"If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present." -Lao Tzu
"I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened." -Mark Twain
So far on our journey through the Chinese five elements and five emotions we have covered Wood/Anger and Fire/Joy. Today we will explore the Earth element which is embodied by the emotion of Worry.
Earth is the element of the Spleen organ system in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). When most people think about the word spleen what usually comes to mind is a useless organ that often swells when we get sick and can rupture and need to be removed. That isn't the spleen we will be discussing. What the Chinese most likely meant by the spleen was actually the pancreas, and due to a mistranslation we came to call it spleen instead. No bother. You can think of them all as the same system--the spleen, the pancreas, and the stomach--because the TCM Spleen is responsible for not only digestion of food, but also immune function.
The spirit of the Spleen is called the 'Yi," or intellect. The Chinese believe that digesting and thinking share energy from the same source. This makes sense. People are said to 'ruminate' on thoughts or 'chew the cud 'if they are deliberating something. Furthermore, ideas must be 'digested' and 'gut feelings' can provide surprisingly accurate information signals. More on that last point--the 'first brain' is actually the enteric brain which developed in the stomachs of animals long before the evolution of the 'second brain' in the head.
Our relationship with our thoughts and, more specifically, worry has a direct relationship to our digestion. The two most common side effects from excessive worry are either having an upset stomach or eating excessively. Developing a healthy relationship with worry goes hand in hand with developing a healthy relationship with food. Worry is not without a purpose. It keeps our minds sharp and emotionally connects us to our life journey as we reflect on the past and plan the future. Worry is also the other side of sympathy, empathy, and human social behavior. The absence of just a little bit of worry for how we are being perceived by others or how others feel is pathologic. We call it psychopathy.
To find a balance with worry ironically takes a little planning. The Spleen system thrives on regularity (i.e. regular meals at regular intervals) so that a pattern of nutrient absorption can be established. Skipping meals, eating late, and over or under eating are all disruptive to the Spleen, as is leaving out essential food groups. We can apply this same patterning to worry. Not too much, not too often, and not on frivolous thoughts. When starting out it may be necessary to put some major constraints on your worry such as reducing or eliminating media and social apps, or only checking emails and texts at distinct times during the day, or setting aside dedicated times for journaling and productive planning/worrying about major life stressors.
It is when we constantly give our worries a seat at the table that we begin to suffer. Unfortunately, our modern world has made this more or less normal. Think of the typical response to, "How are you doing?" "I'm busy," you often hear. Busy juggling all of life's stressors, all at the same time. It's a recipe for dropping them all. Instead, what if we could say, "I've got worries, but very few of them will come true." Instead, what if we could focus on being present with the person or the task in front of us and giving it our full attention. Then we might be a little closer to peace.
A healthy Spleen is represented by the idyllic late summer, when everything is in fruit, the days are long, and the living is easy. We have all the time that we need to accomplish our goals. We need only take one day at a time.