Category Archives: taoism

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. 

Generating Heat

There are two general ways to get warm: either you bring in heat from an outside source or you generate it from inside. (Extra clothing just keeps the inside heat from escaping.)  So you could stand next to a stove or do some exercise. Pretty straight forward and not very interesting.

columbia-wim-hofBut now how do those yogi types manage to sit in the snow and melt a circle around themselves?  No movement, no stove. That sounds totally cool.  What is their secret? Some of you esoterica seekers may know of the Tummo method and I’m not sure how Wim Hoff the Iceman does it. 


Well, while I can’t actually melt ice I have learned to generate some heat and can tell you a few ways it’s done.  Whatever the methods, they can all be described rather simply, but their implementation is quite another matter.

Again there are two main ways, internal and external and I’ll start with the inside one which is easier.

Internal. The process is essentially a Yang one where you make the blood go to the surface of your body and heat up your outer layers.  The maxim goes, “The mind moves the energy, the energy moves the blood.”   So you use your mind to expand the blood flow, inflating the body as it were.  But it’s not enough to say it’s only your mind; there are always some critical physical components.

The main one is called “ding” or “press”.  Start by placing your tongue on the roof of your mouth and pressing lightly, just a few ounces, toward the top of your head.  Put your hand on the top of your head and see if you can detect a pressure change in your scalp caused by your tongue.  Turn it on, turn it off until it’s obvious to you, or better yet, to someone else.  It sounds physically impossible and maybe it is.  The change is not directly physical but energetic which then creates physical movement.

Once you can make that happen the next step is to make another part of your head expand a little and then your whole head (not too much now.)  From there you direct the energy into your body, down your arms, torso and legs.  Choose where you want the energy to go and consciously send it there.

I find it also helps to do the yoga trick of relaxing the soft palate and letting it drift upward toward the top of your head.

3 tantiens radiatingIf you’re one who needs to know why the soft palate and “ding” works my best guess is that you are contacting the main energy center in the brain, the upper tantien, the third eye, which disperses energy in any direction quite naturally (as do the middle and lower ones.)

As a regular winter practice I use this method almost exclusively and it works well enough at least in my climate which doesn’t freeze much.  I do it in the context of San Ti, the main Yang standing posture, which amplifies it considerably.  You can read about that here.  San Ti in turn is the energy work, the nei gung, of Xing I, the most Yang of the internal martial arts.

Coincidentally or not, I’m finding that all that Yang energy keeps the winter microbe invaders at bay.  The colds can’t get in because they’re kept out by all that heat radiation, is my theory.

The lower tantien also has the capacity to radiate pressure and heat and it’s in more convenient proximity to inflating the pelvis and legs.  The only sensible physical component here that I know of is compressing your belly when you inhale and letting it expand as you exhale.  But that discussion’s gonna get real complicated real soon and deserves more screen space.

External. You can also bring in heat in from the outside.  These exercises are more Yin.

1. Situate yourself near a source of heat such as the sun or a fire.  Feel it radiating on your skin.  Then very consciously do what you can to absorb and pull it deeply into your body.  This alone will get you warmer than just being in the presence of the heat. Next try to pull it into your lower tantien, the energy center in your belly, and store it there.

2. Now move away from the heat to where you can no longer feel it but still see it. Again do what you can to pull it in from a distance.  Of course this skill is more difficult to develop.  And again try to pull it in with your lower tantien.  When you feel it stored in your belly allow it to radiate out into the rest of your body.  If some place is colder, such as your feet, send it there.

3. Let’s say you have some success there and want a more challenging task, something on the order of psychic abilities.  The center of the earth as far as we know is molten iron which is very hot.  That can also be tapped into.  Let your mind sink deep down until you feel the heavy density, the stronger pull, and the slightly higher temperature.  Then pull it into your energy center just as you did with the visible source of heat and let it disperse throughout your body.  Obviously the degree of difficulty here is greater but so is the reward; my own teacher says had to learn this in order to survive a winter in the Himalayas.

All these tricks are both as simple and as complex as they sound.  As always Practice is the key but I can offer a few more tips.

—Don’t try to learn this when you’re freezing cold shivering.  The tension in your body will make it much more difficult for your blood vessels to open up.  Start when your temperature is relatively comfortable.  Also, read #4 of this yoga post.

