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Shen is the Chinese word for spirit. Unlike the western connotations of spirit, which may focus on the intangible and unknowable soul, shen incorporates the mind. The shen is rooted in the Heart, which incorporates the organ, but also has the ‘poetic’ elements of the heart as well. When there is a disorder of the spirit, or a “shen disorder” in Eastern medicine, we are speaking of the complete spectrum of emotional and intellectual disorders, save depression and grief, which are provinces of the wood and metal phases respectively. However, depression and grief still  involve the shen, just not as directly as say schizophrenia.

Mania is a shen disorder where the spirit is agitated by excessive heat, usually from the yang ming channel, or fire pouring into the Heart from the Liver. Catatonia is an extreme example of ‘insubstantial phlegm’ misting over the sensory orifices and blocking the shen’s access to the external world. A less severe manifestation of this is someone who looks glazed over in the eyes and seems confused or distracted.

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Qi is synergistic function as it is perceived by the aspect of our consciousness that is responsible for intuition. It is often spoken of as energy, and elaborated upon with metaphors of water, but this is merely to facilitate explanation. Energy is capable of transforming into matter and back again, but qi does not do this. It also does not register on the electromagnetic spectrum. Indeed, yin and yang qi is understandable as the positive and negative aspect of magnetism.

The very first line of the section of the Dao De Jing that talks about the Dao (“The Way”) says that “the way that can be spoken of is not the true Way.” Or as Alan Watts puts it, “The course that can be discoursed is not the true Course.” The same holds true of qi. If we think qi is anything like the metaphors we use to discuss qi, we miss the point entirely and go clamoring after illusions and fancies. The best way, in my opinion, to understand qi is experientially. This is not satisfactory for a discerning mind of science, I know, and to this objection there are two things I can say:

1) There are phenomena which are capable of being experienced and understood in a purely rational manner, and then there are the phenomena which arrive only through intuition. Barring the notion that intuition is the result of complex lateral calculations and processing we cannot yet understand, which is still speculation despite its deference to reason, intuitive phenomena deserve to be treated as possessing categorical differences from rational ones. In this approach, qi is a quality of intuition that communicates with rational phenomena, but is not itself of reason. Our senses and mental processes grounded in reason cannot perceive it, but this does not mean it is not there. There is a rational system for qi to follow, yin-yang theory, which it always follows. Thus, qi itself is perfectly rational in functioning, though it is something outside of reason. A reasonably unreasonable phenomenon.

2) Assuming intuition is a category of rational thought that we are yet unable to trace and understand, qi would then be an imagined variable that allows a system to work. Eastern medicine relies on qi, which may be how the ancients explained nerves and hormones, which for some reason are capable of being influenced by putting needles in the body at certain places, which do not have to be the same two points for the same results.

My study of this topic, both written and experiential, has led me to a conclusion with much more in common with the first point. I invite skeptics to give these healing arts a fair shot by placating their inner critic with one or both of these points. Belief or acceptance of qi has nothing to do with their efficacy, but it is a fascinating area of study.

That said, acupuncture, Eastern herbalism, Tai chi & qi gong all operate on the level of qi. Yoga describes this as prana, which is translated as breath energy. Try some daoist breathing and see where it takes you!

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