The Three Treasures:
Ancient Daoist Keys to Radiant, Lifelong Health and Wellness
BY NEIL KINGHAM
Thousands of years ago a concept arose in China that still has great relevance today—a beautiful, poetic description of the human condition, a simple theory that holds the secrets to the cultivationof happiness, good health and long life. It’s called the “Three Treasures.” In this article I’d like to introduce you to the Three Treasures and give some pointers about how you can work with this simple but profound framework, on your own journey toward radiant health.
According to this theory, the Three Treasures are the fundamental energies that maintain human life. They are Jing (essence), Qi (energy) and Shen (spirit), and strengthening and regulating the Three Treasures is one of the primary aims of all the branches and divisions of Chinese Medicine. When the Three Treasures are strong and balanced we have mental, physical and emotional strength. This leads to adaptability, a calm outlook, abundant energy reserves and strong immunity. If we can reach this state, all aspects of life become easier.
“The Three Treasures are the fundamental energies that maintain human life.”
In brief, Jing is the deepest and most fundamental aspect of our energy. It governs the gradual processes of development and aging. Qi is more of a day-to-day energy, which controls our everyday functioning and overall health, and Shen relates to our mental, emotional, and spiritual selves. Let’s look at each one in a bit of detail.
Foundation: The Importance of Jing
Jing, translated as “essence” is an important concept. Jing is a deep, vital essence, inherited from your parents and strengthened with the energy extracted from the food you eat. Your Jing is responsible for your growth and development as a child, and your ability to reproduce as an adult. It governs the slow unfolding of life’s changes.
Jing also serves as an emergency energy store, which you can use if you don’t have enough day-to-day energy (Qi). With the frantic pace of modern life, most of us are regularly dipping into our Jing reserves—we lose Jing by pushing ourselves, by “burning the candle at both ends,” and by using stimulants. Jing is also depleted by serious or long-term illness.
maintaining balance between the three treasures of jing, shen and qi can happen through lifestyle, diet and herbs.
Jing is also the basis of the other two treasures, Qi and Shen, so conserving the Jing is vital in order to provide a foundation for all Three Treasures. Jing is very hard to replenish, and you gradually use it up as you live your life. According to Chinese Medicine, the signs of aging—grey or thinning hair, failing eyesight and hearing, and brittle bones—are due to the gradual depletion of Jing. Low Jing levels also lead to feelings of complete exhaustion, lack of reserves and having “nothing left to give.”
Qi: The Essential Life Energy
Qi is normally translated as “energy”, but unlike the deep, slow Jing, Qi is more day-to-day. It is produced from the air you breathe and the food you eat. This means that you need good quality food and air, and strong digestive and respiratory systems in order to produce Qi. As the foundation of all Three Treasures, your Jing also needs to be strong to form good Qi.Strong Qi means plenty of energy and strong immunity. Qi is also about flow. In health your Qi flows smoothly, but if it becomes blocked or stagnant then you experience disease or disharmony. A lack of flow can be seen at a physical level as aches, pains and stiffness, and at a mental or emotional level as mood swings and a feeling of being stuck.
In my clinics, I see Qi stagnation (normally caused by stress) more than any other imbalance. It is a part of modern life! Learning how to regulate and balance Qi flow can help to take you back to the state that the Chinese call xiao yao— translated as “free and easy”—a state of relaxed contentment, joy, and flow.
Shen: The Spirit
Shen is normally translated as “spirit,” but it does not necessarily have a religious connotation. The Shen encompasses your intelligence, thought processes, emotions, and spirituality. When the Shen is strong and settled, you are calm, peaceful, and wise. A weak or unsettled Shen manifests as anxiety, a racing mind, depression, trouble concentrating, or more serious mental or emotional conditions.
Shen is your link with the eternal and your connection with the universe. Shen is anchored in the body but transcends time and space. It is your Shen that links you with the infinite, with God, or with the Tao, depending on your beliefs.
Special enduring relationships and bonds result from a strong Shen, and it is responsible for the highest and purest goals and motives—love, altruism, forgiveness, tolerance and self-cultivation. Feelings of awe, majesty and wonder are signs of engagement of the Shen, and when it is strong, you feel connected to the universal and timeless flow of life—you have a place and a purpose. Shen allows you to pursue your destiny.
The Chinese character for Shen depicts an empty vessel. Only when you are empty of desires, worries, and negative emotions can you allow the light of the infinite to shine through and be aligned with the movement and flow of the universe.
“Shen encompasses your intelligence, thought processes, emotions, and spirituality.”
Self-reflection, self-development, and morality all derive from Shen. If it is weak, then these higher ideals are easily lost or clouded by fears, cravings, egotism, and other lower emotions.
On a more mundane and everyday level, but just as important, Shen is responsible for your mental and emotional processes and especially your psychological integrity. When your Shen is strong and settled, you can be true to yourself—it gives you mental and emotional strength, and a clear and penetrating vision. Shen is thus a vital and ruling part of every human life.
