Introduction to the Meridians
Here in the U.S. we normally learn the meridian system as a given physical entity. we learn that the Lung meridian starts in the Middle Jiao, goes down to connect with the Large Intestine, goes back up, to the throat, spreads in the chest and goes out on the lateral side of the arm. We then learn the points on that meridian, and spend some time (often as little time as possible) on the other channel systems: the Sinew, the Luo, the Divergents, the 8-Extra channels. When asked what do these meridians mean we say that they allow for the flow of Qi, but we are really not sure what that means. We have come to accept the notion of the existance of the meridians and their current positioning and flow. When we are pressed further, we might point to some research that shows electrical potential flows that are very similar to the meridian flow. But these electrical potentials do not explain the meridian systems, they merely show that a western scientific modality can agree with an oriental schema of thought, they do not explain the thought process.
One of the main questions being posed by here is what do the meridians mean, what is the sense of their flow, what is their symbolism philosophically and the relationship of that philosophy to the physical body?
It seems absurd to assume that the ancient Chinese were likely to go around measuring electrical conductivity and define the flow of Qi in these terms. Rather, it appears to me that these people who were accustomed to meditation practices, and lived in closer contact to the cycles of nature, meditated on the nature of the human body/spirit and arrived at some understanding of what the underlying features of the human organism must represent philosophically in physical terms.
Following them, I started to meditate on what it means to be a human being with our interactions with the world, our struggles, our birth, our death, our sicknesses, etc. I tried to see what is it that each meridian or meridian system represented. This work has been heavily influenced by Jeffrey Yuen, Kiiko Matsumoto, and Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée. It is not clear to me that there is any one definitive and comprehensive source on this subject. This article is not meant to be that. By its nature, meditative work is always a work in progress. The idea presented here are merely possibilities. There is no way to know for sure what the Han dynasty authors truly meant. Their writings were linked to their own cultural paradigms. My own understanding of these ideas is influenced by who I am as a 20th century human with a Jewish and Buddhist background, and teachers who are a Taoist priest, a Japanese practitioner, and a French sinologist.
We all know that Yang meridians flow from Heaven to Earth and Yin meridians from Earth to Heaven. Accepting this dogma allows us to number the points on a specific meridian “with the flow”. However, here we are already talking of a philosophical concept: that the human domain is the result of the interaction of Heaven and Earth, of Yin and Yang, and thus in the human body Earth must surely flow up to Heaven and Heaven flow down to Earth, creating the flow known as human (Ren). (Of course this flow applies to the regular meridians only because they represent the normal movement of life, rather than say its pre-requisites, or any other notion.)
We also know that all the regular meridians go through both the diaphragm and the waist (the Dai). This implies that the regular movement of life has to pass through, find harmony, in the two areas of great obstacle of my life: the diaphragm, representing my heart, and the belt, representing my genitals.
In looking at the flow of the Yin meridians we can start seeing some ideas about the body. The Lung meridian represents our ability to take in the world (air), spread it out to the whole body, and let go of the world (exhalation). Thus it is not surprising that the Lung and the Large Intestine are pair-connected, as the Large Intestine is clearly an organ that also lets go of waste material. We can understand why the emotions sadness and grief are intimately connected with these organs, since those are the emotions that can result in letting go of things we thought we owned, which we thought we took from the world and made an integral part of ourselves. If we have no attachments, we could let go of our emotions, states of mind, possessions just as naturally as we exhale.
