Category Archives: Meditation

Empty Heart

Empty elec. heartWhat does this phrase bring to mind?  An exhaustion of emotion?  An inability to feel anything?  A lack of desire?  If you’re a meditator type it is not something negative at all.  Emptiness is a desirable place, one you want to get to, which already sounds contradictory so what exactly could it mean?

First it does mean emptying yourself of a great many things:  of your likes and dislikes, of all the conditionings of your upbringing and life experiences, of all your images of who you are, of all the agendas you think you need to become a different person or to change a situation,  etc.  The list is infinitely long and the task nearly impossible but you actually can get to a place of some neutrality for at least some period of time.  

Notice that this is something rather different than what’s promoted by our modern culture or what you’d get in psychotherapy, where all those things are considered very important, worthy to be examined, sorted through, evaluated, embraced, rejected, etc., etc.  Here you just dump it all. 

The other meaning of emptiness is not empty at all but fullness.  It refers to the undifferentiated stuff that spontaneously turns into stars, planets, species, ideas, emotions and everything we see every day.  It is the ground of all being from which we all spring and to which we return in an ongoing eternal cycle. 

When you put these two meanings together the idea is to scrape the slate clean and go into silence so that the forces of creativity can spontaneously arise and take you in a new direction. 

Now there is another phenomenon that virtually always comes up and no one has a reasonable explanation for why so they usually take is as a given.  Everyone who goes into emptiness and silent space begins at some point to feel that it has a benevolence.   They sense it has an inherent compassion which then produces a similar response.  

That sounds nice, now how to make it actually happen?  In the preceding post on Smiling  the method was to soften and relax your body and steer it toward feeling more happy.  Here you go a step further and dissolve into nothing, with no particular agenda.  Instead you wait for that warm stuff to arise of its own accord.   

You don’t particularly care if and when it comes because you’re in neutrality, so take your time. Now there’s no sin in wanting to feel compassion of course; it’s just that you’re not forcing anything.  So when it does appear it’s more genuine and pleasantly surprising too.  (Note that we’re in the subtler aspects of allowing vs. doing.)  

Elec Heart fieldBut there is a perfectly legitimate shortcut:  Create the emptiness in your heart.  The heart is the most natural place to feel benevolence.  If you sit quietly you can probably feel your heart beating.  Those who measure these things tell us that the electrical signals there extend out several feet and are much stronger that those of the brain.  The heart energy center is on the central axis next to the physical organ but it’s not crucial that you distinguish between the two. 

It is important that whether you imagine or visualize or feel empty space in your heart area you remain conscious of everything there vs. going unconscious.  Just spacing out won’t get you very far.  One trick to stay conscious is to fluctuate the space larger and smaller like a balloon.   The next step is to make your mind go out, way way out to the emptiness of outer space and recognize that the inner and outer are of  the same nature.  Then you can expand the empty heart space out to the cosmos and bring the cosmic space back into your heart.  

It may dawn on you that you actually can be free from all the internal chatter the binds us up in knots.  If that weren’t enough to make you happier, sooner or later you will recognize that the silent emptiness itself is benevolent in nature.  When you feel that you can expand your heart’s compassion out to the universe and bring its compassion back home.  

If this is beginning to sound like pie-in-the-sky you can test it out.  First try projecting and receiving compassion to and from those you know and love, which should be easy.  Then try it with those people far away whom you don’t know, or with other species in the world.  Try it with those you do not love or even hate.  Try it when you’re having a debate.  If it doesn’t work you’re not there yet; go back to neutrality and send that out and back.  As they say, if your spiritual practices don’t translate to your everyday life what good are they?

What I’ve described here is the essence  of what is called Shen Gung, simply translated as Spiritual Practice.  The genius of the Chinese Taoists was to strip down this whole complicated subject matter into its simplest elements while still being practical.  They weren’t the only ones to simplify.  Buddhists will recognize this as Dzogchen.  It’s also one way to read our Western phrase God is Love.   Whatever your starting point, if you can empty out the complexity it will do your heart a ton of good.  

What is Happy?

What is it that makes us either happy or unhappy?  That all depends on who you ask but there are two general answers.  One  is epitomized in our modern material-saturated society which says we need the right house, clothes, foods, drugs, entertainment, lover, friends, profession, etc., that is, things external to ourselves.   On the other hand we inherently know that what goes on inside ourselves is just as if not more important.  We need to be at peace, free of those pesky internal conflicts that are the main source of all our unhappiness.  

Fine, so if that’s true how do we get there?  There are any number of ways as proposed by various philosophies and faiths over the ages.  As you might guess, I am partial to the simplest, most effective and most practical ways, the criteria of the Taoists.  

In a recent workshop I had the chance to review a simple meditation practice some 25 years after learning it the first time and was reminded of its immense value, so I will here pass it on to you.  

First you pick any salient conflict you have and state it in terms of opposites.  The clearer you define the issue the better.  Some of the more common ones are:  

I know/don’t know what I want here,  

I feel fine/terrible, 

I’m competent/incompetent, 

I’m beautiful/ugly, 

I’m safe/in danger,

I want/don’t want intoxicants,  

I love/hate my spouse,

I want to live/die,

and so on ad nauseum.  

(I’ve deliberately used “I” but you could easily use he/she/they if it helped you to understand another person’s perspective.)

Psychology calls these neuroses and they comprise the vast majority of what we call mental illness.  The Chinese might call them ghosts or simply yin/yang conflicts. 

Once you’ve defined the issue as This vs. That, focus your attention on feeling what This means in your physical body, but just half of your body, left or right. What are your physical experiences when you think of This half of the problem?  Then do the same thing with That in the other half of your body.  Take your time to distinguish the differences clearly, on a kinesthetic, felt level.  