—You will need to experiment with the active/passive, yin/yang balance. How much effort v. how much relaxation you only learn through trial and error.  Too much pull or push will reduce your effectiveness.  Yin or Yang, you should not strain yourself in any way.

—About going deep inside the earth, the advice I got here was to approach it like a living being and ask politely of Gaia’s abundance.  Don’t act like your Mother Earth owes you something or you may get nothing at all.

So, as simply as possible,  you develop two skills:
First you learn to radiate heat from your energy centers to your whole body. That’s Yang.
Then you learn to bring it in from outside, even from a very faint source. That’s Yin.
Okay three, Then you mix it up. That’s Yin Yang.

Heart on FireFinally, we’ve mentioned the gathering/dispersing capabilities of the upper and lower tantiens, so what about the middle, the heart center?   It certainly makes perfect sense because your heart pumps your blood.  Indeed it is associated with Fire in Chinese medicine (and the West) and there are practices focusing on just that.  My experience here is limited to other heart practices, (there are only so many hours in a lifetime)  but I welcome any observations any of you may have.

Sacred Grounding

Do you know where your Sacrum lives?  Do you know when it’s hurtin’ or happy?  Could it be important to your health?  Well from the point of view of your physical structure it’s the central bone in your skeleton.  That sounds big.  It is the wedge shaped one at the base of your spine that fits into your pelvic ring, like a keystone in an arch, where the upper and lower body join together.  Without a keystone, in its right place,  you don’t have structural integrity.  

Sacrum-Keystone 2The word means sacred since it was once thought to be the seat of the soul and was closely associated with the organs of reproduction.  To the Taoists it is important for structural and energetic reasons, reasons that often account for a bad back or a wobbly balance or a lack of feeling grounded.

Because your sacrum is the root of your spine, and is flexible, we need to talk about that relationship.  There is some controversy about what a healthy spine is shaped like.  Everyone agrees that it should be vertical as seen from the front or the back and that it should not be twisted.  No one thinks scoliosis or torque is a good idea.  From the side view we have our differences.

1. The current favorite textbook model is a serpentine shape with backward curves at the sacrum and ribs and forward curves in the neck and low back.

2.  Recently another model has emerged,  called a J shape, a relatively straighter spine, especially the lumbar, with a backward curve at the sacrum, which is thought to be a more natural indigenous form, predating our sedentary lifestyle.

3.  A third model is also a J but with the tailbone curve going forward, which you find in the likes of Tai Chi and other martial arts.

3 Spines 2

As you might expect I’m making the case for number three, but I’m not wading into the morass of denigrating the other two.

 

 

Chi Gung/Qigong has a basic premise that your body alignments are important because they set the conditions for your energy to flow freely.  It’s something like water flowing faster in a straight line flume than around curves which diminish the force and speed.  So a straighter, more vertical spine is considered preferable to a curved one.

Consider the efficiency of the physics.  Verticality by definition means aligned with gravity and hence is ironically the one position (except horizontal) where a spinal column can most be at rest.   Tilts and curves require muscular effort to maintain, the bigger the more, so they’re considered to be a waste of energy.  Any muscle/fascia/ tendon tension will inhibit the energy flow.

That’s within your body but we also live between the heavens and the earth which exude their own energies.  These are essentially vertical flows descending down and springing up so a vertical spine has the best chance of being receptive to them.  This is one of the reasons to sit with a straight spine when you meditate.

So what about the forward curve at the bottom?  It’s not much of a curve; the sacrum is still vertical or just slightly tucked under.  This is meant to send the energy from the spine down the legs and into the feet and the ground, so it gets your upper body grounded.  And Grounding is considered to be immensely important.  Connecting to the earth gives you stability, physically and meta-physically.  Physical stability has the effect of amplifying mental and emotional stability and who might like more of that? From a martial arts perspective, say Push Hands, there are practitioners who are so well grounded it feels like you’re pushing against the earth itself.

