Transforming Grief into Awe:  Covid 19, Your Lungs and Large Intestine

In Part One of this series, I wrote about the impact of imbalanced fear on our individual and collective nervous systems, described how regulating our own nervous system has a positive impact on our immune system, suggested that when we interact with others in person, on the phone, or even on via social media with a regulated nervous system, we can help others move from fear to wisdom (or dysregulation to regulation), and provided one somatic grounding tool to promote nervous system self-regulation.

I promised that Part Two of the series would provide additional tools for self-regulation in this hugely uncertain and unsettling time.  And I will live up to that promise and get there by the end of this article.  However, when I sat down to write, I realized that I wanted to first discuss the connection in Chinese Medicine (CM) between the emotion of grief and the Lungs, as well as the relationship between the Lungs, which take in breath and heavenly inspiration and the Large Intestine, which helps us metabolize what we need from the food (and experiences) we take in and lets go of waste or experiences, ideas, and relationships that no longer serve us.

Metal Element:  Lungs and Large Intestine

In CM, the Lungs and Large Intestine are associated with the Metal element. Metal is the element most profoundly impacted by the Covid-19 virus. The virus’ impact on the Lungs is clear.  It is less discussed but important to note that the virus also impacts healthy digestive functioning.

The pairing of the Lungs and Large Intestine doesn’t intuitively make sense through the framework of western medical physiology; however, in CM, the Lungs and Large Intestine require each other for the critical dynamic of receiving inspiration and letting go of life’s imperfections.  The emotion associated with the Metal element is grief.  When we learn how to remain present with the physiological sensations associated with grief and our bodies process and metabolize this grief, we are able to transform grief into the virtue of awe.

From a CM perspective, healthy Lung function means we are able to receive breath and inspiration from “the heavens.”  The Lungs provide us with the capacity for spiritual connection, inspiration, wonder and awe. Healthy Lung function enables us to stay connected to each moment; each inhale takes in something new and each exhale lets go of something old.  Chinese Medicine posits that a healthily functioning Large Intestine enables us to let go of food waste, as well as relationships, material items, and/or experiences that are best purged.  The kinds of relationships and experiences that leave us feeling spiritually stuck or blocked up on the inside (spiritual constipation, if you will).

When our Metal element is out of balance due to either unprocessed grief or an inability to let go of that which no longer serves us, the physiological function of the Lungs and/or the Large Intestine may be impacted.  This can and often does lead to difficulties breathing (asthma), vulnerability to frequent respiratory illnesses and other lung-related conditions and/or constipation/diarrhea and other other digestive difficulties.  On a psycho-spiritual level, when our Lungs and Large Intestine are not functioning optimally, we may find it difficult to connect spiritually, incapable of experiencing awe or receiving inspiration and unable to let go of experiences, feelings, material possessions, or relationships that are no longer of value in their current form.

A Word About Grief

Grief is for many of us, myself included, the most difficult emotion to be with.  It sits heavy in the body and takes up a lot of space.  In CM, each of the emotions affects the body in a specific way. Over time, when we are attuned to the connection between our emotions and physiological reactions, we develop the capacity to perceive this. According to CM, grief dissipates the body’s Qi and this dissipation over time causes our body’s vital energy to vanish, thereby significantly weakening our immune systems.  A significant loss can be unmooring for years, decades, or even throughout the span of a lifetime.  While other emotions like fear and anger also are difficult to stay with long enough to metabolize, processing grief is sticky (like phlegm in the Lungs) and needs ample time.

As I write this, I am grieving the loss of a lifelong significant relationship.  I’ve observed that when I sit with the grief associated with this loss, it sometimes arrests my breathing.  It frequently feels as though I am walking around with something very heavy on my chest.  This particular grief is very personal, but I mention it because I’ve noticed that it is compounded by older, unprocessed grief about the state of the world, as well as newer grief related to various personal and collective losses associated with the pandemic we are currently living through.

According to CM, when something tragic happens in our external environment, in order to effectively understand and treat the problem, we must understand the nature of the external cause (be it a novel coronavirus, a fire, a flood, or a terrorist attack), as well as the impact of our internal reaction to this experience.  The grief in the collective (along with the fear and anger) has been palpable for some time now for the vast majority of us who have paid even a little bit of attention to the destruction of our ecosystems, rampant gross inequality in our society, deep-seated racism and misogyny, endless wars, the largest forced displacement crisis in history and more.

