The Shen, or Spirit, in Chinese Medicine

This is a paper that I wrote during my first year in TCM school. While I was criticized for having a small section about my dog having a shen, I still stand by my writing (that animals also possess such a thing–even my Chinese teachers agree) and am pretty happy with the outcome. Granted, it still has remnants of my writing style when I was reading of lot of Western philosophy (Bataille, Hegel, Badiou), so please excuse the somewhat pretentious tone.


This proposition is the summit, but must be understood
in this way: lays bare, therefore I see what knowledge
was hiding up to that point, but if I see, I know.

Questions come to mind when thinking about the concept of the shén. Its nature is seemingly elusive, if intangible, especially to one who, like myself, does not subscribe to any belief system. That the shén occupies a part of our reality, that it may be felt and seen with our human senses, demands investigation. But what exactly is it that we perceive?

According to many Chinese medical texts, the shen is either present, or it is hindered by some illness. We may not touch it (at least, not in the way in which we may touch flesh or, to whatever degree, touch qi with a needle), but we may affect it through treatment. Shen has been described as an aspect of qi, one of the Taoist Three Treasures, and maintains the position of being the most refined of this triad. That it exists within us, and that it is considered to be of Heaven, begs the question: Why does it exist within us? An analysis of the cosmology surrounding the shen may shed some light.

Tiān is the Chinese term most commonly used in referring to Heaven. It is a place, typically occupied by deities and/or immortal beings, that we humans do not have access to via our physical realm. is used for the Earth, a mass or body that also occupies space, although this one we live upon and with. In Alfred Huang’s translation of the I Ching, he explains the importance of King Wen’s decision to name the I Ching‘s first two hexagrams not after Heaven and Earth, but by using the terms qián and kūn

“Qian is the image of heat and light, yang energy, radiating from Heaven. Kun is the image of yin energy extending over Earth. Qian represents the functions of Heaven, initiating the Creation of the world. Kun represents the function of Earth, submitting and responding to Qian. Kun acts harmoniously with Qian for the completion of Creation; thus, Kun is responsive to Qian‘s creative action.”  

We may extrapolate from this that, indeed, “Heaven” is that which represents pure yáng; “Earth,” in its turn, is pure yīn. Humans are said to occupy the space in between Heaven and Earth, and is that which moves between the two poles. (“Breaths [] are the concrete relation between the two poles of yin and yang; the breaths are the exchanges between them.”) But are we really so unique in this one regard? Not likely. Humans are but one type of entity that occupies this space through which travels; others are also endowed with varying combinations of yīn and yáng.

The one split into two, from which sprang forth the ten thousand things. These things remain of the same stuff, and yet, through their naming, via their individuation, do they become something else, something elusive that requires the movement between poles, between permutations of yīn and yáng. What was lost to those of us that name is the direct access to the one, or the dao.

“That only humans name things suggests a direct role of human consciousness in the generation of material existence.” This material existence is what we could identify as that which obfuscates the singularity that remains in the shadows. Our perception of the world is, as Lonny Jarrett’s quote implies, shaped by language. It could be said that one speaks around that which s/he is referring to. Words are like arrows that are thwarted from their target every time they are released.

Technicalities: The shén is said to be housed in the Heart. It sprouts from the jīng imparted to us from our parents and from the Heavens. It has a direct connection to Heaven and, as such, it remains the duty of the Heart to dictate Heaven’s Law. The health of the shén depends upon its unimpeded flow throughout the body and its ability to directly and easily communicate with its loyal zàng organs: Liver, Spleen, Kidney and Lung. The health of the individual also necessitates the unimpeded flow of qì and all body fluids. “In Chinese, Qian possesses the same sound as the word for health. It denotes health and vitality.”

While certain kung fu or qigong practices encourage the storage of for longevity or greater power, others place their emphasis upon the opening of the channels. One trains so that the body is relaxed, the muscles without tension and the back open; flows (just as the zàng organs should communicate) to allow the expression of a strength that one seemingly brings forth from outside of oneself. What, of course, is required to attain such flow is discipline and adherence to rules of physical conduct. The language of kung fu, it could be said, is dictatorial: if one obeys correctly, then a positive experience ensues for the loyal student; if not, injury results. Power and health, in this case, are synonymous.

