Propriety – The Virtue of the Heart

How can a person know the Dao? By the heart.
How can the heart know? By emptiness, the pure attention that unifies being and quietude.
The heart is never without treasure, yet it is called empty.
The heart is never completely filled, yet it is called unified.
The heart is never without movement, yet it is called quiet.
The heart is alive, and possesses knowledge; it knows, and from knowing makes distinctions.
To make distinctions is to know all parts of the whole at once.
Xunzi, Confuscian philosopher from 3rd century B.C.

The Heart is the organ of the fire element in Chinese medicine, and summer is its time. This relationship, referred to as systematic correspondence, is itself a function of the Heart – specifically, its virtue of propriety. Propriety means appropriateness. In the context of Chinese medicine, the terms synchronicity, resonance, accordance, correspondence, and entrainment all have related meaning. This concept was taught to me through the explanation of a well known Chinese medicine, Tian Wang Bu Xin Dan, or Heavenly Empeor’s Special Formula to Tonify the Heart.

The teaching I received was brief, and goes like this: When the emperor sits on his throne, facing south, wearing his red robe, at noon on the summer solstice, all is correct in the universe. This is the enactment of ritual and ceremony, and the recognition of systematic correspondence.

Virtue – The Chinese system of medicine begins with health, not disease. In health, each organ imparts a virtue, or positive quality of being, into a person. This quality is universal, and finds its expression in human beings through the associated organ system. The Chinese word for virtue is “de”. In infants, this term implies original nature. That is, true nature, unobscured by the mundane conditioning of the world. As adults in the world, we are destined to forget this part of ourselves. Hence, for adults, virtue implies the capacity to contact and express this true nature.

Propriety, the virtue of the Heart, has to do with right order. This is order that occurs spontaneously, of its own accord, through alignment and communication of ones’ Heart with the Heart of the universe. Like the emperor, the Heart is the ruler of the kingdom of the body. When it functions well, you do not know it is doing its job. Its minister, the Small intestine, is in charge of sorting and communicating essential information between the inner and outer worlds. This allows the Heart to have spontaneous, appropriate response to life. Its rhythmic beating creates inner order that results in outer order. Synchronicity – alignment of time and place – results.

If order is the expressed virtue of the Heart, chaos and control are the extremes to which the Heart is susceptible. That is, lack of order and too much order. Both reflect being out of synch with the rhythm of life.

The irony of the Heart, and the life lesson learned through the fire element, is that simply “being” is what is needed to create order. The Heavenly Emperor rules well because of his capacity to align himself, through openness, with the moment.

Systematic Correspondence – Alignment creates order because of systematic correspondence. Systematic correspondence means that there is resonance in the universe between similar things. This has been described by one Chinese author as “the process by which a thing, when stimulated, responds according to the natural guidelines of the particular phases of vital energy engendered in itself and active in the situation.”

Because of this principle, we are able to group things that have similarity. In the case of the Heavenly Emperor, red, south, noon, and summer are all grouped under the heading of Fire.

Emotion – In health, propriety expresses itself as synchronicity in a person’s life. The larger meaning is that one’s channels of perception and communication are open. Thus, one is able to perceive accurately the events and surroundings of daily life. As a result, one gains the ability to listen and communicate clearly, both functions of the Small Intestine. The emergent emotion the Chinese describe is joy, the emotion of the Heart.

The Heart in this state is able to function well, unburdened by non-essential information and internal experiences that need to be filtered. In disease, the Heart is forced to overwork. Thrown from its state of effortless beating, the overwork creates pathogenic heat. Chaos and over-controlling begin to express themselves. Life moves from effortless to burdensome, communication is cut off, inner knowing and awareness diminish, and lack of joy becomes the primary theme of life.

Heat – Heat is the disease mechanism that results from fire imbalances. It can take various forms, such as vacuous heat, depressive heat, and damp heat. It can also manifest in any organ, such as in Liver fire rising or Stomach heat. But it always involves some aspect of the Heart, because the Heart governs fire. The overwork of any organ system, which is ultimately a sign of a fire imbalance, produces heat.

Heat can also be an external pathogen, one of the six external causes of disease. On a symptomatic level, the experience of externally induced heat symptoms is dependent solely upon the climate, and has nothing to do with a person’s history or physiology. On a deeper level, though, this is not the case. We are susceptible to the climate to the extent that we imbalanced with the same factor internally. Thus, people with internal fire imbalances are more susceptible to externally induced heat disturbances. This is an example of the 5th principle of resonance (this is my own classification system, not officially part of Chinese medicine): That which we encounter elicits that which is already inherent within us.

The vessels used to treat externally contracted illness are the “luo” vessels. They also treat the delusion of the related organ system. Thus, when we are ill, not only are we susceptible to both internal and external disharmonies, we do not even know it. We become habituated, which is ultimately the definition of disease in Chinese medicine. We each become habituated in a particular organ system, according to our nature. But the habituation always involves loss of propriety, and thus the Heart. It is for this reason that the Heart is viewed as the ruler of the body – if it is not working, nothing else works.

The experience of heat as an imbalance always leads to a physical sensation which can be called desire. Heat produces irritation, and as human beings we seek to quell our irritations. Heat in the Stomach, for example, produces hunger and a desire to eat. If we observe our cravings and desires, we can see where we have heat, and thus where we are out of contact of some aspect of our nature. This process of losing contact is inevitable, and finally is a function of fire in the body. In Chinese medicine life is defined by fire. Life ceases when the last drop of Yang (an aspect of fire) leaves the body. In life, water and fire interpenetrate. On only in life does this occur. If you throw a bucket of water on a fire, the fire goes out. Water and fire tend towards separation, as all processes tend naturally towards disarray (chaos). This is the second law of thermodynamics, and describes the process of entropy. Continual re-integration of water and fire requires an input of energy, and this energy is also an aspect of fire. At a cellular level, sodium-potassium pumps are necessary to pump sodium out of the cells and potassium in, as they naturally travel across a concentration gradient in the opposite direction – seeking balance. Static balance is death – it is only through imbalance that life exists. The order which the Heart creates is what maintains the state of dynamic equilibrium, and thus life, in the universe and in the body. With each beat of the Heart, Yin and Yang interpenetrate, water and fire mix, order emerges out of chaos, and life is created. This is the virtue of propriety and the meaning of fire in Chinese medicine.