Chinese lesson: 意 yi

01 January 2024 | Inspiration
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Sandra Hill
Acupuncturist & Author: London
The character yi 意, which is usually translated as intent or intention, is made with a sound or musical note – yin 音 – over the heart – xin 心 – and the etymology of the character suggests a resonance with the heart, or a sound, or communication, which is modulated by the heart.

Yi is the first formation of the heart-mind, the very beginning of directed thought. But it is also to remain in a state of awareness, without allowing the development of thinking. In this context, yi is commonly used in both martial arts and meditation to define the focus of the mind – either on a particular action or on a state on non-action.

In Japanese Zen texts, the character yi is more usually translated as attention. It is to be totally present, not allowing the mind to wander. And it has the same meaning in clinical practice, where it is not to direct an outcome, but to be totally present with the situation, with the patient, with the moment.

In the text of Neijing Lingshu chapter 8, which describes the development of human consciousness, yi directly follows the heart-mind and is in turn followed by the zhi 志 or will. The text says that if the intent is constant, that leads to the development of will – a will which suggests a deep rooting in life, and a strength of purpose.

When the spleen is affected by sorrow and oppression the yi is injured

In classical Chinese, yi and zhi are often used together to designate the inner disposition, or temperament. But within the specific categories of the wu shen 五 神 – the five spiritual aspects, or aspects of consciousness – as they are presented within the medical classics, yi is related to the earth and the spleen, zhi with water and the kidneys.

Yi has a close affinity with thought – si 思 – which is also related to earth and the spleen. In medical terminology, the spleen offers the best of its essences to the heart, and must remain in close harmony with the heart. As the spleen qi nourishes the heart, the yi has the ability to assess and evaluate what is presented to the heart-mind in the form of thoughts and ideas. It is both the focus of the mind, and the ability to be centred in oneself – to align intention with spirit.

Situated at the centre, the spleen and the earth always maintain the relationship between heart and kidneys, jing 精 and shen 神.

The second part of Lingshu chapter 8 tells us that the spleen stores the ying 營 – nutrition, reconstruction – and that the ying stores the yi. It also continues: ‘When the spleen is affected by sorrow and oppression – chuo you 愁 憂 – the yi is injured; there is a state of complete disorder and the four limbs cannot be raised’.

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Did you know: the theme for our conference in 2024 will be the Chinese concept ‘yì (意). Read more about the theme here.