By Thea Elijah, LAc
What is sympathy?
I say sympathy is the way of total acceptance and total transformation. Total acceptance is the job of the stomach and total transformation is the job of the spleen. This is the highest skill of the Earth element: total acceptance, total transformation. What most of us work with in life is partial acceptance and partial transformation, and this is not enough.
On the simplest physical level, at first, all of our digestion is done for us through the umbilical cord. Everything comes predigested. Next we have milk, something very simple to digest, which we can accept and transform into us. Next we have some solids, something with a little more foreignness that we have to accept—we can’t receive nourishment without starting with acceptance—and then we transform it. When it comes in, it isn’t gu qi; when it comes in, it is a foreign element that does not look like nourishment. What is food? It is something that could be nourishment, after the acceptance and the transformation.
So this is the skill of Earth: first, the total acceptance of that which sure doesn’t look like nourishment—because this is true of every piece of broccoli you eat. It is a piece of broccoli; what is that thing? And every other new food that comes along—it is another foreign object that you have to accept. Completely. You have to swallow it. Take it in. And then transform it into nourishment. What does transform mean? All manifestation arises out of Source. Our digestive system’s job is breaking it back down again to get the sweetness out of it. Getting to the heart of the manifestation: that is what nourishes us.
This is an important process, and it is important in this process not to skip steps. We are talking about the way of total acceptance and total transformation. You don’t get to the transformation until after the acceptance. A lot of what I see in spiritual practice, whether overt spiritual practice or “I’m just trying to make my life better”, is skipping that step of acceptance before transformation, and taking a more surgical approach. I see a lot of confusion about the difference between transcendence and avoidance. Yes, we want to go beyond manifestation, we don’t want to be stuck with just the material stuff, and instead get straight to the heart and be with that non-material reality that is the source of it all.
You cannot, however, just skip over manifestation, whatever the manifestation is: for instance, I have a stomach ache. The manifestation is my muscles hurt. The manifestation is I can’t stop worrying about whether my mother is okay. The manifestation is I’m terrified of people. Whatever it is, don’t try to jump straight to bliss, or union, or harmony. You have to break down that broccoli, and the nourishment is within whatever it is you’ve got on your plate—and now in your stomach.
First, be present to the manifestation. It is not a distraction from non-material reality; it is the doorway, it is the cradle, it is the child; material reality is the child of Source. Every manifestation is the child of Source. So what do you do with your children—ignore them until they are grown up? Oh, I’m sorry, I have this pathology; this pathology is a child of Source, but it hasn’t yet grown up into a virtue yet. So I’m going to ignore it until it has—but who will raise it? No, hold it in its junior perfection, now, all the while knowing that it is going to have to transform deeply to grow up and bear its fruit.
The pathology is the youth of the virtue. All pathology, all manifestation, whether you are enjoying it or not (so pathology is included) is incompletely transformed food. When you have completely transformed it and gotten to the heart of the matter, then you taste the sweetness—and then you easily let go of the form: at this point it is not difficult; it is not an effort.
When we are looking at the virtue of Earth and giving sympathy to people, we are talking about Si Jun Zi Tang. Various people may need more of one ingredient than another. In working through any manifestation, we will probably need all 4 Gents to be able to go the way of sympathy, but we may need one of them more than another.
Does the situation need ren shen ginseng? Do I need to be the ground, the stability for someone? There are times when giving sympathy means giving the other person the feeling that you are there for them, like ground under their feet; that you will hold them; that you will be steady. You will be their ground point. You will be a basket if they need to be a basket case for a little while. Total acceptance from firmness, from strength. This is the steadiness, the support, the ‘I am here for you’ that gives rise to suddenly being able to see myriad possibilities for transformation. This is a form of sympathy, that fidelity, that ground.
Then there is fu ling poria: that plain, simple-spoken clarity; it’s practicality; the kind of sympathy that allows you to say, in simple words, what is up with you. Earth virtue is the ability to be—just be—to be at home not in a sense of comfort or necessarily, but plain-spoken, an ordinary vessel for everyday use. A level of clarity comes from that—simple concrete direct unvarnished statements, like “I’m sad”. It is a kitchen table conversation. It is not a horizontal plane representing a level of abstraction and talking around the issue that Earth can get into. Sitting across the kitchen table from somebody—how often is that incredibly useful when you’ve got a problem, whether there is a kitchen table there or not? Things suddenly become very clear, like fu ling poria, once you are actually sitting down across the table from somebody who wants to understand. It’s no longer felt as just a big mush of “Oh, I got problems! I feel so bad.” Does the person need fu ling poria, a kitchen table discussion where you plainly state very clearly what are the issues in simple words? Clarification by plain-spokenness. All of a sudden you feel so much better; it’s more manageable.
Do you understand how it’s a different thing to give sympathy thing in terms of fu ling poria kitchen table talk, versus ren shen ginseng ‘I’ll be your rock”? When you know that you’ve got a rock, you can change, because I’ll hold steady. This is a different need than “I’ll sit down across the kitchen table from you and try to spell out together with you what it is that’s bothering you”.
