Cultivating the Shen: Energizing the Spirit
by Rene Ng, DOM, AP, L.Ac.
You’ve most likely heard the phrase “the eyes are the windows to the soul.” Well, in the Chinese culture, we have a similar expression. We use the phrase in Cantonese “Ngarn Shen” which is translated to “eye spirit.” This means the health of an individual’s spirit is reflected in the eyes. People in the Western world have seen and said it as well––the eyes look “intense,” “listless,” “droopy,” “disinterested,” “scared,” or “determined.” The spirit, therefore, plays an important role in our lives, and can make us full or empty, rich or poor.
Total health encompasses three components––the mind, body and spirit. The mind is a control center that tells our physical bodies how to behave. The body is a shell that holds all our soft tissues, muscles, tendons, ligaments, internal organ systems, skeletal system and other components that make up our physical structures.
But the drive behind how we function is associated with the spirit. If the spirit is weak, we will become listless, depressed, lethargic, quiet and unmotivated. However, if the spirit is strong, we will exhibit ambition, passion, gregariousness, courage, energy and a zest for life. The spirit determines whether our lives are half full or half empty.
Over the course of thousands of years, the Chinese have developed a deep understanding of the spirit and how it works. They have found the spirit is tied to the physical body, and its characteristics impact the health of some of the body’s organs. According to the Chinese, the spirit can be separated into five different categories:
The Shen: “Mind”
The Shen is also known as the mind. In Five Element theory, the Shen is associated with the fire element and heart organ system. It is tied to our consciousness, cognitive functions, mental health, vitality and waking thoughts.
The state of the Shen is visible in the eyes. Therefore, a healthy Shen produces bright, shining eyes. The Shen resides in the heart organ where, at night, it goes to sleep. Therefore, if a person thinks too much and the mind is not at rest, insomnia prevails, and the individual will find it difficult to sleep––especially staying asleep after waking up. Here, the eyes will reflect a fatigued and disturbed Shen, appearing listless and dull. This is often observed in people with long-term emotional issues. In addition, manic behavior and panic attacks are often seen in those with heart imbalances.
Foods that are beneficial for the heart such as watermelon, bean sprouts and tofu can help. In addition, lying motionless on the floor positioned the back with the limbs spread out can also promote the circulation of Qi to calm the Shen down. Schizophrenics and people with mental disorders are deemed to be suffering from “Shen Jing Ben,” or “Shen Disturbance Sickness,” and are treated accordingly––and often effectively––with Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture.
The Hun: “Ethereal Soul”
Associated with the wood element in Chinese Five Element theory, the Hun is equivalent to the Western notion of spirit. It is not dependent on a physical being for existence and continues after death. The wood element is tied to the liver organ system which governs emotions. Therefore, imbalances with the liver organ system can impact the Hun, causing both short-term and long-term emotional problems.
The Hun is responsible for relationships, loving, kindness, empathy, compassion, tolerance and awareness of suffering. The Hun also serves as a reservoir for ideas that bring meaning into life. Imbalances that affect the Hun can lead to anger, frustration, resentment, unkindness and depression. The individual can also feel cut-off from life. Bipolar tendencies might also settle in. To rectify the Hun, the health of the liver must be addressed. A major part of what affects the liver is stress, so de-stressing through physical exercise can heal the Hun.
In addition, avoiding alcohol, fatty foods and sour flavors can help prevent the liver from becoming more imbalanced. Peppermint and chrysanthemum teas are excellent for helping to bring the liver back to balance. Chinese Herbal medicine such as “Xiao Yao San,” when combined with acupuncture, can also restore the liver, and subsequently the Hun, to a homeostatic state.
The Po: “Corporeal Soul”
The Po is associated with the lungs and exists only during physical life. It is associated with the metal element in Five Elements theory. The fact that humans possess the ability to sense things is tied to the Po. This also allows the individual to respond, both physically and emotionally, to circumstances, take actions, and gauge justice and fairness.
In Chinese Medicine, the lungs manage the immune system, and are tied to sadness and grief. These emotions take a toll on the lungs and can injure the Po. This is why grieving people often complain of breathing difficulties or shortness of breath. An individual with Po imbalance will likely show continuous signs of grief and sadness like sighing, shoulders slouched forward, and eyes that appear sad and listless. The individual might also present with a tendency to fall sick easily or be prone to allergies.
