Fundamentals Of Energetic Anatomy

In the last three articles we have looked at the basic principles for understanding how acupuncture works (I believe these principles also apply to a number of other energy medicines). Up till now, though, I have been speaking very generally.

We have established that acupuncture has jurisdiction over the physical energies of the body. For those of you who have found the term "physical energies" vague - this post is for you! Let's explore the physical energies as they are understood in Chinese medicine.

There are four major types of energetic structures we deal with in acupuncture.

1. Organs (Zang Fu).

A couple of ways to think about these:

  • Reservoirs of energy
  • Like physical organs, the energy-based Zang Fu are structures that perform a wide array of physiological functions.

They are usually named after the physical organs, but they are not the physical organs themselves. Rather, they are energetic complexes that usually reside inside or near the physical organs, and assist the physical organs in the performance of their functions.

For instance, the physical liver and the energetic Liver both store and clean Blood. The physical liver stores and purifies physical blood, and the energetic liver stores and purifies a dense form of energy that we also call Blood (xue). This energetic Blood is a non-material correlate of physical blood, and it supports the function of physical blood.

2. Meridians (Jing Luo).

These are pathways along which physical energies flow in the body - in this respect they are similar to blood vessels. They carry the energies stored in the organs and circulate them around the body to perform different functions. Most meridians are connected to a particular organ. So, for instance, the Liver meridian carries Xue (the energy of blood mentioned above) up to the Liver organ, and then the Liver organ distributes this blood out along other meridians to nourish and strengthen the entire body.

In the last post I showed this diagram of the meridians. It's the only type of diagram of the meridians that most people ever see. Therefore it's important to note that this diagram is not comprehensive by a long shot - it only shows where the biggest meridians run on the surface of the skin. These meridians all have complicated internal branches, and there are thousands of smaller meridians branching off the larger ones, so that this system permeates the entire body thoroughly. Try to picture the entire vascular system down to the last capillary and you get the idea. For the strong of stomach, here is a picture showing a comprehensively preserved human vasculature, divorced from other body systems. Be advised, it's a little graphic. It does, however, convey the scale and complexity of energetic pathway distribution in the body quite well.

Although I have used the vascular system to illustrate, I should clarify that the meridians do not identically follow the pathways of blood vessels, nerves or any other physical system. The meridians have their own layout that is related to but different from the other systems, just like every other major bodily system.

3. Points (Tsubo).

This is the aspect of the physical energy system that most people have heard of. Mostly found on the meridians, these are places where our energy collects at the surface of the skin. This means we can efficiently interact with physical energies at these locations. By definition, acupuncture points exist at the surface of the skin. This means that deep needling is not usually necessary - needling depths between 1mm and 3mm are generally effective and much less painful.

One of the most crucial things to understand about acupuncture points is: they move. Yes, there are WHO-standardised acupuncture point locations based on anatomical landmarks, and they are correct. However, when a point exhibits pathological change, its location on the body changes. Therefore, the standard location of a point should considered as the place to start looking for the real point. Careful palpation is required to reveal the active point location, which will feel different to locations that are not the active point. The therapeutic value of treating an active point is significantly greater than that of treating the official location.

4. Defensive Qi Field (Wei Qi).

This is the energetic component of our immune system. For the Star Trek fans in the audience, imagine the shields on the Enterprise - it's similar. It is a field of warm energy that extends through and out past the material body, repelling pathogenic environmental influences. It is powered by energy supplied from the organs and distributed via the meridians. When it is disrupted or weak, we can become sick.