The Miracle of the Human Body
(1) The Miracle of the Human Body
We are all living with our bodies twenty-four hours a day, every day of our lives. But how well do we know our bodies? Do we have to be doctors to understand what is going on? Do we need to hand over our bodies to a professional every time we get a symptom or rely on a prescription to put the problem right?
If you don’t understand your body, seeing your doctor is the sensible thing to do. But the first step is working with the medicine that is right there in your own home-the natural medicine of the body. The Yijing was the first systematic account of the workings of the cosmos according to the principle of yin and yang. With the Yijing came the cultivation of the esoteric art of qigong and the development of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Archaeological findings from the New Stone Age reveal that originally stone needles were used in the treatment of disease with acupuncture.
Later, some four thousand years ago, the practice of applying burning herbs to the acupuncture points (now called moxibustion) was developed. By the fifth century bc, in the Chunqiu Zhanguo period, stone needles had been supplanted by metal needles. This was a remarkable period. The framework of Traditional Chinese Medicine was now established, culminating in The Yellow Emperor’s Canon of Medicine. The sage Laozi (Lao Tsu) summarized the spiritual essence of the Daoist way of life in the short but profound text of the Daodejing (Dao De Ching), while in India Buddhism was taking root.
Many centuries later, when Buddhism spread to China, a rich synthesis of Buddhism, the Yijing, Daoism, and Traditional Chinese Medicine took place that continues to the present day. The illustrious Wei Boyang, for example, who lived in the Han dynasty, wrote Zhouyi cantongqi (Kinship of the three and the book of changes), which describes the human body as a miniature cosmos, na understanding Wei Boyang reached through his integration of the Yijing with qigong and Daoist alchemical practice. Ge Hong, living in the Jin dynasty, gave detailed instructions on health care in Baopuzi neipian (Preservation-of-solidarity master). Sun Simiao, from the Tang dynasty, is honored for Qianjinfang (A thousand golden remedies).
Later, in the Ming dynasty, books such as Leixiuyaojue (Collective aphorisms of qigong healthcare) brought together the teachings of many great masters on the law of the Dao, which means “the Way of Nature.” Such books are still widely read in China. The more visible aspect of the Daoist tradition, as in the art of fengshui, has readily caught the attention of the western mind. But for a real understanding of the Dao, the innermost principles of this wisdom need to be grasped. Modern society has profoundly alienated man from nature, and the cost to human health and happiness is only now beginning to be recognized.
The Cosmos as a Living Organism
The beginning of the universe
Is the mother of all things.
Knowing the mother, one also knows the sons.
Knowing the sons, yet remain in touch with the mother.
We usually think of our bodies as complete in themselves, separate from the air we breathe and the ground we walk on. It is true that the body is a whole universe in itself. But it is part and parcel of the total universe in which we live and to which we are connected every minute of our lives.
When we look at a clear night sky, we see thousands of stars all suspended in space in our own galaxy, and we know that our galaxy is just one of millions reaching to infinity. Within our own bodies, we too have galaxy upon galaxy. The energy of the stars we see outside exists inside us, so that the internal space of the body is organized on the same principles that govern the whole universe. (Imagine an infinite set of Russian dolls, each one having a smaller, identical doll inside it.) The galaxies all spin.
Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is like a giant dinner plate spiraling round and round. Positioned near its edge, our own solar system is itself revolving. Our planet also spins around its geographic axis, having a geomagnetic field with a north and South Pole. The same magnetic force field is present in every living cell, each with its positive and negative pole. The human body as a whole similarly has its own force field. In China it is called qi (pronounced “chee”). Qi is made up of energy that is in constant motion, though mostly we are not paying attention to it. But qi is more than energy as we usually think of it.
Have you ever stopped to wonder how a galaxy keeps its shape? It isn’t just a mass of stars haphazardly floating around in space. Rather, it is a gigantic system composed of millions of stars all moving together through the operation of the invisible force of gravity, which maintains its existence.
In the miniature universe of the human body, the unseen force that maintains us is the qi. It is a remarkable information system. It doesn’t communicate in words, but we can learn how to read the messages it sends and find out what is going on inside us. Qi possesses another striking characteristic: Inside each part can be found a reflection of the whole. Such structures are known as holograms. Scientists discovered how to create holograms in the 1960s when using coherent beams of light (lasers). Some scientists now describe the universe as a “holoverse.”
