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Ancient Chinese language and culture honored and centered symbolic and correlative thinking. This tendency is reflected, naturally, in Chinese medicine. A frequently referenced container for symbolic medical thinking is the Chinese medicine organ clock. I have been fortunate to learn about this idea, also called a holomap, by one of the foremost Chinese medicine scholars to delve deeply into the organ clock – Heiner Fruehauf.
First, what is a symbol?
A symbol is something perceivable to human beings that “points towards” something less perceivable – a concept, a group, other minds, other realms. Mostly, we think about human created symbols like language or arrows on signage or, perhaps, religious symbols like the Christian cross, intended to remind us of not just a person, but a whole set of commandments and ideals.
We can extend this concept. We can consider the “symbols” of nature – the browning at the edge of a leaf, the half muddy track in the sandbar, the ripple of the water indicating the passing of fish, and so on. You can extend this to the symbols of a patient’s body during diagnosis, or the symbols one might read in a social situation in order to navigate it better.
When we think about this larger idea of symbols, it can become overwhelming. Is everything a symbol? What’s it all “pointing towards?” Fortunately, vast amounts of symbolic information in a given area is usually divided into more manageable chunks by groups of people seeking to use that information more effectively. In Chinese medicine, various models or containers have been used to organize and help us find greater meaning in the symbols we encounter.
The Chinese medicine organ clock, or holomap, is one of those models.
This model divides phenomena into twelve portions, like the Western zodiac, with each portion relating to a huge variety of different types of information, meshing it all into a systematic set of interrelationships that can be used in a variety of ways, clinically and otherwise. To get a sense for the basic layout of the organ clock – see my challenged artistry below.
Note: Focus on the general picture as some of the elements will not be explained right now (such as the constellation names “Wie, Mao, Bi,” etc).
A cursory examination will show you that the organ systems are placed around the holomap in the order of the flow of qi through the channels.
There are a lot of pieces of symbolic information that come in twelves and those are correlated in turn around the Chinese medicine organ clock.
A few of the 12 fold groupings:
- The names of the organ systems, and thus the etymology of the Chinese characters associated with those organ systems.
- Earthly Branches and their associated zodiac animals
- Yijing (I Ching) tidal hexagrams
- Two hour periods of the day
- Month on the calendar
- Agricultural nodes – two per month, 24 total
We can also overlay information onto the twelve-part Chinese medicine organ clock that comes in other multiples including (but not limited to):
- The phase element (fire, earth, metal, water, wood) associated with each position (multiple of 5)
- The direction of the compass and trigrams of the bagua (multiple of eight)
- The six atmospheric influences or conformations (multiple of 6)
- The relative concentration of Yin/Yang (multiple of 2)
- The participation of each organ in one element of the Heaven, Earth, Human Being triad (multiple of 3)
Just imagine drawing several circles on tracing paper, one divided into twelve parts, one into eight, one into six and so on. Then imagine putting a representation of each piece of information in the correct section. When all of this information is put together, one begins to understand the complexity of the organ systems.
For example, take the Heart. The Heart is the sovereign of the human body, keeping view and regulation of other organ systems so they may work together in harmony. Using the organ clock we see that the Heart (only a partial list):
- Is called Xin (心) in Chinese. This is often described as being a picture of the human heart organ with three drops of blood above it. Not particularly interesting, perhaps – though why there are three drops of blood is worth investigating. They could represent the ancient triad of Heaven, Earth and Human Being. Some primitive forms of the character look like a uterus, prompting an association between the Heart and femaleness.
- Is associated with the Earthly Branch Wu (午), associated with the summer solstice and the animal of the Horse. The Horse is an interesting animal and deserves a post of its own, but everyone can agree that horses can work tirelessly (like the Heart) and that they tend to be very sensitive animals.
- Is related to the Chinese agricultural periods (solar terms) called Xiao Shu and Da Shu, which are Small and Big/old summer heat, respectively. Summer heat is a heat with a damp quality – something anyone who has travelled in the American south in the summer can attest to. So, then, the Heart is related to this quality of intense heat.
- Is associated with the element fire, in particular the Imperial fire that is pure, constant and the light of the whole body.
So, the Chinese medicine organ clock becomes a tool that helps us gain a more nuanced understanding of each organ system.
By looking for other correlations, understanding each of them, and considering their interrelationships, we can build knowledge that will help our patients.