Healing the Heart: the Fire Element and Summer
Part I of this article explained how the Heart in Five Element acupuncture is understood differently than in Western medicine, opening the door to new ways of caring for and healing the Heart. Part II will delve more deeply into the connection of the Heart to the Fire Element, and will explain the double nature of the Heart in Five Element acupuncture. We will talk about ways you can care for and heal the Heart.
The Five Elements are organizing principles that represent cyclic change in the natural world, both within us and around us. The Five Elements are seen in the seasonal cycle of the year. Summer is the season of the Fire Element. The Heart belongs to the Fire Element.
Summer is the season of the Heart, and it’s not hard to understand why. The essence of Summer and the Fire Element is unconditional love. The sun, the ultimate source of Fire, is high in the sky and feeds us with warmth and light. People generally feel lighter and brighter in Summer, reveling in warmth that feeds the Fire Element within us. Summer is the season of peak activity and growth in nature. It is a time of enjoyment and relaxation, communication and connection.
Summer is the season of love, and love makes its home in the Heart. The greatest and deepest quality of the Heart in Five Element acupuncture is unconditional love that connects us to all life. When we feel connection and love, we can experience joy. Joy is the emotion proper to the Heart and the Fire Element. Healing the Heart brings joy:
He who kisses the joy as it flies lives on eternity’s sunrise. (William Blake)
The Heart Emperor
The ancient Chinese viewed the human being as a living ecosystem. They understood anatomy, but were more interested in the living organs as a system – something which can’t be learned by dissecting a corpse! While the English names of body organs may be the same – heart, liver, lungs, etc. – the organs in Chinese medicine and Five Element acupuncture are understood as living entities. To make sense of it, the Chinese used a metaphor familiar to them – the imperial government.
The Heart is the Emperor of the living human being. The other major organ systems are the officials of the court. Classical Chinese medical theory has developed a sophisticated system of understanding the relationships of the organ systems of the body in terms of the Five Element cycle and the flow of energy via the acupuncture meridians.
As Emperor, the Heart’s job is wise command and leadership. The wise leader rules impartially, maintaining order in the court without taking sides. The Heart’s gift is unconditional love, the warmth of the Fire Element within. Wise and impartial leadership flows from unconditional love, rewarding all the Heart’s subordinates with its warmth.
The Heart is the Supreme Controller. It literally keeps the beat. The Heart governs rhythm, harmony and order throughout the body. If something goes awry with the Heart, complete chaos is the result and spreads to all arenas. Panic sets in. It’s not surprising that people with arrhythmias, such as atrial fibrillation, often report anxiety, both as a cause and a result of the medical condition. Body and mind are one!
The Heart Protector: The Emperor’s Gatekeeper
The Heart Emperor is like the CEO of a large company. You can’t have employees bothering the CEO with every small detail of running the company. So, the Heart has an outer aspect, a gatekeeper, called the Heart Protector. The Heart Protector opens and closes the gates, controlling access to the Heart Emperor. The physical heart, too, is a place of chambers and gates – ventricles, atria and valves. The Emperor resides within the inner chambers, and the Protector opens and closes the gates.
In Five Element acupuncture, when we wish to treat the Heart, we respectfully go first to the gatekeeper, Heart Protector. The Heart Emperor and the Heart Protector each have their own acupuncture meridians. Research on acupuncture for atrial fibrillation suggests that points on the Heart Protector meridian can be beneficial for regulating the rhythm of the Heart, and perhaps even helping to regenerate heart tissue.
The Heart Protector is both gatekeeper and communicator, governing circulation of blood and energy. Circulation is a means of communication throughout the body. On a physical level, blood circulation spreads nutrients and warmth throughout the body. Beyond the physical level, circulation spreads the warmth and nourishment of the Fire Element within, the energy of unconditional love. When the Heart Emperor rules impartially, every part of the human being is nourished and bathed in warmth. The Heart’s presence is felt simply through the joy of unconditional love.
Heart Rhythm: Stillness and Movement
Proper circulation requires rhythm and balance, like a piece of music. Between the notes is a stillness that makes the music. Likewise, in the rhythmic beating of the Heart there is a stillness within. To maintain order in the body, the rhythm must be steady. For example, if your physical heart rate suddenly changes, your blood pressure may drop and you may faint (technically, neuro-cardiac syncope) – a condition that can be brought on by sudden emotional shock. It’s no surprise that heart conditions are related to anxiety.
The stillness within us that makes the music is the stillness of the Heart Emperor. The ancient Chinese considered the inner chambers of the Heart, beyond the gatekeeper, as the dwelling place of the spirits. Similarly, in Western culture, we acknowledge the heart as the seat of the soul. For the spirits to reside in comfort, they need a place of rest and stillness. The Chinese compared the spirits to a flock of birds, fluttering around seeking a safe haven in the Heart. If the Heart Emperor is agitated, the spirits will scatter and all manner of physical, mental and emotional chaos may break out.
Physiologically, the vagus nerve regulates heart rhythm in response to stress. Recent studies in polyvagal theory provide a biological basis for feelings of safety and danger, based on the subtle interplay of bodily experience with emotional expression and emotional states. These studies have important implications for the treatment of trauma, PTSD, anxiety, and other disorders of emotional regulation. Perhaps this is just another way of saying that the spirits scatter when the Heart Emperor is agitated, and a calm Heart gives the spirits a safe place to rest.
Healing the Heart: Caring for Your Own Heart
In recent decades, Western medicine has begun to accept the therapeutic value of acupuncture, bodywork, meditation, yoga and other mind-body wellness practices long valued in the East. All of these practices help regulate the autonomic nervous system, balancing sympathetic (fight or flight) with parasympathetic (rest and digest) response. This impacts heart rate, digestion, brain activity and many other metabolic functions. These and other mind-body therapies have widespread mental and physical health benefits. Depression, worry and anxiety, acid reflux, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation and chronic pain are just a few examples of conditions that respond well to Five Element acupuncture, meditation and other mind-body therapies.
Equally important, and often overlooked, is the value of community, friendship and connection in healing the Heart, both physical and emotional. The Heart thrives on love, and love connects. Human beings are social animals and are part of the web of life. To be healthy, we need both social connection to others, and connection to the natural world.
If you wish to heal the Heart, seek out experiences that feel calm and safe, experiences of friendship and intimacy. Seek out experiences of beauty, joy and connection to nature. All of these bring you into the present moment, and can help to heal the Heart.
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. Call us today at (503) 227-2127 to schedule an appointment.