Welcome to my blog! My plan is to share a bit of the beautiful embodied metaphor of Classical Chinese Medicine. CCM is both practical and poetic, and it’s the interplay of these two commonly contrasted facets that draw me to it.
I’m going to skip on saying “according to Chinese Medicine” a million times here, so please preface any of the below that sounds strange with that in mind. And I appreciate questions and suggestions as well!
Let’s jump right in with the most prevalent disease world wide; back pain. When I read this on trusty Wikipedia I thought, why not cancer or heart disease. But if you think about it, our species either tends to labor with our backs or sit at desks all day long. Over time, both are very taxing on the back.
You’ll find a point named Great Hammer at the base of your neck, just below the last of your neck’s seven vertebrae. In addition to being the last, it’s also the largest of your cervical vertebrae. Find it by reaching your hand to the back of your neck where it meets your shoulders. It ought to stick out a bit more than the others, right at the end of the neck curve. Like many acupuncture points, it takes its name partly from its anatomical features.
Functionally, I think of it as the Great Embosser. Not necessarily in an egotistical, or readily apparent way, but in the way each of us, through our actions, leaves our mark on the world over the course of our lives. Incidentally, I just looked up etymology of "boss" and it happens to literally mean "knob" or "protuberance", so this works anatomically too. Given its position as the central meeting point between the head and shoulders, this "boss" marries what we see with what we do. Head turns, eyes focus, arms reach out.
Watch a baby grasp anything and draw it towards its mouth. It’s not just trying to suckle. The tongue is the flowering of the Heart. The Heart rules communication. So young babies are essentially programmed to gum the world as a means of connecting to it. This basic movement adjusts from literal to figurative as we learn to use our tongues to make words.
We’re no longer as prone to making a buffet out of big brother’s chemistry set. Instead we might ask him what it is and if we can play with it too. And maybe he’ll tell us something caustic tastes good, and maybe he won’t. Anyhow, it more than works out that we’re still crawling at the age where we want to put everything into our mouths.
We’re born as inward facing circles. Connected to the whole, to the Dao, metaphorically. When the neck curve forms, we begin the process of differentiating ourselves from the whole. This beginning of sensing the other and self is initiated with the lifting of the head (activating Great Hammer), in order to look around and realize there’s a world beyond Mommy.
We might want Mommy to go in a different direction, towards that sparkly something in the grass. But we can’t walk or talk yet, so we crane our heads and squeal. Great Hammer is the pivot point from which we focus on and yearn for the world beyond our mothers (and fathers, or whomever are our main caretakers.) But how to get there?
We writhe and then crawl towards this new world. And eventually our lower backs develop enough so that we can waddle and toddle towards it. Will power, vitality, is now fully supporting our desire to explore. The key point associated with will power, Gate of Vitality/Life, is just below the second lumbar vertebra. It represents, and accesses, our vital essence, which can be thought of as our lifelong battery. In fact, this point is contraindicated for anyone prior to puberty.
So the fundamental equation that our backs fulfill, metaphorically and literally is Desire + Will Power. When the desire for something is piqued, our lower backs motivate our legs to walk towards that something. Ever felt that your legs were walking you towards something or someone beyond your volition.
Maybe you decided to take a terrifying stride or leap towards something new. And once you got going, fear disappeared and your legs took you towards your destination almost automatically. Once the desire is focused, the decision made, there’s a seemingly automatic motivating force. This is our will power lining up with our desire.
The misalignment of the two is the source of a lot of disease. Insomnia, anxiety and depression are all the result of the Kidney’s will power not being aligned with the Heart’s desires. Think of our desire as being the fire that reaches up and out into the world and our will power being the water that anchors, nurtures and balances the fire.
If fire is unchecked by water, that out of control feeling is anxiety. And conversely, if water is without fire, it’s aimless and we feel apathetic, even depressed.
The development of the two spinal curves I’ve been writing about oppose our original circular shape. They take us from a circle into a line. An upright line that sparks our individuality. Which simultaneously sees the beginning of our ability to discern, to differentiate. In fact, the Terrible Twos, or whenever your baby discovers “no”, is built into these very same energetics – to be explored in another blog.
In Daoist terminology, we break off from the circle of the Dao in order to learn our individual lessons. In order to experience the literal and metaphorical gravity of this world. In order to live in a world with inherent conflict. (Lifting our heads up in the morning is a conflict…in fact, everything we do is done in conflict to gravity…that’s why floatation tanks are so trippy).
The lines that most of us become aren’t really straight; I think of us more like standing shock absorbers. Again, to help buffer the literal and metaphorical gravity of living. Long term challenges to our will power, including simply living a long life, often result in lower back pain.
English if full of phrases that attest to the connection between our backs and will power: back-breaking, back against a wall, get off my back…all expressing a challenge to one’s will power. And this is precisely the understanding of the lower back in Chinese medicine. The lumbar curve is the motivating force, the will, behind moving towards our heart’s desires.
So, if you wake up with a stiff neck, consider what you want for yourself in life, what your Heart’s desires might be – if you might be overdoing it, or perhaps underdoing it. If someone has a difficult time getting out of a chair, the general assumption is that the back is too stiff or weak, but often it’s the neck, the desire for life, that is calcified. And if your lower back has a dull ache, you might need to rest, recharge, maybe even reorient your will power.
If you have a heating pad, this will probably help (as long as your back isn’t inflamed). When I’ve wanted to save on heating bills in the winter, I've turned the thermostat down and heated my entire body with a heating pad on my lower back whilst sitting. If you place one against your lower back you’ll be using the innate animating circuitry of your body that begins around the Gate of Vitality. While it warms you up you ought to feel an accompanying boost to your will as well. Thanks for reading!