Using the Collaterals to Make the Unconscious Known
By Nicholas Sieben, LAc
The idea of transmission is very important in the Chinese medical classics. According to author Claude Larre, the ancient Chinese were highly interested in the connection between things.
Nothing was looked at as an isolated entity. Life is about process, how various states impact and transform into one another. It is not always a thing in itself that creates a problem in life, but the way it is communicating with the rest of the whole.
I've discussed in past articles ways in which various acupuncture channel systems (collaterals) transmit to one another. The Sinew Channels transmit to the Luo Vessels, the Luo to the Divergent Channels. The notion of a "collateral" in itself is an acknowledgment that the Primary Channels are always transferring energy, pathological and physiological, to other channel systems.
Philosophically, the Primary Channels can be seen as our primary day to day physiological experience as human beings. The Luo Vessels are manifestations of the challenges, fixations and insecurities we face in life. The Primary Channels will transmit its challenges to its Collaterals whenever possible.
The Luo Vessels conduct Ying (nourishing) qi, which is the fluid aspect of the body: blood and fluids. Blood is a mediumship which carries the Shen-spirit. The Shen is that which animates us, it is our intelligence and awareness.
It is important to understand the different qualities to the channel systems and the types of qi that they conduct. There is a different level of consciousness to issues that are circulating within the Luo Vessel channel system in relation to the Divergent Channels. The Divergent Channels conduct Wei (defensive) qi and Yuan (constitutional) qi, both of which are philosophically seen as relatively unconscious, instinctual energy formations. Wei and Yuan qi, and the connection made between them via the Divergent Channels, can be seen as something more mysterious than the "consciousness" Ying qi, almost like unconscious behavior patterning, but on a deep constitutional, personality level.
As a medical text, the Ling Shu emphasizes health of the spirit. Chapter 8 of the Ling Shu establishes the root of all disease as "spiritual" in nature. To effectively treat a person with acupuncture, says the book, one must focus on the spirit.
Chapter 54 of the Ling Shu discusses what the spirit is thought to be. The answer that is given is curious: spirit is more a process than an actual entity. The ultimate goal of the spirit is "completion," says the Ling Shu.
When the spirit is disturbed, this leads to a troubled state of being. Chapter 8 of the Ling Shu describes the process of becoming dispirited: "Xue [blood], Mai [vessels], Ying, qi, Jing [essence] and Shen [spirit], these are stored by the five Zang. By a succession of overflowings and total invasion they leave the Zang, then the Essences are lost; and Hun [the non-corporeal soul] and Po [the corporeal soul] are carried away in an uncontrollable agitation, will and intent become confused and disordered. Knowing-how and reflection abandon us."
According to the Ling Shu, it is the viscera of the body (the Zang organs) that store the precious humors of the body: the blood, vessels, fluids, essence, mental and spiritual attributes. The health and security of bodily structures like the blood, fluids and vessels are what support and "hold" the less solid aspects of the body: the qi and the spirits. When focusing on spiritual wellness, the Zang and the channels that support them become paramount.
Chapter 37 of the Nan Jing establishes the "orifices" (the upper sense portals and lower portals of elimination) as the "gates" into and out of the Zang organs. When the Zang become ill at ease, the portals close, becoming impassable. Later in the Nan Jing, in Chapter 44, a description of the alimentary canal of the digestive system is also described as a series of "gates" and "doors" that allow entry and exit into and out of the Zang. When the gates become impassable causing the Zang and Fu to become unable to communicate and exchange, the body risks entering a state described as "resistance and closure." The Nan Jing calls this a very serious condition, saying it has the potential to reduce a person's lifespan, disallowing them from living out "the years allotted [to them] by heaven." This can also be interpreted as meaning the person loses capacity to live out their "heavenly mandated" destiny.
According to Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de la Valle's translation of Ling Shu Chapter 8: "Knowing how," which is a natural state of the body in health, ensures "the maintenance of life." What they are referring to is not necessarily a mental state of knowledge, but a natural intuitive "knowing how" to function according to the laws of nature. The Ling Shu suggests it is through the blood vessels (the Mai) that this network of communication is established, suggesting a strong relationship between the Luo Vessels (thought to be blood vessels) and spiritual cultivation.
Chapter 11 of the Ling Shu also carries these themes. Before Chapter 11 introduces the trajectories of the Divergent Channels, it describes a person's natural connection and resonance with the "Dao of Heaven," the natural code for living in health and harmony with the world and oneself.
The Luo Vessels can be seen as the process by which the Zang organs cultivate wisdom. They allow the cultivation of insight and conscious awareness. The Divergent Channels are ways to restore resonant connection with the natural way of life, with what the Ling Shu calls the "Dao of Heaven." The Divergent Channels, as conduits that connect the energies of Wei and Yuan qi can link us back to the essential code within our bodies (Yuan qi) and our instinctual, natural sense of function (Wei qi).
In its discussion on "resistance and closure," Chapter 37 of the Nan Jing says when when the "vessels" are not at ease, "qi and blood will stagnate in them," causing them to "overfill." The result of this is that the sense orifices become "impassable." This chapter seems to be describing the process of the Luo Vessels "filling" to capacity, and overflowing back into the Primary Channels to disrupt normal physiology.
