No it doesn’t make any sense literally and it might make sense in the pairs-of-opposites paradigm but what could it mean in practical terms?
If I had to name the single most important practice in Taoism and Qigong (Chi Gung) it might be Opening. If there’s one message that has always come through it’s Open your body. Open your mind. Open your emotions. Open your energy fields. Open everything. Problems of all kinds are caused by tension, constriction and closing down, so the one-size-fits-all solution is to open up.
Now the traditional way to do this is by softening, melting, dissolving, letting go. It’s the way of Yin but every zealous student will figure out a way to overdo it, to strain, to push and pull, to make it Yang, and I was no exception. It took about 20 years for the obvious to dawn on me: Closing is just as important and ironically it’s often the key to Opening.
Sometimes it’s the lenses of another profession that open your eyes to the obvious in your own field and I have Osteopathy to thank for this. That discipline uses a number of methods where you use compression in order to produce the opposite effect of release and expansion. Once I got that little bit of practical insight my Qigong practices suddenly began to open up and flow more naturally.
Before I get into any esoterica, consider what this could mean on an everyday level. Say you want to expand your business or your influence in the community or your attractiveness to certain people. Nearly everyone in our society will tell you to put yourself out there, make yourself visible, advertise, network, etc., etc. Yet we all know that this can be done to the point of wearing yourself thin and making yourself a tiresome bother. Our culture is very good at both these counterproductive activities. There are times when it’s best to lie low and let the right people find you, Closing to Open.
One trick here is knowing how and when to fine tune the lying low, to finesse the backing away, to nudge the yin/yang wheel in another direction. This comes with experience and intuition. The same is true of qigong exercises and healing methods. Let’s look at the Opening/Closing continuum that is so basic to them.
From a Taoist and Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective all health and disease is a result of the balance or imbalance of Yin and Yang life forces. Every function of our bodies and minds depends on the right balance of Expansion and Contraction. We sometimes call this Pulsing and it refers to the natural movements of joints, organs, energy fields, etc. Most of them proceed on their own and some can be brought under your voluntary control, which is what you want if you’re going to get healthier.
My very first qigong lesson many years ago was in gaining control over joint pulsations which is surprisingly easy to begin doing but rather difficult to perfect. Joints are considered critical as the first place energy gets blocked and the first place to free it up. When pulsing works well palpable waves of energy are released which can be put to practical use, meaning anything from physical labor to deep relaxation. Making that happen well was frustratingly difficult.
But once I learned to emphasize the compression I was happily surprised at how easily the expansion followed, as easily as a ball bounces. You could think of it as an air compressor. The more the air in the container is pressurized the more it wants to expand, and when it’s released all kinds of things get done. Conversely the more you try to expand, for example creating a vacuum in a vacuum cleaner, the more the air rushes inward and something else gets done. To Close is to Open. And to Open is to Close.
(Theoretically the second ought to work as well as the first but practically I don’t experience it that way. My best guess why is that when we open too far the nerves sense danger and go on guard, preventing a smooth, even return whereas the nerves are more comfortable with some extra closing. It’s something like, It’s dangerous out there but safe in here.)
So how do you pull this off? If you don’t already know how to pulsate your joints you can get a rudimentary version of Open/Close with ordinary muscle action. Say you want to do a simple forward bend from sitting, standing or lying down. A experienced yoga or qigong person will likely tell you to extend lengthwise as you bend and reach your normal limit. But try shrinking instead and see if that takes you past your limit. Then add the lengthwise extension and you might be surprised. Or try extending your neck and turning your head to the side, marking the limit. Then let your neck shrink down and you’ll turn further. Finally re-extend your neck in the new, or a new position.
These are examples of getting your fascia and ligaments to stretch further by “fooling” them into it. Opening by Closing.
If you do know joint pulsing try closing them with a fair amount of effort, with yang, and allow them to release without effort, with yin. The slowly releasing wave permeates your body with a deep relaxation. If you want more drama put a large effort into closing and release it suddenly–kaboom, like an air rifle. Now you’re in martial arts secrets, where joint action augments your nerve and muscle action. Just how much you compress and how fast you let go determines what outcome you get. A true adept can fine tune to the point of relaxing while working or fighting, blending the yin and yang seamlessly.
I will mention just one Osteopathic technique in this vein. Sometimes the one trick that will get a neck to let go and lengthen is compression to the point of collapse. Obviously this can be a little risky in novice hands and the are a few important guidelines: Use small pressures, Wait for changes, and Make micro adjustments in your vectors. This can be used throughout the body including the entire spine and torso, but the neck is a good place for an already trained person to start. While we therapist types have good luck with it, no one has come with a definitive explanation for why it works.
And that brings us back to the mysterious nature of this very basic pair of opposites and indeed all such pairs. We might be able to make them work but they still might not make any sense!