The Heart in Eastern and Western Medicine
The Heart in Five Element acupuncture is understood in a fundamentally different way than in Western medicine. Embracing this understanding can help us heal the heart, physically and emotionally.
The heart in popular Western culture has long been understood as more than a mere biological pump. It is widely regarded as the seat of the soul and ruler of the emotions – love, courage, fear, sadness, joy. We sense its response to our feelings: the “skipped beat” when we are startled, the quickened beat of nervous anticipation. We speak of someone having a “broken heart,” or “wearing their heart on their sleeve.”
Yet, until recently, cardiovascular medicine has failed to appreciate the role of emotional stress in heart ailments. Heart disease remains the leading killer of adults nationwide. We have advanced medical technologies that treat physical heart disease after it develops, but do not truly heal the heart.
The Heart* in Five Element acupuncture and Chinese medicine embraces the physical heart, the emotional heart and much more. The Heart is the governor of the emotions, and the initiator of thought. It is both the regulator of movement, and a place of stillness where the spirit is at rest.
These functions of the Heart – emotion and thought, movement and stillness – have never been more relevant than today, in our anxious and fast-paced modern world. Chronic cardiovascular disease is an ailment of industrialized life. It is a global public health crisis. Illnesses like high blood pressure and atrial fibrillation continue to increase in prevalence, yet are largely preventable through whole foods nutrition and lifestyle changes.
When we look at the Heart in Five Element acupuncture, it opens the door to new ways of caring for the Heart, preventing and treating heart ailments, emotional distress and much more.
Heart, Mind and Emotion
In the West, we tend to think of the mind as a product of the brain, and emotions as a product of the mind. Western medicine has spawned an industry that treats emotional distress – grief, anxiety, depression, fear, anger – in one of two ways, drugs or psychotherapy. Rarely do we consider the complex interrelationship of emotions with physical well-being. Nor do we consider the impact that emotion distress may have on physical heart ailments, and vice-versa.
The primary way that Western medicine treats emotional distress is to manipulate brain chemistry with drugs. Antidepressants are among the most commonly prescribed drugs, and their use is on the rise. Pharmacology treats emotions like a one-way street. It assumes the problem starts in your brain chemistry. It ignores the way that your brain chemistry responds to conditions in your life. Social isolation, loss of a loved one, trauma, poor diet, and lack of meaningful work are all factors that are known to provoke depression. Things like healthy nutrition, social connection, time in nature, sunshine and exercise can all improve your emotional health and help to heal the heart.
Alternatively, Western psychology treats emotional distress through the conscious mind with talk therapy. While counseling and psychotherapy can definitely help, not all emotional issues can be accessed through words. The deepest and earliest traumas may be pre-verbal, lodged in parts of the brain and body that words cannot reach. Western mental health has only recently begun to acknowledge the role of the body in non-verbal emotional healing.
The Heart in Five Element Acupuncture: Unity of Mind & Body
Five Element acupuncture reaches below the level of consciousness and words, treating emotional and physical health as one. In Chinese medicine and Five Element acupuncture, unity of heart and mind is built into the language. There is only one word for both – xin 心. The Heart is the ruler of the emotions and the initiator of thoughts and ideas. It is also the governor of circulation and keeper of rhythm throughout the human body. The ideogram is a picture of the four chambers of the Heart organ:
In Chinese, it is impossible to talk about emotions and thought without including the Heart. Many of the Chinese ideograms pertaining to basic emotions – anger, love, fear, sadness, worry, grief – contain the heart 心 ideogram. Most ideograms pertaining to thought process – intention, will, thinking, contemplation – also contain the heart 心 ideogram. At the same time, the Chinese were also well aware of the Heart’s physical functions in the circulation of blood and keeping of rhythm in the body.
Over thousands of years, Chinese medicine has developed a sophisticated system of understanding, diagnosing and treating heart, mind and emotion – body, mind, and spirit – as a unified whole. The foundation of Five Element acupuncture is in the classical Chinese medical texts. Healing the Heart in Five Element acupuncture addresses all of those levels at once.
Part II of this article will delve deeply into the classical Chinese understanding of the Heart. We will explore the Heart’s relationship to the Fire Element and the season of Summer, and explain why connection and joy are so important for the Heart. We will introduce the double nature of the Heart in Five Element acupuncture, as both Supreme Controller and Protector.
*To distinguish Chinese medical understanding of the Heart from the Western definition, we capitalize the word “Heart” when referring to the Chinese concepts.
Jauhar, Sandeep. 2018. Heart: a History. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
Larre, Claude and Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallee, 1991, The Heart in Ling Shu Chapter 8. Monkey Press.
Worsley, J.R., 1998, Classical Five-Element Acupuncture, Vol. III
Inner Works Acupuncture is a Five Element acupuncture clinic in Portland, Oregon, offering holistic healing for the Heart and more. Call us today at (503) 227-2127 to schedule an appointment.