Chapter 10 of the Ling Shu describes the Luo Vessels as becoming "full" when pathology passes into them. In chapters 26-29 of the Nan Jing, transmission amongst the channel systems is described. The Luo Vessels are said to "fill" and "overflow." It is general consensus that when the Luo overflow, they "empty" back into the Primary Channels. Once pathology has been released back into the Primary Channel, there is danger it can penetrate into the organs, which can be potentially deadly. When the organs are threatened, another channel system can come to the rescue of the Primary Channel, taking the unresolved problem and depositing it deep into the body, usually into the joints. These channels are thought to be the Divergent Channels in the Ling Shu, and the Qiao Vessels in the Nan Jing: all of which connect with the level of the joints in the body. The joints are areas the Ling Shu clearly says the Luo Vessels do not penetrate into. They are beyond the level of conscious awareness: Yuan-level entities, unreachable by the Luo.
The role of the Divergent Channels (and Qiao Vessels) it seems is to prevent the body from entering a state of "resistance and closure." They attempt to keep the "gates" of the Zang open and passable, therefore protecting the form and function of the internal organs. However, since the Luo Vessels are philosophically thought to hold onto challenges that allow the Zang to evolve and cultivate wisdom, transmission of these lessons into the Divergent Channels can sublimate opportunities for growth. Instead of being used to help the Zang organs reach "completion," the unresolved challenges go into the level of the Curious Organs: the bones, brain and uterus where they are passed onto the next generation (or next incarnation according to Eastern religious thought).
Ideally, to work with the Divergent Channels is to return a person to consciousness of their life's path. The Divergent Channels can "revive the Luo Vessels," a term often used by Nigel Wiseman in his book Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine, which he associates with many acupuncture points.
The Luo Vessels are often seen as pathological conduits. We usually only discuss them in relation to the uncomfortable symptoms they manifest. However if one looks at them as vessels of spiritual cultivation, their nature appears much like that of the meditation process. When we sit to meditate, we observe ourselves: we notice where we tend to fixate. As we do this, the fixation grows: awareness of our patterns heightens, until there is eventual release, bringing a sense of awareness and empowerment. We no longer become a slave to our patterns of thought and behavior, but learn to "let go" or "make friends" with them, much like the Buddha was said to do when he sat under the bodhi tree and achieved enlightenment.
The Luo Vessels are conduits of awareness and enlightenment. They represent our potential to be led astray, away from the primary focus of our lives. They become "filled" with distractions, obsessions, regrets and emotional stagnations. But, arguably through the experience brought by "fullness" of the Luo Vessels, we can eventually cultivate the state of harmony and completion described in Chapter 54.
Pain is one of the most effective experiences to get us to focus on something. It demands our attention. Stagnation of blood brings pain. When the Luo Vessels are full and the blood stagnates, we have no choice but to gather our attention and begin asking why. Fullness of the Luo can act as powerful indicators of the "great delusions" of our lives.
Chapter 80 of the Ling Shu is entitled "The Great Delusions." It is a discussion of symptoms of Shen-spirit disturbance, but it is also a chapter about spiritual cultivation. The chapter begins with a heartfelt question: "I have tried...and yet I am still deluded! For the longest time, there has been no unravelling for me of the secret differences, the stolen inner wonders...What is unique to sight? What makes the tranquil mind?" The answer given by the teacher in this chapter says: the Zang Fu (viscera and bowels) possess "essential qi" which flow into the eyes and "make the essences." Insight comes from within. It is the "essence of the bones [that] makes the pupils." This answer appears on the surface to be a discussion of sight. However when viewed a bit deeper, it is about perception, about understanding the truth of reality.
Chapter 80 can be seen as a companion chapter to Chapter 8 in the Ling Shu. Both describe the internal organs as depositories of potential enlightened awareness. The "essence of the bones make the pupils," says Chapter 80: the Essential-Yuan qi creates the capacity to open our minds and expand our perceptive capacity. This is arguably what is done in meditation practice. The teacher in Chapter 80 seems to be suggesting that the way to move beyond delusion into enlightened awareness is through clearing communication blockage between the organs, bones and sense orifices. The Nan Jing says states of "resistance and closure" occur when qi and blood stagnate, cutting off connection between the internal organs and the sense orifices. This is arguably the experience that the student is complaining about in Chapter 80 of the Ling Shu when he laments his feelings of "delusion" and being blind and deaf.
The Luo Vessels can be seen as manifestations of relatively mind states of stagnation in comparison to the Divergent Channels which are more severe. It is more difficult to change something we lack conscious awareness of. The classical symptoms of the both channel systems involve Bi obstruction syndrome (pain) and rebellious qi. However, the Divergent Channels are associated with deeper, more dramatic symptomology.
The trajectories of the Divergent Channels are described in the Ling Shu as making connection between the internal organs and the sense orifices. The Bladder Divergent Channel for example begins at Bladder-40: the He-Sea point of the Bladder Channel and terminates at the point Bladder-10 on the head. He-Sea points are representative of the bowels. Bladder-10 is part of a group of points described in the Ling Shu that exert influence over the sensory orifices. These points came to be called "Windows to the Sky points" by European scholars much later in history. Many Divergent Channels make connection to Mu and Shu points which have direct connection to the internal organs, as well as directly to the sensory organs via the points Bladder-1 and Gallbladder-1.
We can potentially clear our delusions through working with the Divergent Channels, as these channels make the connection between areas of essential qi and the sensory orifices. The Divergents are the channel system that deal with breaking through stagnation inhibiting transmission of innate internal wisdom into awareness through the senses.
In part three of this series of articles on perception, spiritual cultivation and the collateral systems, I will discuss practical clinical methods of treating the Luo Vessels and Divergent Channels. Theories are helpful and inspiring, but we want to be able to implement them in our clinical practice to benefit our patients. The collaterals need not be channel systems that are purely theoretical. They are meant to be used clinically.
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