This was published in the Shiatsu Society Journal in February 2017 as a 2 part article. Here is part 1.
In my quest to understand the nature of the Extraordinary Vessels I have been drawn more and more to studying embryology. Of course, the ancient Chinese didn’t understand embryology in the way that we now do, but I believe that they were able to tune into the history, the cellular memory, of the vessels and meridians. Much of what they attribute to the functions of the Extraordinary Vessels, and indeed the 12 meridians, makes sense when we understand our embryological development. I have found understanding this cellular memory has helped me make more sense of how to include these vessels in my practice.
Whole and self-contained: ancestral memory and a connection to the whole
The Extraordinary Vessels are related much more intimately with each other than the 12 meridians and share functions and even points and parts of pathways. The texts say that they are the first channels to arise, at the moment of conception. What we need to remember is that immediately after conception, we become first one unique super cell created by the merging of the DNA of the egg and the sperm. This super cell is a unique cell: we are different from our parents. Although the super cell divides into 2, or 3, then 4 or 5 cells, until the 8-cell stage, each cell is pretty much identical. I find this fascinating. At this 8-cell stage, around 3 days post conception, the cells are called totipotent cells. They can give rise to anything not only within our body (the future embryo) but also in what supports our body, notably the placenta and fetal membranes. Of course, the Chinese would not have known this however they must have intuited a sense of internal connection at this level of eight (8): which of course is a powerful number symbolising infinity, spirals and the lemniscate. For me, knowing this helps explains the connections I have found in my work between the 8 Extraordinary Vessels, connections which are not always clear from simply reading the texts. I feel that they are not completely separate from each other in their qualities, and they share profound connections of wholeness both within our physical body and the space around us in a way that the 12 channels do not. By working any one of the Extraordinary Vessels, we are connecting into a shared space. This is a space which contains not only the memory of our ancestors (Jing: the egg and the sperm) but the memory of our unique connection to the whole, the Tao, the macrocosm and why we are here: our contract with Heaven (Ming: destiny). We could even, depending on our belief system, say that this space contains the essence of us, our soul, which does not reside solely in our physical body but may have lived in many physical bodies in previous life times.
During the first week or so post-conception, we are self-contained. We do not need nourishment from the outside. We are spiralling down through the fallopian tubes to arrive in the womb where we will implant. This means that we do not physically grow in size during this week. We could say that we spiral into ever smaller aspects of ourselves. This means that the Extraordinary Vessels, don’t have the same relationship to the external world in the way that the 12 meridians do. There is an aspect to them of being self-contained and relating to a much more ancient and deeper level of inner regulation.
Our inner and outer body: the space immediately around us
While we are spiralling, our cells continue to divide and start to specialise, but the Extraordinary Vessels remain in a level of wholeness. The first specialisation of the cells is into those which will form our inner body (embryoblast) and those which will form our outer (trophoblast) body i.e. placenta and fetal membranes. Our outer body develops at first more quickly than the inner as it needs to be able to connect with our mother, the source of our nourishment during our time in the womb. Implantation happens around 7-10 days and this is the beginning of the development of what will become the placenta. This amazing organ which links us to our mother is part of us. In some cultures it is referred to as our “twin”.
This is another of the characteristics of the Eight Vessels. Not only do they exist in our physical body but in the space around us: what is often called our “energy field”. After birth, when we separate from our placenta, we still retain the cellular memory of our connection to our outer source of nourishment, through our navel, from where we were attached to the placenta via the umbilical cord. We can then understand the importance of CV8 (Shenque: Spirit‘s Palace Gate: Spiritual Cord of Life) as a point not just connected to the Conception Vessel, but also Girdle and Penetrating, even Yin Linking and Heel. We also retain a memory of the amniotic sac, the fluid filled sac which surrounded our whole body from 8 weeks or so post conception. The amniotic sac actually arises more out of the inner body cells around the level of Ming Men GV4 ( Gate of Life also known as Jinggong, Palace of Essence) another key point for the Extraordinary Vessels (part of Governing, Girdle and Penetrating Vessel and Yang Linking and Heel) before surrounding our body completely.