The functions of the Lungs, taking in the world, spreading it everywhere in our bodies, and letting go, dictate the Qi of the Lung organ itself. Thus we say the Lung descends the Qi (breathing in) as well as disperse it (spreading oxygen/breath throughout the body). The meridian reflects the exact same notions. It starts in the Middle Jiao, the place of assimilation, it goes down, representing its descending action which is also described by the Large Intestine, the organ it meets as it goes downwards. It then comes back up and in the shape of a canopy spreads up to the throat and then out towards the edge of the clavicle: this represents the spreading action. Here the external path begins, spreading further out to the lateral side of the arm, ending in the thumb. The Lung meridian has to go all the way to the most lateral edge of the Yin domain of the body because the breath must permeate the whole body. It has to reach the thumb, because it is with the movement of the thumb that we humans reach out and grasp the world (just as we do when we inhale). The grasping motion of the thumb is usually aided by the index finger and the motion of the wrist. Thus we have another branch starting at the base of the wrist (LU7) going to the index finger (to the L.I.). So we see that the Lung channel can be viewed as nothing more than a physical representation of the functions of the Lungs and its philosophical implication.
The Heart channel is Shao Yin. Shao meaning small, hidden. The Heart and the Kidney are the hidden rulers of my life, representing also the interaction of Fire and Water. As a Shao Yin channel one would expect the external branch to start in a hidden place: in the depth of the armpit (HT1). (The Kidney channel also starts in a hidden place, in the depression on the underside of the foot). We would further expect it to run down the arm in the most hidden place, i.e., the most medial position possible in the Yin domain of the arm (the anterior surface). Thus the Heart channel runs to the little finger (and HT9 is in the least exposed side of it, allowing S.I.1, a Yang point, the more exposed side of the finger nail). As the ruler of my life, it is natural for the Heart to create a connection with the organs through which I take in the world and express myself to the world: the eyes and the tongue. Another part that expresses the depth of my heart is my wrist (through calligraphy in the case of the ancient Chinese), and so it is not surprising to find a cluster of Heart points in the vicinity of the wrist.
The Pericardium channel (somewhat ambiguous as to whether this is an added on channel, or another Heart channel), represents the work of the Heart which is its contraction so as to circulate Blood which contains the product of my breath. The pericardium lies between the lungs and the heart physically, but metaphorically it also represents the two in terms of their circulatory functions. The Lung circulates the Qi, the Heart governs the Blood (which stores the Shen) via the Pericardium. The Pericardium also serves as a mediator between what I take from the world, and prior to handing it over to my Heart. Thus the Pericardium channel flows in between the Lung and the Heart and ends in the middle of the middle finger.
The Kidney channel represents the Water element in me: it is a representation of my innermost depths. Kidney represents both Water and Fire (as in Ming Men). It is thus the force of my life coiling up through my body. So the Kidney (Shao Yin) starts in a hidden place, on the underside of the small toe, with its first point, a bubbling spring, being in a hidden depression under the foot, where I stand on the ground. As it proceeds up, it must surely take the most hidden part of the thigh and arrive at both the genitals and the spine (representing both bone and destiny: the ladder of life). But along its way in doing so the Kidney channel takes every opportunity to coil itself again and again. Around the ankle (again the place upon which my stance is based), and then reaching Ren1 it goes up the spine and coils back down to the reproductive organs. It then goes up to the chest (making its connection to the Fire organs) and coils up in the throat where it controls the metabolic glands (e.g., thyroid - which represents both Fire and Water in terms of metabolic Fire and endocrine excretions).
The Spleen channel runs on the most exposed part of the thigh, partially because it is Tai Yin, and partially because this is the fleshiest part of the thigh. Thus the Spleen and Stomach both run along the fleshier parts of the body: rectus abdominus, the quads, and even in the foot, along the arch of the foot. The Stomach channel’s first trajectory runs along all the orifices in the head (and only then runs down the front of the body). This represents the Stomach’s ability to take in and digest the world. It thus starts at the nose, goes up to the eye, down to circulate the mouth, down and up to the ear, to end finally at the brain (DU24).
