“Mind, Body, and Spirit.”
We hear this saying all the time, but what does it really mean?
Most people use this phrase to describe the three parts of human health that shape and balance the whole. Mind is pretty clear; and so is body; but what exactly do we mean when we include spirit as a part of the trifecta of human health?
The term “spirit” is a bit more ambiguous than “mind” and “body.” It’s intangible, it’s energetic, and it can mean different things to different people.
Plus, when it comes to Western views on health, it’s only recently that we’ve started including mental and emotional health in the bigger picture of physical health. Spiritual health, or the role of spirit, is certainly on the cutting-edge of how we understand whole body health.
By contrast, Eastern medicine includes spirit or, roughly translated, “shen” in ancient Chinese medical texts that date back 3,000 years or more. This notion of “spirit” is understood to play as much of a role in overall health as our mental, physical, and emotional components. In fact, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has such an advanced understanding of these energetic levels of health, that it has 3 different terms for the 3 “treasures” of human life–– shen, is just one of them.
In this article, we take a deeper look at the concept of spirit or shen in Chinese medicine. We look at its origins, and how it is seen, measured and supported through Chinese medicine. Through advancing our understanding of the concept of spirit in Chinese medicine, we can deepen our understanding of this elusive energy in order to harness and integrate it into our understanding of overall health.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) 101
In order to understand shen, we must first develop an understanding of the basic principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine (also known as TCM).
Traditional Chinese Medicine has been cultivated through more than three thousand years of theory and practice. Through a complex system of care which includes herbalism, food as medicine, energy work, exercise, acupuncture, and more, TCM is a highly advanced science that historically and currently serves millions of people across the globe.
Increasingly, Western medicine is including aspects of TCM, or Eastern medicine, in it’s understanding of human health. Many top hospitals integrate and complement Western medicine with TCM and many studies show that this assistance can play an essential role in health and healing.
While Western medicine is particularly adept at acute care like resetting broken bones, Eastern medicine is particularly attuned for preventative care, as well as relief from chronic health issues like inflammation and anxiety.
Why? Well, it could be because Eastern medicine has such a rich understanding of something that is lacking in Western medicine–– an acknowledgement of the intangible, energetic aspects of health–– including mental and emotional states, and the concept of spirit.
Yin and Yang in Chinese Medicine
Rather than seeing the world in a compartmentalized way, the Eastern viewpoint sees the world as a flux of energy throughout the universe. In the East, there is less of a harsh line between what we think of as “matter” and what we think of as “energy.”
A simple way to understand this is through the concept of Yin and Yang. Yin and yang are terms to describe the two energetic forces that, together, maintain balance throughout the universe. They are opposite, but complementary, and one cannot exist without the other. The image below represents yin energy (black) and yang energy (white), in a constantly flowing state.
Chinese medicine sees health issues as imbalances of yin or yang, and balance is understood to be restored to the body through nourishing or taming one or the other.
The 3 “Treasures” in Chinese Medicine
Chinese medicine, there are 3 “treasures” which the body requires for life: Qi (pronounced chee), Jing, and Shen.
Qi is known as the “life force” that flows through the body (and the universe). You may have heard of TaiChi or QiGong, which involve moving the qi intentionally through the body to cultivate balance. Everything has qi, but if you are sick you might have lower qi, whereas when you’re very healthy, you might have stronger qi. In TCM, qi is responsible for protecting the body from pathogens (similar to an immune system), and is also responsible for the transformation of food into blood, qi, tears, sweat and urine.
Jing is a primordial “essence” known to reside in the kidneys, and is responsible for growth, development and reproduction throughout the course of one’s life. In this way, we can think of jing as possessing the same long-term, organic growth potential as stem cells. It is the basis of reproduction, growth, ripening, and withering. Our jing can be depleted through excessive sexual activity, multiple childbirths, extreme stress, trauma, and drug and alcohol abuse. It is understood that the depletion of jing can cause us to age quicker.
Finally, shen, is roughly translated as the “spirit” or “presence” of a person. In TCM, shen is recognized as “a look behind the eyes,” or the presence of “light in the eyes.” It is associated with consciousness, and the capacity of the mind to form ideas and the desire to live life.
“If jing is the source of life, and qi the ability to activate and move, then shen is the vitality behind jing and qi in the human body.”
–Roger Green, founder of Academy Healing Nutrition
How do qi, jing, and shen relate to one another?
Generally speaking, you cannot have balanced shen if you do not have balanced jing and qi. Jing and qi provide the foundation for shen to shine, and vice-versa.
