天地人: The Microcosm- Macrocosm Correspondence between Earth- Human- Sky

In one of my classics classes this quarter, we covered 1-2 chapters each week on a selected chapter of the Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine (黃帝内經素問). Our final essay involved briefly summating the experience, via discussing the ideal of harmony between Heaven, Humanity, and Earth. With thirteen classes to wrap up this quarter and limited time, I could only spend one afternoon on this essay. I would still like to share it with you. In future essays, I would like to explore more on energetics, share some school-related stories, and gossip more about the Suwen. But first, Earth, Human, and Sky. Enjoy!

The Microcosm- Macrocosm Correspondence between Earth- Human- Sky

Standing in Universe stance, I root my feet firmly into the Earth thru Kd-1 (湧泉), while anchoring the top of my head to the Sky via GV-20 (百會). I feel the smoothness of my breath, the stability of my bones, the supple strength of my muscles, the alignment of my spine as a lightning rod connecting me with the Universe, via Earth and Sky, electricity in the form of breath, blood and Qi coursing through my being. Blessed with this human body and life to be powerfully walking between, supported by, and supporting both Sky and Earth, I take on my life responsibilities with humanity, humility, dignity, reverence, and gratitude.

The first few chapters of the Neìjīng Sùwen (黃帝内經素問) address this Heaven-Human-Earth connection (天地人), or the microcosm-macrocosm correspondence. In this paper, I examine a few passages that explore this relationship, and how it connects with me as a human, student, and future practitioner of this medicine.

[Heaven and earth] can be father and mother of the myriad beings.
The clear yang rises towards heaven; the turbid yin returns to the earth.

(from Suwen 5, Unschuld translation)

In the Yì Jīng (易經/ Book of Changes), Sky (or Heaven) is represented by three solid lines. Earth is represented by three broken lines. Hexagram 11, or Taì (泰), shows the Sky under the Earth. Earth, representing the epitome of yin energy, wants to move downwards. Sky, representing the height of yang energy, wants to move upwards. In this arrangement, they move towards each other, in constant communication. Taì does not represent a static peace, but demonstrates instead a dynamic equilibrium between yin and yang that culminates in a peace that allows both to move as they need, each in accordance with the other, while solid within their personal power, in a state of constant transformation. Hexagram 12 on the other hand, or Pĭ (否), shows the Earth under the Sky. This seems logically correct, right? However, yin moves downwards, while yang moves upwards. In this arrangement, they keep moving away from each other, incommunicado, distant. The person thus falls apart. Illness is simply a lack of communication, stuck qi, imbalance between yin and yang, or an imbalance of our internal Earth and Sky.

If one follows yin and yang, then life results; if one opposes them, then death results.
If one follows them, then order results; if one opposes them, then disorder results.

(from Suwen 2, Unschuld translation)

In Chinese medicine’s view of life, nature revolves around the interplay between yin and yang. The ongoing courtship dance between the two constitutes health or disease. To have more of one or another would create imbalance, leading to illness. To “follow” them means to follow the flow of the energy, responding accordingly to what’s necessary in the moment to continue flowing organically. Alignment between Heaven, Humanity, and Earth means to exist with yin and yang dancing harmoniously, adjusting for seasonal and other changes with dietary, lifestyle, medicinal, and other seasonally appropriate modifications.

When a disease persists over a long time, it is transmitted [in the organism] and transformed. When [a stage is reached where] above and below have lost their union, then [even] a good physician cannot do anything about it. Hence, the sages arranged yin and yang [in such a way that their] sinews and vessels were in harmony, [their] bones and marrow were solid and firm, and [their] qi and blood both followed [their usual course]. In such a situation, inner and outer are balanced in harmony…

(from Suwen 3, Unschuld translation)

One of the strengths of Chinese medicine, particularly herbal medicine, is its ability to address each unique individual, and tonify them in tailored ways that match what they truly need. This fortifies the inner reserves, making that person more resilient against unwanted xié qì (邪氣), or pathogens. By creating a solid nourished core that roots into the Earth and connects with the Sky, a person is more steady in their center, and less likely to waver due to unwanted external or internal influences. As practitioners, we cultivate inner Taì (泰) via good food, sleep, exercise, and a fulfilling life. By nourishing and strengthening ourselves, we can approach our patients with honesty and self-knowing, fully understanding both sickness and how to recover from it, with a diversity of practices and protocols tailored to each individual that we encounter.

