Understanding your emotions as aspects of your soul

These ideas from Chinese Medicine spoke to me; here's a paper I wrote for Dr. Alan Kilpatrick at Pacifica Graduate Institute, “Emotions and Chinese Medicine.”

According to psychologist and behavioral scientist Paul Eckman’s pioneering research on human emotions, we bipedal creatures cross-culturally share six basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. Ekman tells us that “…emotions evolved for their adaptive value in dealing with fundamental life tasks” and further distinguishes emotions from other affective phenomenon such as moods or emotional traits.

Doctor of Oriental Medicine Bernard Unterman has adopted a broader view of human emotion, subscribing to a theory that, while similar, expands beyond the psychological domain into the psychosomatic and spiritual realm. Unterman’s multi-disciplinary map, for example, plots human emotions as variegated versus being adaptive and largely fundamental to dealing with one’s life tasks. This larger context for emotions is not isolated, but rather folded into a more complex and intricate structure of the psychospiritual, somatic aspects of being human as they relate to physical health and aspects of soul.

The Five Aspects of Soul and Depth Psychology

My response to Bernard Unterman’s perspective was surprisingly positive. For example, while I have had very little experience with Oriental medicine, what I did understand led me to conclude emotion would have no prominent or serious consideration, never mind the realm of psyche, or soul. When Unterman exclaimed in no uncertain terms: “Emotions need to be expressed,”  I was genuinely floored. During his presentation, Aspects of Soul, as he explained the various aspects: Shien, Po, Hun, Yi, Xue (pronounced Jer), and their corresponding elements: fire, metal, wood, water, or earth, that relate to some major realm of emotion, something clicked for me. This material was immediately recognizable to me on a somatic level and compatible with my lived experience.

For example, when he spoke of the aspect of Soul Shien, which is central to the heart, the realm of Love, corresponding with the element of Fire, and concerned with the emotion of joy, and pointed out that what depletes Shien is rushing, and what nourishes Shien is slow—rest, laughter, and singing aloud—I could see the truth of this throughout my life light up before my eyes. My father died of a heart attack, and my mother has seven stents in her heart: they have rushed through their lives that have been punctuated with grief and sadness. In my own life this has been a recurrent theme, as I ask myself, “Where is my joy? and only ever find it when I slow down. Need I mention that I am happy and I know it when I am singing, and likely miserable if I cannot find something to laugh about?

Then he spoke about Po, which is central to the lungs, corresponds to the element metal, in the realm of intuition and silence, and corresponds to the emotion of grief. Lack of contact with nature depletes Po, whereas smelling flowers, trees, soil, and salt replenishes Po. It was not until I moved to my current home that rests at the foot of Mt Tamalpais that I truly began to witness the healing power of nature. I walk through the trees now and chant a mantra that came to me one day: “Healing, healing, healing, precious, precious life.” As I walk consciously down the path I can feel the trees and smells of the woods healing me.

Hun, another aspect of Soul, corresponds to the liver, is related to the element wood, and is concerned with unfinished ancestral business, and the emotion of anger. What is said to nourish Hun is spiritual practice; conversely, what depletes Hun is lack of spiritual practice. Unterman emphasized that women are not encouraged to express anger in our culture, which reminded me how my anxiety attacks began to diminish and eventually heal as I began to develop a spiritual practice in which I could tend to and feel my anger.

Next, Unterman discussed Yi, the aspect of soul related to thought and consciousness, corresponding to the element of earth and the emotion of worry. What fascinates me about this aspect of soul is that my husband struggles with worry and, over the years, has made the connection that creating art soothes his excessive bouts of worry just the way Unterman suggests is associated with nourishing one’s Yi.

Finally, this Oriental map highlights Xue or Zhi, which is the aspect of soul related to the kidneys, will, and wisdom, and corresponds with the element of water and the emotion of fear: fright that is held inside. Unterman had my attention here, as I struggled with fear in the form of anxiety for years. When he said listening to water nourishes Xue, I almost began to weep, as I had longed for years to live on the ocean. Having lived shackled by fear most of my life, my soul knew that being near water was what I needed. I cannot tell you how many hundreds of dreams I have had where I am living in a house or standing near houses at the edge of the water. When I first moved into our home I could not rest until we built some kind of water pond with a trickling fountain. It was like I was obsessed. Now, not surprisingly, we live part-time quite close to the edge of the ocean. It rocks me to sleep at night. Apparently on some level my Soul has known all along what heals me. Dr. Unterman’s map has helped to make this subtle knowing explicit—what a gift!


While Ekman’s work, stating that cross-culturally all humans share basic emotions, was irrefutably ground-breaking, I agree with Unterman that emotions have a far greater potential to help us navigate and address healing, health and wellness beyond our ability to deal with our fundamental life tasks. Other cultures have much to teach us Westerners about healing, particularly what it is to be whole. I see Unterman embracing the Eastern traditions in an attempt to help deepen our understanding of emotions as aspects of Soul as a Depth Psychological perspective. The very notion that emotions are not just reactions or based solely on basic survival needs, but rather symptoms in their own right, illustrates how psyche arises from the unconscious, often as a disturbance, and points to what wants attention in an effort to help us individuate—restore balance to our mind body, spirit and soul. This blend of East and West reminds me of the way Marie-Louise Von Franz talks about alchemy: “that alchemy was born at the meeting place of the speculative mind of the West and the experimental techno-magical practices of the East”  I feel sure that while I am learning to trust what naturally arises, emotions and all, that this involves likely not just a blend of East and West, but of the North and South, as I believe psyche would have it no other way.