Traditional Chinese Medicine is as full of mystery as it is of practicality. As practitioners, it can sometimes be challenging to adequately answer the questions of how and why our medicine works so beautifully. For those of us practicing in the context of a system dominated by “Western” thought, this challenge is, in great part, due to the inherently tedious task of bridging seemingly contradictory worldviews. However, even once we’ve managed to surpass that hurdle, we are faced with the task of putting the ineffable into words -- for a great deal of the potency of this medicine rests in a mysterious power that often must be experienced directly in order to be understood. This is where SPIRITUALITY enters the Traditional Chinese Medicine ("TCM") treatment room.
What Is Spirituality?
Spirituality is defined as the “experiential and personal side of people’s relationship to the transcendent or sacred” (Hill & Hall). In modern application, it incorporates the quest for inner freedom, virtuosity, and connection to a deep sense of meaning or purpose beyond the ordinary. While the emphasis in many schools of medicine may be on physical wellbeing, what most of us come to realize at some point in our personal healing journey, is that true health incorporates the entirety of our being. The practitioner of TCM honors this truth by aiming to know each patient’s true nature and restore harmony to the whole person, rather than attempting to fix or eradicate any particular symptom or disorder. This approach to wellness inevitably involves addressing a person’s spiritual matrix; of facilitating a sense of freedom and meaning in one’s life.
In my experience, spirituality is always at play in TCM, just as it is in life, but for the sake of this post, let’s consider just a few of the main ways it shows up.
Three Ways In Which Spirituality Is Central To TCM
1) Mind, Body, & Spirit Are Interconnected
The medicine has this wondrous way of tapping us into hidden sources of both malady and treasure, of ministering to those aspects of self that have been neglected, of traversing and restoring the dichotomies of being that our cultural constructs have deluded us into assimilating.
Consider the patient who comes in seeking relief from chronic shoulder pain, only to discover that the remedy lies not just in some form of anatomical adjustment, but more importantly, in addressing their struggle to discern what is best for them in life; to separate the “pure” from the “impure” is the duty of the Small Intestine, whose channel courses in and around the scapula; and discernment is one aspect of the spirit of the Spleen Yi (one of the 5 spirits discussed below). Healing may also entail creating space for the expression of some repressed emotion that has been aching to be freed. This type of experience is quite common in my office, and I often guide my patients in exercises that aim to identify the ways in which thoughts, emotions, and spiritual quandaries live in the tissues of the body.
Furthermore, through the lens of Chinese Medicine, the human body is perceived as a microcosm of the Earth, and Earth a microcosm of the Universe at large. And like any good gardener (of planet or cosmos), the goal of Chinese Medicine is to recreate a harmonious milieu and revive the wisdom of the spirit written in the matrix of your very being.
2) The Three Treasures: Jing, Qi, and Shen
In TCM, these 3 elements constitute life itself, and a vital and fulfilling life depends upon their balanced integration. While I’ll focus on Shen here, please know that each treasure is deserving of much more attention than this post can offer, and I encourage you to dig deeper on your own (or with your studied acupuncturist/herbalist). Jing, the most substantial of the three, is our essence, our holistic innate strength. Qi is our life force, the intelligent and organized metabolism that makes life tick. Shen is our SPIRIT or personality, the inhabitant of our Heart, that territory of consciousness, thought, and emotion. The Heart is the expression of spirit within matter, Shen within Jing.
“Chinese masters say it is through Shen that we radiate ourselves into the world. This ‘spiritual radiance’ manifests as our wisdom, emotional well being, and ability to see all sides of an issue… Shen draws our attention to the divine. It contributes to wisdom, virtue, and calmness, and maintains our whole being in order” (Joswick).
When our Shen is in harmony, our eyes are luminous and attentive, and we live with ease and purpose, with clear awareness. We feel connected to something greater, to the mysterious and divine source of life itself. When our Shen is disturbed (primarily as a result of lifestyle, trauma, or extreme emotion), we may struggle with anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, dull thought, poor memory, or in extreme scenarios, mental illness. TCM offers many techniques for tending to the Shen, including: meditation, Tai Qi and Qi Gong, and acupuncture and herbal remedies, such as DAO’s Physical and Mental Tranquility formulas.
3) The Five Shen
The Shen of the Heart is considered the Emperor in TCM, but it is only one manifestation of spirit in our beings. Under its rule reside four loyal ambassador shens or spirits, each associated with a different Yin organ system. The Five Shen are as follows:
- Heart Shen (explained above)
- Yi, or Intellect, resides in the Spleen and is translated as thought, intention, engagement, or ideas. It involves the ability of our conceptual mind to practice discernment and cultivate intentions.
- Po, or corporeal soul resides in the Lungs and “experiences things in the moment, on a reactive, unconscious basis. Po is completely tied to Time and Space, and has no existence independent of the body.” (Diebschlag).
- Zhi or Will, the spirit of the Kidneys,“is the determination of the mind… The Will is a deep and strong aspiration of the whole being. If what one aspires to is aligned with what is beneficial for life [the Tao], the Will serves the development and achievement of the being… If what we aspire to is in keeping with our original nature, the Will is a constant reminder of what is right and drives us toward the fulfilment of our destiny” (Rochat).
- Housed in the Liver, the Hun or ethereal soul is akin to the map and compass of the soul, a unique expression of shen in each individual. It’s what allows for the earthly manifestation of our heavenly nature. The Hun serves to promote the expansion of our being, and is the element of consciousness that survives the death of the body.
The 5 Shen framework can help us to navigate the multifaceted nature of our spirit, and to use the language of the body and psycho-emotional milieu as a map and a means to spiritual well-being on every level.
Integration Equals Health
Most folks think of acupuncture and herbal medicine as tools to alleviate physical pain and dis-ease. It’s true, TCM can help to assuage your pain, but the ways in which it does so reach far deeper than the architecture of the body. We must honor and engage all aspects of being if true healing is to transpire. Integration equals health. And in this state of health we can remember our innately sacred nature. In other words, we can have a spiritual experience.
Are you interested in trying Chinese medicine? You can use code HANNAH to save 15% off of your next order DAO Labs order, or reach out to Hannah through her website or on Instagram to connect directly.