Thoughts On The Heart

Valentine’s Day just passed us by when the emotions of the heart turn towards love and the significant people in our lives. For me, the image which most represents Valentine’s Day is the red heart with the arrow through it. Valentine’s Day with the symbol of the red heart and arrow make the month of February a good month to reflect on the heart.

In Tradition Chinese Medicine (TCM) part of the study is the functions of each of the organs including the heart. In the West, we work at deconstructing things in hopes that through separation we will become more effective. In the East, deconstruction was not a goal and by avoiding deconstruction, they were able to get a holistic view of the world.

Thus, when Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) looks at each of the organs, functions that we may attribute to the organ in casual conversation but not in Western medicine are acknowledged. Phrases like, “I’m going to have a heart to heart talk…”, “Follow your heart” point to some of the non-physiology parts of being human. The need to separate emotions from physical is not experienced in Traditional Chinese Medicine(1) , even less so in Chinese Medicine.

In TCM the heart has some very important functions. The heart governs the blood, controls the blood vessels, manifests in the complexion, houses the mind, is related to joy, opens into the tongue, and controls sweat.

O.K.……well let’s look at the “houses the mind” aspect. In TCM, the heart is the residence of the mind called “Shen” in Chinese medicine. Shen can mean the mental faculties “which are said to reside in the heart.” Shen can also mean the whole sphere of mental and spiritual aspects of a human being.(2) Thus, mental activity and consciousness reside in the Heart. Being known as the “emperor”, the Heart is responsible for “insight” and “cognition” which the other organs do not have. Thus the heart interprets the emotions of the other organs.

The end result in TCM is that a healthy heart will bring about a healthy and happy person. An unhealthy heart will bring about a less than happy and healthy person.

Huh? So, a few herbs and little exercise and all will be well in the world? What am I missing because it doesn’t always work? I don’t understand how or why the heart interprets all the emotions for the other organs. The explanation offered in my theory books was too shallow and lacking any real meat for me to grab onto.

From archeological evidence, much of theory started really gaining ground in the late Eastern Zhou and Warring States period (770-256 BC). The political environment of the time created a unique value in philosophy and thought. During this period, we have the first great philosopher, Confucius. Later Mencius, Moazi, Zhuangzi, Xunzi and others interpreted their world helping rulers find the most effective method of ruling. Part of ruling effectively was understanding the nature of human beings.

The lack of separation between philosophy, religion, science, astronomy, astrology, medicine, etc. supported an underlying foundation of universal order. If a “universal order” exists, than all things would follow similar guidelines. Xunzi was significant in professing a “universal order” or “dao”.

Xunzi talks about the individual. He states that every individual has a nature from “heaven”. This nature is expressed through each of the organs as a disposition. Each disposition has certain desires. All the organs are blinded by their desire except the heart. The heart has the ability for discernment. Conversely, even though the heart can discern situations, the heart does not have to discern.

What happens when the heart refuses to discern the “right” way? Each of us has desires. If we sat down at this moment and listed the things we wanted, we start to get an understanding of desire. Xunzi contends that desire without discernment leads to chaos. Understanding chaos can come from an example. When desiring a physical object, desire without discernment allows the individual to physically steal the items in order to fulfill desire. Those with some discernment work harder for money to buy the items. Yet, there is a twist here also. This can lead to the belief that it is o.k. to do anything to get money. Power, corruption, lies all equate to desire without discernment.

In a translation from David Shepherd Nivison (Professor Emeritus Stanford University sinologist 1923-2014) , Xunzi explains this dilemma, “Man is born with desires. If his desires are not satisfied for him, he cannot but seek some means to satisfy them himself. If there are no limits and degrees to his seeking, then he will inevitably fall to wrangling with other men…”

How do we avoid chaos? Xunzi suggests that we must train ourselves through deliberate action. This ability to train ourselves is through discernment and discernment comes from the heart. All men are selfish, and only through training our thought process and through our capacity for conscious intelligent thought can we choose the correct path. Thus, we avoid chaos.

By reading Xunzi thought process, I am able to get a more refined understanding of what may have been meant when TCM suggests that the heart interprets the emotions of the other organs. It’s not so much that heart interprets, but the heart enables us to take the emotion and discern a meaning. The organs are blinded by their desires and will seek their desires with no compunction. It is the heart which must translate their desires through a filter of conscious, intelligent thought called discernment.

A healthy heart can still allow for an unhappy life because discernment is not free. Discernment takes a conscious effort to find the “dao”. Although a healthy heart is necessary in order to find the “dao”, a healthy heart does not ensure “dao”. The emperor can easily allow one of the others to lead such as the liver also known as the “General” or the lungs known as the “Prime Minister” or the spleen known as “Granary Official”.

1. The term “Traditional Chinese Medicine” was first used in Communist China under Mao Tse’tung. The term was solely used in publications to English speaking countries and never in Chinese print. It can be inferred that terminology was a marketing strategy to introduce Chinese medicine as practiced in post-Communistic China which is very different from pre—Communistic China.

2. Maciocia Giovanni. (2005). The foundations of Chinese medicine, 2nd edition. Churchill Livingstone (China) p 109-110