Hun & Po – two aspects of the soul according to TCM
Updated: Jul 30
According to Chinese medicine, we actually have two souls. Together, the Hun and Po – the Ethereal and Corporeal souls – are the basis of our spirit here on Earth. Representing both our formless and tangible consciousness, the Hun ("cloud-soul") and Po ("white-soul") play a prominent role within Chinese philosophy, medicine and Taoist practice.
The Hun comes from the heavens, representing energy (Qi) at its most subtle and intangible, like a seed germinating in Spring when it is at its greatest potential. Alternately, the Po arises from the Earth to form the physical body, like clay ready to be molded by the genetic sequencing of two mates.
These two souls are interdependent, cycling one into the other and propelling us forward, in a contemporaneous, embodiment that informs our choices and experiences. Ultimately, we solidify into the product of our surroundings, becoming a unique being with a rich history formed by the experiences of the Hun and the Po.
We are formed, live, and die through the interplay of these two energies. Together, they dictate the journey of everyday life – our feelings, perceptions and clarity of mind. We need these two energies to access our innate wisdom, and we flourish when they co-exist in harmony. When these two energies separate, death is the result.
When we are conceived, we are gifted not only our parents’ DNA, but their very Essence, which infuses us with the apparatus necessary to thrive. The Corporeal soul (Po) is formed in utero, an amalgam of our parents along with their strengths and weakness. Health, longevity, and the resilience we need to thrive starts here. After we are born, the Ethereal Soul (Hun) appears. It harmonizes with the body to form the whole – creating our consciousness and integrating the body-mind-spirit. This harmonious interaction is necessary to bring about balance in our lives, to receive, give and interact with the world around us.
Hun & Po within the Yin-Yang Framework
Another way of understanding the Hun and Po is as an expression of Yin and Yang, a complex yet elegant framework that represents the foundational model of Chinese metaphysics. From a Taoist perspective, each of us contain the two opposing, yet inter-related, forces of Yin and Yang. Understanding how Yin and Yang relate to one another (as mutually-arising and inter-dependent) allows us to understand how all pairs of opposites “dance” together.
From this perspective, Po is associated with Yin. It is the more dense or physical of the two spirits. It is known as the “Corporeal Soul” since it returns to earth – dissolving into gross elements – at time of the death of the body.
The Hun, on the other hand, is associated with Yang, since it is the lighter or more subtle of the two spirits. It is called the “Ethereal Soul” since at the time of death it is said to leave the body to merge into more subtle realms of existence.
Cultivating Hun and Po is a refining process – as one refines oneself, she becomes more subtle and spiritual. In such a refined state, the Po-physical aspects of our life support the Hun-spiritual aspects. Taoist practices designed to cultivate balance seek to harmonize the Hun and Po in such a way that gradually allows the dense aspects of Po to support the subtle aspects of Hun. Such practices include: tai chi chuan, qi gong, nei gong (internal alchemy), sexual practices and nutrition. The outcome of this kind of refinement process is the manifestation of what Taoists refer to as “Heaven on Earth.” To put it another way: the corporeal Po serves the ethereal Hun.
Poetically, the Hun and Po have been described as defining the relationship between formless and tangible consciousness:
Hun controls Yang spirits in the body, Po controls Yin spirits in the body, Both are made of Qi. Hun is responsible for all formless consciousness, including the three treasures: Jing, Qi and Shen. Po is responsible for all tangible consciousness, including the seven apertures: two eyes, two ears, two nose holes, mouth. Therefore, we call them 3-Hun and 7-Po.
Hun & Po within the Five Element Framework
The two energies of our soul can also be understood within the framework of the Five Elements. Here, the Hun is associated with the Wood element, East direction, and the Liver organ. Alternately, the Po is linked with the Metal element, West direction and the Lung organ. From a Five-Element view, they are Wood and Metal, two elements contained in the controlling ko cycle of the Five Elements. These opposing energies, in both geographical and elemental nature, imply the need to be harmonized for their favorable qualities to manifest.
Po: Our Corporeal or Animal Soul
The Po is the spirit-mind stored by the Lungs. It integrates with us at our first breath, and disintegrates at the end of life when breathing ceases. Being so closely linked to the body, the Po can be thought of as the somatic expression of the Soul.
When balanced, the Po supports our ability to stay connected to the present moment through our breath. When strong, it is associated with assertiveness and fairness. Someone with a well-balanced Po speaks with a clear strong voice, breathes deeply, and acts with the virtue of justice.
When there is weakness of the Po, there may be lingering or unresolved grief, a lifeless voice, lethargy, depression, or persistent feelings of loss and incompleteness. A person might be stuck in a moment that is far in the past, keeping them from being present or moving forward. We might also notice the presence of chronic respiratory issues like frequent colds, a long standing cough, or asthma associated with this aura of sorrow.
An excessive inward or contractive movement of the Po may present as a suppression of emotions. This suppression is often an unexpressed grief which constricts the Po and most commonly manifests emotionally as depression and sadness. It can also be seen in a person who is withdrawn from life or relationships, stuck in negative repetitive behavior, has difficulty letting go, or seen with mental confusion or forgetfulness. It can manifest physically as breathing problems like dyspnea and wheezing, or as skin conditions like rashes or eczema.
