"To hear each other (the sound of different voices) to listen to one another is an exercise in recognition." bell hooks; may she rest in power and peace.
Five Element Theory (FET) is a lens through which we sentient beings are considered holistic beings. The state of physical, emotional, and psychic health is one of reciprocity. We come into our lives as humans with innate patterns that belong to us and we to them- our individual codes, i.e., genetic, inherited, a template of the body and soul. These are pure states, the natural, balanced, and harmonized unity of the Heart/Mind flowing with the vitality of the body. Each of the five organ systems is related to a universal pattern, often called a virtue.
“The Kidneys “Open” into the Ears: Controlling both the ears and hearing. This allows hearing to influence the Zhi (Will).” Professor Jerry Alan Johnson
Each of the internal organs “kai” (open) into a particular sense organ orifice, allowing for communication between the external and the internal environments.” The Chinese character “Kai” -开 - also carries the meaning “to move”, suggesting that this movement of energy between the internal organs and the external organs is consistent and reciprocal.” (Johnson, 409)
FET connects each organ to an acquired emotional pattern, which is a pattern that develops due to how we feel about life experiences- learned emotional states. These are not necessarily harmful; emotions are completely natural responses and certainly fear is a healthy response that mobilizes us to listen intently with the whole body to move quickly out of danger. But when it is excessive, or chronic, it can affect the balance of energy and hence the condition of the associated organ, and overall vitality. This is true for the internal patterns of individuals, and includes virbrations from external energies coming in from social and environmental surroundings. We are all affected by our emotional landscapes; an environment of excessive or deficient emotions or constant, intense experiences likewise have an effect, so this isn’t just a matter of balancing personal emotions, but also being aware of the emotional ecosystem one is in and adapting as needed or when possible.
For the kidney organ system, the original state of energy resonating through and around the kidneys is related to the virtue “Zhi”- defined as Will, as in, will power, grit, resilience, and Wisdom as self-awareness, emotional intelligence, having a strong sense of rootedness and belonging. When this kind of qi is harmonized, one has the vibration of calm inner strength and the confidence of knowing oneself well. The learned emotions that can disturb the kidney qi are related to chronic fear, alienation, or stem from a person’s sense of insecurity. Hyper-awareness to danger upsets balance in the water element, which normally settles energy. This disturbance keeps the soul from sinking or settling into the body comfortably or being reflected clearly.
Factors that weaken will power, include mismanaging stress and the pressures of temptation, and harsh self-criticism, which can be notably damaging to self-image and the overall vitality of people. Since this relates to the sense of inner hearing, tending to the health of the ears and intending to learn to listen fully and well do fit into a qigong context. This includes the conversations with others, but especially those conversations we have between who we think we are and who we really are. A few months back, I wrote an article (here) about how a person’s very cells can hear his/her self-talk as if it were a real conversation, experiencing the same emotional responses, too. When the talk is abusive or overly judgmental it is like being berated in real time and makes it difficult to come back to oneself, replenished and renewed. It alters an accurate view of self . This may be why it can be hard to "be alone with your thoughts". Especially for those who have underlying anxiety, the tendency is to ruminate on the more negative aspects of life. Low self esteem, which is a mistake of self-awareness, lends itself to self-degrading thoughts. Some overly extroverted people can feel panic at the stark intimacy of alone time. So, what can we do from a qigong perspective to help?
Practices for ear health and for healthy hearing.
1. Can you hear yourself?
Ways to curb self criticism:
1) The next time you catch your inner critic talking, ask yourself if you would talk to a friend the way you are talking to yourself now. If the answer is no, see if you can rephrase what you are saying as if you are talking to a friend. If the answer is yes, can you begin to talk kindly to yourself as a way of learning how to communicate with others? (NPR article on self-criticism)
2) The next time you catch yourself criticizing, judging, or catastrophizing, challenge your thoughts by asking, “Why would you say that? Is there any real evidence that this is true?” For example, “Am I really just a lazy person, or do I need to adjust my schedule a bit, or do I really want to do this?” “Does this one mistake honestly mean I never get anything right?” “Is it really true that my friend cancelled our lunch plans because she doesn’t like me anymore, or is it possible she really is very busy right now?”
3) Try a version of Martin Seligman’s “Three Good Things” exercise. End your day by recalling something good that happened that day- it doesn’t have to be anything elaborate- maybe as simple as you had a good hair day, or got to enjoy a few favorite songs. Let yourself feel good about it and savor that for a few moments. It might help you relax to do nine deep breaths to circulate this good energy and calm yourself before you go to sleep.