… if the ruler is enlightened, his subjects are in peace.
To nourish one’s life on the basis of this results in longevity.
If the ruler is not enlightened, then the twelve officials are in danger.

(from Suwen 8, Unschuld translation)

The ruler is the Heart, who is the emperor of all of the other organ systems, or twelve officials. If the Heart Emperor is in balance, then all is well in the inner kingdom of the person. If the Heart Emperor is out of balance, then this is reflected in chaos in the kingdom. Harmony here refers to the twelve officials, or different body systems, working together to create a dynamic, efficient, effective, and elegant kingdom within the person. The Heart, governing the Spirit, dynamically connects the axis between Earth and Sky, terrestrial and celestial, human and Universe, microcosm and macrocosm. We cannot just address the physical. We must also address emotional, spiritual, and environmental wellness within ourselves, and our patients and communities. When meeting a patient for the first time, we first notice their shén (神), or our immediate impression of their general energy, almost like an “aura” that they exude. Addressing the patient as a whole human being is thus addressing the person on a shén (神) level. My self cultivation practices seek to nourish myself on a shén (神) level as well, which connects me not only with the deeper layers of myself, but also with the deeper layers of nature, and the Universe itself.

The accomplished [people] … of pure virtue and… entirely in accord with the Way…
adapted themselves to [the regularity] of yin and yang and lived in harmony with the four seasons.

(from Suwen 1, Unschuld translation)

One who is truly healthy and vibrant aligns with the natural rhythms of the Universe, yin and yang’s courtship dance, reflected in the fluctuating tides of our bodies that respond to the celestial cycles, seasonal cycles, and simply growing older day by day. We can engage in self-cultivation/ nourishing life (養身) practices to restore jīng (精/ Essence) and nourish shén (神/ Spirit).

Heaven has the essence; Earth has the physical appearance.
(from Suwen 5, Unschuld translation)

Earth, or yin, forms the solid container for Sky, or yang. In cultivating health on all levels, we caretake both our Earthen physical bodies, as well our Heavenly yang Spirits. How can we be effective conduits of energy to lead the most fulfilling lives, possible? How can we best nourish ourselves, and in doing so, help restore others to health and dynamic equilibrium, as well? How does our relationship with our internal Universe, our inner ecology, connect with our relationship with our outer Universe, our outer ecology of human, animal, plant, and mineral communities?

Exhaling, I drop my hands downwards back to the Earth, then inhale them in a circle out and up to greet the Sky one more time for this practice, collecting Sky energy with my hands and exhaling it back down to connect with Earth, collecting the energy into my center by inhaling my feet together and hands to my belly, one on top of another atop my umbilicus (CV-8/ 神闕), the center of my Universe, eyes gently closing, with a smile.


Quotes from Huangdi Neijing Suwen translations by Paul Unschuld and Hermann Tessenow, from Volume 1 of their 2011 Annotated Translation of Huang Di's Inner Classic- Basic Questions


Herbal Medicine Making Overview

Click on the above so you can see my class handout in more detail. It's a broad overview of herbal medicine-making techniques. 

Then, click on these links for further information and directions to work with the menstruums delineated above: 

Explore making other things, too: 
- Lube


Botany Basics

Depending on where you live, the flowers are either at the height of their bloom, or they are just beginning. Regardless, it's the time of year to bust out your loupes (in other words, undust your magnifying lenses), and start keying out plants--- or at least looking at them carefully! (The better to appreciate you, my dear.) 