Now stand up and shift your weight left and right feeling, experiencing each half of the problem alternately.  Keep tottering back and forth until something shifts.  What kind of something?  Well that’s what we can’t tell you because it’s going to be unique to you and the problem. 

It might suffice to say you will have a new awareness. You might feel like you’ve risen to a more panoramic view. You might realize that the whole conflict was ridiculously funny.  You might embrace the opposites equally.  There might be a melding.  It all might disappear.  You might feel a great weight has been lifted. You might even get happy.  But whatever, when there is a shift you will know it.

You will know it on a subconscious level because that is where the resolution actually occurs.  Really it’s better that way because our ever analytical minds tend to distract us from the real change which is organic, compelling, mysterious.  Analysis?  Fine and good. It does help, to a point.  Reality?  That’s more ineffable. 

Philosophically speaking, all yin/yangs are inherently false because they are incomplete pictures of reality.  I believe it was Nietzsche who elucidated this principle to Westerners.  All definitions, judgements, assessments, theories, explanations, etc. are only partially true, so for your own sake don’t get hung up on any on them.  Use them where they’re useful but be prepared to discard them.  

It almost goes without saying, though we do forget, but the last step is to go about your life with a new perspective.  And when it stops working, do it again, perhaps with a more finely tuned set of opposites.

Could it actually be all that simple?  Yes it could. I find this particular practice works very quickly, more than any other. I find it very easy and it always surprises me, which makes me happy.

Gods Playing

Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 3.50.51 PMGods Playing in the Clouds is an attractively named Chi Gung/Qi Gong set, a relatively advanced one that has always been my favorite since learning it in the early 90s. The physical movements, the outer shells, are very elementary but what you do internally with your joints, fascia, ligaments, blood, breath, etc. is a game of a higher order. Consciously directing your energy flow is yet another skill. Finally you could add meditation.  No one ever does it perfectly; there is always something more to fine tune.

The set was developed some 3000 years ago and has not changed significantly in 500 years, so you could say the adepts are happy with it. I find myself wondering about many aspects of it in my daily practice. Perhaps the most intriguing bit is that of the six movements there is one, #3, that’s uniquely different in its outer shell and its energy movement. It’s been said that this advanced set is the bridge to get you into meditation and I’d like to explore here how #3 can take you there. 

The simplest way to describe the energy movements generally is  1) up and down your main channels, left right and center, and  2) from center to periphery and back, from your lower tan tien out to your auric fields and back in. 

This holds true for 5 of the 6. But #3 focuses on your three main energy centers in your head, heart and belly. Furthermore you only bring energy into your head and belly and only send it out your heart. What is going on here? 

Well one of the ways to understand Qigong generally is that you are interacting with the forces of nature, the sky above, the earth beneath, and the biosphere in between. Typically the head relates to the heavens, the belly to the earth and the heart to all the plants, animals and humans in between. So here you might say you can bring in all of heaven and earth but then you open your heart and give it all away. That sounds like a meditation. 

Just what makes something a meditation?  One thing is it addresses the main issues of life and death, questions we all deal with in all times and places.  Another is it implicitly contains many variations, many ways to look at those weighty issues. It opens more doors.  It invites more nuanced explorations.  And as you open those doors you tend to recognize that you’re doing something deeply worthwhile. 

So what do we have here? At its very simplest, stuff comes in to you and stuff leaves you. That’s true of every organism, every entity. Life proceeds by taking in and giving out. Where might you go with that?

You could start with gratitude for the energy that keeps you alive and well. You could appreciate its qualities, the freshness of clean air, the warmth and wet of the sun and rain, the stability of terra firma, the beauty of it all. You might notice that it’s always there, always available, reliably so. That could lead you to trust, to relax. 

When you recognize that the forces of nature will be there you can afford to be less anxious, to worry and fret less, to be non attached, to let go and let God, to give generously and without expectation. Are you hearing the universality as well as the individual world traditions? 

You could just as easily do this with the negatives as we’ll see in a moment.

Here’s how you can do the #3 qigong exercise very simply. Start with your arms bent, parallel, shoulder width, in front of you and a little above your head. Gently try to absorb the energy of the sky into your hands and your head, inhaling easily as you do. Then drop it and your hands down to your heart and let it all go as your arms extend out a little, exhaling easily. Next drop down to the earth and bring its energy and your arms up your legs to your belly, inhaling. From there come up to your heart and let it all go again. Finally return to the sky and repeat the cycle. Pinpoint focus on your energy centers if you’re able. How many times doesn’t matter but sets of 20 are sort of standard. 

Gods green #3A

Gods green #3B

Gods green #3C

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As you do this start thinking about things like abundance in abundance out, beauty in beauty out, love in love out, all you hold dear in and out, etc.  Or if that’s too hokey for you try storminess, trouble and chaos in and out. That’s reliable nature too. But now you might want to contemplate the temporary qualities. Good or bad, all is permanent and all is impermanent. Which brings up equivocation, but let’s stop somewhere.

The significant thing about this type of meditation exercise is that it is much more than just thinking. You are doing it with your body, your breath and your energy, engaging several of your faculties together.  (The more parts of your body you can engage the better.)  There is a synergy. You practice at deeper levels. 

So while qigong per se is not meditation per se this is an example of how the two can become one. With these few suggestions you can take this wherever it resonates with you. 

Equinox Equilibrium

Surfer Hawaii 2This is the time of year when we in the northern hemisphere rush headlong down the wave toward winter, at least in terms of losing our daylight.  At latitude 38 where I live the change is about two minutes per day or one hour in a month.  In that dive there is a very brief moment when day and night are equal all over the earth, hence the term equinox (equal night.)

