Taijiquan and Shen (神) - A Closer Look

Taijiquan and Shen (神) - A Closer Look

Postby meghdad » Fri Dec 28, 2012 8:01 pm

Dear Friends,
Wish you all a Happy New Year full of Happiness and Peace.
When reading Taijiquan texts we often encounter the character Shen (神) and it is one of the most
important components of Taiji practice. As it is said in Yang Family Taijiquan Ten Principles
(太極拳十要):

太極拳所練在神。
What one trains in Taijiquan is the spirit.
(8th Principle, as translated by Louis Swaim)

Shen (神) actually comes in three meanings:

1- An undefinable and subtle quality of "Life" or "glitter" which can be observed. Also that glitter shows the degree of being present in the moment, in the Now. Not being dull, but to be consciously aware of the Now.

2- Spirit (Almost in all translation)

3- Mind (According to Giovanni Maciocia)


Therefore I think, it is important to know what is meant by Shen in Taijiquan so that we can be aware of this element in our practice.

Now, I begin to interpret each item according to my limited understanding and then we can have the opinion of other friends and masters here in order to get a better understanding.

1- The first meaning of Shen seems more clear. For sure one of the important achievements due to Taijiquan practice (in my opinion) is that it enables one to shift his/her awareness from the automatic flow of thoughts (the auto-pilot) to the present moment. This begins with body awareness in Taijiquan as the first stage. Doing the form movements slowly, paying close attentions to details within the movements ( such as body alignment, shifting weight, empty and full, relaxing the body, intention of the movement and its supposed application...), and many other important elements all contribute to this shift of consciousness in favor of the awareness of the Now. This has both Martial and Spiritual implications. This Presence is manifested through the eyes, a light and glitter through the eye, which is emphasized by Taiji Masters to Taiji practitioners.

Also in Chinese Medicine, they use the character shen 神 to express this glitter and subtle reflection of liveliness. So they use expressions like eye with/without shen and use it as a diagnosis. Also they have face with/without shen, tongue with/without shen.

2 and 3- In Chinese philosophy and medicine Shen 神 has a broad meaning. Shen as Spirit is usually referring to a collection of five components and it is usually called (五神) Five Shens or Just Shen 神. So Shen as Spirit includes:

(I) Shen 神 of the Heart.
(II) Hun 魂 of the Liver.
(III) Yi 意 of the Spleen.
(IV) Po 魄 of the Lungs.
(V) Zhi 志 of the Kidneys.

For example the Shen (of the Heart) is responsible for: Consciousness, Sense of Self, Cognition, Thinking, Insight, Wisdom, Ideas, Feelings (According to Giovanni Maciocia's "Psyche in Chinese Medicine"). This Shen 神 is what Giovanni Maciocia is referring to as Mind, and the collection of all five is called Shen 神 as well and is regarded as Spirit.

So as you see Shen has a broad range of meanings. In "The Mental Elucidation of the Thirteen Postures" (by Wu Yuxiang, translated by Louis Swaim) we have this paragraph:

"Throughout the whole body the Intent (Yi) is on the spirit of vitality (Jing Shen 精神) not on the qi (气). If it is on the qi, then there will be stagnation. One who has it on the qi will have no strength. One who does not have it on the qi will attain pure hardness."

Also in the first principle from the Yang Family Ten Essentials they speak of raising the spirit of vitality.

則精神不能提起也。

Now the point is whether they are referring to Shen of the Heart or Shen as Wu Shen, I would appreciate if my friends and masters here would contribute to our understanding. Thanks in advance.

In the end I would like to emphasize the special characteristic of Chinese Language which creates such ambiguities. I also think it is better not to translate these key characters and leave them in pinyin. However it is very important I think to have a clear sense about them.

Happy New Year all,
Meghdad
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Re: Taijiquan and Shen (神) - A Closer Look

Postby Audi » Sat Jan 05, 2013 4:24 pm

Happy New Year Meghdad,

I do not know the answer to your excellent question, but here are my thoughts.

In all the languages I have studied, even those closely related to English, it is hard to translate the terms that cover these concepts. The interior world is cut up into different parts according to the language and the culture behind it. In other words, the problem is not unique to English and Chinese. For me, the term Shen (神) covers some of what I mean by "mind," "expression," "focus," and "spirit," but sometimes these words are not appropriate translations. Chinese also uses xin 心, yi 意, and jingshen 精神 for some of these concepts.

