The Virtue of Grief: Life Lessons from a Powerful Human Emotion

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.

Every human emotion provides a unique message that helps us learn about ourselves and others. Emotional intelligence comes from managing our wide spectrum of emotions and harnessing their respective power. 

The problem is that most of us have been taught to value certain emotions more than others. Joy is considered a "good" emotion while anger and sadness are often considered "bad" emotions. Since "good" emotions are more acceptable, I believe many of us feel shame or self-doubt around fully expressing the "bad" emotions. This leads us to suppress these feelings, which can exacerbate the emotional upheaval internally and cause damage to the corresponding organ system with which the emotion is associated.

Grief is one of the most difficult emotions to process, but when properly transformed, it can provide powerful life lessons that can propel you to grow immensely on your path of self-cultivation.

Grief is the path to heal past wounds and arrive more fully into your authentic self.

Grief is the path to heal past wounds and arrive more fully into your authentic self.

The Emotions According to Chinese Medicine

Huang Di Nei Jing, a foremost classical Chinese medical text, defines seven emotions as major internal causes of disease. These emotions are joy, anger, fear, fright, anxiety, pensiveness and grief. We all experience all these emotions but when any one of them become excessive or are not properly transformed, they can damage their respective organ systems.

It's important to note that all emotions have the potential to negatively impact your health, including the ones we often deem as positive, such as joy. According to Chinese Medicine, over-joy can be likened to anxiety, which is an emotion with which many of us are familiar. Anxiety has the potential to aggravate the Heart and Pericardium system, or Fire element.

Other emotions can also cause damage when chronic or in excess. Worry, or pensiveness, leads to obsession and can damage the Spleen and Stomach system, or Earth element. Anger can turn to rage and damage the Liver and Gallbladder system, or Wood element. Sadness can turn to chronic grief and damage the Lungs and Large Intestine system, or Metal element.

Organ systems are particularly vulnerable during their respective seasons. The Liver and Gallbladder are for instance most vulnerable during the Wood season of Spring, while the Lungs and Large Intestine are most susceptible to harm during the Metal season of Autumn. Consequently, you're more likely to feel the imbalanced emotion of each element during its respective season. In other words, it's common to feel angry or irritable during springtime while sadness is a common emotion during the Fall season.

Sadness and grief are the emotions associated with an imbalance in the Lung and Large Intestine system, and thus the Metal element, which is most active during the Fall season.

When we learn to properly transform grief, not only can it help us develop a greater capacity emotionally, but it can also help us deepen our self-awareness and self-cultivation.

 

Grief and the Lungs

Grief is the unbalanced emotion related to the Metal element, which encompasses the Lungs and Large Intestine, as well as the skin.

Grief directly impacts the Lungs and overwhelms our ability to let go, which is the virtue of the Lungs in their balanced state.

Your lungs are part of the respiratory system, and they provide a connection between your external and internal worlds through the breath. Inhalation draws in fresh oxygen and Qi, or energy, while exhalation helps you let go of toxins. 

The Lungs' natural movement is to disperse and descend Qi.

The Lungs disperse, or spread, the body fluids as well as the Wei Qi, the defensive Qi that runs on the surface of the skin to protect you during the day and travels into the body to help you sleep at night. This ensures that Wei Qi is equally distributed under the skin and to the muscles to warm and moisten the skin, allowing for a normal amount of sweating, and to protect the body from external pathogens that can cause colds, flus and skin problems (see more about this in a previous article).

As the uppermost organ, the Lungs also descend Qi to communicate with the Kidneys, which are said to 'grasp' the Qi of the Lungs. This allows for deep breathing. The Lungs also direct body fluids downward to Kidneys and Bladder. Dysfunction in the communication between the Lungs and Kidneys can result in wheezing and asthma or accumulation of fluids either from the failure of the Lungs to descend the Qi or weakness in the Kidneys that prevent the grasping of the Lung Qi.

Dealing with grief weakens your Qi, which then demands that you slow down and turn inward to process the depths of your emotional state.

Dealing with grief weakens your Qi, which then demands that you slow down and turn inward to process the depths of your emotional state.

The Virtue of Grief

Grief weakens the Lung Qi and inhibits the natural ability of the Lungs to disperse Qi, thereby preventing the Lungs from letting go and extending your energy out into the world.

Grief also impairs the Lungs' ability to descend Qi into the Kidneys, which can further weaken the Kidneys. As a result, when faced with tragedy such as death or other loss, you may feel isolated and vulnerable.

