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Classical Five-Element Acupuncture

By Neil Gumenick, MAc (UK), LAc, Dipl. Ac

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The Lung Official

The Lung is known as the "Official Who Receives the Pure Chi From the Heavens." The act of breathing in, known as inspiration, brings oxygen into the body from the atmosphere. Each exhalation or expiration removes and releases carbon dioxide, a waste product of the body, into the atmosphere. This exchange of gases is essentially a process of taking in the new and discarding the old – which is precisely the function of the metal element – the lung and its brother official, the large intestine.

We replenish our vital energy by the food and drink we consume, as well as the air we breathe. While we could survive weeks without food and days without water, we could not survive without air for more than mere minutes.

In Classical Five-Element Acupuncture, assessing odor, color, sound, and emotion determines the patient's causative factor element (CF), the weak link in the system, which becomes the focus of treatment. Everyone is born with or develops in the formative years of life, a primary elemental imbalance in one of the five elements and its associated organs/functions, which are called "officials." It is in the CF element that the source of imbalance originates. Once the CF is established, the imbalance invariably spreads to affect all of the other elements - via the sheng (or "creative"), and the k'e (or "controlling") cycles. Just as surely, an imbalanced lung official, unable to infuse the body with proper oxygenation, will cause every organ and system to suffer.

Thus, symptoms can show up anywhere. It is precisely for these reasons that, in this system, we do not place our primary focus on symptoms, which are seen merely as the expressions – distress signals of the imbalance – not necessarily the cause.

In the case of a metal CF, the patient's predominant odor will be rotten - the smell of excrement, rotting meat, a garbage bin in which perishable food has been deposited. The facial color will be white – best observed on the skin just lateral to the eyes. The sound of the voice will be weeping – the sound made in the presence of loss or separation. The emotion will be grief, expressed inappropriately – either by its excess or lack.

The lungs are a pair of spongy organs situated in the thoracic cavity. Their main function is to oxygenate venous blood by the air drawn through the windpipe (trachea) into its tubular branches (bronchi), which divide into smaller branches, ending in microscopic air sacs (alveoli). In the alveoli, oxygen is absorbed into the blood. The oxygen is carried by the red blood cells throughout the body. Oxygen is essential for every cellular process. Carbon dioxide, a waste product of metabolism in animals, travels from the blood to the alveoli to be released by exhalation. Plants, in turn, "inhale" carbon dioxide to metabolize into energy through the process of photosynthesis, and "exhale" oxygen.

When the lung is physically imbalanced, its functions of drawing breath, dispersing and descending of energy and body fluids may be impaired. Thus, we may find symptoms such as coughing, accumulation of phlegm, asthma, bronchitis, wheezing, and emphysema to name a few. The skin, also an organ of respiration, is called the "third lung." The skin is constantly interacting with and exchanging substances with our exterior surroundings. Thus, the skin is said to "breathe." Toxic substances are eliminated via the skin, and may also be absorbed. Skin diseases such as acne, eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis may point to imbalance in the lung official.

When healthy, the lung official infuses every part of the body with pure, life-giving qi, which we feel as physical vitality.

Autumn, the season of metal, is a time of letting go of the old and taking in the new. The air in autumn takes on a new crispness. Waking up on a brisk fall day and filling our lungs with clean, cool autumn air is a breath of inspiration indeed. It is no accident that in ashrams and monasteries practitioners often wake at 3 a.m. (peak time for the lung, according to the Chinese 24-hour clock) to do breathing and meditation exercises – to be most receptive to the inspiration, cleansing, and transforming power of the purest and most refined qi.

In Autumn, leaves turn color and drop. The old leaves go back to the earth, enriching it to promote the coming of new leaves and, in time, a new harvest. Metal also gives value to the earth with the precious minerals and trace elements that are formed within it. Nature instructs us about our own cycles of creating and letting go. Trees in autumn don't stubbornly hold onto their leaves because they might need them next year. Yet, many of us defy the cycle and hold onto what we've produced or collected - those decayed leaves, that old negativity.

Without the ability to take in new and fresh, it is difficult to let go of the old. We tend to cling to the past. Conversely, without letting go of the old, stale waste, anything new and fresh will become tainted and polluted. Nothing new can truly enter.

Just as metal gives richness and value to the earth, it also grants us our sense of self worth. The air we breathe inspires the mind, as well as the body. Proper functioning of the lung official allows us to receive more than mere physical oxygenation. It allows us to absorb new experiences, fresh ideas, concepts, and to feel mentally inspired. Consider the spontaneous, innocent curiosity of a child. Everything is a fascinating exploration, a new discovery - full of wonder, unhindered by the toxic clutter of the past.

When metal is healthy, it gives quality and essential goodness to every mental function. We make quality plans and decisions; we hold to standards of quality in what we consume, in how we honor and care for our bodies, in how we attend to our intellectual life, with whom we choose to interact, in the work we choose to do and the boundaries we set and uphold. Such a healthy mind orients us to bring forth our very best, to be of service to others, and to fully express our unique gifts, talents, and abilities.