Besides the obvious: look carefully, and then look even more carefully, and notice and take note of what you see... 

The four basic whorls of a flower, from outside in: Sepals, Petals, Stamen, Pistil. In plural form: Calyx, Corolla, Androecium, Gynoecium. 
But wait, there's more! 

Here's a few ideas on how to start botanizing: 

- Check out my basic botany class handout that I drew for my Botany class at the 2015 Montana Herb Gathering
- Download 7song's Botanical Identification Steps handout
... and see 7song's website for more free and useful handouts
- Join the free/ by-donation "Botany Everyday" class run by Marc Williams

Happy herb-nerding! 


Welcome Spring

What kind of dreams did you nourish, cultivate, and explore through the dark winter days? Now, as the snow melts and the sun returns, what changes do you feel inside of yourself? How do you continue to take care of yourself, gently holding, nourishing, and bringing your dreams to life, as animals come out of hibernation, the rivers begin actively flowing again, and you run around the forest like a madwoman, digging up medicine roots, for the rest of the year? What went back into the Earth, through the death of winter, and what is now springing forth? What are you planting? What roots are you harvesting, these roots that sat so deeply and patiently in the Earth all winter long awaiting the lengthening days, the return of the sun, the melting of the solid Earth? How do you rest, amidst all this action, continuing to hold the parts of you which must be tended gently, and with care? How do you celebrate? 

(photo: freshly harvested Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) in Bethany, CT) 


莊子 (Zhuangzi)

莊子 (Zhuangzi) was an ancient Chinese Daoist philosopher from the 4th century BCE. Here's some reflections from two of his stories. 

蝴蝶夢 Butterfly Dream
Zhuangzi dreamed that he was a butterfly. Upon waking, he couldn’t tell if he had dreamed of the butterfly, or if the butterfly had dreamed of him! The indistinguishability of dreamer and dream highlights the undefinable nature of reality, and the interconnectedness of all things. The microcosm dances infinitely within the macrocosm. Anything is possible. Keep an open mind.
All is in motion. The only constant is change. I could be the dreamer one moment, the dream the next. I am an herbalist now, but I am also a client. I am alive today, but one day I’ll be dead. I’m a sleeping human in one moment’s realm of reality, and a flying butterfly in another. In my everyday life and clinical practice, I seek to treat all people with equal respect and appreciation for them in that moment, however they are. It’s important to maintain humbleness, a respect and appreciation for all things in their current manifestations, past evolutions, and future possibilities. Butterfly today, human being tomorrow. Anything can happen.
How do I perceive the world? Am I perceiving myself as the dreamer, or the dream? What’s real, anyhow? Is there such a thing? Stay humble, open, and curious. Question everything, yet hold it all loosely, like a flower that just keeps changing from seed to sprout to plant to flower to fruit to seed again and again, in your hands, breath, body, and heart.
I once dreamed of a Passiflora plant growing and blossoming, then gathering the flower and making tea, which I drank into my body, where the plant continued to grow and blossom into me and my life, while informing my existence with its past history of growing and blossoming, me evolving and growing as a flower as well, getting picked, processed, and drank back into my body, and into the body of the world. I am the flower. The flower is me. The answer is both, and neither. There are no clear lines or delineations, but there is clearly “me” and “the flower” and how we mutually inform and inspire each other.
We walk a fine line between healer and healee. We too are neither, and both. As healthcare practitioners, we can shape-shift, establishing rapport with clear communication, clean boundaries, a loving heart, open mind, and deep compassion. We can see things from the perspective of our patients and be supportive and understanding, while also holding space in a grounded professional way, accessing the roots of the medicine in clear, deliberate, poetic, intuitive ways that birth innovation through tradition, embrace the universal, and address the individual.

