The Spleen’s Physical Realm
The Spleen’s transformative action is best embodied in the digestive process and the Spleen may be taken to refer to the whole digestive tract from mouth to anus and all the various juices and transformative agents released along the way. This includes the pancreas which secretes enzymes into the small intestine to assist in the assimilation of nutrients. One measure of the Spleen’s strength is the vigour of the digestive system. Its transformative action converts food into Blood and Qi.
The strength of Blood and Qi are, therefore, significantly dependent on the Spleen. The nourishment generated by the Spleen is transported along the meridians, through the soft tissues of the body. The Blood and Qi, derived from the original transformation within the digestive system, invigorate the soft tissues and give them tone. Soft tissues support the structure of the physical body, keeping things in place, holding up the body and giving it shape. With poor tone in the soft tissues a body feels and looks saggy and in extreme cases may suffer from prolapse. When the Spleen is strong, physical vitality is also strong and the soft tissues provide the body with good support. The Spleen may therefore be seen as the provider of the body’s physical tone.
The Spleen’s Non-Physical Realm
The Spleen is said to house the power of Thought, the ‘Yi’ of Chinese medicine, the power to concentrate and apply the mind. This is an odd concept to the western mind, so what does it mean? The digestive process is mirrored at the mental level by the thinking process. Digestion begins with a desire to eat which leads to the intake of food. The food is then sorted into what is usable and sent to where it can be used or stored in the body. What cannot be used is excreted. The thinking process follows a similar path: the desire for knowledge leads to the intake of information which is then sifted and sorted. Whatever can be put to immediate use is applied and the rest is stored for later. Irrelevant or unusable information is rejected and forgotten.
Our everyday language reflects just how similar and related these processes are. We talk of ‘food for thought’, of being ‘unable to digest certain information’, of ‘verbal diarrhoea’, of ‘eating our words’, of ‘chewing over an idea’. Most of us will also recognise more obvious physical connections such as being unable to concentrate after eating too much, or developing food cravings during intense periods of study or not being able to eat when we are worried (a knotted form of thinking). The Latin proverb Mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body, underlines the relationship between physical vitality and mental alertness.
If the Spleen governs the power of thought at the mental level, at the emotional level it governs feelings of concern both for self and for others. A healthy concern for our own needs leads us to nourish ourselves emotionally and, if we are ourselves emotionally nourished, we can give appropriate nourishment to those we care about. Strong Spleen energy lays the groundwork for a healthy emotional life in which needs are satisfied; we are able to overflow into life with generosity rather than grasp at life from a hungry place of lack.
Turned inward, concern may become self-concern, a self-absorption which leads to Stagnation of energy. Turned outward, concern may become overconcern for the needs of others where, like the naked man who offers another a coat, we project our own need onto others and give from an unbalanced place. This perpetuates a distortion of Spleen energy into the wider community.
Psychologically the Spleen also has to do with issues of nourishment and support. Spleen energy is mature when we are able to nourish ourselves from within, when we feel self-supporting and are not driven so much by need but by an overflowing of our own abundance. This is a tall order! In a culture where traditional systems of support (the sense of community, tribe, family) have largely broken down, most people experience a crying out for support and nourishment. To work with the Spleen we need to work with emotional nourishment as well as physical.
Archetypally the Spleen is related to the mother. In the process of growing up the needs that are initially provided for by the mother are increasingly provided for by the growing child itself. Eventually a person develops an ‘internal mother’, an ability to find comfort and nourishment from within. At this point in development the Spleen energy can be said to mature.