When I work with the Extraordinary Vessels, I try to sense and work with their presence not just in the physical body, but in the immediate space around the body: the warp and weft of life itself. They are therefore especially useful for people who are too densely identifying with their physical body, who need to establish more of a sense of their space around them. This allows them to respect the spaces around others too, as well as having a more direct connection not only to their ancestral connections but also the bigger space around them, the memory of their connection to the whole universe.
Specialisation of the Extraordinary Vessels : First Physical Appearance of the Core Four arising from Ming Men and then the outer four (Wei and Qiao)
Once our connection with the outside is established we can start to draw some nourishment inside which helps our inner body to grow. As it grows, the cells of our inner body become more specialised. First there is the bilaminar disc at two weeks with a front and back: this is the first physical appearance of the sea of Yin (Ren: Conception Vessel) and Yang (Du; Governing Vessel) and the midline axis. During the third week, the disc fills out and makes content: the mesoderm arises in between the front and back, forming the trilaminar disc with the three germ cell layers of the endo, ecto and meso derm. We can say that the Sea of Blood (Chong: Penetrating Vessel) arises from Ren and Du. Many of you are familiar with these three cell layers as Masunaga talked about them in terms of the 12 channels. However at this stage they are not yet that specialised and correspond much more to the functions of the Ren, Du and Chong (CV, GV and PV). The Girdle (Dai) Vessel for me is both within and without: our outer and inner container. These first four vessels arise around the physical location of the Ming Men, GV4. and the development of our inner body, like these four vessels pathways, moves from the centre of our body outwards.
As Blood is our nourishment, the Heart needs to be the first organ to function. The heart starts beating already at 21 days and is one of the key organs in the Extraordinary Vessel circuit. At this stage when our body is linear, the heart is actually above the brain: an interesting connection with the Heaven and Spirit.
As our capacity for receiving the nourishment from outside increases, first the Brain, the reproductive organs, the digestive system and then the other organs can start to develop from the midline. Cells start to migrate outwards from it and a left right axis also starts to be defined, which is expressed through the Dai, Chong, Wei and Qiao. These 6 Extraordinary Vessels have two pathways, and they all regulate the emotional, structural and energetic flow between the two sides of our body.
Some cells start to form the limb buds at the level of the future shoulder and hip. We can see this initially as a movement of Chong and Dai, which move out to form the future hips and legs which then give rise to the Qiao(Heel) and Wei (Linking). The Qiao and the Wei, are more connected with the outer parts of our body, especially our hips, legs and shoulders. Their role is to process more our relationship with the outer world.
As this happening a complex process of folding from a flat disc to the curved fetal form begins which takes a few weeks (week 4-8). During this time, the relationships between everything both within our inner body and in our relationship to our outer body change. The heart is now drawn down inside the body and below the brain. The gut tube also changes: some of it was initially outside and is drawn in. This shows the complexity of the Extraordinary Vessels; they are not linear but more spirallic in their nature: what may have started off inside may end up outside and vice versa! The organs of the 12 channels (apart from Heart and Kidneys, which are key organs for the Extraordinary Vessels ) do not change their relationships in such a complex way as they develop their form later in the folding process. Furthermore, the organs of the 12 meridians are made from cells which are more specialised as they arise later in our development. From this we see some key differences between the Extraordinary Vessels and the 12 meridians. The 12 meridians are more fixed and linear in nature and more specific in function and so it makes sense that their channel pathways are more defined. The Extraordinary Vessels are more encompassing in their pathways. Indeed I am working on getting some drawings which more illustrate their nature: their pathways are broad bands. They are both within and outside the body. They relate to several organs and are more global in their nature and function. The Extraordinary Vessels regulate all the 12 meridians, supporting the flow in our day-to-day energy as well as being the origin of all energy.
I use the Extraordinary Vessels as the basis for my work, although of course I still include 12 meridians as I see they are relevant. Sometimes a client has a very clear indication in one of the 12 meridians. However, usually the situation is a lot more complex, and the Extraordinary Vessels tap into this complex and the underlying energy which supports us to be more who we are, free from the past, future, ancestors, and just able to be present and connected to the Tao.
In the next issue, I will write in more detail about the outer group of Extraordinary Vessels, the Wei and the Qiao and how they support our capacity to be in the present moment.