From what I understand of the world view probably held by the writers of the classics, Shen was thought of as the clearest, highest form of Qi (energy/matter). According to most philosophers, humans have Shen, but animals do not. This aspect of Qi cannot really be translated into English, since the cultural heritage of the core of native English speakers thinks of spirit in opposition to matter, rather than as the most refined expression of it.

I would not like to think of Shen as correlated with merely one of the five elements, because that would lead me to think that strengthening it would lead to imbalance. I therefore would favor the second of your three options, with the major caveat that the English word "spirit" and the Chinese word "Shen" often do not refer to the same thing.

I also consider the terms "Shen" and "Jingshen" (or Jing Shen)(精神) to be different, as is reflected in your translations. The exact interpretation of the second term is problematic for several reasons.

First, it is still not clear to me whether 精神 should be interpreted as one word ("Jinshen") or as two words ("Jing Shen"). The Chinese characters are, of course, ambiguous. As the two words "Jing" and "Shen," the expression would form a grammatical compound describing a unitary concept made up of related items. It might be translated into English as "essence and spirit" or more clumsily as "essence and spirit stuff."

As one word, "Jingshen" can have two almost identical pronunciations in standard Mandarin. One leaves the "shen" syllable in a neutral tone as "jīngshen," the other gives it a full second tone as "jīngshén." The first is used for the common meaning "vigor or vitality" (表现出来的活力). The second is used for the intellectual meanings "spirit," "mind," and "consciousness," (指人的意识,思维,情感等主观世界) and also for the meaning "gist" (内容的实质所在;主旨). (The Chinese I use is copied from the Chinese dictionary I have on my Pleco App.)

Regardless of the linguistic niceties, for me, there are two very real practice questions.

First, how should we interpret the following:

太極拳所練在神。
What one trains in Taijiquan is the spirit.
(8th Principle, as translated by Louis Swaim)

Rather than the word "spirit," I would use the word "mind" for my practice, because it matches better my cultural understandings. If I train my mind correctly, my body will follow along naturally. Training my mind, however, must involve not only mental activity, but physical activity. For Tai Chi, purposes, mind and body cannot be completely separated. It is really two aspects of one thing. We just need to focus more on the mind aspect of it.

The second practice question is how should we interpret the word 精神 (jīngshen or jīngshén). What is this thing we are supposed to "raise" or place our "intent" on? The answers I like can be gleaned from two sources: Barbara Davis's book The Taijiquan Classics: An Annotated Translation Including a Commentary by Chen Weiming, page 140, and Paul Brennan's Translation of 太極拳術陳微明 The Art of Taiji Boxing by Chen Weiming, Part 4, near the end.

The first text says:

24. The whole body's yi is on the spirit (jingshen), not on the qi. If it is on the qi, then it is stagnant (zhi).
25. When one has qi, then one will not have li (strength). If one has no qi (wu qi), then there is pure hardness.

Chen
: Taiji is carried out purely with the shen (spirit), and does not set store by exertion (qili). This qi is post-heavenly exertion. Nourishing qi is pre-heavenly qi. The qi of movement (yunqi) is [a sort of] post-heavenly qi. Post-heavenly qi has an end. Pre-heavenly qi has no limit.

Notes: The whole body's yi is on the spirit. Some read "The whole body's yi is on storing up the spirit (xushen)."68

When one has qi. This line is very difficult to interpret. A variant reading offers "Those who esteem the qi have no li; those who nourish the qi (yang qi), pure hardness."69 The Wu/Li Classics have the same wording for this line as Chen Weiming's version.

Zheng Manqing [Cheng Man-ch'ing] uses this phrase in a discussion of the highest level of taijiquan accomplishment:

These words are very strange. They imply that the qi is not important, and in fact, it is not. When the qi reaches the highest level and becomes mental energy, it is called spiritual power (shenli) or "the power without physical force" (wu li zhi li). Wherever the eyes concentrate, the spirit reaches and the qi follows. The qi can mobilize the body, but you need not will the qi in order to move it. The spirit can carry the qi with it. This spiritual power is called "divine speed."70


By the way, I strongly recommend buying this book for those with a passion for Tai Chi theory.