The other balance points in our orbit around the sun are the solstices where the amount of light stays relatively the same for weeks.  When the  “sun stations”  in the height of summer and the dead of winter the light change is only about 10 minutes in a month’s time.  

sine waveOn a graph this is your classic sine wave which is steep on the rise and fall and nearly flat on the peak and trough.  The top and bottom are sort of natural resting places while the the inclines rush right past the moment of equality.  So we have two kinds of balances, one where you can take your time and one where you’ll miss it if you blink, one of rest and the other of action, one of stillness, one of motion.

A main complaint of our modern life is that it requires so much action we barely have time to rest.  So the general advice we get is to carve out more time for rest & relaxation.   But there is another way, one that sounds impossible to our conditioned minds.  That is to find relaxation and balance while we are in action, to find stillness in motion.   

And just how do you pull off such a contradictory feat?  

1.  Well, let’s say you’re engaged in a physical activity like dancing, running, cycling, doing the housework,  anything really.  What you do is find a place in your body where something can always remains constant, always the same.  You just assign it the job of being a home base, a center around which the universe can revolve.  There’s no particular magic to it;  anywhere can be the center of the cosmos, but certain places lend themselves to it better.  Depending on your personality it could be your brain, your heart, your belly or your feet.  It needs to be a place that makes sense to you since you’ll return to it whenever you you start to feel off kilter.    

Ba Gua ZhangThis trick comes from Ba Gua, a marital art where you walk in circles, constantly changing direction to confront or evade another opponent.  When you do it as meditation you are creating a place of stillness within chaos.  It’s also a part of the art of twirling as in whirling dervishes and belly dancing.  There the obvious constant place would be your central axis, assuming you can find it.  

2.  You can always monitor and change your Breathing, of course.  Anxious breathing is quick, forward moving, and high up in the lungs because anxious energy rises up and rushes forward. Calm breathing is slow,  back, and lower down in the abdomen.  The beauty of breathing is that it’s very easy to control for almost everybody.  Almost anyone can learn to direct their breath to their lower spine and even into their feet.  (from the Tai Chi Classics: “The wise man breathes from his heels.”)  Next time you’re in a crazy place see what this will do to your sense of equilibrium.

3.  Another thing you can do calls for a higher level of awareness. You can tune into the essential underlying flow of whatever it is you’re doing and keep it constantly going in some part of your mind.  For example you could ask something like, “What is the primary purpose in this endeavor?”  It’s a very practical question because it requires you to distill out some basic clarity while dealing with a host of other relevant questions.   Whether you’re preparing a dinner or running a company or cultivating a relationship there is an underlying purpose that can serve as your stability amidst the many particulars that come up.  When you’re in tune with it all your particular activities can go in that direction.  There is a sense of balance in chaos.

By way of exercise examples there are many Tai Chi and Qigong/Chi Gung exercises that move in continuous circles.  Typically there are several elements that go into that basic framework such as grounding, breathing, relaxing, clearing meridians, pumping joints and organs, moving energy in and out, controlling blood flow, etc.  Keeping track of all that can be confusing and chaotic which makes the exercise less effective.  So you could choose as your stability point just Making Smooth Circles. 

Yes, that sounds contradictory in nature but if you can experience motion itself as stillness you will have accomplished something remarkably useful for any season. 

Digital, Analog

This is not about modern audio system technology, but about older ways to understand and interact with the world in general.  You can approach life as pairs of opposites like inhale/exhale, awake/asleep, night/day, open/close, good/evil, yes/no, on/off, Yin/Yang, etc.  This is what I’m calling digital.  Or you can experience reality as processes that flow somewhere in between like waves on the ocean or winds in the air, as continua, as analog.  

1. Breathing.  For example, continuing our breathing-as-exercise theme, there are two main classical traditions, Indian Yoga and Chinese Qigong/Chi Gung.   India would be more digital because it makes a clear distinction between moving the breath and holding it, including via the right vs. the left nostrils.   Along with holding the breath they have ways to hold back the blood flow.  Why?  Because when you open it back up the flow rushes out with a much greater force, which can have a great clearing out effect, sort of like a power washer.  

That could have a minor down side, such as a stroke if your vascular system has weak spots,  so clearly you’d have to work that one gradually and carefully, preferably under qualified supervision.  According to the Taoists there is also the risk of clamping down your emotions in the process, so they avoid it altogether.  

fullyinyangWhat the Taoists like  to do is keep the breath moving continuously even at the changeover points where inhale and exhale gradually trade places.  This is best illustrated in the Yin/Yang wheel where dark and light increase and decrease inversely.  They use the same approach with the blood flow, slowly building up and letting go of pressures in the circulatory system.   

The end result of both Asian systems is greater health through greater movement of air and blood in the body.  Here, I would call the analog more conservative and the digital more daring.  What you prefer depends of your general robustness and your personality. 

2. Everyday Meditation.  Suppose you care nothing for breath and blood.  We all have to make yes/no decisions everyday, and sometimes those decisions are so unclear we don’t know how to make them.  It’s instructive to observe how we handle those situations, which could run anywhere from courage to chaos.  It’s a classic meditation question.  One suggestion is, Do not say, “Yes I can” or “No I can’t.”  Instead find a way in between and go there. Find the place of neither yes nor no and just be present in the situation.  Then see what is called for.  

It is said that habits are always yes/no situations.  “I always do this do this, I never do that.”  Frequently the advice we get for changing a habit is also yes/no.  Now if you’re inclined toward socially alienating behaviors that’s probably the better way but if you have some leeway there is more freedom, insight and creativity in the middle path.  I’ll skip the examples here partly because a few moments of reflection will reveal a vast area of explorable territory for any one of us.   

