Holly Christiansen, L.Ac.
Are You Feeling the Love?
Being so close to Valentine’s Day, the western day of love, let’s explore how our experience of love relates to our health (a loaded term, I know, but bare with me).
In terms of Chinese Medical theory, the heart is the king or emperor of all the organs and is associated with the element of fire. Fire creates the spark of life and heat generates energy for activity. The heart is associated with mental activity, consciousness, thoughts, feelings, memories, and sleep. Prior to modern scientific explorations of the body, many traditions viewed the heart as the home of the spirit, soul, love, and thought. This isn’t meant in a particularly religious sense, but is rather a limitation of vocabulary, translation, and the meaning of the words we use.
The spirit housed in the heart is called shen in TCM. Shen is visible to anyone with the gift of sight: it blossoms in the face and eyes. It’s the glow, or lack thereof that a person has. It can manifest as a dullness in the face or eyes. Or, it can be a gleam or “spark” in ones eyes. Since the heart houses shen and relates to sleep, it’s easy to see why a restless night can leave the face and eyes appearing life-less and tired. It’s also why we can often see depression or sadness on a person’s face. Concurrently, being well-rested or participating in an activity we LOVE creates a glow-y complexion and sparkly eyes.
It’s remarkable to this day we still use images of hearts to represent love and being “heartbroken” has everything to do with the termination of love. I find it useful to look at this as more than just romantic expressions of love — though it’s a wonderful thing too! We hear cliched terms: “All you need is love” and “Love is All” and “Love is Everything”. I don’t know about you, but this creates an image in my mind of people walking around, acting like PollyAnna 24/7. Don’t get me wrong; if this is your true set-point, it’s not incorrect. I just don’t believe people need to be blissed-out or positive 100% of the time to experience love and to feel contented. That’s not really the point.
Bringing shen back into the picture, it provides the physical body with the capability to connect to the unconditional love of the universe. In Daoism, this is called “the Dao”. If you prefer a different term, spiritual/religious/scientific connotation here, that’s completely fine! This connection is achieved through the heart, not the mind. Our thoughts do effect our health, but it’s the feelings and sensations accompanying the thoughts that often impact the physical body. We can have an angry or sad thought, but if we allow it to exist without judging or criticizing it, it has the opportunity to flow through us, without getting “stuck”. This is often easier said than done; it’s an on-going practice!
The heart also gives humans a direct connection to nature. If there is one thing all of us can agree on (I hope!) it’s that nature is our home and we are a part of it. Unconditional love is the spark of energy and fire that runs through and nourishes all living things. Without it, they die, whether plant or animal. For myself and many others, being in nature is the ultimate healer. Yes, some prefer the ocean to the mountains, some forests over the desert, but the benefits are similar.
A king or emperor’s responsibility traditionally was to follow nature, lead their people, and to be content. One might say, “happy”, but I find that word often creates guilt. As though to say, if we are not “happy” 100% of the time, we are going against the natural flow. I would suggest more gently that creating more opportunities within us for contentedness creates more physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional health. Sometimes our life circumstances are such that we are not necessarily experiencing “happiness”, but is it possible to still feel content? What factors do we have control over to look forward to to create flow?
If we lead with our heart/love, we create more ease. A peaceful, contented heart allows us to go with the flow. It creates doing by non-doing. These may be tasks or skills that we are innately good at. It may be things we feel like are our calling. It’s also responsible for the moments when we are doing, but we completely lose track of time and get into the zone. This can be through art, exercise, prayer, meditation, laughing, having a deep conversation. The situations are endless! I believe this is also why we “love” certain activities or people; they allow us to flow much more easily than others.
The heart is our main processing and distribution center. It serves as the gathering place where consciousness, mind, energy, feelings and emotions of the body must pass through and radiate outward from. While exercising has various physical health benefits for the heart muscle, it’s not the only way to benefit heart health. Meditation, breath-work, and prayer are the traditional ways to calm the mind, the body, and benefit the heart by removing the barriers to love flowing through us.
“The Heart is beyond the mind. While it lives in this physical reality, this aspect of our being is connected to and part of oneness… the Heart is connected to the mystery of life.” From Digesting the Universe, by Nan Lu.