My God, it’s full of stars… (2001 Space Odyssey) separation at the same time as infinitely many without differentiation.


The purpose of this article is to discuss some of the basic concepts of Chinese Medicine and philosophy and relate them to aspects of our own experience and therefore make these ideas more accessible. The philosophical model was created in order to explain reality and to help us work with it. Without understanding its roots in reality it becomes a mere fascination, a quirky topic for discussion, but with no relevance to anyone. Instead of understanding we end up asking ourselves do we believe in this, as though it is a matter blind faith in ancient wisdom. We have no reason today not to understand the reality that ancient thinkers could grasp.

Looking up into the Heavens on a clear starry night one can see into infinity. Peering into the depths of space the Universe is right before your eyes. The black starry void twinkling through the ages, like a tapestry of the soul, more or less the same as it was thousands of years ago. It can almost make you forget yourself, or perhaps help you remember. This is the power of Heaven. When you look into it you are aware and conscious of the void, you are part of it, in touch with the Universal. We all have this aspect of ‘Universal consciousness’ in our lives. It’s pretty pure stuff, though, perhaps not surprisingly, it also relates to our individual consciousness. One could say that the individual consciousness is the same as Universal consciousness turned inside to look out upon the world; rather like the space within a cup being essentially the same as the space around the cup and yet it may be used more individually.

The idea of the void is useful to explain this. The emptiness of space is a void, but it is also full of stars. A cup contains a void inside that may be filled and emptied. In a way it is all the same void, all part of the Universal void, the space around and between the stars, right down to the space around and between atoms and sub atomic particles. Likewise consciousness is also all part of the Universal consciousness. The Chinese talk about this Universal consciousness in terms of spirits. These spirits are numerous and infinite and reside in Heaven and within us inside the void. They are called Shen. Perhaps it is difficult to understand the concept of spirits, or maybe it makes perfect sense, it really doesn’t matter. We can consider oneness without separation at the same time as infinitely many without differentiation.

At the level of Universal Consciousness and the Spirits, Shen, we are referring also to the domain of Heaven. We can say this is at the level of One and in a way this is the clearest picture we can get. If we separate this picture into the idea of Heaven and Earth then there are two perspectives. We have the original One and now we have another more Earthly point of view. With feet on the ground, looking around us there are Earthly things to see, and also Heaven if we look up; now we can make the separation. It might only be illusory, a shift in perception, but we can discuss some important relationships using these terms and points of view.

In Chinese philosophy we talk about the formation of life through a combination of Heavenly and Earthly energies. These are the two archetypal extremes between which existence is drawn into being in the Middle Void. Heaven is all encompassing and because it comes first it has all the initial power. Earth receives from Heaven and represents the level of form; with individual instances of forms much more local and specific, than the numerous, infinite and undifferentiated nature of Heaven. The potential of Heaven creates the form of Earth which gives rise to life, humanity and the individual person as an answer back to Heaven.

These ideas bring together a model for understanding life between Heaven and Earth. We need this understanding to know our place in the world. The connection from Heaven to Earth for instance gives us a vertical axis. Sometimes we refer to this as the Heaven, Earth, Man creative axis (Heaven creates Earth creates Man). If we remember this connection through ourselves it brings us back to who we really are. If we look out across the Earth we see things on a horizontal plane and this is the world we interact with; forming the created axis. We can even make a cross from the vertical and horizontal axes and describe different aspects of our life. Whenever we consider this crossing we can see there is a middle point, a centre upon which things are focussed, or a pivot about which things can turn. With this model we have enough to describe the basic organisation of our life. It is possible to show how life is organised through five ways. This relates to the theory of five elements and the system of correspondences which forms the basis of Chinese Medicine. For now perhaps we can return to the Spirits, the Shen, to illustrate the five spiritual aspects of our being.

Wu Shen – Five Spiritual Aspects

Firstly there is the Shen Hun Horizontal Plane within the individual, acting Personal Soul as the connection to the Universal Shen. We are formed from both Heavenly and Earthly energies. The Shen from Heaven become rooted in the body formed by Earth. The substance of this form has a basic essential nature – we call this essence Jing. This is the substance of life which can root the spirits which animate it. Here we have the relationship which brings the Heavenly and Earthly energies together within us. Sometimes referred to as the Shen-Jing axis and meaning the combination of the Spirits and Essences, it is fundamental to individuality.

If we now consider our movement in the world on the horizontal level we can look at how the spirits act within us. We can separate the movement of the Shen within us into two more aspects. On one side we have the individual soul, called Hun, rather like the Universal Shen turned inside in order to look out upon the World. The other aspect is the animal soul which is concerned with the physical form, the maintenance of life, the production of essences. This is called the Po. The Hun and Po operate very much in the worldly matters. Desire comes from the Po. They are the movement behind hunger and all physical needs. We act in the world in order to survive at this basic level. The Hun strives to be higher than the mere physical needs. They give us the power to imagine and dream.

We can depict the Hun moving upwards towards the Shen, following the light of consciousness, aspiring to destiny, leading us on to better things. The Po is concerned with the Jing aspect of the equation and work to maintain physical form and Earthly existence. Together the movements of Hun and Po operate around the Shen-Jing axis on the horizontal plane of existence in the World. The Shen and Jing relationship forms the backbone of our lives as Spiritual-Physical beings. The dynamics of Hun and Po make us what we seem to be to each other, our personal life story follows the play of these two characters. Ultimately their movement is derived from the Shen-Jing relationship, the core of our individuality. Still there are two more aspects to mention. It will make more sense to depict the five spiritual aspects together. Jing itself is not considered a spiritual aspect as it is really the Essence and there are in fact five Jing as well, but that’s another story. The aspect which corresponds to the deep power of Jing is called Zhi, meaning willpower. It is a strong purposeful spiritual force drawing upon the connection with the physical world and is often thought of as something to do with how memory works to hold on to thoughts. The Yi represents the intellect, thought and purpose. Its central role is concerned with the assimilation of thoughts and ideas into schema. Together the Five Spiritual Aspects describe the basic constitution of our spiritual nature.

Before we are born we are not aware of time passing, we just are. Being in space, in the womb, is as close as we come to Heaven, at least in our Earthly awareness. It is not until we are born that we can contemplate time passing. The state of just being is important because it relates to the innermost part of ourselves, the basic core of our humanity. Without this we do not exist, and yet on the outside we have the whole world. Together again time and space relating to our innermost being and our outermost desires. The causes of disease are related to the interaction of our inner being and the outer worldly energies. It makes sense that this inner state, like the experience of the womb, must come into contact with the outside world somehow, and yet these two aspects are quite distinct from one another. We have our individual selves and we share the whole world; this is where the problem arises. Inside we need to keep that inner being just as it has always been, unperturbed by the passing events of life in time. To a greater or lesser extent this is what we all manage to achieve. Time passes and the world changes and we are affected, but that innermost place stays hidden in the depths. We get sick when the processes which regulate the interaction between the innermost being and the outermost energies become unbalanced.

Rob William Hughes 1964 – 2018

An ICOM graduate from 1992 Rob was dedicated to the development of the College and its teachings for the benefit of humanity.