Caring for Your Spirit

Shen (Spirit) in Chinese Medicine

The word "Shen" can be translated in many different ways such as "mind", "spirit", "consciousness", "vitality", "expression", "soul", "energy", "god", "God", "psychic", "numinous". From a grammatical point of view, it can be a noun, adjective or verb.

An extremely important function of the Shen, is the capacity to "extend" outward, to project outward, to relate, to communicate with others. It is what makes us relate to the world and other human beings and what makes us truly "human". Incidentally, this capacity to "extend" and to relate is missing in autistic children.

Shen is specifically said to live in the blood vessels (part of the system of the heart) and to be nourished by the blood. At night, our Shen retires to the heart to sleep, and if the shen is disturbed, there maybe insomnia and/or racing thoughts. In TCM pathology, therefore, deficient blood may fail to nourish the Shen. Alternatively, heat (of various organs) may disturb the Shen.

The state of the Shen is said to be visible in the eyes. Healthy Shen produces bright, shining eyes, with vitality. Disturbed Shen produces dull eyes which seem to have a curtain in front of them - as if no one were behind them - often seen in those with long-term emotional problems or after serious shock (even a shock that occurred a long time ago).

Shen indicates the activity of thinking, consciousness, self, insight, emotional life, memory, and volition, all of which depend on the heart.

Shen also indicates the complex of all five mental-spiritual aspects of a human being: the Shen itself, the Hun, the Po, the Yi and the Zhi.

Healthy Shen depends on the strength of the Essence (stored in kidneys) and Qi (produced by spleen and stomach). Thus, Shen is dependent on the Prenatal Jing and the Postnatal Jing. If Essence and Qi are healthy, the Shen will be nourished.

The Shen of the heart is also responsible for hearing, sight, taste and smell. Practically all Confucian and Neo-Confucian philosophers mention the control of the senses by the heart (and Shen).

Many of the ancient Daoist and Confucianist texts view the senses (sight, hearing, smelling, taste) as “dangerous”. They “pull” the Shen out of itself and dissipate its energy.

Emotional life also depends on the Shen of the heart. With regard to emotions, only the Shen (and therefore the heart) can recognize them. When we say (or think) "I feel angry" or "I feel sad" who is the "I" that feels angry or sad? It is the Shen of the heart.

Of course emotions definitely affect all the other organs too, but it is only the Shen that actually recognizes, feels and assesses them. For example, anger affects the liver, but the liver cannot feel it because it does not house the Shen. Only the heart can feel it because it stores the Shen which is responsible for insight. When one feels sad, angry or worried, it is the Shen of the heart that feels these emotions.

It is for this reason that all emotions eventually affect the heart (in addition to other specific organs), and it is for this reason that the tip of the tongue becomes red in emotional problems from whatever emotion.

Acupuncture and Chinese medicine focus on moving, nourishing, strengthening, building and balancing the many parts that make up our Shen. We focus on building and nourishing through the use of acupuncture points and Chinese herbs, along with the energetic qualities of food. By stimulating certain points, we are able to open the channels and allow the free flow of Qi, and in doing this, we strengthen the channels and remove blockages resulting in the balancing of the Qi and calming of the Shen.

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