The Empress Gazes South

Thoughts on the heart in its season, the summer

I posted this blog a few years ago, and it's still one of my favorites. I hope you enjoy it.

My posts usually contain tips about how you can support your physical health. But what about wellbeing? Here we reveal what the ancient Chinese sages had to say about the heart.

The key is orientation.

Let’s start with this premise: You are a kingdom. You have roads and waterways (your bladder). You have granaries (the stomach). Your body runs like a government, with ministers. And you have a ruler: The heart.

This ruler does not sit on her throne granting favors, planning wars, or issuing edicts. She is not taking dancing lessons. She is not having her hair oiled and braided by her handmaidens.

She is a perfect spiritual leader, who is responsible for receiving the mandate of heaven.

Chinese thought and language is given to symbols, and frequently more than one symbol for the same concept or thing. So in its ancient pictogram, the heart is represented as a vessel that stores something precious: The spirit.

The practical, Confucian influence in Chinese thought brings us the idea of the heart as ruler. The Daoist influence looks at content: It says that filling our hearts with (only) material things gives rise to pathological conditions in which there is no room left for what matters.

Using the I Ching hexagrams (another symbolic form), the heart is represented by an upside down vessel. ‘This design for our innermost, essential organ allows it to shun what is material and fill up with immaterial shen (spirit) as with a gas. It is this shen that shines forth from its seat in the heart, radiating out in the face, with the light of consciousness,” writes my colleague Jonathan Edwards.

“This is the heart as life’s lamp. The association of heart and face makes sense to us; we instinctively judge the state of someone’s spirit (or simply mood) based on what we see in their face.”

The Empress Gazes South*


Because of her divine mandate, the heart doesn’t actually have to do much. In fact, she shouldn’t being doing much. Doing is for her ministers. She only marks out beats, each one proclaiming the present moment. The power of now is the nature of the heart.

She rules by correct orientation. She aligns with heaven and toward the light, which in traditional (symbolic) terms is the life-giving warmth of the south, and by association, the summer.

In The Road to Character, David Brooks writes about the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues: “The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills you bring to the job market and contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being–whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.”

The heart rules at the juncture of these two, living, as Brooks says, “in the contradiction between these two…The outer, majestic [person] and the inner, humble [person].”

In ancient Chinese cosmology, however, the heart has an additional orientation: The heart that rules well is the heart whose outer, ambitious nature is fully bowed “to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, to have a cohesive inner soul that honors creation and one’s own possibilities,” Brooks writes.

If the heart is strong, the person’s life mission will be clear. Then the other parts of us, such as the stomach, which governs nutrition, will naturally settle into their more wordly roles.

“Where the heart is weak, other ministers may try to usurp its function. The stomach, which mirrors the heart in certain respects, often attempts this, with the result that the affected person will follow his appetite around blindly and seek only to fill the vessel with the savors of material life.”

The heart also has a role expressing the child-like play and freedom of summer. It is the joy of simply being yourself in your full glory. Here I am. I’m me! Wheee!

The heart also carries the seed of its opposite–no self–where the wisdom traditions around the world say the virtues thrive. Here I am, yet I am not!

The summer is your high noon. It’s a beautiful time to orient yourself toward all that is good and true and worthy for you. Fill yourself up with it! From here on out, we begin the oh-so-gradual descent to nightfall, which has its own luscious, but very different world.

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  • The ancient texts refer to the heart as the Emperor. I have taken a liberty here by addressing the heart as Empress because the great majority of my readers and patients are women. In no way is this intended to exclude the men! Guys, just adjust this back to Emperor to fit this to your own hearts.