Traditional Chinese Medicine looks at things differently and while it may be a little confusing, there is usually some common ground that can be found upon examination and explanation. One such area is the idea of the mind. The mind in Traditional Chinese Medicine is commonly referred to as the shen.
In Chinese medicine, the shen is interpreted as the spirit or consciousness. The shen lives in the heart organ system and it is considered to be one of the vital substances of the body. The shen is said to preside over the activities that take place in the spiritual and mental planes. So, for many TCM practitioners, shen is actually referring to the mind. And if we look at serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, the shen or mind is where the dysfunction actually appears. Chinese medicine refers to this as being “misted” or “clouded”. However, it should be noted not all practitioners agree the mind and the consciousness are the same thing. This is because many of our mental processes are considered subconscious.
As stated, the theory is that the shen lives in the heart. So if a person has a disturbed shen, there may be anxiety, stress, difficulty breathing, heart palpitations and more. Many people with a disturbed shen experience insomnia. Chronic insomnia can then lead to actual mental illness. If we follow this logic, we can see how the shen (in Chinese medicine) and the mind (in Western psychology) are related and somewhat interchangeable.
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 be anything from 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. A person with disturbed shen will present with a lack of spirit or emotion, illogical reasoning and symptoms of mental illness.
Ultimately, we want to have a balanced shen. This means we may have emotional responses to external stimuli or internally generated thoughts or feelings and we are capable of controlling and recovering from these situations without much incident. Somebody who has a disturbed shen, would not know how or be able to deal with a similar situation and may act out irrationally while drawing attention to themselves. An example would be when a person with a balanced shen becomes angry or cries for some reason. They tend to feel relief after the emotion has passed. While somebody with a disturbed shen may continue the irrational behavior for quite some time without ever feeling that relief and they might need intervention to return to a somewhat balanced state.
Maintaining a healthy shen also means that we maintain a healthy body. A strong shen is fundamental to good health. When the shen is weak, the body will eventually fail. To keep the shen healthy we should focus on maintaining a positive mindset, getting enough rest, seeking peace, connecting with nature, meditating and showing compassion. This means we ultimately need to avoid overwork, chronic stress, an erratic daily schedule, lack of sleep and volatile emotions such as anger, hatred and resentment. This may seem pretty logical, but based on the amount of shen disturbance/mental illness in the world, it is clear we have lost our way to some degree.
The good news is the cumulative shen of the planet can be changed over time and we can all have a hand in making that change.
Rebecca M H Kitzerow is a Licensed Acupuncturist practicing in La Center, Washington. With over a decade of experience she has won 10 Nattie consumer choice awards from Natural Awakenings Magazine since 2014.