The Spleen is the organ whose Chinese function is most difficult to understand from a Western biomedical perspective. Unlike all of the other organs, the Chinese concept of the Spleen has very little to do with the anatomical spleen (see also Nothing to Study – The Concept of an Organ in Chinese Medicine). Some of its physical functions related to transformation can be correlated with the pancreas and the thyroid, but there is no one organ which fully describes the Spleen organ system.
The function of the Spleen is to hun and hua – transform and transport. That is, it converts ingested food and drink into Qi and Blood through the process of warm metabolic transformation. The Spleen is like the fire which cooks the food, and the Stomach is like the vessel in which it cooks and churns. Nourishment is the topic of the Spleen. It is said that the Spleen extracts the clear essence of food and drink, and then upbears the clear Yang. This means that the Spleen extracts the essence of food and drink, sends it up to the Heart to be converted into Blood, and creates the foundation for consciousness.
Consciousness, or Yi, is the spirit of the Spleen. Specifically, as it was taught to me, the consciousness of possibilities. The Spleen transforms what is outside into what is inside. It allows us to digest our world, and thus live in it, partake in it, and be nourished by it. The consciousness of the Spleen is the absorbed energy of the world, and of our own life experiences. When we do not digest food or experiences well, we accumulate Dampness. Dampness is turbid, undigested muck. It is obstructive, and inhibits the transformative process. When Dampness accumulates, possibilities become burdensome rather than nourishing, because we cannot process them. We then overthink, ruminate, and obsess, trying to find our way out of the glue. Each of these describes the emotion of the Spleen, commonly translated as worry. In health, the Spleen allows us to think and to concentrate and to generate ideas. In dysfunction, we either cannot generate enough Qi to form them, or we form them but get stuck in them due to Dampness.
A healthy process of digestion is truly one of reciprocity. We have to take in, but we also have to transform and give out. These are both part of the complete cycle of nourishment, and it is around these issues which Spleen imbalances manifest. The underlying belief system of a person with a Spleen constitution is that “who I am is not enough.” That is, there is a built-in deficit of nourishment, and therefore of (self) love. No matter how much is available, it cannot be transformed and utilized. Imbalanced behavior arises to fulfill this lack through the enactment of selfishness on the one hand, and selflessness on the other. Occasionally the behavior is obvious, but often it is disguised in more passive forms of behavior such as neediness and martyrdom. In either case, the unconscious objective is to generate love and nourishment through sympathy, either getting it or giving it, and in both cases under false pretenses. In health, a genuine ability to both give and receive emerges as the virtue of honesty, also translated as integrity and sincerity. This reflects a place of centeredness, the physical location of the Earth element, and the place from which one’s actions and words arise with honesty from one’s Heart. This is the energetic correlation of the Spleen extracting the Qi and sending it to the Heart to be transformed into Blood (see also The Receptivity of Blood).