Lightening Up, Becoming Unstuck: Strengthening the Spleen via Acupuncture
The study of consciousness and its effect on the physical body is richly explored in Chinese medicine. It has become a speciality of mine as an acupuncturist.
Modern medicine calls the effect the mind and emotions have on the physical body psychosomatics. Though this is still relatively new thinking in Western medicine, the ancient Chinese have acknowledged and worked with this understanding for over 2000 years.
In Chinese medicine the mind and body are always linked: something that affects one will often impact the other. Therapeutically anyone dealing with a physical or mental-emotional issue will need all aspects of their selves tended to: body, mind and spirit.
Chinese medicine believes that the mind and its cognitive capacity is highly influenced by the digestive system. The key organ involved in cognition and the thinking process is the Spleen (expanded to include the Pancreas modernly).
The Chinese medical classics say when the Spleen is weak, dampness accumulates in the body causing slowed digestion, heaviness, aches in the joints, weakness of the limbs. A weak Spleen also causes excessive worry, brooding, obsessiveness, tendency towards habituation and slowed mental processes.
When the Spleen is weak, everything in one’s life feels burdensome, due to the Spleen’s inability to fully digest and transform experience. This is mirrored in the digestive process where food and drink fail to be broken down, accumulating as fat and/or bloating, making a person feel tired and heavy instead of light and strong.
When the Spleen is working well, everything in life will feel possible: like an abundant gift, an opportunity. The mind will know how to utilize all experience for our benefit. There will be a lightness of spirit, a brilliance of mind and a gratitude for life.
A strong Spleen will also allow a person the virtue of reflection and mindfulness: the ability to sit with oneself and think through the experiences of life.
The Spleen represents “the center” of one’s being. The ability to feel “centered” and “grounded” is dependent upon the Spleen. It is also the daily financier for the immune system: keeping the Lungs strong to prevent illness.
The most common medical strategy to treat the Spleen in Chinese medicine is termed: “strengthening the Spleen,” which involves not only the ability for the digestive system to break down, transform food, drink and experience; it also involves the transportive capacity of the Spleen: its ability to ascend its energy into the chest, head and limbs.
The ascending nature of the Spleen allow us to take a challenge in life and figure out creative solutions that make us ultimately feel lighter and less burdened. A strong Spleen will allow us to see everything in life as an opportunity to learn and improve our situation.
One of the most famous ancient Chinese doctors, Li Dong Yuan made study and treatment of the Spleen the focus of his school of thought, famously called “the Earth School.” To remain vital, taught Yuan, we need a strong capacity to change, and adjust to life as it is shifting. We need to be able to think in an innovative way so we don’t fall into a state of habituation. Our ability to transform experience and transport it into action is vital for good health and a strong mind.
When patients come to me complaining that they feel “stuck” in their lives, or heavy in their spirit, the Spleen is often the first place I will treat to help them feel better.
Strengthening the Spleen is also vital in helping a person to recover from a severe illness, such as long-COVID and Cancer treatment. I place extreme focus on the Spleen in such cases.
The Spleen is the rebuilding capacity of the body. But it doesn’t work alone. The three major organs the Spleen must harmonize with are the Kidneys, Lungs and Heart. Often a person’s problems lie not in the Spleen itself but are due to lack of cooperation and support between these organs.
The Spleen receives its core energy from the Kidneys. This is the root of the digestive, transformative “fire.”
Philosophically the relationship between the Spleen and Kidneys helps us stay connected to our own physical limits and capacity. Healing often involves getting “real” about the things in our lives that hinder our growth or weigh us down. We cannot always digest everything. Some foods, relationships, activities are just not good for us. We may be addicted to them or feel that they add value to our lives when they really make us stuck and fixed. To “strengthen the Spleen” can sometimes mean taking an honest look at our lives and choices to decide what is best to keep and what we must discard.
The Kidneys are a meditation on our true selves. They represent self-acceptance: the ability to listen to ourselves instead of outside influences. Only we truly know what is best for us. The ability to listen to our deepest selves depends on a strong connection between the energies of the Kidneys and Spleen.
The energy of both the Spleen and the Kidneys can be depleted by overwork, over-stress, dietary and lifestyle excess, overwhelm. Also, illness such as COVID (long COVID) can deplete the Kidney-Spleen energies leading to fatigue, pain, loss of will and focus and depression.
A patient recently came to me complaining of deep fatigue. Her body and mind were very tired, easily overwhelmed and unable to manage the demands of her life. She said this was not normal for her, as she’s always been a very ambitious, energetic, focused person. Yet several personal and professional setbacks, along with a severe bout of COVID seemed to greatly deplete her energy and sap her will, stamina and enthusiasm for life.
In our initial session, I felt the patient’s pulses to assess her body’s functional energy. The Spleen’s energy was irregular and depleted, while the Kidney energy was blocked (not rising into the abdomen or chest), failing to support the Spleen. There was a lack of upward momentum to bring the energy of the Kidneys and Spleen into the chest (Lungs and Heart), causing her to feel fatigue, depression and overly vulnerable. I told her this was most likely the reason she’d failed to fully recover after her difficult moments.
The synergistic relationship between the energies of the Kidneys, Spleen and Lungs are the basis for the immune system’s energy, as well as metabolism. They also promote clarity of thinking, the ability to focus and follow through, taking thought into action/manifestation.
