The Five Shen: Because Sometimes One Soul Just Isn’t Enough

By: Dr Jason Chong (Traditional East Asian Medicine Physician)

Explore the timeless knowledge of the Five Shen and set off on a revolutionary path of self-discovery and emotional equilibrium. The Five Shen, which have their roots in traditional Chinese medicine, are crucial facets of our consciousness that control our emotional and mental health. Each Shen has a potential for inner harmony and personal development that can be unlocked by knowing and fostering it.

The Five Shen

The Wu (Five) Shen of Traditional Chinese Medicine are five spirits that represent the yin internal organ systems in the human body. These five aspects of our spirit/consciousness are Shen (Heart), Zhi (Kidney), Yi (Spleen), Hun (Liver) and Po (Lungs). These five Shen embody the understanding that our physical body, mental activities, emotional life and spiritual expression are all integrated facets of our human life.

Each expression, whether at the physical or psychic level, is simply a different manifestation of the same energetic resonance. This resonance is known as the five phases which are observed both within our body, and the world surrounding us. In other words, our human health is a mix of our physical, mental and spiritual health.

We may have a dominant five element energy that affects our personality, emotions and health issues. This arises as a result of our past life experiences, and with this dominant energy can arise a predilection for disorders of the related aspect of the Shen.

The Wu Shen each corresponds to an element and planet, as well as being connected to a specific direction. When all five Shen are in balance, it is said that this produces a beautiful harmony that can be likened to the planets in outer space.

Each Shen has an acupuncture point along the Tai Yang Bladder Meridian on the back. These acupuncture points are seen to have a direct influence on harmonising these aspects of the Shen.

ShenBack Shu PointOrganChinese acupuncture point name
PoBL 14HeartJueyīnshū
ZhiBL 23KidneyShènshū
YiBL 20SpleenPíshū
ShenBL 44LiverGānshù
HunBL 47LungShénshū
Acupuncture points related to the Five Shen

In Chinese medicine, harmony in treatment is achieved through inner alchemy. This involves balancing and understanding the appropriate spirits to invoke in different life situations. The idea of the Wu Shen and their integration into health care was to help bring people back in tune with themselves. These healing practices utilise spiritual connection and inner practices like meditation and self-reflection in addition to the use of acupuncture treatment and herbal medicine. In the end, they will return to the unified Mind of Tao, which seeks enlightenment through self-awareness and connection with those around us.

Shen

In traditional Chinese Medicine terms, the Shen is considered to be the most revered aspect of the human mind and is closely linked to the Heart organ.

The Heart’s Shen is crucial in the Five Shen system as it connects organs and affects our mental functions and emotional life.

Shen (Spirit) is associated with the Heart, and it represents the mind and consciousness. Shen is responsible for our ability to think, reason, and make decisions.

It is responsible for the overall quality of our awareness, which can be perceived through our eyes. Clear, sparkling and responsive eyes indicate a healthy Shen.

Spiritual energy bridges our inner and outer worlds, creating a strong connection that enables our spiritual essence to manifest in our daily lives.

The Heart Shen’s condition affects our capacity to create meaningful connections with the world, as it governs emotions like love, compassion, and joy.

When the Heart Shen is calm, we can clearly perceive the world around us without losing our balance. However, when emotions create disturbances, our perception becomes distorted and our actions only create more chaos and manic behaviour. By remaining unattached to emotions as they arise, we can return to a place of stillness and peace.

We trust in this spirit of the heart to guide us in our daily lives, as it brings harmony and balance to our lives.

The Shen and Heart Qi are closely connected, and it’s essential to maintain good relationships while also prioritizing self-care through activities like meditation and quality sleep to maintain balance.

Cultivating a strong Shen is essential to achieving balance in life, as it facilitates clear thinking processes, improved memory, and greater self-awareness. By connecting to our Shen, we gain access to a deeper understanding of ourselves, our environment, and our lives on a holistic level.

The Shen helps us tap into our inner wisdom and emotions to guide us towards better health and well-being. Ultimately, understanding and cultivating the power of our Shen enables us to open ourselves up to what lies beyond mere physicality. It is important for us to facilitate a calm Shen through practices such as emotional expression, creative pursuits, and spiritual cultivation practices.

