SHEN and LING 神 靈

The Chinese characters shen 神 and ling 靈 may both be translated as spirit, spiritual, spirit-like; both have the original meaning of influences coming from heaven and their etymology conveys their rooting in ancient shamanism.

The character shen is made up of two parts – that on the left 示 represents an influence coming from heaven, an auspicious sign, a revelation; and that on the right 申 is to extend, to expand, to unroll. In the oldest texts, the shen are often related to the spirits of ancestors, or those attributed to natural forces. They later came to be more closely associated with an embodied presence within the human being, (jing shen 精 神) and the way that heaven is able to manifest itself within us (shen ming 神 明), the illumination of the spirits, or enlightened consciousness.

Ling is more complex. At the bottom is the image of two shaman, or shamanesses, wu 巫 and it is suggested in Dr. S. L. Wieger’s translation of the 2nd century etymological dictionary, the Shuowen Jiezi, that they are situated between heaven and earth, providing a link between the two (工) – and possibly dancing. Above the two figures are three mouths (口) suggesting that they are singing or praying, and at the top, the character for rain (yu 雨). So the character represents a kind of shamanic rain dance. But rain also has the wider meaning of all kinds of beneficial influence from above, and the character became more commonly used to refer to spiritual power or efficacy, the numinous or sacred, but also the embodied realisation of the spirits, and one’s inner spirit.

The character ling is seen in the Lingshu, the second part of the Neijing which refers primarily to needling. The ling shu (靈 樞) or spiritual pivot, as it is usually translated, is said to refer to the needle itself – acting as an intermediary between heaven and earth, spirit and matter.

In the Xici, the commentary on the Yijing, the shen are considered to be above the influence of yin and yang, constant and unchanging. A ‘shen disturbance’ is therefore a disturbance of the heart/mind (xin 心), and an inability for the shen to be housed. The shen were often likened to birds, which will rest and roost in a tree if it is still and calm. But if it is shaken by the wind the birds will scatter. The same is true of the spirits. They require the stillness of the heart/mind to settle. The wind of the emotions will unsettle the heart/mind and scatter the spirits.

In modern Chinese the term shen jing (神 經), pathways of the shen, refers to the nerves, and various modern ‘shen disorders’ are actually disorders of the nervous system – such as anxiety and the kind of ‘jumpiness’ known as jing (驚), which is often caused by a separation between heart and kidneys. Maybe in this time of panic, we have never been so much in need of repairing the vital heart/kidney, jing/shen connection.

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