The strong upward thrust of the Kidney and Spleen energies allows a person’s willpower to enter into their mind and flow into their limbs to create action. The person will naturally feel strong and able to solve problems. When the Heart energy is also strongly connected, the person will actually find the challenges exciting, seeing life as an adventure. There will be strong faith in oneself, and an ability to transform most situations to ones benefit. The person will enjoy the process and not just the result.
What others may see as burden, someone with strong Kidney-Spleen energies will see as opportunity.
I explained to my patient that we needed to begin by rebuilding her vitality. She asked what she could expect. I told her the strategy to “strengthen the spleen” means we will be reconnecting the energies of her organs together, beginning with the Kidneys into the Spleen. She could expect to feel stronger, but it was highly likely her body and mind would start detoxing. The body will start to get rid of phlegm and dampness which is the physical factor inhibiting her energy flow, clouding her mind, and weighing down her spirit. Mentally and spiritually she’d find herself starting to shed the heavier (and more toxic) aspects of her life.
When the Spleen is strong the senses will open, and we may start to see our lives more clearly. We might be unsettled by what we observe ourselves putting up with.
I saw this patient weekly for sometime. Each week she’d return feeling stronger and more enthusiastic about her life. The first two weeks she underwent a detoxification period where she urinated more than usual and eliminated a large quantity of phlegm from her sinus and chest. She thought she had a head cold, but said throughout she felt increasingly energetic and strong. I told her I thought it was a detox of the phlegm-dampness she’s been harboring in her body.
The third and fourth week she experienced herself being more short-tempered and quick to anger, in many cases “cutting people off” and deciding quickly that she was “done’ with certain relationships and activities. She said she was usually such a kind, quiet, polite, diplomatic, even accommodating person. But lately she found herself being blunter and unwilling to put up with people’s demands. I told her this was also a sign her Spleen was “strengthening.”
The process of transformation can be unsettling for some. We can become so habituated in our ways, even if they aren’t always healthy for us. I added several “spirit” acupuncture points to help my patient through her shift.
The point Kidney-8 (KI-8) “Faith Exchange” along with Kidney-6 (KI-6) “Illuminating Sea” helped gather the Kidney’s energy, its willpower and focus on herself. These two points help promote a sense of deep faith in oneself, along with appreciation of our own unique gifts. Use of these points over time help a person to cultivate increasing love for and commitment towards oneself.
I directed this energy into the Spleen via the acupuncture points Kidney-2 (KI-2) “Blazing Valley” and Spleen-8 (SP-) “Earth Ascent.” These two points best establish the supportive relationship between the Kidneys and Spleen.
The Kidneys manage the innate energy of the true self, while the Spleen conducts energy involved in creating our social selves. At the acupuncture point Spleen-6 (SP-6) “Meeting of the Three Yin Channels of the Leg,” the Kidneys and Spleen meet with the Liver which controls our creative, visionary energy. The Liver helps us be discerning, discriminating and decision-making. SP-6 helps to harmonize who we are on the “inside” with who we are on the “outside,” allowing our true and social selves to become closer, promoting authenticity.
Once I started to get the Liver involved in treatment, the patient became increasingly discriminating in her life. At first she became a bit too aggressive, which I assured her was her body’s energy (especially that of the Liver) ruthlessly clearing all that was hindering her health. This intensity softened overtime.
The philosophy around treating the Spleen comes from one of the greatest of all classical Chinese doctors, Sun Si Miao. Since the Spleen controls the energy associated with consciousness, an awakening is necessary. The person must become aware of how their thinking, habits, lifestyle and relationships are contributing to their illness or difficulties. This is arguably the reason the Kidneys are so often linked with treatment of the Spleen. The Kidneys empower self-responsibility and commitment to one’s own best interests.
Healing is about learning how to live better, make wiser choices to let go of that which is toxic. When the Kidneys are involved these are not moral questions, but practical considerations based on what makes us feel strong and vital vs. what makes us feel heavy, weighed down and unwell. What empowers us? What disempowers us?
Therefore strengthening the Spleen is about clarifying one’s consciousness. It is about cultivating wisdom and getting to know ourselves deeply. The Spleen demands commitment. But it is an organ that needs partnership with all the other organs, especially the Kidneys to provide the raw power (and willpower) and the Liver to move stagnation and promote decisiveness.
When the Spleen becomes strong, we learn what we can digest and what we cannot; what is nourishing for us and what is toxic. We learn to be less accommodating and more devoted to our own well-being. The Kidney-Spleen energy is also that which helps us break through addictions. This is best achieved through the support of the acupuncture points KI-6, KI-8 and KI-2 as discussed above: points that treat “hungry ghosts,” the classical metaphor for addictions.
As we heal our Spleen energy, we will often come to see what thoughts have been fueling our habits. It can be a sobering experience to see how we’ve been creating and/or supporting our own illness and unhappiness. This can be part of the unpleasant detoxification process as we “Strengthen the Spleen.” Yet by getting the Heart energy involved in this process, we also cultivate compassionate loving-kindness towards ourselves as we heal and become more conscious.
The “spirit points” Heart-7 (HT-7) “Spirit Gate” and Heart-1 (HT-1) “Ultimate Spring” can be especially helpful in allowing us to see ourselves as spiritual beings leading spiritual lives. We see the vast potential and limitless quality to our soul: that we are part of the “ultimate” oneness of the universe. We start to see our lives as a learning process which requires mistakes in order to grow.