In my latest article about the COVID-19 pandemic, I integrate reflections of my own personal and professional journey with a discussion of the Wood Element in Chinese Medicine, including the emotion of anger and its transformation into the virtue of justice.
The Wood Element: Liver and Gallbladder
In Chinese Medicine (CM), the Wood element, associated with the Liver and Gallbladder, is ascendant in the Spring. The Liver is responsible for strategic planning, long-range vision, and ensuring the smooth movement of blood throughout the body where it nourishes the muscles, tendons and ligaments, as well as the eyes and plays a key role in regulating menstruation in women. The Gallbladder works in tandem with the Liver; it is responsible for wise judgement and decision-making as it carries out the Liver’s broad strategic plans. In health, the Wood element: enables us to envision new possibilities; provides the energy for all creative, assertive and strategic actions; helps us make good decisions; mobilizes a physiological protective response in the face of threats; and gives us the flexibility to flow smoothly around obstacles.
The energetic movement of Wood is upward moving, and the element’s associated emotion is anger, which many of us feel in our bodies as a strong surge moving up from the lower to the upper body. When anger is out of balance, it may be experienced internally as explosive energy in the body; externally it may manifest as uncontrolled rage, lashing out, and at its extreme, physical violence. Conversely, when suppressed, anger shows up as collapse, timidity, and indecisiveness. According to CM, imbalanced anger (both the excess and collapsed types) manifests physiologically in a variety of ways, including frequent headaches, insomnia, nightmares, and gynecological issues.
Thwarted Wood Energy
In a previous article, I wrote extensively about how in the Winter, we are called to follow the rhythms of the earth, turn inward, sleep more, do less, and cultivate enough stillness within us to allow for a seamless seasonal pivot between the quiet Yin of Winter and the strong rising up energy of Wood/Yang in the Spring. I discussed at length the energetic mismatch between the COVID-19 pandemic coming to North America just as Spring started, forcing most of us to pause, or at least slow down, turn inward, and do much less.
This forced hibernation is challenging, especially for those of us accustomed to living in an accelerated way. It likely would be difficult for us modern humans in any season, but it is especially challenging as we witness Wood energy rising up all around us in the natural world in the form of birds waking up, plants flowering, our first vegetables sprouting, and trees flowering. If we pay close enough attention to our inner physiological experience, we also feel the Wood energy move upwards in our bodies, urging us not only to be out and about, but also to implement the visions and plans that were germinating within us throughout the Winter.
Spring is a time of new beginnings. Just as Wood energy propels seeds that have been lying under frozen ground during the Winter to burst up through the soil, the visions and dreams marinating within us during winter are similarly ready to burst forth. In my own life, just before the beginning of Spring and the seriousness of COVID-19 sunk in for me, I was launching and marketing two major new business initiatives for 2020. Both of these initiatives are on hold now and for the foreseeable future as our infectious disease specialists and governmental leaders continually reassess what needs to be in place to safely hold a large class or host a retreat. As I think about these specific thwarted initiatives, as well as the simple fact that I no longer work a busy week in my clinic, I’ve sensed within myself a rising “take action” kind of energy that frequently turns into frustration when I remember that there’s no particular action to take.
Given my inability (for now) to carry through on plans to implement these professional visions and plans, I am making a concerted effort to consciously attune more deeply to the still, small voice within that whispers to me things like this: “perhaps this pandemic is teaching you that you’re not meant to resume with business as usual. If you sit in the mystery and stillness of the great unknown even longer, what buried seeds might burst forth and take the form of new ideas, dreams, or visions when it is finally possible to take new action?”
Anger and Its Transformation into the Virtue of Justice
Anger gets a bad rap, largely because it is very scary to be the target of or even to witness someone’s uncontrolled rage. Moreover, many of us (especially girls and women) are taught that anger is “bad” and are socialized to suppress the natural anger that arises when we experience or witness injustice. But, like all emotions, anger has its place. Without anger, we would individually and collectively lack the capacity to change the status quo, even in the face of the worst kinds of injustice. Just as we are able to transform imbalanced fear into wisdom and imbalanced grief into awe, we have the capacity to transform imbalanced anger into justice-seeking action.
The best examples of this transformation of anger into justice is observable in leaders and activists, past and present, who are able to transform their anger into constructive action as they witness and then work to fight against injustice in the forms of racism, misogyny, homophobia, destruction of the earth, financial inequities, or broken educational and healthcare systems. In the process of doing so, such leaders indelibly change the world.
Amidst the fear and grief I’ve been experiencing, I am also keenly aware from time to time of a forceful feeling of anger rising up within me that also needs attention. I feel it as a hot energy that rises from the pit of my belly through my chest and all the way to my head. If I don’t process it in some way, I am prone to having an irritable outburst over something minor or wind up with a splitting headache. There is a lot that I am angry about. Much of it has to do with the many injustices that have been laid bare in the past decades, and especially the last few years. Many of these injustices have come into even clearer focus during the COVID-19 pandemic.
My intention in writing this article is not to provide a litany of every injustice I can think of, but rather to sift through and process my own anger so that I can ultimately transform it into justice-seeking actions. This sifting and processing also helps me hone in precisely on what my specific justice-seeking actions might look like based on my passions, background and skills.
One of things that makes me angriest about the current situation is that institutional racism in the U.S. has directly contributed to the astronomically higher rate of critical cases of COVID-19 among African American, Indigenous, and Latino communities. There are a confluence of factors (institutional racism underlies all of them) that make this true, and none of them should surprise us: limited or no access to quality healthcare; much higher rates of high-risk health conditions like hypertension and diabetes; restricted access in many cases to healthy food and clean water; greater exposure to the virus due to constituting a higher percentage of the “essential” service workers; more difficulty in many cases social distancing due to overcrowded living conditions; and last, but not least, trauma that has been passed down through generations and that is compounded by the experience of racism in its many forms every single day.