The following cannot be overstated:  grief is a healthy reaction to our personal losses as well as to witnessing or personally experiencing wanton cruelty and destruction of various segments of humanity and the planet on which we reside. It is harmful to our bodies to suppress, bypass, or ignore the natural reaction to such profound losses.  It is equally harmful to other bodies when we minimize, deny or try to override their personal experiences of grief.

The bottom line is grief—personal and collective—for many of us is not new and that this Covid-19 pandemic offers its own litany of experiences for which the emotion of grief is appropriate.  Illness and loss of loved ones; the prospect of chaos and a further breakdown of our healthcare and social safety net systems; isolation; the loss of our livelihoods and the loss of a sense of normalcy.  Finally, just as we need tools to metabolize in each of our bodies our natural fear of this moment in order to stay regulated and help regulate others with whom we are in contact, we also need to bring increasing awareness to, process, and metabolize our individual and collective grief in order to ultimately transform the grief into awe.

The Gift of Grief

From a CM perspective, grief offers the opportunity to receive profound gifts when experienced and fully metabolized by the body.  As mentioned, the Lungs, when in balance, take in what is precious (breath, heavenly inspiration) and let go of it the next moment; they keep us connected to each present moment and the awe inherent in being alive.  The Large Intestine, when in balance, metabolizes and uses from our food (or experiences) only that which is precious and expels that which we don’t want or need.  When we fully experience our grief, the Lungs and Large Intestine work together to hone in on what is most precious about the lost person, relationship, place or experience, as we eventually let go of the material form of that which is lost.

As I grieve my personal loss and bring more awareness to my grief about our collective losses, I practice, moment by moment, staying present with the heavy sensation in my chest and the waves of emotions that wash over me without walling these feelings off or denying their existence.  With the loss of my life-long friendship, the longer I sit with and metabolize the grief, the better able I am to hone in very precisely on how this person and the relationship changed me irrevocably and for the better, while slowly letting go of the muck that necessitated the end of the relationship.  By staying with the bodily sensations connected to my grief and allowing the gifts to be received, acknowledged and metabolized, I am slowly but surely experiencing an easing of the heavy sensation and an ability to inhale more deeply and exhale more fully.

Similarly, as I sit with my own pandemic-related grief about what has been personally lost over the past few weeks, I’ve also observed how others’ grief over isolation, loss of employment, loss of freedom of movement and loss of a sense of normalcy has impacted them and the feeling in the collective.  While I cannot name precisely all of the gifts that have and will come out of this pandemic, I feel certain that there could be many, for me personally, for each of you, for our families, communities, and for the earth.

Exercises to Strengthen the Lungs and Metabolize Grief

It is especially important to be gentle and compassionate with yourself before embarking on the following practices.  This is true especially if you hold a lot of unprocessed trauma in your body.  Go slowly, stop if grief (or another emotion) overwhelms you, go back to the somatic grounding meditation in my first article.  If needed, reach out to me or another trusted professional for support.

Review of Somatic Grounding Exercise

*I’m starting off with a quick review of the somatic grounding tool that I outlined in detail in the article “Transforming Fear into Wisdom.”  If you need more description to drop into a calm and regulated state, please refer to the longer article or any other resource you have access to:

  1. Find the support below you (earth, bed, floor, chair) and imagine your body growing heavier.  Let gravity have you, trust the support of the earth/bed/floor chair.  Place one hand on your sternum, over your heart and one on your low belly.
  2. Deep and slow inhalations through your nose (count to four or higher), steady, smooth exhalations through your mouth.
  3. Scan your body for a place that feels open, safe and supported. Name to yourself the  sensations you feel in that part of your body.
  4. If your breathing is regulated and you’re able to tolerate it, move your awareness to  an area of your body that feels tight, constricted, or uncomfortable.  Name the  sensations.  Use your breath and a hand on this area and stay with the sensation until it changes.  Observe and name for yourself what it changes to.

Using Touch to Stimulate the Lung Channel

*This exercise can be completed seated or lying down.