When the Po is supported and integrated with the present moment, we see the ability to process grief in a healthy way. Impulsive reactivity is exchanged for responsiveness and trustworthy instincts. We see the shroud of sadness and heaviness lift, giving way to the ability to appreciate the beauty and fullness of the present moment, to experience awe and wonderment, and to grasp a flash of inspiration.
Since the Po exists only within the context of a single lifetime, it tends to be associated with our immediate or more dense desires as opposed to the Hun, which expresses more long-range commitments.
The Po is also known as the animal soul. This brings forth the idea of basic or primal instincts, and can be seen in the body’s basic physiological functioning.
Because of its strong connection to the physical world and the body, the Po is closely linked to Jing. It is the organizational principle of life for the body, and, along with the Jing, is responsible for the physical development during gestation, with the Po providing the Jing with movement and direction. The Po is considered the life force of the body. As the Jing diminishes with age, so does the Po. When death occurs, the Po is “silenced.” Consequently, the Po is associated with a single lifetime and with it a connection to the experiences at that particular moment in space and time.
The Po is responsible for the body’s basic regulatory activities and functions. While this encompasses all physiological functions, it can easily be viewed as autonomic functions, like respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration, digestion, etc. Being that the Po is housed in the Lung, breathing is considered the manifestation of Po.
The Po is also responsible for physical movement, coordination and balance, and has a strong connection with the senses. The Po is especially associated with hearing, sight, smell, and touch; including pain. When the Po is in balance, hearing, sight, and smell are sharp, and the tactile sense of touch is acute. The decline of the senses occurs as one ages. This is due to the decline of Kidney Jing as well as the decline of the Po.
Hun: Our Ethereal Soul
Of all the spirits in Chinese Medicine, the Hun or Ethereal Soul broadly shares the most similarities with the Western concept of the soul: with a will of its own, it survives the body at death, to preserve its ability to wander the earth or the spirit realm. This wandering quality is essential to understanding the Hun’s purpose and nature.
The Hun is its own level of consciousness whose vitality depends on its ability to connect and disengage with the Mind—to “come and go” as it pleases. Whereas the Mind is more rational and in charge of processing / integrating information perceived from the external world, the Ethereal Soul is in charge of bringing one’s inner world and dreams into awareness and fruition. It alerts the Shen to our intuition, ideas, life goals, creativity, and artistic inspiration so they can be pursued rather than merely reflected on. Inherently Yang in nature, the Ethereal Soul provides the psyche with movement in several ways:
out-of-body during sleep and dreaming
beyond one’s everyday life/circumstances through the pursuit of life goals
through the planning of projects and paths needed to accomplish them
beyond the self towards others in fostering/maintaining relationships
Knowing the Hun requires movement to engage and detach from the Mind, it is no coincidence that it resides in the Liver: the organ responsible for ensuring smooth circulation throughout the body. Physically, the free flow of Liver Qi and Blood is the medium by which the Ethereal Soul “comes and goes.” The healthy personality of the Liver—and balanced animation of the Ethereal Soul—can be seen in those who excel at self-leadership, management, structure, and routine.
When the Liver is healthy, the Liver Blood is abundant, circulation of Liver Qi is smooth, and the Hun is content—it can come and go freely. There will be a healthy flow of ideas and creativity for the Mind to receive and integrate. A person will be connected to their intuition, able to envision a goal, and feel like they have a direction for their life. They can plan the steps necessary to actualize their dreams. A rooted Hun provides the courage to pursue one’s potential and regulate life’s emotional ups and downs. When we have a balanced Hun, roadblocks can be faced with flexibility and frustrations met with resolve.
When the Hun’s movement becomes stifled due to a weakened Liver (such as Liver Qi stagnation or Liver Blood deficiency) the Mind will lack stimulation, leaving a person feeling apathetic and depressed. They may lack direction or purpose. They can lose touch with their emotions or internalize to the point of endlessly stewing causing resentment. Because of the Liver’s connection to the eyes, there may be a lack of vision for life-dreams, dream-disturbed sleep, and a disconnection from one’s intuition. This can cause discouragement and a lack of desire to move beyond one’s “stuckness” and circumstances in life. If the Mind is overly-controlling or unreceptive to the Ethereal Soul’s desires, they might be fully aware of what changes they need to make to pursue their potential, but unable to move forward.
If the Liver is overburdened due to an excess pathogen (such as Liver-Heat Rising or Liver-Fire) the Hun will travel excessively and inundate the Mind. For example, someone can be full of ideas and inspiration, but because the Hun is so flighty, they won’t be able to bring them to fruition. With this kind of Hun-disturbance, there will be agitation, anger, rage, an inability to regulate one’s emotional overwhelm, and manic tendencies. Overall, a disembodied Hun is implicated in involuntary dissociation (such as in PTSD), conscious escapism (excessive daydreaming, procrastination, substance use, etc.) and nightmares.
Given its ethereal nature, Hun is the aspect of our consciousness that continues to exist in more subtle realms even after the death of the body.
Maintaining the Hun and Po – and keeping them harmonized – is crucial to our overall health, well-being and self-realization. The equilibrium of these two Yin and Yang energies is essential to help get us through the many trials of everyday life, as their interplay creates a balancing act that allows us to meet life’s challenges with grace without losing our forward momentum.