What’s Keeping You Stuck? The Link Between Pain, Qi Stagnation, and Unfulfilled Desires

Last week’s blog was all about one of the major causes of pain and illness, Liver Qi Stagnation. (If you missed it, you can read it here – without it, this one might not make much sense!). This week, as promised, I’m going deeper into this topic to explain the psychological roots of how our Qi gets stuck.

As I explained in the last post, when you’re feeling frustrated, irritable, and tense, it’s a condition we refer to in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as Liver Qi Stagnation. It means that the Qi isn’t flowing smoothly through your body, which results in pain, stress, and all kinds of other problems. So what’s blocking that flow? Why is it that we’re so prone to getting stuck?

What Causes Liver Qi Stagnation?

There are quite a few reasons that can lead to this sorry state of affairs. Lack of physical exercise is a big one in our sedentary society. Anger and frustration, as well as being symptoms of Liver Qi Stagnation, also cause it (hello, vicious cycle). But the fundamental root cause, according to the classical Chinese texts, is unfulfilled desires.

Was that a surprise? You’ve probably never had a doctor diagnose unfulfilled desires as a cause of a medical problem before. To understand this, we have to take a step back and look at the role of the Liver (and remember, this is the TCM concept of Liver, not the anatomical liver) in the human body.

Liver Qi: Reaching Out Into the World

The Liver is associated with the Wood element in Chinese medicine. Think of a tree,

The Wood element, which relates to the Liver in TCM, represents our ability to reach out for what we want.

The Wood element, which relates to the Liver in TCM, represents our ability to reach out for what we want.

reaching its branches up and out towards the sky. This is the part of us that wants to grow, to stretch, to reach. It’s one of the fundamental aspects of being human, and a crucial stage in our development when, as young children, we see something that captures our attention and reach for it. The Wood element pushes us to grow into something more than we currently are. It drives us forward.

Now think of a toddler who is reaching for something that has caught her attention, only to have it snatched away. Oh, you’d think the world has ended. Kids get frustrated and angry when they can’t have the thing they’re reaching for. Of course, by the time we reach adulthood, we’ve learned to suppress those reactions (most of the time) – we’ve gained some level of emotional self-regulation so that we can get along in the world and play nice with others. And that, unfortunately, is part of the problem.

Qi Stagnation is the Result of Ignoring Our Desires

Liver Qi Stagnation is a primary cause of disease throughout life, but especially in young adulthood, the twenties and thirties, before the Spleen and then Kidney Qi starts to decline with age. There’s a good reason for this in terms of how our lives typically unfold. In our twenties and thirties, most of us are still full of youth and vitality, as long as we treat our bodies well, but we’re settling into the social roles that our society expects of us. We’re learning to tow the line, to make mature and responsible choices. We learn to delay our own gratification, and to do what needs to be done rather than what we feel like doing. We start taking on real world responsibilities, like holding down a day job or caring for children or other family members. We learn that the world doesn’t revolve around us, and that sometimes we have to do things we’d rather not. As the Rolling Stones said, you can’t always get what you want.

From a psychological perspective, we learn to snatch the toy away from our own inner toddler. We become the parent, telling ourselves what we can and can’t have. I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing. It’s more like a necessary part of growing up and becoming an adult, and one of the unfortunate consequences of it is that our Qi gets stuck, and we get stressed. And, if enough other things are out of balance too, we can develop pain or illness too. If we deny important desires, we can get stuck in that moment of reaching out towards something we want, unable to grab it, and from there we can’t move forward.

So My Qi Is Stuck Because I Can’t Have What I Want – Now What?

At this point, you might be thinking, “Great, this major cause of pain is just a part of life and I have to suck it up. Thanks a lot, Moss.” Stick with me here, because there is a way through it. For a start, let’s consider why Liver Qi Stagnation is at its most prominent during younger adulthood. Is it just that other imbalances become more pressing as we age? I suspect that it has more to do with making peace with unfulfilled desires as we get older and (hopefully) wiser. With maturity, we mellow (ideally – although you may know people whose behaviour suggests otherwise), and perhaps we’re less driven by our desires as we age.

Also, in most cultures, people tend to have more power and control over their lives as they reach middle adulthood, making them better able to fulfill their desires. For example, you might become more financially stable in your forties and be able to afford more of the things you want, or become the boss, instead of working under a boss. And, remembering that these theories were developed in a time and place when people generally had kids in their early twenties, by middle age you’re typically done with the hard work of raising children and have more time and energy to pursue your own desires.

The Key to Resolving Qi Stagnation

Don’t worry, I’m not just saying, “Wait it out”. The key to resolving Qi Stagnation is actually to start intentionally working with your desires. Whenever something is repressed or unacknowledged, it causes tension in both the mind and the body. So often, when we believe that we can’t have something, we twist ourselves into knots over it. Maybe we make up a story about how we don’t deserve it, or we shouldn’t want it, or we stew in resentment at those who have it. Looking at our desires straight on, regardless of how far out of our reach they seem, is healing in itself.

Buddhism and other spiritual traditions talk a lot about releasing attachment to desires. This too can be incredibly healing, which is perhaps part of the reason why meditation is so good for pain relief and healing chronic illnesses. By actively cultivating an attitude of peacefulness around the things we want and can’t have, we can reach a calm, steady state where we can be happy regardless of external circumstances (for inspiration on this, listen to Tibetan monks, who’ve been persecuted and exiled from their homeland, talk about happiness).

But for those of us who don’t want to live in a monastery and give up all the things we want, I recommend a middle path. Start to pay attention to your desires, and learn to tell the difference between a passing desire that can be released, and a deep desire that will nag at you till you heed its call. If you’re stuck in traffic, and are getting grumpy because you’d rather be relaxing at home, it’s time to take a few deep breaths and make peace with that temporary situation, rather than letting it push your blood pressure through the roof. But if you’ve been repeatedly ignoring the voice inside that tells you quit your job as a plumber and run away with the circus, maybe it’s time to listen.

Only you will be able to tell the difference. It’s not about anybody else’s definition of what is superficial and what is deep – perhaps that pair of shoes really is that important to you, and you need to find a way to afford them because it makes your soul happy. Only you can know if that desire to quit your job and go traveling is just the product of a minor aggravation, or a deep need that you must follow.

What I’m talking about here is a lifelong practice of knowing and respecting our desires. Not having to get everything we want, and throwing a tantrum if we don’t get it. Not pretending that we have no desires, and shoving them down into the subconscious where they can wreak havoc on our bodies. Just looking at each one honestly, so we can choose to release it, or choose to follow it, but either way, we’re not stuck in that moment of trying to reach out and stopping ourselves. You don’t have to stop yourself. You just have to get honest with yourself, and prioritise what’s important to you.

Whatever you bring into the light of consciousness loses much of its power to harm you. From there, it’s up to you to let it go, or to follow your desires wherever they lead you.

Moss Andrewes is an acupuncturist and practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, specializing in women’s health and chronic illness. Originally from the UK and now residing in Canada, she is a writer, speaker, and event organizer, focusing on health, sustainable living and community. Her lifelong passion for making the world a happier, healthier place has led her through many adventures, including off-grid sustainable living, disaster relief, and various community health projects. She currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with her partner and two cats.

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