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The Spleen

Last Wednesday I walked down to Monument Square to check out the Farmer’s Market. The tables were literally spilling over with bounty – fruit, vegetables, flowers, bread, cheese, and millions of other things that delighted all the sensory organs on my face.

As I was perusing the produce of one local vendor, I noticed that she had put out a bowl for sampling – fresh corn and cherry tomatoes.  I grabbed a quartered cob and bit in – I’d never tasted corn that hadn’t been boiled or grilled, and I was shocked when what I can only refer to as !CANDYWATER! exploded from the kernels. It was like…it was like…OMG

“A vegetable!” sang my spirit, “A vegetable that tastes like dessert!!!”

And right at that moment, in the midst of my corngasm, the bluegrass band launched into an uptempo version of This Land is Your Land, vendors began leaping through the air, and customers set down their non-plastic bags to lock arms with strangers – Farmer’s Market Flash Mob!!!

Okay, okay, the Flash Mob didn’t happen. What actually happened was that my 10 month old reached up and snatched the corn right out of my paw. She gnawed on it for the next hour, obsessed with prying each candy-like kernel from the cob.

Late summer, earth, balanced, rounded, yellow, nourishment, sweetness, singing – these are all words associated with the spleen. The spleen, as I hope you’ve gathered by my slightly ridiculous anecdote, has everything to do with our relationship with food, pleasure, and nourishment.

The Spleen’s Physical Realm

According to TCM, the spleen is the organ in charge of transformation. It allows us to literally and figuratively digest and assimilate the world around us (in the form of food and life experiences).When you hear the word “spleen” in the context of TCM, don’t be tricked into thinking about the organ that sits in the upper part of your abdomen. Instead, when you hear the word spleen, think about your relationship with food. How nourished do you feel by the food you eat? Do you experience TBB (total bowel breakdown) when you get stressed? Do you often eat in a hurry, in the car, stuffing french fries down the gullet? Do you ever make time to eat carefully prepared meals with the people you love? Do you fart all the time, and avoid accountability. You do??? Shame on you!

Nourishment is a great word to describe the job of the spleen. It’s a great word because it not only describes the nourishment that we get from the food we eat, but the nourishment we get from life itself – which leads us into the equally important emotional aspect of the spleen. This organ is also directly related to our ability to love ourselves and be nurtured by others.

Julia Child encompasses all that I know and love about healthy spleen qi.
Julia Child encompasses all that is wonderful about healthy spleen qi.

The Spleen’s Non-Physical Realm 

Who is the most gentle and nurturing person you know? And by ‘nurturing’, I don’t mean the kind of person who takes care of others begrudgingly, and at the expense of their own energy. I mean the kind of person who is naturally friendly, a magician in the kitchen, and whose all-encompassing bear hugs make you feel momentarily safe and loved in this big unpredictable world. Is it your granddad? Your mom? Your neighbor or friend? Whomever that person is – they probably embody the earth element.

The Spleen governs our feelings of concern and love for ourselves and others. Now… I’m going to say something that might make ya’ wanna smack me – but we must first love ourselves. We all know this is true, yet is seems to be one of the hardest things to do when that nasty little voice inside your head acts up and starts calling you names. Alas, don’t be discouraged! Cultivating spleen energy will help you muzzle that self-deprecating pain-in-the-arse that lives inside your head!

The Spleen also houses the power of Thought, which includes the power to concentrate and absorb information. The thought process essentially mimics the digestive process (we take in information, extract what is useful, and discard the rest). Overthinking, no matter the quality of the thought (and this can include anxiety and rumination), can damage the Spleen. Complaints like “muddled thinking” or a “foggy head” are often imbalances with this organ/meridian. If you are reading this, and saying to yourself: “Hey, MY head feels like it’s stuffed with damp cotton balls!!! Well, then, it’s time to head on in to Wildwood Community Acupuncture for a visit.

