Opening Exercise: Taking in Nourishment
Start by taking a few deep breaths in. Rest your hands on your abdomen just above your belly button.
As you breathe, try to recall the experience the sensation of eating a wonderful meal you’ve eaten recently – where you took your time and felt safe, supported, and nourished.
Recall the experience of what it felt like to take in that nourishment: what you were able to see (the setting you were in, the people you were with, the appearance of the food, what you were watching on TV), the sounds you heard, the smells that came from this delicious meal.
Start to imagine the feeling of eating the food. Imagine its texture, and the sensation of chewing and swallowing. Next, see if you can recall the taste – not only the texture and the sensation of the food, but way it tasted and smelled. Take a few deep breaths, and allow yourself to recall the experience of all five senses, as well as your emotions as you were eating this wonderful meal.
How did the sensations in the rest of your body start to shift as you continued eating this wonderful meal? How do you feel after doing this? How is this different from rushing through a meal or eating without noticing? (Amazingly, for some of us the experience of remembering this deep nourishment may actually be more nourishing than eating a meal!)
Meet your Spleen*
This exercise is a way to connect your own experiences with today’s topic: the emotion of worry, which is tied to the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) organ system of the Spleen* as well as the Earth element.
Worry is often referred to as rumination, which has an interesting word connection: rumination is similar to ruminant, which are large mammals – such as cows – equipped with digestive systems built to break down very tough plant foods. Ruminants chew their food, swallow it, and repeatedly regurgitate it into another stomach in order to fully digest their food.
There are lots of English idioms connecting food and digestion to thinking and worrying (for example, “let me chew on that,” or “I need to digest this”). These connections illustrate the process of assimilating raw material – information, life experiences, knowledge, etc. – and turning them into wisdom.
*Spleen is capitalized here to denote the TCM interpretation of the organ: not just the physical spleen itself, but the functional system it represents.
The Spleen Transforms both Food and Experiences
In TCM, the Spleen controls the dual function of turning food into energy (qi), and turning our life experiences into wisdom. According to TCM, these processes – as well as the Spleen – are connected to the Earth element.
The Earth element and Spleen are all about harmony and peacemaking. The Earth element is also unique because it contains all the other elements (in the earth, we have fire, water, metal, and wood). The Spleen’s great strength is the ability to transform things. It enables people to keep what they need while letting go of what they don’t need. When we think about the idea of worry, or the Earth element and Spleen being out of balance, oftentimes we’re missing the strength of the Spleen’s transformative power.
For example, when a problem you’re worrying about goes through a process of transformation, on the other side of that transformation your thoughts and perceptions about that problem are completely different. On a physical and digestive level, Instead of having undigested food in your stool (as can happen with Spleen deficiencies), a happily-functioning Spleen allows you to fully digest and assimilate the nourishment of the food you eat.
Spleen deficiencies, by contrast, tend to involve chewing on the same ideas over and over with no resolution – instead of taking a stand, making a decision, moving on to something new, or leveraging those worries to translate into action.
How to Support your Spleen
To start, let’s look at the TCM creation cycle: Earth creates Metal, which is associated with grief. Sometimes we remain in a state of worry and inaction because we’re afraid to let go of potential outcomes. We’re afraid to grieve what we’ll lose by moving forward. In a sense, there’s a little bit of a death in each decision: when you choose one option over another, there’s always a path not taken.
When worry and rumination are really plaguing us, one of the best ways to clear the air is to make decisions and put them into practice in the real world. There may be a sense of loss over the path not taken, but making decisions can actually be relieving and liberating – after all, it’s those decisions that enable us to move forward.
Movement and Rest Rejuvenate the Spleen
On a physical level, it helps to remember that the Spleen’s function is about transformation. However, for many of us, the pace of life is intensely frenetic – and yet, we spend huge portions of our day sitting. This is a perfect recipe for Spleen depletion and distress. This happens two ways: first, our digestive and metabolic capacity are affected by movement, and the more we sit, the more the function of the Spleen becomes impaired.
Second, the pace of modern life is, for most people, extraordinarily hectic. Inhaling food while working, in the car, or just generally while distracted or on the run can keep us from being genuinely nourished by the food we’re eating.That’s where the opening exercise today – and the attention on taking in nourishment – really comes into play.
Use Your Senses to Receive
Some of the worry, and that sense of being caught up in our heads, has to do with a real degree of sensual deprivation. The information flowing to our brains from our senses – the smells, the sights, the feelings, the sounds associated with each meal – just isn’t being taken in. We could be getting more nourishment from the same foods, time with friends, and beautiful scenery if we just took time to slow down really absorb the sensory information.
In this way, we’d do well to be more like the Earth: fully receiving the things we experience – good or bad – and absorbing and assimilating those experiences. If we fully feel and take those in, there’s less need to keep ruminating.
With that in mind, one of the best things anyone can do is to focus on taking things in more fully, and allowing the grief associated with making a decision – and letting go of some things we want to hold on to – to bring us relief. After all, taking action and making decisions can be exciting too.
Herbs & Lifestyle Practices
Here are some herbs and tools that are good for Spleen support:
- Cinnamon has a fabulous effect on blood sugar, it’s a warming spice, and it supports Spleen in its efforts to transform and digest.
- Ginger is also a warming digestive remedy, which helps to optimize the function of the Spleen.
- Singing has a powerful effect on the vagus nerve (this is the nerve that communicates with your viscera and the survival centers of your brain). By singing after a meal, we’re communicating to ourselves that things are ok and that we’re safe. This, in turn, helps our bodies rest and digest.
- Walking: Your post-meal walks don’t have to be fast! Simply taking 100 steps after a meal helps to direct blood sugar into muscles instead of needing to store it as fat, and it helps the body more effectively transform food into energy.
- Take the time to really take in and absorb Earth’s nourishment, and to cultivate the transformative energy of the Spleen.
Next week we’ll discuss the last of the Five Elements of TCM: Metal, which is associated with grief.