To explain further, if you were to look at your face in a mirror that had a crack down the middle, you would normally expect to see half your face reflected back on each side of the crack. But in the case of a hologram, even if the mirror shattered, every piece, however small, would still contain a miniature reflection of your whole face. The principle of the hologram lies at the heart of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Just as the cycle of the year contains 365 days, so within our body there are 365 acupuncture points.
The calendar year has 12 months and our bodies have 12 major meridians, or energy channels. Within the body itself, the hand, foot, face, eye, and ear, for instance, all have maps of the whole body imprinted on them. Not only do these “living maps” allow us to get a picture of the whole body by looking at just one small part, such as the ear, but also inspecting the ear closely reveals what is wrong with the body as a whole. Thus treatment can be given to the whole body through the acupuncture points of the ear.
The tongue is also essential to diagnosis in TCM. Looking at the condition of the tongue is like turning on the television for the latest weather report. The color, size, coating, and presence of cracks all indicate very precisely the condition of the body. The tongue coating reflects the energy level and in good health shows a thin white coating. In fact, the tongue is a very sensitive organ and will look completely different after a successful acupuncture treatment. Even thoughts and emotions will change its appearance within seconds. Think how rapidly the weather can change, from hour to hour and even from minute to minute. The wind, the clouds, the sun, and the temperature all combine to produce the climate surrounding us.
Likewise, according to TCM, inside the body we have a climate of our own changing from minute to minute, with a balance of water and ¤re, dampness and dryness, heat and cold, and circulation and stagnation in the different organs. How does this internal climate of continual change balance out? Nature has found a way that allows for endless fluctuations of energy and yet gives stability to the living system. When we get overheated, for instance, we need water to cool us down. After heavy physical work, we need to take a rest. When we get too emotional, we need to find peace.
These simple examples show that we live with rhythms that shape our lives. They are found everywhere in nature, too; night follows day, the tides flow with the phases of the moon, the seasons come and go. All life on earth depends on such rhythms. If we listen to our bodily rhythms, we will soon detect the ebb and flow of many subtle changes that are going on all the time within us. We won’t notice unless we pay special attention because the pace of life today is not geared to these biorhythms.
Have you ever had the experience of lying in bed at night with your mind racing, unable to switch it off, and then finding that when you do sleep, you wake during the night with disturbing dreams, or in a sweat? Enjoying deep and restful sleep is essential to good health. We know from medical research that if we don’t get enough sleep, the stress on the body leads to lasting hormonal and chemical changes that can cause disease.
The natural rhythm of the body is to rest at least twice during the twenty-four hour cycle, not just at night but also in the middle of the day. Consider some of the ancient civilizations of the world-China, India, and Greece-which all developed a tradition of midday rest. By contrast in modern industrialized societies, we tend to work nonstop till evening; then we rest. In fact, most of us are overtired, though not always conscious of it. To keep going, we take caffeine or alcohol and watch stimulating programs on television while “relaxing.” By the time we go to bed, our bodies are profoundly out of balance.
To understand the fundamental principle of nature’s energy balance, we will next examine the taiji, the Chinese symbol of yin and yang, to see how body rhythms work day and night.
(2) The Miracle of the Human Body
Yin and Yang: Nature’s Energy Balance
The Dao begot one.
One begot two.
Two begot three.
And three begot the ten thousand things.
The ten thousand things carry yin and embrace yang.
They achieve harmony by combining these forces.
- Laozi, Daodejing
Consider the ancient Chinese taiji symbol, which describes the fundamental dynamic balance of the whole universe. The universe is organized like one giant hologram. The taiji reminds us that this holds true at every level of magnification, from the cosmos right down to the micro-universe of the human body.
The shaded area of the symbol represents yin and the white area yang. These two energies are opposing in nature but have a complementary relationship and are always found together. There are endless examples: sun and moon, earth and sky, fire and water,
light and shade, hard and soft. Human properties are also attributed to these energies; yang as the active, male principle and yin as the receptive, female principle.
The taiji symbol describes both structure and function. It represents not only the building blocks of how everything is constructed but also how one half acts on the other to give rise to the movement and rhythm of life.