  1. Settle your body, breathe fully and deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth. Observe your breath as it moves into your nostrils and travels down through the chest. Observe whether you can feel your diaphragm moving down toward your lower belly.
  2. Notice where breath moves easily and freely and where it might feel a bit stuck. Stay with the stuck places for a few additional breaths and notice any shifts.
  3. After 2-3 minutes of breathing and observing, bring your two pinky fingers to the notch in your throat and spread your other fingers and thumb in the space below the collarbone on either side of your sternum.
  4. Moving from the center to the periphery, use your fingers to tap the space between your collarbone and first rib. Tap all the way out to the juncture between your collarbone and shoulder socket.
  5. Use firm pressure so that you can feel the tapping along and underneath the bones. Continue to breathe, smooth and steady inhalations and exhalations.
  6. Once you reach the periphery, bring your hands back to their starting place at the center of the chest and tap toward the periphery. Continue doing this for 3-5 minutes.
  7. Then place your thumbs in the hollow just below the juncture of your collarbone and shoulder socket (right thumb in right hollow, left thumb in left hollow). Use firm pressure and press deeply into the space underneath your thumbs.  Hold for 30-45 seconds (keep breathing, soft and smooth inhalations and exhalations), release and take 3-5 normal breaths, repeat the press 3-5 times. (Note: Using your thumbs in the manner and location described above stimulates the acupuncture points at the beginning of the Lung channel.  These points are indicated for regulating the smooth flow of breath, dispersing fullness that creates tightness or fullness in the chest, clearing sticky, old phlegm or grief stagnating in the Lungs.)
  8. Finish by placing your hand over the center of your breastbone, take several more breaths while observing any shifts in your body since the beginning of this practice.

Using Touch to Stimulate the Lung Channel, Part Two

*This exercise should be completed while seated comfortably.

  1. Repeat Steps One and Two above.
  2. Settle your body and spend 2-3 minutes breathing and observing as described above. Rotate your left arm externally so that the palm side is facing up. Use a pillow, blankets or some other support underneath your left arm.
  3. Place the palm of your right hand in the hollow between the juncture of your collarbone and shoulder girdle and loosely curl your fingers around the top of the arm.
  4. Use the right hand to comb the left arm from the shoulder to the wrist. Use firm pressure (not so much that it hurts) and increase the pressure as you move your right hand from the inside of the elbow through the inside of the wrist.  Repeat combing for 2-5 minutes.  Here you are using touch to awaken your Lung, Heart, and Heart Protector channels which run along the inside of your arm.
  5. After combing, turn your left palm up so that your thumb faces the ceiling. With your right thumb, find your left radial wristbone (look for the knobby area on the thumb side of your wrist) and then slide your thumb up about 3/4 of an inch.  (You might even feel your thumb slide into the notch on the bone).  Wrap your four right fingers underneath your wrist and press the pas of your fingers against the bone on the pinky side of the hand.
  6. Use very firm pressure with your right thumb and hold while breathing (always breathing)—soft and smooth inhalations and exhalations. Hold for 30-90 seconds.(Note: You are stimulating Lung 7, a very important point on the Lung channel that is used to strengthen Lung function/immunity, treat various Lung disharmonies (cold, virus, flu, cough) and treat grief.)
  7. Repeat the entire sequence, starting with combing and ending with stimulating Lung 7 on the other side (this time using your left hand to comb and press on the right side).
  8. Finish by placing one of your hands over the center of your breastbone, observing your breath and any shifts in your body since the beginning of this practice.

Breathing, Grounding, Resourcing:  Beginning to Metabolize Your Grief

This practice is a particularly helpful way of training your body to settle *while* experiencing your grief (or any emotion that is being held and creating discomfort in your body).  This exercise in particular should be practiced gently and with a lot of tender self-compassion.  It is important to touch into your grief (or whichever emotion is creating discomfort) only *after* you feel settled in your body.  If you practice the first few steps and find it difficult to relax your body, continue to breathe, ground and resource, but don’t move into touching your discomfort until the next time you practice this exercise.

*This practice can be completed lying down, seated with or without support.  Follow the sequence of allowing your body to grow heavier and access the support of the ground beneath you.

