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  • The Coronavirus PandemicInsights from Daoism and Qigong
  • Kenneth S. Cohen (bio)

The novel coronavirus developed during the last quarter of 2019, the year of the Earth Pig (yihai 己亥). In the Chinese calendar, each year has a heavenly stem (tiangan 天干), which relates to the mind and spirituality and an earthly branch (dizhi 地支), which influences our homes, environment, economy, and physical body.

The prediction for the Earth Pig year was a conflict between the phase earth associated with the heavenly stem yi and the phase water associated with the earthly branch hai. Earth absorbs water, which means they are considered mutually destructive or controlling (xiangke 相克) rather than constructive or productive (xiangsheng 相生). In this configuration, the energies of the phase earth are being depleted: water is being absorbed by earth. To put it simply, the very cosmological foundation of the Earth Pig year already suggests a weakening of home, environment, economy, and health.

As regards the connection to the internal organs, earth is expressed in the body as the spleen, while water relates to the kidneys. As earth absorbs water, the spleen becomes congested and the body's core reserves stored in the kidneys are depleted. Another way to express this in terms of five phases (wuxing 五行) theory is that a deficiency in one organ causes the qi in its controlling organ to become excessive, that is, rushed or overbearing. Hence, deficient kidney water leads to excess spleen earth. [End Page 229]

Moreover, the burden placed on the earth imbalances its successor or child, the phase metal, as metal is mined from the earth. In the body, metal manifests in both the lungs and large intestine. If earth (spleen) is afflicted, it cannot properly feed the lungs, which are its child. And if the lungs are deficient in qi, then their matching yang organ—the large intestine—becomes excessive. These two organs are in a see-saw relationship: when one is up, the other is down. As expected, as the lungs weaken, there are gastrointestinal effects.

Thus, the energies of 2019 at the start of the epidemic suggested problems with spleen (earth), possibly causing dampness, the prime internal condition associated with spleen pathology, as well as a depletion of kidney water and imbalances in the lungs and large intestine. Not surprisingly, opinions among both front-line TCM doctors in China as well as clinicians and theoreticians of classical Chinese medicine elsewhere is that COVID-19 falls into two diagnostic categories.

First, it is a damp febrile (fever causing) epidemic (shiwen 濕瘟). More specifically, it is a condition of damp toxicity (shidu 濕毒), in which the initial dry cough masks an obstructive accumulation of sticky phlegm in the lungs. As the disease progresses, it moves more deeply into the body as a smoldering heat and stagnation, with increasing depletion of kidney and lung yin and a general weakening effect on the qi.

The diagnostic category "toxicity" or "poison" (du 毒) suggests that the invading force or pathogen is especially severe, and when combined with dampness the disease tends to linger and is difficult to remove. It has been described as oil that has seeped into flour.

Advice from the Yijing

The divination classic Yijing 易經 (Book of Changes) is an extraordinary guide for understanding the seeds of change, avoiding chaos, and navigating dangerous waters if a storm hits. It is perhaps the most relevant Daoist text for these times, whether read for its philosophy or consulted in divination. Let me give you a personal example.

At the very beginning of March 2020, when there were only 89 recorded cases of coronavirus in the entire United States, I consulted the Yijing about a two-week teaching trip to Ottawa in eastern Canada that [End Page 230] would begin on March 30. Tickets had already been purchased, but I was feeling uneasy about something.

After the appropriate ritual of incense lighting and bowing in reverence, I tossed three coins six times, which yielded Hexagram 39, Jian 蹇, "Adversity" or "Hardship." To interpret the answer, my Yijing masters had taught me to first study the etymology of the name of the chapter, then analyze the meaning of the two major trigrams (gua 卦) representing key images in the hexagram, complete with texts...


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pp. 229-240
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