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Cultivating the Three Treasures: Shen, Qi and Jing

In Traditional Chinese medical theory there are three things that are essential to sustaining health and life: Shen, Qi and Jing. They are known as The Three Treasures, and each one contributes to the health and well-being of the body, mind and spirit.


The Spirit of Shen

Shen is usually translated as Spirit or Mind but neither of these words give us an understanding of the true meaning of this treasure. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic states that the Heart houses the Shen/Mind. In TCM Shen is used in two main contexts. Firstly, Shen relates to the complex array of mental faculties including mental activity, emotional activity, consciousness, memory, thinking and sleep. Secondly, Shen is used to encompass the whole sphere of mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of a human being.


According to TCM, mental activity and consciousness reside in the Heart. This means that there is a direct link between the state of the Heart and Blood and mental health. When the Heart is strong and the Blood abundant, there is normal mental activity, balanced emotions, a clear mind, a good memory, keen thinking and good quality sleep. Similarly if the Heart is weak and the Blood deficient, the thinking is dull, the memory is poor, the sleep interrupted and there can be mental health problems such as depression. Deficient Blood can lead to mental restlessness, depression, insomnia and anxiety. Conversely mental or emotional problems, poor sleep and sadness can bring about deficiency of the Blood; which in turn affects the health of the Heart.


On the emotional level, the health of the Heart is directly linked to our ability to form meaningful relationships. When the Heart is healthy, we are emotionally resilient and tend not to take the behaviour of others personally. However, when the Heart is unbalanced, we can be easily upset by what others say and take their words to heart. Spiritually, Shen is connected to the joy of life and our ever expanding journey of discovery about life’s many wonders. Poor Shen leads us to feeling victims of life and becoming closed off from life.


If you want to maintain a happy and healthy life, working on improving your Shen is vital. This means being compassionate to ourselves and those around us. Practicing kindness towards others and doing things that make us feel good both improve Shen. When we experience sadness, it is important that we find ways of processing that sadness rather than simply holding on to it. Acceptance of what is, forgiveness for what has been and letting go of resistance all boost our Shen. Finally, regularly connecting with nature and the natural world around us helps to bring the Heart into balance and naturally lift our spirits.


Understanding Qi

The concept of Qi has been at the forefront of Chinese philosophy from the beginning of Chinese civilisation through to modern times. It is a word that presents many challenges when trying to translate its meaning into English. It has been translated as “energy,” “matter,” “ether,” “life force,” “moving force,” “material force,” “vital force” and “matter-energy.” The challenges arise largely because of its fluid nature whereby Qi can manifest in different ways and be different things in different situations. Ted J. Kaptchuk, one of the early western practitioners of Chinese Medicine, describes Qi as “matter of the verge of becoming energy, or energy at the point of materializing.”


A look at the Chinese character for Qi indicates something that is, at the same time, both material and immaterial:


This character is made up of two parts. The upper three lines represents “vapour” or “steam,” and the lower cross shape represents “uncooked rice.” This shows that Qi can be both immaterial as vapour and material as rice. This immaterial/material nature of Qi is often described as “Heaven and Earth,” and ancient philosophers went on to say, “A human being results from the Qi of Heaven and Earth.”

Giovanni Maciocia, another well respected western acupuncturist says: “Qi is an energy which manifest simultaneously on the physical and spiritual level; Qi is in a constant state of flux and in varying states of aggregation. When Qi condenses, energy transforms and accumulates into physical shape.”


Although there is only one Qi energy, it manifests in different forms within the human body.


Here is a brief summary of some of the main forms of Qi within the body:


•    Yuan Qi – also known as “Original Qi,” “Pre-natal Qi” and “Pre-Heaven Qi”. This is inherited from our parents at conception.

•    Post-natal or Post-Heaven Qi is the Qi we get from the world we live in and comes from two main sources; the air we breathe and the food we eat.

•    Kong Qi – Air Qi processed by the lungs.

•    Gu Qi – Food Qi processed by the spleen.

•    Zong Qi – formed by the mixing together of Kong Qi and Gu Qi, known as “Gathering Qi” or “Qi of the chest.”

•    Zheng Qi – when Zong Qi is catalysed by the action of Yuan Qi it forms Zheng Qi, also known as “Normal or Upright Qi.” This is the Qi that circulates through our meridians and the organs of the body. Finally Zheng Qi divides into Ying Qi and Wei Qi.

•    Ying Qi – Nutritive Qi that nourishes all the tissues of the body.

•    Wei Qi – Defensive Qi that circulates on the outside of the body protecting us from external pathogenic factors including cold, heat, wind and damp.


As you can see, there are many different manifestations of Qi in the body, and indeed each organ has its own characteristic Qi. Liver Qi is very different from Lung Qi, which is different from Kidney Qi and so on.


There are five main functions of Qi in the body:


1.    The source of body activity and movement. Every movement in the body, both voluntary and involuntary, is a manifestation of the flow of Qi.

2.    Warming the body. The maintaining of body temperature is a manifestation of the warming action of Qi.

3.    The source of protection for the body. The action of Wei Qi protects the body from external invasion by external environmental factors and pathogens.

4.    The source of transformation in the body. This transformative power of Qi is crucial so that the food we eat and the air we breathe can be transformed into vital substances such as other forms of Qi, Blood and Body Fluids (including Lymph and Cerebrospinal Fluid).

5.    The governing of retention and containment. This ensures that the various organs, vessels and tissues of the body are kept in their correct place.


There are four types of Qi disharmony that can occur in the body:


1.    Deficient Qi (Qi Xu). This is where there is insufficient Qi to carry out various functions such as warming the body or powering digestion.

