Shan Ren Dao: a True Inroad to Inner Dialogue


Political theorist Hannah Arendt in writing about totalitarianism in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil said that the banality of evil is the absence of dialogue–either an inner dialogue with the self or an outer dialogue with someone other. The banality of evil is the capacity of a person to perform an action based on prescribed ideas, without first having had thoughtful dialogue about whether that action is right or wrong. Hannah Arendt saw this banality of evil manifest profoundly in Nazi Germany.

Arendt’s theory is still relevant. We witness the banality of evil today in the white supremacy and xenophobia that continues to pervade our country, the police brutality, the killing of black boys and men, the refugee crisis. Arendt’s words inspire a call to awareness when one might otherwise be overwhelmed with despair.

But where does one start? In establishing dialogue, the inner must come first. Spiritual training can be helpful for engaging inner dialogue. But one has to take care not to simply fall into subscribing to a set of ideas that aren’t one’s own, ideas that don’t require–or that even discourage–thoughtful self examination. Classical Chinese medicine offers a profound antidote to the absence of thoughtfulness and dialogue within and among human beings through a system of healing called Shan Ren Dao, or the path of the real person.

In Classical Chinese medicine the human being is conceptualized as a microcosm of the universe. The five elements–wood, fire, earth, metal, and water–move within the human being as they do in nature and are aligned with the different organ systems in the body. For example, just as fire brings warmth and connection but also destruction of habitat so it will within the body. 19th century peasant saint Wang Fengyi (pictured above) brought about the system of healing within Classical Chinese medicine called Shan Ren Dao. He saw that health came through taking deep responsibility for the self through cultivating the virtues–empathy, propriety, integrity, righteousness, and wisdom–and expelling the emotional poison or pathology–anger, hatred, blame, irritation and judgement, and disdain–of each of the five elements.

Shan Ren Dao is my way. It is my inroad to self cultivation, to inner dialogue, and to sincerity and integrity in relationship. It is also my spiritual path. Because through it I’ve realized an inner truth that pervades everything I do: that my path to the divine is through purifying myself. My path to the divine is through taking complete responsibility for my own darkness and my own light, so that I can love and care for the people in my life as freely as possible.

The first Shan Ren Dao retreat I attended was the first retreat to happen in the U.S. (Now they happen annually in the summers.)  I was in school studying Five Element acupuncture. My son was 14 months old. It was a challenge for me to stay on top of a rigorous graduate program and parenting–let alone take nearly two weeks out of my life to go on retreat. Yet I felt drawn. I packed up my son, his sitter, and our gear to follow a little bird in my heart.

On the first evening of that first retreat–I felt the transmission of this deep level of responsibility viscerally. The physical sensation was one of nausea–but the inner knowing was that my cells were waking up. I was averse to food. It was not unlike an experience of being under the influence of a mind-altering substance. Only, in this case, what was altering my mind was a very bright light shining with stunning immediacy into the darker corners of my heart—the places I had looked away from, the places where I hadn’t fully taken responsibility.

To begin to have thoughtful dialogue—to make ourselves available to dialogue with those with whom we differ–we have to begin with inner dialogue. Shan Ren Dao offers a very concrete way of truly and sincerely looking at and dialoging with the self through sincerely acknowledging and rooting out that which has kept us from our light.

There is a Confucian Five Element chant that is the cornerstone of my personal practice–and a central element of the practice in general. It’s very simple. In it we sincerely ask the wise teacher, or our highest selves, “Do I embody this virtue of this element: wood/fire/earth/metal/water?” The final sound for each of the five elements is extended for as long as the exhale allows. So that before we affirm that “Yes, I do embody this virtue” we expel—on our breath and through the transmuting quality of the sound itself–the pathology of that element from our systems. This chant offers a profound and simple way of dialoging with the self that allows us to ask, “Am I sincerely following my path? Where am I caught up? Where am I clouded by blame, hatred, or disdain? What is there that is keeping me from being able to open my heart?”

Inner dialogue is not enough. We must be willing to sincerely dialogue with others. But to have a place from which to reach, to have a supportive practice with which to work when—in reaching out to the other—we get thrown off kilter, or find ourselves in judgement or anger, this is what will truly foster healing, this is what will create a true capacity to live from our heavenly nature, to know our darkness and stand in our light.

