Selective Permeability and Stress

What is stress (at least most forms) but having/feeling a loss of control over what's coming into our lives?


Stress is incurred from bearing up under circumstances, toxins, tasks, information, other people's 'stuff'…. usually within our capacity to recover, until we begin to break down - physically, mentally and emotionally.

"Selective permeability" refers to the function of cells to exert some control over what can cross the cell membrane, so that only certain molecules either enter or leave the interior.

How might this translate on the macro level?

The beauty of Chinese Medicine is the art with which it describes the workings of our physiology.

For example, the Lungs - in addition to respiring - are in charge of our 'Defensive Ki'… also known as immunity. Looking at our body as our home or kingdom, the Lungs would be the gatekeepers, or border patrols.

(For this reason, the skin is also considered the 'third lung' - for its ability to breathe, but also to define and protect our borders. The "defensive Ki" is actually defined as an energetic force field between the skin and muscles.)

Not only do the lungs bring in vital air from the external world in order to nourish the cells with oxygen (and likewise, releasing toxins through the exhalation), but they represent a very intimate exchange with our immediate environment.

It's no wonder that when we feel vulnerable, we tend to control our breathing - making it more shallow in order to keep out the world. (Interestingly, the Lungs and Large Intestine also have to do with control, as well as trust, grief and melancholy… one often gets all nostalgic when the autumn chill hits the air.)

Therefore, in CM, healthy breathing has to do with healthy exchange with the environment, with boundaries, and with healthy relationships.

From "Shiatsu: Theory and Practice", by Carola Beresford-Cooke:

"When our (Lung) energy is healthy .... not only do we feel our own value, but we know instinctively that we are connected to everything of value outside our own boundaries. We have self-worth and the capacity to change while remaining in harmony with our environment. Quality, worth, whatever we most prize is 'in here' in abundance as well as 'out there' and we are secure in our ability to connect with it."

Back to the stress thing, lacking the palpable distinction between everything within our skin and everything without can lead to a confusion about what to let in, what to keep out, or that we even have a choice.

Not having a proper filter (gatekeeper) based on conscious, value-based criteria leads many of us to believe that all input warrants a response or reaction, eventually leading to possible armoring, lock-down, indifference, or burn-out.

Therein lies the challenge of balancing community and individuality … independence and interdependence.

Like within our homes, we tend to know who to welcome into the interior living spaces, who to meet only as far as the front porch, and even, if necessary, when to close the blinds and lock the windows and doors.

Developing this selective permeability is no different, when you consider that is to our health's benefit to not only be careful what drama, toxins, stories, beliefs come in that could be harmful or unproductive, but also to remember that closing ourselves off entirely can also have grave consequences.

So, what to do?

Identifying and clarifying values, as well as building trust in the integrity of our borders, takes time and practice. But we can begin with:

~ Practicing conscious breathing, with the idea that your breath is filling the interior of your physical being. This is a great way to begin cultivating the palpable sensation of "in here" in contrast to "out there". (Need a guided visualization?).

~ Breathing in the autumn air, and connecting with the 'downward energy' of leaves falling, sap and warmth sinking below the surface (the way thee Lungs bring in air Ki and disperse it downward through the body).

As far as strengthening immunity… (especially as, in CM, the Lungs are at their most active and most vulnerable in Autumn… makes sense given the increase of colds we see at the change of the seasons):

~ Trying to slow down our level of hectic activity (as nature does) rather than increase it (hard to do, I know, given the academic year and busy holiday season).

~ Taking care to keep the lower back and neck warm (believed to be areas of vulnerability to cold which can invade the body... as the Japanese know.)

~ Scrubbing the entire skin surface daily with a dry brush, hot washcloth, or my favorite, the Ayate washcloth, made from agave fibers.

~ Getting bodywork, for several reasons: bringing your awareness (and circulation) back to the whole surface of your body. This will also create deep relaxation, allowing for deeper breathing, and an even keener awareness of your own body... something that muscular tension tends to mask.

~ Self-massage of the upper chest, under the clavicle… keeping this area open with wide, open arm stretches (especially if you sit hunched at a computer all day!).

~ Also massaging the whole Lung meridian, which extends from the hollow point under the collarbone closest to the shoulder, down along the inner arm in line with the thumb. The points Lung 7 and Lung 9 are particularly good for immunity.


~ Decluttering. Yep. Think about it. Letting things go (as in, exhalation and elimination) is all about releasing what no longer serves you and what might be getting in the way of knowing what you really value.

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