Now that the quiet of winter has descended, many of us are finding ourselves contemplating life’s mysteries over a mug of tea. It’s only natural; winter is a time of rest and meditation. It’s the season to stare off into the middle distance and let the snowflakes fall out of focus as our mind takes us to far off fantasies or deep into our core. In honor of this deeply spiritual time of the year, let’s dive into the concept of shen.
A patient’s spirituality is, frankly, none of my business. But I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the spiritual roots of Chinese medicine or address it more deeply than I have in the past. Shen is a huge concept, and treating the shen is important for pain management, anxiety and depression, labor induction, fertility and more.
Understanding the concept of shen will help you understand why.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of Shen 101 I want to be clear – how you interact with the Universe at large is between you and the Universe, be it through angels and prayer, science and technology, vision boards or walks in nature. When you receive acupuncture, any emotional, spiritual or energetic shifts that happen are up to you and the Universe, not your acupuncturist.
And I think you’ll see as we go through this post that the point of addressing the spirit isn’t to lift up the hood on your soul and tinker with your Divinity, but rather to adjust how you are in this world. To fine tune your emotions and perception, much the same way as flower essences.
In order to demonstrate this, first, we must define the shen.
Shen is used in three different ways in Chinese medicine. One is to refer to the kidney systems, which you may recall is our foundation and root.
The next two require a little bit of nuance because essentially they both mean “spirit”, but they mean it in a different way. Leslie J Franks of Stone Medicine differentiates the two types of shen as Big Shen and Little Shen.
The Big Shen is part of the Three Treasures:
Jing is usually defined as essence which, according to Nigel Wiseman and Andrew Ellis is:
…in the widest sense…anything essential to the maintenance of life.The Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine
It’s our physical body, the actual matter that makes up our cells, our genetics and DNA. Its action is to maintain life and procreation.
…the basic substance by which all movements and mutations of all phenomena in the universe arise.The Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine
The Big Shen ultimately comes down to our connection with Divinity, however it manifests for us. The Big Shen is the combination of the five components that make up our spirit, each distinction governing a way we interact with the world.
So naturally, we should start with Little Shen and how it differs in specificity from Big Shen.
Shen – Heart
The Little Shen, which from here on out will just be “shen”, is the part of our spirit that’s stored in the heart.
Our heart is our Emperor, reigning over the vast lands of our body and psyche and everything that makes us us is at some point influenced by our heart and shen. The idea that everything comes back to the heart is why I chose to start here.
The best translations of shen is “mind or consciousness.” I like to differentiate it from the Big Shen or Spirit by saying this is how we interact with the world.
One of the most interesting concepts of physiology is that sensation doesn’t happen in your hands, smells don’t happen in your nose and taste doesn’t happen on your tongue. Chemicals, temperature and pressure trigger messages that are carried to your brain via your nervous system and it is in your brain that sensation happens.
This is shen. It’s the ability to integrate all of the data we take in from the world and interpret it. It’s memory, how we perceive emotions, our attitudes, our beliefs, our thought structures, everything.
Because the shen is responsible for the integration of data, it’s responsible for our connection to the outside world, and therefore plays a part in empathy.
The most esoteric responsibility of the shen is that it carries the lessons we have to learn in this life. This is where we leave psychology and dip our toes into Divinity. And it’s these types of distinctions that mark the borders between Traditional Chinese Medicine and Classical Chinese Medicine.
While the differences are best left for another post, know that that the difference is political and that Classical Chinese Medicine is the practice that informed Traditional Chinese Medicine. Echoes of mysticism will work their way through TCM as a matter of course, and so, will be addressed in this post.
Yi – Spleen
The yi is our intellect. This is the part of our spirit or consciousness that we think of as the left-brain – logical thinking, memorization, concentration and our ability to study. It is also responsible for the generation of ideas.
From an esoteric perspective, the yi also determines the quality of our intelligence and the ability to focus and concentrate on fulfilling our destiny.
Yi and the spleen are related to the Earth element and because of that, they are also related to our boundaries, the ability to set them and the ability to maintain them.
The yi is paired with the zhi.
Po – Lung
The po is our corporeal soul, the soul that is tied to our body. It’s paired with the hun, our ethereal soul and together they make up the yin and yang of the soul, respectively.
The po is considered the corporeal soul because it’s tied to the body. It’s a fascinating concept: the po is considered to enter the body three days after conception and provide the blueprint for our material body. It is the framework upon which the jing, the essence provided by each parent, builds a person. The po will continue to guide essence in our body, staying with us until death, when it disintegrates and returns to the earth.