3. Any Practice.  In learning any skill you generally need the discipline to learn the rules first.  “This will work, that won’t.”  Later, when you’ve sorta mastered them you can go beyond and play spontaneously, with the freedom of an artist.  Can it work the other way around?  Sometimes, but you’re gonna end up re-inventing and re-discovering the rules anyway.   At the end of the day it matters little where you started.  You can’t really live without either discipline or freedom.  It’s more a question of knowing both so you can choose what’s better at the present moment.

images-1Beginning students of Tai Chi are often surprised at the orthogonal angularity demanded of it since every posture has to face one of the eight directions of the compass.  But one must also embody the circularity that connects every posture together in one seamless flow.  I often think of the Chinese coins with square centers as illustrative of these two processes, though I wouldn’t say they were minted with that in mind, lest I be called a revisionist historian.  Alternating your emphasis between static angles and moving circles is standard Tai Chi practice methodology.   You don’t want get so technically correct you have no grace.  Nor do you want to flow so freely you lose your substance.

I Ching green4.  I Ching.  The Classic, Book of Changes, a sort of divination manual, is a curious combination of digital and analog.   When you throw the coins they can only turn up as heads or tails, i.e. digital.  That doesn’t mean you can ask yes/no questions because it’s set up so that there are 64 possible outcomes, which is 2 to the 6th power, too many to comprehend as either/or.  Apparently 64 descriptions are enough to cover most any situation.  Then, under each of the 64 you could get a further 6 variations.  Now when you examine these you see that they read like a progression from birth to death, from seed to fruition, from ebb to flood.  And the last one always anticipates a return to the first; when the process is finished it spills over the top to become its opposite and starts again.  So this part of the reading tells you where you are on the spin cycle.  

Finally, it’s rare if not impossible that you’d operate exclusively in either digital or analog.  They form their own yin yang continuum where each is contained in the other.   Neither is right nor wrong, true or false. The main point  here is to use that continuum to act in harmonious balance in any situation.  To paraphrase a bygone professor,  “None of our attempts to put reality into categories can be true but they can be quite useful.”

Smiling Meditation

Buddah rock face 230There is a Qigong practice you might have heard of called Inner Smile.   Essentially it’s about feeling happy inside and amplifying your innate capacity for joy.  You engage your body, mind and emotions in this process so that your outward smile is a reflection of what’s inside.  

Let’s say you don’t feel very happy and don’t have much reason to smile but you would like to.  Typically there are two main approaches.  Either you practice the action (purposely smile) in hopes of getting the attitude, or you work on your attitude in order to produce the outward manifestation.  The parallel in religious/spiritual practice is, Do good deeds until you feel a change of heart, or Change your heart until you want to do good things.

We could dissect this further, beginning from the outward  action. Before you start, take a good look at your smile in the mirror or take a “selfie” snapshot.  What do you see?  Be honest. Now sit down quietly with your eyes closed and very slowly begin to smile.  Take at least a minute to let it develop.  What do you feel?  Which of your face muscles are comfortable or strained?  What parts of your face are quite happy to smile and what parts don’t want to, say because they’re too sad or mad or afraid or lethargic or just numb?    

Then ask, what is it that makes you smile?  How do you experience whatever that is?  Is it  lightheartedness, exuberance, joviality, humor, gratitude, comfort, contentment, serenity, peace?    As you go from one to another how does that change the feel and shape of your face?  

Maybe you don’t like this exercise because you think there are more important things than joy.  Maybe find yourself drawn into your usual cravings that you associate with whatever you think you need to be happy.  Perhaps disappointment creeps in.  Maybe there is old sorrow or bitterness just under the surface.  Any of these will effect the inside feel of your facial expression.   Locate those effects physically.

Now, suppose you want to make some change, what would you do?   The main thing from a Taoist perspective is to relax the restricted spaces and allow them to open so they have the room to be happy.  Choose just one spot, even one muscle pair such as the “Depressor anguli oris”  (they pull down the corners of your mouth.)  Feel your eyes which typically hold a ton of tension.  Or maybe there’s something deeper inside your facial bones that you can’t quite pinpoint.  There will be some not-so-happy feeling associated with the spot but you don’t really need to define it.

Do your best to do two things: relax the area and try to make it happy.  You may get  some change right away.  But take your time because most likely that’s what it will take. Treat it like the meditation that it is.  When you do feel a shift or when you’ve had enough for that day go check yourself in the mirror.  Is anything visibly different?  More importantly, do you feel anything different inside?   

This is essentially the process of Taoist meditation which is always centered in your body.  It may sound simplistic but don’t be fooled.  It is much easier said than done.  If it were that easy more of us would be a lot happier.  There is always another unhappy layer but the practice is still the same.  It is deceptively simple, but elegantly and profoundly so.  

Actually the standard practice of relaxation and Dissolving takes you toward neutrality, while the happy part is decidedly positive.  You may resonate more with one direction than the other, so experiment with both.  Happiness is a range of emotions. The French word for happy is content which is more neutral than say, ecstasy, and I’m not sure what to call the inane blather of advertising. 

That’s all about starting from the outside and going inside.  You could also begin internally from your heart, what we usually consider the seat of happiness, but we’ll look at that another time.

Emotion Meditation 2

Previously we explored how we could change our emotional patterns, indirectly just by observing them and directly by purposely creating different emotional states at will.   Now let’s look at the direct methods in more detail.