There is a significant body of research and literature devoted to the impact of trauma and PTSD on all of the physiological systems of our bodies. In my next article, I plan to summarize
some of this research from both a western and Chinese medicine perspective for readers who are less familiar with the interconnectedness between trauma, unprocessed emotions, and various chronic diseases, including many health conditions that render people more vulnerable to getting extremely sick and/or dying from COVID-19.
Personal Transformation of Anger Into Justice
In the remainder of this piece, I will discuss how sitting for a prolonged period in the unknown combined with the Wood energy that is naturally rising within me has enabled me to connect the dots in a new way between what I was doing before opening a private Chinese medicine clinic and what I might do next in this new world, whatever that winds up looking like.
As some of you reading this already know, my background and skill-set are quite varied. It is not immediately obvious to most people the connection between my early adult work focused on Israeli-Palestinian coexistence followed by a ten-year career at the State Department focused primarily on refugee protection and assistance in the Middle East and South Asia and my current career as a clinic owner and practitioner of Chinese medicine.
Since I opened up my clinic in 2013, new patients (if they’ve read my website Bio) ask me to tell the story of how I transitioned from a State Department civil servant to CM practitioner. I usually give them the shortest possible version of the story, which is that I personally started to suffer from a number of stress-induced conditions (especially anxiety and insomnia), at least in part arising from the stress I experienced working in war-torn regions with many different refugee communities throughout the Middle East and South Asia. My symptoms were greatly reduced when I started practicing yoga and receiving regular acupuncture treatments.
I usually leave out of my explanation that I also decided to make this career leap because, like all of my dedicated former colleagues, I cared deeply about the refugee populations we were mandated to assist, which sometimes meant that I was pushing policies and priorities that were either antithetical to or unimportant to larger U.S. government priorities (this was during the post-9/11 period and beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq). I worked too many hours, including when my sons were babies, and spent a lot of time trying to make real policy differences in the humanitarian arena, which involved a frequent Sisyphean battle within a large bureaucracy. These efforts, although they sometimes moved the needle, more often felt futile. Eventually, I came to believe that my calling in the world was geared toward making a difference in individual lives and thus decided to enroll in a three-year graduate degree in CM.
Witnessing Trauma: Learning Firsthand About the Interconnections Between Trauma and Health Indicators
One major influence in my life, for which I will be forever indebted to my career at State, was witnessing firsthand the horrors of war: meeting orphans, widows and others who had lost almost everything, and listening to countless heartbreaking stories of devastation, while simultaneously witnessing incredible resilience, joy, connection, laughter, and hope. I had the privilege of repeatedly hearing from refugees in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, India, Israel and the Palestinian territories stories recounting experiences of simultaneous devastation and hope. When I feel afraid or devastated myself these days, I recall specific memories or reach out to some of the refugees with whom I remain friends, in part to be reminded of their strength and the power of new beginnings.
My own secondhand trauma from exposure to the impact of so much atrocity and loss and my deep-dive studies of CM together inform my strong interest in learning how trauma influences our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. Naturally, I developed a strong interest in the historical and present use of CM to treat the various symptoms arising from trauma. When appropriate in my clinical practice (which was often), I used this trauma-informed lens to inform my diagnosis and treatment strategy.
On two occasions over the course of the past seven years, I had the privilege of partnering with an NGO based in Amman, Jordan, the Collateral Repair Project (CRP). In partnership with CRP, two colleagues and I created and facilitated trauma-informed trainings for refugees from Iraq and Syria. The trainings were designed to teach Iraqi, Syrian and Jordanian refugees to become facilitators using simple and effective, tools for helping with common PTSD symptoms like insomnia, nightmares, migraine headaches, anxiety, rage, and depression, as well as physical pain that typically worsens under extreme stress. These collaborative training initiatives were designed to be used by the refugee facilitators within their communities long after my partners and I departed, and for the most part, that has been the case. You can learn more and see some wonderful videos about CRPs yoga program here and Mind-Body Medicine program here.
Conclusion: Now That I’ve Connected The Dots, What Next?
I don’t know when I will be able to resume in-person acupuncture and bodywork treatments for my individual patients. I can only hope that it will be someday in the not-too-distant future. Meanwhile, sitting in the unknown with the Wood energy rising around and within me has enabled a vision to start to take shape about what else my work in the world might look like going forward.
As mentioned, I am experiencing anger as I’ve allowed myself to fully take in the many inequities that affect marginalized communities. These inequities are longstanding, multi-faceted, complex and share at their core underlying institutional racism. My anger is not scary or rage-y and I’m not suppressing it. I recognize the anger as a call for me to take constructive, justice-seeking action.
During this month-and-counting of isolation, I have been actively seeking ways to use my unique background and skill-sets to contribute to systemic change, which will be part of the changes that are already underway in pockets of the country and world. Since my skills are connected to policy, medicine and the intersection between trauma and physical, mental and emotional health, these are the areas in which I aim to continue to positively contribute. I know that there are many ways to apply these skills as I seek to be a part of undertaking the immense work that is necessary for healing the impact of trauma on so many different individuals and communities within the U.S. and globally. I don’t know yet precisely how, but I do know that I will be continuing to use this continued hibernation time to allow various ideas, dreams and visions to continue germinating until the time is right to implement them into specific plans and actions.