The Liver channel runs up quicker than any of the other channels (at the level of Liv5, the Spleen already has 7 points, and the Kidney 9 points, by Liv14, the Spleen count is 17 and the Kidney’s 22). It also ends its external trajectory sooner than any other (at Liv14). Liver, being Wood, represents initiation, it needs to run faster, like the spring, but it need not go far as it is merely the initiator, thus its external trajectory stops as soon as it permeates a very Yin area (the ribs). It then continues up to the top of the head (DU20, representing the brain), the eyes and the lips. We can see here the representation of the Hun. The Hun is the spirit (animation) that comes from the ancestral world, animates my life, allows me to be clever and productive, it accumulates the experiences of this physical body, and at death goes back up to commune with the ancestral spirits. Thus the Hun represents my ability to do something with the physical mass of my body and create meaningful experiences. This is the transmuting of Jing (physical) to Shen (spiritual). And thus the Liver channel circles the genitals (an area representing the Jing, physical mass) and moves on to the brain (where my life experiences are being stored) and further allows for expression through the eyes and lips.
When viewed in this way we can start to see some meaning to the flow of the meridians, they stop being some abstract notion that only some ancient wise Qi Gong masters could actually see. We can see the meridians with our own eyes, not just as muscle borders, valleys, contours, but also as statements as to what it takes to be human and to move through life. The Qi now becomes relevant and actual in our own lives: it is no longer some esoteric “life-force energy” but it is my movement and interaction through life, interpreted according to my understanding of life, not just in accordance to some ancient civilization.
The Large Intestine’s role is elimination, and it is paired with the Lung, the organ that takes in and lets go of air (of the world). This already tells us that the Large Intestine channel is likely to communicate with both the mouth and the nose. The mouth, because this is the original entrance of the stuff the Large Intestine lets go of. The nose, because it is where air comes in (and out) of and serves as the opening of the Lung.
The other branch of the Large Intestine descends from ST12 through the Lungs and diaphragm to the Large Intestine organ. This trajectory shows the descending ability of the Large Intestine and its connection to the descension of Lung Qi.
Once we assimilate something and make it part of us (through the Stomach/Earth), the decision as to what to take in and what to let go involves a judgement, a duality, a polarity. Thus the Large Intestine shows this polarity by crossing over to the other side.
The Pericardium is the mediator of the world to the Heart. It has two names. as an organ it can be referred to as Xin Zhu, the Heart Master. It can also be referred to as Xin Bao Luo, the Heart Wrapping Connection. So the Chinese saw the Pericardium both as the wrapping around the Heart and as that which represents the Heart’s mastery which is over the Blood. The Pericardium is responsible for presenting to the Heart the stimulli we receive from our external environment. It does so by relying on our learned experiences as to what we think we like or dislike. The Lungs are our spontaneous interaction with the world, the Pericardium mediates this, and through a learned process selects what it is that I choose to interact with or not.
The Pericardium is a filtering system which allows ideas in according to whether they fit in with our catalog of deas and experiences. An idea that has no correspondence to what we currently know and understand is deemed “weird” and is not allowed into our consciousness. This is a learned process: a child might entertain such ideas as the ability to fly, but an adult would not.
The idea of the Pericardium as mediator of the External world (Wei Qi) to the Heart (to the self, the Blood) is shown by the progression in point names. P.1 (Tian Chi - Heavenly Pool) and P.2 (Tian Quan - Heavenly Spring) represent the Heavenly (or environmental) influences. We then proceed to P.3 (Chi Ze - Bent Marsh) as the influences begin to internalize we come to som more murky ground. And we need to pass through some Gates and mediations befor reaching the Inner self. These are represented bu P.4 (Xi Men - Gate of the Cleft), P.5 (Jian Shi - the In-between Messanger), and finally P.6 (Nei Guan - Inner Gate). Once we pass through Nei Guan, we arrive at P.7 (Da Ling - Great Mound): the Mound, a Tomb, represents the accumulations we can create with what comes in from the outside. And P.8 (Lao Gong - Palace of Hard Work) is where we can reach the Palace after long and hard work of cultivation. Finally. P.9 (Zhong Chong - Central Surge/Hub) represents the Heart itself as it is the central hub (P.9 also has reminds us of the Chong, making a strong connection to Blood).
