Supporting the Shen – spirit of the mind and emperor of the heart
Updated: Jul 13, 2022
One of the distinguishing features of Chinese medicine is its claim that our health depends on our physical, mental-emotional, and spiritual aspects. Just as each of the body’s organ systems has its own acupuncture meridian (the Lung channel, the Large Intestine channel, etc), each of the organs have specific emotional and spiritual components as well. These relationships reveal how energy exists on a spectrum from the material (physical) to the ethereal (spirit).
In TCM, the Five Spirits associated with each of the body’s five Yin organ systems (Heart, Kidney, Spleen, Liver, and Lungs). Each of these spirits has a connection to a Yin. The five types of “spirit-minds” stored within one of the 5 Yin organs include:
The Heart beholds the Shen
The Lungs contain the Po
The Liver commands the Hun
The Spleen grounds the Yi
The Kidney is keeper of the Zhi
Each spirit embodies our capacity to show up in the world as the best version of ourself. We can think of them as five facets of our personality: they each have unique roles and characteristics that assert themselves when content or disturbed.
The Shen – spirit of the mind
The Shen is the spirit of “The Mind” and represents our consciousness. It is the basis for our humanity and source from which all other spirits emerge from. It is also in charge of our identity and capacity for self-awareness, but also, how we view and interact with others – how we orient ourselves in the world around us. The Shen is essential for integrating our psychic and emotional life since it governs perception, insight, ideas, the ability to extend beyond the Self (and form relationships), determine our values, morality and wisdom. The Mind is what bridges our intuition and inspiration: it allows us to recognize the truth and our calling so that we can show up as our most authentic self in the world.
The state of the Shen is said to be visible in the eyes. A healthy Shen produces bright, shining eyes, with vitality. Clear, sparkling, responsive eyes are one indication of healthy Shen — with awareness that is vibrant, fluid, and intelligent. Alternately, a disturbed Shen produces dull eyes, which seem to have a curtain in front of them – as if no one were behind them. This characteristic often seen in those with long-term emotional problems or after serious shock or PTSD (even from a long time ago.)
Because the Shen refers to the Mind, a dysfunction or imbalance here is often what underlies serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. In such cases, Chinese medicine refers to the Shen/Mind as being “misted” or “clouded”.
The Shen – emperor of the heart
Within the five spirit system, we find something of a spiritual hierarchy: Shen – spirit of the Heart – is the Emperor, with aspects of its power also residing within the spirits of the other organs. When these secondary spirits function as faithful emissaries or “ministers” to the Heart’s Shen, holistic communication between all our organs is balanced and harmonious, resulting in a happy well-functioning “body politic.”
The Shen is ruled by the Heart which is the “the origin of mental life,” and therefore the “monarch” of all other organs. The Heart is the only organ capable of recognizing, assessing, and truly feeling the spectrum of our emotional experiences. Although different emotions (anger, joy, sadness, fear, guilt) will affect each of the body’s organ networks (the Liver, Heart, Spleen, Kidney and Lung) in unique ways, these organs do not “feel” the emotion per se. Rather, they reflect the impact of that emotion as perceived by the Heart in the form of physical symptoms. In that sense, the Shen is referred to as the Heart-Mind, confirming the old adage that the Heart has a mind of its own.
Because the Shen lives in the Heart, if a person has a disturbed Shen, there will likely be anxiety, stress, difficulty breathing, heart palpitations and more. Many people with a disturbed or imbalanced Shen experience insomnia.
When we approach the Shen from the standpoint of western psychology, it is hard to deny there is a lot of Shen disturbance in the modern world. This can include anxiety, depression and addiction to the aforementioned serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia. A person with balanced Shen will present as healthy, harmonious and level-headed while a person with disturbed Shen will present with a lack of spirit or emotion, illogical reasoning and symptoms of mental illness.
Given the Shen’s role in processing interactions with others as well as external stimuli, all our senses (eyesight, hearing, smell, taste, touch) depend on it for meaning, similar to the role that brain plays in western medicine.
For this reason, the Shen is said to be the “most visible” of the five spirits, evident in how one carries themselves both in public and in conversation: it is seen in the sparkle (or dullness) in one’s eyes, the capacity to maintain eye contact, as well as the use of clear/logical speech (since the Heart is the root of the tongue in TCM). It is the Shen that calculates appropriate behavior in order to connect with others and foster mutual understanding: allowing us to be Heart (Shen) to Heart (Shen).
Characteristics of a vibrant – or imbalanced – Shen
A strong, vibrant Shen is reflected in some of our most important qualities: clear thinking and consciousness, sharp insight, good intellect, self-awareness, a strong sense-of self, sound sleep (since the Shen retreats back into the Heart to rest at night), a balanced emotional reality, good judgement expressed through wise action, flowing ideas, inspiration, alertness in the eyes, eye contact during conversation, clear speech and confident self-expression, compassion, and empathy.
Yet the Shen, and more generally the Heart-Mind system, is easily affected by trauma, shock, over-stimulation, and emotional or psychological difficulties. When the Shen is out of balance there can be over-excitement, anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, depression, or a lack of joy. In many ways, the Shen reflects the state of our nervous system. If the nervous system is resilient enough to easily return to a baseline of calm after a stressful experience, the Shen is most likely healthy. On the other hand, if one finds themselves hypervigilant, always on edge or swinging between depressive and anxious states, this is an indication the Shen has scattered and left the Heart. In this case, it would be helpful to work with regulating the nervous system, and cultivating more joy.
When the Shen is disturbed and the Heart is affected, a person will exhibit: cloudy consciousness, poor insight, inappropriate and erratic behavior or speech tendencies, socially awkward interactions, low self-esteem, difficulty expressing one’s self, hypervigilance and paranoia, poor self-awareness, difficulty relating to others (including little-to-no eye contact in conversation), minimal capacity for compassion/empathy, irrational thoughts and phobias, imbalanced emotional reality (fixated on one emotion), panic, and disturbed sleep.