4) Can you allow yourself to daydream? This is different from meditation where the experience is allowing thoughts to float by without attaching to them. Take a little vacation in your mind and imagine yourself being there filling it in with as rich an experience as you can summon up. This can be hard for some people, but remember, in qigong practice, we are learning to use the imagination as a tool for changing the overall vibration of the body and mind- go someplace you’ve always wanted to- let yourself experience how it would feel as if you were there without arguing about how it’s impossible. Just go there, enjoy. (James Giordano, from: Why are So Many of Us Afraid of Our Thoughts?)
2. Listening Energy in Taijiquan and Qigong:
Use more of your capacity for inner hearing- cultivate conscious listening- the next time you practice qigong or tai chi. Tai chi teacher, Gerald Sharp (reference below) says, “Listening is a valuable tool in cultivating the flow of qi in all forms of practice…” Using “ting jing” or Listening energy, is a part of taijiquan and qigong practice that develops the skill of internal sensing. It allows one to monitor and engage with qi flowing internally. “When tightness can be “heard” …the practitioner gradually releases tightness…” and this eases the energy held in tension, harmonizing the qi with the rest of the internal circulation. For internal arts practitioners, “using listening is a way to begin to interpret where their force is rooted or being directed from.” A harmony is usually thought of as something heard but it is also felt when it is achieved and when it happens, it feels a certain way in the body. This can be a sign that you’ve learned to hear your inner harmony. I’ve attached some examples of what this state is like; I’m sure you’ve experienced it before. As you listen to these, note any visceral feelings you experience, and savor them for the next time you feel out of tune so you have a compass as you work it out. Make a tiny practice of listening to these and flowing with the sound of them. C’mon- it’s cool!
Diminished Chords to resolution: G7 to C:
3. Ear practices for Winter, or anytime you might want to develop better hearing, physically or psychically:
In Chinese medicine, the ears contain connections not only to the kidneys; treating them with massage or acupressure can ease symptoms of several physical and mental disorders because there are points along the ears themselves that map to practically every other part of the body and the the 12 ordinary meridians. This practice touches on a few techniques to stimulate those points on the ears and to strengthen kidney qi.
Standing or sitting, take a few deep breaths to calm yourself.
1) Rub your palms together until you feel warmth; then take with one hand grasp the ear lobe (same side), between your thumb and forefinger. With the other hand reach over the head as comfortably as possible and grasp the top of the same ear between the thumb and forefinger. For several breaths, pull and stretch the ear- top/bottom apart, fold forward, pull up, pull down. Then massage the ear along the ridges and crevices. Do the other side.
2) Place your palms over your ears. Push gently in to create a (very) light suction, the quickly pull out. Do nine times.
3) Run your flat palms down the front of the chest while visualizing any turbid qi flowing down and out of the feet.
Stimulating Kidney Qi
1) To stimulate the first kidney point at the bottom of the feet, inhale, rising up onto your toes; when the inhale is full, raise slightly higher and the drop gently back to the heels as you exhale. If you’re feeling tired or heavy, you may want to exhale with an open mouth, releasing the tired energy. Do 3 to 9 times.
2) Begin by shaking the knees back and forth, then the fingers and hands. Let this tremble up the legs, torso, and arms, then exhale, sinking back down a bit making a loud exhale with an open mouth, flicking the energy from the fingertips and through the feet. 3- 9 times.
3) Make light fists and tap on either side of the abdomen, just about at the navel. Continue tapping as you move your fists around to the back, ending the tapping on either side of your spine, across from the navel. Repeat nine times.
4) Relax the fists and with flat palms, vigorously rub along the spine and low back for a few minutes, or nine breaths.
5) Kidneys and knees are related- make light fists again, and tap on the outside of the knees, then the inside, then the front, nine times in each position, then with flat palms, clap nine times on the backs of the knees.
6) End with a few deep breaths as the qi settles where it is needed.
Enjoy the full moon energy this weekend and the coming Winter Soltice on Tuesday!
References not online:
hooks, bell (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New
York: Routledge (p.41; pp.149 - 151)
Johnson, Jerry Alan, “The Secret Teachings of Chinese Energetic Medicine, Vol. 1: Energetic Anatomy and Physiology”. The International Institute of Medical Qigong Publishing House, Monterey, CA 94940, USA. 2014.
Sharp, Gerald. “Listening: Gateway to the Internal” QI- The Journal of Traditional Health and Fitness. Winter, 2021-22.