So what we see with these point names is a journey we take when we are exposed to the environment, i.e., Heavenly influences. We tend to discern these influences and decide as to whether we want to take them as influences over our lives. We do this from our learned experience: we have learned that certain things will bring us pleasure, while others will not, thus we bring some things into our Hearts while we ignore others. This process of differentiating what I want is the role of the Pericardium. Without it, we will continuously engage in all extternal stimulii without discrimination, with too much control we become narrow minded and habituated into our thinking patterns.
This idea of the mediator can be seen in the trajectory of the Pericardium channel. Naturally its external trajectory flows between that of the Lungs and Heart. Internally, it starts at the Chest (presumably Ren17, the Centre of the Chest, also the Mu point of the Pericardium), and moves to meet the three Jiaos. Thus it communicates the Qi of the Chest (related more to Wei Qi) with that of the Lower Jiao (related to Yuan Qi). It moves out from the chest to the region of P.1 and G.B.22 and then continues along its external path (which represents bringing things inwards to the Central Hub). G.B.22 is where the Arm Yin Sinews converge. The Arm Sinews are responsible for reaching out (Yang) and grasping/bringing things in with our hands (Yin) (the Leg Sinews ensure our posture). So again, before it goes through the external trajectory, the Pericardium channel picks up the influences brought in by the Arm Sinews and begins to "process" them through the external channel.
It is interesting to note that P.8, the Fire point, is where a child might take something from the world and bring it to the mouth. This is how a child explores the world. In channel terms, the child grasps with the Fire of Fire, the need to go out and explore, and brings it to the tongue, the offshoot of the Heart. This describes the role of the Pericardium.
The pathologies associated with the Pericardium are associated with Excess Yang (external influences). Thus we see palpitations, fever, etc. These represent Yang which is not properly assimilated into the body/psyche, an inability to mediate external stimulii, an inability to limit the internalization of external stimulii, or an inability to learn to avoid interaction with ones we are not ready to deal with.
The Spleen is the Earth element. Earth is what allows for transformation: the earth absorbs seeds, water, dead organic matter, and transforms it into new life – plants, trees, meadows, etc. So the qualities of the earth is to transform and to absorb. When it absorbs too much, that is Dampness.
The Spleen is responsible for transforming life’s experiences so that they become my own, part of my identity, so they have my stamp on them: these experiences acquire my meaning, my boundaries. If I store too many experiences, my absorption becomes hampered and Dampness is created.
Uprightness is part of the Spleen: as humans, in order to “digest the world” we need to have an upright posture. Hence we see prolapse as a Spleen issue. It is how we give ground (earth) so that we can sprout out of it without being over-burdened by Dampness (undigested experiences). The Spleen Sinew Channel also supports the spine, and thus our upright posture.
The Spleen produces the Blood. It is the Blood that holds our experiences as it is the residence of the Shen. The Spleen takes interactions with life and transforms them into what allows my animation (Shen) to define as my own individuality. The Spleen (or the Yi) gives context to our life’s experiences: how I store and make a meaning out of whatever experiences life offers.
The Spleen is responsible for our sense of satiation, a sense of completeness. If there is an overflow of emotions this creates hemorrhaging as emotions are stored by the Blood.
The Spleen moves water, getting rid of fluids is the job of the Lungs, Kidneys, and bladder. The Spleen is about the natural movement of life, it is not about excretion.
What we see in looking at the Spleen’s trajectory is that it travels through the fleshier part of the leg, that the last point (SP21 – Da Bao) seems to divert the channel off its original trajectory (which otherwise would end at SP20 going into LU1), and that there are many crossings taking place along the channel.