In working with the Five Element system within the Shan Ren Dao we can go deep. Through really listening, we can let our bodies themselves lead us to greater consciousness. We can let our digestive distress lead us to working with the earth in us, our heart palpitations lead us to working with the fire in us. If dialogue with the self can start here, by taking this level of responsibility– through listening to subtle sensations of the body, through looking sincerely at how we’re showing up in relationship–it opens up the possibility of truly being able to see ourselves and those whom we consider as other more clearly.  Then we act from true consciousness, and bit by bit we can dispel that evil that breeds on its absence.

What does it really mean to trust our bodies?

LisaBufanoOrangeQueenAnneTableLegProstheses.jpgAs healers we often encourage our patients to listen to the wisdom of their bodies. Yet even if we accept the idea that the body is wise and that we should listen to it, many of us have grown up learning that our bodies must be controlled, ignored, or even rejected–not listened to.

The pressure to look a certain way can hijack even the most spirited girl’s relationship to her own root. The pressure to have certain sexual attitudes can cause us to numb out to our own authentic sexuality. Disability or chronic pain can make us feel at odds with our bodies. If there is abuse and our boundaries are energetically or physically crossed, many of us cope through dissociating from the body altogether–losing touch with the sensations in our bodies that tell us to say “NO”, the sensations that tell us to say “YES”. Even the sensations of real physical hunger and thirst can be difficult to detect from a dissociated place. We don’t eat enough, or we eat too much, we self harm or turn to addiction because we can’t hear ourselves, because at some point in time–sometimes for long stretches of time–it was not safe to listen.

I spent most of 17 years in therapy and had made a huge amount of progress in learning to listen to myself before I began to really encounter the truth of my body, to recognize how profoundly out of touch I was with my body’s  truth, with my body’s “Yes”, with my body’s “No”. What I realized then was that I was constantly ignoring my body’s signals. I had been living in a state of nervous system overwhelm and accepting it as normal. Nervous system overwhelm was as status quo to me as the air I breathed.

It was not until my first year of studying Chinese medicine–through qigong and acupuncture treatments–that I began the process of noticing and shifting my relationship to my body. On the third day of my first qigong retreat, I found myself taking a forcibly deep breath and sobbing at the end of a qigong move that opened my diaphragm. Needles in the painful places set me to rocking on the acupuncture table. But it wasn’t until my first Shan Ren Dao retreat that I discovered the truth that my body–in its wisdom– had expertly and quietly contained what then felt like an overpowering charge of terror. And it wasn’t until my first TRE (body-centered tension and trauma release) class that I learned how my body actually needed to move in big and sometimes convulsive ways to release this charge.

But the process of learning to trust my body came through listening to the still, small voice–as my body tremored–that said “Yes, more of this” or “Stop now. That’s enough”. It took me some time to learn how to listen, but listening to this voice was as important to my healing as allowing my body to release.

The gift of doing any kind of therapeutic work–but especially body-centered therapy (like TRE or Hakomi or Somatic Experiencing)–is that we have to be engaged. We have to be present with ourselves, or what comes up can’t be integrated. In essence, we have to befriend or even re-parent ourselves through it. Often we need containment from a skilled practitioner–who knows how to read the subtle cues that precede overwhelmed states like freeze or dissociation–until we can start to respond to our own subtle cues and build a safe container from within. For some of us, this will be the first time we have ever listened so closely to bodies. And when we listen this closely to our bodies, for however long we are able, then little by little we release that which does not serves us. In so doing we uncover the radiance within us that was simply temporarily clouded.

The more I listen to the still small voice within, the louder and more supportive it becomes. Sometimes it begins with a body sensation, a brief feeling of restriction around my heart or a sense of ease and opening. Often that’s all the guidance I need.

For those of us who coped for long periods of time through dissociating, being present with our bodies sometimes means feeling painful emotions–often laced with shame–that we’ve been avoiding. But the truth of it is, when we’re in avoidance of our bodies and the emotions that get stored there, we begin to live our lives hopscotching around them. We end up running ourselves ragged to avoid stillness. And when we avoid the more difficult emotions, we also cut ourselves off from the experience of true joy.

I’m still learning what it means to listen to the wisdom of my body.  To eat from genuine hunger, to rest when I’m tired, to listen to the “NO” and the “YES” from deep down inside. Deeper still, I’m learning to move in the world from my feet, from my hips, from my heart–to listen for and even solicit the feedback of body sensations to help me make bigger decisions that I know I shouldn’t make with my mind alone. Because the truth is, our bodies are constantly giving us feedback if we will only listen. If we will only hear that still small voice, if we will only reclaim the territory of our flesh, it will bring us home.