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The Lungs: Speaking with the Language of Grief

I know. The subject matter is heavy. But I felt the need to write this because this topic is very relevant in my life right now.

I just received news of an unexpected death in the family during this recent Easter long weekend and I am dealing with the emotional ramifications of the suddenness of the news. Things have also surfaced at work today and the issues that have come up tug vigorously at my already porous heart. It threatens to open the floodgates of impending grief that may spill out if I am careless and forget myself in conversation.

To save myself from a torrential downpour, I felt that writing would be a good outlet.

As a Registered Acupuncturist who deals on a daily basis with matters of health and medicine (and sometimes life and dying), I thought this would be a good place to introduce to you, the “delicate” and “tender” organ, The Lung - which is often spoken about within a TCM context when the subject of grief, loss and letting go is brought up during an acupuncture treatment.

It's strange that grief should be felt at the level of the Lungs. We often assume that it is the Heart that should feel this powerful emotion. But Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory assigns the emotion of Grief to the Lungs. And it is the Lungs which show signs of strain and dysfunction when grief takes hold of an individual.

Picture taken from my own university text book, Lecture Notes For COTH2138: Acupuncture Theory and Practice, RMIT University, Feb 2006

Before I go on, I do need to speak a little about the organs of the human body in the TCM framework. Its hard to put things into context without some basic prior knowledge of the human body and its parts from the TCM perspective. According to the theory of basic TCM medical theory, the body is made up of Six Fu Organs and Five Zang Organs. Fu organs are always filled up but must always be emptied on a regular basis to ensure efficient and proper functioning. The Zang organs, are always being emptied out but must remain filled up regularly for them to support the human body.

The Fu organs consist of organs that are characterized as having an empty cavity: the Stomach, Large Intestines, Small Intestines, Gallbladder, Bladder and Triple Burner (which is what is thought to be an interstitial, connecting organ which connects and helps facilitate communication between each of the body's organs).

The Zang organs are organs that can be thought of as "fluid filled" and richly and densely packed with blood or bodily substances which empty out to supply the body, but which must be replenished each time so that more substances can be tapped into as the body needs. The Liver, Lungs, Heart, Kidney and Spleen are such organs and it is these organs that are tasked with moderating and overseeing the balance and well-being of specific emotional responses within the human body.

In other words, Zang organs are each assigned a specific emotion (or rather, the energy that is contained within the emotion). Therefore, treatments for emotional ailments that are specific to the affected organ, are treated along that organ’s associated meridian (this is where I come in and treat the emotional imbalance or condition with acupuncture on that specific meridian).

The emotions that are associated to the Five Zang Organs are as follows:

1. The Lungs - Grief

2. The Kidneys - Fear

3. The Liver - Anger/Frustration

4. The Heart - “Overjoy”/Mania

5. The Spleen - Overworry/Obsessive ruminating

Hence, if a patient comes in for a treatment for conditions that correspond to the process of grieving and letting go, the Lung meridian would be a good place to start acupuncture treatments on to alleviate some of the symptoms that the patient may be experiencing (like unconsolable sadness, difficulty breathing, a sinking feeling in the chest, a loss in the power of one's voice or even just lethargy and apathy).

Think of what happens when you are first struck by the waves of sadness that hit you when you receive unhappy news. Your chest tightens up, you find it hard to breathe and sometimes when the tears start, you start to gulp for air as you choke back some of the emotions that erupt. The lungs heave and the first signs of emotional energy blockages manifest in the chest and upper back and shoulders.

This is what is commonly referred to as Lung Qi Dysfunction. Lungs govern the downward flow of qi which is the normal flow of qi in the body from the lungs. In a healthy functioning individual, the lungs receive the qi and descend the qi so that organs in the abdominal region (like the stomach, liver and spleen) perform their daily digestive tasks effortlessly, powered by the energy of the "pure qi" received by the lungs. The downward descent of qi also carries with it, waste products that are sent downwards as "turbid qi" where they sink to the large intestine and bladder where they are retained until they are ready to be voided from the body.

When Lung Qi acts dysfunctional, energy stalls and gets stuck in the chest. It neither descends as it should, and it doesn't ascend either. It's analogous to a computer that just stalls and hangs when you are trying to open too many tabs on a browser. Nothing gets done and at some point, you just have to hit the reset button. This is essentially what happens when a person gets stuck in their grief and they just "stall" in life; unable to let go of someone who has passed on but yet also, unable to move forward in life because of this. Acupuncture is the equivalent of hitting that reset button on the laptop when the computer freezes and doesn't process any more commands that are given.

And it is this type of stalling pattern that I experienced over the weekend and that had my chest and lungs locked into a holding pattern of denial and stoic composure. Why? Because I had to go to work and "not lose my marbles" by being overly sentimental or emotional. However, something had to give and for the first time in days after receiving the news that I got over the weekend, I cried. At first, it was just a visceral reaction to something sad that had happened during my workday. It started with a heave deep in my chest and extended further as a large wave of emotion into my upper back and shoulders. And that's when the emotions just overflowed as I felt, probably for the first time in days, the stalled, neglected and unacknowledged grief that needed a release so that the natural, calming downward flow of Lung Qi could resume again.

As I write this now, two days after hearing the news and hours after dealing with the issues of the day that triggered my own emotional release, I feel less of that heaviness and sense of being stuck in a strange emotional limbo. I cannot say for sure that a peace has been struck - not for now anyway as the funeral is still a week away and I am certain more emotions may yet to be unearthed. However, something has dislodged in the freeing up of that stuck, Dysfunctional Lung Qi during this afternoon's emotional outpouring and a feeling of finality and moving from that point of finality into tomorrow has been able to take root. I still don't know how the picture of this moment will look like for me next week or even next month. But at least I can say with some certainty that it feels good again to take and release that breath again. Life goes on. And the language of the Lungs continue to be spoken, a breath (and a corresponding release of that breath) at a time.

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