Artistic use of yarn to show the brain and heart are united

Shen – The Mind in Chinese Medicine

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the mind and emotions are considered just as important as the body when it comes to health and disease. The mind is known as shen and this word can also be translated as ‘spirit.’ It is primarily associated with the Heart, but each of the other organs also has an influence over a different aspect of shen.

Because the body and the mind are so closely linked in TCM theory, any physical illness can lead to emotional symptoms and vice versa. In fact, one of the most common underlying causes of all chronic disease is seen as emotional imbalance.

In order to fully understand the importance of shen in TCM diagnosis and treatment, first we need to understand where it comes from and exactly what it does. Although shen is most often associated with the Heart, its root actually lies deep within your Kidneys and genetic code. Let’s take a closer look.

The Three Treasures – The Root of the Mind

According to TCM, a person’s constitution depends on three major factors: Jing (essence), qi (energy), and shen (mind). Together these are known as the Three Treasures, and they are all vital to the health of every human being.

Jing translates as ‘essence.’ It is a substance which is inherited from your parents and its quality depends on their age and health at the time of your conception. Essence is stored by your Kidneys. It controls your growth and development as a child, and your fertility and ability to reproduce as an adult. Your essence decreases naturally as you get older and this process is ultimately responsible for how quickly you age and die. Essence can be depleted more quickly by living an unhealthy lifestyle, and preserved by eating well, exercising regularly, and living in harmony with nature. Many people who practice tai chi or qi gong do so in order to protect their essence and extend their lives.

Qi is most often translated as ‘energy’ but this is really oversimplifying its meaning somewhat. Other translations include ‘breath’ and ‘life force’ but these do not really capture the whole picture either. Qi is responsible for all of your physical processes from movement to digestion. Without it, you would simply die. Qi comes from the air you breathe and the food you eat, combined with the essence which is stored by your Kidneys. Therefore, having healthy qi depends on a combination of lifestyle and genetics. Compared with essence, qi is more yang in nature. This means that it is light and should circulate freely around your body. It is often compared to steam rising from a pot containing essence which is more yin and liquid in its nature.

Shen translates as ‘mind’ or ‘spirit.’ It is responsible for all of your mental functions, consciousness, and emotions. Compared with essence and qi, shen is much more yang in nature. This means that it cannot be seen or felt, but its effects on the body and mind are obvious. Having healthy shen depends on having healthy essence and healthy qi. In TCM, there is a term ‘jing-shen’ (meaning essence-mind) which is used to describe a person’s vitality and vigor. If someone has abundant jing-shen, they should have clear and sparkling eyes. If somebody’s eyes are dull and dim, they may well be suffering from weak jing-shen.

Jing is stored by the Kidneys, and shen is stored by the Heart. Therefore, the relationship between the Heart and Kidneys is of the utmost importance in TCM, especially when it comes to mental health. Another important factor in the health of the shen is the blood. The shen relies on blood to hold it in place, as it is so yang and light that it needs a solid anchor to stop it from floating away.

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The Two Aspects of the Mind in Chinese Medicine

The word shen actually has two slightly different meanings in TCM. It can be used to refer to a person’s whole mental, spiritual, and emotional being, as well as the ‘mind’ which is housed by the Heart.

The shen which is associated with the Heart is just one aspect of a person’s mental and emotional well-being. The other yin organs (the Liver, Lungs, Spleen, and Kidneys) are also partially responsible for a person’s emotional make-up and the way that they experience life.

The Liver houses an aspect of the spirit called the hun. This can be compared to the idea of the soul or spirit in many western cultures. The hun is thought to enter your body just after you are born, and leave when you die. It plays a role in planning, vision, and the direction that your life will take. It also plays a role in the subconscious and dreams.

The Lungs house an aspect of the spirit called the po. This is the part of your soul which is attached to your body and stays with it after death. The po is responsible for many of our automatic functions such as breathing, and is also responsible for feeling, hearing, and eyesight. The Lung’s po and the Liver’s hun are considered complementary opposites with the po being more yin and the hun more yang. They are sometimes known as the corporeal and the ethereal soul.

The Spleen houses the yi which translates as ‘thought’ or ‘intention.’ The yi is responsible for learning, memorizing facts, and concentration. The Spleen is also responsible for digestion, which is why TCM practitioners believe it is unhealthy to eat at the same time as you work or study.

The Kidneys house the zhi or ‘willpower.’ The zhi is responsible for focus, motivation, and helping you to achieve your goals. If your zhi is weak, then you may have trouble seeing projects through to the end, or easily get discouraged by obstacles in your path.

Finally, the Heart houses the shen. The shen of the Heart can be thought of as the ‘little shen’ rather than the ‘big shen’ which includes the spirits of the Heart as well as those of the other organs mentioned above. The shen of the Heart is responsible for the ability to think clearly, solve problems, and long-term memory.

The Mind in Health and Disease

Although we now know that the different aspects of shen can be attributed to different areas of the brain, Chinese doctors only began to recognize this connection in the Ming Dynasty, 400–700 years ago. This was relatively late in the development of this ancient system of medicine, and even modern-day practitioners generally associate the shen with the Heart rather than the brain.

When your shen is healthy, you will be able to think logically, feel calm and peaceful, and form healthy relationships. However, there are many different reasons why your shen can become disturbed. Many of these are caused by underlying issues with the Heart or the blood.

Heart and blood disorders can lead to many different physical and emotional symptoms. Some of the most common of these include:

  • Palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Tiredness
  • Pale skin
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Poor memory
  • Anxiety or restlessness
  • Agitation
  • Depression
  • Mood swings

Unfortunately, many emotions such as sadness and anger can also negatively impact the Heart. For some people, this leads to a vicious cycle where a Heart imbalance causes emotional symptoms which in turn damage the organ even further. This is where acupuncture and Chinese medicine can help.

Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine for Mental Health

Luckily, there are plenty of different ways that acupuncture and TCM can help to restore emotional balance and benefit your mental health.

Acupuncture is extremely relaxing, and after a treatment, most people report feeling calm and happy. Many acupuncture points are traditionally used to treat the mind or spirit, and names like ‘Spirit Gate’ and ‘Spirit Courtyard’ give some indication of how these points can benefit your shen.

If your main problem is anxiety, depression, or chronic stress, it is likely that your provider will choose points that nourish your Heart and build your blood. This will give your shen a safe home and allow it to feel peaceful and at rest. Your provider may also decide to treat your Kidneys if the connection between these two organs has broken down.

From a modern, scientific perspective, we know that acupuncture’s calming effects come from its ability to rebalance the nervous system, switching it from ‘fight and flight’ mode into a more relaxed state.

Acupuncture also stimulates the action of endorphins. These are chemicals produced by your brain that help to reduce feelings of pain, but also bring about a sense of general well-being. It is also thought that acupuncture regulates the levels of certain neurotransmitters which are responsible for your memory, mood, and thinking.

In addition to acupuncture, Chinese herbs can also be used to benefit the Heart and blood. Many herbs also have tranquilizing properties which can help you to feel calmer during periods of stress and anxiety. Your provider will also be able to give you personalized lifestyle and dietary advice based on your individual needs. 

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