When the Lungs are strong and balanced, so is the Po, and the individual will be lively, happy and full of zest. But when the lungs are weak and imbalanced, the Po reflects the same. The most effective method to strengthen the lungs is to breathe fresh air that is full of oxygen. Chinese frequent parks early in the morning to take long walks, breathing deeply and slowly to inhale as much oxygen as they can. They call this practice “Shen Wun” in Cantonese, or “Spirit Exercising”.
The lungs also detest cold and dryness, so avoiding ice, cold drinks, spicy foods, smoking and dry air will keep the lungs from becoming injured. Foods that are beneficial for the lungs include pears, strawberries, honey and loquat syrup. Cupping therapy, along with Chinese herbal medicine such as Dong Chong Xia Cao (Cordyceps) and acupuncture, are also effective in addressing conditions with the lungs and helping restoring these organs, and subsequently the Po, to balance and health.
The Yi: “Intellect”
In the Western world, one of the primary goals of the mother and father is to foster development of their child’s intelligence. This is no different from the Eastern world. However, the Chinese further subdivide this into “Yi Zhi” which needs to be developed. The Yi refers to the “intellect,” while the Zhi (which we will discuss later) refers to the “will.”
The existence of the Yi allows the individual to reason, analyze and debate. Yi also enables creativity and problem solving. The spleen organ system is tied to the Yi, and both are associated with the earth element in Five Elements theory. When the spleen is impaired, the individual is unable to readily make decisions and instead will become pensive, over-analytical and worrisome.
The individual will also likely suffer from digestive problems. When the Yi is strong, the individual shows confidence, intelligence, quick-thinking, creativity, and a strong sense of action and decision-making. The eyes look sharp and full of energy. The spleen is also responsible for the production of Qi, so when the Yi is not full, the individual will also present with lethargy and fatigue, showing signs of procrastination and indecisiveness.
Raw vegetables and cold-temperature foods are not ideal for the spleen and should be minimally taken or even avoided. The spleen thrives on warm cooked foods, especially foods that are naturally sweet (not cooked with sugar). Raw ginger root and green tea, in particular, strengthen the spleen to assist with digestion.
When the spleen is strong, so is the Yi. As a result, the individual will be intelligent, creative and energetic. Moxibustion, Chinese herbal formulas, such as “Gui Pi Wan,” and acupuncture are effective in helping the spleen remain balanced and healthy, producing a strong Yi in the individual.
The Zhi: “Will”
We all have encountered either strong- or weak-willed people. The will is tied to the Zhi, and is associated with the water element in Five Elements theory. The Zhi is also connected to the kidney organ system, so functioning kidneys are essential for a healthy Zhi.
An individual lacking in Zhi will exhibit fear and hesitancy to make decisions. They will be fearful of taking action or risks, being present and visible, or exhibiting will-power. In China, when a child is presented in the clinic with these tendencies, that child will be treated with Chinese Medicine to tonify and balance the kidneys. Once balanced, the child will have less inhibition against taking action, and will experience more confidence overall.
The kidneys also govern development, so an imbalanced kidney system will present with bone growth and body development issues, back, knee, shoulder or foot pain, and issues with the spinal column. The eyes will show dark circles, and the body can appear bloated with water, showing signs of edema.
One can strengthen the kidneys by avoiding either sitting or standing non-stop for an extended period of time, consuming goji berries, almonds, seaweed and other foods that have been shown to benefit the kidneys. An individual with an imbalanced Zhi will lack courage and motivation, present with fear in the eyes, and lose interest in being sociable.
With Chinese herbal medicines such as “You Gui Wan” and “Zuo Gui Wan,” Moxibustion and acupuncture, the kidneys can become strengthened, and the Zhi will be conditioned and returned to balance, giving the individual both confidence and will-power.
The spirit is addressed differently in the East than here in the Western world. For the spirit of the individual to be full and strong, an imbalance must be identified and addressed. Symptoms like depression, fear, lethargy, anger, impatience and more are essential for determining where the imbalance is taking place.
Your board-certified, licensed Acupuncture Physician can help you achieve this, and will then formulate a treatment plan to cultivate your overall spirit and guide its development in the right direction. The result is a much improved quality of life and a brighter outlook on embracing challenges and achieving results.
Rene Ng, AP, L.Ac., is a board-certified, licensed Acupuncture Physician and Chinese Herbalist in Sarasota. Depression, cancer care, MS, trauma, insomnia, thyroid issues and pain management are among the health challenges he helps patients address on a daily basis at his clinic near Sarasota Memorial Hospital. Ng is also a four-time winner of Sarasota’s “Favorite Acupuncture Physician” award. For more information, call 941-773-5156, email [email protected] or visit ChineseMedicalSolutions.com.