Ancient, Often Forgotten Aspect of Health: ‘Shen’

cup of tea or coffee

I believe body, mind – and yes, spirit – are each important aspects of health.

With a new year unfolding, I thought about my own personal health resolutions. It dawned on me that in years past, I had only focused on maintaining a healthy physical and mental body. But when I tried to think of what I did to nourish my spirit, I drew a blank. Somehow, I got caught in the motion of life, leaving out a critical aspect that I consider for my patients every day!

In my training  in Traditional Chinese Medicine, a medical system dating back at least 3,000 years in ancient China, this concept is known as “Shen,” loosely translated as one’s “spirit.” It is fundamental to a holistic approach to patient care, which I use to help me understand my patients’ ailments.

“‘Shen disturbance’ can first show itself as insomnia, mild anxiety, dull eyes, lack of motivation or forgetfulness.”

Jamie Starkey, LAc

Lead Acupuncturist for the Center for Integrative Medicine

This is spirit in a non-religious sense. The best way I can describe it is the twinkle or shine in a patient’s eyes. It is not something I can directly ask patients about, but rather, I note it through quiet observation, a skill I have developed over the years. I look for that special glimmer in every one of my patients and I listen for it in the tone and quality of their voice.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine philosophy, the spirit is a crucial part of our health and wellness. Nourishing and addressing the spirit is just as important as maintaining healthy weight or blood pressure.

What harms our ‘Shen’?

Shen can be harmed during chronic states of stress, chronic illness or pain. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, we call this “Shen disturbance” which can first show itself as insomnia, mild anxiety, dull eyes, lack of motivation or forgetfulness.

In my opinion, part of the problem is that our lives have become hectic and fast-paced. Many of us are inundated with text messages, phone calls and emails. We run from appointment to appointment in both our professional and personal lives and there never seems to be enough time in the day to get everything done.

How can we nourish our ‘Shen’?

One way we can nourish Shen is to make a concerted effort to slow down and unplug. I urge all of my patients to hit the pause button, to carve out time in our busy lives to reconnect with those we love (family, friends, pets) or even the activities and hobbies we once loved but somehow lost because of how busy life became. I have made this very same commitment to myself.

Here are just a few simple ways to nourish Shen:

  • Create a new recipe, art project or play a sport with our kids
  • Take a hike in the park with our dogs
  • Hold the hand of your loved one and stop to let him or her notice
  • Play a game of cards or put together a jigsaw puzzle with our parents
  • Take that fishing trip you’ve been putting off
  • Look out the window and daydream, see what you notice
  • Take time to enjoy a steaming cup of tea
  • Turn off the TV, phone and iPad for an hour or two before bedtime and perhaps work your way up to not using these devices for a full day
  • Call an old friend just to catch up

As we move into 2013, create opportunities to connect with people and activities, nourishing your Shen and bringing more joy into your life.

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Jamie Starkey, LAc

Jamie Starkey is Lead Acupuncturist at the Cleveland Clinic's Center for Integrative Medicine, where she bridges the worlds of Eastern and Western medical philosophy.