Nurturing life through the body, heart, and spirit with the wisdom of Chinese medicine


A collection of notes on the topics of classical Chinese, medicine, and traditional culture.

This blog is a collection of ruminations, translations, and personal opinions by Sabine and some guest authors. Reflecting my own personality, some posts are academic, some clinical, and some personal, some are excerpts from existing books and some may become part of future books. Please leave comments with feedback, questions, constructive criticism, and differences of opinion as long as you argue your reasons for disagreement logically. Any personal attacks, uncivil remarks, or self-promoting comments will be deleted.

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On Judgment and Plain Old Mama -- and Papa -- Love

Painting of the Virgen de Guadalupe in my orchard in Talpa, NM, by Amy Cordova.

Painting of the Virgen de Guadalupe in my orchard in Talpa, NM, by Amy Cordova.



As a teacher at what I believe to be one of the best schools for Chinese medicine in the US, if not in the world, I have the honor and joy to cross paths with many amazing present and future practitioners: my teachers, colleagues, and students. Especially since we have started rolling out the doctorate program this year, we are very consciously cultivating “doctors” of this medicine in the highest sense of the term, in the tradition of semi-mythological figures like the Yellow Emperor and the Divine Farmer, and of course my personal hero, Sun Simiao. When discussing the classical writings, we spend a lot of time exploring the deeper meaning of concepts like yǎng shēng 養生 (“nurturing life”), which obviously implies a focus on preventative health, on zhì wèi bìng 治未病 (loosely translated, “treating disease before it arises), and on harmonizing the microcosm of the individual body with the social body and the macrocosmic body of the universe. This ideal is expressed in such personal actions as living in harmony with the seasons, eating local healthy foods, ideally even growing your own, being physically active, and in general creating a sustainable lifestyle that minimizes our negative impact on the world around us. As a former farmer, I have thought long and hard about food production, sustainability, and right livelihood, as well as about fertility in all meanings of this term, from reproduction to artistic creativity to mycorrhizae and biodynamic farming. So I have strong opinions, as do many of my students and colleagues. Nothing wrong with that, you might say, when it comes to disliking hummers or twinkies. Or is there? Where is the fine line that separates personal opinion from judgment?

To cite another example of the dangers of judgment in my own life, I teach classical Chinese gynecology and have again thought long and hard about how to support the female body and how to honor yīn and the feminine in what often feels like a very yáng culture. In my classes, we explore the importance of honoring and celebrating menstruation and all female reproductive processes, to mitigate the pressures of a cold modern capitalist society that often aims at maximum productivity at the expense of other values. As much as we all  love gender equality, the detrimental effects of this attitude on women’s health are well known. So in class we discuss menstruation as a beautiful manifestation of the balance of qì and blood and of yīn and yáng, and of a physical abundance that requires the harmonic interplay of all five organ systems in the body. From the perspective of Chinese medicine, a lack of or irregular or painful menstrual flow is an important warning sign that this balance is thrown off, that a particular female body is lacking this abundance of blood and fluids that it is naturally designed to produce from the age of 14 on. As such, the current biomedical practice of suppressing menstruation hormonally, whether for the treatment of menstrual disorders, to maximize athletic performance, or for the sake of pure convenience, appears risky and potentially quite harmful, with a high chance of negative long-term effects that we do not fully understand or appreciate yet. Again, where is that fine line between personal opinion and judgment when we interact with women who choose to suppress their menstruation, whether as friends, family, or patients? To open an even deeper and more explosive can of worms, where do we each stand with regards to fertility and potentially invasive biomedical fertility treatments? How can we be of service with people who are desperate to have children when our own medical paradigm promotes listening to the body and its limitations? How do we support intersex and transgender people who might see their female body and its natural processes not as a blessing but as an obstacle that they need to remove in a society that often is still unable to accept anything but binary sexes and genders? The deeper I look inside myself, the more I feel the need to question much of what comes out of my mouth on any given day. 
Whether as teachers or doctors or students or friends, judgment can get in the way of being of service, in my experience. I have recently been at both the giving and the receiving ends of judgment, and neither has been pleasant or helpful. In classical Chinese medicine, much emphasis is placed on personal cultivation and responsibility in the name of harmonizing the microcosm of the human body with the macrocosm. We want to believe in the power of our medicine, for personal and professional reasons. What is the meaning of “dis-ease” when we truly see humans as a unified and interconnected whole of body, mind, and spirit, when ancestral miasms, karma, or toxins from emotional responses to the environment are pathogenic factors equal, if not more powerful, than physical causes like germs or environmental pollution? How can we best be of service to others in healing their “dis-ease” without avoiding judgment? 