屠夫 The Butcher
When the butcher first started his work, he was clunky and awkward, carefully figuring out how to cut the ox just right by looking carefully, cutting slowly, and sometimes still making mistakes. Now, after much practice, instead of thinking about what he does, he approaches his work via his spirit, and doesn’t look with his eyes, resulting in smooth, effortless, and even graceful butchering that is efficient and effective. He cuts by following the form of the ox, instead of trying to impose himself onto the ox.
Michael McMahon shared this story during one of our first Palpation and Perception classes, where we learn a different myofascial line in the body each week, and palpate it on each other. “Touch as many bodies as you can,” says Michael, “then eventually you can stop thinking, and be like the butcher in Zhuangzi’s story.” I’m currently like the butcher when he first started his work. I keep referencing my notes to find the points, bony landmarks, and other elements, slowly repeating their names and qualities to myself, and still not remembering, while inelegantly manhandling my fellow students. One day, after much practical experience, I can internalize what I do so that it becomes second nature, I move with the body with knowledge and poetry, and I no longer need to think about it.
Non-action is poetry in motion, being in the zone, and being the wave, when all things move through us, and we don’t have to work hard or struggle wildly to create eloquent perfection. Practicing yoga and dancing, there’s a dynamic balance between maintaining relaxation and having control over the movements and postures. Non-action isn’t controlling everything with tightly contracted muscles and stiff joints, nor is it holding myself so loosely that I have no form or structure at all, and am just slumping around all over the place. There’s a balance between those two extremes which also encompasses both, in which I am completely relaxed, while simultaneously in complete control, able to accomplish the most with the least amount of effort, and the utmost grace and efficiency. It’s not just being in the flow, but it’s being the flow. The law of least resistance requires practice and life experience to attain, but is also a moment by moment practice of awareness, surrender, adjustment, and breath to access and attune one’s still, silent, center, radiating outwards with grounded elegance.  
We have to memorize a lot, as Chinese medicine practitioners. There’s 361 acupuncture points, 400+ herbs and formulas, and a whole new language of medicine, and way of observing and analyzing the world. In the USA, we can gnash our teeth as we labor long hours to memorize all these things, but in Taiwan or China, there’s even more to memorize: the entire Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine (黃帝内經 Huáng Dì Neì Jīng), the song-lines (歌訣) associated with each channel, and more. “Dead memorization, live usage” (死記活用 sĭ jì huó yòng) describes this way of learning, where we invest so much sweat and tears memorizing this information that by the time we work clinically, it’s effortless, like second nature. When we memorize it, it still feels dead to us; we don’t yet have a true understanding of it. Personal, clinical, and all other life experiences literally breathe life into our memorized dead chunky information. But the memorized information forms the backbone, from which life practice can spring out from, and refer back to. Both are necessary.
Studying most modalities is like this: during yoga teacher training, we focused most of our training on learning one basic sequence. Once we could all confidently teach that basic sequence, we learned modifications. Once we internalized the basic form, then we could root down from that place of grounding, and rise up with powerful elegance. My Thai massage training was similar: we went over the same sequence over and over, until it was internalized, then could start diversifying from that still, silent, solid yet mutable center. My qigong teacher in Taiwan would not allow us to learn more of the form, until we had first achieved a certain level of mastery with the basic Universe stance, or 站樁 (zhàn zhuāng) daily for months. I’m still working on it. A simple movement held, for nine minutes a day, can make me shake and sweat, and sore the next day. During the nine minutes of stillness, I pay constant attention to my body, making micro-adjustments to my hips, shoulders, feet, head, neck… entire body. These miniscule nine minutes affect the rest of my day, and all add together over the years, to impact the rest of my life:  my posture, approach to movement, innate response to change, etc. An underlying form, or deeply internalized understanding of one discipline, can create a solid Earthen foundation for infinite flowers and possibilities to freely blossom forth. Complete immersion into any one thing creates a portal to the Universe. We immerse ourselves so completely that we lose all sense of self, and merge with all else.
To stop leaving tracks is easy, but to walk upon the ground is difficult.