An imbalanced lung official, at the mental level, can manifest as a mind that is full of old judgments, assumptions, beliefs, prejudices, stubborn positions and opinions - rigid, closed, and inflexible. Anything new that is presented is often dismissed as unworthy, essentially a "load of crap." Such a mind is often dirty and cynical, seeing the bad in everything, envisioning the worst possible outcomes.

Lacking a sense of self worth, the lung-imbalanced person tends to project this perception outward viewing others and the outer world at large, as unworthy, inferior, and undeserving of respect. There is often a cutting, dismissive sarcasm and an air of arrogant superiority present in such people. Lacking self worth internally, the lung-imbalanced person may well crave constant acknowledgement, admiration, and respect from others. He may collect things that outwardly demonstrate quality and accomplishment. Identifying his worth with material things, he may become preoccupied with over-striving for such things as the "perfect" appearance, money, power, prestige, titles, awards, trophies (including "trophy" relationships), straight "A's, insignias of rank, flashy jewelry, cars, houses, and impressive letters after his name. However, as it all stems from an inner sense of worthlessness, the cravings will never be filled by external sources.

In the other extreme, lung-imbalanced people may reject all symbols of value, feeling that since they and everything outside of them are worthless anyway, why bother with self-care, cleanliness, behaving decently, or self-improvement? Thus, these may be some of the dirtiest, most uncivilized people we will encounter.

The emotion associated with the metal element is grief, which perhaps, illustrates the cause of the deepest suffering of the metal-imbalanced patient. When we speak of spiritual suffering or treatment of the spirit level, we do not imply that the spirit itself suffers or requires treatment. Spirit itself is pure consciousness and being composed of nothing but it's self, can neither be balanced or imbalanced. It is innately perfect, eternal, and unchanging – a divine gift, which cannot be improved. It is what allows us to feel love, compassion and respect for others, recognizing that whatever their process, the same core divinity resides in them as in ourselves. However, a person's perception of that spirit can indeed be compromised. This is what is meant when we speak of treating the spirit level.

Grief is a normal, necessary and healthy emotion when appropriately expressed. We all inevitably experience separation and loss, and we grieve at those times. Grief cleanses us of what is past or no longer needed in our lives. Every religious or mystical tradition has specific processes, ceremonies, and rituals to help the bereaved fully process the grief of the loss of loved ones, honor their memories, and ultimately return to the flow of life. When the energy of metal is blocked or imbalanced, the expression of grief likewise becomes imbalanced and inappropriate. It may be excessive and ongoing – long after the loss has occurred. It may manifest as a continual feeling of regret, stuck in grief over what might have been - all the missed opportunities, sadly viewing life as through a rear view mirror. In the other extreme, grief – even when it should be present - may be strangely absent, unable to be accessed. We call this "lack of grief." In either case, the past remains unprocessed, and the heaviness of its pain is still carried and buried within.

Difficult as it is for a metal-imbalanced person to process grief over material losses, the deepest and bitterest grief is the perceived loss of his or her true essential nature - the internal Spiritual connection. Only the spirit has real and lasting value, which is completely independent of external processes. It is the lung official that grants us the ability to perceive that inspired connection. When we perceive the divine within ourselves, there is nothing about which to grieve, nothing to prove or fear, and nothing lacking. There is a sense of awe and gratitude for life, knowing that we are a part of something eternal - so much bigger than our individual selves. Connected in this way, we know our true worth with certainty. We have true self-respect and respect for others. Without that connection, life seems empty, void of quality and purpose. Disconnected, we may manifest a quiet and immobile resignation, as if to say, "Why bother?" At the other extreme, we may chase after gurus, religions, and teachers in a desperate quest to fill the spiritual void, but the quests will be in vain as long as the internal imbalance exists: until the lung official is able to receive the pure qi from the heavens.

Each of the 11 points on the Lung meridian serves to help this official achieve health and harmony in performing its vital functions. Each has a name, translated from the Chinese characters, which suggests the unique gifts it can bring to the patient in need. (For examples of points on this meridian, see "Using the Spirits of the Points: The Lung Official," Acupuncture Today, March, 2007, Vol. 08, Issue 03.)

The following questions are useful for self-observation and can be appropriately modified to inquire as to the state of a patient's lung official, particularly at the mental and spirit levels. While any symptom can come from a primary imbalance in any element, as imbalance spreads from one element to the next, if you suspect a problem in a patient's metal element and specifically with the lung official, here are some questions to consider in assessing its state:

  1. When have you felt inspired or awestruck?
  2. Who do you respect and admire and why?
  3. What do you need to grieve about?
  4. With what material objects have you identified your self worth?
  5. How important are titles to you?
  6. When have you been so intimidated by another that you couldn't speak?
  7. When have you tried to impress others by your flashy clothes, car, or house?
  8. When have you felt superior and arrogantly dismissed another person?
  9. When have you tried to intimidate others by your flaunting your intelligence?
  10. What is truly unique and special about you?

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