Thinking and Over-Thinking: the Earth Element in Five Element Acupuncture
Information overload is the source of many maladies in the Information Age, discussed in Part I of this blog post on the Earth Element in Five Element acupuncture. Distracted thinking, worry and obsession are so widespread and habitual that they are almost invisible and appear to be a “normal” state of consciousness. Even if someone becomes aware of her own busy mind and obsessive thinking, she may not realize it is possible to change it.
In fact, one’s state of mind has a huge impact on both emotional and physical health. Many common ailments – insomnia, digestive problems, heart health, immune health, to name a few – are directly related to our mental and emotional state.
How do we protect ourselves or recover from the effects of information overload? How do we change our minds? The first step in changing your mind is to understand what happens when you think and feel. In other words, we need a simple and practical way to understand conscious thought process and change it.
Conscious Thought Process: a Five Element Acupuncture Perspective
What actually happens when we think? The nature of consciousness has always been a knotty question for philosophers and psychologists, because it is impossible to study consciousness with complete objectivity. One is never separate from one’s own lived reality.
Fortunately, Five Element acupuncture has a unique advantage in understanding consciousness. Ancient Chinese medical theory, the basis for Five Element acupuncture, has its own psychology of consciousness. Developed over thousands of years, it is written in the classic medical texts, which are still used today. The ancient Chinese developed pragmatic ways of shifting consciousness and healing through meditation, qi gong and other mind-body wellness methods. Many East Asian concepts and methods are now inspiring a new understanding of consciousness in Western neurology and psychology.
Setting aside more complex Western models of consciousness, the Chinese medicine classics and Five Element acupuncture give us a coherent theory of thought process which is relatively easy to understand. In a nutshell, the Chinese medicine classics view thinking as a process of digestion. We take in information from the outside environment, relate it to memory and past experience, then transform it and expand upon it. Several phases of the Five Element energy cycle within the body, mind and spirit are involved in the process of mental digestion. If these energies are imbalanced, the thought process may break down in various ways.
Creating a Vocabulary of Consciousness
Thought process is by nature subtle and intangible, because we are examining our own minds. An important challenge of understanding conscious thought is to create a language we can use to verbally describe subtle concepts of an intangible process. We need a vocabulary of simple words to articulate subtle meanings.
Fortunately, the vocabulary we need already exists! It is embedded in the written Chinese language itself. All we have to do is tap into it. Since there is no one-on-one translation of these subtle concepts from Chinese, we have to come up with words to concisely convey the meaning in English to our Western minds.
Classical Chinese embeds meaning in the ideograms of the written language. Written English is phonetic, so the meaning is often lost in translation. One picture is worth a thousand words! For a few key concepts that have no agreed-upon equivalent in English, we will introduce the Chinese ideogram and use the Chinese word (in Mandarin pinyin).
Thinking and Feeling: Heart and Mind Are One (Xin 心)
To the ancient Chinese, thought process includes both thinking and feeling, which are inseparable. This holistic understanding is embedded in the Chinese language. The same ideogram, xin 心, is translated as both “heart” and “mind.” The heart/mind (xin 心）governs feelings and thoughts. Thought process starts in the heart/mind, which is governed by the Fire Element in Five Element theory. In overview, it is a four-stage process.
Stage One: Beginning an Idea (Yi 意)
The heart/mind is exposed to information from the outside, and forms an idea. For example, suppose a friend tells you what a wonderful time she had on holiday in Patagonia. Your heart/mind is exposed to and receives the information and the feelings of your friend describing her holiday.
The Chinese call this stage of the thought process yi 意, which means idea, intention or purpose. No single word in English captures all of the meanings of this very important concept, yi 意. If we look at the ideogram 意, we can see that the character for heart/mind, xin 心, is written underneath, which tells us that purpose or intention is intimately connected to our feelings and thoughts.
Stage Two: Applying the Will (Zhi 志)
Having been exposed to your friend’s description of her holiday in Patagonia, what happens next in your heart/mind? Well, you might forget about it completely, if Patagonia is not your thing. Or perhaps you were preoccupied and her words did not make a deep impression. It just passes through the heart/mind and goes no further.
