Nei-yeh (Chinese Self-Cultivation Manual)

12. Shên, the source of understanding, repulsed by Mental Turbulence.

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1   The numinous [mind] (shên), no one knows its limit.

2   It intuitively knows the myriad things.

3   Hold it within you; do not let it waver.

4   To not disrupt your senses with external things,

5   To not disrupt your mind (hsin) with your senses,

6   This is called 'grasping it within you (zhöng)'.


Verse 12 introduces the highly significant word-concept shên. It is the third of the beneficent cosmic energies along with jing and ch’i that we want to attract to our core (zhöng). Not just psychological or mystical, the three energies have distinct physiological roots. Intimately tied to the body, each element of the trio has a biological correlate. Jing is associated with the crotch and sexual energy. Ch’i is associated with the lungs and breath. Shên is associated with the brain and our thoughts.As evidence for the continuity of these mental constructs, Master Ni continued speaking about jing, ch’i and shên over two millennia later. Here are a few examples.

Ni: “Unite jing, chi, shên as One. Then blend lights, internal and external, with integrated energy. This is the Way (Tao).”
Ni: “First convert jing to chi – 100%. Then convert chi to shên – also 100%. Have so little jing left at 93 - difficult.”
Ni disparagingly: “Many teach jing-chi. I teach jing-chi-shên.” Proudly.

It is evident from these quotations that Master Ni considered shên to be of utmost importance. According to him, uniting this trio of energies is an essential feature of the Way - the Tao of self-cultivation. Further refined jing becomes ch’i and refined ch’i becomes shên. Finally, he proudly teaches shên along with jing and ch’i, while many don’t. It seems that shên is at the top of the pyramid of cosmic forces. 

What does shên mean? Conceptualizing the word is difficult. As we shall see, the Nei-yeh recommends against attempting to comprehend it. As even the Chinese are unable to understand the word, translating shên into English is almost impossible.

Roth translates shên as ‘numinous’. However, this nebulous word acts merely as a placeholder in that it conveys little information to the reader. To avoid risking misleading connotations, we are also going to resist the temptation to translate shên as ‘spirit’, the traditional definition. As a homonym, shên sometimes has this meaning, e.g. Verse 1 of the Nei-yeh. However as a significant Taoist word-concept, shên is more associated with our cognitive abilities than it is with the other-worldly realm inhabited by ghosts and spirits of the dead.

Shên is not merely our cognitive abilities. Instead it is a positive organizing force. Roth connects it with both intuitive understanding and foreknowledge of the future. In similar fashion, I frequently understand shên as inspiration, insight or subtle refinement.

Shên could be likened to genius. In this context, genius is not a state or permanent feature of an individual, as in ‘he is a genius’. This is the modern definition. Instead genius represents the inspiration that comes and goes for any creative individual. This is the ancient definition that Socrates used when speaking of genius. While similar to this notion of genius, shên has broader connotations.

In similar fashion to the Chinese words jing, ch’i, hsin, and Tao, no English word quite conveys the complex of ideas associated with shên. Bearing this limitation in mind, we will employ ’mental acuity’ to remind us of shên’s meaning.

The only way to really understand shên is by examining the contexts in which it is used. The Nei-yeh provides many opportunities for this contextual understanding. This important word-concept has multiple meanings in the Chinese tradition. The Nei-yeh’s 26 verses will provide the primary context for our understanding of shên.


Lines 1-2:

   1   The numinous [mind] (shên), no one knows its limit.

   2   It intuitively knows the myriad things.


According to the 1st line, no one knows the limits of shên. Just like jing, ch’i and the Tao, this word-concept is associated with the unknowable. Limitations imply a field of action. What is shên’s field of action?

The 2nd line suggests that it has to do with understanding. The ‘myriad things’ can also be translated as the ’10,000 things’, which means ‘everything’ for the Chinese. In other words, shên knows everything.

The understanding seems to be of a particular type. Roth translates the first character in line 2, chao, as ‘intuitively’. From this perspective, shên is associated with intuitive knowledge.

However, Roth's ‘intuitively’ is an interpretive rending of the term. Chao literally means ‘to illuminate’ or ‘make manifest in the light’. Under this reading, shên clearly illuminates the 10,000 things. More than only intuitive, shên is our prime and best source for understanding, i.e. for ordering all sensual and cognitive information. Via shên, we are able to reflect clearly, without misapprehension, about the myriad things. These connotations are in line with our choice of ‘mental acuity’ to remind us of shên’s meaning.

Lines 3-6:

     3   Hold it within (zhöng) you; do not let it waver.

     4   To not disrupt your senses with external things,

     5   To not disrupt your mind (hsin) with your senses,

     6   This is called 'grasping it within you (zhöng)'.


Because of shên's positive features, the Nei-yeh counsels us to hold or guard shên in our center (zhöng). In similar fashion to jing, ch’i and the Tao, the implication is that shên is some kind of external cosmic energy that we want to attract to and stabilize in our core.