Maintaining a strong, balanced Shen
Often, people seek out acupuncture and herbal medicine to treat a physical ailment or, just as commonly, to support their mental health in cases of anxiety, depression, and trauma-recovery. Importantly, treating issues of the spirit can be just as effective to encourage healing and wholeness.
In many cases, it’s actually the key.
Cultivating a clear and intact Spirit-Mind helps us to adopt and express the virtues of wisdom, justice, loyalty / faithfulness, propriety, and human kindness, rather than be consumed by fear, anger, reactivity / impulsiveness, complacency / boredom, or disconnectedness. They allow us to have authority over our thoughts, actions, and life path. Together, they guide us to hone our individuality but also foster connections that make life meaningful.
Supporting the Heart-Mind and Shen with food
There are many ways to support the Heart-Mind and Shen when feeling out of balance. Building a healthy blood supply by consuming iron rich foods is crucial. If we don't create an environment that is comfy and cozy (Blood rich) for our Shen to rest, we are likely to experience: insomnia, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, or even more extreme heart conditions or illnesses. In fact, anemia (one condition that can send your Shen into upheaval) mirrors all of the symptoms discussed above.
FOODS TO ADD TO YOUR DIET: Cooling foods that are soothing and yin enhancing can be used to support Heart-Mind and Shen imbalances. These include oats, whole wheat, cucumber and celery.
Generally, focus on foods that are calming, balancing, and nutritive. In Ayurveda (the sister science of yoga), we call these foods "Sattvic". Some basic sattvic principles: simple, fresh, seasonal, and prepared with care.
Since the Shen lives in the Yin and Xue (blood), foods that support those substances such as goji berries and chia seeds also help. Most importantly, heal your digestion so that you are fully digesting everything you eat.
FOODS TO AVOID: Avoid foods that scatter the mind, create heat in the body, or disturb the Heart. These are foods include alcohol, refined sugar, large amounts of coffee (some people find a small amount of coffee therapeutic for the Heart due to its bitter quality), spicy foods, and fried / processed foods.
Herbal medicine to support the Heart-Mind and Shen
GAN MAI DA ZAO TANG is a classic Chinese medicine herbal formula that is used to calm and nourish the Heart-Mind and Shen. It contains just three simple kitchen medicines: Gan Cao (licorice root), Xiao Mai (wheat grain), and Da Zao (Chinese date).
Together, these herbs work synergistically to harmonize Qi and supplement the nutritive Yin. This, in turn, helps to root the Shen in the body so that one feels more embodied and more like themselves again. Specifically:
Gan Cao (Glycyrrhizae Radix - Licorice root): 9g
Licorice is tonifying and harmonizing in this formula. It supports the wheat grains in nourishing the Heart as well as digestive capacity.
Xiao Mai (Tritici Frictus - Wheat grain): 9-15g
Wheat grains are sweet and slightly cooling. They nourish Heart Qi and help with restlessness and irritability.
Da Zao (Jujube Fructus - Chinese Date): 10 dates
Chinese dates tonifies Qi and blood and especially supports the digestive system. It also calms the spirit.
Combine herbs and simmer for 10-20 min. After simmering add more hot water (some will have evaporated) and steep another 10-15 minutes. Strain the herbs and drink the decocted liquid. The tea can be kept in the fridge for about a week and consumed cool or warm. This remedy is best used long-term to achieve the best outcome.
Acupuncture to calm the Heart-Mind
While there are many points that are effective to balance the energy of the Heart and Shen, the two most prominent include:
Yin Tang (Hall of Impression)
This point is considered an extra point, so it’s not located on a specific meridian. Yin Tang is a very common point used to pacify the mind, calm the Heart, and support the “spirit” or Shen. It is a very effective point for any kind of hyper-activity such as insomnia, worry, anxiety, or agitation. In yoga, it would be thought of as our “third eye” or seat of our intuition.
LOCATION: directly in the middle of the two eyebrows.
Interesting facts about Shen
Shen is associated with a deep sense of self awareness. It can include a feeling of oneness with oneself and the universe.
Feelings of separation from other people and the universe can cause Shen to suffer. Often, when people are in pain or suffering, they can feel isolated and alone. This can further compromise Shen.
Shen is known to reside in the Heart, which is believed to be the true source of the Mind. For this reason, Shen is also known as the “Heart-Mind.”
Shen is responsible for thinking, cognition, emotional life and consciousness.
Shen comes from two sources: prenatal Shen which we are born with and postnatal Shen that we cultivate through our lifestyle, habits, conditioning and environment.
Postnatal Shen can be depleted or restored depending on our lifestyle, habits and environment.
Shen is often unbalanced after a traumatic event. People suffering from depression often have low Shen (being in “poor spirits).
Shen can be balanced or imbalanced. When someone has balanced Shen, they can easily flow with the laws of nature and universal rhythms, and feel joy.
When someone has imbalanced Shen, they might experience uncontrollable emotions like sadness, depression, anxiety, or over-thinking. Extreme cases of Shen disharmony can cause unconsciousness or violent mental health disorders.
When someone’s Shen is unbalanced, it may also affect other aspects of health, such as poor sleeping or eating habits, further exacerbating the imbalance.
When someone is suffering from illness, a TCM doctor might first focus on building up the Shen, so that they may be in higher spirits, and be more likely to eat, connect, and have the desire to take care of themselves.
You can build up your Shen through different activities such as connecting with nature, connecting with others, and connecting with ideas/philosophies/spiritual teachings that make you feel alive and inspired.