Every autumn it sneaks up on me. The time of year when I just want to lay on my couch, read a book and fall asleep, or merely stare into space and think about the past and people that I know or knew. Even as the air becomes crisp, the leaves entice us with their vivid color and delicious crinkly sounds, and the world takes on a golden glow, often I feel like curling into a ball and mentally migrating south to run across sun-kissed sandstone or balmy beaches. Inevitably I stare at the darkness and cannot avoid listening to the parts of me that have been waiting patiently all summer to be heard.
Dia de los Muertos, Diwali, Samhain, and many other holidays of this season celebrate the light within the darkness. These are wonderful community and personal activities, but we must also listen to and honor those voices within us which may be hidden or silenced in daily life- the dark within our own light.
Last year I wrote a short post about honoring limits and pruning the old to make way for the new. This year I am writing about creating a true harvest; reaping whatever kind of nourishment you can find from the fruit of what you have sown. Nationwide and worldwide we are seeing this happen with the OWS protests, and with people of many nations calling for accountability as the long-term effects of various governmental and economic policies are brought to light. We are harvesting a full breadth of emotions alongside the many concrete solutions proposed, and by doing so we are publicly allowing for change to happen. Personally, I recently finished grad school (and am obtaining a license in acupuncture), turned nearly 30 and also got married. My formula for processing and harvesting included couch-time, soccer, and a rockin cider pressing (see the end of article for more on cider). I have more than enough to harvest this year, and the process can be overwhelming even as it invigorates.
This article is about the nourishment of ourselves that comes from acknowledgement. I view acknowledgement as a type of harvest. We can look through the fields and orchards we have created, find the whole array of messy growth before us, and slowly work through each part to honor the soil, the water, the air, and the sun that has nourished every stage of this cycle of life. Half of the harvest may be moldy or spoiled- that will just go towards compost. But if it sits rotting in the field, it will provide a breeding ground for disease next year. It must be acknowledged and gathered, processed in order to have a beneficial effect.
Recently I came across an interview of Dr. Hong Jin, one of my most inspiring professors, which was published by Harmony, a quarterly publication of the Traditional Chinese Medicine World Foundation. Dr. Jin talks about the three main emotional factors that can affect women negatively (resentment, worry, and fear), and the importance of allowing oneself to recognize them directly. She also gives some great advice about how to approach these feelings that can loom large or which can hide for years. You can read the full article here.
Please take a moment to read these excerpts from Women, Emotions and Wellness: Harmony Speaks with Dr. Hong Jin (commentary continues below):
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) teaches us that body, mind, emotions and spirit are connected. Each plays a distinct role in the health of every individual. It’s especially important for women to understand exactly how emotions affect their well-being. Dr. Hong Jin, a TCM practitioner with more than twenty years of experience treating women’s health issues, recently gave Harmony some insight on the subject.
Harmony: What should women know about their emotions and health?
HJ: In my practice, I see three emotions that greatly affect women’s health. One is resentment, especially with regard to relationship issues—a husband/wife relationship or a relationship with parents. Let me give you an example: A woman who us[sic] the major breadwinner of the family expects her husband to do certain things like clean the house, take care of the children and cook. But her husband may not do things as she would, and she does not want to show her anger. She holds it inside, and then it becomes resentment. I see women doing that in the workplace also—holding anger inside. If we’re talking about Yin and Yang, resentment is the Yin aspect of anger. Anger is like an explosion; resentment is when things boil inside—you do not want to say anything until it’s too much. This causes Liver Qi stagnation.
In TCM, anger is associated with the Liver—that’s its corresponding emotion. The Liver is in charge of the free flow of Qi, or energy, in the body. Liver Qi means Liver function, and it’s responsible not only for the smooth flow of Qi in the entire body, but the smooth function and relationships between the organs. So you can see what kind of impact Liver dysfunction can have on a woman’s health.
