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Posted by: Scott Stewart, LAc, Dipl.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it’s believed that the source of our life was a gift to humankind in the form of the Three Treasures, Jing, Qi, and Shen. Since there are no literal translations for these words in English, they’re often translated as essence (Jing), vitality / energy (Qi), and mind / spirit (Shen). These energetic substances constitute our body and mind, sustain our life and provide a connection to the source from which all things originate - the Dao. In Daoist philosophy, practitioners have a holistic view of everything within the cosmos, and strive to bring harmony to all the varying degrees of relationships that compose that existence. On a microcosmic level, the goal is to harmonize oneself to both earth and heaven, because man is the intermediary between the two.
The first step in this process is the transmutation of the body, mind and spirit into a harmonious unit. This process is what Daoist practitioners call inner – alchemy. The same is true in TCM when we treat patients, we are trying to re-establish harmony between the body, mind and spirit, which can easily be disrupted by our hectic, stressful (both physical and mental), technologically – driven lives. Below is a description of each of the three treasures and how important it is that we maintain their balance in order to lead a healthy life.
Jing (essence) is the densest (most Yin), of the three substances, and is often presented in analogies as the wax and wick of a candle. Jing represents our potential, just as a tiny seed holds the potential to sprout and grow into a giant redwood tree. In the body, Jing resides within the Kidneys and is considered the biological basis of the human body and mind; the product of the joining essences of the mother and father, also called Pre-Natal Jing. The Pre-Natal Jing is inherited from our parents at conception and carries all the traits of our ancestors; and so it is often correlated with genetic information / DNA in a biomedical sense. In Traditional Chinese Medicine it’s taught that we only receive a small amount of Pre-Natal Jing, so you should do everything in your power to conserve this precious substance, because without it we would have no life. Not only does Jing, especially that given by the mother, nourish the embryo and fetus, but is also responsible for growth & development in the body and all reproductive activity. Jing is what synthesizes into a woman’s menstrual blood and a man’s semen. There is also Post-Natal Jing which is acquired from food / drink after birth. The Stomach extracts the nutrients and then they’re refined into nourishment & Qi by the Spleen, which distributes them to the rest of the body.
Qi is often referred to as "vital energy" or "life force". From a Daoist perspective Qi is the source of everything, in other words, the basic substance of the cosmos and all phenomena which it contains. Qi is innately able to transmute and condense from the most subtle to the most dense of existences. It is the motive force that animates our lives, allowing us to move, to breathe, moving blood through our bodies, and allowing the organs to function. Of the Three Treasures Qi is associated with humankind; therefore it is the intermediary between earth and heaven. In analogy, Qi represents the flickering flame of a candle - the energy which is expended from the physical transformation of the wax and wick.
Shen is the most Yang and the most subtle of the three treasures. Shen represents our inner divinity, sometimes referred to as the divine spark, and therefore is associated with the heavens. The Shen resides in the heart, which is considered the emperor of all the organs in the body. Although it is common to translate Shen as spirit, it should be understood that this is not spirit in the Christian sense, instead it should be thought of as our inner light, and it’s this inner light that is reflected in our eyes. Think of the old saying, “the eyes are the windows to the soul,” that’s Shen you’re looking at. A healthy Shen appears as bright and clear eyes. Shen is also responsible for molding one’s personality including both the mental & spiritual aspects. There is an inverse relationship between the Shen, Jing & Qi. When the latter are strong and prosperous, the Shen will be nourished, happy and radiant. If the Jing & Qi become deficient, the Shen will be unhappy, suffer, and become disturbed. Conversely, if the Shen becomes disturbed, unhappy, depressed or anxious, this will also affect the Jing & the Qi; first by disrupting the smooth flow of Qi, then by weakening the Jing, bringing the whole body into disharmony.
To finish our analogy where the Jing is the wax and wick of a candle and the Qi is the flame; it is Shen that represents the radiant glow given off as light. In this analogy the interrelationship of the Three Treasures can clearly be seen through the dependence of the candle light on the wax, the wick and the flame; Shen is greatly dependent upon the healthy cultivation of the both Jing and Qi.
The Three Treasures are not only a gift to be cherished, but an ongoing project to be cultivated for the benefit of our own personal and collective energetic evolution. Regardless of whether we are practitioners or patients, are goal should always be the same, which is to strive towards harmony within ourselves, with each other, and with the cosmos.