What is at work within the nature of human existence is what would seem to be two strong, yet contradictory dictates: that one act in a way that maintains an unhindered opening, or space, for there to be a free flow of the three treasures; and that one engage, or facilitate, the shén’s calling. According to French philosopher Alain Badiou, when one experiences something of profound proportions within one’s life (an event which, categorically, falls within the realms of art, science, politics or love), it subsequently becomes the duty of that person to remain faithful to that event. The event, in gross summation, takes on the role of that which illuminates truth; to turn one’s back on this truth is to enter into the realm of evil.

It is perhaps here that the concept of a moral Heaven makes sense: fulfilling one’s own destiny is the transformation of one’s intentions into that which follows a personal truth (or: ethics) which is none other than the truth of the whole, or the dào. That its form or methodology appear different is of no real consequence. What may remain a common trait among persons engaged in such a faithful becoming is “that every undertaking or revolutionary cause [needs] to pass through the four stages of yuan, heng, li, and zhen, or sprouting, growing, blooming, and bearing fruit.”

The dào is a universal truth whose appearance to itself as human being depends upon the specifics of time, place, person and world. The event can be considered an opening, necessary only within this world of multiplicity, whereupon the dào presents itself to itself. Human beings are of those ten thousand things of the world, and yet we contain within us some of those things. The Heart is our direct line to Heaven, or pure yáng, and yet even this is part of the whole. Another important manifestation of this movement between poles, within the human being, is the process of thought.

The question has been posed: who do you know that possesses good shén? While there are many good people in my life who have, at times, a shén that shines forth with goodness, the one individual who maintains a health and vibrancy is my dog, Miàn-Miàn. She maintains a regular diet, has regular bowel movements of good consistency, and is eager to interact in a most gleeful way. She has no anger, only love; her modes of existence include playfulness, curiosity, sleep and cuddling affection. My little Noodle also, like most dogs, engages with her whole body as a whole when performing any physical activity. Her senses allow her to obtain extremely large bits of information about those around her or have been in one place with little more than the probing of her nose or tongue. In short, she does not require the discipline of kung fu, meditation techniques or any such things to stay true to her dào.

Human beings, on the other hand, have thought to guide them (or to lead them astray). Language is that which shapes thinking, and the event is that which opens language to reveal that which hides beyond it. The movement between the two poles of thinking and non-thinking are like the movements between qián and kūn, and how they manifest depends on the ten thousand things within the individual. Thought and the
human imagination are, in their purest form, the beginnings of becoming in the world. We may conceptualize thought as that which embodies the germination of qián within the person, if only to take on a life from the actualization that the individual may give to it. This is the dictate of Heaven: that one think and materialize one’s thoughts in a manner faithful to oneself, faithful to the one. This is not unlike DNA needing protein to build a structure.

Shén exists within human beings so that it may become. Another way that the process of becoming may be conceived is the dào returning to itself as itself. Clearly, this remains a process or movement to and fro, as there remain the ten thousand things in this world. The shén cannot, in my opinion, be analyzed in and of itself. Like an onion whose layers have been peeled away to find a central, “true” onion, the shén depends upon its housing, the human being, to be what it is.

1 Georges Bataille, Inner Experience. State University of New York Press, 1988: 52.
2 Huang chooses to translate qián and kūn, in the context of the I Ching, as “initiating” and “responding,”
respectively. According to the Pocket Oxford Chinese Dictionary, qiánkūn 乾 坤 means both “heaven and earth”
and “the universe.” It may also be noteworthy that these terms are (seemingly) never used independent of one
another when carrying these definitions.
3 Alfred Huang, The complete I Ching. Inner Traditions International, 1998: 38-39.
4 Claude Larre, S.J. & Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée, Rooted in Spirit: The Heart of Chinese Medicine. Station
Hill Press, Inc., 1995: 22.
5 Lonnie S. Jarrett, Nourishing Destiny: The Inner Tradition of Chinese Medicine. Spirit Path Press, 2009: 12.
6 Huang: 21.
7 Cf. Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Verso, 2001.
8 Huang: 26.