To achieve this kind of rootedness the tailbone angle has to be just right.  Again, your best indicator is a vertical sacrum but there is some leeway in the angle.  A partner can help you find the tolerances:  Standing, with your knees just slightly bent, have them take hold of your ilia (hip/pelvic bones, your waist) and press straight down toward your feet with 5-10 pounds of pressure.  If the sacrum is too far off vertical the force will go off in that direction and you will start to lose balance.  You want the angle where you feel the force going directly into your feet.

Knuckle sacrumIt helps to drop your sacrum out of your spine.  What does that mean?  It means lengthening the low back downward and creating a little more space in the vertebral joints.  You can get a feel for this by placing one or both of your hands, maybe the knuckles, on your backside just below your waist and letting the weight of your arms weigh down.  Eventually you want to accomplish the drop by just relaxing downward, no hands.

If you can find the exact hinge point of your sacrum and lowest vertebrae (L5/S1 in our lingo) try to drop open right there.

Finding the physical connection from the upper body to the lower, Seamed stockingsfrom the spine to the feet, is relatively easy.  Finding the energetic connection is trickier.  It is largely a mental exercise where you use your mind to feel the pathways, the simplest path being a line down the backs of your legs, like those seamed stockings that are long out of fashion.  

There are degrees of the energetic skill and there are a few ways to develop it.

1.  You can trace the lines with your hands as described at length here.

2.  Dissolving works well.  This is where you relax your physical tension at deeper and deeper levels, effectively removing the impediments to flow.  That’s the Yin way.

3.  The Yang way involves internally pushing down and pulling up your fluids, blood, synovial, and interstitial.  Sounds advanced?  It is.  I say a bit more about it in this yoga post.

It can take a lot of time and practice to your get your sacrum grounded while standing, and that’s one of the reasons so many qigong exercises are done standing in one place;  there are fewer distractions.  Once you get it in your body reliably you can move on to other positions like standing with your weight on one leg, bending over a workbench, squatting down, etc.

Eventually you will want to learn it while moving around.  A simple trick, again, is to walk around with one or both of your hands weighing down on your sacrum.  Walking is one of the best places to get it since it’s probably our single most common activity.  The very least you’ll walk away with is a happier back and better balance & stability.

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.”

Tao Yoga 2

One could write a dissertation on this subject but here in Part 2 we’ll limit our concerns to just a few more basic parameters that will serve to set the tone for the more extensive exploration you will of course do in your own private practice.

3. Breathing.  I’m not sure exactly why but sooner or later everyone wants to ask about breathing.  To a Taoist breath is one of several vehicles to move energy in your body.  I think they would rather you learn the other more challenging vehicles first and then come to the easier one.  Still, they’ve explored it in as much detail as anyone has, and we can sketch the outlines easily.

In keeping with the primary principle of Relaxing/Dissolving you want your breath to be very soft and quiet.  You want it to help open and expand your body without any force or strain.  In your torso the expansion is obvious and you could spend a lot of time relaxing your abdominal muscles, rib cage and spine.  You’ll be more successful if you continuously scan for tight areas and direct the air pressure there.  

You can take this deeper by directing your breath into your organs and the connective structures that hold them in place.   Your internal parts are like your externals in that they can all develop constrictions that are in need of unraveling.  Clearly this calls for a higher level of awareness and skill but the payoff is higher because your overall health is more a function your organ metabolism than your muscle tone.  The principle is still the same, viz.  pliability and openness make everything vibrant while tension and constriction make everything sluggish. 

Opening up your head, arms and legs is less obvious than your torso because there it’s not the air pressure that does it but the liquid pressures of your blood and synovial fluid.  We’ll get to that later.

The other main Taoist breathing thing is inhaling and exhaling not just air but energy itself.  The idea is to create a feedback loop where you flood your system with energy which then opens up your body which then makes it easier for energy to flow.

There are a few ways to approach this.  One is to just imagine that fresh air and fresh energy are identical and that it all enters your nose and lungs and penetrates your body as you inhale.  On the exhale the path reverses and you expel the stale unusable stuff.  

Next, as you breath air with your lungs imagine breathing energy with your skin. This is a way to discern their different natures by using separate paths.  You can’t willingly pass air through your skin but you can do so with energy.  How are they different on a felt, kinesthetic level?  This is subtle stuff, yes, but with practice humans are capable of perceiving surprisingly fine distinctions. 

