What is Shen Gong, or "Spirit Work"?
As we have discussed in a previous post, Qi Gong (氣功 - "energy work") is a relatively new term. Qi Gong generally exercises the 12 Ordinary Meridians in the body. These meridians typically extend close to the body's surface. There are many different qi gong techniques. Think of exercises like the Red Dragon Practice of White Eyebrow Kung Fu, where the set's movements follow the natural directions of energy flow in the meridians. Other Qi Gong methods are more specialized.
Nei Gong (內功 - "inner work") starts affecting energy channels that are more difficult to access than ordinary channels. For example, a Nei Gong practitioner may influence one of the "extraordinary" meridians, such as the Governing, Conception, or Thrusting channels.
When accumulating or circulating Qi, most practitioners work with the Qi (Energy) created by converting food and air into a usable energy currency (ATP). But please remember, acquired qi is not the only thing that can be refined and circulated. This is where you find a practice called Shen Gong or "spiritual work" (神 功).
As we have discussed in great detail in our course "Grasping Qigong", the three treasures of Jing ( 精 - "Essence"), Qi ( 氣 - "Energy") and Shen (神 - "Spirit") play a central role in Daoist/Chinese medical longevity practices. Often, in ancient texts, Jing-Qi-Shen is explained as an oil lamp burning. Our Jing-Essence is the oil that nourishes the wick, which is set aflame by a spark, referring to our Qi, and the light given off by the flame is our spirit or shen. This is a clear example of a power-law in physics (P=IV) where a relative change in one quantity results in a relatively proportional change in the other amount. Jing fuels Qi and Qi fuels shen. When Jing dies, Qi dies. When Qi dies, Shen dies.
In this post, we will be discussing Shen Gong (神 功 - "Spiritual Work").
The character for Shen is quite impressive. The earliest recorded character form for shen has two sections. The right side of the character gives the basic meaning and pronunciation. It also provides a graphic representation of flashing lightning from the clouds. This visual displays the ancient Chinese belief that lightning was the manifestation of God. The left side displays a modified character shi referring to ritual ceremonies, worship, or prayer. Could this character for Shen refer to our bodies' bioelectricity as a lightning bolt and that it drives our brains and energizes our minds? When the Chinese characters are translated, Jing represents stored rice. Qi means cooked rice. Shen represents luminescence or the casting of light. Again, for a much, much, more in-depth analysis of the three treasures of Jing, Qi, and Shen, please see my course "Grasping Qigong" at the Jade Dragon Qigong School.
Shen in Chinese Medicine
Shen (神) translates as "Spirit," and the term signifies our consciousness, mental functions, mental health, vitality, and "presence." Our shen lives in the Heart, where it rests at night during sleep. If one's Shen is disturbed, you may exhibit insomnia. The spirit is specifically said to live in the Blood Vessels (part of the Heart system, more on this later when we discuss heart rate variability). The Blood nourishes the spirit. In TCM pathology, therefore, deficient Blood may fail to nourish the Shen. Alternatively, Heat (of various Organs) may disturb the Shen.
State of the Shen is visible in the eyes. A healthy Shen produces bright, shining eyes, brimming with vitality. A disturbed Shen produces dull eyes, which appear to have a veil in front of them. This dull-spirit can be seen in those with long-term emotional problems or after serious shock.
A healthy Shen depends on the Essence's strength (stored in Kidneys - see adrenal function later in this post) and Qi (produced by the digestion of food into usable energy bonds). If Jing-Essence and Qi-Energy are healthy, our Shen-Spirit will be well-nourished. As mentioned above, the Shen lives in the Blood Vessels, part of the Heart system in TCM. Blood is closely related to Qi in TCM and is formed from the nourishment derived from food and fluids; hence, blood formation converges with Qi's formation.
What is Shen in Western Science
Neurotransmitters play a vital role in modulating and regulating behavior and emotion. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that transmit signals across nerve endings in the body. The following are several key neurotransmitters that are regulated by Qigong practice. Again, for a much deeper dive into the brain and nature of the Shen (神 - "spirit") please see my course "Grasping Qigong" over at the Jade Dragon Qigong School.
