If your house was on fire and you could only grab one thing, what would it be?
So begins a conversation starter that has been doing the rounds for years. The idea is to identify your most treasured possession. Depending on the decade, I would have once answered, ‘my drugs’, ‘my car’ or ‘my keyboards’, but these days my answer would be ‘nothing’. This is because our most valuable possessions are within us. They are our three treasures: jing, chi and shen. These are often interpreted as being our life force, energy and mind/spirit, but I think of them as our personal power, action and awareness. The three treasures allow us to be independent in order to help ourselves.
The three treasures were identified thousands of years ago in China but they have never been widely known about in the West, outside of studies in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). The treasures are critically important though because they hold the key to anti-ageing, longevity and radiant physical and emotional health, and they allow us to ascend to a higher level of existence. In the ancient Chinese texts it is said that we are born with a full treasure chest and our task is to guard that treasure. But these days, in the West, almost every aspect of our lifestyle, from work to food to sex, is raiding our treasures and this is resulting in an unhappy, unhealthy and medicated population, trapped in reactive emotionality. The solution is a treasure hunt, to get a map, find where our treasures are buried and start digging!
There are ‘maps’ available to us, and the 24-hour chi cycle is one of these. The Perfect Day Plan, my book on the 24-hour chi cycle is a guide to unlimited stores of energy or chi. It is based on the ancient Chinese belief that chi flows cyclically throughout everything in the universe. If we are aware of that flow and do certain things at certain times of the day or night, we don’t needlessly waste our own energy. It is like an energy game in which the idea is to each day gain more chi than we use. An abundance of one treasure can create abundance in the others; so following the chi cycle is a great way to start topping up your treasure chest. However, chi is just one small part of a much bigger picture.
TCM is cosmically holistic, it is about body, mind, spirit and the universe. Chi and jing and shen, the five elements, and the forces of yin and yang are all part of this. They are interconnected in a matrix that extends from the visible into the invisible worlds. TCM is extraordinarily complex and brilliantly simple at the same time. There are texts on the mechanics of the three treasures that are so theoretically dense that you would need several lifetimes to comprehend them. At the same time there are very simple steps that we can all take to nourish our treasures and create lives of great spiritual beauty and inspiration.
The latter is the aspect of TCM that I focus on, and its application in the context of our contemporary lifestyle. In the West we tend to look at things in isolation – so I have put an emphasis on chi in my writing to date, but jing and shen are equally as important and fascinating. Jing is our life force. We are born with a precious but finite store of it, known as prenatal jing, which comes from our parents and the universe. You could think of prenatal jing as a trust account, and constantly drawing from it guarantees collapse – death in fact. Excessive behaviours, including sex and drug addiction, eating disorders and over-medication raid our treasure chest and particularly our jing. As it declines we see the development of dark spots on the skin, weak bones, and the rise of fear and negative emotion. However, all things are perfect in our cosmos, and we have also been given a back-up plan, a ‘savings’ account in which we can build up as much post-natal jing as we like through behaviours that nourish rather than deplete us. I will cover all this in my next article focusing on jing.
The third of our three treasures is shen. It is a mysterious substance associated with our mind and heart. If our body is strong and our chi is flowing and our heart is transmitting love, shen shines from our eyes. We know when we meet someone with abundant treasures by their luminous gaze. These are the inspirational people in life. Back in the 80s when I was doing tri-athlete training I met a tai chi instructor who (I now know) had abundant treasure. He was probably in his late forties but his eyes sparkled and he radiated health, strength and peace all at once. At the time I was doing iron-man training and was physically very strong but internally I felt empty and depressed. Nothing shone from my eyes. The tai chi teacher had something I wanted. I saw it in his eyes, and it inspired me to get into chi training. I began a practice of tai chi, chi gung, meditation and cardio weights which I have continued to do daily for over 25 years now. This builds treasure and lays the foundation for freedom.
