Integrative Medicine Blog

The Heart of Chinese Medicine

Christopher Reilly L.Ac., MSA Sunday, February 05, 2017
Istock chinese heart

In the Chinese medicine of centuries past, there is no such thing as a broken heart; it is simply impossible.

It is a weighty privilege to share a piece of Acupuncture theory that I am rarely able to speak about in the treatment room, but is quite literally at the center of the tradition. The story of the heart is a story written over many millennia. It is a story wrought by the hand of sages, those with the courage of humility and unflinchingly honest introspection who looked at the world with unconditional compassion. If we are quiet enough, perhaps these whispers from the past will find their way to our own hearts and offer some wisdom and insight into what it is to be human.

We Are of Two Hearts

Yes, two hearts are understood to be within one. The heart is unique in this way, and it is the only internal organ that has two acupuncture channels associated with it. The first heart is the "xin jun" and the second is "xin zhu." The xin jun is that aspect of the heart which by its presence gives order and an awareness of natural living. The xin zhu is the active aspect of the heart that circulates the power, guidance, and vitality of this presence to the entire being via the blood.

Say What?

To understand this, picture a block of wood. You can use it to rest your drink on, or perhaps you can carve something beautiful from it. The most important quality of the block that makes it useful is its substance. Now picture a wooden cup. The most important quality of the cup is its emptiness—its ability to receive. Without its emptiness, it is not a cup.

The xin jun is the cup, that place of emptiness that receives. It cannot be touched, nor can it be harmed, hurt, or broken in any way—just like the emptiness of the cup. What is it that the xin jun receives? The "shen," a term that is most often translated as "spirits." This does not mean the heart receives ghosts or incorporeal souls. The shen are not of individual being, they are a spiritual quality that informs the individual being, but are not limited to the individual being. What the shen inform the individual being of is called "te," or virtue. This is the same word found in the title of Lao Zi's well known Tao Te Jing, "The Classic Text of the Way and Virtue," the oldest pieces of which date back to the 4th century BC.

Defining Virtue

Like "spirits," the traditional concept of virtue differs from how we may think of it in the modern West. To us, virtue is often thought of as that which is morally and ethically positive. For example, courage, charity, and honesty are well known virtues. The traditional Chinese concept of virtue is that which puts us in accord with nature and the natural movement of life. It is immediate in every moment, and provides the relationship that puts the current of our life within the broader current of life itself.

What Does It All Mean?!

Within the human being there is a space that receives a sort of information and awareness about the flow of life within and without. That place is the xin jun (inner heart), and that information is te (virtue). If we are alive, this place exists in pristine completeness, and cannot be touched by pain or disease. It is always there. Its influence is spread throughout the human being by the xin zhu (outer heart). That influence at once provides the blueprint for healthy body, mind, and spirit. It is not strictly spiritual, as the traditional view never separated body and spirit; they are two inseparable aspects of one whole and complete life.


The question arises: if we have this place of connection to a sort of universal wisdom, why are there times we are less than perfectly wise? While the inner heart cannot in itself be harmed, it can be obscured from us. That is—our ability to connect with it can be compromised.

Fear can obstruct our connection with it, as can greed and dishonesty; so can physical ailment or injury, in some cases. Anything that takes our ability to stand in front of ourselves unadorned, simple, and honest can obscure it. This is why the sages of most Far Eastern wisdom traditions instruct the emptying of the mind and the relinquishment of greed and self-interest. It isn't for the sake of conforming to accepted social values or seeming cool, it is to find clarity of mind, spirit, and body for the benefit of the one life that flows through us and all others. Love the life that is you, follow the life that is universal, and realize that they are one—no separation.

A Consideration of Language

These thoughts may sound strange and foreign to those raised in the Modern west, but perhaps it is more the language that is unusual to us, not the concepts. In parting, consider the ideas above in comparison with the words below from teachers of traditions most of us are more familiar with:

"...but there is a root or depth of thee from whence all these faculties come forth, as lines from a centre, or as branches from the body of a tree. This depth is called the centre, the fund or bottom of the soul. This depth is the unity, the eternity-I had almost said the infinity-of thy soul...."

- William Law (18th century priest and theologian)

"There is something nearer to us than Scriptures, to wit, the Word in the heart from which all Scripture comes."

-William Penn (17th-18th century Quaker, and founder of the Province of Pennsylvania)

"Goodness needeth not to enter into the soul, for it is there already, only it is unperceived."

-Theologia Germanica (circa 14th century, author unknown)

"Would you become a pilgrim on the road of Love? The first condition is that you make yourself humble as dust and ashes."

-Khaja Abdullah Ansari of Herat (11th century Persian Sufi)

"Heavens, deal so still! Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man that slaves your ordinance, that will not see because he doth not feel, feel your power quickly."

-Shakespeare ("King Lear" Act 4, Scene 1)