Norepinephrine: Norepinephrine (brain adrenaline) is both a hormone produced by the adrenal glands and a neurotransmitter. Norepinephrine is produced in the inner part of the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are included in the Kidney system of traditional Chinese medicine. The adrenal glands play a role in your mood and ability to concentrate. Together with other hormones, norepinephrine helps the body respond to stress and exercise. Bursts of norepinephrine can lead to feelings of euphoria (extreme happiness). However, they are also linked to panic attacks, elevated blood pressure, and hyperactivity. Low levels of norepinephrine can cause lethargy (lack of energy), lack of concentration, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and possibly depression. The key here is balance; too much is a problem, and so is too little.
Serotonin: Serotonin is the key hormone that stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness. This hormone impacts your entire body. It enables brain cells and other nervous system cells to communicate with each other. Serotonin also helps with sleeping, eating, and digestion. However, if the brain has too little serotonin, it may lead to depression. If the brain has too much serotonin, it can lead to excessive nerve cell activity. Just like norepinephrine, the key with serotonin is also about balance. Serotonin helps regulate your mood naturally. When your serotonin levels are at an average level, you should feel more focused, emotionally stable, happier, and calmer.
Dopamine: Dopamine plays a role in how we feel pleasure. It's a big part of our uniquely human ability to think and plan. It helps us strive, focus, and find things interesting. Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter. Having low levels of dopamine can make you less motivated and excited about something. It's linked to some mental illnesses, including depression. Having too much dopamine – or too much dopamine concentrated in some parts of the brain and not enough in other regions – is more competitive, aggressive, and poor impulse control.
Acetylcholine: Acetylcholine is the chief neurotransmitter of the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is part of the autonomic (automatic, as in you don't "think" to do it) nervous system. This branch of the nervous system contracts smooth muscles, dilates blood vessels, increases bodily secretions, and slows our heart rate. The fight or flight response is driven by the sympathetic nervous system, while the parasympathetic nervous system promotes the rest and digest response. If you want to heal, you need lots of acetylcholine to fuel the "rest and digest" nature of the parasympathetic nervous system.
𝛾-aminobutyric acid (GABA): Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) is a naturally occurring amino acid that works as a neurotransmitter in your brain. GABA's central role in the body is to reduce neuronal activity in the brain and central nervous system. This action has a broad range of effects on the body and mind, including increased relaxation, a reduced stress response, a more calm, stable mood, alleviation of pain, and an increase in sleep quality.
Meditation and Qigong has research backing up its impact on all of the listed neurotransmitters/hormones above.
For example, in a study that compared norepinephrine levels between two groups, one which practiced meditation and another that attended weekly meetings, the researchers determined that the group practicing meditation displayed lower norepinephrine levels in their blood samples compared to the controls. In another experiment, regular meditators expressed lower norepinephrine levels than the control group of healthy subjects, when their blood levels were measured in mornings and evenings.
After they concluded their meditation sessions, several studies performed on participants observed a rise in serotonin breakdown products in the urine. In one such study of Meditation practitioners, researchers used urine samples to test for serotonin. The meditators exhibited a higher level before meditation than the controls and a much higher level after meditation practice.
Serotonin increase can interact with dopamine, and this link may enhance the feelings of euphoria seen during meditation. Serotonin, also in conjunction with glutamate, can result in the release of acetylcholine from Nucleus Basalis. While no studies have evaluated acetylcholine's role in meditation, it appears that this neurotransmitter enhances attentional processing and spatial orientation.
Another study that incorporated brain scans observed an increase in dopamine levels in the ventral striatum of participants during meditation.
Researchers used a brain scan to compare the regional cerebral blood flow of eight Tibetan Buddhist meditators. As they performed complex cognitive tasks, they found that the meditators had significantly higher regional cerebral blood flow in the prefrontal cortex than the controls. This area is a brain region principally responsible for executive functions such as decision making and problem-solving ability. When the prefrontal cortex is stimulated, it activates the thalamus's reticular nucleus, which in turn produces GABA. Meditators have a higher threshold for concentration and alertness, which are cognitive functions controlled by the prefrontal cortex. Therefore, an increase in the prefrontal cortex region upon meditation is correlated to increased GABA production since the reticular nucleus will be excited. It has also been hypothesized that meditation increases GABA. By increasing GABA levels, meditation may help to decrease anxiety levels.
In our next post we will be discussing the role that Qigong meditation plays in our brain wave states, stay tuned!