The verse continues on to describe the conditions that repel shên. External things presumably disrupt our senses and our senses disrupt hsin, our heart-mind. These disruptions are to be avoided if we are to retain shên with its powerful cognitive skills.

Avoiding these disruptions is the process of ‘grasping shên within our core (zhöng). The ideogram for grasping can also be translated as ‘getting, developing, nurturing, or preserving’. In order to nurture shên’s ‘genius’ we must avoid the sensuous cravings that disturb the tranquility of hsin (heart-mind). Disrupting hsin’s tranquility repels shên's ability to 'intuitively understand the myriad things' or alternately ‘clearly illuminate and order incoming sensual input’.

From prior verses, our sense-desires disrupt the tranquility that is the foundation of the well-ordered mind (V11). Further a well-ordered mind is the basis of effective speech and action that exert a positive influence upon the planet (V10). In brief, emotional turbulence produces disruptive effects that both jumble our well-ordered mind and repel shên from our core (zhöng).

Shên: Definition & Ideogram

To gain a better understanding of shên’s connotations for the Chinese let us look at some definitions and examine its ideogram.

 Following is the modern definition for shên:

“1) god, deity; 2) spirit, mind; 3) expression, look; 4) supernatural, magical”1

When the ideograms for shên and jing are combined the definition becomes:

“1) spirit, mind, consciousness; 2) essence, gist, spirit; 3) vigor, vitality, drive; 4) lively, spirited”2

It seems that shên can signify both an external deity, perhaps even a ghost, and an internal spirit associated with our mind. This dual nature is reflected in Chinese mythology. Humans are born with shên. When we die, shên becomes an active spirit3.

To get a better notion regarding its personal meaning, let us examine shên’s calligraphy. The ideogram combines two pictograms: the symbol for ‘divining’ on the left and a symbol that indicates ‘to extend, increase, state, report’ on the right.

The association of shên with ‘divining’ is significant. The ancient Chinese took divination seriously. Their leaders examined the cracks on tortoise shells to determine the course of action for affairs of state. Chinese calligraphy supposedly derived from these same cracks. As further evidence, the I Ching, the first Chinese classic, can be employed as a form of divination. Some scholars even believe that the ‘divining’ pictogram could have derived from the stalks that are thrown to determine the lines in the I Ching’s hexagrams.

The pictogram on the right derived from 2 hands holding a rope for extension4. The hands could be alternately employed to climb upwards. In the case of this pictogram, extension was associated with ‘the alternate expansion of two natural powers’5.

Combined with the pictogram for divination, it grants the impression of extending into the divine world for guidance. The combination evokes the notion that directives are coming from Heaven. The implication of the ideogram is that shên’s insights derive from divine sources. If we can tap into shên energy, inspiration is the result.

Let us provide yet another nuance for this charged word-concept. Isabel Robinet, the French Taoist scholar, defines shên as “constelling force”. This is admittedly a clumsy term, but saves it from associations with mystical or other-worldly connotations . Shên is that force/energy in the self that centers/controls/gives order to the multiplicity of the body just as the pole star organizes the stars as they ‘circle’.

Confucius: “The king is like the pole star; he faces south and (without force) the country orders itself.” Under this way of thinking, shên is the self-constelling power within a human.

Zhöng (center) from line 6 is normally a noun denoting a particular place or point of balance. In this verse, zhöng is the residence of shên, which functions to govern and balance the body and all its components, including hsin, by means of its numinous power. Socially, the emperor centers the Imperial Palace, which centers the capital, which centers the empire.

In similar fashion, the emperor functions to balance the extended empire by force of the unlimited shên, which it guards at the center. Traditionally it was understood/argued that the emperor's internal power (te) brought order to the empire without ever requiring him to leave his palace/center, within which he was guarded. In terms of our discussion, understanding/inspiration radiate from the center (zhöng) when shên is located there.

It seems that, in addition to jing, chi, and the Tao, we also want to attract and stabilize shên in our core (zhöng). Emotional turbulence prevents this from happening by throwing us off our balance point – zhöng. How are we to achieve this emotional balance that brings inspiration and clarity?


There are no limits to shên, the source of intuitive understanding. External things disrupt the senses, which in turn disrupt the mind (hsin). The resulting emotional turbulence repulses shên. Avoiding this disruptive process results in grasping shên within our core (zhöng).


1 Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 395

2 Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary, p. 234

3 Barbara Aria & Russell Eng Gon, The Spirit of the Chinese Character, p.16

4 Chinese Characters, Dr. L. Wieger, original 1915, 1965, p. 138

5 Chinese Characters, Dr. L. Wieger, original 1915, 1965, p. 138


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