Life Lessons: Working At The Right Level
So, Jing provides you with a solid foundation, a deep balance and security, and keeps you strong and healthy as you age. Qi keeps your body and mind working on a day-to-day basis, gives you abundant energy, and keeps everything flowing and smooth. And finally, Shen gives you mental and emotional strength and flexibility, and the ability to access higher levels of spirituality.I hope you can see that these are all important aspects of a healthy, happy and fulfilled human life, and one of the key lessons of the Three Treasures model has to do with the way these Three Treasures influence and depend on each other.
There are two ways to look at this. Firstly, the Three Treasures are traditionally seen as a tower, with Jing at the bottom, then Qi in the middle, and finally Shen at the top. Jing provides the basis for the other two. It is the firm foundation of life. And Shen at the top requires strong Qi and Jing in order to be strong itself.
This is something like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory in psychology, which talks about levels of basic human needs. The idea of Maslow’s Hierarchy is that we all have certain fundamental requirements, which if they aren’t met, stop us from expressing higher-level behaviors and ways of living. For instance, at the bottom level of the Hierarchy of Needs are the basic physiological needs to sustain life, like food, clothing, and shelter. If these aren’t met then naturally your entire focus is all about how to get them. If you’re starving, you won’t have much time or energy to devote to appreciating art, for instance.
The top level of Maslow’s hierarchy is self-transcendence, which means transcending the self for altruistic and spiritual reasons. According to Maslow, this is only possible once all the lower needs are met—physiological safety, love and belonging, and self-esteem. Once these needs are met, we are in a position to be able to be truly altruistic and explore higher spiritual dimensions of life. While Maslow has had his share of critics in the 70 or so years since he published his theory, I think the basic idea is sound, and reflects the thinking of the early Chinese when they developed the Three Treasures model.
This is all well and good, but how does it help you in your own journey of self-development and cultivation?
The first big lesson of the tower view of the Three Treasures (and Maslow’s theory) is that you need to focus your energy in the right places and build strong foundations first. If you’re struggling with a spiritual (Shen) practice, could it be because there are lower levels that need to be worked on first? Are your Qi or Jing weak or unbalanced? Maybe it’s too much stress or poor physical health that is the problem, and this is holding up your spiritual development.
Or, if your day-to-day health (Qi) is poor, for instance with weak immunity, chronic illness, hormonal imbalance or other health problems, and you can’t seem to get things sorted, it could be that there’s a problem at the Jing level. Maybe there’s a weakness of Jing caused by long-term stress or “burning the candle at both ends” that needs to be addressed first.
Looking at things in this way can really help to put different aspects of your life into perspective. The question is: at what level is there a weakness or imbalance, and how can it be remedied?
Life Lessons: Integrating The Three Treasures
The second big lesson of the Three Treasures model has to do with the multi-directional links between the three different aspects of our lives. This concept acknowledges that although the tower view of the Three Treasures is valid, it’s actually not that simple, and each of the three levels interact and influence each other.
“It’s very easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and focus in on only one part of our lives.”
For instance, a Shen practice such as meditation can reduce stress and improve energy levels (by regulating and strengthening Qi) and if you eat a good healthy diet, you will not only strengthen Qi, but also help to refill your reserves of Jing.
For me, this is one of the key lessons of the Three Treasures concept. In our bid to find the perfect practice, or the answer to our health problems, it’s very easy to lose sight of the bigger picture and focus in on only one part of our lives. This is especially true once we start to see the benefits of a certain way of doing things.For instance, lets say that you take up meditation and almost immediately begin to notice improvements in certain parts of your life. Naturally, you get more and more into meditation. However, at some point the benefits may plateau. No matter how much extra meditation you do it won’t improve things any further. To take an extreme example: no amount of meditation will get you to enlightenment while you’re still physically a wreck and eating nothing but junk food!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking meditation, I’m just using it as an example—the same is true of any practice or health pursuit. But the fact is that there are plenty of spiritual practices that deny or neglect the importance of the physical body. Even more common in the Western world is to train the physical body but ignore the mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of life.
The Three Treasures model shows us that this is not the best way to self-cultivation. Whether your goal is good physical health, happiness, or spiritual development, an integrated approach that works on a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual level all at the same time will work far better than focusing too tightly on any one aspect on its own. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons that practices such as yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Qong are so effective, as they often combine physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects into one practice.
Chinese Wisdom for the Modern World
The ancient Chinese were clearly onto something. In the Three Treasures model they developed a way of explaining human existence and the secrets of self-development and cultivation in three simple concepts—Jing, Qi and Shen. This powerful and elegant way of seeing the world has as much relevance now in the West as it did thousands of years ago in China, and if you choose to follow its guidance it can help you to have the healthy, happy, fulfilled and meaningful life that you deserve.
The implications and ramifications of this simple model are deep and far-reaching, and I don’t have the room here to do them justice. But I hope that this article has given you a new way of seeing things, and some ideas about where you can go from here. Good luck in your journey, and let me know how you get on!
If you’d like to find out more about using the Three Treasures in your own journey toward Radiant Health, Neil has recorded a free online training webinar, which you can access at neilkingham.com/treasures
About The Author
Neil Kingham is the author of the best-selling book A User’s Guide To Chinese Medicine, and an experienced practitioner and teacher of Chinese Medicine, with busy clinics in Bristol and South Wales (UK). For more information on the Chinese Health Arts and to sign up for his newsletter visit: neilkingham.com