Larre and Rochat de la Vallée (1995) state that a balanced Shen is linked to the emotion of joy. This may manifest as a sense of inner peace, contentment, and happiness. However, when the Shen is imbalanced, it can lead to excessive joy, which may manifest as mania, hysteria, or overexcitement. This can occur when the Shen becomes too active or ungrounded, leading to mental illnesses that include a loss of perspective or disconnection from reality. Imbalances in the Shen can also lead to symptoms such as insomnia, abnormal heart rate, palpitations, and anxiety (Rossi, 2019).

Hun

The Ethereal Soul, also known as Hun, is a crucial aspect of Chinese philosophy and medicinal practice.

It resides in the Liver organ and stimulates the activities of the Mind by providing input such as intuition, creativity, ideas, and images. It helps us plan for life with foresight and creativity, organise possibilities into patterns, and find direction. It is the source of our life’s dreams, imagination, vision, and creativity.

The Hun is closely connected to spiritual existence and leaves the body after death, making it important for higher consciousness.

Hun is connected to the Liver’s role as the General who makes plans and influences our capacity for decision-making and finding a sense of direction.

The balance provided by the Corporeal or Animal Soul (Po) working from within the Lungs is critical for supporting the Hun’s activities from outside. The Hun and Po souls collaborate to provide powerful guidance based on their connection with Essence (Jing), which can significantly assist in our personal development in our human lives.

The Hun produces kindness, benevolence, and our ability to experience suffering and pain, leading to human compassion and kindness.

Dreams are the wandering of Hun, and when it wanders excessively through our body during sleep, our dreams become more vivid and prolific. An overactive Hun can cause chaos and manic behaviour when pursuing multiple ideas without direction. The Hun can become weak and unable to move freely, impairing emotional expression and leading to a uni-emotional state.

Extreme pathologies of the Hun can manifest in states with a disconnect from reality, hallucinations, and loss of consciousness. The Hun is easily upset by alcohol and drugs. However, when the Shen is calm and centred in the Heart, Hun is less prone to wander.

The Hun is associated with the emotion of anger or resentment when it is imbalanced (Rossi, 2019). When our Liver Qi is stuck, this may manifest as irritability, frustration, a sense of being stuck or blocked or a tendency to hold grudges. These emotions can arise when the Hun is unable to move freely through the body, leading to a sense of stagnation or constriction.

Imbalances in the Hun can also be associated with the emotion of jealousy, in addition to anger or resentment (Maciocia, 2015). Jealousy is often linked to a sense of inadequacy or insecurity and can lead to feelings of bitterness or envy. By addressing imbalances in the Hun, practitioners can help patients overcome these negative emotions and achieve a greater sense of inner peace and security.

Hun imbalances can lead to excessive daydreaming, a lack of focus or direction, or a sense of being disconnected from one’s purpose (Dechar, 2010). Lonny Jarrett emphasizes the importance of supporting the Hun through practices such as meditation, visualization, and dreamwork.

Ultimately, understanding the Hun is an important part of our journey of personal exploration and enlightenment. Becoming aware of our dual soul and its function during sleep and waking hours enhances our psychic and mental integration.

Po

The Po is a corporeal soul that resides in the lungs and is closely linked to the physical human body. It is responsible for body functions such as breathing, peristalsis, evacuation, sensation, balance, and muscular coordination. Po is responsible for our ability to experience pleasure, pain, and other physical sensations.

The Po, referred to as the animal soul, is a powerful energy that’s essential to a being’s physical life and is linked to Lung Qi, the energy that brings vitality and animation to one’s existence. The Po seeks to fulfil essential functions within particular lifetimes and allows us access to specific skills and talents granted only during certain periods.

The Po is a spiritual force that embodies our body’s consciousness and memory. It reinforces the actions and intentions we carry out in our daily lives initiated by the Yi.

The Po is connected to the autonomic nervous system, limbic system, and cerebellum, and impacts our sensations, emotions, skills, strengths, and passions. Pathology can occur when unexpressed mental and emotional suffering becomes stored in the body as physical symptoms.