The second text (from Paul Brennan's excellent site) says:

全身意在精神。不在氣。在氣則滯。有氣者無力。無氣者純剛。
Throughout the body, the mind should be on the spirit rather than on the energy, for if you are fixated on the energy, your movement will become sluggish. Whenever the mind is on the energy, there will be no power, whereas if you ignore the energy and let it take care of itself, there will be pure strength.
太極純以神行。不尚氣力。此氣言後天之氣力也。蓋養氣之氣。為先天之氣。運氣之氣。為後天之氣。後天之氣有盡。先天之氣無窮。
Taiji is all about the movement of spirit and does not emphasize the physical effort of acquired habit. The energy of letting energy maintain you is innate from birth. The energy of moving energy around is an acquired habit. The acquired energy keeps finishing. The innate energy goes on and on.


The more one understands of the traditional Chinese worldview, the easier it is to understand these thoughts. In my view, some people do not research enough or else overemphasize Chinese medicine, which is only one type of thread in the tapestry of thought making up these views. For these reasons, I have very recently been contrasting potential energy with kinetic energy to provide a scientific reference for interpreting things such as:

養氣之氣。為先天之氣。運氣之氣。為後天之氣。後天之氣有盡。先天之氣無窮。The energy of letting energy maintain you is innate from birth. The energy of moving energy around is an acquired habit. The acquired energy keeps finishing. The innate energy goes on and on.


If I had to restate this, I might say something like: Your capacity to store and use potential energy is inherent in your body's position, configuration, and state, while your ability to manage kinetic energy comes from the ability you acquire to use your muscles and move your limbs around with speed and power. This acquired ability is limited by the start and stop of the motion itself, as the energy of the motion dissipates. The inherent energy of position, configuration, and state goes on and on, as the body simply oscillates from one state of potential energy to another like the springs driving the hands of a clock.

These are just my thoughts. I hope they help.

Take care,
Audi
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Re: Taijiquan and Shen (神) - A Closer Look

Postby UniTaichi » Sat Jan 19, 2013 8:56 am

Hi Audi,Meghdad,

//Shen was thought of as the clearest, highest form of Qi (energy/matter). //

This is how I see it too. IMO, it is both Mind and Spirit.

//精神 (jīngshen or jīngshén//

This is another example where we need to know when to treat it as one or separate word.

//Zheng Manqing [Cheng Man-ch'ing] uses this phrase in a discussion of the highest level of taijiquan accomplishment://

//These words are very strange. They imply that the qi is not important, and in fact, it is not. When the qi reaches the highest level and becomes mental energy, it is called spiritual power (shenli) or "the power without physical force" (wu li zhi li). Wherever the eyes concentrate, the spirit reaches and the qi follows. The qi can mobilize the body, but you need not will the qi in order to move it. The spirit can carry the qi with it. This spiritual power is called "divine speed//

Anyway my take is , '' They imply that the (li)qi or qi(li)- muscular energy, is not important, and in fact, it is not. When the (nei)qi - internal energy, reaches the highest level and becomes mental energy, it is called spiritual power (shenli) or the power without physical force. ''

CMC and some other masters write using one word qi for the whole phrase and we need to interpret which type of qi to understand. Others are clearer as they state the type of qi. After that, the phrase describe what I have posted on another thread, when one can Fa Shen. This is what GM Wei Shu Ren(Yang Laoliulu) and GM Gao Zhuang Fei(Wu) meant when they said '' no form is superior to form'' For those interested can read the thread on GM Wei SR posted in this forum.

//24. The whole body's yi is on the spirit (jingshen), not on the qi. If it is on the qi, then it is stagnant (zhi).
25. When one has qi, then one will not have li (strength). If one has no qi (wu qi), then there is pure hardness.//

The above is the similar to what I explained earlier. Maybe some mental elucidation by readers here to interpret/identify and share which type of Qi is the writer implying.

These are my understanding at this stage of training and search for Taijiquan.

Cheers,
UniTaichi
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Re: Taijiquan and Shen (神) - A Closer Look

Postby extrajoseph » Wed Jun 26, 2013 8:59 am

Hi Meghdad,

Just saw your thread, which is a very interesting topic, thanks for posting it, here is my belated two cents worth.

When we can translate the rest of the Taijiquan Essential No 8 “Nei Wai Xiang He”, we can see clearly what the spirit means in Taijiquan. It is the coming together of the internal with the external that will give us the spirit when we do our Taijiquan. The external in this case refers to the visible body parts and their movements and the internal in this case refers to the invisible “xin-yi” or the feelings and the intentions, that is our conscious mindfulness, when we do our training and the more the external and the internal are integrated the better is the spirit. It is not that difficult to grasp.

