Grief and the lungs
I have just made a very short trip to France to attend to my father’s funeral. Unfortunately, I caught a respiratory infection as soon as I landed, and I spent most of my time over there in bed.
This gave me plenty of time to experience first hand the intimate connection between our physical health and our emotions. While Western medicine only recently acknowledged that stress had a negative effect on our immunity, most forms of traditional medicine around the world have always been holistic concepts, where the mind, the spirit , and the body are regarded as one.
The connection between emotions and organs is especially strong in Traditional Chinese Medicine. In that medical framework, specific emotions have a negative effect on specific organs. Anger affects the liver, worry or overthinking affects the spleen, fear affects the kidney and sadness, and grief affects the lungs.
According to the ancient medical texts, the lung organ is “ the official that receives pure Qi from the heavens”. Every time we breathe in, we absorb oxygen (pure Qi) into our body, before breathing out the waste product, which is carbon dioxide. Plants are our most valuable companions because they possess the unique ability to reverse that process, absorbing carbon dioxide to transform it into oxygen.
The lung is our most superficial organ, its energy circulates just under the skin. Toxic substances are absorbed and eliminated through the skin, and many dermatological conditions such as acne, dermatitis or psoriasis, are therefore often treated with lung acupuncture points
The lung is the first organ to be affected by external conditions. We feel the cold through our skin, and develop breathing problems when our immunity is down. When we look at the five elements (wood /fire/ earth /metal/ water) and their correspondences with the different seasons, the metal element (lung/ large intestine) is associated with autumn, which is a transition period, between summer and winter. In autumn, the weather cools down, the days shortens, the leaves turn yellow before falling into the soil where they will decompose to generate new growth.
Autumn is a time for letting go, for moving into a new phase. According to the Chinese clock, each organ follows a two-hour tidal cycle when its energy is at its peak, followed by another cycle, twelve hours later, where it is at its weakest. The optimum time for the lung is between 3 am and 5 am. The rise of the new day has traditionally been a special time for cleansing, for inspiration, and rebirth. Birds sing at dawn to express their joy at being granted another day to live. Lung time has been a spiritual period for meditation, and prayer in ashram and monasteries since the birth of time.
The fresh air we breathe stimulates the mind, as well as the body, and the concept of the breath as a fundamental form of energy is an integral part of Yogic and Ayurveda meditation, as well as of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The ancient Greeks used to call the soul “the vital breath “, which illustrate that connection between the lungs and our emotional health.
When the lung energy is in harmony, we are able to breathe in fresh new ideas, and absorb new experiences, as well as being able to breathe out and expel the old prejudices, and assumptions, which poison our mind. Unfortunately, the lungs are directly affected by emotions of sadness and grief, which constrain its feelings and restrict its movement. Being unable to express these emotions or being overwhelmed by them causes the lungs to weaken. Our immunity goes down, and we can easily develop respiratory problems like I did when my father passed away a few weeks ago.
Grief is a necessary painful process. It is a transitional period of acceptance that one part of our life has changed, that a person close to us is forever gone. It is a confronting time because we are forced to reflect on our past behavior and relationship with that person. When the deceased is one of our parent, or sibling, emotional scars and accumulated guilt sometimes come to the surface. Some past conflicts might never be resolved. It takes a lot of strength to be able to forgive not only the person we’ve lost but also ourselves. When the lung energy is too weak, this can manifest as a continual feeling of regret and nostalgia towards what might have been, and an underlying bitterness at the missed opportunities.
We forget that everything is temporary and that nature and life follow a continual process of birth, growth, decay, and death. In Buddhism, unhappiness is a reflection of our inability to let go. Like the birds singing to celebrate being alive, we are taught that every new day is a fresh beginning. It brings a feeling of gratitude and great spiritual comfort knowing that we are part of something eternal which is much bigger than us.
Life begins with our first breath, and by learning to control that form of energy we can discover ourselves, and develop respect and deep connection with others.
Olivier Lejus MHSc.BHSc. is a registered acupuncturist practicing in Sydney, Australia.