Once you have some idea of the feel of energy itself you can bring it in and out your skin independently of your breathing, using only your mind.  Remember the main idea is to make you open and relaxed, so make sure you’re doing that consciously.   If one part of you is especially constricted, say a shoulder, make that your focus.  Ultimately you want to be able to move energy anywhere in your body at will. 

4.  Using Energy to Move Fluid.   Now we’re into it about as deeply as we can get.                        A.  There is a Taoist truism, “The Mind moves the Chi, the Chi moves the Blood.”  There are two general methods for how you pull that off, Yin and Yang.  We’ve already discussed the Yin which is essentially relaxing to the point of opening so that the blood flows naturally.   Besides that very general instruction there is one little trick.   

Can you feel your heart beating?  Good.  Can you feel it beating elsewhere in your body?  Even better.  (If not, try a position that will accentuate it like a forward bend.) This will give you a clear indicator of how well you’re able to open up and let the blood flow.  Try to relax further with every surge.  You could spend all your time in a stretch monitoring only that. 

From here it’s a very short step to Yang. You slightly amplify every surge with a little nudge. You just give the arterial blood flow a small push.  What is doing the push?  It can’t be muscle (unless you can control your heart.)  It’s your mind, your intention that moves the chi that moves the blood.  

Gradually, without strain (that’s important) you can amp it up a fair amount, to the point that your skin gets red and warm.  Your flesh may feel full, wet, saturated.  We sometimes call this Flooding.  It’s the Yang expression of the Water element.  

Pumping large volumes of blood into your tissues is considered excellent for your health, so long as it comes back, of course.  So what you push out you can pull back in.  Just how you activate the return is something like how you drink through a straw.  The vacuum motor does not have an exact location but a common starting point is the energy center in your belly, the lower dantien.  It might make even more sense to start from your heart center, the middle dantien.  And again, it’s your intention that initiates the action, whether it’s inward or outward.

B.  If your head hasn’t exploded yet, there is another fluid whose flow you can influence and that is the thick synovial fluid in your joints.  Your joints expand and contract all the time but it’s such a short distance that most of us are unaware of it, so we’re not talking any significant change in physical stretch.  Rather it’s an energetic opening which can then transfer to other stretchable tissue.  Taoist theory says that the first place your energy gets locked up is the joints so that’s the first place to unlock it.  

You’re using your mind here to feel inside a joint, detect its natural rhythm and amplify its range.  Its rhythm is 4-5 seconds per phase, about the same time as 4-5 heartbeats.  We call this Joint Pulsing.  It was my first Qigong/Chi Gung lesson ever and I’ve spent many a worthwhile hour exploring the permutations of this simple but complex exercise.  Here is another description of Pulsing  

If you put in the time you will eventually discover many mysterious things about Pulsing, for example that your stretches can increase just as much from contraction as from expansion.   

Finally, you can experiment with various ways to combine these four or five techniques, in two and threes, with the goal of eventually doing them all well at the same time.  At this high level of the game it hardly matters if you call it Qigong or Yoga.

Tao Yoga 1

Yoga, which is from India was introduced in the West at least a century ago and has enjoyed a sustained popularity for the past couple decades.  The Chinese developed a similar form of exercise which has gotten the informal name Taoist Yoga but is relatively unknown.  Indian yoga evolved with its contact with the British empire and in the US it has continued to change, taking many forms from a gentle inward Yin for therapeutic purposes to a vigorous external Yang that resembles the aerobics of the 1970s.

Taoist Yoga is more closely associated with the softer Yin but turns its focus even more inward.  It is not a formal designation per se but is a part of Tai Chi and Qigong/Chi Gung.  Essentially it is a certain way of stretching the connective tissues of the body using Qigong principles.  What are these principles?

If you follow the Chinese and Indian traditions back far enough you will find that they both have in common the goal of increasing the movement of energy in the human body.  In my limited experience Qigong introduces this right away while in Yoga it may take several years.

1.  Relaxing, Dissolving.   So what does it mean to stretch energetically?  First and foremost it means that you only stretch as far as you can relax into it.  Then you keep on relaxing at ever deeper levels. This means that your mind is taking the primary role.  If you can’t consciously let go of a constricted or painful area you do not force it in any way.   Usually forcing actually increases the energetic tension and often causes a micro-tearing of the muscle, or worse, a tendon or ligament.  Then you have another problem.

