Organs, Emotions and the Autonomic Nervous System

Organs and Emotions

In Chinese medicine and in Taoist meditation practices, caring for the energy flow through the organs is considered as important as cardiovascular health and muscle tone are to us here in the West.

The functioning of each organ also is associated with a specific emotional continuum:
the heart: with impatience, hastiness, and joy, respect, love
the lungs: with grief and courage
the kidneys: with fear and gentleness
the liver: with anger and kindness
and the spleen and pancreas: with worry, fairness and openness.


One way to approach caring for the organs involves attention, spending some time with the organs, the related sensations and associated emotions. One of the morning prayers in traditional Judaism thanks God that all the vessels that should be open are open, and all the ones that should be closed are closed–bringing our attention first thing in the morning back to the basic physical phenomenon of body. Our organs could be more than mere industrial chemical factories, more than strangers to us. In one meditation practice, Mantak Chia’s “Inner Smile,” you send a smile to each organ in turn, locating it physically and also bowing to the archetypal emotional principle each one embodies.

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East meets West: Emotion and the Autonomic Nervous System

This is a shift from our most common approaches to emotions, which usually involve trying to understand them, rationalizing, analyzing or denying, and a lot of blame of others or oneself. From the Taoist point of view emotion can be met more directly. Interestingly, this corresponds to Western science’s growing understanding of the role of the autonomic nervous system, the one in control of the famous “fight or flight” response. Before emotion gets involved with all the thinking about a feeling (and the further feelings this engenders), it begins below the level of consciousness, in the amygdala deep in the brain, and in sensations related to the responses thus triggered: sweating, rapid heart-beat and shallow breathing, muscular tension, etc. The act of smiling, or the process of allowing the breath to release and deepen, speaks directly to the animal nervous system that has already jumped into action, calming it back down. The approach of Eastern systems finds support in information from our very own scientific tradition. After all, everywhere, human beings are observing the same processes.

The inner dog

The responses of the nervous system would make complete sense for an animal in the wild. They prepare it to address an immediate threat by either mobilizing to fight or to run away. Unfortunately, we are the heirs to this very same nervous system; while it may be a jungle out there, most situations in which we find ourselves are not best met by fight or flight. Society has evolved more rapidly than our nervous systems.

What can we do to address this situation? I like to say that along with the well-known “inner child,” we might think of ourselves as having an “inner dog.” A major difficulty for “inner dog” is being able to detect what constitutes a true threat. Our brains associate life and death conditions with all kinds of situations: the boss yelling, the truck’s din as it passes by, and many, many topics of thought. (especially ones involving threats to anything which has become identified with “me”–my country, my baseball team, my self-image etc.). Each one of these circumstances triggers similar processes in our brain/body. The job for whoever is in charge of the dog, is to notice the signs of the reaction: the thoughts arising are already several steps behind the physical sensations which can be detected with practice. Changes in breathing, an increase in muscular tension, temperature shifts, any or all let us know that the autonomic (automatic) nervous system is reacting. These are the same signals that, when left unchecked, turn into what we call panic attacks.

The issue here is to incorporate into our world view the needs of this animal, living in society as we find it. We need to recognize the communications via body sensations and we need to attend to them instead of ignoring them, to learn to tune into them not to tune them out. They are behind so much of the tension which leads to so many of our chronic health problems. We must apply our scientific understanding to our daily experience of life so we can stay at ease in complex situations that we confront.

Further reading:

The Emotional Brain– Joseph LeDoux
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers– Robert Sapolsky
William James–
The Stress of Life– Hans Selye
Waking the Tiger– Peter Levine