To look at structure first, consider the illustration of the taiji hierarchy. Note that yang is always present in yin and vice versa. Take the case of the human embryo. At the start, its physical anatomy is the same for both sexes. Then, in accordance with its genetic inheritance, the hormones it produces cause it to develop intoa boy (yang) or girl (yin). Yin and yang are also expressed in the capacity of the male for receptivity (yin) and the capacity of the female for activity (yang). All the internal organs of the body, as well as the meridians, have a specific balance of yin and yang in order to maintain health. Later we will discuss how health problems arise when the balance is not maintained.
Turning now to function, we can understand the taiji symbol as a “snapshot” of the movement of qi as it flows throughout the twenty-four hour cycle of night and day. To understand how yin and yang flow together, imagine you are standing on the edge of the circle at 11:00 a.m. Note that while most of the energy is yang like a bright and sunny day, yin is just starting to grow. So it is not right just to think of yang as day and yin as night, because it is in the middle of the day that yin is born.
In ancient Daoist texts, including the Yijing, the moment of the arising of yin is called shaoyin (little yin). Here we refer to this as the birth of baby yin to highlight the life-giving nature of the cycle.In China it is considered very important to have a period of rest during baby yin time, between eleven and one o’clock. After eating, people lie down and have a nap. This ensures that baby yin is nourished from the start and helped to grow, for by giving it a good start, like a well-cared-for baby, it will grow steadily bigger and stronger over the coming twelve hours.
Now go around the circle to 11:00 p.m. In China, people consider it essential to be in bed by this hour, resting or sleeping. You can see that yin has become dominant, which means that body and mind are intended to be at peace, in accordance with the rhythm of the universe.
Next, see how between 11:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m., although yin is still dominant, baby yang is born and then steadily grows through the first half of the day. During sleep, we not only benefit from the flow of yin, but also nourish baby yang, so that yang qi will grow strong and vigorous for the demands of the busy day ahead.
Take one more look at the taiji. As yin and yang embrace each other, right in the heart of yin there is an “eye” of yang, and likewise, in the yang an “eye” of yin. These eyes represent the seeds of energy that drive the cycle of yin and yang in its circular movement and highlight the fundamental principle that in yang there is always to be found yin, and within yin, yang.
There are two ways of picturing the circular motion of the taiji. Earlier we used the image of walking clockwise around the edge of the circle. Now picture standing still and imagine the taiji rotating around its center point, turning counterclockwise in a complete circle once every twenty-four hours.
The effect reminds us that we are not looking at a stationary object but at a moving current of energy that flows without ceasing. In the cosmos, there is no up and down, top, and bottom. There is only a flow of energy. Here the taiji is shown with yin above and yang below for a reason that will be evident later when we discuss how yin and yang qi flow through the body. Next let us look in more detail at the meridians, the energy channels that were briefly mentioned.
(3) The Miracle of the Human Body
All things arise from the Dao.
They are nourished by Virtue.
They are formed from matter.
They are shaped by environment.
Thus the ten thousand things all respect Dao and honor Virtue.
Respect of Dao and honor of Virtue are not demanded,
But they are in the nature of things.
The meridians are a network of energy channels running throughout the entire body. We may picture them as a kind of road map, with twelve major meridians serving as the motorways, eight additional meridians like major trunk roads, and twelve divergent meridians like minor roads running alongside the motorways. Flowing out from all these meridians like a network of country lanes are small branches called collaterals.
The meridians do not figure in the anatomy of the body according to conventional western science, since they are not solid structures like arteries, veins, lymph ducts, or even nerves. Yet more than two thousand years ago, certain practitioners of Chinese medicine developed the art of “x-ray vision” through the skill of working directly with qi and described these “rivers of energy” in detail.
The ability to work with qi is called qigong in Chinese (the word “gong” meaning skill) and comes from an esoteric tradition that lies at the heart of Daoist and Buddhist teachings. Through the cultivation of special meditation techniques, the practitioner overcomes the limits of ordinary sense perception and develops extraordinary powers.
These include mastery over mind and matter to such a degree that paranormal phenomena, as they are known in the West, are experienced and utilized in everyday life. This is how the leading doctors of Chinese medicine first observed the flow of subtle energies in the body, for these practitioners were accomplished qigong masters.
Over the last twenty years, scientists have begun to investigate the meridians using electrical conduction techniques. Research demonstrates that not only do meridians exist; they correspond exactly to what qigong masters have been “seeing” for more than two millennia.
