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Home > Newsletters > December 2007 > Chinese Medicine and the Mind

Chinese Medicine and the Mind

By Efrem Korngold, LAc, OMD and Harriet Beinfield, LAc

HOW CHINESE MEDICINE VIEWS THE MIND

Chinese medicine does not make absolute distinctions between what we in the West classify as the mind, the activity of the central nervous system, and the physiology of the visceral organs. Within traditional Chinese medical thinking, a person represents a field of Qi, a continuum of dynamic structures, functions, processes, sensory perceptions, and cognitive faculties that range from the gross, substantial, and visible (fluids, blood, flesh, muscles, vessels, sense organs, nerves, and bone) to the subtle, insubstantial, and invisible (sensations, perceptions, feelings, emotions, thoughts, images, and dreams). Although flux and transformation are the fundament of the field, there is a coherence and unity that exists within this continuum, known as Shen-Jing. Shen refers to the psyche or the intangible qualities of mind, and Jing refers to the soma or the tangible qualities of the material body. Shen-Jing implies the mutually arising, interpenetrating nature of Shen and Jing, a microcosmic manifestation of the interdependence and interaction of Yang and Yin.

Both spheres are characterized by incessantly motile patterns of form and action. The structural parts of the organism have shape and move (with a distinct configuration and patterns of activity, fluids, blood, muscles, bones, and internal organs are in constant motion). Similarly, the contents of the mind emerge, assume form, and shift from place to place in recognizable patterns (images and ideas take shape, thoughts are shallow and deep, jump from one to another, move in circles, and habits of mind develop). Human development is construed to be a seamless, formative process, an expression of embodied intelligence in space and time that involves the intermingling of creative imagination and innate constitution initiated and sustained by the organizing power of Qi.
This enables a person to maintain life, cultivate an identity, and make a future—fulfilling destiny (Ming).

THE THREE LEVELS AND FIVE ASPECTS OF MIND

Mental activities and experiences occur at three levels, again proceeding
from the more tangible to the more intangible: sensations and perceptions, thoughts and ideas, feelings and emotions. Sensations and perceptions arise from specific parts of the soma: skin, muscle, viscera, ears, eyes, nose, mouth, and tongue. Thoughts and ideas arise from the psyche: imagination, dreams, memory, attention, and reflective contemplation. Feelings and emotions are the outcome of our responses to sensations and perceptions, those that arise inwardly, and those from the outside world that enter our field of awareness. Furthermore, whether we deem our experiences to be physical or mental, somatic or psychic, our capacity to recognize their influence is rooted in the physiological structure and functional processes that correspond to five organ systems referred to as the Five Organ Networks (Kidney, Liver, Heart, Spleen, Lung) that govern all internal events and outward expressions. That is to say, how the Qi moves in each of the Organ Networks and how they
interact from moment to moment is what determines the nature of
our life experience.

HOW THE FIVE ORGAN NETWORKS ORGANIZE OUR MOTILE, SENSORY, AND COGNITIVE LIFE

All activity is an expression of the movement of Qi occurring in various layers of the organism. At the level of sensations and perceptions, Qi manifests as the qualities of movement associated with muscles, nerves, and sense organs. At the level of thoughts, ideas, and images, Qi manifests as intellectual activity of the mind, or cognition. At the level of our response to sensations, perceptions, and thoughts, Qi assumes the form of feelings and emotions that are experienced simultaneously as physical and mental events, actions, or movements. Qi organizes that which moves, and all movement is a manifestation of Qi. Fundamentally, motility is Qi, and what is motile is alive.

When we consider the role of the central nervous system as it is defined in Western terms, we think of the organism’s ability to regulate and coordinate a myriad of complex and interrelated functions including locomotion, perception, cognition, circulation, digestion, elimination, detoxification, reproduction, regeneration, growth, maturation, and even degeneration and dying. All of these processes involve patterned movement at the macroscopic level of organs, muscles, nerves, and vessels as well as at the microscopic level of cellular metabolism. In the Chinese view, it is the Organ Networks that modulate and coordinate all these processes.

HOW CHINESE MEDICINE VIEWS DISTURBANCES OF THE MIND AND NERVOUS SYSTEM

Since the sensory, neuromuscular, emotional, and cognitive aspects of the nervous system and mind are linked to the movement of Qi and the functional activities of the Five Organ Networks, disturbances of sensation, perception, mentation, and emotion are interpreted as being the consequence of disturbances of Qi, leading to Organ Network dysfunctions. In particular, the faculties and functions associated with the Liver and Heart Networks are considered to have a predominant influence over the tone, tempo, and clarity of behavior and consciousness.

The Liver is the abode of the Hun, and the Heart is the abode of the Shen: Hun represents the active, seeking, goal-directed, reactive, executive aspects of the mind and nervous system and Shen the receptive, globally aware, intuitive, insightful, and integrative aspects. There is a saying that the Heart receives and understands, whereas the Liver feels and acts. In other words, whereas the Liver perceives what the mind and body experience (sensation), the Heart gives it meaning in reference to a person’s true nature or self (insight). The Liver acts in accord with the dictates of the self (producing feelings and reactions), and the Heart interprets the feelings and reactions in relation to their congruence with the self and its ideology and purposes (integration). In its role as feeler and actor, the Liver gives the tone and temperament to one’s inner life, the effort and ease, confidence, and tenderness with which one responds to experience. In its role as receiver and integrator, the Heart gives breadth and depth, meaning and coherence to one’s inner life. When the Heart is well, the Mind is tranquil, the senses are clear, and the body is comfortable. When the Liver is well, the Mind is flexible, the disposition cheerful, and the structure supple. The hallmarks of dysfunction are the unnatural distortions of healthy function. With disturbances of the Heart Network, the capacity to witness, understand, and integrate can transform into obliviousness, confusion, and incoherence. Because the Heart also governs the perfusion of blood throughout the body, disorders of the Heart may also manifest as flushing and chilling, labile hypertension or hypotension, and localized ischemia or insufficiency. With disturbances of the Liver Network, the capacity for good judgment and an even temper can transform into impulsivity and volatility. Because the Liver also governs the muscles and nerves as well as the volume of circulating blood, disorders of the Liver may manifest as cramps and spasms, numbness and pain, in-coordination, hyper-reactivity, and paradoxical conditions of heat and pressure: cold hands and feet coupled with heat in the chest and head; heat in the upper body and chill in the lower body; strength in the extremities and weakness in the torso or vice versa; fullness in the head and emptiness in the abdomen and vice versa.
Although the Heart and Liver Networks are paramount in maintaining the integrity of neuromuscular and neurocognitive functions, the other Organ Networks play significant roles in neurological, cognitive, and psychological health.

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