We could deduce then that Taoist yoga always avoids pain.   Pain sets your nerves on edge making it even more difficult to relax. It is considered a sign of imminent danger, however small, and you should back off to where it disappears.  This means that the stretches can take much longer, several minutes or more, as you gradually let go without pain.

Pain avoidance is sort of a gross criterion and you really need a more refined approach to get the most out of it.  Somewhere between no pain and taking out the slack is an area where some finesse is called for.  If we were to use numbers where 100% stretch is just at the point of significant  injury, 80% stretch is where pain arises and 70% is where the slack is taken out, 70-80% is this gray area.  This 10% window may represent less than a pound of pressure variation.  You will need to experiment with just ounces to find the most efficient way to open up your connective tissues.

This mind business can prove a bit tricky because first you must train it to feel inside, to locate, a constricted place in your body, especially one that is hidden from your awareness.  That’s not too hard especially if you can temporarily create pain there.  But then you must actively focus on an inactivity, i.e. letting go.  The concentration is Yang but the effort is Yin.  One of the classic paradoxical phrases is “Strive for non action.”   It’s one of those contradictions that always has another layer.  But each layer has another reward.

2.  Twisting, Unraveling.  Nature rarely follows a straight line but rather courses through curves and spirals. For example, the genetic code at the core of every life form we know takes the shape of a double helix, a sort of twisted ladder.  Your bones are comprised of twists and curves and the soft tissues attached to them are similar.  The same is true for the energy pathways.  The Taoists developed ways to accentuate the natural curvatures to produce both greater strength for martial arts purposes and for our purposes here, greater pliability.  The basic goal is to unravel, unwind, untwist the constrictions.

What you do is very gently twist your muscles around your bones so that they relax and open up in three dimensions.  The quickest way to learn twisting is to pattern it into your nerves manually.  You can start with a leg by sitting  on the edge of a chair and holding one thigh between both hands.  With your hands, gently twist all the soft stuff inward and outward repeatedly.   After about 10 minutes slowly begin to engage your thigh muscles in the twisting and gradually have them do it all.

Next see what the other leg can do; it may have gotten the message.  If not it will probably take less time than the first one. The amount of twist you can get your muscles to do will be far less than what your hands can do but no matter.  It doesn’t take a lot of movement and you should avoid any temptation to overwork the exercise and create more tension.  With time and practice it will smooth out and get easier.

You can go quite deep with this process.  Between skin and bone are several layers that can be unraveled.  We could say the deepest physical one is the ligaments that hold your bones together.  The hip joints are the clearest example. Sit in any lotus type posture (that’s crosslegged for you commoners) and you will feel the hip joints most easily.  Try turning the femur bones in and out, just a degree or so.  (Here I should warn you that this should not be tried with the knee joints locked straight because it’s very easy to damage the ligaments!)

Since almost no one is symmetrical you will no doubt find find differences between in and out and/or left and right.   Just how do you unwind the tight ligaments and restore balance?  Ah, would that it were simple!  There are two general approaches: you could go in the tight direction, which we call Direct, or the loose direction, which we call Indirect.

Indirect is counterintuitive but we osteopathic types do it all the time and with great success.  (You can read more about that here.)  What you do is gently turn in the easy direction up to the first natural barrier (just a few ounces or pounds of pressure) and keep it there. Wait patiently until a release occurs, taking you further in that direction.  Then you turn around and test the tight direction.  With any luck it will have let go a little.  You can repeat this several times and add some variations:

A. Turn the easy way and when you hit the natural stopping place back off slightly and then wait patiently for a release.   B. Turn to the natural endpoint and rather than waiting just let go and return to neutral.  C.  Turn continuously, spending c. 75% of your effort in the easy direction and c. 25% in the tight direction.  You don’t know what will work until you experiment.

The Direct approach which seems natural is often problematic because you’re using tension on tension which makes it difficult for the nerves to release.  But occasionally it’s exactly the right thing to do;  sometimes the bigger wrench does the job.  Here again, you want to play with creative variations.   There are some 200 variations of twisting in classical Tui Na so just by experimenting you will reproduce many of them.