When the Po is balanced, emotions are regulated, and actions adhere to societal norms. However, disharmony can lead to inappropriate behaviour, complicated grief, sadness, blunted affect, or an overreaction to certain events.

Therefore, it’s important for individuals to understand the purpose of their emotions and maintain overall energetic balance through self-care activities like meditation or yoga.

A strong body reflects a vigorous animal soul and is connected to Wei Qi, which is distributed by the lungs. It is the sphere of feeling and sensations, giving depth to the human experience and is a direct manifestation of the breath of life.

Imbalances in the Po are often associated with the emotion of grief or sadness (Dechar, 2010). This may manifest as a sense of loss, melancholy, or a tendency to withdraw from others. According to Maciocia (2015), nostalgia can be associated with imbalances in the Po, characterized by longing for the past and a feeling of loss or regret.

Physically, Po imbalances can also lead to symptoms such as respiratory problems, skin disorders, and immune system dysfunction (Rossi, 2019). As a clinical guideline, Jarrett emphasizes the importance of cultivating physical awareness and sensory experience through practices such as exercise, bodywork, and sensory-based therapies.

Ultimately, the Po is an important part of Chinese thought that helps to explain why life and death are inseparable from one another. It is one of three spiritual “souls” believed to inhabit humans, the others being the Hun and Shen.

As our animal soul, the Po represents the physical aspects of the human soul, and it is tied to the Metal element and energetic nature of consolidation and descent. Justice and fairness are promoted, physical and emotional responses are facilitated, and it is vital to maintain a healthy life balance for both the body and mind.

Yi

In traditional Chinese medicine, the Spleen system is associated with the Intellect or Yi, which governs applied thinking, studying, memorization, concentration, sustained intention, and integrity.

It helps turn ideas from the Ethereal Soul and messages from the Mind into actions, enabling us to follow through on our words.

The Yi helps establish meaning in the world and gives birth to creative possibilities, providing clarity of thought and discernment for proper courses of action.

Being healthy involves intention, purpose, and commitment. However, over participation in these activities could harm the Spleen Qi and result in physical symptoms like digestive problems.

The Yi is adversely affected by worry, causing knotting, stagnation, and non-action or procrastination. This may manifest as excessive thinking, rumination, or a tendency to overanalyze. Yi is also associated with the emotion of obsession, in addition, to worry or pensiveness (Maciocia, 2015). When the Yi becomes overactive due to several reasons like excessive mental stimulation or a lack of grounding, it can lead to obsessive thoughts and behaviours. This brooding involves a repetitive cycle of negative thoughts, which can lead to feelings of hopelessness, despair, and depression.

Imbalances in the Yi can also lead to symptoms such as poor memory, digestive problems, and fatigue (Rossi, 2019). By balancing the Yi, practitioners can help patients develop a healthier relationship with their thoughts and emotions, and overcome obsessive tendencies.

The spirit of the Kidneys, known as Zhi, plays a crucial role in deciding our ambitions, willpower, and survival instinct. The Spleen and Yi’s functioning are closely connected. A strong Spleen equals clear thinking and high focus. On the flip side, a weak or troubled Spleen could mean cognitive decline, indigestion, and lack of concentration.

Nurturing a healthy Yi involves maintaining a balance of dietary self-care, moderate activity levels, and restful sleep. Along with acupuncture & Chinese medicine, it’s crucial to enhance clear thinking and logical evaluation by practising mindfulness meditation and mental exercises.In Chinese medicine, harmonising therapies such as mindfulness, breathing exercises, herbal formulas, and gentle movements like qi gong can help restore harmony in mind and body and steer us away from destructive, un-centered manic behaviour.

Zhi

In Chinese medicine, the concept of willpower (Zhi) is closely related to the Kidneys, water, destiny code, and prenatal qi. Our Kidney Yang energy is vital for providing the will and determination to achieve life goals and bringing order to chaos.

The Zhi is also closely linked to short-term memory, and it works together with the Shen to direct one’s willpower towards specific goals.