The main method will be familiar to anyone who knows something about psychotherapy, and really it’s closer to that than to meditation.  In keeping with the psych tradition let’s suppose you have nagging emotional issues around one of your parents (though any other highly charged live person will do.)  Pick either parent, the more difficult one if you’re up to it.  Let’s say that your stuff comes up predictably almost every time you think of and/or have any dealings with him or her.  You’d love to change how you feel and react but you don’t know how.

The main trick is to identify a place where you can most easily effect a change, try on different changes, and see what works.  You  will need to sit down by yourself and spend some time and effort.  Depending on your personality it might be on the level of Emotion, Intellect or Body.  (These divisions are convenient but arbitrary, e.g. Buddhism considers emotion a form of thought.)

1.  If you’re the Emotionally dominant type you will want to examine what happens in that sphere at the deepest possible level.   For example behind bitterness and resignation you will often find anger and sadness and behind those you will often find pain.

Let’s say pain is the root experience.  Okay, so you’ve been hurt by a parent (or someone else), now what?  What other emotional reactions could you have?   You might try relief because the painful experience stopped long ago or at least it doesn’t go on 24/7.  You might try sympathy because people often cause pain out of their own painful experiences.  You might try gratitude because it could have been far worse.  You might laugh if you see the absurdity in the situation.  Try on these alternative emotions, experience them, amplify them and see how they sit with you.  Next time you deal with that difficult parent, or whomever, live, try experiencing the more benign emotions instead of the usual problematic ones and see what it does for the interaction.

2.  Suppose you’re the more Thinking, rational type.  You will want to analyze your emotional processes in detail and see if they make any practical sense.  You might ask if it’s reasonable to to stay bent out of shape for any length of time?  Does it help?  If not why stay in that emotional framework?  Or you could follow how your thoughts and emotions lead to each other and start to identify your usual patterns.

For example say you’re having a debate and you get shouted down and have your intelligence insulted.  You might feel hurt. You might think up better arguments. You  might feel defensive which could become offensive. Your ego might swell. You might think “no, I’m not stooping to that level”, or “what a waste of time”.  You might feel exasperated or resigned or maybe stuff it down.  You might explode but then regret it later.

Ask yourself rationally, at what point in your process can you most easily change the script?  It might be at an emotion:   “I don’t need to feel insulted,” or a thought:  ”My friend’s mind is already made up, so I don’t need to construct better arguments.”  Whatever, it must be something that makes sense to you and this will require some experimentation.

3.  You might be the Body oriented type in which case you’ll want to feel the emotions in your physical being and identify the possible change points at that level.

3A.    For example, our breathing rates tend to increase when we get upset and we commonly hear the advice to take  a dozen or so slow breaths in order to calm down.  You could be more specific and locate exactly where your body is going off balance and then direct your breathing there, such as your heart, your stomach, your neck muscles, your brain, etc.

3B.  You might also place your hands there and try to calm down and rebalance that way. We sometimes do this instinctively when we bring our hands to our heart, our face, our stomach, etc. in response to stress, but the intent needs to be more conscious.   Specifically and in general, high stress reactions make bodies tense and call for softening, melting, unraveling, and dissolving the rigidity of the physical body.  Dissolving  is the quintessential practice of the old school Taoist Water tradition and should not be underestimated.  Emotions live in your body and can be unraveled there.  You can think of it as dismantling their residences giving them no quarter in which to live.

3C.  A more advanced practice is to use your mind alone, not really your intellect, independently of breath or touch, to direct your body organs and tissues to relax and let go.  However you can effect physical relaxation, what we call dissolving, it will often reverberate to your emotions and your brain making you more even keeled and clear headed.

The main exception to this rule is depression which can be seen as an immobilizing form of relaxation.  Often what helps here is more vigorous physical activity.  To quote James Brown, “Get up offa that thing and dance till you feel better!”

4.  Finally you may wish to explore the patterns of how your Emotions, Thoughts and Body interact with each other.

Let’s say you’re watching a presentation detailing several disastrous trends that could spell an apocalyptic cataclysm in your peaceful little world.  That intellectual information makes you emotionally horrified and your body goes into distress mode.  The stress might be immobilizing or it might make you determined to take action, perhaps out of anger.  Maybe you spend a lot of time reevaluating the facts and surmise that it’s not that dire after all, or that it’s actually worse.  You watch your emotions adjust accordingly.  You also note that your body adjusts, anywhere from rising up to a Herculean task to sinking into an abyss of despair & illness to finding a calm balance in the face of any eventuality.

Once again, the idea here is to identify where and how you could effect a change.  Does accurate information give you hope?  Does hope make your body function better?  Does a healthy body clarify your mind?

In each of these exercises you only discover what works for you through a certain amount of self examination and experimentation.  One insightful change is quite wonderful but taking assessments regularly is much more rewarding.  And don’t think that your changes are necessarily permanent; you will want to revisit the situations on a regular basis, the same as you would with any other practice.  Whatever time and effort you put into these endeavors will come back to you in manifold ways.

 

Emotion Meditation 1

Whether you have a little or a lot of experience with meditation there are a few simple Taoist meditation tricks that work very well and can do you a world of good.  It’s first helpful to delineate three general meditation categories.  You could make the focus on your Body, your Mind & Thoughts, or your Emotions.  

In this article I’m choosing Emotions, by themselves and as they interact with Mind and Body.   We know intuitively that there is a continuous interaction and what we need to do is experientially understand that process better.  An experiential understanding is what gives us the means to shift everything toward more balance and harmony.

