In this essay I’d like to discuss the different basic types of energy in Chinese medicine, and how you can use these concepts practically.

In Chinese medicine, the fundamental energy of the body, which is used to fuel and bring vitality to all of the organs and tissues in the body, is rooted in two different sources. They are known colloquially as “pre-heaven” and “post-heaven” energy.

Don’t be distracted by the poetic language; “heaven” in this instance is a metaphor referring to the moment of birth. Your “pre-heaven energy” essentially refers to a genetic or inherited constitution, while “post-heaven energy” refers to those events, activities, and circumstances that affect you after you’re born. This division is useful and has interesting practical implications.

Pre-Heaven Energy. Some people are born with certain strengths or weaknesses. Some people have iron stomachs and can eat anything without harm; others get knocked over by a stiff breeze, or even have developmental disabilities. All of these are indicators of inherited constitution.

In general, robust people will have robust children, and ill people will have ill children. But even here, there are a number of factors that influence the inherited constitution.

Of course, the characteristics of your parents are among the primary determinants; the modern Western concept of genetics fits in very well here. Red-haired people tend to have children with red hair. However, this is not always a static thing. It’s not just the genetic coding that gets transmitted to you, but the state of your parents’ energy when you are conceived and born. Thus, if your parents are very tired and ill when you’re conceived, and continue to be so as pregnancy progresses, this will impact the energy you inherit from them.

So the internal and external environment of the fetus and the pregnant mother have an influence. If there’s poor health in the mother, if there’s any abuse of tobacco or alcohol or drugs, if there’s emotional or physical stress or trauma, if there’s malnourishment of any sort, if there’s exposure to chemical toxicity, this will impact the child.

It then goes without saying that significant events in the life of the mother, such as a painful divorce or death of a relative during the pregnancy, affect the unborn child, who is effectively part of the organism of the mother.

Finally, there’s a “wild card” variability to the pre-heaven energy that I have not seen described elsewhere, but nonetheless does present itself on occasion. That is, in almost all situations, a small percentage of individuals are somehow strengthened and thrive despite (or because of) very difficult or dangerous conditions. This applies even to unborn children, so that on occasion someone who would be expected, based on the health history of the parents, to be weak and sickly is strong and healthy. To me, this is part of the miracle of birth and the wonder of life.

But we can, for the most part, spot general trends that conform to the principles I’ve outlined.

So what does this mean? First of all, it means that it’s important to acknowledge that we are not all, in fact, created equal, at least as far as our health goes. Some of us were simply born with more power in our batteries than others. Each of us has unique challenges to overcome and unique strengths to draw on. This fundamental ground of our physical being—a combination of parental influences, prenatal environment, and, shall we say, divine comedy (or tragedy), forms the unique soil in which we sprout. This is neither good nor bad, it’s just the way it is, and it’s important to acknowledge all of these as influences on your basic health.

Second, it means that how you care for yourself and your environment does have a direct impact on what you transmit to your children, and the children of others, especially those close to you.

Taken together, this means that, paradoxically, there’s a fatalistic aspect to Chinese medicine, just as there is with modern genetics, in that we must all accept that there are some things we can change and some we can’t; and, at the same time, we should also acknowledge that those things that we cannot change very easily or quickly are, in fact, mutable and open to influence over time and generations.

Post-Heaven Energy. The pre-heaven energy is the soil and the seed, but the water, air, and sun are the post-heaven energy—the constant cycles and processes that keep us going on a daily level.

Broadly, these are encompassed in the abstract concept of digestion, which, more than simply food, is about exchanges with the external environment. This includes:

  • Breathing
  • Eating
  • Drinking
  • Urinating
  • Defecating
  • Absorbing sunlight

Note that all of these happen in certain frequencies and rhythms. This is one way to distinguish between what we are terming the pre-heaven and post-heaven energies. Inherited constitution or pre-heaven energy is fairly static, and cycles in lifetimes and generations. Post-heaven energy cycles in years, months, weeks, days, and even minutes.

A healthy person urinates several times a day and has one or more formed bowel movements daily. She eats three or four meals a day and drinks plenty of water periodically. If there’s a disruption of any of these processes, it’s quickly noticed and has certain effects.

The cycle of breathing is even more frequent. You can go without eating for weeks. You can go without water for days. But you can’t go without breathing for more than a few minutes.

The common theme throughout this is the constant cycling of energy in various forms. Because these processes are so constant, and because they are exactly what affect our day-to-day, post-heaven energy—more so than the pre-heaven energy—here is where change can most impact our health most positively or negatively.

Many people think of ill health as something to be treated with medication or surgery. This should be true only in more severe cases or advanced conditions. We overlook the daily processes that keep us alive precisely because they are everpresent; but it’s because they’re so everpresent that we should be paying attention to them.

Of the above, the breath is possibly the least respected, because of its constancy. But breathing marks the beginning of life after birth (post-heaven). Taking a breath at birth is the first thing we do that marks our successful entry into this world, and it’s the last thing that marks our death. We breathe endlessly throughout our whole lives, with so much repetition that the breath may seem to become virtually meaningless.

But it’s precisely because it’s both so crucial and so common and repetitive that it can be one of the most powerful things to access. You eat a few times a day, you drink several more times per day. You breathe several times a minute. It’s a cycle that’s directly accessible since it sits right inside your chest and influences your entire body on a moment-to-moment basis. Thus, attention to and care for the breath is often an excellent starting point for exploration and improvement of the life-energy of the body.

The breath is also something that is uniquely poised between voluntary and involuntary control—it literally changes moment to moment, and in every moment we can exert our control over it or not.—and uniquely responsive to conscious direction, more so than the digestion or elimination processes.

Breathing literally brings in life energy. In Chinese medicine, it’s also the action responsible for rooting ourselves in our bodies, to experiencing ourselves somatically.

So, placing our attention on our breath is a beginning point for perceiving our body, our health, and the energy in our lives.

Why is this important? It’s important because this perception is precisely that which is often ignored, leading to the accumulation of complaints and symptoms that result in chronic illness or injury. Before reaching that point, it’s useful to have a doorway into the life of the body to systemically check and influence the organism. The breath is one such doorway.

While crucial to life, the breath is also an exquisite meter of how you’re feeling emotionally, and where your mind’s concentration is. Because it changes every moment, it’s responsive to your functioning in every moment. Thus, the least little stress can tighten your chest, make your breathing more shallow and more rapid, even if in only minute amounts.

A natural and relaxed awareness of the breath can serve as a gauge of your functioning on all levels. And once you know how you’re doing, you can begin to adjust that functioning. And this, too, is part of the beauty of the breath: It works both ways. It’s a gauge, yes, but by consciously controlling the breath, you can begin to send the influence in the opposite direction. So it is that by slowing and deepening the breath, you can slow and relax your mind and emotions, you can calm down your heartbeat and influence the rest of your body.

The breath is, for most people, a skittish thing. I recommend that you start working with it simply by becoming aware of it, specifically without trying to change it. It’s like becoming acquainted with a wary animal; if you want to train it, you can’t start by telling it what to do. You have to approach it with respect and understanding of how it is naturally. Developing a relationship will automatically bring you more into accord and that will open the door to greater influence and a more harmonious and expanded relationship with self, with body, as well as with the surrounding environment which is, after all, the origin of the air we breathe.

There’s much more to post-heaven energy than the breath, of course, but it’s a first doorway.

More exploration of other aspects of the lifestyle and their effects on the body’s energy will be forthcoming.

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