Fighting spirit

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What is shen?

Shen is usually translated to mean 'spirit'. It is considered to be the driving energy behind mental, creative and spiritual existence.
The common cliché "That's the spirit!" is often applied to people who really seem to be putting all their effort into an activity. Their actions are fuelled by shen.


Shen is a vitality that can be seen shining through a person; it enlivens the body and refreshes the mind. The eyes look expressive and alert.
There is a fullness to their tai chi that would otherwise be absent.

Wet sock

Peter Southwood maintained that tai chi without shen is weak and ineffectual in combat. The exponent looks like a "wet sock".
Their poise, demeanour and bearing lack that vital quality of alertness and sharpness needed in martial arts practice.

Killer energy

Shen is the 'killer energy' quality present in Sifu Waller's tai chi; it makes the attacker feel uncomfortable and wrong-footed. If you seek to understand the form, then you need to cultivate shen.
Shen is an unusual quality that arises from long-term rigorous practice. It will invigorate your tai chi and really bring it to life. Tai chi without shen looks flat and robotic. 


The prayer of the monk is not perfect until he no longer recognizes himself
or the fact that he is praying.

 (St Anthony)


Emotion is part of our instinctive 'fight-or-flight' response to danger or uncertainty. When we react to stimulus, a biochemical process occurs. This increases our focus.
Our bodies experience a wide range of physiological responses to an event. This process is what we call 'emotion'. 
When an emotion becomes manifest we usually label it: anger, fear, happiness, regret, sadness, upset etc...

Not emotional

Shen is not an emotional process. You are not seeking to channel or sublimate emotion. Emotion simply has no bearing on your application of the art. If anything, it gets in the way.


For shen to manifest, a person must lose all self-consciousness. Sensitivity must replace thinking, and thought must give way to physical sensation.
The divide between themselves and the activity must end.


Shen requires a level of focus and sustained concentration that most people do not possess. Self-consciousness must cease and there is only the moment. It is necessary to be entirely present.

Cold fire

Shen is fire. It is not aggression. It is not anger. It is the fighting spirit. There is a total absence of fear and self-consciousness. It is akin to a tiger being faced with prey - a predator does not fear its food...


A flamenco dancer, lurking under a shadow, prepares for the terror of her dance.
Somebody has wounded her in words,
alluding to the fact that she has no fire, or duende.
She knows she has to dance her way past her limitations,
and that this may destroy her forever.
She has to fail, or she has to die.

I want you to imagine this frail woman.
I want you to see her in deep shadow, and fear.
When the music starts she begins her dance, with ritual slowness.
Then she stamps out the dampness from her soul.
Then she stamps fire into her loins.
She takes on a strange enchanted glow.
With a dark tragic rage, shouting, she hurls her hungers, her doubts, her terrors,
and her secular prayer for more light and spaces around her.
All fire and fate, she pins her enigma around us,
and pulls us into the awesome risk of her dance.

She is taking herself apart before our sceptical gaze.
She is disintegrating, shouting and stamping and dissolving the boundaries of her body.
Soon she becomes a wild unknown force, glowing in her death,
dancing from her wound, dying in her dance.

And when she stops
- strangely gigantic in her new fiery stature
- she is like one who has survived the most dangerous journey of all.
I can see her now as she stands shining in celebration of her own death.
In the silence that follows, no one moves.

(Ben Okri)

Everyday shen

A tai chi exponent should express shen at all times. This does not make you aggressive or macho. It enhances how you feel and conveys a sense of potency and vitality.
You look like somebody who is really here. Right now.

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Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 3 August 1997