In sum we have just a few basic principles: Relax and Unwind and do it with consciousness, depth and patience.  Is that it all there is to Taoist Yoga?  Perfecting that much would take most of us half a lifetime but no, there is quite a bit more and we’ll get to it in a month or so.

Or, you can also read about the differences between the Chinese and Indian traditions here.

 

 

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 emotion 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 advertising blather. 

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.

Water & Spring

In the previous post I wrote about doing your Qigong exercises in communication with the elements of nature, the forces outside ourselves, specifically The Heavens and the Earth.  Here I will discuss two more, Water and the season of Spring.

Kuai Ocean copyWhat is the essence of Water as in rain, lakes, rivers and oceans?   Water has no shape of its own. It is fluid, malleable, adaptable, able to take on the shape of any space it finds. Conversely it is receptive.  It can yield to and envelop whatever comes into it without changing it’s own nature. It also cleans and washes away the dirt we don’t want. These are the qualities of Yin.

We humanoids are 90+% water so what would it mean to exhibit it’s qualities?  The main thing is to make yourself more fluid like, relaxed, flexible, pliable, adaptable, first in your body and also in your emotions and intellect.  It means you develop more flexibility in your thinking and feeling, that you let go of your inflexibilities.  

This is actually the main practice of the original, Water Method, Taoism, and is called 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 and assertion are more important  keys.  Water has the patience to move around, erode and outlast the hardness of solid rock.  It moves without effort, without expending energy.  What an easy life.

To really get the sense of any of this you might try swimming in the ocean or a river so you can feel it directly.  More traditionally folks would just go next to a body of water, the ocean if possible, and try to feel it indirectly.  If you have no lake to jump into you could take special note of at least water’s cleansing qualities next time you bathe.

A deeper quality of that big water we call ocean is that it has rhythms, rhythms beyond what we can see and hear but can feel.  My first attempt to feel any of these seven “waves” was hopelessly adrift.  But eventually, several determined visits to the sea yielded better fish and now I go when I need a big rejuvenation.  Your gut, your lower tantien, is the place you get it, and then you can try it with your kidneys which are Water element.  Taoist oceanography is too large for this space so suffice it to say that the rhythms vary from c. 15 seconds to c. 11 minutes each way and correspond to your organs and energy bodies.  If you experiment, let me know what you find!

Onion FlowerWhat about the seasons?  Spring is characterized by a fresh, young, bursting vitality.  It brings an expectant joy, especially after a harsh winter.  In Chinese medicine it is the element of Wood, of vegetation growing out of the Earth.  You could understand Spring as the result of the Gentle Rain coming down from Heaven and the Earth responding upward.

We all know the feelings and the fragrances of a beautiful spring day.  We don’t really have to try to feel them; they make their way into us.  But you can accentuate them by purposely being more open and receptive.  You can consciously absorb that essential spring energy into your body and let it permeate as deeply as you are capable.  What does it feel like to be alive and happy inside your cells?

Ask yourself which areas of your body are happy to be happy and which would rather be grumpy.  Which are wide awake healthy and which are numb or in pain?  Use one to encourage the other.  With a little creativity you can make everything feel more glad to be alive.

You might experiment further by taking the Spring energies into your organs and energy centers.  For example Spring is associated with the liver but the ambience of it might fit more naturally with your heart center (isn’t it our favorite season for love?)

Once you’ve made a little change for the better, stay with it for a while, for ten minutes or and hour.  Keep coming back to it when your mind goes elsewhere.  Treat it like meditation. Let it become part of you.  “Don’t blow off the chi.”

All of nature’s forces are available to us, of course.  These are just two of many,  any 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.

 

Heaven & Earth

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.

Thornton Beach OverlookI 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?

 Sky Cumulus 1:27:151.  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.  

 Bo Ridge 12:28:142. 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.

Cheng Man ChingThese thoughts can best be summarized with a quote from the Tai Chi master, Professor Cheng Man Ching, 1902-1975.

“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.

Emotion Meditation 3

Many years ago I got a most valuable lesson in human relations through a workshop exercise that required a certain amount of courage.   It might have come from anywhere but the Taoists are particularly adept at creating scenarios that cut to the heart of a matter and give you immediate tools for resolution.  The point of this Qigong/Chi Gung exercise was threefold:  1) to understand when you are putting out what type of emotional energy,   2) to discern when what types of emotions are being projected at you and  3) to gain some control over both. 