1.  Let’s look at what emotions may arise in a simple everyday situation.  Say you’re in a public place and find yourself in the presence of a complete stranger for whom you have an immediate dislike.  That’s one emotional reaction.  Next you might ask yourself why you were so prejudicial, another emotion.  That may take the form of embarrassment or guilt.  You might then reassess your reaction by feeling acceptance instead, which in turn might make you more comfortable, or proud of yourself.  Or you may say that your first reaction was right because you sensed a good reason to avoid this person, you just have to learn to trust your intuition.    Or it may dawn on you that this person just happened to trigger one of your buttons from way back, something that you need to get over already.  But maybe you can’t deal with that right now. 

It may surprise you to realize that all these emotional reactions, about ten in that example, could come and go in a few seconds, producing a small  “tempest in a teapot”.  Multiply that by a few hundred simple interactions in a day and you might have a big mess brewing just below the surface.  All these emotions will have a direct effect on what you say, think and do in the immediate situation as well as in the long term.  

1.A. The first step in gaining some stability in this possibly turbulent stream is simply to sit quietly and take notice.  Pick a situation which could be emotional but doesn’t require you to interact such as watching the news or listening to an argument.  Or you may want to go internal and examine an emotionally charged circumstance in your life.   Ask what emotions are coming up and what others they lead to.  If you get caught up in them, take note of that and just keep watching.

This perspective, which is found in many traditions,  is sometimes called the Independent Observer.  You could be watching with your intellect but you might also be accessing a part of yourself that is beyond, behind, deeper than, more stable than the vagaries of capricious emotions. 

You will realize that emotions come and go like the breeze and might have about the same importance.   One perspective is that all humans throughout time have had these same emotions all their lives and you are just one of them here in one moment.  To think that yours are all that significant could seem a little ridiculous. 

With practice you will notice that certain patterns repeat themselves, that you have certain habits.  It’s probably less important to know how they developed than to note how they are maintained.  

1.B.  A second method you could try might sound as though it requires a bit more courage:   Take any situation wherein you find yourself, intense or neutral, attractive or repelling, and allow whatever you see and hear to be absorbed into yourself.   Let in the humans, buildings, media, weather, whatever, and then let it all out again.   You could try inhaling and exhaling as you do.  Observe what emotions arise.  Keep this up until something changes, for example becoming more comfortable with what was uncomfortable.  

A refinement of this exercise is to bring the scenes into and out of your three main energy centers, brain, heart, and belly.  There will be a different sensation in each one. What is the nature of each and how do you react differently?   Note that no situation need have any particular effect on you;  you still are who you are.  

2.  That’s dealing with emotions alone, but of course they never exist all alone.  So next you could watch how they interact with your thoughts.  What might be associated with an everyday thought like  “If I’m late I’m late?”  Relief?  Relaxation?  Anticipation? Resignation?  Urgency?  Dread?  Callousness? 

Any of these emotions will lead to another set of thoughts, so if you’re Relieved you might think,  “I could just do some breathing exercises.”  If you reacted Callously you might construct all kinds of ways to blame it all on anyone and anything else.  Watch what emotions are then associated with these thoughts.  It sounds like an endless morass but you’ll soon discover a lot of repetition. 

3.  You can also examine the interplay of your emotions and your body.  In a literal  sense emotions live in your body.  They express themselves through changes in your breathing rate, your heart rate, your nervous system firing, your organ functions, your muscular tension.  Conversely, the condition of your body affects your emotions:   How you feel affects how you feel.  

An easy exercise here is to pick any one emotion, feel it as thoroughly as you can, and see what it does to your body.  Where do you feel Fear or Joy or Depression or Anger?  What happens where you feel it?  

Then pick two emotions, opposites like Courage vs. Fear.   Inhale one and exhale the other, either way, and feel how it changes your insides.   Pick other pairs of opposites like Contentment vs. Desire, Appreciation vs. Disgust, Enthusiasm vs. Depression and amplify them as you breathe in and out.   Notice also the difference when you switch each one from inhale to exhale, e.g. Courage in vs. Courage out, Fear in vs. Fear out.

These exercises will shine a light that enables you to recognize what your usual patterns are.  It will also give you the sense that you can have some direct control over your emotions and your body, an immensely useful ability. 

Once you realize that you can create a more balanced emotional life you can do these Taoist meditation exercises whenever you feel the need.  You will also be able to empathize with other people because you’ll recognize their particular patterns.  There will be a harmonious effect on all your interactions.

Practicing the Extraordinary

Our modern western culture is obsessed with being stimulated, delighted, awed and amazed.  We have developed such a familiarity and boredom with the everyday that we fail to appreciate the extraordinary nature of the commonplace and seek out ever more stupendous phenomena.  We have long since passed the point of exhaustion but we don’t know it and continue headlong into this unsatisfying, useless, pathological endeavor.  (Okay, you could argue that it keeps the economy going.)

We all know the solution inherently:  Slow down enough to discover and appreciate  the superb nature of whatever  we are in right now.   There are any number of ways to do this and the Taoists invented Qi Gong exercises with this as one of the main goals.  

There is a certain unique satisfaction in immersing oneself in  a discipline so vast and deep that you never run out of new territory to explore.  Yes this is still seeking, consuming perhaps,  but internal discovery and gratification has a way of reverberating into your external life.

Taoist Qigong has standard exercises where the same movements are repeated ad infinitum and might appear to be boring and mindless.  But hidden with the movements are numerous details that promote discovery, awakening, peace of mind and a sharpened sense of being alive, not to mention great health and how good that feels.  

It’s common practice to spend months and years exploring the depths of any one standard exercise.  Every time you practice you have the capacity to discover something new and different, an opportunity to go deeper. 

Students often ask  “How long should I practice?” 

My best answer is  “Until you discover something new.”

