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The Antidote to Sadness: Understanding Grief in Five Element Acupuncture, Part II

Understanding Grief in Five Element Acupuncture

Part I of this article explained how the ancient Chinese view of grief in Five Element acupuncture is different from the way grief is viewed in modern-day society. It discussed why that alternative view can help us better navigate the process of grief, and how we can create a vocabulary of grieving.

Part II of this article will delve more deeply into the concepts and vocabulary of grief in Five Element acupuncture theory and in the ancient wisdom of Chinese medicine. The ancient Chinese viewed mind and body as one, and recognized body sensations and physical states as part of the grief process. We will explain how sadness and other feelings that are part of grief arise within the body/mind, and how to use that wisdom to guide us through the territory of grief.

Sadness, the Metal Element and the Lungs: Bei 悲

Of the many feelings one may experience in grief, perhaps the most characteristic is sadness. The Chinese ideogram closest in meaning to the English word “sadness” is bei 悲. Meaning is embedded in the written form.

The ideogram bei 悲 has two parts. The lower part is the character for heart, xin 心, which tells us that it has to do with feelings. The upper part is another character fei 非. It looks a little like two people back-to-back. Fei 非 indicates a negation, refusal or denial of something. If we put these two parts together, we can see that the essence of sadness, bei, 悲 is the feeling of turning your back and saying “no.”

The ideogram shows us that sadness, bei 悲 is the expression of denial, the first stage of grief. Denial is a deep rupture with reality. It is a refusal to accept the loss.

In Five Element acupuncture, sadness is connected with the energy of the Lung meridian, and is governed by the Metal Element. In mourning, sadness is often expressed through the lungs. Sobbing, crying, sighing, moaning, howling are natural ways to express sadness over loss and can help us move through grief.

Denial and the sadness that comes with it are a natural stage in grief. Nonetheless, sobbing and crying can’t go on forever. If they did, it would leave us gasping for air, unable to fully receive the nourishing oxygen our bodies need from the breath. If sobbing and crying continue unabated, the person loses vitality.

The Antidote to Sadness is Joy 樂: the Heart’s Connections

Sadness affects more than just the energy of the Lungs. In the Chinese medicine classics, sadness is said to cause a “tightening of the heart” and to constrict the heart’s “system of connections.” Think about what happens when you hear of an unexpected loss or shocking bad news. You may experience a tightness in the chest or feel your heart “skip a beat.”

In Five Element acupuncture, the heart’s “system of connections” includes more than just the arteries, veins, blood and physical circulation. The heart’s connections are also the entire network of communication – mental, emotional, physical – throughout the living organism. The heart’s connections are the web of life. Any constriction in the free flow of the heart’s connections is obviously quite serious.

Denial is a loss of connection, and sadness bei 悲 is the expression of denial in grief. The loss of connection through denial constricts the free flow of the heart’s connections throughout the entire organism. The antidote to denial is to connect, releasing the constriction and allowing the heart energy to flow freely.

How do we connect? The antidote to sadness is joy, le 樂 , the emotional expression of love. Much can be said about joy, le 樂 and the power of love, which is discussed in-depth in an earlier blog post.

Love is the essence of the Fire Element, and joy is governed by the energies of Fire. The Fire Element is the heart of warmth, and has a special power over the Metal Element, grief and sadness. When sadness gets overwhelming, the warmth and joy of Fire can come in to get the flow moving, release the heart’s system of connections and dispel sadness.

In Chinese medicine and Five Element acupuncture, the healing power of love is connection. It’s our connection to others through relationship, family and community. The essential ingredient of love is sharing. Healthy connection is two way, both giving and receiving. When those that love us reach out to support us through a loss or a hard time, we receive and reach back. It’s not just receiving the empathy of those around us that moves us through grief. It’s the caring and love we give in return that connects us back to the living.


Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée, The Seven Emotions, Monkey Press 1996

Photo credit: SalFalko on / CC BY-NC

Inner Works Acupuncture is a Five Element acupuncture clinic in Portland, Oregon, offering mind-body therapies that can support the transitions of loss and grief.  Call us today at (503) 227-2127 to schedule an appointment.

Inner Works Acupuncture

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