The Liver is the major organ for women because we menstruate. The Liver stores blood and decides how much blood goes to where according to the body’s needs. For instance, when we study, more blood goes to the brain; when we exercise, more blood to the muscles; before a woman’s period, the Liver sends more blood to the uterus—in TCM we call that the chong meridian. When women have chronic resentment, you see Liver Qi stagnation. And this causes PMS symptom such as headaches before the period, breast tenderness, painful periods, mood swings—all those kinds of conditions.
When Liver Qi is stagnant, it can also cause blood stagnation, and that’s why a woman will have painful periods with dark red blood, sometimes with blood clots. In Western medicine, the illnesses that correspond with this internal condition are endometriosis and uterine fibroids. So resentment, or anger, is one of the emotions women have that can be problematic healthwise. It’s trying to be nice—we try to be feminine and soft and not show anger, but if inside we’re not happy with anyone or anything, it creates resentment. This kind of emotional stress directly affects a woman’s physical condition.
Harmony: Then what do you recommend that your women patients do? For instance, the woman you were speaking about in the beginning, who is working a lot and she’s expecting things to go a certain way at home and her husband doesn’t deliver on that?
HJ: I usually approach it two ways—well, maybe there are more than two ways. One thing, of course, is treatment with herbs and acupuncture. That moves things in the body. But women need to work on their issues. They cannot just rely on the needles or herbs. One thing I say to women—for instance, in the case I mentioned above, I would tell the woman, “Talk to your husband about this issue. Put it on the table.” And also, it is not necessarily that he does not love her that causes that kind of problem! It’s really different than that. You know, men’s brains are definitely different—they do not think in details. In general, they are not as detail oriented as we are. And so I suggested to the woman to talk to her husband and say, “You know, this kind of thing bothers me,” rather than let it sit. Many of my women patients tell me, “I let things sit until I cannot take it!…
…I always recommend women make time to take a nice walk after dinner—with their husband or a friend—maybe not every day, but several times a week. See how you can fit it into your schedule, and make that the time you go out for a walk. You know, physical exercise also smoothes Liver Qi. When you go out for a nice, relaxed walk, if it feels right you can communicate with your spouse. Don’t present things in anger, just say something like, “You know, I feel there’s a problem.” Usually women have to initiate conversation.
Harmony: What other lifestyle suggestions do you give to women?
HJ: I suggest they do yoga, Qigong or Taiji. Qigong is especially beneficial. Give yourself fifteen or twenty minutes a day. Also, do some deep breathing. When I show patients breathing techniques, I teach them to count. For instance, count to six when you breathe in and count to twelve when you breathe out. Even the numbers have meaning. Six is the number called liÃ¹ in Chinese, it also is the same sound as liÃº, which means “to flow” or “to leave behind.” And twelve is the number of meridians we have. That’s the reason I chose these particular numbers. You completely let everything go, especially when you breathe out—let it go! I teach my patients to do very simple Qigong movements with the breathing, and it’s really amazing how much people calm down.
Harmony: What about somebody who tends to be resentful and frequently boils over with emotions? How can that person manage their emotions?
HJ: You know, if you deal with the issue bothering you when you feel angry, a lot of times it’s not an objective reaction. Yes, the problem is probably there—your husband or the person in question irritates you in some way you find difficult to accept—but if you are more balanced and more relaxed, then you can deal with the issue better. Do one thing for yourself that you like every week. Think about yourself once a week.
Harmony: So you give yourself some kind of gift, whether it’s actually a physical thing, like going see a movie with a friend, or just time to meditate and relax?
HJ: Right! Go see a movie or get together with several girlfriends. Sometimes it’s good to get together with girlfriends just to talk. Even if the problem is not resolved, you feel better!
Harmony: It’s the component, I guess, of just expressing yourself.
