Asian medicine, grief and sadness are the emotions associated with the Lungs. In the Five Element tradition, the experience of awe and reverence are also associated with the Lungs. For me, that gives meaning to the expression that something “takes your breath away.” In this particular training I was taking, while my partner was placing their hands on the lobes of my lungs, I could feel this particular resonance of sadness. This made a lot of sense, because I had been ruminating over a certain relationship issue that caused me a great deal of sadness to think about. While feeling into this strong emotional experience in my body, I was able to acknowledge it, honor it, and give it space to be.
Excessive worry and empathy are associated with the digestive system (also known as the Spleen and Stomach in East Asian medicine). Excessively worrying and fretting about an interpersonal issue can deplete the energy of this organ system, leading to digestive upset, diarrhea, bloating, fatigue, and susceptibility to catching colds and other bugs.
Joyfulness, compassion, as well as feeling emotionally shutdown are associated with the Heart and Pericardium. The Heart is considered “The Supreme Controller” in East Asian Medicine - the seat of compassion and joyfulness. While structurally the Pericardium is a fibrous membrane that encloses and protects the Heart, it is also thought to have a larger psycho-emotional role in terms of protecting the Heart’s capacity to experience joy and vulnerability in relationships. Very often I have seen patients who have had protracted interpersonal distress in their life - with their partner, a coworker, or a friend or family member - lead to a very particular kind of burnout and exhaustion that is indicative of Pericardium pathology - neck pain, headaches, feelings of tightness in the chest, and a recurring feeling of anxiety.
Anger, irritability, and the ability to set clear boundaries are all emotions that correlate to the Liver and Gall Bladder. Individuals who are healthy and balanced with this organ system are able to set boundaries in relationships without being overly reactive or responding with a disproportionate level of anger.
And finally, fear is associated with the Kidneys and Bladder. This gives credence to why people feel like they are going to pee their pants when they get really scared. Deep fear, especially traumatic fear, energetically depletes the Kidney system in East Asian Medicine.
In East Asian medicine, emotional health isn’t separate from physical health. It’s all connected, just as we are connected to other people and to each other. When we are taking care of our wellbeing and in a healthy relationship with our own interior emotional world, this has the ability to reverberate out and affect our relationships with other people and our world.