Shen Mind: how TCM regards Personality

Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash

Your Shen Mind is what the Chinese called your personality. The Chinese word is Shen.

I’ve just put Shen and Mind together because you may hear your acupuncturist talking about your Shen and wonder what is meant.

However, describing it as your personality really does no justice to the huge amount written about it over the centuries.

Today there are excellent text-books such as by Giovanni Maciocia on the Psyche in Chinese Medicine.

Make no mistake, just as mental health in Western medicine is a big subject, so is the Chinese approach to it.

This page is a huge simplification of a deep subject and may leave you with more questions than answers.

Photo by Samantha Weisburg on Unsplash

Qi and Energy as Shen

The Western concept of a Soul does not arise in traditional Chinese culture or medicine or, if it does, it is a later addition. The basic idea in Chinese medicine is that everything is a form of ‘energy’, a very inadequate word for what in Chinese medicine is called Qi. There are condensed forms of energy, and more refined, less material forms of energy.

When you light a fire, one way is to start with kindling, paper, small bits of wood or bush. When these are lit, you gradually add heavier, larger pieces of wood.

  • Paper burns quickly, with a sudden heat
  • Larger bits of wood catch alight more slowly but provide more heat, over a longer period
  • Bits of coal take even longer to start to burn but when they do, they provide heat for much longer.


Yin and Yang qualities

So, the more Yin (heavy, slow)  the substance, the more Yang (fire, heat) it can produce.

If you could put the materials for a fire in a huge room, the weight of the room would not alter, whether the fire was still unlit, whether it was alight, or whether – after a time – it had burned out.

As long as you didn’t let any smoke out, the weight would stay the same. (Actually, that’s not quite correct, because you’d have to keep all the heat inside the room, too.)

What I mean is that, whatever form the Qi took, it was all actually still Qi, and was all contained in the room.

The total amount of energy would have remained the same, just in different forms.

When your body is made, a tremendous amount of energy goes into it, and part of that also produces what the Chinese called the Mind.

The Mind  is intrinsic: if the baby is born dead, that part of it called the Shen Mind failed to develop and the baby’s body will begin to decompose.

To be the human being, both the body and the Mind are necessary and they are both forms of energy.


The Five Dancers and Shen Mind

With the Shen Mind present in the body, life proceeds. Like during a dance with five dancers, the dancers come together and, while they dance, the dance exists.

At the end of it, when they stop dancing, the dance ends. At the same time, the participants cease to be dancers, until the next dance.


The Dance as analogy to shen-mind
Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash


The dance is the collection of all the parts that go together to appear as a living human being. One part of that is the Shen Mind.

But, taking the concept even further from that of the Christian ‘Soul’, the Chinese thought – and think – that the Mind is actually made up of 5 (five) constituents. These are the 5 Elements, also called 5 Phases.

Each of the five Yin organs, like each of the five dancers, contributes one of these five constituents, being the –

  • Heart, the Shen, ‘housed’ by the Heart
  • Lungs, the P’o, the Corporeal ‘Soul’
  • Kidneys, the Zhi, ie the Will-power 
  • Liver, the Hun, Ethereal ‘Soul’
  • Spleen, the Yi, the Intellect


[I’ve used the word ‘soul’ several time in the above, because English lacks a suitable equivalent to the Chinese word. Don’t confuse it with the Christian concept of the Soul.]

Why is this important?

Because if a practitioner of Chinese medicine, eg an acupuncturist, can work out which of the Yin organs is affected, he can deduce how the patient’s shen-mind is affected.

Conversely, if he sees how the patient’s shen-mind is affected, he knows which of the Yin organs is probably most affected. That information helps him to plan the correct treatment.

For example, if the patient worries obsessively about things, probably the intellect – from the Spleen – is affected. That means the acupuncturist knows that somewhere in his treatment he needs to pay attention to the Spleen energy organ. Doing so will help the patient worry less, bringing more balance to the overall Shen Mind.

Each of the constituent Yin energy organs need to be functioning properly for the Shen Mind to function correctly.


Syndromes of the Shen Mind

The syndromes used in Chinese medicine as building blocks to explain health problems apply just as much to the Mind. For example


Treatment for the Shen Mind

If a syndrome affecting the Mind is diagnosed, correlating evidence might be sought in the physical symptoms. Then a diagnosis can be made in terms of Chinese medicine.

When you have a diagnosis, you have the solution, because over the thousands of years, treatment strategies have been developed.

For example, someone diagnosed with Liver Yang excess would probably tend to be angry and to suffer from tension in his shoulders and jaw, and to get headaches, sometimes even migraines.

By treating the Liver Yang excess, both the mental and physical symptoms would improve.


The Deeper Meaning

For most of us, the above explanation is probably enough. 

But careful research into the Huang Di Nei Jing – the number one classic of Chinese and Oriental medicine – reveals that its authors believed Shen was one of the four main forces that creates the universe and manifests through it.

Everything else, including yin-yang theory and the 5 Elements and Time, revolves around this still and transcendent centre.

People approach it in different ways, and usually with difficulty, only after long years of self-examination and practice.

Stillness at the Centre of the Universe - Shen Mind.
The circle doesn’t exist without the emptiness at its centre. Photo by John Peters


Any treatment, notably acupuncture, that helps to get the Qi moving smoothly along and through the body and all its dimensions, including the channels, helps to re-establish unity of manifestation.

That leads first to resolution of illness and symptoms and then, potentially, when suitably prepared, to awareness of the Shen Mind.

Ultimately, enabling this is the point of acupuncture, indeed of all therapeutics.

Jonathan Brand colours

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