Philip Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy
Bryan Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy

Luna moth, guardian of dreams. Pictured on the northeastern tip of the USA in Maine, from last summer's journey-woman botano-adventures.  


Some Tasty Spring Weeds

Here's some delicious wild edible spring weedy greens that are available around most parts of the USA, though at differing times (depends on when your spring begins). Spring is a prime time to get the leaves first, then the roots, then the flowers... and you can harvest (some) roots again, in the autumn. Chop 'em up fine all together, on their own, mixed with cultivated greens, etc. Make soups, stir-fries, souffles, soirees, etc. Yummm... have fun, and enjoy!

- Dandelion leaves, roots, flowers (Taraxacum officinale) 
- Mustard leaves, roots, flowers (Alliaria petiolata, and other Brassicaceaes)
- Wild Onion bulbs, leaves (Allium spp.) 
- Sorrel flowers, leaves (Oxalis spp.) 
- Miner's lettuce leaves, flowers, seeds (Claytonia perfoliata) 
- Chickweed leaves, flowers (Stellaria medea) 
- Clover leaves, flowers (Trifolium spp.) 
- Violet leaves, flowers (Viola spp.) 
- Dock leaves (Rumex spp.) 
- Plantain leaves, flowers, seeds (Plantago spp.) 
- Nettles leaves (Urtica dioica) 


道德經 (Dao De Jing)

Although the Dao that can be named is not the true Dao, here’s an attempt at summarizing the unsummarizable. Below are the five main themes of the timeless classic from Laozi, the Dao De Jing (道德經), with a link to a passage translated by Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng to illustrate each theme, and a commentary below that.

Social Ills and their Solution

Enough of being superficial, and attached to worldly things and values. Let’s return to what’s real inside of ourselves. Let’s return to the Dao. Let the government rule from the Dao, and the people live with the Dao. The Way is simple, uncluttered with material possessions or preconceived notions and frivolities.


Everything is more than it seems, for each thing encompasses everything else, and therefore is also nothing. Don’t take life too seriously. Don’t grasp too hard. Let go of letting go. Don’t work too hard. Be. Don’t do. Don’t try to do the not-doing. Don’t try. Just be. When you are in the natural flow of the Dao, you are acting without acting, moving without forcing. Stop trying to explain it. You can never fully define it, anyhow. Embody it.

Teaching Without Words

Words cannot describe the fullness of life, or what is. Words reduce something boundless into something bounded, a diminutive description of something ineffable. Words delineate judgements. Judgments remove us from reality. Nothing can truly be named. What is true, anyhow?

The Way

Follow the Dao, or the Way. The Way is gentle yet powerful, natural yet beyond nature. Stop looking for it; allow it to reveal itself. Stop working so hard; it comes naturally.

Active Mysticism (Immanence)

Don’t elevate yourself in haughty rituals that seek to remove you from the world. Make life your ritual. Don’t strive to separate life and the practices that connect you with something greater than yourself. Live the life that you pray for. Don’t try to make yourself a better person. Be who you are, which is definite yet undefined, fluid yet solid. Live in your questions, which are your answers. Live in the ways that you praise your ancestors, in a path of easeful brilliance. Let every moment and action be a graceful yet clunky prayer, a life of virtue and respect, honesty and truth. Live alive and thriving, aligned with the nature of yourself, the world around you, and the Way. This life is mundane yet sacred, every moment full yet empty, teeming yet lacking with impossible possibilities, with such a rich abundance of nothingness and everythingness. Flow.  

Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, Tao Te Ching
Philip Ivanhoe and Bryan Van Norden, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy
Stephen Mitchell, Tao Te Ching
Bryan Van Norden, Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy 


Microsystems and Metasystems

This one's pretty heady, a little more technical, and not as poetic. I decided to share it, anyhow. Enjoy! 


