The importance of the Spleen in studying Classical Chinese Medicine

Pi – Spleen : Lessons learned from Yin Earth

Earthly Branch Si – The Snake : Lesson – You can take in a lot more than you think, but don’t overdo it

The Spleen is associated with the 6th Earthly Branch 巳 – Si. This is one of the few earthly branches that actually is a picture of the animal that came to be associated with it – the Snake. However, I should note that many people also posit that it is a picture of an infant. The oracle bone figures look more like snakes than babies to me, and as a picture of a snake is how I learned it, but certainly you may disagree.

The snake is a fascinating animal that both attracts and repulses most people. There are many characteristics of the snake that relate to the Spleen in structure and function. I’d like to just mention one that has been particularly helpful to me this week. As the title of this section suggests, I’m interested in the ability of a snake to consume prey much larger than itself.

Now, on the one hand, the Spleen really doesn’t like to be asked to do too much at once – as anyone can attest after a big Thanksgiving dinner. So, perhaps it’s not a perfect symbolic match. On the other hand, the function of the Spleen is to take whatever has been consumed and release the pure essence of that sustenance at a reasonable rate to the rest of the body. Often, even with big meals, we surprise ourselves with our ability to take it in and use it with some effectiveness. As a student, I am consistently asked to shove more information into my head than I think is possible. However, by approaching things deliberately and with confidence, I consistently surprise myself. No jaw dislocation required.

Phase element Earth – the Center : Lesson – Having a solid substrate allows for great transformation

The Spleen is the Yin Earth organ of the body, and as such serves as the stable substrate through which all of the activity of the body takes place. One of our professors mentions how people talk about the Spleen in an inappropriately “active” way. In fact, it is the organ that exemplifies that Wu-Wei principle of getting everything done while doing nothing. It is the rich humus that nourishes everything, yet serves as only a medium for that nourishment – not an active partner in it. Sure, mycobacteria and various little critters serve a vital function in keeping plants healthy, but these are not part of the Spleen principle. The Spleen Earth serves as a healthy place for these organisms to do their work, simply that – and that is more than enough.

Creating a super stable life management system for myself has been vital in my success. Still, it is always a work in progress. Unfortunately instability in my system was one of the keys behind why I was not so productive this week. I thought my system was more or less functional, and that I could work out any kinks quickly and simply. I was wrong. Several scheduling issues emerged that required my immediate attention. I had not fully “cleared my mental inbox” during my last Weekly Review (leaving many projects in an implicit mental stage, cluttering my mind). Most importantly, I had not settled my finances and finished budgeting. Thus, about 80% of my time this week was devoted to rectifying those situations. By the end of this weekend, all of that work will be done and it will serve me for the rest of the term. It will be the medium through which I am able to do all of the other work I do.

Clock pair/hexagram pair with the Triple Burner : Keep a balance between Yin and Yang

Around the organ clock, we can find many interesting relationships among the organ systems. The relationship between Spleen and Triple Burner is particularly interesting because these organs are united by their hexagram relationship and their actual position around the clock. When two organs are directly across the organ clock, we call them clock pairs and as I’ve mentioned before, we were taught to think of them as being able to “take one another’s shift” so they share some type of functionality. Hexagram relationships are more subtle and difficult for me to understand. Here is a diagram I drew during my first hexagram chinese organ clockyear at NCNM showing the hexagram relationships around the organ clock. The drawing is, admittedly, a little shaky. 🙂

The Spleen is associated with Hexagram 1 – i ching hexagram 1 qianQian 乾, often translated as force, heaven, the creative and, sometimes, simply as Yang. It is made of six Yang lines, and is the most Yang hexagram of the Yijing. Funny considering what I just said about Earth and the Spleen! That’s the way of Chinese medicine philosophy sometimes. The hexagram of the Triple Burner is #2 – Kun 坤, often translated asi ching hexagram 2 kun the receptive, Earth and sometimes, simply as Yin. It is made of 6 Yin lines and is the most Yin hexagram of the Yijing. Unlike the Spleen, this makes a lot of sense for the mysterious and seemingly immaterial Triple Burner organ system.

It’s easy to see the relationship between these two hexagrams – they are opposites and create the dynamic Yin-Yang tension that characterizes the fundamental state of the entire Universe. I’ll briefly explore the Triple Burner-Spleen relationship, but certainly there is much more to say about the shared symbolism of these two important organ systems.

The Spleen and Triple Burner are both responsible for aspects of fluid metabolism, in a way they help to keep a balance between wet and dry in the body. Another organ with a relationship with wet-dry balance is the Lung, which is united to the Spleen in its 6 conformation assignment as Tai Yin. Wet and dry are two obvious manifestations of Yin and Yang, respectively. Another Yin/Yang symbol within Spleen and Triple Burner is the relationship between being in the world and being removed from it. The Triple Burner is the mysterious organ system of deep darkness and in-between-ness. The Spleen is more straightforward, and engaged in the vital business of getting things done in the world, despite it’s passivity that I discussed before.

Extending these analogies, I found myself considering the vital importance of balancing two categories of intellectual activity. First, the more “Yang” activities of memorization, reading and listening to lectures, and studying explicitly for tests. On the other hand, the more “Yin” activities of contemplation, creative thinking, and experiencing Chinese medicine principles as they operate in nature. When I don’t achieve a balance between these two types of activity, pandemonium results.

I was experiencing strange digestive and mental symptoms all this week, and found myself really perplexed by it until I thought of Spleen. It is often said that student life harms the Spleen and Heart the most. The Heart because of the incessant use of the mind, which is related with the Heart in Chinese Medicine. The Spleen because of its association with pensiveness/overthinking and worry. When we find ourselves thinking something to death or being obsessively concerned with some event – our Spleen suffers. This was certainly happening to me and I definitely noticed. As a solution, I have decided to look at my schedule again and find a way to incorporate more straightforward “study” (memorization, reading and rewriting notes, etc) with more contemplative creativity. Although the latter may not help me on tests, it will definitely help me as a practitioner and help keep my Spleen from suffering overmuch.

Archetype : The Great Yu – Channel things away instead of damming them upthe great yu spleen

One of the archetypes we learn about being related to the Spleen is the Chinese folk hero the Great Yu. It is said that he was able to stem the great flood when his father failed. His father’s strategy was to create huge earthen dams to hold back the floodwater, which inevitably broke. Yu took a different perspective, creating great ditches to lead the water away to the ocean. We are often taught in Chinese medicine school that the Spleen does something similar in water metabolism of the body – guiding dampness away from the body at a steady clip, instead of trying to create barriers to keep it away from vital organs and processes.

I learned this Spleen lesson gradually through the week. A number of projects dumped on to my lap and it was only listening to David Allen’s Getting Things Done Fast on audiobook that jolted me into healthy Spleen mode. One of the things that Mr. Allen recommends is to look at every project/action you have in front of you and figure out whether it actually BELONGS to you. Many times we take on projects that are not properly or best left with us. Delegate! Delegate! Delegate! Lead the floodwaters away.


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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