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Soulful Sundays: The Circle of Emotions

"In a far-off land, word spread far and wide of a holy man with magic so powerful it could relieve the most severe suffering. After seekers of healing traveled through the wilderness to reach him, he’d swear them to secrecy about what was next to pass between them. Once they took the vow, the holy man asked a single question: What are you unwilling to feel?" -Anonymous

Happy Sunday everyone. If you are reading this post and haven't read the preceding five posts, I would highly recommend doing so. However, this post will stand alone if you are unable. Previously, we characterized the five dominant emotions used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory. Today, we will take a look at the ways in which they interact. These relationships are represented by the image of a circle connected by a star inside (see the image above).

The outer rim of the circle is called the Generating Cycle (labeled above as nourishing) and flows clockwise from one emotion/element to the next. This follows the progression of the seasons--Spring/Wood, Summer/Fire, Late Summer/Earth, Fall/Metal, and Winter/Water--but also describes how each element creates the next. Wood burns to create fire, ash becomes earth, metal is found within earth, water condenses on metal, and water feeds wood. When the Generating Cycle is flowing smoothly and in the right direction, the elements are said to be in balance. If it stops or flows backwards, things become awry.

Looking at the Generating Cycle with the emotions in mind, we see a similar pattern of harmony. We can look at this from two angles. One angle is that when each emotion is balanced it brings out the best qualities of the next element. When we are righteous (the positive side of Wood), then we will experience more joy. When we are joyful (the positive side of Fire), then we will experience more compassion (the positive side of Earth). When we are compassionate, then we will experience more integrity (the positive side of Metal). When we have integrity, then we will gain wisdom (the positive side of Water). And when we have wisdom, we will be more righteous.

The second explanation is the same as the first except that we express everything in the negative sense. When the emotion of a generating element is in check, it inhibits the negative elements of the next emotion. When our anger is in control, then we aren't thrown into mania. When we aren't driven by mania, then we won't worry obsessively. When we aren't consumed by worry, then our contentment will lead to less grief. When we aren't overwhelmed by loss, then we will be less afraid. And when we have a healthy relationship with fear, then our anger will be more in control. Both lenses of looking at the Generating Cycle are valid. They are Yin and Yang components of the same phenomenon.

In the middle of the circle are the lines of control, or the Controlling Cycle. This looks like a star (in the diagram above they are called suppression lines). In the Controlling Cycle each element is controlled by an element/emotion and controls a separate element/emotion. For example, balanced anger moderates excessive worry and balanced worry moderates excessive fear. Wood controls Earth which controls Water. If you remember, I talked about an important controlling relationship in the last post concerning fear that is somewhat unique. Balanced fear is essential to balanced joy. Some would call these two emotions opposites, but they just have a slightly more polar relationship than the other connections in the Controlling Cycle.

So what happens when the wheel becomes unbalanced or starts rolling backwards? The Chinese see this as unhealthy and disease-promoting if left unchecked. For example, one of the most common pathologies in TCM is a disruptive Controlling Cycle, involving an overactive Liver and a weakened Spleen and Lung. The excessive stress and anger produced by the Liver exerts too much control over the Spleen and leads to digestive conditions. This same Liver also acts backwards and controls the Lung, producing poor breathing patterns and possibly skin conditions. A common example of a disruptive Generating Cycle is a weak, worry-fraught Spleen being unable to properly nourish the Lung, so we get the development of excess phlegm in the lungs caused by poor digestion. We could also get heart palpitations caused by the Spleen's inability to control Fire by way of failing to control Water.

There are an endless number of connections when we look at the five elements and five emotions in this way. A deficiency or excess in any one area can lead to an equal and opposite excess or deficiency elsewhere. This is why moderation and healthy expression of our emotions is so important. We don't want the wheel to become stuck, at least not for very long.

As somewhat of a PSA, I want to end this post with an ask to you, the reader. If you feel stuck in any emotional state, I would highly encourage you to seek the help of either a professional counselor or healer, or a trusted friend, mentor, or family member. Many negative outcomes could be simply avoided if we all had outlets for talking about our emotions safely. We are never alone or without help. It only seems that way when we get stuck. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

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