What required the courage was sitting face to face with a partner and deliberately sending and receiving strong emotions back and forth.  Now of course we subject ourselves to this every day without much thought when we get into heated arguments and such, but we rarely stop to examine closely exactly what’s going on, particularly not within ourselves.

The specifics of the exercise are fairly simple.  Two people face each other and one is the Sender and the other the Receiver.   The Receiver may close his/her eyes to eliminate the visual cues and emphasize the kinesthetic, felt (or “sixth”) sense.   The Sender then musters up and projects out a strong negative emotion such as contempt, aggression, hatred, etc.  

The first lesson for the Sender is that these emotions can be turned on and off at will as opposed to them being involuntary.  The first lesson for the Receiver is to perceive when they are on vs. off.  

Once that is established the Sender will probably will get some insight into what their normal habits are, e.g. is contempt a familiar emotion?  The Receiver will take note of their usual reactions to negativity whether it’s responding in kind, in fear, in escape, in denial, or even in empathy.   Next the real trick is to neutralize the negativity so that it has no real effect and there’s no need to react beyond observation.

How do you neutralize negativity?   A common idea is to create a barrier of sorts, but from an energetic viewpoint this is considered way too difficult to do effectively.  Some folks would try the opposite, positive approach where you “kill with kindness,”  which might work but could get much more complicated, as we’ll see in a minute.  

The Taoist Qigong approach is so simple it sounds simplistic:  Dissolve the charged energy into harmless neutrality so there’s no need to engage or not engage any further.  And how is that Dissolving  done?,  you might well ask.  On a fundamental level it means relaxing your physical body deeply enough that your heart rate, breathing rate, nerve firing rate, etc. remain stable and unchanged.  Yes, that takes some real practice, hours of it.  In fact it’s the main practice of the old school, Water/Yin methods.  Usually it’s done solo, here it’s duo.

If you can learn to do some of that magic you might try taking it to the next level by dissolving the space around you, your personal space, your energy field.  This is considered to be more difficult but a few, the more sensitive types, may find it easier.  The advantage here is that the highly charged emotional energy won’t get to your body, so in effect you have a sort of shield without the need to build up one.  Clever.

If you want to test your ability here try moving a step closer and dissolve the space in front of you until you can no longer feel the bad juju being projected.  We did the exercise until we stood nose to nose, very definitely in each others’ personal spaces.  

What could be the problem with counteracting negativity with positivity?  Maybe nothing but it’s always good to ask if you have an agenda here:  if you can’t successfully create a positive atmosphere is that still fine with you or does it become an issue?    Some related problems are more insidious:  What we think of as positive might be a mistake on our part and instead be an insult.   A classic example is Compassion where you see the other as your equal vs. Pity where you put yourself above the other.   We’ve all seen or put on smiles and other kindnesses that are not quite genuine.  And very often we expect something in return for our goodness which misses the point entirely.

You could extend the game as we did to include Sending strong positive or almost positive emotions such as praise or flattery, which can easily turn into manipulation or seduction by the Sender and who knows what in the Receiver.  We found this more revealing than the obvious negativity game.  

Dissolving is meant to create neutrality, a lack of need for any other outcome.  It’s equivocation, neither good nor bad, where you start over from square zero.  From here you have the most freedom to be spontaneous, to act without constraint. 

Paradoxically (or not) we found that when the Receiver did not engage, the Sender had less motivation to keep it going and got tired, so the situations never escalated.  Anyone who’s had a class in behavioral psych might recall that no reward, no reaction is the quickest way to eliminate a behavior.  (But beware, as the surest way to maintain a behavior is to give only the occasional reward/reaction.)

You may not find anyone willing to go through such an exercise but you can still try it by yourself in your daily existence without telling anyone.  Pick easy scenes first such as a problem solving discussion, or a social media thread, or a struggle in which you have no interest.  You may not graduate to the point of contending with armed opponents but whatever progress you make will make your life that much more calm and smooth.  

 

 

 

To Close Is To Open

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! 

 

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.