The Spirit 神 Shén

Eduard Genís Sol, July 2017.

In chinese medicine, the notion of ‘Spirit’ has different meanings depending on the context in which we use it and therefore cannot have a single definition. In a general sense, the spirit refers to the external display or expression of a person’s life activity (神明活动, Shén míng huó dòng). In this context, it describes the complexion or appearance of the body, the vitality of expression, the gestures and body attitude, and the capability of reaction, in other words, the global vitality of a person.  That’s why we say that a person is in good spirit when he or she possesses enthusiasm and happiness in his or her daily life activities and this attitude can be noticed in both his or her body and verbal language. A person lacking spirit looks sullen, without liveliness and sparkling expression.

But ‘spirit’ also means the motion strength that applies to every physiological activity of a person. The heart stores the spirit (心藏神, Xīn cáng shén) and it commands all the functions of human body.  This means that, through the spirit, the heart is in command of all the organs’ functions so that those can do all their physiological activities (生理, Shēng lǐ) in a coordinated and harmonious system. The correct functions of the viscera  and bowels need this centralized management from the heart. This is the reason way in Chinese medicine it is said that the heart is the great ruler of the five viscera ant the six bowels, the place of abode of the essence spirit (心著五脏六腑之大主也精神之所舍也, Xīn zhe wǔ zàng liù fǔ zhī dà zhǔ yě jīng shén zhī suǒ shě yě). If the spirit is perturbed, the functions of other internal organs can be disturbed and, in severe cases, can even disturb the whole vital process.  The spirit of the heart receives the external information through the pure orifices (清窍, Qīng qiào), that are sense organs: eyes, mouth, nose, and ears. Through those, the spirit gets the information from the external entourage of the body and therefore, the good functioning of the sense organs is essential for the sharpness of the awareness to receive the external stimulus, and to maintain a permanent interaction with the environment.

A special meaning of the spirit is found in the expression the pulse characteristics when we refer to the fact that a healthy pulse must have stomach, spirit, and root (胃神根, Wèi shén gēn). Those characteristics of the pulse indicate a good or bad diagnose of the patient and in this case, talking about spirit means considering the strength or softness of the pulsations.

Finally, the main meaning of the word spirit refers to the mental activities (精神, Jīng shén), awareness and thinking.  But the spirit also refers to affections, to the emotional functions of a person. In Chinese medicine, the heart is the main organ related to the mental activity and it presides over all the emotions and affections of a person. Nevertheless, has been well known since the Míng dynasty (明) that mental activity, awareness and thinking reside in the brain (脑, Nǎo), but in the application of the systemic correspondences in Chinese medicine, this reality is mostly ignored.

The heart governs the spirit-mind (心主神志, Xīn zhǔ shén zhì) or conscious mind, and, under normal conditions, the mind should be clear, firm, stable, agile and able to respond to the external stimulus. When functioning well, the emotional state of a person will be serene and have a healthy and happy attitude in life. In a pathologic case, mental and emotional perturbation will appear in the form of mental confusion, mental excitement or delirium, insomnia, and excessive oneiric activity, or can also be displayed in slow reactions, depression, apathy and in the worst cases can cause a great mental confusion and awareness loss.

As we have said, the heart spirit (心神, Xīn shén) delegates part of its functions to other spirits residing in other internal organs (脏, Zàng), but it still coordinates all those functions of which the other five spirits (五神, Wǔ shén) are in charge.  There is also an interaction between those five spirits and the five internal organs in which each resides; they are mutually influenced and their functions are coordinated to help acting in concert to promote good mental and physical functioning of a person.

The character , Shén, spirit, has two radicals: , Shì, representing the influx of Heaven, and , Shēn, which means to express and comprehend.  Therefore, this character explains one of the heart spirit meanings as a subtle form of the (气) that spreads to the other spirits.

The essence (精, Jīng) is the origin and the base of the spirit, as it is explained in chapter 8 of the Spiritual Pivot, the Spirit (灵枢, 本神第八, Líng shū, běn shén dì bā) when it says that life is generated through essence. When two essences, that of the mother and that of the father, are united the spirit is formed.  After birth, the earlier heaven essence (先天之精, Xiān tiān zhī jīng) is held by the kidney and, in conjunction with the later heaven essence (后天之精, Hòu tiān zhī jīng), form the base and nourishment of the spirit. After death, the spirit simply becomes extinct.

In Chinese medicine, the triad formed by essence-Qì-spirit (精气神, Jīng qì shén) is called “the three gems (三宝, Sān bǎo)” and they represent the three different states of the condensation, essence being the densest of the states and the spirit the lightest, immaterial and subtle. In this way, the activity of the spirit depends on the essence and the . If those are abundant, the spirit will be in balance but if they are scarce (神昏, Shén hūn), the spirit will be weak, light and depressed, as the spirit is not other than a big concentration of in the heart. In this case we can talk about an insufficiency of essence (精不足, Jīng bù zú) and/or a heart Qì vacuity (心气虚, Xīn qì xū) that creates the weakness of the spirit.

The relation between essence, and spirit has a two-way relationship, which means that the state of the spirit is influenced directly by the and the essence. Unhappiness, depression, anxiety and, in general, any other emotional dysfunction or disorder affect the mechanism (气机, Qì jī) and its natural movements in and out, or ascent and descent, causing a stagnation (气滞, Qì zhì). If this stagnation persists, it would transform into heat (化热, Huà rè) or fire (化火, Huà huǒ). Both can consume the yīn and therefore, the essence.

Also, the heart governs the blood (心主血, Xīn zhǔ xuè). This means that the in the heart sends the blood through the vessels to ensure its transportation in the body for nourishing and moisturizing functions. The blood from the heart is the material support for the spirit, therefore, for every mental activity. In the Plain Questions (素问, Sù Wèn) it is explained that the blood and the are the human being spirit.  This means that the spirit is made of accumulated in the heart and that the needs the material support of the blood to remain in the heart.

In the Spiritual Pivot (灵枢, Líng shū) it is also confirmed that the blood is the activity of the spirit.  This all means that if the blood from the heart is abundant, the spirit, which is of yáng nature, will have a good grounding in the yīn to root in it, and can develop and be well nourished so that it is calm, untroubled, and in its full capacity of concentration. On the contrary, a heart blood vacuity (心血虚, Xīn xuè xū) will deprive the spirit from good nourishment (心神失养, Xīn shén shī yǎng) and will generate restlessness (心神不安, Xīn shén bù ān) and a decline of the intellectual and concentration strengths of a person.

Heat and fire are other factors that can perturb the spirit. In Chinese medicine it is said that fire easily harasses the heart (火易扰心, Huǒ yì rǎo xīn) due to the fact that fire by nature flames upward (火性上炎, Huǒ xìng shàng yán), whereupon both heat and fire are making an upward trend wherever they originate in the body, affecting the heart, and therefore, the spirit. This is the reason why the heart, even belonging to the fire phase (火, Huǒ) in the five phases (五行, Wǔ xíng) context, is averse to heat (心恶热, Xīn wù rè).

 Phlegm confounding the orifices of the heart (痰迷心窍, Tán mí xīn qiào) is also a perturbing element for the spirit.  This is a concept dating back to the Sòng Dynasty (宋) and refers to any obstruction that impeaches the pure yáng (清阳, Qīng yáng) free flowing, in which case the mental and sensitive functions of the body are blocked and this can cause vertigo, dizziness, losing awareness, mania, convulsions or hemiplegia, to name a few. Some examples of illness caused by this dysfunction, from a biomedical point of view, can be Alzheimer or bipolar disorders.

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