The three treasures are a gift unique to humans. Animals have jing and chi, or action and power, but they don’t have awareness or shen – so they can’t change anything. We often idealise animal traits, for example wishing we could be ‘as free as a bird’ but that same bird will peck another bird to death without blinking its little eye. Animals are not free because they can’t change. We can, and because we can, we have to. Humans have a unique task here on earth. We have to break the chains of conditioning and get on the path to our destiny. We are given a full treasure chest at birth in order to do this. It is the essential piece of equipment for those who are leaving the old behind and heading into the new. Changing is difficult, often because families and friends resist it and prefer you the way you were. One of the common responses to the ‘what would you grab from the burning house’ question is ‘my family photographs’. Personally, I’d let them burn. Families are designed to be our first support system in life but, for many of us, at some stage they stopped functioning that way and unknowingly became pirates. I regularly treat clients in their 40s and 50s who are miserable with their lives but feel they can’t change because they are still seeking to make their parents happy or ‘proud’ of them. This is not our job. If we have abundant treasures we will understand our purpose and have the strength to pursue our path irrespective of the expectations of others. Without abundant treasure in our chests, we too can easily fall into the trap of having our happiness dependent on directing the actions of others. This makes us into pirates, plundering the treasure troves of not only ourselves but others.
I had a great insight into this recently. I got an email from my older brother, who is now 60 and left Germany to live in Vietnam a few years ago, stating that he was sending a German visitor, Karl, to see me. Karl was the grandson of some people that my parents knew in Germany in the 70s. Karl had been visiting my brother and was interested in seeing Australia. So in the email my brother instructed me to pick up Karl from the airport (he was arriving on a weekday morning when I had clients booked in), take him out on the town to party each night (I am in bed by 9.30pm) and drive him around to see the local sights (I have no car) because this is what our parents would have wanted. He told me I had to honour them by extending proper Sauer family hospitality to a stranger. I might spend hours each day meditating, but for a few moments there I saw red. He was trying to ‘guilt’ me into doing something he wanted to satisfy a need he had. The whole scenario was crazy – our parents have been dead for a long time, but more importantly for me, I need to live in a way that builds my treasures in order to be as effective as possible as a therapist. Partying late at night is not part of this, as it impacts negatively on my chi and jing and shen. I did manage to fit in lunch with Karl one day when he was in town, but that was it – not from my brother though. After Karl left I got another email saying everyone was very disappointed in me. Apparently not only had I let down my brother and the ghosts of my dead parents, but the entire town that Karl came from as well. Suddenly I remembered why I took all those drugs. The problem was, when I got the first email, even though I didn’t know Karl, had not been in Germany for decades and thought I’d broken all the family chains by years of obnoxious drug-addled behaviour, I still really had to struggle against the forces of social conditioning to do what was ‘expected’ of me, even though it would have been detrimental to my treasures and purpose in life. In those moments when I was tempted to give in or react and take a position, I could imagine the precious contents of my treasure chest tipping out. I drew upon my chi training to ‘return’ physically, emotionally and spiritually to neutralise reactivity and thus guard the treasures. This is not about doing things that suit us and ignoring our obligation to serve others, it is about conserving energy and directing it to help others in a meaningful way. We didn’t get given our treasure chest to take it to parties, and for me, cancelling my clients so I could drive around drinking and sightseeing with a stranger, was not a meaningful activity, but in my brother’s eyes it was, and this is where a reactive emotional cycle can arise.
If we nourish our treasures we can draw our values from within rather than from others, and then we are truly free – not only from the opinions of families and friends impacting on our health and well-being, but also from making emotional investments in the actions of others. If you are ‘proud’ of someone, by implication you have expectations of them; you have automatically taken a ‘position’ which means you have moved from centre. This creates an imbalance from which another action will arise. Ideally your treasure chest is so full you don’t need to take a position on anything. You see the planet and everyone on it through the eyes of love. We received the three treasures to change and grow and shift from the old support system, our family and friends, to the universal one. The three treasures fill us and ensure that we won’t feel alone but are part of everything in the visible and invisible worlds. This is a priceless gift. It makes whatever item we grab from a burning house irrelevant. That object is only going to be with us temporarily but the true treasures are eternal. In the old days you were buried with things to help you out in your next life. I like to think of our three treasures as contemporary burial goods and crossing over with a full chest is going to make it an even more extraordinary experience next time round.
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