All  Qigong exercises are governed by basic principles such as usefulness, efficiency, balance, integrity, relaxation, naturalness, groundedness, clarity, etc. (For a more formal list go here.) Typically you learn the main exercises by breaking them down into multiple sub exercises wherein all the same principles are imbedded.  From there you integrate it all back together and apply it to whatever you need or wish to do.   You might know the phrase “fractal zoom” denoting the repetition of patterns in ever smaller and larger scales. 

Cloud Hands L EvenLet’s take the standard Qigong exercise “Cloud Hands” as an example.  Here you adopt a moderately wide stance and slowly shift your weight from one leg to the other, turn left and right, and raise one arm as you lower the other, all in synchrony.   I recently made a list of 50+ details and sub exercises for Cloud Hands.  One is simply shifting your weight 100% back and forth to each leg repeatedly, smoothly,  maintaining a relaxed, grounded balance.  Sounds simple enough. 

Sub exercise Number 2, Try it with your eyes closed.  Number 3, Try keeping your weight on one leg for a few minutes.  Can you do either of these without generating any tension?  Almost no one can.

 Now a series of leading questions could arise and you’re about to discover something about your human nature.   How When Why and Where did What kind of tension come in?    What are your capacities and limitations here?   You could spend many hours taking an honest stock of yourself, or you might rather focus on one little item like keeping your balance. 

Next you could to take it to another level, to your mind and emotions.   How do you react to your level of ability?   Are you proud, satisfied, embarrassed, frustrated, in denial, neutral?   Suppose that, in good Taoist fashion, you wish to do these extremely simple exercises as perfectly and gracefully as possible for a full hour.   What is your approach?   Do you buck up, get creative, have fun, persevere, get upset, fake it, get lazy, space out, give up?   How do you measure success or failure?   How do you react to either one?

 If you haven’t realized it by now, what we are doing is using a very simple challenge as a microcosm for your life.  How do you typically approach larger challenges?   What are your habits?   How does all this affect your interactions with people and your environment? 

 Whatever you find in the micro will almost certainly reflect the macro.  Sooner or later you’ll have those “Ah ha experiences.”  “Oh I didn’t know that l’d rather fake it than get it right.” ‘”I didn’t realize that I focus so hard I don’t enjoy anything.”  “Why am I so dang proud of myself?”  Most likely you will gain insights into what makes other humans tick also, which might increase your empathy and compassion.

 This is not meditation or psychotherapy per se but it’s close enough for most of us and will accomplish many of the same things.  You certainly could add meditation, if and when you wanted to take on yet more complexity.

Stepping back to the physical exercise, once you have a better picture of how you move and what you’d like to modify you can begin to experiment. 

Sub exercise Number 4:  Say your  point of weight change as you land on one leg and push off toward the other, from Yin to Yang, is very clunky and you’d like to make it smooth and seamless.  Here are three possibilities.

sine wave1.  Slow down near the change point so that it takes longer.  This is on of the natural courses of a sine wave with steep rises and falls between long ebbs and floods.   We see this in the seasons where the light changes very rapidly in spring and fall and very slowly in winter and summer.  

 2. Add a little curve at the end point so that you have a small loop rather than a sharp bounce. 

3. Anticipate the end points by beginning a return before you reach the end.  One way is to have a part of your body pulling back while another part is still stretching out, effectively doing two opposite things simultaneously.

 You might want to consider how these three methods could make other clunky pieces of your life more smooth and natural such as driving, dancing or diplomacy.  Exploring the transition between Yin and Yang is an endless pusuit in Taoism.

 If you go the the beach and watch the ocean waves you’ll see these same three things going on.   1. The distant waves move in sine.  2.  When they break they loop.  3.  At the beach the final inflow merges with the previous outflow.    You’ll see a small sample of how nature creates and adapts to it’s own Yin/Yang fluctuations.  Wherever you look you’ll find another variation.

Taoists love to invent Qi Gong exercises that follow nature.   Which brings us to another point.  When you understand the natural processes experientially from the inside out you can create your own movements, and because of this you will have a deeper appreciation for the whole unfolding.  If find yourself  creating new movement spontaneously it shows that you understand without the need to think about it.  There is a certain joy that comes with this territory. 

So what do we have?   Through repetition and variation, we have continuous discovery of the vast complexity of human nature, which can make you more compassionate.  We have creativity in your capacity to adapt and change.  We have natural spontaneity and joy.  You can’t download this kind of magic.  

You can gain great insight through any field or even by scrutinizing any five minutes of your life.  The genius of the Taoists was in designing natural exercises that promote  insight, change and vitality in your physical body, the energy that governs it, your emotions, your mind and even your spirit.  And that is very gratifying.

 

Tao of Love

One of my neighbors used to say to her boyfriend, “Honey it’s late, let’s go home and practice,”  explaining  “Just when we think we have it all down perfectly something new happens.”  They were’t the first ones to approach it that way.

The Taoists developed energetic (Qigong) and meditation practices in the context of simple activities such as standing, sitting and walking.  They also saw fit to explore the more intense human activities as vehicles for discovery and  transformation including fighting and love making.   Using fighting as a meditation tool is unique to Taoism but sexuality traditions have existed somewhat openly  as part of Tantra in India and more secretively in western monotheism.   The Taoists societies were often secretive depending on the political climate and it is only in recent years that their practices are coming to light.

Qigong generally is meant to give you more energy and what you do with that extra energy has five traditional applications:  your own health, healing others, martial arts,  sexual arts and meditation.   These categories have considerable overlap, for example the fighting arts can be done in ways that make you very healthy.   It is also possible to use sexual energy therapeutically  both for yourself and your partner, as well as for meditation.