Are you scratching your head as to what this has to do with you? Keep reading as we deep-dive into shen in Chinese medicine.
A Deeper Look at Shen in Chinese Medicine
So now that we have more context for Shen in Chinese medicine, let’s look at this powerful energy with a few different examples of how you can experience it, in order to better understand it.
Do you ever notice a person’s energy when they walk into a room?
Often, when people are sick, and/or grieving, their energy can be very low. Their heads might be hanging low, shoulders caved in, they may avoid eye contact, and speak softly, if at all. Their skin, hair, and eyes might be dull, and in some rooms, they might barely be noticed. They might have trouble making decisions, or taking action in life.
By contrast, imagine someone walking into a room with radiant energy–– a big smile, a willingness to engage, and a head held high. When asked a question, they might look at you directly in the eyes, which are bright and expressive. They have the capacity to think about things before making a swift decision on the best way forward.
Can you picture the difference between the two?
In another example, Dr. Eben Alexander, author of the bestselling book, “Proof of Heaven,” a memoir of his near death experience, shares:
“When someone is sleeping, you can look at them and tell there’s still a person inhabiting the body. There’s a presence. But most doctors will tell you it’s different when a person is in a coma (even if they can’t tell you exactly why). The body is there, but there’s a strange, almost physical sensation that the person is missing. That their essence, inexplicably, is somewhere else.”
The difference between the two states, roughly translated, can help reveal the meaning of shen in Chinese medicine.
Finally, another way to understand shen is to look at historical figures whose energy was “contagious”–– people who had the power and influence to move large crowds towards common goals. Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, could be seen as someone with a powerful spirit, or shen. Some Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners also cite Hitler as an example of someone with powerful shen, (although extremely destructive), he was able to move and disturb the entire world.
Interesting Facts About Shen
Shen is associated with a deep sense of self awareness. It can include a feeling of oneness with oneself and the universe.
- Feelings of separation from other people and the universe can cause shen to suffer. Often, when people are in pain or suffering, they can feel isolated and alone. This can further compromise shen.
- Shen is known to reside in the heart, which, in Chinese medicine, is believed to be the true source of the mind. For this reason, shen is also known as the “heart-mind.”
- Shen is responsible for thinking, cognition, emotional life and consciousness.
- Shen comes from two sources: first, there is the (prenatal) shen that we are born with, and then, there is the (postnatal) shen that we cultivate through our habits, conditioning and environment.
- Postnatal shen can be depleted or restored depending on our habits and environment.
- You might notice your shen is low after you’ve been through traumatic or sad events. People suffering from depression often have low shen (In English, we might refer to this as someone being in “poor spirits).
- Shen can be balanced or imbalanced. When someone has balanced shen, they can easily flow with the laws of nature and universal rhythms, and feel plenty of joy.
- When someone has imbalanced shen, they might experience uncontrollable emotions like sadness, depression, anxiety, or over-thinking. Extreme cases of shen disharmony can lead to unconsciousness or violent mental health disorders.
- When someone’s shen is unbalanced, it might also affect other aspects of health, such as their inability to sleep deeply or eat nourishing food, which can further exacerbate imbalance.
- Sometimes, when someone is suffering from illness, a TCM doctor might first focus on building up the shen, so that they may be in higher spirits and therefore more likely to eat, connect, and have the desire to take care of themselves.
- You can build up your shen through different activities such as connecting with nature, connecting with others, and connecting with ideas/philosophies/spiritual teachings that make you feel alive and inspired.
- There are also many Chinese herbs, such as Reishi, Schizandra, Cordyceps, and Ginseng, which can help to tonify Shen.
Integrating Spirit (Shen) into Western Medicine
For most Westerners, the concept of spirit or shen is quite new. For years, many of us have exclusively associated the word “spirit” with a particular belief system, or organized religion. In the East, however, spirit transcends belief and just is–– it is recognized to be as real and essential to overall health as our blood, bones, organs and nervous system.
In the West, many of us suffer from alarming rates of chronic conditions related to the “heart-mind,” such as depression, anxiety, mood swings, insomnia, and other mental and emotional health disorders. While Western medicine is poised to treat some of these symptoms, many people are left without the appropriate resources to actually heal from them.
By integrating Eastern medicine philosophies that have a richer understanding of the elusive realms of mental, emotional, and spiritual health, we may be able to begin naming, diagnosing, and treating these disorders in holistic ways that increase our chances of true healing.
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