Benevolence – The Virtue of the Liver

Each of the five Chinese organs, or Zang, has associated with it a corresponding emotion. This emotion is the quality of energy governed by the respective organ, experienced on a human level. In health this energy flows freely, but in imbalance it becomes stagnant, expressing itself as a recurring emotion. Because the Liver governs the smooth flow of emotion, it plays a role in the stagnation of any of the five emotions. Like the other organs though, it has resonance with a specific quality of energy. The emotion of the Liver is anger.

Anger in the sense of energy refers to the capacity for change, growth, movement, assertion, and expression. It is the energy of spring, and its direction is upward, outward, and forward. The emotion referred to as anger is the experience of stuckness, overlaid with all of the thoughts we have about how we are stuck (Although this is another topic which needs to be discussed in more detail, briefly, in Eastern thought emotion is considered to be a combination of energy and thoughts. The pure energy is not what gives us trouble; it is the all of the added material we associate with it.). In order to understand the meaning of stagnation, it is necessary to discuss the Chinese concept of Blood and its relationship with the Liver.

Blood is the component of human physiology which generates comfort. A sufficient quantity of free flowing Blood fills the tissues and allows us to comfortably occupy space. The Liver’s relationship to Blood is that it both stores it and governs its free flow. When referring to these aspects of Blood physiology, it is appropriate to use the term Liver Blood. Words such as comfort, soften, and relax are associated with the Liver and Blood. Blood is also the physiological root of our boundary system. There are three diseases of Blood in Chinese medicine – vacuity, stasis, and heat. The first two are relevant for this discussion.

Blood vacuity implies a lack of comfort in oneself manifesting as deficiency – low self esteem, lack of comfort occupying space, and perforated boundaries. Static Blood implies lack of comfort manifesting as excess – rigid boundaries fueled by an overly defined sense of self. Too soft and too hard would be a simple concept for understanding the continuum of Liver Blood dysfunction. Anger is the experience of either of these two tendencies, as both lead toward a lack of movement. In the case of vacuity, there is not enough not Blood to produce strong roots and a material foundation for the motive aspects (Qi and Yang) of the body to act upon. In the case of excess, the Blood is impeded in a way which is prohibitive of movement, despite the possibility of its potential. In fact, movement is painful to static Blood conditions.

The Chinese notion of a healthy Liver describes free flow and strength through flexibility. Water flows and plants grow without the experience of obstruction. They simply yield to whatever is in their path. Individuals with vacuous Blood experience themselves as always being in the way of others. People with static Blood experience others as always being in their way. In both cases, the issue of boundaries is present. Healthy boundaries are fluid, and soften the experience of anger. There are three issues to understand here.

The first is that the path we perceive is not ours. We can only experience getting knocked off our path, or knocking others off of it, when we think the path belongs to us. The lesson is that wherever we are is our path. The second is that this path does not go anywhere, and so there is nowhere to get to. Because the Liver governs smooth flow and its energy is characterized by movement, we mistake our personal responsibility in making this movement happen. No effort is needed for a river to flow. In fact, Blood describes the release and manifestation of potential. It is implied, and all we need to do is let it happen. But the tension which arises around Liver imbalances (this has to do with Liver depression) gives us the sense of control over this. Liver energy is projected forward, and Liver imbalances often manifest as a perpetual tendency to live in the future (which is imaginary, as is the past). It is who we are, not what we do, that makes our lives happen. This understanding, characteristic of Eastern thought and antithetical to Western thought, is one of the most fundamental differences I have encountered between Eastern and Western philosophy.

Third, when we allow movement to occur without the imposition of a personal sense of self, our boundaries soften and we experience sameness. That is, the rigid separation between self and other (inside us and outside us) relaxes. This is the Chinese virtue of the Liver known as benevolence – kindness which spontaneously arises from the experience of self and other as one. The overriding piece of information which arises from understanding all of this is that stuckness is always a perception. There can be nothing in our way if we do not have a fixed idea of a way; an agenda for where, when, and how we are to navigate it; and the experience of something other than ourselves which is blocking us.

This is a crucial discussion around the topic of pain and suffering. Pain is the direct experience of separation. It reflects disintegration of some aspect of self, and by default points the way towards integration. We all understand the idea of relaxing, and in Chinese medicine it is a therapeutic principle. The less relaxation, than the more tension, the more the experience of separation, and the more pain that is going to be felt. It is my overwhelming experience that anger is a major component of chronic pain.

The experience of separation can take on physical attributes. Things which grow in the body, if they are characterized by a fixed location, hard quality, and sharp enduring pain, are considered to result from Blood stasis. Psychologically, there is a literal separation of some aspect of our being which is too painful to experience. It is encapsulated and put away for safe keeping, until we can approach it with safety at a later date. But the more aspects of ourselves we dissociate from, the more pain we have. Therefore, this is only a short term strategy, not a permanent one.

The virtue of benevolence arises out of the experience of movement without obstruction – nothing in our way, nothing separate to be in our way, and no separate self to experience something in our way. Simply stated, the Liver governs free flow.