Given that the Spleen is associated with muscle mass, it makes sense that it would travel along the quadratus femoris. SP21 indeed does appear to have been added on to the channel. It would have made more sense for the channel to end its external trajectory at SP20 going into the Lungs at LU1, and then making its ascent to the root of the tongue (the organ of taste – associated with Earth). However Da Bao (SP21) is the Great Luo, and the Luo channels are outlets of Blood/emotions, and the Spleen is associated with boundaries, so it was appropriate to tag SP21 onto the Spleen channel (rather than say the G.B. channel, in which zone SP21 lies).
The many crossings of the Spleen channel begin with crossing the Liver channel – this is done exactly midway between SP7 (Leaking Valley) and SP8 (Earth’s Crux), i.e., between the two properties of the Spleen – sinking (leaking), and upward movement – this negotiation is done with the help of the smooth flow of the Liver. The next crossing is over the Stomach channel around ST30/SP12 (both of which are associated with the Chong). Here we can see this as the interdependence of the Spleen/Stomach or as the notion that this marks the end of a trajectory which gives context to what we digest so that t can become part of our root self – the Chong: the Sea of Blood. The next crossings are more zig-zags than crossings: this is where the Spleen channel appears to come in from the lateral side to meet the Ren channel at Ren3, Ren4, Ren10, and Ren12. These can be seen as the Spleen being the intermediary between the outside world (lateral) which we digest so it becomes a part of our selves (the Ren – the midline).
Looking at the names of the points along the Spleen channel we see a theme emerging up the leg, the theme of how I digest the world so as to become my own individuated self, ending with the Chong – the archetype of self – at SP12 (Chong Men – Gate to the Chong).
We start at SP1 (Yin Bai – Hidden White). This tells us that we start with something that was left by the Lungs (white), how do we now digest what the Lungs took in and persevered into our body. The Lungs take in the world in a pontaneous manner – it is our breath. The Spleen is what “digests” the world, it is now a matter of making the world my own through cognition. We then come to SP2 (Da Dun – Great City): in a big city ther is a lot of movement, so we expect a lot of stirring/movement to occur as we take in the world. SP3 (Tai Bai – Great White, also meaning the Great Sage, referring to Venus) is a reminder of our final destination. Hopefully as we assimilate our world experiences we become a Great Sage. In this process we create the connection with both our ancestors and descendants – this is SP4 (Gong Sun – Grandfather, Grandson). Another interpretation of SP4 is that as a Luo, it is an outlet for accumulations that happen along the road, the possibility for release for unwanted digested matter. SP5 (Shang Qiu – Merchant Mound), again reminds us of the possibility of letting go, of exchanging (the role of the merchant) before we “take it all in”. Now we are ready to bring the world (as we digest it) in, to the Yin, this is SP6 – San Yin Jiao – the meeting of the 3 Yin. At SP7 (Lou Gu – Leaking Valley) we are again given an outlet, this time it is digested matter that leaks out as diarrhea, or perhaps a reminder that stuff that is not properly taken in (properly digested) is rejected. SP8 (Di Ji) is normally translated as Earth’s Crux, but it is also the Celestial Secret or the destiny. We take in the world in order to fulfill our destiny (or we are destined to take in and digest the world, even if we would rather live isolated from the outside world). Again we re reminded that it is about taking the world in, towards the Yin, this time through SP9 (Yin Ling Quan – The Spring of Yin), and so we can take it all to the Sea of Blood (Xue hai – SP10). Ji Men (SP11 – Removal Gate) allows for a final chance of distillation before we move on to the inner most, into the Gate to the Chong (Chong Men – SP12).
This whole trajectory along the leg is a reflection of how we take things from the outside world and “digest” them so as to create the self, the Chong. Along the way we keep seeing that the road may not be smooth, that we need to have outlets for stuff that is not suitable to who we are.
From here we see more the actual physical digestion process: SP13 (Fu She) is the Residence of the Bowels, SP14 (Fu Jie) is the Abdominal Knot, SP16 (Fu Ai) is Abdominal Grief (or sadness). These Spleen abdominal points show us that we need the bowels (Fu) to digest, and that we can get a knot if we do not digest properly, and that sadness or grief (inability to let go) can affect digestion. So the theme here is of clear/easy passage.