Since grief directly impacts the Lungs, it's common to have Lung problems develop after a loss, including asthma, cough, and even pneumonia.

Dealing with grief can be draining and weakens your Qi, which then demands that you slow down and turn inward to process the depths of your emotional state.

Turning inward allows you to consolidate your Kidney Qi, which supports the Lung Qi, governs Willpower and holds the Life Gate Fire known as the Ming Men that stokes all of the body's energy.

Turning inward and slowing down is thus essential for the Lungs to regain the strength necessary to help you let go and express yourself in the world once again.

It's therefore necessary to have a hibernation period to build back your energy and process your grief.

The best time to do this is during the slow, Yin seasons of Fall and Winter, which are the seasons of the Lungs and Kidneys, respectively.

Grief can be particularly challenging to process because it stirs up the regrets, insecurities and unresolved issues of your past.

Grief is the path to heal past wounds.

Left alone, the wounds of your past become more and more painful and inhibit you from living a fulfilled life.

These unhealed wounds can be likened to what author Michael Singer calls "inner thorns" in his book, The Untethered Soul. Singer explains that these "thorns" are sensitivities that lie in the human heart. When something touches these thorns, we feel pain deep inside.

Singer says that you have two choices to deal with these inner thorns. You can either compensate for being disturbed by avoiding feeling the thorn, or you can remove the thorn and not have the focus of your life revolve around it. To remove the thorn, he says that you must "look deep within yourself, to the core of your being, and decide that you don't want the weakest part of you running your life" (Singer 81).

When you avoid or compensate for your emotions, they become the inner thorns that manifest into your greatest blocks.

When you instead take time to process your grief, it'll guide you to insights that help you heal your inner thorns; your deepest wounds from the past.

Through this healing, you’ll cultivate a more grounded connection to yourself.

 

Conclusion

If you don't process grief, it ferments in your body-mind and later manifests as more severe, chronic emotions such as depression and even rage.

Like every emotion, the full expression of grief is the process by which it's brought to the surface to heal.

When you catch a cold, your body attempts to clear it through your orifices with symptoms such as a runny nose, sneezing and coughing. Similarly, the body needs to process an overwhelming loss through the expression of emotions, including grief, which must be felt and experienced fully to transform and clear from the body.

Loss is a natural part of life, and we're all grieving something most of the time, whether it's the loss of a loved one, a career change, a move, a breakup, or the simple inner transformations that can occur daily.

Every change in your life, whether positive or negative, can stir up grief about what you're leaving behind. Every change therefore has the potential to offer new wisdom and insights through the virtue of grief. When you allow this grief to transport you to the depths of your heart, you can hear the lessons of your past, let go, and regain the strength and clarity to more fully experience your authentic self.


Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. is Co-Owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture. Dr. Moafi offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga. More information at www.setarehmoafi.com and www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com


Breathe Deeply,  Fall Into a More Mindful Way of Life

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.

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With the Fall Equinox on September 22nd, we arrive fully into the season of Metal, which according to the Five Elements of Chinese Medicine is associated with the Lungs and Large Intestine organs.

It's therefore imperative that we focus on our Lung health this season, and especially during the seasonal transition when Lung Qi is most vulnerable.

The Lungs govern the circulation of Qi throughout the body and support us to breathe deeply.

When Lung Qi is weak, symptoms such as coughing, shortness of breath, allergies and even asthma can manifest. Having strong Lung Qi also provides the force to stimulate Large Intestine peristalsis to maintain healthy bowel function.

Since the Lungs receive their fluids from the Spleen, which is responsible for the production of fluids, an imbalance in the Spleen system may result in either dryness or dampness of the Lungs.

The Fall season relates more to dryness as we often notice more dry skin during this time of year. When the Lungs are too dry, the skin will also lack moisture as the skin is an expression of the Lungs in Chinese Medicine.

Strong Lung Qi provides us with greater endurance and stamina and supports us to take more full, conscious breaths.

Conscious breathing allows us to be more present and helps us cultivate a sense of mindfulness - breath by breath and moment to moment.

One essential way to strengthen your Lungs is through regular exercise. This doesn't have to be running marathons or climbing steep mountains, but a simple daily walk is a great way to keep your Lungs strong and vital.

The Metal energy is also strengthened by the Earth energy which is related to Spleen Qi in Chinese Medicine. Earth energy is weakened by too much sitting, so when you sit too much both the Spleen and Lung Qi are compromised and the ability to create energy in your body will decline. Over time, your stamina and endurance will suffer and fatigue will become more prevalent in your life.