Another very common form of sympathy a person might need is bai zhu atractylodes: support for transformation. This is about qi for change. It’s for a person who feels tired and bogged down, overwhelmed; you look at your desk and you can’t even get started. This kind of sympathy gives energy earmarked for the sake of slogging, for the sake of change. When a person gives you this kind of sympathy, it’s almost like they’ve hitched right up next to you; instead of being one donkey pulling a cart, now there are two. Shoulder to shoulder with you and your issue, let’s hitch up let’s pull together to get this wagon moving. Yoked together, it’s possible to build up some momentum, and often this is what a person needs: sympathy that gives enough energy to get action started. Once somebody has actually helped us to get started on whatever the issue is, we are able to complete the transformation process ourselves; we just needed somebody to say, “Oh man, I get it.” Sometime that is enough, just to have somebody temporarily hitched next to you in the harness, saying, “Wow, that is a heavy load to pull.”
What’s most helpful is when the person is actually trying it on with you and pulling it with you, just for a few steps. The load feels a lot easier the moment that somebody else is willing even for a moment to try on that yolk and say “that must be really hard,” to take that next step pulling with you, then one step more, and one step more. Transformation can happen step by step by step. A lot of things take a while, and Earth is fidelity through the whole mix phase; this means being able to stick with a process like endlessly changing diapers, raising a child… bai zhu atractylodes is the energy to stay with that long transformational process. This is the kind of sympathy that bai zhu atractylodes offers. It’s energy to slog, power to trudge, by offering to fall into step and trudging with… for a few steps.
Note that both the fu ling poria and the bai zhu atractylodes people feel bogged down and overwhelmed; it is a damp situation. There is this stuff that is midway between nourishment and junk and there may be confusion in you about which it is. With fu ling poria, it is clarification that is needed, the sitting down at the kitchen table, so that unclarity can drain out and we can see what it is we’ve got. This is a different approach to a bog-down than the bai zhu atractylodes, which is the power to trudge and the falling into step and the gaining of momentum. Again, both treat dampness in different ways; both give sympathy in two different ways. What do you need? Someone to fall into step and help you trudge? Someone to sit down across the kitchen table and plain-talk? Or ren shen ginseng, someone to be steady for you like the ground under your feet?
I’ve been deliberately leaving gan cao licorice for last, because in ever so many situations it is a completely inappropriate form of sympathy: to give just a little sweetness. It is, however, the most overused form of sympathy. So often, gan cao licorice sweetness is absolutely not what’s needed. Gag me! Come on, help me pull. Sit down at the kitchen table and let’s talk turkey. Be firm for me, be ground, not mush. I don’t need you to get all soft on me, man, I want you to help me get solid. So if gan cao licorice isn’t what is needed, don’t give it! The most over-used knee-jerk quick-fix, it may not be the form of sympathy that is needed.
When it is needed, it’s really great. When it is sincere, sometimes that is actually what we really need: a little bit of milk straight from the mother’s breast. For instance, to get really really physical, sometimes there is just no way that I can eat my lunch until I have some apricot juice first. I can’t get right down to the hard work; I need to have a little bit of harvest now before I can get out in those fields and till the soil. When a person looks at their life and all they can see is a pile of rocks that they are going to have to accept and transform into nourishment, some gan cao licorice may be called for.
When we are faced with someone in that situation, there is this feeling that happens in the stomach meridian, especially when someone is crying: for instance when you are a nursing mother and you go to Babies R Us. Any time a baby cries, every woman in the store has a soaked blouse because there is this feeling that happens in the chest area. I am sure it must happen to men too; otherwise they wouldn’t have nipples. We just want to give; I never knew before I had a child the meaning of this familiar feeling in my chest that happens whenever somebody is sad and in pain. I didn’t know that this feeling is the stomach meridian letting the milk down, the milk of kindness. This is gan cao licorice; this is that moment when all you’ve got to eat is rocks, and I know that that is what the Tao has given you for food, but can’t I give you a little bit of apricot juice so that you are not starving between now and when you have tilled and tended and harvested from your own rocky field?
All through my teenage years, I was sent to many a shrink to try to do something about me. There was one who, while she did not necessarily do me all that much good, was part of this one moment in which she did me so much good with exactly this gan cao licorice type of sympathy. She was this very old woman—I didn’t know how old she was, she looked like she was in her seventies or something—listening to this fifteen-year-old talking about all the crazy, absolute horrible mayhem that a teenager in Manhattan could be in to. And at the end of listening to it, she sighs and says, “would you like some tea?” and I actually really got it, that she really got it, that there actually is not anything that she could do to change it except give me some tea. I really appreciated that. I really appreciated somebody getting that they are actually not going to be able to make it better, and so they are giving me a sweetie, some little sweet thing—like, you’ve got a disaster, would you like a cookie? It is not in any way saying that this is transformation; that is going to take a long time. But it may at least help with the acceptance, so you can get it down your stomach. When your life is like nothing but a field full of rocks, sometimes some gan cao licorice that’s really sincere, offered from the Heart, that “can I give you something sweet to eat right now?” is really, really helpful and really, really nice. So I do not in any way want to disparage the spirit of sympathy of giving gan cao licorice. Sometimes it really does save your life to have somebody just give a kind word. It gives you the ability to taste the sweetness, the ability to taste what transformation is for, and then you have a little more stomach for your field of rocks.
Thea Elijah has been a student of Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture for over 20 years. She is the former director of the Chinese Herbal Studies Program at TAI Sophia Institute and the Chinese Herbal Studies Program at the Academy for Five Element Acupuncture. Elijah maintains a private healing practice, incorporating her Chinese medical knowledge and heart centered healing. At the request of her clients and students, she has developed a series of workshops teaching Whole Heart Connection (formerly Medicine Without Form). She currently teaches Chinese Medicine, Sufi Healing, and Whole Heart Connection across the United States.