X is for Xin
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
xīn = 心 heart, mind, feeling, intention centre core
Xin is a Chinese word often translated as ‘heart’ (or ‘Heart’ to distinguish it from the physical sense), or ‘mind’ or it is also sometimes translated as ‘heart-mind’. ‘Will’ or ‘intention’ is also included in the notion of xin.
‘Heart’ can be seen as an ‘emotional self’, who can encompass and hold all feelings and who can detect these feelings more clearly, deeply and sincerely than ‘I feel’, that comes from the head and the thinking or cognitive self.
Both ‘heart’ and xin (Heart) are seen as the organ of emotions, but xin differs from ‘heart’ as xin is a seat of all emotions . Both ‘xin’ and ‘heart’ have the common ability to feel both ‘good’ things and ‘bad’ things.
Xin is described as the seat of thinking and judgment in Chinese culture but this thinking is not limited to the Chinese, as classical Hebrews also believed the heart to be a seat of thought and action.
“In Chinese culture, xin is the root of physical and mental life. It is the seat of all emotions, and embodies the inherent goodness of human nature and wisdom. Xin helps to guide the individual's way of life and attitude, and can lead one to deep contentment” Vol. 4(5), pp. 75-89, June, 2013 DOI: 10.5897/JLC12.054 .
These mixed concepts of idea, intention, will, effect and action inherent in the notion of xin reinforces the idea that thinking is never a dispassionate activity but involves normative, relative judgments about the various merits of the sensations, inclinations and appetites that we experience and as they are always clothed with emotion, they can often be understood as ‘dispositions to act’.
“For a person to realize fully one’s heart-and-mind is to realize fully one’s nature and character” (Mencius 7A1).
Our emotions are generated by our experiences of external things and to reach a state of peace we have to learn to not resist the things that agitate us but rather re-frame any resistance so that we can establish a frictionless relationship with them and see them simply as they are.
“The stillness of the sage is not a matter of his saying: “It is good to be still!” and thus he is still. He is still because none of the myriad things are able to agitate his heart and mind” Zhuangzi (4th century ?) ‘Chuang-tzu’, A.C. Graham
The word xin is intricately tied up with Chinese culture and there are approaching 600 uses of the word at the beginning, middle or the end of phraseological clusters:
e.g. beginning : (ān xīn meaning to be at ease, to feel relieved, to set one's mind at rest, to keep one's mind on something )
e.g. middle : (zhong xin geng geng meaning devoted, honest ‘loyal and devoted’ )
e.g. end (zhōng xīn meaning centre, heart, core)
By looking at the composition and combinations of the words it can be seen that Xin can be related to contemporary Chinese life in various aspects: emotions, physical heart, mind, virtue and vision, ability to think and know , concentration , desire and as a way of life and attitude (See first link below for further expansion of this idea)
Xin is central to qigong “ a body-xin practice that integrates body adjustment, breath adjustment and xin adjustment into one” Zhong Yi Qigong Xue
Qigong aims to regulate the flow of qi (our vital energy that should flow in certain directions ) and remove energy blockages. When one talks of ‘Heart adjustment’ (tiao xin), it means using qigong practice to balance emotions and stay calm in order to avoid unbalanced emotions that disturb the flow of qi.
Chinese medicine is based on this concept of balancing qi in the human body, where energy blocks or imbalance (resistance) may result from disease, injury, strong emotions or stress or vice versa. It is thought that extreme emotions can change the direction of the qi flow and each emotion is also said to have a particular effect on the circulation of qi:
Dr Chen Yan in a Treatise on the Three categories of Causes of diseases says
“Worry agitates the Heart and has repercussions on the Lungs; pensiveness agitates the Heart and has repercussions on the Spleen; anger agitates the Heart and has repercussions on the Liver; fear agitates the Heart and has repercussions on the Kidneys”.
Dr. Yu Chang (1658)
This theory about the connection of the internal organs illustrates the unity of body, xin, and emotion in Chinese medicine.
“Whereas in Western physiology, emotional and mental processes are attributed to the brain; in Chinese medicine they are part of the sphere of action of the internal organs”
Emotions are mental stimuli that affect our lives. They are not a problem under ‘normal’ circumstances as we are all capable of experiencing a gamut of emotions without harm and they do not in themselves lead to disease unless they are very intense or long-lasting.
Emotions can be likened to a drip of water on a rock, a single drop or two won’t make any difference to a rock but a constant dripping over months and years will cause damage.
Chinese medicine is concerned when emotions start to become the cause of disease or are the presenting symptoms and are causing disturbances in the mind, body or soul. As the body and mind form an integrated and inseparable unit, the emotions can not only cause a disharmony but can also be caused by it.
This unity of body and xin (the two parts of a person) is essential in the holistic thinking of traditional Chinese medicine ; who believe very simply longevity is a result of good health and when one part is missing, longevity cannot be achieved. The Chinese hold that while the body belongs to the physical, material world, xin is invisible and intangible, existing only as a cognitive entity.
The cultural meaning of ‘Heart’ is cultural-specific and central to Chinese life. It is a concept that is strongly influenced by Daoist, Confucian and Buddhist philosophies, as well as the principles of traditional Chinese medicine so its meaning contains both the physical heart and the ‘Heart’ that we cannot see, which is the source of physical and mental life.
“The heart is the monarch and it governs the mind” Simple Questions Ch 8
In Chinese culture, xin is considered as the source of soul and wisdom within a person and has a higher ‘status’ than the simple ‘naozi’ (brain or mind) which is not as highly valued. Naozi is thought to be affected by self-interest, whereas xin ‘can think and know’ without being contaminated by ego. A person can think of someone or something sincerely and selflessly only in the Heart
Whenever we make decisions, from the prosaic to the profound, we will make better ones when we let our rational and emotional sides blend into one and intuit how to integrate heart and mind. By training ourselves to become ‘spontaneous’ and act with intuition rather than limiting ourselves to more ‘rational’ decision-making we become more open to different experiences which allows us to come to the ‘right’ responses and decisions more spontaneously, bypassing the anxious thinking mind.
Recent neuroscience research and brain scans are confirming that our unconscious awareness of emotions and phenomena around us are actually what drive the decisions we believe we are making with logical rationality. e.g. if we see a happy face for just 4 milliseconds it is long enough to elicit a mini emotional high. In one study viewers who were shown a smile that was shown too quickly for them to even realize they had seen it perceived the things around them more positively afterwards.
Finally, in direct contrast to the Arnold Schwarzenegger quote “Where the mind goes the body will follow” if we think about will and intention, we can rephrase it as “If the body leads, the mind will follow ” i.e.. When we act intentionally despite how we feel, e.g.we behave kindly (even when we are not feeling kind), or smile at someone (even if though we aren’t feeling particularly friendly or happy at that moment) we can effect actual differences in how we end up feeling and subsequently responding, even ultimately changing the outcome of a situation.
An activity to try/or discuss below:
Try an experiment and see how you feel when you consciously ‘smile ‘ at every person you interact with, or think of something encouraging to say or express gratitude towards someone for a day regardless of how you feel.
How does this make you feel ?
What responses can you see in the people you interact with ?
If you want to explore this subject further, here are a few links to get you started
The Foundations of Chinese medicine : A Comprehensive Text Giovanni Maciocia