HJ: Yes. Sometimes a woman has a partner who is not good at communication. Even if you initiate communication, the other person might just only listen. Sometimes that irritates women, so you have to find a different way to express your feelings like getting together with a group of women friends. Then you will see that everybody’s life is not perfect! In this world, we all have issues we have to work on to become a better person. I tell them, “I am a healer, and actually, I too have to figure everything out in my life.” The reason I wanted to become a healer is that I want to heal myself. Then I can bring a nice energy to the world, to heal the family or the community. When I grew up I went through some personal changes, and I really understand why the Buddhist philosophy says you need to suffer first. Then you can become a Buddha—you can become enlightened.
Harmony: It purifies.
HJ: Yes, definitely. I think that bitter things purify. Sometimes, in TCM, we use herbs that have a bitter taste to purify things in the body.
Harmony: That’s an interesting point. When we think about problems or difficult periods in life, sometimes we say, “Ah, no, we can’t have this . . . get it out of here!” There’s impatience with difficult things. Sometimes we don’t look at problems as a natural part of life.
HJ: Problems and difficult issues are actually a part of growth. They are necessary in a way. We tend to remember bitter things or learn from pain more than we remember sweet things or learn from happiness. When something sweet happens, we enjoy it and then forget it. But something bitter really gets you! When something causes us pain, we really remember—from childhood even.
Harmony: And what about emotion and breast cancer?
HJ: With breast cancer, a lot of times it’s related to Liver Qi stagnation. I see women with breast cancer—with lumps, for example—and it is Qi stagnation that causes Liver Qi stagnation. And then other factors are poor diet plus worry. You know, if a woman only has a poor diet, without the added stress of emotions, usually it would not be as bad. But if the diet is poor and there are emotions like worry or overthinking, that can contribute to breast cancer. We’ve talked about the Spleen and how it can create phlegm and damp—this kind of phlegm/damp, when congealed together, can also block Qi and blood, and cause Qi and blood stagnation. When we talk about the Spleen and the Liver, it’s important to know they have a special relationship according to Five-Element theory, so their function can affect each other. Also, regarding the Kidney, when we have fear, it can cause anxiety; it can also cause depression because the Kidney has a close relationship with the Liver: it is the mother of the Liver. When the Kidney (the mother) has fear as an emotional problem and is not functioning well, this situation will eventually affect the Liver (the child). Then Liver Qi stagnation can develop. When the Liver is affected, it also shows in some Qi stagnation and then this will cause blood stagnation and then possibly cause breast cancer.
Harmony: And so breast cancer is really the end stage of a series of imbalances in the body? For example, a woman may get lumps for a while, then it shows up in different symptoms in her body over time and eventually manifests in breast cancer?
HJ: Right. We see, again, blood stagnation—the lump itself, the cancer itself—the Qi and the blood stagnation, but underlying this condition, the function of different organs can be affected. It can be Qi and blood stagnation with phlegm accumulation, like congealed phlegm, which we’ve talked about, due to worry or overthinking. Or the Kidney can affect the Liver and cause Qi stagnation. Since the Kidney is related to and governs the reproductive system, if the person is frightened—the emotion associated with the Kidney—it can affect the endocrine system. Then, of course, hormonal imbalance can result and that can contribute to breast cancer.
Harmony: So would you say that with breast cancer the emotions are a great factor? You said before if the woman had just a poor diet, it might not manifest, but are the emotions really the tipping factor?
HJ: Yes. I believe so.
Harmony: The emotional stress makes it impossible for the body to heal itself?
HJ: Definitely. If you don’t have a life that is too busy, too stressed and your Qi flows freely, then you can take the time to cook for yourself and your family—you pay attention to your diet and don’t eat junk food all the time. If you have a busy lifestyle, even if you do not eat very well, but you are emotionally content, in general, if your Qi and blood flow, then your body will be O.K., so the balance will not be tipped, as you have stated it. Western medicine says breast cancer is related to family factors—if in your family your mother or siblings have breast cancer, you may have a greater chance to get breast cancer. In Chinese medicine, the Kidney is related to congenital factors; the Kidney is also related to the emotion fear. So for those women who have this congenital tendency and are afraid they may contract this condition, if they work on their emotions and take good care of themselves, they may not develop breast cancer. If they have a stressed lifestyle or they work too much, that can tip the balance.”
