Shen, Xin, cats and the Tai Chi classics

brown tabby cat

Photo by Immortal shots on

In this post I’m continuing with my current theme of the mind and Tai Chi Chuan.

Animals don’t “think” like we do most of the time. I bet you could argue that the species known for problem-solving like crows, chimpanzees, dolphins and dogs do their fair share of thinking, but in my previous post I was describing a state where you are doing Tai Chi without thinking. Just being.

You can see it in their eyes. Just look at that cat above. Cats are great examples of this, because they are around us often they’re easy to observe, but if you can observe animals in the wild you’ll see that they are in this state most, if not all, of the time.

There are various references to cats in the Tai Chi classics.

“The Form is like that of a falcon about to seize a rabbit,
and the shen is like that of a cat about to catch a rat.”

Shen, we can loosely translate as spirit, but if you just substituted the words “inner state” there instead I think it would better equate to what the author was trying to convey, but he or she did did say Shen for a reason, as we shall see.

The word “Spirit” in English is tied up with all sorts of (organised) religious connotations which get in the ways and are not helpful.

A better understanding of what is meant by Shen would perhaps be, ‘underlying spirit of nature’. The part of you that is connected to this underlying spirit of nature is known as the Xin in Chinese. If it’s aligned with nature your Xin can produce your Yi (intention), which in turn can produce the physical movement (Qi) which in turn produces action (Li) all working in harmony with nature. You and your environment are one, working and acting together.

There are various versions of this ‘working in harmony with nature’ sequence written about in old Chinese writings – the Xin harmonises with the Yi, the Yi harmonies with the Qi and the Qi harmonises with Li being the most common and also forming the 3 internal harmonies of the famous Lie He, the 6 harmonies with are written about in all sorts of Chinese martial arts.

My Xing Yi teacher, Damon Smith did a whole podcast episode about the word “spirit” and what it means in Asian traditions connected to shamanism, which I find helpful in understanding. I would listen to the whole thing, but around the 8-minute mark he talks about this sequence and how Shamans use it to act in harmony with nature in their own lives or when practicing shamanism:


Cats and the Tai Chi classics

To me, the section of the classics that says “The Form is like that of a falcon about to seize a rabbit, and the shen is like that of a cat about to catch a rat”, alludes to the idea that on the outside the victory in combat may look overwhelming and great – like that of the falcon seizing a rabbit triumphantly, but on the inside, you need to be quiet and calm and in harmony with nature – the exact qualities you can see in a cat patiently stalking a rat.

Of course, the flacon is like that on the inside when catching a rabbit, but it’s not easy to see on the outside. Human-loving cats, however, are easier to observe.

A cat crops up somewhere else in the Tai Chi classics too:

“Walk like a cat.”

That doesn’t mean get down on all fours, it means to adopt the same mental qualities as mentioned earlier to your stepping. Don’t just rush in blindly or recklessly: be calm, patient and at one with your environment.

Remember, as it says in the classics:

“All movement is motivated by Yi and not by external form”.

But perhaps Bruce Lee said it best in Enter the Dragon:

“Don’t think! Feel!”