The Spirit of Medicine

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凡刺之法先必本于神 – ‘WHEN TREATING WITH NEEDLE INSERTION ONE MUST FIRST UNDERSTAND THE ROOT OF THE SPIRIT’ – LING SHU CHAPTER 8

The Root of Internal Disease

Within both classical Daoist and Chinese medical thought, human consciousness is split up into various ‘spirits’. These spirits then interact with one another in order to give us our mental faculties as well as our personal drive, ability to plan and organise ourselves and our sense of higher purpose. If these spirits and their functions could be harmonised then the human mind could be at ease and the major internal cause of disease could be averted.

The major components of human consciousness are listed as the Shen, the Hun, the Po, the Yi and the Zhi. Each of these five spirits have their own very clear roles with regards to our psychology and as such a Chinese medical practitioner will often look for signs of imbalance by assessing when these functions have become compromised in some way. This model of the five spirits or ‘Wu Shen’ is the general concept we apply to understanding the mind as it is relatively clear and simple.

Shen (神) – The Divine Spirit

The Shen or ‘spirit’ is one of the refracted aspects of wider human consciousness. It is the most Yang of the constituent parts of human consciousness and the aspect of our being most closely connected to the divine and the state of Dao. It is highly ethereal in nature and prone to movement, especially if it is unduly disturbed.

Elementally it is associated with Fire and is classically said to reside within the spaces or ‘portals’ of the Heart. There are many importance mental faculties and functions associated with the Shen but we could view its overall function as being that part of our being that it is connected to our ‘spiritual health’ as well as our ability to express ourselves; both of these are seen as vital components of a person’s overall well-being.

As an introduction to the meaning of Shen we can look at the Chinese character. Breaking it down enables us to develop a creative and ‘heart-based’ understanding of the term rather than simply an analytical understanding based upon lists of functions. We need this analytical understanding too but just this alone runs the risk of missing out of the artistic beauty with which they approached the human mind-body system in ancient China.

The left-hand part of the character shows a person kneeling down before a shrine. In the west, we generally associate shrines with religion or blind worship but this is pretty far from the way that shrines are understood in Asia. In China and the far-East, shrines are a place of reverence and of paying respect. In temples, this respect may be to deities who represent facets of spiritual life but also, within the home or family shrine, these shrines may be to deceased family members and your lineage of ancestors. It was understood by the ancient Chinese that the health of your Shen is not only dependent upon your current psychological state but also upon the state of those who came before you. In this way, respect was given to the ancestors who may have ‘gifted’ you with many facets of your own nature.

The right-hand part of the character shows a lightning bolt or similar power from Heaven coming down to strike the shrine. This is symbolic of the divine connection to Heaven that can come to those who develop their Shen to a high enough level.

Hun (魂) – The Eternal Soul

The Hun can be translated as meaning the ‘eternal soul’. The use of the word ‘eternal’ implies that it is never destroyed; it simply remains with you until your death when it then converts to another form and moves on. In Chinese belief, it is the Hun that transmigrates from person to person as you die and reincarnate into another body. Certain aspects of consciousness are unique to yourself, when you die they will fade away. This is not the case for the Hun; instead the Hun is seen as a ‘gift’ from Dao that you are only borrowing for the duration of your life. It carries with it information from past lives and it is from the Hun that people have been known to recollect experiences (or traumas) form previous existences or even, if they are lucky, bring skills from these past lives through into their current existence. There are slight variations on teachings around the Hun from tradition to tradition but generally it is accepted that the Hun moves into a new body either late in foetal development or else just as a person is born. From here it picks up information from your life experiences and stores it along with Karmic and Ming based influences. Upon your death, the Hun (or at least one part of it) processes these experiences over a period of time generally varying between 38-42 days, according to the tradition, before it is ready to re-enter a new person’s body.

To add complexity to this, the Hun exists in three parts and their movements are not quite the same. Certain aspects of Hun can pass between human, animal and even plant life whilst the core aspect of Hun is unique to human life.

This may all sound rather complex and to be honest it is! The study of dying and the process of rebirth is huge within the Eastern arts and some practitioners spent their whole lives studying just this aspect of ancient theory.

Elementally the Hun is associated with Wood and it is said to be anchored into the Liver.

The first part of the character for Hun shows Gui or ‘ghost’. This is linking one of the key functions of the Hun to death and the process of dying/rebirth. The second aspect of the character shows Yun or ‘clouds’ and is suggesting that the Hun is transient and formless like the clouds. It is always changing and moving from life to life through transmigration.