There are times when we all just need the empathic presence of a healing other, whether it be a doctor or friend or teacher or parent, to help us ease the strain on our body with a little outside intervention. This might take the form of tuning forks, herbs, a bowl of soup, a kind word, a walk in the woods, or just a silent loving presence for an instant. In moments of vulnerability, pain, and openness, receiving judgment instead of love, however well intentioned and “true” from the other person’s perspective that judgment may be, can literally push a suffering person over the edge. I believe that we live in a society full of deeply traumatized people because of the way in which we raise our children: Boys are told not to cry and girls to stick it out; children are put in front of TVs, computers, and other cold screens for hours each day; babies are bottle-fed, placed in cribs, raised in daycare centers, and pushed around in strollers instead of being carried in their parents’ arms. While we have perfected shiatsu massage chairs and electric blankets, our modern lifestyle makes less and less room for plain old mama – and papa – love. 

Being German, I have a unique and often strained relationship with Metal, among the Five Elements, or “agents,” as I like to call them. I don’t wear jewelry for a reason. On the one hand, I appreciate the clarity of my strong sense of right and wrong, expressed in the Chinese virtue of 義, which is usually translated as “justice” or “righteousness.” I like to think of it as the cutting sword of judgment. I am forever grateful to my parents for having instilled in me a stern sense of ethics, even though it makes life a bit complicated, such as when it would be so much easier to lie to the customs officer that no, I only have 5 bars of chocolate in my luggage. But in my role as a teacher and parent and friend who wants to be of service to the people around me, I am keenly aware of the dangers of my sword. So I personally try to cultivate loving kindness.

I conclude this blog, already much longer than anticipated, with a few brief quotes from my book Twelve Characters: A Transmission of Wang Fengyi’s Teachings that explains Wang Fengyi’s understanding of metal as it manifests in human nature.

"The lung is associated with Metal. Geng Metal is yang Metal, and xin Metal is yin Metal. People with an Inner Nature of yang Metal have a clear sense of justice, are excellent communicators, and are forthright, lively, nimble, and decisive. People with an Inner Nature of yin Metal are ruthless, jealous, hypocritical, and contentious. With saccharine words and an ingratiating demeanor, they hide knives behind their smiles. People with an Inner Nature of yin Metal often suffer from an unfortunate Destiny. They love to be irritated, but being irritated damages the lung. So they suffer from panting and cough, pulmonary tuberculosis and spitting blood, and the various conditions associated with the lung channel. If you want to cure their illness, ask them to cultivate Radiance of Sound and Light (xiangliang), to uproot the yin and seek out the yang. If they want to nurture their qi, they must look for the positive in others and abstain from greed for the lower things in life. Righteousness is able to nurture the lung, and if they can persist in their actions, over time their original emotions will return to their initial condition.

Originally, humans have a Heart that is in a state of utter brightness, as well as an Inner Nature that is also in a state of utter divinity. When the Heart engenders morally wrong thinking, this immediately leads the original Inner Nature astray and results in darkness. An upright Heart and fulfilled spirit mean that brightness illuminates everything, penetrating the finest cracks in all directions. 

Yang Metal in the Realm of the Heart manifests in the ability seek out the positive aspects in others and in satisfying interactions with others, while yin Metal manifests in argumentativeness and separateness, jealousy and brooding, and loving to be irritated. 

In all cases, we simply reap what we sow, and there is no place or reason at all for blaming others. Once we comprehend this truth, we know that we are the ones who make it possible for ourselves to ascend to Heaven. Otherwise we impel ourselves to descend into hell. The ancients therefore said: “Discuss the Inner Nature with the sages on high, and discuss the doctrine of karmic cause and effect with the fools below.” Once you have studied the Five Elements in the Realm of the Heart to the point where you comprehend them, you will always deal with things from their yang aspect. This in itself will cause the yang to wax and the yin to wane, which is precisely the meaning of “uprooting the yin and seeking out the yang.”