When I think about the Lung organ system with relationship to herbal formulas, my mind goes one of two places. The first is to Guizhi 桂枝 based formulas like Guizhi tang – used in treating disorders of the surface that tend to end up with a respiratory component. I think this way despite the fact that, in a general manner of speaking, when I think about Guizhi tang, I more strongly think about Taiyang. The second is to nourishing Lung yin type formulas containing herbs like Baihe 百合 and Maimendong 麥門冬. Not only the actual use of these formulas, but the moist, nourishing energy of both of those herbs resonates strongly with what I know of Lung.
That said, given that I’m currently obsessing about Guizhi in my first Materia Medica course (click here to learn more), I think it makes more sense to discuss what Guizhi and Guizhi tang can teach about Lung that might be of use here in this Year of Sagely Living.
So, I’m going to take some time to break down the formula a bit, and then share the thoughts I’ve had about what it can teach us about balance. Join me?
Guizhi 桂枝 + Shaoyao 芍藥
These two form the most obvious functional pair of the formula. Guizhi, cinnamon twig, in its pungency sends everything up and out, warms and resonates with yang. Everything about the plant and its medicinal material tells the same story – the tree is large, powerful, the essential oils in the bark penetrate the air around it. We prefer to use the spring twig tips – the most young, yang, moving part of the plant.
On the other side of the divide, we have the yin and fluid nourishment of Shaoyao, peony root (here I’ll consider mostly Baishao). Bitter in the Shennong ben cao jing, this inward, downward flavor provides a counterbalance to what Guizhi brings. An herbaceous perennial with showy blooms, I’ve found that peony has a delicacy at the surface that belies the strong roots below (the actual medicinal material).
As a pair, Guizhi provides the yang and Baishao the yin. They nourish and enliven the ying and wei to help the body provide active defenses to help the body resist the inucrsion of external pathogens. The balance inherent in the contrary forces of Guizhi and Baishao is necessary. Too much pushing outwards and the interior could be compromised (though of course the rest of the formula does protect against that). Guizhi tang is used chiefly when a person already has an existing weakness – really all of us – and so asking the body to do TOO MUCH yang would be in poor form.
Baishao helps resist this tendency of Guizhi, but also provides the active fluid nourishment the body needs during an external invasion. But, if we were to have too much in, down, yin, fluid we may not have the yang force needed for active resistance. Both herbs are needed – balance is crucial.
Shengjiang 生薑 – Gancao 甘草 – Dazao 大棗
Everyone knows that Chinese medicine is frequently obsessed with the center. From this inner pivot, qi is pulled from what we consume and sent to the four corners of the body. From this bodily “Home” the building of the physical form begins and proceeds. If you have a weak center, if Spleen or Stomach aren’t doing their job, it’s difficult to do very much well. All of the organ systems are critical, of course, but when the center is compromised, full system compromise isn’t far behind.
These three herbs form one of the most powerful combinations for tonification of the center. Gancao, licorice root, and Dazao, Chinese date, offer the sweet nourishment that is in concordance with the fundamental nature of the Spleen. Of course, too much sweet and the Earth suffers, but Gancao provides movement via its woody nature to keep things flowing. Dazao, being the fire herb of the earth class in the Tangye jing, and resonating with fire via its red color and nature as a subtropical fruit, provides some needed warmth as well. Between the two of these, the fundamental energy needed to fight off the external invasion is present and accounted for…
But balance is brought in this trio of herbs through the ginger root.
Spicy, warming, moving and yet rooted in the middle, to me ginger is a more substantial and Taiyin oriented lung herb. It helps me to understand what seems like a contradiction – Lung is related to the surface and the hairs but also the Taiyin which is most often considered as resonating with the center. How can something be both surface and internal? Ginger tells the tale, I think. Pushing the qi and warmth out from Taiyin center to the surface, ginger serves both as something of a diaphoretic and continues the work on the interior necessary to shore up the defenses from within.
Guizhi tang and the (barely) bearable complexity of living
Well, that was a fun little romp through Guizhi tang, but what of it? The formula is important – and I’m handing modifications of it out like candy during this late winter season. But the way it speaks to me about balance is where this comes into Year of Sagely Living territory.
In modern life, people talk about the need for balance quite a bit. Work-life balance. Balancing seated computer work with frequent movement. Balance between caring for friends & family and nourishing the self. Balance between perfect health and indulgent pleasure. For most people, figuring out how to achieve that balance is difficult, if not impossible. Many of us swing wildly from one side of the (admittedly likely false) dichotomy to the other. You make a New Year’s resolution to work out 4 times weekly, and do so for a couple of weeks, but soon find that maintaining that habit while simultaneously barelling through a few important work projects is just too much. Before you know it, you’re sitting 50 hours a week, and feeling it.
I think a strategy for working towards greater balance in life is suggested by Guizhi tang that subverts these tendencies.
Lesson 1 : It starts with the center.
If you’re not nourished – if you don’t have a stable inner center – no change is going to get traction. This, of course, can be interpreted in various ways, but I do think the idea of sweetness makes some sense here. You need to feel FED. I do think this points to our need to really take care of our nutrition, regardless of what other habits or goals we may be working towards.
But, beyond that, it speaks to the importance of self-care in a general way. So, if you don’t feel that you take particularly good care of yourself, if you’re feeling frequently overtaxed, balancing THAT out takes priority before any other type of balance can be addressed.
Lesson 2 : Address the true balance of yin and yang when moving towards change
I think here specifically about input and output. Output is yang – it is creating things in the world, showing the surface, doing, acting. Input is yin – it is that nourishing aspect above, but also learning, contemplating, organizing, planning, readying. So, let’s say I realize that I need to take action to provide balance in my relatively sedentary lifestyle.
It’s tempting to go all out, to join a gym, to work out five days a week, to get a trainer. That would balance out the sedentary professorial life I’ve got going on, but it would violate the principle here. What I need to do is spend some time at rest, and considering what I want to achieve. I need to act, and create, yes, but if I act from a place of frantic activity without balancing that with more yin activities, burnout is likely to be the result.
These two lessons I’ve taken are obviously deeply interrelated, and maybe just one thing, ultimately. But, they’re interesting to think about and came directly from my considering Guizhi tang, so I thought they were worth sharing.