Dr. Jin provides a great context in which to discuss the impact of emotion on a physical issue such as breast cancer. Emotions and the energy of breasts need to “flow” freely- breasts exist physiologically to create a flowing conduit of physical nourishment. They symbolize deep comfort, security and the ability to provide for others. The heart beats directly beneath and behind them, and the lungs move them with each breath. When the emotions become tangled or unacknowledged, the breathing is restricted, the throat clenches, the heart pounds, and this stagnation creates heat and irritability.
Dr Jin explains that pent-up emotions (referred to as Qi stagnation) can ultimately manifest physically as the body’s Qi stagnation leads directly to physical “blood stagnation,” which results in a growth, nodule, fibroid, or tumor. Blood stagnation in Traditional Chinese Medicine can involve the accumulation of tissues due to proliferation of cells and consequent accumulation of cells which are not serving an active purpose in the body.
Of course there is no use in blaming oneself for having these important emotions; in order to address these emotions in a healthy way one must “have them” and feel them fully. Allow yourself to feel anger, resentment, fear, worry, and to consciously acknowledge them in order to take action. Note that I’m not saying that emotions alone are the cause of any one pathological process in the body. Rather, they are a contributing factor to overall health. So use healthy discussion, expression, and even true listening to release some of these emotions. Many articles have been written about releasing anger, frustration, rage, resentment, extreme worry, etc so I won’t bother you with details here. I would like to present a reminder, and one way in which you can symbolically perceive this process of change and release. Effectively “harvest” the emotion, and let it drop away from your body like ripe fruit.
I especially like what Dr. Jin had to say about bitterness- that it can be purifying, and that it really condenses our focus and makes us remember things. The positive (and potentially negative) aspect of this brutal bitterness is that it helps us learn deeply, rather than giving us the slow habituation of a sweet experience. Bitterness can almost be a shortcut to this sweetness, similar to the way that the contraction energy of the first real cold snap results in the maturation of some fruits such as apples and pears.
Embrace this time of year, happily recognizing our kinship with fruits, and following their lead to let go while providing nourishment! The medicinal and nourishing Bilva fruit of India is referred to as “the breasts of the goddess of plenty” according to Puranic legend. The apple has symbolized the breast in Western cultures for millenia. From The Sensual Foodie’s blog article, The Apple of Seduction:
“[Yes], the apple is the ancient connection between the ancient rituals of apple tree worship (fertility/fecundity) and the fruit of the tree, the “apple” being the symbolic breast of Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love.”
APPLE HARVEST AND CIDER PRESS: The (rather cheesy but cute) Allegory
So lovers of all varieties and persuasions, we must love ourselves and enjoy these messages from nature and from our various ancestors’ mythologies. The fruit of our labor is ours to enjoy and learn from- the labor of living through different experiences, the fruit of understanding and acceptance. Harvest is difficult- it often involves a lightning strike effort by a a team, since this task can be strenuous.
Harvest shakes things up and may break branches.
You may seem to compete with others to harvest the same fruit, so recognize your limits- don’t take all the blame or assign too much blame to others, for example. Create limits within this harvest.
It can definitely get messy and there may be by-products that you’re not sure where to put immediately.
Some will just recycle into the earth naturally.
Others demand to be shared with others and joyfully consumed.
Remember that everyone works hard along with you to gain the benefit of this harvest, and it’s ok to ask for assistance.
You may even need to teach others how to help, or you may be the student.
Enjoy your harvest. Make some freaking pie. Write an epic poem about it.
Shelley: Do you want some more pie? A whole pie?
Gordon: YES I WOULD MISS JOHNSON. AND A PIECE OF PAPER AND A PENCIL. I PLAN ON WRITTING AN EPIC POEM ABOUT THIS GORGEOUS PIE.