Regarding the Pericardium in Chinese medicine

Established readers : this is one of many reposted articles you will see in the coming months.  It is part of the redesign process.  I hope you agree that all of these articles are worth another look!  This repost is from DH contributor G. Michael Reynolds.

Recently I found myself “eavesdropping” on an online conversation between two professors at NCNM, namely Roger Batchelor and Ed Neal, on the subject of the Pericardium in the Classics. What came out of it was more than a little enlightening and inspired me to talk about the Pericardium a bit this week.

The essential point of the discussion was as follows: what we call Pericardium in the modern Chinese medicine disciplines is referred to as (quoting Ed’s translation here) “Mai vessel of the heart encircling luo vessel (network), following the hand (upper) Jue Yin six confirmation terrain, relating to the function whose (domain of responsibility) is the heart.” Usually this is shortened to Xin Bao, or Heart Wrapper or Heart Encirclement. Usually this is assumed to equal the Western anatomical structure of the pericardium, the membrane that protects the heart. However, what Roger and Ed pointed out is that in it’s discussion of the function of the Xin Bao, which is always the important thing to the Classical Chinese mind, it has almost nothing to do with the pericardium whatsoever and instead equates much more closely to the coronary artery network. This, to my mind, answers a boatload of questions about what the Hand Jueyin (and the not-particularly-easy-to-understand Jueyin as a whole) actually does.

First, for our TCM readers, let me clarify a misconception that seems to be prevalent: contrary to what we learn in school, Jueyin does not refer to a seldom seen and horrifying state where the patient is vomiting roundworms (something that the average Westerner can’t fathom) and occurring just before spectacular death.  Rather, Jueyin, which deals with-amongst other things-the Heart and Pericardium organs, is the “closure” of Yin, the function that causes Yin to shrink and decrease so that it may change properly into Yang. The Liver stores the Blood and supplies said Blood throughout the body. The Heart moves the Blood, but how does the Blood get there? Via the Jueyin network. The Liver feeds blood to the Heart via the Pericardium/Xin Bao. How much more sense does this process make if the Xin Bao is really the coronary artery network?

Also notice that the representative  true Jueyin formula, Dang Gui Si Ni Tang, is a Blood-oriented formula. If Dang Gui is the Emperor herb, you can bet the house that Blood is the primary issue at stake, especially given the construction of the rest of the formula: Gui Zhi to invigorate the Blood, Tong Cao to decrease vascular rigidity, Xi Xin to warm the Blood as it reaches the Lungs, Sheng Jiang to bolster Taiyin function in the construction of Blood and Da Zao and Zhi Gan Cao to supply material to the Blood and Yang to the Heart when used with Gui Zhi and Sheng Jiang. Blood, Blood, and more Blood. If the Xin Bao was just the wrapper of the Heart (something that always mystified me) this wouldn’t make a great deal of sense. However, if it instead is equated  with a) the coronary artery system that is responsible for feeding Blood directly to the heart and b) a more formless and function-oriented idea of the system of channels, Luo networks, etc. that encircle the Heart and supply it with Yin and material fuel, suddenly both Xin Bao and Jueyin make a lot more sense. Also if you consider that the Kidneys have to provide the ultimate Yin Water that nourish and protect everything in the upper Jiao from the overwhelming Imperial Fire of the Heart, it makes complete sense that this Yin would travel up through its child Wood (meaning the Yin Wood network of the Liver, but which the Chong Mai adds its influence to) and onto Wood’s child Fire (being the Xin Bao and Heart).

Let’s also look at the Xin Bao/Pericardium from psychological perspectives. The Pericardium is normally seen as the Heart protector, a point of view I agree with fully. However, I think in the context of viewing Xin Bao as a network instead of reducing it to just one physical entity (as is our modern wont) the protective membrane of the pericardium is only a small part of the story. In the primary lineage I have been trained in (Leon Hammer’s Contemporary Oriental Medicine which, despite the name, is actually very classically informed) as the Heart pulse begins to tighten there is both a restriction of circulation into the Heart proper as well as a decrease in communication with the outside world. The patient is often quite far into nervous exhaustion and is beginning to close off and isolate himself emotionally from society, loved ones, possibly also even himself, especially if a Slippery quality is also found. The tighter the pulse gets the more the constriction develops on every plane, introducing emotional rigidity (frequently accompanied by the “character armor” of muscular rigidity) and impeded circulation in the chest, frequently with sharp pains over the heart. It’s much easier to see this constriction mirrored by a constriction of the arteries that feed the Heart rather than what amounts to a lubricated bag somehow constricting.

I would also add in a comment from Arnaud Versluys on this subject in a lecture where he stated that the Heart’s job is to primarily serve as a container for the Shen and that in fact the Pericardium-which is also represented by the entirety of the vascular network-does the actual beating, “squeezing the heart” as it were. Again, the coronary artery network theory really works well.

So what does this mean practically? To begin with, this really clarifies the (manifold) uses for the Pericardium channel in acupuncture. Given the usage of Pc-4 for treating acute myocardial infarction, we can see its power over the physical structure of the Heart and its Vessels. However, we can also see the benefits of providing nourishment to the Heart via the combination of K-22, Pc-1, and Pc-2 using the Exit and Entry points of the Kidney and Pericardium channels to bring the Yin influence of Water to the Fire networks, essentially mimicking the natural activity of the Jueyin. This combination is very useful for patients whose Imperial Fire is beginning to run amok causing insomnia, flight of thought, anxiety, and other symptoms.

This does however raise interesting questions about the true function of Pericardium-oriented herbs such as Zhi Mu, which is frequently used to cool down and protect the Heart and Pericardium, relieving cases of delerium as well as less serious psychological difficulties along the same spectrum.

I would love to hear from our more experienced practitioners on this subject in the comments section.

About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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