Chinese Medicine has an elaborate system for understanding human psychology. Our emotional landscape is spread out through the organ system instead of just being in the brain. How we feel happens alongside moral standards known as virtues which assist in regulating emotions. Before we can dive into how emotions and virtues work, it’s important to understand how they coexist in the body.
The Chinese language uses characters instead of words. Some of those characters are ideographic in nature. In other words, they are symbols that represent an idea or concept. The exact meaning of emotion and virtue in Chinese Medicine can easily be lost in translation if we overlook the symbolic meaning in their characters.
The character for emotion contains in it the meaning of (jing 静) which means quiet, still and calm. This suggests that emotions should be exercised with caution and not allowed to run unrestrained. Otherwise, our life energy is compromised by emotions that are excessive. The stress that emotions place on our immune system would be an example of that.
Virtue, on the other hand, contains the character, (sheng 生). Sheng means to give birth and reveal itself. Virtues are meant to be developed and brought forth into the world. They have a stabilizing and life giving influence on a person. Virtues are responsible for managing emotions. Although emotions are important to express, at some point in that process they must be let go or else they become a problem for us. Virtues play an important role in the healthy processing of emotions.
Each organ has an emotion and virtue associated with it. This pairing of emotion and virtue influences how that organ functions. As we’ll see with the Spleen, understanding their relationship with a particular organ develops a greater awareness of how emotions impact our health and what steps we can take to correct it.
The Spleen’s full name is the Spleen/Pancreas official. It’s in charge of functions that make up both organs. In Western Medicine, the spleen is the largest lymphatic organ while the pancreas creates substances that absorb nutrients in the foods we digest. Pre-western medical Chinese culture saw these two organs as one unit instead of entirely separate.
The emotion associated with the Spleen is worry. If you are about to have surgery, you might worry and that’s natural. The problem though is some people find they are worrying all the time. It can get to the point where we don’t even know what we’re worried about anymore.
On a physical level, this affects the Spleen’s ability to digest food. The Spleen qi becomes knotted, which literally feels like there’s a knot in your stomach. People may tend to get bloated and either can’t go to the bathroom or find they’re going too much. As the digestion gets weaker, the overthinking just gets worse because part of the Spleen’s role is to process our thoughts.
It represents that part of our mind that thinks about things. Since the Spleen is responsible for the absorption of nutrients, it’s no coincidence that one may feel like their recurring thoughts are not being completely digested.
The spleen’s virtue though can have a way of calming worry. Its virtue is trust. Other translations for the Spleen’s virtue are integrity, fidelity, faith or belief. Although these words are distinctly different in our language, they do have some overlap in how the Spleen works psychologically. In my opinion, the word, trust, best describes the virtue of the Spleen.
There are two types of trust. The first is an outer trust that we build in our community. Going out into the world and being a person of integrity cultivates that type of trust. If someone says they’re going to do something, they follow through. Transparency of motives are important and one’s actions align with what they say.
Cultivating this type of outer trust helps to calm the mind by having an influence on our value system. Over time, we become less attached to the outcome and measure the situation more on how we choose to act. Although things may still not work out, knowing we were honest and did the best we could softens the blow of worry.
This happens because our mind finds a reassuring awareness in the integrity we maintained. Our values become less dependent on the volatile circumstances of life and more on how we served the best interests of ourselves and those around us.1
Not so coincidentally, exercising outer trust also opens the door for other opportunities even if something doesn’t pan out. People tend to sense when someone has integrity and are more inclined to include them in other things that may arise. This illustrates the Spleen’s role on digestion: a transformative function of changing raw materials into life-giving substances.
The other type of trust associated with the spleen is inner trust. This is more like faith. It’s a trust or confidence in a universal force that is working for our greater good even though we may not see it at times. When we have inner trust, life will still be rough at times.
Inner trust doesn’t work like a drug that is meant to numb us to worry. But our relationship with it changes. We become empowered by a certain self assurance instead of just feeling alone, helpless and victimized by worry. We’re grounded in a nurturing belief that rests in something beyond our immediate situation.
The word grounded is intentional here. Each organ has a direction associated with it. For instance the liver is east; the heart, south. The assignment of these directions may seem arbitrary but they actually flesh out the concepts behind these organs. The Spleen has a peculiar direction: center. It’s element is the Earth, a stable body of matter that produces life all along it’s surface. All of us rely on this center just as all the organs rely on the Spleen for nutrition since it’s the seat of digestion.
On a psychological level, cultivating trust both in the community and within oneself acts as a stabilizing force on the mind. It allows us to stay calm so that we can properly digest our thoughts and emotions instead of having them get stuck. It produces the clear qi which nourishes the body and awakens the mind, giving it insight into the problems that arise.
1. In our culture of extremes, it should be stated that integrity isn’t about self condemnation when we fail to meet that standard. Nor is it an excuse to be judgmental of others when they don’t live by our personal standards. It’s an ideal we strive for while cultivating a more peaceful mind. We all will have our struggles along that path so compassion for ourselves and others is an integral travel companion.