According to Chinese medicine theory, there’s plenty going on while you’re asleep.
Many centuries ago, the ancient Chinese developed a map of energy circulation, showing how the energy rises and falls with the daily cycle. Think of the high tide that moves around the Earth, following the moon. This cyclical movement of the heavenly bodies affects us, too.
Our day-night cycle is created by the Earth spinning on its axis. This spinning cycle brings you towards the movement-energy of the Sun (Yang) and then back out into the stillness of the cosmos (Yin).
As the Earth circles, we are receiving a constantly-shifting ratio of movement-to-stillness due to our position in relation to the cosmos. The varying influx of movement and stillness nourishes different organ systems in different ways.
During the day, you are busy moving around, having ideas, creating plans and making actions in the world. The energy of the sun phase gives you the ability to do all these activities.
But during the night?
At this special time, the maximum phase of stillness forms the ideal circumstances for the deeper intelligence of the universe to create you…
5–7pm: Strengthening the Foundation
Evening is the end of Yang-movement and beginning of Yin-stillness. At this time, the Kidney organ energy system is nourished.
The very foundation of our physical existence is symbolised by Kidney. All things related to birth, growth, development, fertility, reproduction and the shape of your whole life-span belong here.
When Kidney’s vibration can be felt (like one instrument playing louder than the orchestra), this is the emotion fear.
Early evening is a time for gathering back to the nest, drawing the curtains, lighting the fire and creating a feeling of safety.
This safety is the foundation of a good night’s rest, as well as nourishing fertility and giving you a long healthy life!
During early evening, dim the lights and settle your mind with calming activities (see our article on preparing for sleep).
7pm–9pm: Protecting the Emperor
This is the time of the Heart Protector, the Pericardium. The Heart is the Emperor and—with the Kidney—is the root of your life: body-mind-spirit.*
The Heart Protector is like a messenger and bodyguard, protecting this deepest part of your awareness, allowing you to feel calm and clear even if the world outside is challenging.
It is related with intimacy, letting the barrier soften to allow others to join with the deepest truth of who you are.
This time is connected with conception, when the physical foundation of Kidney is safe and nurtured, and the Heart Protector can soften to allow the deep intelligence of the parents to merge into one and create new life.
During this time it’s best to avoid violent or scary films, graphic news stories and the like. Read something uplifting, share foot rubs with your partner or take a soothing bath.
9pm–11pm: Life-Intelligence Spreading Outwards
This is the time to be transitioning from the conscious to the subconscious realm.
Your daily activities are done, and now is the time to unify your body with Earth and your mind with the greater intelligence of life, letting go of the “I” and becoming one with the greater harmony of the universe.
This intelligence of the universe can make many things happen, all at once. In terms of modern science, you could say that it is the way the universe has “non-locality”.
This is the time of the Triple Warmer (San Jiao), a mysterious “organ” in Chinese medicine. It doesn’t have a physical structure; rather, it is how the root (Heart and Kidney) spreads the deep intelligence of life outwards, simultaneously.
Whereas our waking mind can only do 1>2>3, this intelligence can do all the things, all at once!
So definitely this is a time to let go of your “little self” and succumb to the greater wisdom! Falling asleep at this time allows all functions of your body to unfold on time, and allows life-intelligence to flow freely. This allows you to heal and re-create with maximum harmony and efficiency.
11pm–1am: Decisions about the Place and Time
This is the time of Gallbladder, the organ energy system that connects the phase above with the one that follows.
Gallbladder and Triple Warmer together do “spreading”, from deep intelligence into physicality. The Gallbladder and Liver (below) have a special relationship in Chinese medicine theory, so that this phase of 11pm-1am and 1am-3am is almost one whole phase.
The Gallbladder is about decisions. It is the subconscious intelligence that decides where and when the energy from the root will be spread in order to create, and re-create, your physical form – here and now.
If you tend to feel indecisive during the day, definitely pay attention to the quality of your sleep and especially ensure that you are in bed and asleep well before 11pm.
1am–3am: The Best Way to Make Plans!
This is the time of the Liver. The Liver is known as the General in Charge of the Armies.
In ancient times, the Emperor (Heart) would be secluded within the palace (you!), protected by the messenger-bodyguard (Heart Protector), quietly connecting with the intelligence of the universe (Dao) in order to find exactly the right decision for each situation, bringing the most benefit for all.
The one responsible for enacting these orders in the empire (to transform an idea into action) is the General in Charge of the Armies (Liver).
The General-Liver’s forte is planning and strategising.
And here’s the rub. You do your best planning when “you” are not there – sound asleep!
Do you wake in the early hours of the morning, thinking excessively, problems looming way larger than during daylight hours?
This is what happens when you try to control too much, or try to excessively plan for a future that isn’t here and now.
To paraphrase, if you can “let go and let Dao”, then this soothes the Liver organ energy system, allowing energy to flow wherever it needs to go, guided by wisdom far greater than your ordinary conscious mind.
3am–5am: The Beginning of Waking
This is the time that “you” start to stir. In the Chinese organ clock, the “day” begins here, with Lung.
Still sleeping, but the morning begins to beckon. It is the coldest part of the night, yet the first rays of the sun are not far away.
Still sleeping, yet this is the time of night when you will have the most dreams. Something within, your separate identity, is coming into being for the day.
Connected to the nose and skin, Lung regulates the Qi of the whole body and if its emotional vibration is felt then this is grief or sadness.
If you are waking during this time then it is connected to the phase above – trying to control too much, the relationship between “you” and the “Dao” is unbalanced.
Breath work is an ideal way to help this relationship find its proper balance again. Breath is partly in your conscious control, yet rooted in the subconscious. You can control the in and out breath, and yet, if you don’t think about it… then life breathes you. (See our article on simple breath practices for better sleep)
Practice letting go, and this will help you benefit from this phase as well as moving into the next phase.
5am–7am: Letting go to Begin Again
This is the time of the Large Intestine. It is about letting go in order to bring in. We will start here, looking at the waking hours, when we focus on food and nutrition in October later this year.
* For readers who are curious to go deeper into Chinese medicine theory:
These single organ systems actually are always expressing parts of one complete whole.
The organs exist in special relationships with each other, and these relationships have special connections with other relationships!
- Kidney and Heart together are called Shaoyin. This is known as the Emperor Fire, the root of living forms.
- Pericardium and Triple Warmer are in internal-external relationship with each other. Protecting the Emperor and spreading the Emperor’s goodness throughout the empire are one “department”.
- Triple Warmer and Gallbladder together are called Shaoyang. They are about spreading the Emperor’s goodness, here and now.
- Gallbladder and Liver are in internal-external relationship with each other. This is about taking the orders from the Emperor and deciding where and when to make it happen (the “spreading” of Triple Warmer is the energy that can make it happen “all at once”).
- Pericardium and Liver together are called Jueyin. They both have a close relationship with the Emperor – one is the protector and messenger, the other is trusted to make the plans so that the Emperor’s goodness takes place outside. Pericardium protects inwards while Liver acts outwards.
- Jueyin and Shaoyang together (Pericardium, Liver, Gallbladder, Triple Warmer) are about the Minister Fire, the physical manifestation of life, spreading out and creating.
- (Other organ systems, active during the day time, are about the Minister Fire bringing energy from the outside back into the centre, nourishing the root).
- Lung and Large Intestine belong to Metal (in five elements schema), which is about discernment, sorting and letting go.
Deep gratitude to my teacher and mentor, Dr Yaron Seidman, for looking into Chinese medicine’s rich and complex texts and asking the “simple questions”.