Humans have the understandable drive to seek out pleasure and yet the conflicting tendency to avoid  it, not appreciate it, and keep moving restlessly on to whatever next thing.  What would it be like if you just pursued the pleasure and allowed it to soak in and make you content?  What if you approached this as a meditation?

Perhaps the most obvious reason to do sexual practices is to enhance the experience, to make it more profound or just more fun, to generate more of that wonderful energy.  Most people would be quite happy with that.  It’s also true that many of our issues, our baggage, our stuff shows up around and in our most intimate of expressions in ways that are not particularly enhancing.   For those few who want to do the courageous work of meditation/transformation this means sex presents a unique opportunity.   I will talk about both of these motivations.

Traditionally Taoist couples engaging in “double practice”  also had their separate individual practices in Qigong, which laid the groundwork for coming together.  While this is preferable it is not really necessary.  If only one person is doing the practice the other will still feel the effects just as happens with the other two-person practices of fighting and healing.   Unless one of you is a born natural, the more work you’re willing to put in individually, the  less work, the easier, the deeper it will be when you come together.

So just what do you do?

1.  The possibilities are myriad, but grade one step one is getting the unique quality of sexual energy to be felt anywhere in your body at will.   Some folks have this naturally but most have to put a little effort into it, just as some can naturally sing and dance but most need practice.  Some parts of your body are more responsive and some less. Mouths and hands?  Yes.  Feet and spine?  Maybe.  Liver and kidneys?  Uh, that’s a bit more research.  Start with what’s easy.   Spread the energy nearby at first,  e.g. if you’re kissing wake up the back of your neck.  Or wake up the top your head where all the vertical meridians converge.   Or just go where you’re drawn.

2.  Once you wake up some part of yourself that you like particularly well, try keeping your mind there without wavering.  Or you could choose to focus on one point of contact with your partner, like wherever you kiss.  Keeping your mind focused is a standard meditation practice, but students often let their minds wander to something more interesting like sex,  so there’s a certain ingenious motivation here.  One thing this will do is expand the minutiae into something much larger, amplifying and intensifying the experience.   This can make you more appreciative, more grateful, more fulfilled by it all.   Allow the appreciation to penetrate into your cells and beyond.

3.  One of the things you learn in Qigong work is to project and absorb energy from any part of your body voluntarily.   Yin and Yang is one way to understand this.  Yang expands outward like light from a bulb or a laser.  Yin absorbs inward like the ocean enveloping a diver.

You could try this just holding hands or while in embrace.  A natural pathway is from your heart  out your arms and hands to your partner’s heart and back again.  Or skip the arms and connect directly heart to heart.   Or try it with your whole body.

We know intuitively that each place and each way we physically connect brings out a different quality of energies.  You could take a lot of time and discover what these are and explore what they do for you, for your partner and for your relationship.

Learning to exchange energy is a skill and you’ll get it sooner if you stay relaxed and don’t force it.  It’s one thing to absorb easily and quite another to swallow your partner whole.  It’s one thing to enter gently and another to lumber in all huffin’ an’ a puffin’.  True, some couples like this intensity but if it’s subtlety you’re after too much noise will drown it out.

4.   This brings us to the main practice of the original, Water Tradition Taoists: Dissolving, relaxing, unraveling, letting go, melting, and perhaps the best term here, Opening.  How can you enter into and stay open throughout the experience especially in your physical body and your nervous system which reverberate into your mental and emotional spheres and beyond?

Besides your physical body a natural place to approach dissolving energetically is your heart center.  We generally associate the heart with emotions so it may seem counter intuitive to dissolve them for the occasion.  You do want to dissolve negative emotions, your pains, fears, expectations, and conditionings which often assert themselves and just get in the way.    But you are not trying to create or amplify any particular positive emotions.  Rather it’s about becoming neutral without preconceptions,  opening to what  is present and allowing it to unfold naturally.   It’s creating the empty space out of which springs spontaneity and surprise.  Nothing has to happen but many things will.

Here one could digress a little and wax cosmic:  Creation “ex nihilo”, Something out of Nothing,  Emptiness as the Undifferentiated Source of All Potentiality.   Perhaps you can get some real down home experiential sense of this grand theoretical construct.

Dissolving is Yin and women have a more natural tendency, even a prerequisite to open, to be more Yin.  Men have to work a bit more to find a balance here because Yang is their prerequisite.   It usually takes men longer to find a sweet spot, so to speak.  (Maybe I shouldn’t go there.)  But due to the nature of arousal, everyone must find how to balance it with relaxation.

Dissolving is not the same as denial, stuffing it away somewhere,  and you only learn the difference by lots of practice.  When your issues do come up, at the first hint if you can, keep dissolving.  Keep opening.  Just let all that stuff go.  Out of your body. It’s very simple yet deeply profound.  You won’t learn it all in one lifetime.

Letting go is also a safety mechanism for unloading any disagreeable energy you really don’t want to take in, which could be a risk when you’re mixing yourselves together.     That’s a much larger discussion.  One guiding light for dissolving generally is the words of Lao-tzu,  “When the false leaves, only the true remains”.

The Taoist actually did many years of extensive research on where sexuality as a meditation path could go.  Dissolving is always present at every stage from the moment you step in the water until you become the ocean.

These are a very few of the many exercises and many more variations you could do to enhance what is already one of our greatest pleasures.   We might summarize them as Wake up your Body, Focus, Magnify, Saturate, Exchange and Merge, Stay Relaxed,  Become Content.   The concepts are simple whereas the practice is, well, practice. Whatever you do, don’t let work prevent you from enjoying one of God’s good gifts.

I have left much unsaid in between the lines in this brief introduction to an ancient tradition.   For a very thorough treatment you can read. Taoist Sexual Meditation by Bruce Frantzis.