The Chinese tonic herbs have long been considered to be “spiritual growth herbs” by Taoist and Zen Buddhist masters precisely because of their support in helping us evolve through extremely stressful conditions, enhancing our ability to not only overcome challenges but to also extract the wisdom from our experiences. Balance is the most central concept in the TCM cosmology; its cultivation and maintenance is crucial for the optimal functioning of all bodily systems, which helps create a solid foundation for our Shen, or “spirit” to blossom into its highest expression.
The Taoist sages who were instrumental in the development of tonic herbalism established that humans are composed of Three Treasures: Jing (精), Qi (氣), and Shen (神). Taoist Master Sung Jin Park used the metaphor of a burning candle to describe the Three Treasures, as relayed by his student, Ron Teeguarden. Jing is akin to the wax and wick – these amount to condensed energy in the form of matter. Qi is likened to the burning flame – the energetic action of the candle, which eventually goes out. Finally, Shen is like the radiance that the lit candle exudes. The robustness of the candle, along with a higher quality of the wax and wick, make for a longer-lasting candle with a brighter and more enduring flame.
Shen, or “spirit” reflects the higher consciousness of human beings and the presence of the divine within each of us, expressed as love, kindness, forgiveness, generosity, and acceptance. If, as the Taoists say, the meeting point of Heaven and Earth is Man, then Earth energy is the source of Jing and Qi, while Heaven energy is the source of our Shen. It resides in the heart and can be seen through the eyes, as it presides over our emotions, consciousness, and thoughts. Unlike Jing and Qi, Shen is not connected to our ancestry but is exclusively cultivated throughout our lives – in the ways we relate to others and to all of creation, through spiritual practice, or any creative activity that aligns us with a higher state of consciousness. Its ultimate expression can be understood as “enlightenment,” which can flourish when there is balance in one’s life and in the other two treasures.
Every tonic herb supports our capacity for evolution in some way, as they all help to bring us back into homeostasis, which promotes the harmony of mind, body, and spirit. However, there is a category of Shen tonics that are considered especially supportive to our spiritual growth. Let’s explore a few of our favorites and how they support us spiritually.
Reishi: Known as a premier spiritual potentiator, Reishi is extremely protective on every level – physiologically, cognitively, immunologically, and therefore spiritually. Widely employed to support the cardiovascular system on a physical level, it also promotes a profound sense of internal peace and has long been considered the supreme Shen tonic of Chinese herbalism, although it also supports Qi and Jing. With its capacity to soothe nervous tension, enhance nerve function, improve memory, boost concentration, increase willpower, and modulate stress, it supports our capacity to distill wisdom and embody our highest potential. It is considered an excellent ally for those who have suffered heartbreak, deal with anxiety or excessive worrying, are chronically fearful, or have become deeply exhausted on the emotional or mental levels.
Our Duanwood Reishi is more than twice as potent as almost any other type of Reishi and provides the richest source of bioactive constituents. Reishi Spore Powder is even more concentrated in certain nutrients and, being the mushroom’s seed, is believed to contain an abundance of Jing.
Pearl: A powerful Shen regulator, Pearl is an optimal ally for spiritual growth as it promotes restorative sleep cycles, helps overcome fatigue, and facilitates the release of nervousness, anxiety, and tension. Extremely nutrient dense, Pearl contains essential minerals like magnesium and elevates GABA levels, which has a calming and relaxing effect on the brain and body. Interestingly, Pearl offers a host of benefits related to eye health and is known in TCM to brighten the physical portals of our eyes through which Shen both expresses and perceives the outside world. In acupuncture, point Heart 7 is called Shen Men, or “Spirit Gate,” which is indicated in treating disorders of the spirit like insomnia, anxiety, agitation, or restlessness. I find that Pearl is the herbal companion to Heart 7. Our freshwater Pearl is made bioavailable through a process called levigation, rendering this nano-sized powder easily assimilated and utilized by the body.
Schizandra: Containing all Three Treasures in abundance and entering all twelve meridians, this powerful “five-flavored berry” was revered by the Taoists for its support in developing their spiritual power. As a true adaptogen, Schizandra can help regulate the body’s nonspecific stress response via the HPA axis and sympathetic-adrenal system. When these systems are dysregulated, we can experience cortisol dysregulation, commonly known as adrenal fatigue, as well as defaulting to “fight-or-flight” mode, both of which contribute to a cascade of health issues and a compromised capacity to cope with stressors. Schizandra is particularly protective to the adrenals, and prevents physiological damage from extreme or chronic stress. Schizandra has also been shown to improve vision and even enlarge one’s field of vision, actually enhancing the capacity of the central nervous system to analyze inputs from our peripheral sensors. This tonic herb has a profoundly balancing effect on the nervous system and improves both alertness and cognitive function without causing nervousness like most caffeine or stimulants.
Of course, our Shen blend was formulated specifically to bring well-rounded support in calming the mind, uplifting the spirit, and nourishing our heart centers. This formula features Reishi, Jujube Seed, White Peony Root, Asparagus Root, Polygala Root, and Albizia Bark. Asparagus root is another highly prized Shen tonic that is known to uplift the spirit, greatly enhance the breadth of one’s perspective, and was even thought by the Taoists to give the power of flight. As Teeguarden explains, the power to fly refers to the ability to rise above and to see things in their true light. Polygala is another powerful Shen herb that helps calm our emotions and relax the mind, but also enhances our capacities for dreaming, visualizing, and creativity. It is known to strengthen the willpower of spiritual seekers to support persistence, while also supporting the circulation-sex system to help us experience greater pleasure.