So go out and take a walk, hike or ride your bike not only to boost your Lung Qi and help you breathe more deeply, but also to enjoy all the lovely colors that manifest in nature during this time of year.

And with the mindfulness that you'll cultivate by taking deeper breaths, you'll find an even deeper state of presence to enjoy all the changes of this beautiful new season.

Your Health Depends On Letting Go

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. & Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac.

Have you noticed how your immune system seems to crash after a period of high stress or grief?

It’s very common to develop a cold, a cough or even pneumonia after a period of sadness such as the loss of a loved one, a breakup or divorce. In fact, we make sure to tell our patients as they're going through these periods to be mindful of this potential and support their immune systems as much as possible. But sometimes, especially when dealing with grief from the loss of someone dear to you, it can feel like your body just can’t take any more. To make sure that you actually slow down, the body gets sick as though it’s forcing you to rest.

In Chinese Medicine, sadness and grief and their impact on immunity is related to the Metal element and the energy of the Lungs.

Grief and longterm sadness or depression weaken the Lung energy and stagnate the fluid circulation controlled by the Lungs. Over time, as Lung Qi and fluids stagnate, phlegm, cysts and tumors on the Lungs and related glands such as the breasts and thyroid can develop. 

The Lungs, Large Intestine as well as the skin connect us with the environment and comprise the Metal organ systems. Each of these organs allow us to interface in different ways with the world around us. The skin provides interaction with the exterior via sweating and touch, the Lungs through our breath and the Large Intestine through the release of waste to be recycled back into the earth. 

On an emotional level, the Metal element represents the need for self-definition within the world and the need to interact with others. Thus grieving, mourning and sadness, the emotions generated when one is separated from someone or something significant, are Metal emotions that impact the Lung's energy.

On an intellectual level, the strength of the Lung's energy, or Qi, supports the ability to separate things or data into categories to support analytical skills and the ability to coordinate tasks to keep one's life in order. 

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The Lung Qi supports us to breathe in and out, and to let go. The struggle to let go of whatever is bothering us from the past is the primary reason why we often have so much trouble with the health of our Lungs during challenging or uncertain times.

When faced with a challenging situation, often our first response is to hold our breath. However, the practice of taking a deep breath supports us to let go and move forward. When we aren't able to breathe deeply during times of stress, the Metal organs - the Lungs, Large Intestine and skin - are impacted. We may therefore develop asthma, allergies, and inflammatory flare-ups of the skin and colon such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), as well as symptoms of poor digestion with acid reflux (GERD), bloating and gas.  

When we cultivate ourselves through practices such as Yoga, Qi Gong and Tai Chi, we learn to observe and control the breathing and regulate the flow of Qi throughout the whole body. This supports strong muscles, tendons, skin and hair, as well as all organ and glandular functions.  

Breath awareness pulls us out of our minds and into our bodies, bringing us more in touch with the present moment where energy flows harmoniously throughout the body and mind.

Our breath teaches us to be present with what is rather than trying to make it something else; a state that creates resistance and stress. 

When we're stuck in the past or caught up worrying about the future, Qi flow is impacted and dis-ease develops. When we cultivate ourselves through these practices, we become aware that with each breath, we're able to let go and find peace, regardless of our circumstances.  

According to Huang di Nei Jing, one of the most pivotal classical texts of Chinese Medicine, “A person is not sick because they have a disease; they are diseased because they are sick.” In other words, our mental and physical health ensures the prevention of disease. This is why it's so important to protect our Lungs through the practice of letting go.

Try this simple exercise every night before bedtime: When you lie down to sleep, first take a few moments to take an inventory of the key events of your day. Notice what experiences you may have had that caused you to be angry, sad, nervous or numbed out in any way. As your mind reviews the day's events, breathe into each experience and mentally allow yourself to let each one go so you don't fall asleep holding onto the negative feelings.

To "let go" requires acceptance; allowing the situation to be as it is without trying to change it. From this place, we can find peace in the moment, and clarity from which to move forward. In this way, we move without confusion or resistance to change so that we can have a full sense of presence to receive the endless possibilities that life has to offer.


Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. is Co-Owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture. Setareh offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga. 

Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac. is the Founder and Co-Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a wellness clinic that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine & Japanese Meridian Therapy, a rare non-insertion form of Acupuncture.

More information at www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com