On the other hand, maybe what your friend said about Patagonia sticks around in your heart/mind and takes focus. “Holiday in Patagonia” may resonate for you and have an emotional charge for you that, for example, stimulates a desire to go to Patagonia. “Holiday in Patagonia” starts to become a force in your heart/mind. This mental-emotional phase, when an idea takes focus and gains force, is called zhi 志 which roughly translates as “will”. Notice that again we see that 志 contains 心, the character for heart/mind, so we know that zhi has to do with thinking and feeling.
Stage Three: Thinking a Field of Thoughts ( Si 思)
As the idea “holiday in Patagonia” takes shape in your heart/mind and gains force, you start thinking about it in detail. Perhaps you are reading up on it, looking at photos, or talking further with your friend about her experience. How far is the journey? How much will it cost? What is the best weather for travel? What should I bring? Is it dangerous?
In other words, you begin to digest it and transform it, comparing it to your own memory and past experience. Thoughts proliferate around the idea, “holiday in Patagonia.” This complex of thought is called si 思 in Chinese. Again, we see it contains the character for heart/mind (xin 心). It also contains the character for “field” (田）which originally meant a field of rice or grain. One way to understand si 思 is that it is like thinking a whole field or constellation of related thoughts.
Stage Three, si 思 engages the energy of the Earth Element, which directly governs digestion in the body, mind and spirit. The first two stages (yi 意 and zhi 志) – introducing an idea and applying the will – were governed entirely by the heart/mind, and as such, engage the energy of the Fire Element. To “digest” the initial idea and expand on it requires the energy of the Earth Element. “Holiday in Patagonia” has by this stage become an entire part of your mental and emotional nutrition. The Earth element energies within you are transforming, harmonizing and digesting the information you have taken from the outside.
Stage Four: Contemplation – Lü, Thinking Like a Tiger
After thinking through and processing all the information you receive about “holiday in Patagonia,” thanks to the good digestion by Earth Element energies, the heart/mind grasps all the details. In other words, you get the big picture. At this point, you go to a new and more powerful phase of thought process. The heart/mind amplifies, imagines and expands “holiday in Patagonia.” You might fantasize about the experiences you could have if you go to Patagonia, or the things that could happen to you there.
At Stage Four, a different kind of thought process takes over, lü, which translates as reflection, contemplation or meditation. No single word in English captures all of the meanings of lü. In fact, the classical form of the ideogram lü is not even available in the word processor. It is therefore illustrated in the calligraph below.
Lu combines the ideogram si 思 (thinking), plus the ideogram for tiger, hu 虎 . One way to understand lü is that it is thinking with the power of a tiger.
Thinking like a tiger, lü, requires more than just Earth energy. Earth energy allows us to digest and transform the information, but now we need critical thinking skills and intuition. We need an ability to analyze, discern and judge the thought-complex “holiday in Patagonia.” These capacities for analysis and judgement are governed not by Earth, but rather by the Wood Element. A robust Wood Element acts on Earth energies to give us the ability to make a decision about “holiday in Patagonia.” Do we go to Patagonia or not? If so, when?
Worry, Obsession and Analysis Paralysis: Earth Element Out of Balance
To sum up, we have energies of three Elements – Fire (heart/mind), Earth and Wood – involved in four distinct stages of the process of conscious thinking. If all three Elements are robust within the body, mind and spirit, our ability to think is healthy. Feeling and thinking are inseparable, so we have not only mental clarity, but also emotional balance amongst these Elements.
What happens when thought process goes wrong, and why? How do we get stuck in repetitive thinking, worry and obsession? Here are some common scenarios.
Too much information, too many problems:
Information overwhelm is very common in the Information Age. Many people have chronically busy lives both at work and at home, which demand a lot of intellectual problem-solving. Multi-tasking, short attention span and distracted thinking become habitual. Earth Element energies may simply be overwhelmed by the task of intellectual and emotional digestion. Long term, Earth Element energy is damaged. Excessive thinking (si 思, Stage 3) turns to worry, rumination, fretting, brooding and obsession.