In general, a balanced Spleen helps us to feel safe and comfortable in our own skin. The mind is clear and the digestion is efficient, and there is energy to last the day. Though we experience the ups and downs of the life, we continue to cultivate compassion for ourselves and others.

I know. I know. Of course this isn’t what every day looks like –  and if it did, we’d be like the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica. We are human, which means we experience imbalance, and we experience it often. But remember – there are lots of ways to bring yourself back into balance when you feel off – and when it comes to the Spleen, the first thing you can do is to cultivate the Earth element, which means you can try to restart your day from a place of self-love.  Or you can just think of me at the Farmer’s Market, my molars crashing down upon those round yellow kernels whose sweetness brings instant nourishment and happiness, while in the background, a Farmer’s Market turns flash mob.

And if imagining my corngasm doesn’t work for you, you could simply watch this and have a laugh. Because laughter is good for everything.

If this article peaked your interest, see 10 Ways to Balance Your Spleen for more information.


GUTS AND BOLTS: Understanding the 5 Viscera

Important things first. When I did an image search for the word “viscera” to find a picture for this post, the overwhelming result was this:

Apparently, Viscera is a professional wrestler who enforces the evil agenda of the Ministry of Darkness. Note the "gothic" look he has cultivated: white-out contact lenses, a bleached mohawk, and form-fitting, bedazzled leather.
Apparently, Viscera is a professional wrestler who enforces the evil agenda of the Ministry of Darkness. Note the “gothic” look he has cultivated: white-out contact lenses, a bleached mohawk, and form-fitting, bedazzled leather.


What I was actually looking for was this:

These blokes and their partially-exposed viscera stop for a friendly game of poker.
These blokes and their partially-exposed viscera stop for a friendly game of poker.

In Traditional Chinese medicine, the 5 viscera (Wu Zang)  include the heart, the spleen, the lungs, the kidneys, and the liver. When we talk about these organs in the context of TCM, we are talking about a wide and interrelated set of functions that include the physical organ as well as the emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects associated with that organ. We are NOT referring to your organs from a Western medical perspective. In other words, if we talk about treating congestion in your liver, we are not implying that there is anything physiologically wrong with your liver that would show up in a lab.

So, next time you overhear your acupuncturist say “Okay, Joffrey Baratheon, we’re going to work on clearing fire from your liver, you sinister rat!”

Little dude has some serious liver fire.
Little dude has some serious liver fire.

you will know that “liver fire” is a term used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and that we are not implying that there is an actual flame coming from the organ that sits in the right upper quadrant of Joffrey’s abdominal cavity.

Though the TCM perspective of the body differs in many ways from the Western perspective, the two systems actually complement each other quite nicely – even some of the functions associated with particular organs sometimes overlap within the two systems. Here’s how I explain the differences and similarities between Eastern/Western medicine to my patients – olive oil and balsamic vinegar surely hold their own space in your kitchen cabinet, right?  But mix them together you’ve got a simple vinaigrette! If life is like a box of chocolates….then whole health is like making a tasty vinaigrette!

Over the next month I’ll post all kinds of amazing information about your guts! We will review the 5 viscera, and I’ll explain how these major organs experience imbalance.  I’ll answer the most common questions I hear in the clinic, like “What are signs of imbalance?” and “How did this organ become imbalanced?”  I’ll share all kinds of creative ways to restore balance when you feel outta whack (before you even have to see your doc, or your acupuncturist). And of course, I promise to go on some ridiculous tangents that have absolutely nothing to do with the subject since we must always keep things interesting and helpful, but never overly serious.

The goal of the next month of posts is simple –  I want to help you understand your body so you can be proactive about nurturing yourself into a state of balance that feels good to you. It’s the best kind of healing, really, when your spirit and your earthsuit make nice and work together so you can better ride the big surf without falling from your board.

The most tubular metaphor for life as we know it.
The most tubular metaphor for life as we know it.