In my lineage and my clinical practice, I see the Liver chiefly through the lens of Jueyin.
Jueyin – the deepest of the six conformations, is the reverting yin, home of both Liver and Pericardium, and the depth of the nourishing force of the blood. The reverting nature of this conformation and the functional pairing of it with Shaoyang means that, despite the fact that this should be the deepest of the conformations with the most inward, quiet, yin diseases, we actually see quite a lot of loud ministerial fire type flaring symptoms that come when that blood is too weak. This is the case, for instance, with hot flashes during menopause.
These are the symbols I’ve been contemplating during this last part of the month of the Year of Sagely Living focused on the Liver. I’d like to discuss two things related to this, in the hope that they will be interesting or useful to you.
First – let’s have fun exploring the herb Danggui / 當歸 / Angelica sinensis.
This is one of my favorite herbs from a sensory perspective. The smell, simultaneously soothing and sharp – quite intense – often contributes much of the characteristic odor of Chinese herbal medicinaries. Though it is thought of chiefly as a tonic herb, this pungency and penetrative ability speaks to the most interesting thing about Danggui, its dual capacity to move and build the blood at the same time. Jueyin to the last.
In standard Chinese herbal textbooks, Danggui is listed as an herb that tonifies the blood.
It is said to be both sweet and pungent and warming, allied with the Heart, Liver and Spleen. In these organs we see the controller of the blood, the storer of the blood and the organ charged with keeping the blood in the vessels. We can surmise, then, that there is really no aspect of blood’s use in the body that cannot be impacted by Danggui. That said, most standard uses focus on the gynecological uses of the herb. It is known as a powerful regulator of the menses, including in the treatment of menstrual pain.
The name of Danggui can be translated as “state of return” or even “to return home,” another resonance with the Jueyin. Danggui is one of the herbs most commonly remembered through story. In the book Chinese Herbal Legends (Zhongbao, Liu, Flanagan), the version of the story told involves a boastful man who promises to go into the dangerous mountains to collect medicinal herbs (those were the days!).
He eventually does so, leaving his frightened young wife behind. She falls ill from worry, and eventually marries another when her husband does not return in a timely manner. He finally does return to find his life changed due to the remarriage, and yet gives the medicinal herbs he found to his former wife, curing her instantly – the herb? Danggui.
As a plant, Danggui is a member of the Apiaceae family and shares its genus with a number of medicinal plants (including Chinese herbs Duhuo and Baizhi). It enjoys a more forested environment, befitting its yin nature, free from competition and with rich soil and plenty of moisture. Like all members of this family it has an airy, delicate, outward spreading leaf habit which always reminds me of its opening and moving nature within the yin tonification.
Here in Oregon, I’ve found it fairly easy to grow, even in a pot, though I’ve not been particularly successful in growing harvestable roots.
In the Shennong ben cao jing, this herb is discussed as being sweet and warm, and the line discusses symptoms we would now associate with blood including sores and infertility. But, it also discusses the use of Danggui for cough and counterflow qi – recognized as uses of other Angelica species, but less known in Danggui today.
Danggui is certainly one of the better known, and more used, herbs in our materia medica. Anchoring formulas like Danggui si ni tang and Danggui san, it treats common ailments of Chinese medicine’s greatest consumers – women. And like women’s physiology, and the disorders that commonly afflict that physiology, Danggui contains multitudes and complexity. Yin and yang, movement and tonification, movement up and out as well as in and down, airy leaves bound by strong, vital roots.
For me, Danggui and its Jueyin affiliation have permeated my consciousness and been my constant companions during this first month of the Year of Sagely Living.
As I’ve been contemplating the more practical Liver related information in Chinese medicine (herbs, acupuncture points) as well as the more esoteric symbols associated with the Liver, I’ve been coming back to the ox over and over again. Danggui with its ability to build strong blood, and thus tendons, gives us the staying power to push through difficult times. This extends beyond the physical, however. Strong blood anchors an anxious spirit – when our blood has that ox-like strength, we’re able to think, to plan, to consider things from many angles.
We’re able to face adversity without descending into worry and needless discontent.
The liver begins our ascent into spring, and as the general presides over the planting season, we begin to consider how we will use the yang portion of the year to our own benefit.
I have been doing a lot of this personally, and the yang force of this yin organ has been assisting me as I make some rather major life decisions and changes. I hope to share more of that, and how the information in these organ systems is helping me to move forward. But, for now, I will say that the fundamental injunction to “return,” to go back to the deep roots, and to find real nourishment there, is a command of the Liver (and of Danggui) that I’m deeply embodying right now.
It’s time to move on to the Lung, though our visit with the Liver was brief.
The yang marches on through the procession of the seasons, and here we say hello to a whole new Year of the Fire Monkey. The lung with its association with the New Year has so much to teach us, I’m eager to get started. I hope to elucidate a central concept of the Lung that can guide us in our exploration – perhaps then some of you will join in.