“Meta-” means, “above.” A “metasystem” is therefore an “above-system” of organizing information. It can be layered above any other system. It condenses large volumes of information into functional systems of relationship and transformation. Some common metasystems include Yin Yang theory (陰陽), Five Phase theory (五行), the Three Realms/ Treasures (三寶), the Eight Trigrams (八卦), and the Ten Heavenly Stems and Twelve Earthly Branches (天干地支).

A metasystem defines what’s in each category via descriptive categories. The relationships between the component parts remain fixed, regardless of whatever other system they are placed over. It creates symbolic relationships based on patterns between relationships that can be applied as a lens to view life in its different forms, from very large to very small. For example, Yin Yang theory can be applied to us on a cellular level: every second, upwards of two million cells are birthing and dying in our bodies. Cell death is more yin than cell birth. Birth is active and expanding; it is yang in energy, compared to dying and resting, which is more yin in energy. We can zoom outwards and apply that to the birth and death of a human being, too.

We can overlay Yin Yang theory and all of the various metasystems onto the Organ Manifestation theory (五臟六腑). The Zang () organs are more yin than the Fu () organs. They are solid and hidden, whereas the more yang Fu organs are hollow and actively getting filled and emptied. Five Phase theory has its metasystem correspondences with Organ Manifestation theory, with each Phase being connected to a Zang and Fu organ: Water governs Kidney and Urinary Bladder; Wood governs Liver and Gall Bladder; Fire governs Heart and Small Intestine; Earth governs Spleen and Stomach; Metal governs Lung and Large Intestine. Yin Yang relationships are within and around each of these relationships. Metasystems are useful in their ability to flexibly overlay onto a variety of situations, with infinite possibilities of deeper levels of understanding, therein.


“Micro-” means, “small.” A “microsystem” is therefore a “small system,” or a map of a larger whole projected onto a smaller part of that same whole, also known as a “holographic correspondence.” A holograph is like a three dimensional mirror that contains all of the information inside of it. When shattered into a million pieces, each shard of the holographic mirror still contains all of the information in the original whole.

Microsystems sometimes use metasystems on different body parts. Whereas metasystems can be layered atop most anything else like interchangeable lenses, microsystems are specific lens maps that can only be applied to certain parts.

There are different microsystems for viewing the human body. Tongue diagnosis integrates Organ Manifestation theory and Five Phase theory metasystems as a microsystem map of the tongue. Different areas on the tongue represent different Phases and their associated Organs and systems, which reflects the state of the entire body. Pulse diagnosis and Eye diagnosis also utilize Organ Manifestation theory and Five Phase theory metasystems in their microsystems map of the entire body onto the pulses and eyes. Chinese medicine diagnosis involves four primary diagnostic tools (四診): visual observation, hearing/ smell, asking, and palpation (望聞問切). Observing the face, eyes, and tongue, the Chinese Medicine Physician utilizes the microsystems in each of these places to observe the entire person. Diagnosis is deepened and refined by hearing and smelling, which again utilize the Organ Manifestation and Five Phase metasystems to better understand the patient and their condition(s). Besides pulse diagnosis, the Physician can also palpate and observe the entire body, using different microsystems lenses to inform diagnosis, and the resulting treatment.

Five Phase Theory

The Five Phase theory is a beautiful example of a metasystem that can expand like a net of stars and constellations to cover various possibilities of understanding the Organ Manifestation theory, human life-cycle, directions, pulse diagnosis, seasons, tongue diagnosis, eye diagnosis, herbal energetics, constitutional types, and so much more! Five Phase theory is also used as a microsystem: the Five Phases manifesting in the tongue, pulse, eyes, and face reflect the entire human body-mind-spirit being. Thus, we can utilize our overlapping understandings of the Five Phases as both microsystems and metasystems, to accurately diagnosis and elegantly treat different people and conditions.

Brenda Hood, Meta-Systems
Brenda Hood, Microsystems: Holographic Correspondence
Ted Kaptchuk, The Web That Has No Weaver
Maoshing Ni, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine