Benevolence: The "Virtue" of the Liver

Benevolence: The Virtue of the Liver 

One of the small things anyone can do is to give to people weaker and poorer than you are. This is an act of benevolence, no matter how small. 

There is always someone worse off, and with a minimum of time, money and energy, you can help them. The recent Presidential election has prodded me to be more aggressive in my giving, as an antidote to the anger I feel over its result and, for obvious reasons,  towards the man chosen to be our next President. 

Anger is a useful nervous system response that is associated with the physiological responses in our body's that activate the physical and mental defense systems that are required to survive attacks from wild animals and wild humans, or any life threat your brain instantly decides can be best defended against with the fight aspect of your autonomic nervous system. 

The emotional state we think of as anger is the collection of bodily changes that occur automatically when we are in the fight aspect of the fight-flight-freeze response gifted us by nature. Our blood pressure raises, our heart rate goes up, blood is shunted into the muscles, especially the jaw, neck, and shoulders, so we can fight with our teeth and fists. And then there are the inchoate feelings we think of as the emotion. But if you ask someone what anger feels like in the body, which is where our brains and minds live, as opposed to the ideas associated with anger (such as hatred, wanting to harm the other, to punch, to hurt, e.g.) it can only be expressed in terms of physical sensation. We see here that the nervous system is how our body's express emotions, whether fear, anger, terror, love, grief, or sympathy. All emotions that we have words for have corresponding physical feelings and physiological states involving the complexity of all that makes us material beings--hormones, neurotransmitters, immune system, circulatory system, gut, etc. When we are in love in the early phase our endorphins elevate, our pupils dilate, our sexual systems are aroused, we develop insomnia and cant stop thinking--we in essence, go a bit mad, as in falling madly in love. Falling is losing yourself, losing your footing. Normally not desirable, but in the context of falling in love, a bit pleasurable, unless you are unstable and fall in love at the drop of a hat and can't concentrate on your work and get a C in algebra and can't go to the college you wanted to.... Whereas being in love with your baby, holding her in your arms, smelling her fresh scent and feeling her soft skin, involves elevated Serotonin and Prolactin, does not associate with any sexual arousal, but gives a sense of joy and even inner peace. As does cuddling with your pet Labrador Retriever or petting your Bengal Cat named Gigi.

And when there is a real physical danger, like a mountain lion, as soon as we fight off the danger, our body's can relax and return to normal homeostasis. The problem for humans is our cerebral cortex. A prey animal like a dear that escapes a mountain lion shakes and shivers for a bit to discharge the adrenalin of the moment, and then goes back to grazing. What it does not do is walk around thinking or saying things like "that damned mountain lion. Why does he not leave me alone. I hate him. I hate mountain lions." For sure, he learns to be alert to mountain lions and other prey animals like humans with cameras or guns. To that degree, deer are nervous animals. But what dear deer does not do is suffer complex emotional issues from having been bullied by mountain lions, or betrayed by a friend or spouse. A deer does not appear to be angry about disease or death. It definitely does not differ politically from other deer and then argue and get angry about that. It never complains its mother or father were mean, abandoning, or unloving. (Animal lovers note: i am not saying mammals like deer and dogs dont make attachments or have personalities or become neurotic...its just when they do its not as complicated).

This is all the gift of the cerebral cortex, and its a double edged sword. It gives us the Blue Mosque and Physics, the Eiffel Tower and Mozart, but it also makes us neurotic and creates physical diseases associated with amped up nervous systems locked in fight, flight, or freeze.

In the wild, this is so useful. But in modern civilization most of the time our anger only makes us sick, because when we live in communities full of rules, we have to constantly control our natural impulse towards aggression. For hot headed Pitta types, in Ayurvedic thinking, this is especially difficult, but as the fight part of our nervous system is shared by all, we all suffer from the physical tension and tightness it produces, the tightness between our shoulder blades, in our shoulders, neck, jaw, and scalp, in our guts, the constipation or diarrhea, the gastritis, the IBS, and the complicated interplay of  not to mention the grudges and aggressions, the need to control and to overcontrol, even to dominate. 

In Buddhism one learns to ask oneself if the feeling you are holding on to is useful or necessary. Again, if your anger about the election goads you into taking action to protect the planet and the nation, thats useful. But at some point to be living in this anger is not useful. People get very stuck in anger, which leads to mental and physical health problems relating to tension and the pain of separation from others. There are many ways to move through this anger; one is generosity and benevolence. 

Anger in Chinese Medicine

In Chinese Medicine anger is the emotion associated with the Gan/Liver Qi. We actually feel anger collect under the rib cage and in the thoraco-lumbar junction, where it disturbs our gut. We experience the heat of anger rise up the liver and gall bladder channels up into the shoulder, neck, scalp, and face. Anger, and any aversion, creates tension, and its the Liver Qi that maintains the relaxed feeling in the boy, but that also tightens everything up when we experience frustration, pressure, and anger.

The Sweet Taste and Anger

Among foods it is the sweet taste that immediately relaxes the Liver Qi; that is why we crave and use sweet things to relieve stress, whether fruit, candy, ice cream, beer, or wine.  Among emotions it is the sweet feeling that has the same effect, whether its being licked by the dog, gazed at by the beloved, told how much you are loved by your child, or even just the warmth and friendliness of friends, strangers, or family.

Pitta Dosha, Anger, and the Sweet Taste

In Ayurveda the same is true. Sweet taste pacifies Pitta dosha, which is fire, the fire of intensity, of mental discrimination and physical digestion, the fire of anger and frustration. Sweet experiences have the same effect. Pitta dosha is prevalent among General and Managers, Lawyers and University Professors; it is what's needed to become King or Queen, Emperor or Dictator.  Indeed, in Chinese medicine the Liver is called the General, because its the Liver that orders the Qi, folk with "strong Liver Qi and Blood" or Pitta dosha,  are naturally domineering and dominating.

Control vs. Yielding

But who does not prefer a benevolent King? The flip side of the Liver Qi, whose job it is to make boundrys and keep the Qi in its correct place, is that it needs to balance this Yang by the Yin of free and easy wandering. If the only way of doing things is your way, you are bound to be disappointed. Whereas being flexible, and allowing for more than one way of doing things....The tree that bends in the wind does not break.

Control vs. Overcontrol 

And at the same time, this quality of the Liver, to control and organize, to make boundries, separation, can be overdone and lead to overcontrol and taciturnity, to harsh, intense judgment Those people over there are them and I am me. I am better. This is how we do things, here. Snap judgments.  Someone speaks a different language or eats different food or looks different and you make them wrong, because they upset your sense of order. Someone cuts you off on the freeway and you immediately have a negative story about them.

Benevolence and Generosity as a Remedy for Liver and Pitta Excess

But once I was with my friend who is very "kaphic" and kind, and someone cut us off, and her immediate response was, "I hope they are OK." That is generosity and benevolence, having a softer boundry between self and other, in which the rigid separation between self and other has relaxed and allowed for concern rather than anger.  Now, instead of tension there is relaxation, and the Liver Qi is at its best when it is relaxed, and another way to cultivate relaxed Liver Qi, the opposite of what this election has left me feeling, is by cultivating generosity, kindness,  and benevolence, defined in Chinese medicine as something which can spontaneously arise when one begins experiencing self and other as not so separate, ergo, empathy.   

Giving to the Homeless to Regulate Your Own Liver Qi

Where I live, and this is now true of any medium to large city in the USA now, there are lots of homeless people living rough on the street, many of whom are quite mentally injured.

Most of us have nice clothes we never wear and that homeless women and men will really value and appreciate. In winter this means, especially, warm clothes.

Woolen socks are especially valuable for people living rough, as are warm jackets. But everyone needs pants, t-shirts, underwear, shirts, hats. 

If you want to go out of your way, homeless people tell me they really need blankets. Any kind of camping supplies are useful, as are day to day supplies like matches or lighters for their stoves and cigarettes, personal hygiene products like soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes. Painkillers like Tylenol and Ibuprofen.

I live near Balboa Park where there are plenty of homeless. Some are drug addicted, but before anyone launches on a self righteous rant about how its their own fault they are homeless then, ask yourself when was the last time you softened your pain with wine, beer, marijuana? How many of you take anti-anxiety drugs, or antidepressants? Everyone needs help. And even if a few dedicated alcoholics or drug abusers are homeless because of their drug abuse, that does not make them undeserving of kindness, of food, of conversation. 

I met a homeless woman the other day who wanted to pet Sasha, my friends lovely 35 lb mixed breed dog the other day. She was obviously educated. She mentioned she was/is a para-legal. I asked her what happened, how she became homeless, and she said the pressure got to her and she had a breakdown. I asked her if drug use had been an issue, she said “probably.” I gave her $4, which is nothing at all, one cappuccino, one loaf of bread, one craft beer, etc. And her eyes teared up. I got much more out of that $4 than she did. The feeling of giving benefits the giver as much or more than the recipient. I am pretty sure that good feeling would normally cost more than $4 if I could buy it at the store, which I can’t.

One thing I have been told by more than a few homeless people is how hard it is feeling shunned. They can be made to feel like lepers. And, conversely, how much they appreciate being treated like normal human beings when people greet them, say hello, or stop to talk. Obviously you have to be ready for the fact that someone you say hello to may be not doing well psychically, and ignore you or grunt, but I find that happens with non-homeless folk on the street just as often, if not more.

And homeless people are always pretty happy to receive food. Next time you are at the market, pick up some extra fruit, like oranges or Fuji apples (these don’t get damaged easily), and give them directly to people, or leave them in the park where you know homeless folk hang out.

If you have children, instead of going shopping yet one more time for stuff they may not really need, you might think of making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or some kind of deli meat sandwiches, and giving them out somewhere you know the needy congregate. That would be a very good experience for a kid.

Next time you waste $5 on gourmet chocolate to self-medicate your stress, or splurge on a bottle of fine wine for $30, pick up some Chocolate bars or even some beer for them. I used to think I should only give food to the homeless, not money, because they might spend it on alcohol, but now I have changed my thinking. 

First of all, not all homeless are drug addicted. But second, why is it fine for me to have wine or beer, but not them? Do I not have a bit of an addiction to sweet foods and chocolate that is no more defensible than someone’s alcohol addiction? Surely they have the same right to lift their spirits as I do? No need to be self-righteous or Puritanical. 

Moreover, when I was visiting Oakland and it was Christmas, my friend had given me a bottle of wine I did not want, and I gave it to a homeless woman who was selling a homeless newspaper. I asked her if she would like it, and her eyes lit up. She was very grateful to be able to celebrate Xmas with a bottle of real wine. When  I said Merry Christmas to her she said it back with a wide open smile…

Its actually really easy to be charitable in small ways that are not painful, though if you want to be even more charitable, and do it in big ways, all the better and much strength.

Giving to those weaker than yourself, giving charity to the poor and homeless is an integral part of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic morality. Its one of the five pillars of Islam, and is a clear-cut requirement in Jewish tradition. I know some Christian sects require tithing, and the Roman Catholic church, in addition to all of its obvious excesses, also does lots and lots of charity. Charity begins at home, and I remember when my friend Jeanne’s kids took their ten years of coins they had collected in a giant glass bottle and took it to the bank and used it to buy things for homeless people. It was very moving to see that the kids themselves had come up with the idea. 

Some Things the Homeless Need to Survive the Winter

Clean Clothing
Warm Clothing
Fresh Fruit
Canned Food
Paperback Books or Magazines

Camping Gear like Tarps

copyright Eyton J. Shalom, M.S., L.Ac. San Diego, CA Jan 2017 All Rights Reserved, Use With Permission Ayurveda, Acupuncture, and Chinese Medicine in San Diego