Last weekend, I attended a tai chi workshop lead by John Fung. Unlike our previous visiting teacher, John is quite happy with having us share our knowledge. Knowledge not shared will be knowledge lost. I learned a lot about shen, yi, and chi. I wanted to share some of what I learned, but I wasn’t sure what to write or how to focus my thoughts on the subject. Maybe forcing them onto the page will help get them into some kind of order.
Here’s a disclaimer before I begin. There are no simple definitions for these words. The experts who use and experience them can spend eternity arguing and speculating over what they mean. The ones who act certain are usually those who have no idea what they’re talking about. The important thing is that if you do certain things, you get certain results. You must be trained to get those results, but the training follows a definite path. Chi works, and hell if we know exactly why or how. When we’re talking about martial arts, lives may depend upon the effectiveness of the practice. When we’re talking about the Imperial Guard, the Emperor’s life once depended upon the practice. This ain’t your hippie grandma’s tai chi.
Shen is usually defined as spirit. That is the simplest and most basic translation, and it tells you pretty much nothing. Shen is usually associated with the head region, the third eye, and the base of the skull. For years I’ve been told not to mess with it. “Don’t send chi to the head! Don’t let the chi get trapped in the head!” They always told me that without giving much explanation about why, except that it will make you crazy. It will make you a space cadet who can’t string words together. It will make you talk like a stoned hippie. So all this time, it has been something I’m not supposed to play with at all. Avoid the head.
That’s not exactly right though. The shen has a purpose. John described the shen as being a general who surveys the field and determines the overall plan of attack. It determines what results are wanted, or needed, and outlines a basic plan. But the planner is pretty helpless without the next two (three actually) who do the work of fine tuning and putting the plan into action.
You know how they talk about enlightenment being the end to all desire? If you have no desire, there’s no need to make a plan. I’m not sure enlightenment means what some people think it means. I never see the Dalai Lama talk like a stoned hippie. He appears to have a healthy shen that helps him to decide what to do. He just doesn’t throw a hissy fit when things don’t go according to plan. He makes a new plan and moves on. Nonattachment doesn’t mean “don’t make plans,” it means “don’t get trapped by your plans.”
Yi is simplistically defined as intent. It is located roughly in the heart region, though you can use it anywhere. Yi is like the commander. It takes the general’s orders and refines them into specifics. The general sees the big picture. The commander handles the details. It is the yi that shapes the chi. When you visualize a ball of chi, it is the yi that forms the ball.
I’m starting to think the problem I had years ago might be described as a yi burnout. Kundalini burnout goes up the spine and lands in the head, and that seems more related to shen. Mine was focused more in the chest. For some time afterward, having chi wasn’t the problem, but I did have trouble focusing it. I use a lot of channeled energy in my magic, but even if the energy is channeled, you still have to use your own effort to tell it what to do.
That would be what a lack of yi looks like, on the other end, I’ve been told that too much yi will make you see things that aren’t there. To me that makes sense if your chi shaping abilities get out of hand. It becomes all too easy to give shape and substance to your inner demons.
Chi is the one most people have heard about. It is simply described as energy. In our system, chi is housed in the lower abdomen, a couple inches below the belly button, but of course you can put your chi anywhere you want, like in your hand, or even into other objects, like a sword, or other living beings, like your opponent. They say that chi is the flag bearer. Chi is the guy who runs into battle, going where the commander ordered, and the soldiers follow the flag. In this case the soldier is your body. Chi leads and draws the body in like a magnet. Whenever possible, it’s best to let your opponent’s chi do the work, because using chi all the time is tiring.
Just from my own experience, too much chi can make you feel manic or anxious. Not enough chi and you can feel like a walking zombie. It can drive a burnout if it gets too hot and sticks in one area or another. Or it can get sluggish and cause a block, which psychosomatically can cause muscles to tighten up and form knots. The entire practice of acupuncture is designed to get chi to flow more smoothly. Balance is important in all things. New people learning about energy always want more and more. That is a mistake. Use only what you need to get the job done.
Bringing it Together
When all three work together in a balanced way, they can accomplish amazing things seemingly without effort. That doesn’t mean you can skip ahead to the effortless part. All great artists make their work appear effortless. What you don’t see are the many hours they spent training. You must cultivate the chi so that it is balanced and healthy. You must train the yi to respond as you want. That takes practice to the point of boredom. The shen, the spirit, needs to be pure and unconflicted in what it wants so that it can send clear signals to the yi.