Po (魄) – The Transient Soul

The Po is the ‘transient soul’. It is classically paired with the Hun making up the Yin and Yang halves of the completed human soul. Unlike the Hun, the Po does not pass from life to life and is not involved in the reincarnation process. Instead, the seven parts of the Po are recycled back into the great spiritual ‘vat’ like so much composting mulch when we die! When a new life begins, the Po are drawn into us and form that part of the soul that is more ‘grounded’ and attached to the earth and the physical world; they bring tangible experience of life, feeling and ‘contact’ with our world. In this way the two key parts of our soul work in synchronised harmony: the Po governs our connection to the Earthly realm and the Hun connects us to the Heavens.

The more negative aspect of the Po is that they are the part of our soul connecting us to our ‘attachments’. Most Eastern wisdom traditions talk of the harmful influence of our attachments and it is within the Po that the root of this aspect of our being is rooted. Within Daoist theory it was understood that if a person’s attachments were too strong then at the point of death, when the Hun moved on to the next stage of its path, the Po would remain anchored to the Earthly realm. Instead of being recycled as they are supposed to they would take on a kind of sentience of their own and thus become a ghost. In the case of high-level alchemists, it was their big fear to enter into immortality but find out that they had not successfully severed the attachments of the Po; the result of this error would be that they would be catapulted back from the Heavenly realm and be cursed to spending the rest of eternity wandering as a ‘ghost immortal’…oops!

The Po are considered to be Yin in nature and are associated with the element of Metal. They reside within the Lungs.

As with the Hun, the character for ‘ghost’ appears here. Once again, it is linking the Po to the process of death as well as the possibility of becoming a literal ghost if the Po ever reaches a state of traumatic attachment. Unlike the Hun though, instead of a transient cloud being shown, the second part of the Po character depicts the symbol for the colour white. White is once again the colour of death (it is the colour traditionally worn at Chinese funerals) and is associated with the bones. This is most likely a reference to the ancient belief that when you die, the unfortunate Po can be a little slow on the uptake. It can often take the Po a week or so to realise that it is time to ‘return to the source’ and so they often cling to the bones or corpse of their former host. If they are very dim-witted then they may never leave the bones of a deceased person and for this reason the Chinese did (and often still) have many fears around graveyards and becoming possessed or haunted. Even the well-known art of Feng Shui was originally developed to help understand where to live in relation to ‘Yin  dwellings’, which are literally graveyards, so as to avoid being haunted by Po ghosts.

Zhi (志) – The Will

Zhi is generally translated as being a person’s ‘will’ or ‘drive’. It is the most Yin of the five main parts of human consciousness and thus the most ‘dense’. It can sound odd at first using the term dense to describe something that is essentially psychological but once again this comes down to the Chinese having little problem with ‘thing’ and no-thing’ being the same entity. It is the part of our being that is closest to the resonance of the Earth and it also has a strong connection with our Jing and the associated organs of the Kidneys. Indeed, it is here that the Zhi is said to reside and, like the Kidneys, they are elementally associated with Water.

The most obvious and easily diagnosed aspect of a person’s will is to do with their immediate drive. How much ‘get up and go’ do they have? If a person lacks ‘will’ then they will lack motivation and drive as well. These are qualities associated with the Zhi. On top of this there are other facets to ‘will’ that can be a little trickier to understand at first. These are the will of Heaven, the will of humanity and the will of Ming. These three components of Zhi work together to create a harmonisation of personal and divine Will.

The Zhi is considered to be Yin in nature and is associated with the element of Water. It resides within the Kidneys.

The Chinese character for Zhi is comprised of two parts. The lower aspect of the Character shows Xin or Heart; an organ synonymous with higher consciousness or spirit. The second part of the character shows a plant growing from the ground. This is alluding to the Zhi being the aspect of our consciousness in charge of drive and the potential for growth.

Yi (意) – Intellect and Awareness

The Yi is an interesting aspect of human consciousness as it is essentially comprised of the other four key spirits and simply a reflection of how they interact with one another. Despite it being a composite of the other elements it is then discussed as a separate part of our psyche in its own right when we look at mental health and psychological functioning. The Shen and the Hun are both Yang spirits whilst the Zhi and the Po both relate to the pole of Yin. Sitting between the two poles is the Yi which is known as the ‘earthly centre’. As the other four spirits shift and change in levels of dominance this is reflected in the changing Yin Yang balance of the Yi which then gives rise to various aspects of our cognition.

The Yi is considered to be neutral in nature and is associated with the element of Earth. It resides within the Spleen.

The upper element of the character for Yi depicts ‘sound’ and this is emanating from the character for ‘heart’ or ‘consciousness’. It is showing us that the Yi is responsible for the way in which the various components of human consciousness are manifest; this manifestation comes as ‘thought’. In this way the image of sound is metaphorical for the expression of mental activity.