  1. Take a few deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth, observing the movement and flow of breath in through your nostrils, as it fills your lungs and descends in the body.
  2. Think about an animal, place, person or object that makes you feel safe and secure and visualize that you are in the safe place or with the safe animal, person or object.
  3. Continuing to breathe naturally, observe your body’s experience of that safety for 1-2 minutes.
  4. If your body feels settled and safe, think of a moderately painful experience (but not a traumatic one). For five seconds, focus on what is painful about the experience and as you do so, observe the sensations in your body.  Observe also any thoughts or images that arise.
  5. Without disengaging from the uncomfortable sensations, practice grounding, breathing, and accessing the safe resource you thought of above. Stay with your bodily sensations and your breath as you notice your body relax and settle once more.
  6. Now disengage or let go of the incident from your past. Continue breathing and observing, coming back to the present moment.
  7. If any part of your body still feels uncomfortable, place one of your hands on this area and allow the weight, shape and warmth of your hand to provide support.
  8. As you practice this tool regularly (every day or every other day), gradually increase the length of time you stay with the painful experience until you’re able to stay present with it for at least one minute.

Transformation of Grief to Awe:  A writing practice

I suggest doing this after you’ve used one or more of the exercises designed to support grounding, breathing, resourcing, awakening, and metabolizing emotions.  You need a pen, journal, notebook or piece of paper.  Take one of the following prompts or questions and write without stopping for at least ten minutes; time yourself.  Increase two minutes every week that you do this exercise.

It is important to allow your hand to keep moving the whole time even if you are writing filler words.  When we stop writing our lizard brain will jump in, often with all kinds of self-sabotaging thoughts.  Those can come after you’re done writing; it’s almost guaranteed that they will.  These prompts are simply ideas that are relevant to the topic of this article, but please don’t feel limited by them should you decide to adopt a regular writing practice:

*Write about a time when you wanted to, but couldn’t cry.  Be specific.  What happened?  Who was there?  Where were you?  What did it feel like in your body?

*Write about a time when you were curled up in a ball crying hysterically on the floor or a bed or your friend’s couch.  Be specific.  What happened?  Who was there?  Where were you?  What did it feel like in your body?

*Write about a time you lost an important person (or animal) in your life through death, a break-up, a ruptured connection.  Be specific.  Who was it?  What happened?  Describe your memories of that person.  How do you notice today the absence of this person in your life?

*Write a letter to the person (or animal) described above.  Tell them what you remember about them.  Be specific.  Tell them how their absence in your life shows up.  Name some tangible gifts you received from them.  Tell them how it felt to lose them.  Tell them how you are changed because of them.  Tell them anything and everything you never had a chance to say.

*Describe a time you felt overwhelmed with awe by the beauty or grandeur of a time in nature.  Be specific!

*Describe what you feel you have lost already during this pandemic.  What more are you afraid of losing?  How do these losses feel in your body?  Now describe what you have gained?  What other gifts might you receive during this extended period of pause?  How does it feel in your body?

The Potential Gifts Of Living Through This Pandemic

Charles Eisenstein wrote “Covid-19 is like a rehab intervention that breaks the addictive hold of normality.  To interrupt a habit is to make it visible; it is to turn it from a compulsion to a choice.  When the crisis subsides, we might have occasion to ask whether we want to return to normal, or whether there might be something we’ve seen during this break in the routines that we want to bring into the future.”

I couldn’t agree more with Eisenstein.  And I firmly believe that if each one of us brings awareness to the grief and other emotions we and those around us are experiencing and commit to processing and metabolizing these emotions instead of simply walling them off for the sake of “business-as-usual-when-all-of-this is-over,” that we have the opportunity to both deeply mourn our losses and find the gifts we want to bring forward individually and collectively into the world.

I’m curious about which gifts each of you has received already and hopeful about which gifts we will yet to see as we move through this period.  My curiosity has inspired me to ask of myself and my loved ones (including all of you reading this):  how can each of us use this time to feel into our own losses as individuals, families, neighborhoods, communities, cities, towns, states, nations, earth?  What would happen if we were to each acknowledge our grief, let it take up the space it needs, stay with it until it’s metabolized, find the gifts that come out of honing in on what is precious and letting go of what no longer serves?  How will we individually and collectively answer Eisenstein’s question about whether we want to return to normal, or whether there is something we’ve witnessed, experienced, or learned during this break in our routines that we choose to bring to the future?