With the dawning of the New Year of the Fire Monkey already behind us, it’s time to move on to consideration of the symbolism, energy and treatment of the organ system associated with the first month of the year – the Lung. While Liver wood is more commonly associated with the spring season – it’s in Lung that the real stirrings of spring emerge in the physical world.
Here in Portland, I’m seeing daffodils and croci, the first cherry blossoms and fat lilac buds. Just this morning, I was distracted from my writing by a cacophany of birds I’ve not heard in a while. All the more reason to get on with our next phase of the Year of Sagely Living.
Layer 1 – Yin metal : ascent and descent
Metal, the only refined substance in the five phase elements, is often associated with descent, with autumn, with killing and with grief. The descent of metal allows for deep breathing, for the connection of fire to water, and of course via the Large Intestine, for the excretion of waste on all possible levels. Many of the disorders we relate to the Lung have to do with lack of appropriate descent – often we talk about these as “counterflow” and include cough, sneezing, dizziness and similar.
However, the Lung also has an up and out quality through the association with the skin and body hairs and the upper jiao. We must inhale just as much as we exhale. The Lung has a part to play in immunity from external pathogens, which attack the exterior. Occupying the tiger’s share (ha!) of the upper jiao, the Lung is unavoidably UP. We can also relate this to the upper position of the Prime Minister – the government official associated with the Lung. Many herbs that treat the Lung are up and out pungent herbs, like Guizhi.
So – the Lung can be said to play a major part in the regulation of the movement up and down in the human body – particularly of the qi. While other organ systems certainly play a part in this regulation, if there is a disorder related to this regulation, we would be remiss not to consider Lung function, regardless of whether the symptom(s) involved are overtly related to the biomedical organ “lungs.”
Layer 2 – Taiyin : dampness and dryness
Unified with the Spleen organ system, Lung is Taiyin. This conformation has a lot to do with the balance of dampness and dryness in the body, and thus the regulation of water metabolism. Translated easily as “Great Yin” this conformation lies at the border of the exterior and interior, and symptoms of Taiyin disease are some of the first one notices in chronic disease patterns. Fatigue, low appetite, loose stool, mild shortness of breath, mildly lowered immunity – all can be traced back to Taiyin. While these symptoms are often disproportionately associated with the Spleen, Lung has a part to play as well.
Heiner Fruehauf often reminds us that Lung is the sensitive (or delicate) organ system. It doesn’t like things too cool or too warm. Above all, though, it is sensitive to the balance of damp and dry. In the fall, as dryness descends, the Lung takes notice and manifests with skin and lung organ symptoms. In the spring, with the wetness and wind, we find allergic responses and late winter colds. Sleep in front of your heater or air conditioner? Expect the sensitive organ to register its irritation in one way or another.
Layer 3 – Hexagram 11 – Tai : yin and yang
In a sense dampness and dryness and ascent and descent can be discussed as manifestations of yin and yang. But, then, can’t everything? Still, we have to respect the pure symbolism of the Hexagram associated with the Lung on the organ clock – Tai, the perfect balance of yin and yang, just as they should be in physiological systems, the yang lines reaching towards the Earth at the bottom and the yin lines floating up towards heaven at the top.
Ni, in his Book of Changes and the Unchanging Truth, translates this hexagram name as “Peace, Harmony and Good opportunity.” Harmony is a common theme in most translations of this hexagram – the harmony that comes from the balance of yin and yang. One of the most interesting lines in this text says,
“The Daode jing teaches us not to seek full expansion. An overly extended spring loses its resilience and cannot be renewed. In order to harmonize the forces of yin and yang, one should follow a moderate, balanced path, and avoid all extremes.”
He then goes on to say that this hexagram perfectly echoes these ancient instructions. So, balance of yin and yang doesn’t come from moving from one extreme to the other – but by avoiding those extremes and finding the middle path. This is Lung medicine.
Layer 4 – Tiger : action and inaction
Finally, everyone’s favorite, the animal symbols associated with the earthly branches on the organ clock. We’ve come to the 1st month – the birth of the new year – and here we find the Tiger waiting for us. The Tiger is largely a solitary animal, seeking prey mostly at night, and is known particularly for its beautiful skin/coat (a clear association with the Lung). Beauty and even vanity are sometimes associated with Lung metal and we can find echoes of that here with the Tiger.
You can actually learn a lot about the symbol of Tiger using this free document from Heiner Fruehauf’s website, Classical Chinese Medicine.org. In some parts of that text, and in my time in various contexts watching and learning about Tigers, one of the things that sticks out is their conservation of energy. Because of their great size, they stalk prey slowly, carefully, and only when the need is great. They then expend all that energy in one mighty chase – hopefully finding success.
While it may be a stretch, whenever I consider this information, I start to think about my own habits of energy use.
I think too often I’m constantly expending energy without much thought to the true cost to my mind and body. I’ve certainly seen this tendency in some of my patients, particularly those who own businesses or are otherwise self-employed. It can seem like the hustle is constant, and the more you move, the more money you make, so why not keep moving? I’ve found that treatment of the Lung organ system, as well as encouraging a regular breathing meditation practice can be helpful in encouraging these folks to come back into balance.
So, considering those symbols, and doing a little meditation on them, I’ve come up with two major focus points I’ll be using for the next 30 days of Sagely Living. I encourage you to play along and to share any insights in the comments of this and future posts, or in the new members forums (you need only register for the CMC bulletin to get access).
In my personal and professional life, I am coming upon a change that can only be described as monumental. I have climbed up one side of a mountain, reached the peak to see other mountains in the distance, and now will begin my trek in earnest. I am excited about the changes coming, and this excitement can easily pull me into a super yang time of furious activity. Staying up late, waking up early, spending all my moments working on something, meeting someone, creating, pushing, driving forward.
Yielding to this impulse is always and everywhere a mistake.
If I have learned anything in my almost 40 years on this planet, it is that this way of being creates unintended consequences that tend to rob the product of its value. Instead, I want to take a more balanced approach – using the energy of the lung and its symbols to guide me. I’ll be trying different techniques to keep me on track, but the first one will be cutting off “work” activities at 7pm sharp daily, no matter what my deadlines, desires, or excitement. This sort of “hard shutdown” is advocated by Cal Newport in his book Deep Work – a fine volume for anyone looking to increase the value of what they create in the world.
Focus 2 – Balance brought by focus on the breath
The lung is, of course, about respiration. While the skin passes all kinds of things back and forth, it is in breathing with our respiratory system that some of the greatest benefits of the Lung really come forward. I want to investigate breathing and the breath from as many perspectives as I can, as well as digging into the understanding and treatment of disorders of breathing. I think this will bear interesting fruit.
Beyond that, I will be doubling down on my own meditation practice and returning to that age old instruction of focusing simply on the breath. This is nothing new or revolutionary, but as one moves through other types of meditation techniques, this earlier focus can move out of view. My goal will be to engage in two 15 minute breath focused meditation periods daily, apart from any other meditation or cultivational activities I do. After each, I will write briefly in a journal for that purpose about any insights about the Lung that come forward.
Year of Sagely Living – Onward! If you’ve got any insights into the Lung, metal, or the first month of the year, or want to share your commitment to digging a little deeper into the symbolism and practical information associated with this organ system – why not leave a comment below? I promise, it won’t hurt.