Below you can see my attempt at translation from the original Chinese, I have not seen Louis’ translation but I will buy his book today:

八.内外相合
太极拳所练在神,故云:“神为主帅,身为驱使”。精神能提得起,自然举动轻灵。架子不外虚实开合;所谓开者,不但手足开,心意亦 与之俱开,所谓合者,不但手足合,心意亦与之俱合,形与神合一,即内外合为一气, 则浑然无间矣。

8. Nei Wai Xiang He: Harmony of the External and Internal

What we train in Taijiquan is the spirit, hence it is said, “The spirit is the commander and the body is his operator”. When the vitality is raised, the movements become naturally light and agile. The postures consist no other than opening and closing; the so-called opening is not only opening the hands and the legs, the feelings and the intentions are completely opened as well, the so-called closing is not only closing the hands and the legs, the feelings and the intentions are completely closed as well, (so) the form and the spirit can combine into a whole, that is the internal and the external join together to become one qi, which are completely integrated without any gaps.

Regards,
XJ
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Re: Taijiquan and Shen (神) - A Closer Look

Postby Audi » Tue Aug 13, 2013 8:57 pm

Hi everyone,

In reviewing, this thread I see a lot of emphasis on philosophy. Just to balance things out, I want to try to focus on something more tangible to express my understanding.

The Chinese word "shen" can refer to your facial express as a reflection of your inner state. The main component of this is the use of the eyes. In every posture or application, there is some action or goal toward which the entire body and mind is focused. Your gaze should be on this thing that defines what it is you are doing. If your gaze is elsewhere or unfocused, your shen or "spirit" is not correct.

If you have some physical problem with a posture, this will be reflected in your gaze and expression as you concentrate on what is causing difficulty instead of what is actually the core of the posture in that moment. Since circumstances change from moment to moment, the gaze should be lively and reflect those changes. If it does not or you do not feel that you have a surplus of energy, your eyes will look dull or wooden.

If you have over-learned a movement as sequence of physical positions, your gaze will reflect this sequence as you count down your "way points" that lead you to the end. In the extreme, your gaze may fall on particular parts of your body or the location of your feet as you check yourself against your mental standard. Your gaze and expression are visibly directed inward as you appear to reflect the directions of a past teacher more than what you yourself feel. If, instead, you have begun to understand and feel the flow of the energy, your gaze and expression will reflect the intended result on your imaginary opponent, often slightly preceding your own movements.

If your energy level becomes low, your spirit will not have enough support as your movements stop being a live expression of your intended inner being and start being an expression of rote memorization from previous practice. Performers with strong spirit look like they are in the now, because they feel they are actually doing something with current meaning, and not simply repeating something.

Take care,
Audi
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Re: Taijiquan and Shen (神) - A Closer Look

Postby Audi » Sat Aug 17, 2013 6:27 pm

Hi Everyone,

I just noticed that starting at 14:55 on this documentary that Bob had linked to Master Yang Zhenduo gives the explanation I recall about ways in which the spirit (shen and jingshen) are linked with the gaze and various postures.

The documentary is in Chinese, which is unfortunate for those who cannot understand it or who understand it only poorly, like me. What I can say is that for most of the time Master Yang Zhenduo is contrasting the right way of doing things with the wrong way. He begins by talking about the hand shape, saying that some do not stretch the hand enough, because they are trying not to use Li (力), but says that the issue is really to avoid using "clumsy force" (拙力) and to show spirit you need to stretch the hand sufficiently. You well then have a feeling of vigor (jingshen)in the hand that you won't have if you leave it empty. You will manifest the needle in cotton. This feeling is not just for the hand, but for the whole arm, shoulder, body, and legs. He then shows some Fajin, stressing that it is done not just with the hand, but with the whole body.

Around 16:50, Master Yang shows a posture, perhaps Flying Diagonal, and says that you have to loosen up/relax to show spirit. If you do it in an empty way, he asks if it shows spirit and confirms that it does not.

About 17:45, Master Yang links spirit to the first of the Ten Essentials: "Empty, lively, pushing up, and energetic" (虚灵顶劲), saying that the main meaning is to lift the head and not lean it to any side. That allows the feeling of vigor to rise up and give spirit to the movements.

Take care,
Audi
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