Shen, or spirit in Chinese, is written as a character with two components. Very literally, the character depicts curved lightning on the left and a stone table used to make offerings to the gods on the right. Graphically, it represents the coming together of heaven and earth.
Heaven and Earth
The left part of the character–the lightning–suggests that which comes from heaven. It is non-material and spiritual. The right part–the stone table–represents expression, manifestation and the acting out of ritual in the earthly realm.
In Huangdi Neijing Lingshu, (Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon, Simple Questions) a document thought to date from the Han Dynasty circa 100 B.C., Shen is described as the meeting place of heaven, or the spiritual aspect, and earth which is the physical. The result of this mingling is life.
In people, the presence of Shen distinguishes a person from an object; it enlivens and enervates. Translated, Shen can mean many things we typically view as human such as: consciousness, soul, life energy, mind, and psyche. A common use of the word Shen refers to the outward signs of life and activity of the body. It is used to describe the complexion and light in the eyes, posture and responsiveness in vitality and health.
The heart and the blood vessels are said to be the realm of Shen in the body. The human heart in Chinese medicine is considered the principle organ related to our mental activity and emotions. The normal heart gives us a clear mind and vitality.
Under normal conditions, the balanced heart gives us clear mindedness, vitality and responsiveness to the world. When there is disturbance, vitality is clouded, emotions can be troublesome, and the physical heart may show signs of pathology.
In the ideal, Shen is manifested as a healthy and harmonious spirit known as a harmonized Shen. A disturbance, or loss of Shen is what we typically think of as a mental and/or emotional disturbance.
Qualities of Shen
There are 5 Shen qualities that can be accessed in Chinese medicine. These are:
- Shen Unity
- Shen Awareness
- Shen Clarity
- Shen Balancing
- Shen Power
Shen resides in other organs besides the heart and is called by different names. For example, Shen in the liver is hun; in the lung is po; in the spleen is yi and in the kidney is zhi. In health, all of these are harmonized and work cooperatively. The result is harmony in the mind and body. When one Shen is overactive or underactive, it affects other systems of Shen.
Shen awareness involves awareness of self in one’s environment. Good Shen awareness leads to orientation in the world with harmonious dealings and relationships of cooperation. A disturbance in Shen awareness can manifest in disrupted orientation and connection.
Shen clarity involves clear and stable thought processes and consciousness. Disturbed Shen clarity results in mental fog, distractibility, poor memory and irrationality.
The ideal type of Shen is expressed in a balanced state of yin and yang. It can be thought of as returning to homeostasis whenever there is an experience in toward one pole or another. For example, crying will eventually stop, anger will eventually cool down, and activity leads to rest when Shen is balanced. Unbalanced Shen, on the other hand, may be a prolonged bout of depression in which sadness doesn’t resolve, or a bout of mania in which the body and mind do not rest.
Shen power is the state of one’s energy or qi. It can be weak or strong in the body and the mind. For example, one may be fatigued and depleted physically and mentally when qi is weak. Another form of disturbance would occur when qi is too strong, causing overactivity and preventing rest.