The flow of qi within the meridians is deeply connected to fluctuations in the energy of the sun, moon, earth, and stars. When we see how powerful the effect of the moon is in producing the tides, it is not surprising that the body itself can be affected, because the body is eighty-five percent water. The gravitational pull of the moon causes the qi in the meridians to rise, and where there is already emotional imbalance; the rise will be even greater as increasing qi stimulates the system.
A more gradual change is brought about by the four seasons. In summer, qi rises up to the surface of the skin. In winter, it runs deeper. Every acupuncturist knows that this change will affect the depth to which needles must be inserted into the body to find the meridians.
When we stand with our arms stretching upward, we stand between earth and heaven. According to the Daoist tradition, this is our place in the cosmos. In this posture, in the small cosmos of the body, qi flows in accordance with universal law. All six yin meridians of the body flow upward and all the six yang meridians flow downward, just as moist air (yin) rises and warmth of the sun (yang) radiates down on us.
The taiji identifies the twelve major meridians. Each meridian plays its part throughout the twenty-four-hour cycle in maintaining the overall balance of qi in the body. However, each meridian in turn passes through a phase of maximum sensitivity lasting about two hours, during which the flow of qi is concentrated in that meridian.
The Heart Meridian
You can see from the illustration that this meridian has three main branches running from the heart. One branch goes down to the small intestine, one branch to the throat, mouth, eye, and brain, and one branch to the lung, then down the inside of the arm to the tip of the little finger.
The heart itself functions overall as a yang organ. TCM visualizes it as a “fire organ” associated with activity and heat. During heart meridian time, between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., it is tempting to exploit this readily available yang energy. Many people do just that by taking working lunches day after day. Yet heart meridian time deserves special attention because it is intimately linked with the birth of baby yin, which the Chinese picture as drops of cool liquid. Although all meridians are concerned with the flow of both yin and yang, the heart meridian is defined as a yin meridian because of its role in the birth of baby yin.
When baby yin has been nourished by taking a rest during heart meridian time, the qi flows strongly in the heart meridian, with the result that the digestive system works well, the mind is alert and the eyes are bright, concentration and memory are enhanced, and the rhythm of sleep is deep and regular. The lungs will be healthy and the arms strong. In TCM, the lungs in turn control the skin, so that the condition of the skin, too, will be good.
In contrast, if no rest period is taken, the long-term consequences of yin deficiency can be serious. These include palpitations; pain around the heart; insomnia; excess sweating, especially at night; overheating of the palms and soles; arthritis; thirst; mouth ulcers; dryness of eyes; and intolerance of light. Other possible effects are itchy skin, headache, anxiety and depression, loss of concentration and memory, restlessness, and irritability.
In some countries, the lunch break is usually between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m., during small intestine meridian time. An earlier lunch hour is preferable, but if this cannot be managed, it is still better to rest between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m. than to go without.
After baby yin has been born, it is important to nurture yin carefully by refraining from too much vigorous activity and excitement in the second half of the day. Whereas yang energy is given over to “doing,” the character of yin is that of “being.” Since the meridians carry both yin and yang, it is not surprising that symptoms also arise when the heart meridian is deficient in yang. This happens either because baby yang has not been nourished at night or because the reserves of yang have been exhausted through excess activity. More often than not, it is caused by a mixture of both. We will examine the birth of baby yang during the night when discussing the gallbladder meridian. As to the exhaustion of yang qi during the day, bear in mind that because the first half of the day is
yang time, people often feel energetic and get carried away with the challenge of tasks needing to be done and the excitement of interacting with other people. If yang qi is weak to start with, working straight through lunchtime makes further demands on it. The result is that the heart meridian yang becomes inflamed and burns out. Because the body’s warning system has been masked by over activity, damage takes place without awareness of what is going wrong. The list of problems which can occur when yang is depleted is a long one: bad breath, indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, loss of voice, dizziness, weakness, fatigue, fainting, vomiting blood or losing blood in stools or urine, heavy and irregular menstruation, shortness of breath, discoloration of nails, overexcitement, impulsiveness, agitation, and irrationality.
We have dealt with the problems of yin and yang in the heart meridian separately here in order to describe how the two energy patterns coexist. In everyday life, however, when the qi in the meridian has been affected, both yin and yang are likely to be disturbed and so the picture is often a mixed one with a combination of symptoms.