As we move into the ribs we encounter SP17 (Shi Dou), the Cave or Nourishment (also called Ming Guan – Life Passage), then moving into SP18 (Tian Xi – Celestial Flow) which can also represent Ta Qi (Air Qi). SP19 (Xiong Xiang – Chest Region) is related to Zhong Qi (Qi of the chest), and finally SP20 (Zhou Rong – All Flourishes, or Everlasting Prosperity) is the result of the journey mixing the rough digestate from the bowels with the Cosmic (Ta) Qi, and we then move towards the Lungs, into LU1.
The Stomach channel represents Yang Ming: the brightest of Yang, the point where Yang expands the most in order to turn inwards (towards Yin). The Stomach as an organ takes in food and assimilates it: it takes Yang (something from outside) and brings it inwards (giving it boundaries - an Earth element function). Thus the Stomach channel needs to satisfy a number of qualities: it needs to show expansion, and Yang, it needs to show Yin (or movement towards Yin), assimilation and nourishment.
The channel starts at L.I.20, Welcome Fragrance, at the nose. It then moves up to U.B.1, Bright Vision, at the inner canthus. Here we see the two aspects the baby is exposed to at birth: light and breath. To the new born this represents the transition to the outside world and the mobilization of Yang. In meeting U.B.1 the Stomach channel also makes a connection with the place where Wei Qi is said to begin its flow (with the opening of our eyes as we wake in the morning), thus connecting to the Yang functions of Wei Qi: warming and protecting.
The channel then goes down, circles the mouth, connecting with both the Du and the Ren (again allowing for the double aspect of Yin and Yang inherent in Yang Ming), and up to the ear, to ST8 and up to connect with the Du and the brain at DU24 (Shen Ting - both the top and the bottom, ST44, Nei Ting, of the Stomach channel share this character, Ting, the Court where one stands waiting for an audiance with the Emperor, making the two points a signature for exorcism treatments).
This loop represents our ability to take everything from the world via our sense organs and store it in our brains. This first trajectory already contains most of the statements implied by the concept of the Stomach channel.
However, not only does the channel need to move down to its organ and towards the Yin (Earth), along the way it will communicate with the two other aspects of Yang (since we are in Yang Ming mode) that is transformation and movement (we already communicated with warming and protecting). That is the Stomach channel needs to further communicate with the Du, at DU14 where all the Yang converges) and with the organ of transformation, the Spleen.
On its way down from ST5, the channel goes through to Welcome Human (Ren Yin - ST9). I have allowed for the ability to explore the world, now I can welcome myself and I can start to “metabolize”/internalize the world. Here we are at the thyroid, a metabolic gland. As it moves down from ST12, the basin where all the Yang channels converge, it passes through ST13 to ST16 which start with the names Qi Door, the Storeroom, the Roof, the Window of the Breast, and ending with ST17, the Centre of the Breast. Here we see a representation of building a house, a container, as we reach for the first and most primal source of nourishment in early life: the nipple: the source of the greatest condensation of Blood. The next point, ST18, continues the idea of building a container: it is the Root of the Breast, that is like a basement. Once having made the nourishment (and containment) connection, the channel can then move in towards the Ren, towards Yin. This trajectory ends at ST30 (Qi Chong), communicating with the Chong, allowing the idea of containment and nourishment to move into the Chong, the Sea of Blood.
There is a strong philosophical connection between the Heart and the Stomach channel which explains why the Stomach channel has many Heart Fire type indications: mania etc. Since the Stomach represents nourishment and containment, its pathology would be not recognizing satiation, be it with physical food or emotional nourishment. When we are unable to recognized when we are satiated and well nourished we tend to go out and scream for more (of whatever nourishment we believe we are missing). This lack of being with what is can lead in its extreme to mania.