Introduction to the Shen
Within the language of Chinese Medicine, there are some terms that upon translation lose much of their meaning. Shen is one of these terms. Translated to mean ‘spirit’, a person’s Shen can also be considered their consciousness; the light in one’s eyes that takes in and interprets the world. In Western Medicine this awareness is known as the mind and was up until recently considered to be quite separate from the physical body. A person’s Shen can never be separated from their body in treatment, because the two are completely intertwined. In fact, the body generates and replenishes the Shen from the food we eat.
Food can be used by the body for many things, obviously one of them being to make more cells and to grow. We also know nutrients and minerals are needed for the function of certain enzymes, nerves and endocrine glands. Food is needed to live physically, but from an Eastern standpoint it also needed spiritually: ultimately food helps to generate the spirit known as Shen.
According to Chinese Medicine, when food is broken down by the body it can be divided into
two categories- the ‘clear’, & the ‘turbid’. The ‘clear’ portion of food can be considered the healthiest most important aspect, it is immediately usable and doesn’t need to be digested further. It is made up of vital nutrients and Qi. Foods that are very nourishing such as broths are considered to be easily usable when one is sick because they are mostly made up of ‘clear’- they take little work to use. The stomach churns food around, sending the ‘turbid’ or heavy portion down into the small intestine for further digestion. The small intestine digests by further separating the clear and turbid- it sends the heavy and unusable downward while reserving the usable light portion for the body’s needs. This happens until all of the usable portion has been extracted and waste is excreted.
What does this have to do with the Shen? The energy that we obtain from food is given the term ‘essence’. Essence is fuel for the body to do many different physiological things with- it is needed to build and repair structures such as bone, and it is needed for reproduction. Essence gives color to the hair and drives the functions of the whole body by working to produce Qi and Blood. A body without essence is withered and sickly. In another aspect, the essence we make and store also generates our Shen. Just as food has a clear portion, so does the essence our body generates from it take on different qualities. The highest quality, best portion of clear essence our bodies can make becomes our Shen. The saying we are what we eat is common, for good reason!
Chinese Medicine has clear implications between not only our bodies and our spirits being inseparable, but also that nutrition has a direct and profound impact on the consciousness we use to perceive our world.