What’s this thing that, in Chinese medicine, we call Liver? We already know it’s more than just the biomedical organ. But, what is this “more” and how is that important? As in other posts where I’ve discussed the Lung and Pericardium, there are a variety of symbols that can guide us.
I owe my understanding of organ systems on this level to one of my teachers, Heiner Fruehauf. In his research, he has discovered a diverse array of meanings embedded in texts, treatment methods and the teachings of masters of the medicine, all of which can be considered when understanding the body through a Chinese medicine lens.
When I teach about this material, I emphasize that each of these pieces of information is a layer added to our understanding.
We ought not take one piece in isolation or privilege one over the other. Each adds a facet to the prism, and in looking through that prism, we find a complex picture that mirrors the complexity of the human body.
I consider just about everything to be a “symbol” in the sense that it “points towards” a deeper well of information. Something doesn’t either have to be a pictoral representation, nor something esoteric, in order to be a symbol. Even something like a biochemical process can be viewed as a symbol from my perspective – it doesn’t have much meaning to me in and of itself – it is more interesting when considered as a reference to a deeper and more complex process. All of these bits of information – these symbols – taken together give us the gestalt of the organ system.
We’ll discuss some more well known pieces of information, as well as some that may be new to you. I will not be providing too much commentary here, just offering what I’ve learned and experienced, and allowing that information to guide your adventures in sagely living.
The Liver is the wood zang organ system
As wood it is associated with spring, with growth, the color green, renewal, the beginning of a new cycle. It bears the pushing forth energy of a new plant insistent on moving up and out. Wood is often associated with anger and irritability – which is the result when something that is desperately trying to move is prevented from doing so.
The liver is the wood zang/yin – the solid organ system. It is the generator and holder of substances the body needs, not the mover of those things. The movement and flow of the wood organ systems comes from the fu/yang organ – the Gallbladder. The Gallbladder is often discussed as the “field general,” the person in a battle who takes the general’s orders and makes them actionable. The GB governs decision making in the moment, decisiveness, and courage.
The liver, by contrast, thinks of more long range strategy, subtler moves, and a more broad based set of objectives.
The Liver belongs with the Periardium in the Jueyin conformation
This is the deepest conformation, and like the wood symbol above speaks of, Jueyin is the conformation that leads back into the yang conformations – it is the potential of rebirth, renewal or “reverting” despite the fact that Jueyin disease is blood disease, a deep layer of pathology. Jueyin diseases tend to be characterized by what is commonly considered to be blood deficiency, and may also involve symptoms of cold, and then of counterflow that comes when the yang is not anchored.
The theory of the six conformations goes far beyond discussing channel pathology, as some have suggested. Most of my teachers see the conformations as dividing all of the functions, structures and energetics of the body into 6 pairs of organs. The Jueyin conformation can be seen as encompassing all the liver functions we’ve already discussed, but also those associated with the Pericardium. Facia, protection and some regulation of the heart, emotional health, and of course the pericardium channel itself are all included here. Because the organs are paired, when we consider one, it is prudent to consider the other.
As it says in chapter 8 of the Neijing suwen, “The liver is the official of Planning Commander of the military, strategy and careful consideration emerge there” (trans. Michael Givens).
This relates to what I discussed above about the connection of the Liver and Gallbladder. Planning and strategy in the body can refer to a great many things. I think sometimes of the dance the body must do – the balance of so many factors. Think of all the things that come into your body through the lungs, through the mouth, through the skin, through the sensory organs. Think of all of the portions of that which must be rendered useful for the body, digested, processed, and waste products released.
Think of the fact that even a slight tip in some chemicals in the body can lead to death. That our oxygen and carbon dioxide balance must be precisely calibrated. Think of the functions of balance, the process of learning, all involved in running, moving, sleeping, sex.
Having a great general on your side in such a complex “battle” certainly seems like a good idea. The liver provides all of that for us, directing the movements of the rest of the body and enabling all of the communication through the storage and release of Blood.
The earthly branch for the Liver is the yin earth branch, 丑 chou, which is related to the Ox in the Chinese zodiac
The fact that an earth branch is associated with this wood organ system gives a sense of groundedness to the organ. A good general needs to have her feet on the ground. The liver, anatomically, dominates a good portion of the center of the body and is intimately involved in the regulation of food and nourishment.
But, it’s the ox as symbol that resonates with most people. The ox is a steady animal – determined, focused, with incredible stamina. It can work longer and harder than the horse, but is slower by far as well. It is the tortoise in the tortoise and the hare – relentless, unyielding, but not showy. It does the dirty work and does it well and is unflagging in its support for its cause. An earth animal with the tendon strength of wood – tendons of course are ruled by wood and nourished by the Liver blood – and the ox has this power in spades.
The time of day associated with the Liver is 1-3 am
One of the most recognized organ clock positions in the general public is associated with the Liver. Many people wake around this time when they are having sleep difficulties, and conversations on the Internet abound concerning “what it means.” I won’t weigh in on that here, but it is interesting in a culture that is always going, going, going (America) people find themselves waking when the organ of stamina is at high tide. Maybe it’s asking for a little help?
This is deep darkness, the time when almost everything is asleep. There is no sun on the horizon, no lingering rays from the day before. It is cold, and dew is descending, and everything is dark. The Liver is an organ that needs deep restoration – periods of inactivity – to function at its best. It is relentless, yes, but even the ox must sleep.
The time of year associated with the Liver is the
This is just before the dawning of the new year – again our associations with renewal and growth as well as the ending of a cycle. It’s also generally associated with Aquarius in the western astrological zodiac. This is an interesting association. I’m an Aquarius myself, and think I fit the bill pretty well. Forward thinking, intense, good energy, theoretically oriented, occasionally irritable with other people. Good qualities for a general, perhaps, particularly when combined with the earthly presence of the ox.
And, like our discussion of 1-3 am, this is deep darkness. Just after the solstice, so the light is returning and the energy has turned to sprouting and pushing things up and out of storage – but cold and dark nonetheless. A time for cautious, burgeoning movement, but slow and steady, not explosive.
On the organ clock, the Liver is paired (across the clock) with the Small Intestine
Heiner Fruehauf discusses these pairings to be significant. When one system is at “high tide” with all the energy of the body behind it, the other is at “low tide.” In this way, when the Liver is at its best, we can expect for the Small Intestine to need some support. Thus, if there are Small Intestine related disorders, they may manifest during Liver time. On the other hand, we could think of a weak Small Intestine as being able to “borrow” energy from its relatively stronger partner across the clock.
Regardless of the relationship’s outcomes, we can expect that the Small Intestine and Liver have similarities or shared aspects to consider.
These are relatively more theoretical pieces of information, of course. I’d like to write an article looking at some of the major herbs, formulas and acupuncture points commonly and historically focused on when the Liver comes up. These are symbols as well, and provide more layers of information with which we can understand this important organ system.