So if essence is our genes (in one aspect), po is the potential of genetic expression. Po is what guides growth, determines the color of our hair, eyes and skin. It is the means by which our essence is expressed, physically. Po is the reason a brother and sister can get a 23 and Me back and have different results – their po is different, even though the essence that created them was from the same two parents.
The Lizard Brain
It also has functions that are deeply tied to the physical body. It is associated with physical sensations, including the perception of pain. The po relates to animal instinct, intuition and gut feelings. It’s related both to our individuality and our energetic connections to people. And it’s influenced by unconscious feelings, especially grief, as grief is the emotion of the lung.
Po is that deep part of ourselves that we often talk about as the lizard brain. It’s the connection to the world that’s so deep within us that we don’t need to acknowledge it. We just act on it.
From an esoteric perspective, our po influences our will to move towards our destiny, going all the way back to conception when the movement towards destiny is becoming a physical being.
Zhi – Kidney
Zhi is our willpower and determination, but it’s not just bullheadedness (though it’s that, too.) It’s the will to keep living, for our heart to keep beating, our deepest motivation, and our desire to live life in a physical body.
Zhi and fate
Someone once explained to me that this willpower had a yin and a yang. Our yang zhi is what we accessed when we dug deep to finish a marathon, pull an all-nighter, overcome a fear of heights for a once in a lifetime opportunity to go skydiving.
Our yin zhi was subtle, almost like fate. But this isn’t a fate that’s handed down from above. This is a direction in life that we keep returning to that is directed by the shen consciously or unconsciously. It’s what drives us to our soul’s purpose, and it’s typically what people mean when they say to follow your inner guidance to a goal.
Here’s an example. My goal in life was always to help people. My yang zhi helped me in my customer service day jobs, answering phones and filling orders for shipping in a 9-5 under horrible flourescent lights. My yin zhi kept quietly redirecting my attention to things that fed me – first with health and wellness websites, then to massage school and finally to acupuncture school.
Yang zhi gets you through tough spots. Yin zhi is when you look back over a decade and go, “Huh. Isn’t that funny. I ended up exactly where I was meant to be.”
“By our powers combined…”
When the two aspects of zhi combine, they also support our willpower by giving us the mental fortitude to go forward and the subtle, quietly whispered path upon which to go forth.
Zhi is also associated with memory and recall, especially short term memory and is partnered with the yi.
Hun – Liver
The hun is our ethereal soul, the yang part of our spirit that survives death and returns “back to a world of subtle, non-material energies.” (Maciocia). While its partner, the po enters our body 3 days post conception, the hun doesn’t become part of us until 3 days after birth.
Because of this connection to the Universe, our hun is the source of our life dreams, our vision and aims, creative endeavors, inventions, projects, our inspiration, and more. The yi gives us the means to bring these to fruition and the zhi gives us the drive.
Without getting too out there this also is a connection to the collective unconscious – the achetypes, themes and stories that play themselves out in our creative ventures, our dreams and even our psychology.
Getting completely out there the hun collects all the experiences we have in this life and all other possible lives, bringing it back to the collective unconscious to add some stories to the pot.
And so, it all works together
The hun inspires us to do great things. The zhi gives us the drive to go out and get it. The yi gives us the ability to think through and plan. The po helps us make connections to people and ideas, and feel our way through the physical. And the shen helps us interpret all of the data…
….so the yi can adjust the plan…
…the po can find new connections…
…the zhi can readjust our course…
It’s all this amazing, intricate web of spirit that focuses more on our psychology, our personal stories and our human drive than spirituality.
And that’s what brings it into the realm of acupuncture – grounding the complexity of the human and Universal mind into how we act and interact with the world around us.
So if you’re feeling aimless, don’t know where to go in life, are having trouble sleeping, get on the schedule. I’ll bring the needles but I’ll leave the rest to you and the Universe.
Looking for some help?
Disclaimer: I am an acupuncturist in the state of Minnesota, and the information falls within my scope of practice in my state. However, unless I have directed you here as your homework I am probably not your acupuncturist. The information in this post is for general purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. As always, check with your own acupuncturist or primary care provider before making any lifestyle changes. This post does not create a patient-practitioner relationship and I am not liable for any losses or damages resulting or relating to the content in this post.
Resources and links
Siblings Can Have Surprisingly Different DNA Ancestry. Here’s Why. – National Geographic
Jessica Gustafson is a licensed acupuncturist in St Paul, MN specializing in women’s health and fertility. She loves working with patients through the Health Foundations Birth Center on Grand Avenue in St Paul as well as doing home visits in the Twin Cities area. Check out the services page for more information!
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