Empty Your Cup

This is a passage I really like from the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones:

Nan-in, a Japanese Zen master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.  Nan-in served tea.  He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.  The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself.  “It is overfull.  No more will go in!”  “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations.  How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

In Chinese Medicine, each emotion affects a different organ.  It is the normal state of being human to experience a steady flow of thoughts and emotions.  However, if a thought or emotion becomes excessive, such as after a traumatic event, it’s like an overflowing cup.  You become mired and stuck in an unhealthy pattern.  Not just your mind, but also your body.

For example, if your anger-impatience-frustration cup is overflowing, it stagnates the Qi in your Liver.  You might develop Liver meridian symptoms, affecting (for example) your eyes, neck (thyroid) breasts or ovaries/testicles.  If you are constantly worried and can’t shut off your thinking (or, if your boundaries are weak, and you get overly affected by the moods and emotions of those around you) then, your Spleen and Pancreas are weak.  You might develop Spleen problems such as digestive problems or weight problems.  If your cup of fear runneth over—if you are being controlled by conscious or unconscious fears, your Kidneys and Bladder may become impaired.  Repressed grief often blocks the Qi of the Lung and Large Intestine.  It’s as if you can’t take in the new (breathe in) or let go of the past (stools).  All chronic stuck emotions eventually affect the Heart. 

The organ-emotion connection works both ways.  Stuck emotions can lead to physical problems and physical problems can just as often lead to emotional problems.  For example, an erratic or improper diet can lead to imbalances in the Spleen, Liver and Intestines.  People with poor dietary habits often wind up feeling depressed, lethargic or irritable.

Sometimes I encounter patients in my practice with both physical and emotional symptoms who ask me, “is this all in my head”?  As you can see from the previous paragraphs, my sincere answer is “No, this is not all in your head”.  It’s in you Liver, Spleen, Lungs, Heart, and Kidneys.  It’s in your meridians.  It’s in your muscles, bone marrow and nerves.  It’s in your Qi.  Acupuncture and shiatsu open up the meridians that flow through the blocked organs, allowing their associated emotions to be released (i.e. “emptying the cup”).  Both the physical and emotional symptoms improve simultaneously.  It is truly mind-body medicine.  When you feel better in both your body and mind, you have more Qi (life force) and willpower available to you.  It then becomes easier for you to eat better, exercise more, make clearer decisions, and take more positive steps to further improve your life.

Here are links to a fascinating 4-part documentary on organ transplant cellular memory.  In the documentary, we meet several heart transplant recipients who have acquired the personality traits, food preferences, talents, interests and even memories of their deceased organ donors.  Several research scientists who share an interest in cellular memory are interviewed.  The hypothesis of cellular memory is that memory is distributed throughout the entire nervous system—not just in the brain.  Any set of cells with feedback networks (for example, organs such as the heart) work similarly to the neurons in the brain in storing memories.  Hence, the brain does not have an exclusive role in information processing.  Once again, Chinese medicine has “known” something about human beings that Western medicine is just beginning to investigate.





Ayurvedic Medicine Part IV: How to Get Healthy if You’re a “Kapha”

In Part I of this series on Ayurvedic Medicine, I described the different constitutional types: Vata, Pitta and Kapha.  In Parts II and III, I gave lifestyle recommendations for Vatas and Pittas.  So now, what should you do if you are a Kapha?

Here are my recommendations for balancing your Kapha constitution, thereby making you less prone to illness:

The Kapha dosha is heavy, slimy (or phlegmmy), slow and dense.  Kapha people need to avoid excessively sweet, sour and salty foods (the standard American diet) and eat more bitter, pungent (spicy) and astringent foods.

In general, eat less and exercise more.  Avoid greasy and fried food and shun dairy products (because it produces phlegm).  Kaphas need grain less than Vatas and Pittas.  The best grains for Kapha are roasted buckwheat and millet.  Wheat should be avoided.

All vegetables are good for Kapha except potatoes and tomatoes.  Aim for at least 50% of your diet to be comprised of vegetables.  Suggestions:  Steamed broccoli, cauliflower, kale, carrots and onions.  Chicken soup with lots of celery, parsley and other vegetables.  Baked winter squash with nutmeg.  Beans or fish in light curry sauce. 

Fresh and dried fruit should be eaten in small amounts only. 

Foods should be dry roasted or baked with minimal added fats.

Limit red meat, nuts and soy.

Spicy food is good for Kapha.  Learn to use spices in your cooking as a salt replacement.  Sweets in general should be avoided.  A small amount of raw honey, taken alone or in tea, is okay.

Eat your heaviest meal midday and avoid excessive eating at night.  Kapha can handle occasionally 1-3 day fasts and “cleanses” better than Vata and Pitta.

Kapha tolerates coffee and black tea better than Vata and Pitta.

Kaphas require vigorous daily exercise.

When I treat Kapha patients, I tend to perform invigorating treatments that promote circulation and resolve phlegm and systemic dampness.  I utilize Chinese herbs that are spicy (pungent) and bitter in order to stoke the metabolism and promote the discharge and elimination of waste.

Note: As I mentioned in Part I of this series on Ayurvedic Medicine, many people are more than one constitutional type or “dosha”.  For example, you might be a Vata-Pitta, Vata-Kapha or Pitta-Kapha.  If this is the case, you need to tailor your diet/lifestyle so that it balances the dosha that is dominant within you at a given point in time.  So, be aware of the symptoms you are having.  In general, Vata is dominant in fall and early winter when it is cold, dry and windy.  Pitta is dominant when it is hot outside.  And, Kapha is dominant in late winter through early spring when it is cold and wet.