By Ben Veal
The lungs (fei) are one of the easiest organs to compare across modern physiology and traditional Chinese medicine. They are considered to have similar functions, with a few extra energetic aspects discussed from the Chinese medical perspective.
Both consider the lungs to be the organ that controls respiration, governing the breath. However, within Chinese medicine, this also encompasses the inhalation and exhalation of qi, alongside the combining of environmental qi to create a beneficial form for the body. Once this had been created, the lungs also controlled its dissemination throughout the body. Within TCM, there are the emotional and spiritual aspects of the lungs, which provide a physical root for the po, or corporeal soul, and are governed by the emotions of sadness or grief.
In Chinese medicine, the main functions of the lungs are:
- ruling qi and governing respiration
- controlling the channels and blood vessels
- regulating the water passages
- expressing the emotions of grief, sadness and integrity
- providing an energetic root for the po (or corporeal soul)
- controlling the skin
- opening into the nose
The lungs were often called the canopy of the zangfu (the vital organs). As is common within the Chinese language, this description is multi-layered. In a purely literal sense, the lungs are located at the top of the thorax, and therefore are like a canopy over the other major organs. However, as one of the most sensitive organs to environmental factors, the lungs can be considered a canopy sheltering the deeper organs, by reacting to invasive pathogens, allowing treatment before they are able to spread deeper.
This sensitivity is due in no small part to the connections the lung has to the nose, skin and its qimen (energy gates). The qimen are located in the pores of the skin, and allow qi to pass out of, and into the body with respiration. This allows an energetic exchange between the individual and the wider energetic environment. The challenge with this is that it can allow energetic information that is not beneficial to the body to enter; commonly these are classed as the pathogenic factors. Some schools will name them evil winds or evil qi—personally, I feel this complicates matters as the energy is not inherently evil, just not particularly good for people! To prevent this, the body produces a guardian qi (weiqi), which is also governed in part by the lungs and circulates in the skin to repel any pathogenic invasion.
The connection between respiration and movement of qi is crucial to the internal arts and explains why every internal tradition, no matter where it stems from, will have several breathing practices as an integral part of its training.
The classification of the lungs in the various schools of Chinese medicine are as follows:
- zangfu: zang
- five elements: metal
- heavenly stem: xin
- earthly branch: yin
The yin of the lungs is the energetic foundation for their physical structure. The lungs are often quoted as disliking dryness; therefore, any weakness in the lung yin can lead to pathology of a hot and dry nature. This is also in part due to the lungs governance of the water passages in conjunction with the kidneys.
The yang or qi aspect of the lungs is mostly concerned with dissemination. In modern biomedical models, the lungs draw in oxygen and allow its exchange with carbon dioxide into the bloodstream; this is then transported throughout the body. Similarly, in TCM, the lungs draw in vital qi from the air, which is used in conjunction with qi from food to create various forms that the body can utilise.
The lungs are also responsible for various movements of qi, jinye (body fluids) and water around the body. Principal movements include sending qi down to the heart and kidneys. The movement of qi to the heart, coupled with the functions of zhongqi in governing the chest explain the importance of the lungs in terms of heart rhythm.
The aspect of human consciousness that is rooted in the lungs, is known as the po, or corporeal soul. This aspect of consciousness comes from the earth or yin and could be classed as the yin soul. It is also the part of consciousness that breaks up and returns to the earth upon death. Unlike the hun, which persists beyond death into subsequent life (in Daoist thought!), the po is very much mortal. Its awareness of its mortality gives the po a tendency towards the feelings of sadness and melancholy. This is partly why these emotions affect and can be generated by the lungs.
The po (classically represented as seven spirits) is responsible for an individual’s interaction with the material world. The modern scientific mindset could be described as a direct result of po thought. If the po gains too strong a hold on consciousness, this can lead to an over-attachment to the material physical world and its sensations. Often, this creates to addictive behaviours, which is why any classical treatment of addiction will often include the lungs within a prescription.
About the Author: Ben has a private acupuncture practice in Bristol. He spends time training the Daoist arts and Chinese medicine with Lotus Nei Gong courses in the United Kingdom. Visit Ben’s site at www.thewitchdoctors.co.uk.