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Lung – ‘the tender organ’

In Traditional East Asian Medicine (TEAM), we use the word Lung to describe both the organ itself (small ‘l’, lung) and the function of the associated meridian pathway (large “L”, Lung). The Lung is said to correspond to the Metal element and is referred to as ‘the tender organ’. It is the tender organ because, just as metal quickly responds to the temperature of its environment by becoming hot or cold, so are the lungs easily influenced by heat and cold and dryness, too. As the gateway to our external environment via breathing, they are also susceptible to invasions from bacteria and viruses, air pollution and allergens.
 
Breath in…breath out
 
You have probably heard a lot of discussion lately about how our lungs are quite delicate and therefore vulnerable to damage by pathogens such as viruses and bacteria as well as by our own immune responses to such attacks. This is because the lungs are a blood rich organ with many, many fine blood vessels that enable the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide to sustain life. We need a certain amount of permeability to enable that exchange. Hardness may be a great defence but it blocks the desirable from entering as well as the undesirable and inhibits letting go of what no longer serves us. 
 
Breath in… breath out
 
Whilst their structure may be permeable, the function of our lungs can still be strong. The key is circulation – of breath, of blood. Walking, deep breathing, stretching, dancing, and qi gong or tai qi exercises are all great to keep our lungs functioning well. 
 
How do I know if my Lungs are healthy?
The signs we look for in TEAM to determine robust Lung function are: 

  • Clear and strong voice 
  • Skin and hair have lustre
  • Good sense of smell and taste
  • Ability to respond appropriately to feelings of sadness or grief without resistance or remaining stuck 

Breath in…breath out

Another reason the Lung is referred to as the tender organ is because the energy of the Lung is easily overwhelmed by people or events. The emotions associated with the Lung are grief, sadness and melancholy. Many people are experiencing these emotions right now in relation to the events of the world. The loss of life and livelihood, physical distancing, isolating from those we love, and lack of contact with our regular communities are big things. 
 
Breath in… breath out
 
One practice I have found very beneficial for working with these emotions and for feeling as though I am helping others at a distance is the meditation technique some of you will know by the name, tonglen. In tonglen we visualise breathing in the pain, either our own or that of others and breathing out whatever is required to soothe that pain. For example, I visualise breathing in fear and anxiety and breathing out spaciousness and calm. This sounds counterintuitive at a time when the sentiment is strong to defend, protect and distance ourselves from things that may hurt us. The armouring approach is all very well up to a point but sometimes we don’t get to avoid pain and then we need the skills to transform it. 
 
How to practice tonglen. 

  • Take a moment to relax, sitting comfortably and take a few deep breaths, exhaling fully every time.
  • Allow yourself to connect to your feelings. Notice where you feel them in your body – your chest, stomach, shoulders. 
  • Now breathe that feeling in. Take it all in. Feel it 100%. You don’t have to be able to name the feeling. It is enough to experience it or maybe it has a quality or a texture, or a temperature or colour.
  • Then breathe out peace, comfort, kindness, health or whatever you wish for yourself, your family and friends, front line workers, humankind or the whole of planet Earth. This can also be a colour or texture if you prefer.
  • If it is too overwhelming to think of suffering on a large scale, (remember, the Lungs are easily overwhelmed) then start by breathing in your own pain and breathe out what you wish for yourself. As the energy in your Lungs grows stronger, you will be able to take in more and more and breathe out more and more positive feelings. 

Breath in…breath out

The practice of tonglen is another way of strengthening the Lung by increasing our ability to experience and integrate difficult emotions. In connecting with our own suffering, we can connect with the suffering of others and vice versa. The larger our capacity to transform pain, the more we can function within challenging times and be available to help others. TEAM does not separate the emotional function of the Lung from the physical function so in strengthening one aspect we strengthen the other. If we do end up being exposed to a serious respiratory illness then just like allowing big emotions to move through us without locking them in, we need to be able to process illness as effectively as possible to avoid the damage caused by having it long term. 
 
This is the transformational power of the breath and the great gift of the lungs. Through rapid exchange of information between our lungs and our immune system we can quickly mount a strong response and with the necessary support, not be overwhelmed beyond what is needed to keep functioning.  Furthermore, it is thanks to our permeability that we can connect with and support others and know we are not alone. En masse we are realising that it is through our very tenderness that we can in fact, become strong. 
 
Breath in…breath out

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