In Taoism, the ultimate purpose of Zhi is to synchronize with the “will of Heaven” or “the Tao.” This involves taking actions infused with spirit, feeling natural, and being in agreement with one’s inner truth. The Zhi is associated with the element of water, the north direction, and the planet Mercury.

A strong Zhi provides the basis for thought processes and allows individuals to pursue their goals with commitment and effort. It also enables resilience and the ability to continue despite adverse conditions.

The ancient canon of medicine, the Ling Shu, states that when intent (Yi) becomes permanent, it is referred to as will (Zhi). Lonny Jarret suggests that the kidney gives us the ability to make wise decisions in unknown situations by relying on our instincts instead of reacting to fear. The kidney also empowers the contender to flow with their instincts during a fight.

The Zhi has both a Yin and Yang aspect, with Yin reflecting a more passive nature and Yang actively striving for self-determination. When the balance between Yin Yang aspects becomes compromised, it can lead to irrational and illogical thoughts or reckless behaviours.

The emotion of fear is linked with imbalances in Zhi (Larre & Rochat de la Vallée, 1995), resulting in a lack of confidence, insecurity, or avoiding challenges. They can also be associated with the emotion of fright (Maciocia, 2015). Fright involves a sudden and intense feeling of fear, often triggered by a traumatic event or unexpected shock.

It is important to maintain a healthy balance of Zhi to stay mentally and physically healthy. T To support this aspect of our psychic life, it’s important to develop determination, persistence, and goal-setting. We can accomplish this through techniques like visualization, affirmations, and changes in our lifestyle.It is necessary to establish a strong connection between willpower and the mind in order to successfully pursue one’s predetermined path in life. In addition, developing clarity within both Zhi and memory can lead to greater success in grasping concepts and recalling information.

The Five Shen and other Psychological Theories

The theory of the Five Shen is a uniques and whole body view of psychology from the East Asian perspective. It is interesting to also compare and contrast this with other well known psychological theories of the West.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Five Shen represent the different aspects of a person’s being, including the spiritual, mental, intellectual, emotional, and physical. Each Shen has its own unique emotional associations, and imbalances in these emotions can lead to physical and psychological symptoms.

The five Shen spirits are vital for clear thinking, determination, memory retention, prioritization, ambition, and willpower. Their coordinated presence rules over the domain of our human soul, mental activities and psychic life.

Traditional East Asian Medicine aims to address the root causes of these imbalances rather than simply treating the symptoms. Complementary therapies, including acupuncture, herbal medicine, and dietary therapy, can help balance the Five Shen and treat both emotional and physical disorders.

Practitioners who comprehend the emotional connections of each Shen can diagnose and treat emotional and physical disorders more effectively, thus aiding patients in attaining balance and harmony in their lives. By comprehending the pathological mechanisms that cause imbalances in our five Shen, we gain a comprehensive understanding of mental disorders in Western Medicine. From here we can set a holistic healing intention to support people with a range of Shen disruptions such as bipolar disorders, depression and anxiety.

Through ongoing treatment, dietary self-care, moderate activity levels, restful sleep, mindfulness practices, breathing exercises, herbal formulas and qi gong movements we can nurture a healthy balance between these five Shen in order to harmonise mind and body.

Reference list

Dechar, L. E. (2010). Five spirits: Alchemical acupuncture for psychological and spiritual healing. Singing Dragon.

Larre, C., & Rochat de la Vallée, E. (1995). The seven emotions: Psychology and health in ancient China. Monkey Press.

Rossi, E. (2007). Shen: Psycho-Emotional Aspects of Chinese Medicine. Churchill Livingstone.

Maciocia, G. (2015). The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text for Acupuncturists and Herbalists (3rd ed.). Elsevier.

Photo of author

Dr Jason Chong (Traditional East Asian Medicine Physician)

Traditional East Asian Medicine Physician. Educator.

Jason is the owner and principal practitioner at Dantian Health, providing consultations for Classical Chinese Herbal Medicine and Japanese Acupuncture in Melbourne, Australia.

He is a qualified acupuncture physician, Classical Chinese herbal medicine clinician, shiatsu practitioner and tuina therapist, Oriental therapies educator and director at the Australian Shiatsu College.

Jason's qualifications include:

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