One day recently after many years of study, it dawned on me that nearly all my time, all the sets I’d learned, had been focused on the energy of the (my) human body and human nature. But other qigong sets are concerned with the rest of nature, like the ocean, the biosphere, the earth, the sun & moon, and even the planets, stars and outer space. I felt a little myopic, a bit narcissistic, somewhat shortchanged. Weren’t Taoists supposed to be connected with everything in the cosmos?
I decided this polarity could be called Internal Gung vs. External Gung. Truth is you could start from either end and get to the other just fine. What is outside us is also inside us. There is no true separation. Starting from the inside does open up your awareness so that you can better sense the outside, and it makes you very healthy to boot.
I have the privilege of living near the Pacific ocean and I regularly practice in a place of great beauty. But my partner and I usually go down to a grove of trees where we don’t see much of it. Since beauty can be so wonderful to just about anyone why weren’t we, as multiple year students, incorporating it’s essence into our practice? So of course we had to shift our orientation.
The presumption here is that we have the ability to discern the essence of any natural entity like an ocean or a volcano or a storm or a season of the year, and interact with it, tap into it, in ways that make us more alive and healthy. It is something like getting energy from food or rest. The advantage is that forces of nature are…forces of nature, i.e. they have more power than anything else we can generate as man or machine.
The main practices sound simple enough. Either you bring the essential qualities of anything into your body and perceive and utilize it here or you project your awareness out into them and get it there. Both work just as well and it’s largely a matter of whether your abilities and issues are more “down to earth” or more “out there.” You don’t have to know the exact quality of the energy to benefit from it anymore that you need to know the exact nutritional qualities of different foods, but it does help.
If that sounds like a complete mystery start closer to home, like with someone or something that you love, that makes you happy and gives you energy. What is the essence of that? Words may not describe it but what is the feeling?
1. Let’s look at a few of nature’s phenomena. What is the nature of the Sky, the Heavens, or if you will the Atmosphere? It is ethereal, thin, without form, omnipresent around the Earth. It enters into and nourishes all different life forms with its various elements. We could also say it is held to, or responds to, the Earth’s gravitational pull. From the Taoist perspective this means that there is a continuous down flow which they call the Gentle Rain. That indicates both Air and Water qualities like we find in mist but even more subtle. The nature of this gentle falling momentum is clearing, cleansing, letting go, opening, softening, dissolving. These are the qualities of Yin.
What would it mean to embody that “heavenly rain”? I choose this term because I see this force as very close to what Christianity calls Grace. There is a benevolence to it.
Start by standing or sitting outdoors where you can see and feel the most Sky. Let your body soften and drop its tension. It may well take some time to tune in to that barely perceptible descending flow from the Sky. Feel it first in the front, the Yin side of your body down to your feet and into the Earth. Relax and drop your face, chest, belly, pelvis, inner legs and feet.
Then drop the back, Yang side of your body, especially your shoulder blades down to your sacrum and gluteals and from there down into your heels.
What you’re looking for is to get the subtle down flow of the Heavens to assist you in dropping your physical tension. And you want to release your non-physical tension which could be energetic, emotional or mental. “Sink your chi,” we often say. Anxious energy goes up. Calm energy goes down.
Sinking is actually part of the main practice of the original, Water Method, Taoism, which we call Dissolving. It is one of the main keys to health and longevity. If this seems counterintuitive it’s because we’ve been taught that strength, assertion and “get up and go” are more important keys. But our culture does so much of that already it’s making us unhealthy and unhappy and we all feel the need to deeply relax.
2. What is the essential quality of Earth, the planet on which we live? It is solid, stable, strong, supportive, sustaining, life giving. It contains all elements and holds them in balance. It constantly receives what is old and dying and transforms it into new forms of life.
The first time I heard that we could interact with the Earth these were the instructions: First be humble and ask politely. Gaia is more than willing to give limitlessly to anyone who is grateful but a “gimme” attitude will get you nowhere. Yes, this sounds like anthropomorphizing but at the very least it will put you in a decent frame of mind.
To take in Earth’s energy your hands and feet can help. As you stand on the ground let your feet relax and open. Try to drop your awareness below your feet like you’re putting down a root. Try to feel the sustaining nature of Earth. Then either passively allow the energy to flow up into your body or more actively try to draw it up.
It helps to very slightly change the shape your feet like you’re pulling up with a suction cup. The main entry point is the ball of the foot, known as K-1, Bubbling Spring, on the acupuncture charts. Or you might have better luck by transforming you hands into these little vacuums. Using your hands and feet in this way are examples of physical movements which activate energetic movement. Do avoid the temptation to overdo it which will only make your hands and feet tense thus inhibiting the flow. (There is an inverse relation between physical exertion and energy flow.)
You can also interact with the Earth for the mutual benefit of both it and you. It can heal you but you can do something to heal it also. The main key is simply your clear intention to make it mutual. At the risk of humanizing that relationship, it’s something like putting energy into a friendship; you both benefit. The Earth is a conscious living entity upon which we depend and our health is wrapped up in its health. Most of us on the globe have some sense that something is currently way out of harmony so anything we can do to change that is time well spent.
Can you take it to a deeper level? Drop your awareness deep into the Earth all the way to the core which is molten iron, as far as we can tell. That means it’s very dense and very hot. There is a practice where you not only access the denser gravitational pull but also bring the heat up into your body so that you can survive winters in the Himalayas.
All of nature’s forces are available to us, of course. I’ve only selected two, either of which could keep us busy for a long time. Internal or External, Qigong skills require lots of practice. Whatever time you spend working and playing with nature will be rewarding many times over.
“After 40 years of practicing Tai Chi, I have summed up my realization with three sentences: Swallow the (precious) air of Heaven (in order to nourish the Qi.) Borrow the (enormous) strength of Earth (in order to grow root.) And, Reach longevity through softness.”
A simpler version: Swallow the heaven’s chi, Tap the earth’s strength, Prolong life through softness.