Tracking the Meridians: How to Understand Them

Meridians are one of the most fascinating gifts we got from Traditional Chinese Medicine. And they are much more than abstract energy lines flowing through the body.

Imagine the following situation: you’re returning home from a journey late at night. You’re tired and hungry since what the airlines serve these days as a main course leaves as much to be desired as the leg space in economy class. You throw your bag in a corner, make a beeline for the fridge and take stock. Perhaps you’re lucky and, despite your hasty departure, it not only harbours the expected appearance of the duo Foul & Mould but also a couple of pleasant surprises. Okay, after a week’s absence, the remains of the veg have seen better days, and a few other items seem to have developed a life of their own despite the overdose of preservatives contained in most foods these days. At least the smoked ham looks acceptable. But better be on the safe side and cautiously guide it to your nose. The odour test delivers what the eye had hoped for. The stomach approves the result with a demanding growl. Together with the emergency ration of crackers you come up with a passable midnight snack. Done and dusted.

Eating: a completely normal everyday procedure with a logical order. Looking, smelling, chewing, swallowing, digesting. A completely normal process requiring many parts of the body to cooperate with each other and interact in a well-orchestrated manner: eyes, nose, teeth, tongue, chewing muscles, oesophagus, and stomach: they all form a functional community for the purpose of food intake. But before we even get to the point when we target and devour the desired titbit there has to be a stimulus, a need to be satisfied, initiating the entire process. Be it hunger, the mood for food or the desire to fill the terrible emptiness of a broken heart with calories. Whatever triggers the stimulus, it encourages us to carry out the relevant actions, one after the other.

To begin with, we check with our eyes whether the object of our desire lives up to our wishes or requirements. This could be while shopping in the supermarket, rummaging through the shelves in our pantry or harvesting in our garden. Then it’s the turn of our nose, our olfactory sense, an instrument as archaic as it is powerful, with a subtle, yet decisive influence. This influence is not quite as subtle if something is rotten, for example foul eggs, or fish that is as far removed from being fresh as from its last encounter with the sea. A delicious aroma, on the other hand, will make our gastric juices flow and we’re looking forward to guiding the first bite to our mouth with relish. The nose determines whether what we have chosen visually will indeed land in our mouth.

Once the olfactory okay has been given, chewing can begin. Chewing not only adds to a more or less tongue-flattering experience of taste, it’s also the beginning of digestion. The bite is sufficiently crushed, ground and mixed with saliva, the more, the better. Only then will it be swallowed. The stomach further breaks down the food (bolus) received from the oesophagus in order to make it more accessible for the other digestive organs. If we were to mark and connect with a pen all areas involved in this process, we would have sketched the first section of the stomach meridian.

Meridians are Embodied Life Principles

For more than 2000 years meridians have been the foundation for countless successful treatments with TCM, millions of them. Millions of times it has been empirically proven that the practice of TCM holds what its theory promises. Meridians are much more than dubious energy pathways. But neither are they precisely defined lines that cover the body and are studded with acupuncture points. This representation, while certainly being very descriptive, has little to do with the original idea of meridians. The mechanistic depiction of meridians is an artificial product of the Chinese cultural revolution which reformed, standardised and structured the vibrant knowledge of TCM in order to convey the impression of a precision that corresponds to the ideals of science. On its journey West, a fair number of mistakes regarding translation and interpretation were added to the mix, and suddenly the image of the meridians was reminiscent of muscles and bones, along with clear tasks concerning the organs. However, it was never intended that way. Neither are meridians abstract energy channels nor are they precise supply pathways. Meridians are much more.

Take the stomach meridian, for example. Its pathway is no coincidence, and it’s not abstract in any way. Its pathway comes about of its own accord and follows an inherent logic: it connects all muscles, structures and sensory organs related to a particular function. It is the blueprint of a goal-oriented entity. It stands for a principle expressed by the body: registering food, taking it in, processing it.

However, in TCM, food is not only seen as providing us with fuel on a biological level, but also everything else our body needs so that we don’t feel that something is lacking. The principle of the stomach meridian is therefore not limited to purely physiological tasks. It further encompasses psychological and emotional aspects. Who hasn’t experienced an unpleasant situation that upset their stomach and affected their appetite? Surely you, too, can remember an event or a person that was sitting heavily on your stomach? Or have you really never had to chew something over, have you never been gnawing on a problem? Has there never been anything leaving a nasty taste in your mouth? Of course, these are just idioms, but they express the experiences and wisdom of many generations; that there is a close and direct connection between eating and our emotions, between our head and our gut. Or put even more generally: that there is strong correlation between body and mind, between the physical and the emotional realm.

Isn’t it the case that we somehow have to register, process and utilise everything we take in from our environment, be it information, sensory perceptions, feelings, thoughts or encounters? And doesn’t this registering, processing and utilising represent the same process as the intake of food? And isn’t the nutritional value of a steak the same as that of affection? So that inspiring people can sate us in the same way as a slice of cake?

Our heart, our mind and our soul depend on nutrition in the same way our body does. They rely on some means to keep them alive. Interestingly, the German word for ‘foodstuff’ is ‘Lebensmittel’, literally meaning ‘a medium or stuff for living’. Without food, we will live in want; we will wither; emotionally and mentally. We need love, we need enthusiasm, we need a meaning in life. We hunger for it. We’re looking for it. We’re trying all kinds of different options until we have found what fills us and makes us content. We need appropriate meals for all levels of our nature. Otherwise, and despite a full tummy, there will remain an inner emptiness.

Psyche and soma are inseparable. They form an entity and are in a constant exchange. The meridians are the bridge clearly and explicitly expressing this connection. It’s the stomach meridian’s task to establish a balanced satiation in all areas of our life. The question is what kind of nutrients do we have to ingest on the different levels of our existence in order to be really content? This is the stomach meridian’s life principle.

Each of the twelve main meridians of TCM represents such a life principle. It is these principles that help us to act responsibly and proactively for the benefit of our health and personal growth. They can support us to reach our maximum possible potential according to our individual disposition. If we manage to establish a balanced relationship among the twelve meridians and their corresponding life principles, our wheel of life will run smoothly.

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