Worse yet, the surfeit of concerns and thoughts (si 思) also backs up on the heart/mind and damages the Fire Element. The heart/mind loses its ability to begin an idea or purpose (yi, 意 stage 1) and to apply the will (zhi 志, stage 2). Repetitive thoughts drown out any new ideas, like static drowns out the music.
The person may suffer any number of physical ailments, especially insomnia, anxiety, loss of appetite, indigestion. But perhaps saddest of all is that the person loses touch with her inner sense of purpose – the yi 意 of the heart/mind. Trapped by the demands of society, the person may lose touch with her own soul.
Sometimes, a person is so fixated on details that he can’t make a decision. No choice seems right, so he ends up churning things over again and again. He ends up stuck in endless rumination, “sitting on the fence” as opportunity passes by. A lot of Earth Element energy is uselessly engaged, and in the end nothing is accomplished.
Recall that the energy of the Wood Element is needed to reflect (lü, Stage 4) and see the big picture. Wood assists Earth energies in critical thinking, discernment, judgement and the ability to make a decision. If Wood is too weak for the task of assisting, analysis paralysis results.
Impulsive Grasping, Addiction, and Consumer Culture:
Consumer culture is driven by sophisticated marketing and advertising that plays on our instincts, tastes and subliminal fears. We are daily bombarded with information designed to stimulate our desires and persuade us. The result is incessant and impulsive grasping for possessions, as so many ideas are presented to the yi 意 of the heart/mind.
Worse yet, much of advertising deliberately creates deep feelings of personal inadequacy for the consumer. Persuasive advertising is more than simply presenting information. The most compelling way to sell something to someone is to make her feel that she is not good enough – her body, her clothes, her mind, her job, her income, her house.
Consumer culture is toxic and confusing for the heart/mind. The purpose (Stage 1, yi 意) and will (Stage 2, zhi 志) are scattered by so much persuasion and desire. No real thinking (si, 思 Stage 3) results. Nothing feeds the Earth Element and therefore nothing is digested. The body, mind and spirit become malnourished at every phase of the Five Element cycle.
Consumer culture encourages compulsive behavior and addiction, perhaps the most insidious malady of modern times. While much more could be said, a simple definition of addiction is “repeated involvement with a substance or activity, despite the substantial harm it causes, because that activity is seen as valuable.” The most reliable and profitable consumer is one who comes back again and again – the addict.
Change Your Mind: Five Element Acupuncture and Wellness Methods
There are many way to regain balance of the Earth Element, as well as the other energies involved in the process of conscious thought. Five Element acupuncture has powerful methods to diagnose the source of the imbalance and treat the root cause.
Most important in healing is the care you give yourself every day – how you feed your mind can change your mind. Changing longstanding mental habits can be challenging. Mind-body therapies such as Five Element acupuncture and Zero Balancing can help jump-start the process of shifting consciousness – breaking through old habits, relieving information overwhelm and curbing addictions. In the long run, lasting results rely on lifestyle changes, along with treatment. Some healthy ways to help feed your mind include:
- Control information input by limiting your exposure to media, advertising and news. Choose your information sources carefully, whether through social media, television, radio or other medium. There is no prescribed formula for quantity and quality. Tune in to your body and mind. Pay attention to how you feel when you are receiving information, news or advertising. Trust your gut feelings.
- Engage in practices designed to shift consciousness, such as meditation or yoga, that shut down the busy “monkey mind.” Meditation and creative activities are among the best ways to get in touch with the yi 意 and zhi 志 of your heart/mind, strengthening your life purpose and life force.
- Take up a creative hobby, like art or music, that stimulates “right brain” consciousness and gives the linear-thinking “left brain” a rest.
- Spend time in “green space”. Many studies show the mental health benefits of “green space.” Outdoor exercise, gardening and time spent in nature nourish all phases of the Five Elements and restore body, mind and spirit.
Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée, The Seven Emotions, Monkey Press 1996
Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée, Spleen and Stomach, Monkey Press 1990
Inner Works Acupuncture is a Five Element acupuncture clinic in Portland, Oregon. Call us today at (503) 227-2127 to schedule an appointment.