2.    Sinking Qi (Qi Xian). If the deficiency of Qi is great, the body can lose its ability to hold things in place as manifested in conditions such as organ prolapse.

3.    Stagnant Qi (Qi Zhi). If the flow of Qi is impaired or blocked, this can lead to pain and inflammation, which in turn can lead to more serious disharmonies of the internal organs.

4.    Rebellious Qi (Qi Ni). This is when Qi flows in the wrong direction. Rebellious Stomach Qi can lead to hiccups, nausea and in more severe cases vomiting.


Finally, one of the most important aspects of Qi that especially relates to Qigong practice and healing is the fact that “Where the mind goes, the Qi flows.” This is all about our intent and is called “Yi Nian” (Yi meaning thought/to think/intention; Nian meaning to study or train). This is not simply imagining the flow of Qi through the body, but learning and training to direct the flow of Qi with thought. This is how Qigong healers direct Qi to specific areas of the body to bring increased blood flow and healing, and how Tai Chi masters can use their Qi to repel opponents with what appears to be superhuman force.


The Essence of Jing

Jing is most often translated into English as “Essence” or “Life Force” and is linked to our vitality, genetic predisposition and growth. In Chinese medical books the term Jing is used in three different contexts with slightly different definitions:


Pre-Heaven or Pre-natal Jing

Post-Heaven or Post-natal Jing

Kidney Jing


Pre-Heaven Jing is inherited from our parents and is formed at the moment of conception. It nourishes the developing baby during pregnancy and is the only kind of Jing present in a foetus. It determines an individual’s constitution, strength and vitality. As Pre-Heaven Jing is inherited from our parents, it is a challenge to influence it in adult life. However recent work in the field of Epigenetics indicates that the environment within our bodies directly influences the expression of our genes. Therefore changes in diet, lifestyle and thinking can have an influence on how our Pre-Heaven Jing plays out in our adult lives. Inherited genes that predispose us to certain conditions can be turned off, given the right set of circumstances. To understand more about this I recommend reading Bruce Lipton’s The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles (2015).


Post-Heaven Jing is refined and extracted from the foods and fluids we consume once we are born, and it is produced throughout our adult life via the actions of the Stomach and Spleen.


Kidney Jing (sometimes simply referred to as Jing) is made through the combining of Pre-Heaven Jing and Post-Heaven Jing and is continually replenished by the latter. It plays a fundamental role in human physiology governing life cycles, growth and development. And it plays a central role in puberty, conception and pregnancy. Jing is stored in the kidneys but is fluid in nature so also circulates all over the body, particularly through the eight extraordinary vessels.


While Qi is replenished on a day to day basis, replenishment of Jing is a much longer process. Qi follows short cycles, some yearly, some circadian and some even shorter. Jing, on the other hand, follows very long cycles of seven or eight years; seven for a woman and eight for a man. Therefore changes to Jing only occur over a long period of time whereas Qi changes from moment to moment. Jing can be depleted in a variety of ways, most notably through excessive stress, fear, insecurity or overwork. It can also be depleted through consumption of toxins, certain drugs (including amphetamines and cocaine), heavy metals and excess consumption of sugar and alcohol. Chinese medical textbooks also warn of Jing depletion in men from excessive semen loss, especially in old age, and in women through having too many children (i.e., more than their constitution can healthily support) or through not giving the body enough time to replenish between each birth.


Obviously finding the right work-life balance and making healthy lifestyle choices can, over time, greatly influence our Jing. Breathing exercises such as Tai Chi and Qigong can also have a tremendously positive influence on our Jing and greatly improve the quality of the Post-Heaven Jing we produce from our food. As we get older, we need to really take care of our Jing because once it is all used up, we cease to live! The following are some simple steps we can take to help maintain our vitality well into old age:


•    Avoid overeating. Never eat until you are full. Instead apply the 70% rule to your food intake (i.e., eat only until you are 70% full).

•    Avoid eating late at night. The times when the body’s digestive powers are at their best are between the hours of 10am to 2pm; so try to eat your last meal of the day as early as possible and try to make it small in size but filled with nourishment.

•    Avoid sudden dietary changes. Gradual changes work best.

•    Avoid consuming cold food and drinks, especially in winter and in a temperate climate such as ours. This includes avoiding raw foods and tropical fruits in winter.

•    Avoid excessive consumption of sugar, table salt (sodium chloride), alcohol, coffee and highly processed foods.

•    Continually look to soften your Tai Chi and Qigong practice. As you do so you’ll find it easier to go with the flow of life. Resistance depletes Jing; so seek to become aware of where you resist in life and let the resistance go. At the root of every strong opinion is resistance.


Daoists have always been fascinated by longevity and much of this fascination revolves around building, maintaining and replenishing Jing. For many years I couldn’t really understand this fascination. I would wonder, “Are Daoists really that attached to life?” However in recent years I think I’m beginning to understand why they have this deep interest in longevity. My journey with Tai Chi during the past 35 years has taught me so much. Week after week it continues to reveal more. It has, without doubt, been my greatest teacher and guide. Since taking up Tai Chi, I have discovered so much about myself and about how to navigate through the challenges of life in a way that always expands my perspective. I am beginning to wonder just how much more I might discover in another 35 years? By then I’ll be 95!


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1 Comment

Hi Andy

A gripping read indeed.

Thank you for sharing all these to me advanced learning of TCM

One problem arises for me in relation to Jing is the consumption of cold liquids and foods in the Winter months. Ie I drink a lot of water and live salads for example. Is this a big problem for me.

Also I’ve read that I should abstain from drinking water after practising Qigong. What’s your thoughts on this please?

Thanks you for sharing your vast Knowledge on this subject that grows in my heart as each day passes .

Gary Johnson 😊☯️🙏


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