The HEART is the “EMPEROR” organ and dominates mental activities.
– from Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon (Huangdi Neijing)
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the heart is in control of the entire body’s physical and psychological functions, and is the storehouse of the spirit. The complexities of spirit are understood through outer manifestation: complexion, expression of the eyes, movements, and speech.
Different emotions correspond with different organ systems. The emotion of joy relates to the heart system. When heart Qi (vital energy) is deficient, normally sadness or depression results. When heart Qi is excessive, there is scattered, ungrounded happiness, which can easily transmute to chaos or mania and be marked by palpitations, disturbed sleep, poor concentration, and uncontrolled joy leading to impulsive, irrational behaviour.
Just as depression is a common emotion when people fall from high positions of wealth or status, losing their titles or positions in society, so is excessive happiness or over-elation possible when catapulted into new fame or fortune. Both are situations of imbalance in the heart system.
The following two stories are case examples of when heart Qi (vital energy) becomes out of balance from sudden expansion into a state of excessive joy.
The Ming dynasty Classic The Unofficial History of the Scholars (Ru Lin Wai Shi) tells of a man named Fan Jin who was busy preparing for high-level scholarship by intending to sit the Mandarin examinations.
Though his family was very poor and he was without a stable job, Fan Jin received permission from an affluent butcher to marry his daughter, as Fan Jin was a reliable, honest and faithful man who was always trying to better his lot.
His mother and wife were constantly depending on his father-in-law for support, making Fan Jin more determined to take the exams to increase his economic and social standing. For many years he took the test, always only testing to the lowest level, and still having difficulty finding a good job.
Then, one year, his tutor told him that he believed Fan Jin could test to the highest level of ju ren, a revered title that would ensure employment and a far better future for his family. Although he lacked the confidence after many failures, the tutor’s encouragement won him over.
Fan Jin ended up taking the exam, and afterward, even went about his daily chores feeling more accomplished. Then one day at the market, Fan Jin was suddenly accosted by a neighbour:
“Go home! There is a group of people from the Mandarin examinations committee carrying a banner down the street to your house. It says you’ve received the highest honour of ju ren! Quickly go home to receive it!”
Fan Jin initially took this as a jest, but after much persuasion, he finally went home to see what the ruckus was all about. Upon returning home and seeing the banner congratulating him on passing the highest level of scholarship examinations, his demeanor suddenly switched to an almost unrecognizable state.
He clapped his hands uncontrollably and guffawed like a madman, repeating many times, “Haha! Fantastic! I made it!” Then suddenly he fell backwards and clenched his teeth, losing consciousness.
Several minutes later when he awoke, he stood up, and again began to clap his hands, shouting and laughing loudly, “I made it! I made it!” As he ran to and fro doing this, and then ran out the door, everyone was frightened and unable to stop him.
He continued in this ridiculous state to everyone’s dismay until finally, a person with traditional medical knowledge had an idea, “Quick! Who is Fan Jin most afraid of?” The townspeople mentioned his father-in-law, and then the person with medical knowledge proceeded to reverse the effects.
He told the father-in-law to yell at Fan Jin and slap him hard across the face, telling him that he had actually NOT passed the examinations, and that it was all a hoax. While this method was relatively severe, it served to promptly snap Fan Jin back to a more balanced state so much so that once he recovered his breath and his mind, he vomited phlegm and after a few moments became very calm and returned to normal.
Only after drinking several doses of herbal teas for his heart and having several days existing in a balanced emotional state did his family and friends then inform him that indeed he did pass the exams. At that point he was able to receive this good news with balanced joy and grace.
Why was fear used to bring Fan Jin’s over-elation into balance?
In TCM Five Element Theory, the heart corresponds with the element of fire and the emotion of over-elation. Kidney corresponds with the element of water, and the emotion of fear. We know that water extinguishes fire. Therefore, fear (a contractive state) can be used to keep over-joy in check (an expansive state). And vice versa – happiness overrides the harmful effects of long-standing fear.
Relatively speaking then, fire and over-joyous states are a “yang” energy, while water and fearful states are a “yin” energy. Another way to describe this is that excessive joy or happiness needs to be well-grounded in calmness, gratitude, and centredness.
Another example of sudden or excessive happiness putting the heart (potentially fatally) out of balance is seen through the wife of Olympic ice-skater Dan Jansen in the 1994 Winter Olympics. Previously, Jansen always won silver or bronze medals, never winning the gold.
Before his 1000 metre speed-skating event, he dedicated his race to the memory of his sister, who died from leukemia on the day of his 500 meter race in the 1988 Calgary Olympics. This inner drive won him the gold in the 1000 meter event in 1994, but in the moment he won, his wife became overly ecstatic, fainted, and required emergency medical treatment.
Certainly, our North American society would benefit from less busy-ness and stress, and more joy and happiness. Joy certainly brings mostly positive benefits.
It is important to assess in oneself then if one is experiencing a grounded, appropriate dose of happiness, or excessive, over-stimulated happiness. Healthy states of happiness bring a high mood, yet mood remains overall stable and calm, which is marked by good sleep and balanced emotions in daily life.