In TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine), the internal organs are looked at more as systems than as simple lumps of meat divorced from their greater context as is often the case in the reductionist model of the West. In TCM, organs have their physical aspect and their assorted physiological functions, but they also have psycho-spiritual aspects. In this dual-aspect system, the heart has the function of pumping the blood as we see in biology, but is also the seat of consciousness. In this article, I’d like to talk about how the heart is viewed and discussed from the perspective of TCM.
The Heart Governs the Blood
This is the biological aspect of the heart. The ancient Chinese physicians were able to recognize that the heart has the action of pumping the blood. If the heart is healthy and strong, the circulation should be good. TCM views the entire circulatory system as part of the functional complex known as the “heart,” so there may be times when your acupuncturist talks about your heart, but may be describing another aspect of the circulatory system. The circulation itself and the ability of the blood to stay in the blood vessels is considered to be under the functional control of the heart organ.
The Heart as the “Emperor”
When the ancient Chinese physicians described the various internal organs, they described an entire environment inside the body wherein the organs interact functionally with each other. They described this “inner world” using much of the same language which they found in the outer world, attributing the same sort of bureaucratic relationships their society was structured around to the organ networks. In this inner bureaucracy, the heart occupies the position of the Emperor.
In ancient China, the Emperor wasn’t merely a ruler, he had the responsibility of consulting with the court scientists to determine the correct time for planting and harvesting crops as well as attempting to predict natural disasters or unusual weather patterns which could lead to disruption of the nation’s food supply. In this way, it is said that he “consulted the mandate of heaven to determine the right course” for the nation. In a similar sense, the heart/mind determines the “right course” for our lives. In English, we have the expression “to go with your heart,” which means that we make a decision with our inner wisdom and when we do “go with our heart,” then we know from a very deep place that we are making the right decision.
The Heart as Mind
This aspect of deep, inner wisdom is part of the mind-complex which is viewed to be housed in the heart in TCM. The heart-mind, when healthy, is clear, focused, and calm. When the heart becomes disturbed, then a lot of problems can arise. A disturbed mind in TCM is a disturbed heart. The common type of insomnia many people deal with where they can’t get to sleep due to their mind racing is a reflection of this. Lack of sleep then leads to further disturbance of the heart and, as studies have reflected, can lead to physical heart disease later in life. Anxiety, depression, and all sorts of manic or unusual mental behavior are viewed as disturbances of the heart. Meditation or other mind-body practices can help steady and calm the heart-mind.
The Heart as Void
The most rarified aspect of the heart in TCM is the idea of the heart as an empty vessel which houses the spirit. In one sense, this idea is linked to the idea of a mind being unburdened by exterior concerns, the idea that “ignorance is bliss” or that by not being anxious or worrying, our heart and mind can relax. The Great Sage, Lao Tzu pointed out that the usefulness of a clay vessel is in its emptiness. In another sense, this is the idea that the heart is the receptacle for spirit, this is similar to the idea of the heart chakra as described in the Hindu Yogic tradition.
Jorga Houy, L.Ac.