Tag Archives: taoist

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.

Tour de Tao, Bikin’ Gung

Chinese BikeOne of the traditional applications of Qi Gong (energy exercise) and Nei Gong (internal exercise) is the martial arts.   Beyond any training in power, speed, momentum, leverage, etc., the most sophisticated practitioners are able to utilize their own and their opponent’s energies to their advantage.   If this can be done why couldn’t someone use chi practices to enhance sports performance?

I’m not an athlete but I’ve been informally experimenting in this realm for about 15 years, specifically in my main mode of transit: bicycling.  Part of my commute has been the same for that long and I often like to competitively time myself.  On this one route my fastest time was 35 minutes back when I didn’t know qi gong very well and relied mostly on just pushing as fast as possible.  I’d  finish overheated, wet and winded.   15 years later I’m pushing 60 and my best time is under 32 minutes, about 10% better,  and I finish relatively calm and dry.  Older and faster?  What am I doing differently?

I can delineate maybe 4 things,  3 of which are mostly responsible.  I estimate that each of the 3 accounts for one third of the performance increase.  They can be applied to any sport but I’ll only speak from my own cycling experience.

1. Relax, Dissolve. Once again the essential Water practice.   This means using only the least amount of energy needed to perform well,  while generating the least amount of tension, i.e. finding the sweet spot.  Tension uses too much energy.  Relaxation conserves it.   One way to find this art space is explore how it feels to work with gravity:  How can you fall into every action?  If I  get this feeling well only in the downward movements, and a little in the upward, I increase my speed by maybe 3%.

2. Extension, Expansion, Inflation.  Sticking with the the bike theme, let’s imagine the tires as a metaphor for the human body.  If they are under inflated they will flex and deform, distributing the forces unevenly, and efficiency will be lost.  But when properly inflated they are transformed into single cohesive units.  What would it mean to inflate your body?

The simplest piece of this involves extending your legs, making them feel just a little longer.  You do this however you can.  At first you will use muscle though in a slightly different way than just straightening your legs.

The next part is to actually lengthen the joint spaces which have no muscle to speak of.  This sounds mysterious but most folks can get the idea right away if an experienced person shows them how.   For a fuller discussion go here:   Pulsing  You could experiment with both these by sitting in a chair and slowly increasing and decreasing the pressure of your feet on the floor.

The third part is a bit more sophisticated and amounts to flooding the soft tissues with energy and blood.  The maxim goes ” the mind moves the chi, the chi moves the blood.” The feeling is like filling your lungs with air or your stomach with liquid. It is essentially the quality of Yang. The practice of San Ti is where this is traditionally learned.   San Ti

If you can get some manifestation of the first two parts there will be a noticeable increase in your power and speed, say 2%. The third more difficult part will add another 2%, and potentially much more.

3. Twisting, Spiraling. Several fibers together have more strength than do unconnected strands and will have even greater strength when twisted into a coherent bundle. Thread, string and rope are twisted for cohesiveness, resiliency and strength. The parallel action in humans is twisting the muscles around the bones.

The first level of this is just twisting your legs in and out in any way possible. However you want to avoid twisting the joints, especially the knees which are easily damaged. (So long as you don’t fully straighten the knees the risk is lower.) When I first tried this my legs would get cramped and sore, no doubt from using too much force in an unfamiliar action. Go slowly, use less effort and you’ll figure it out sooner.

There is a shortcut: take hold of either leg with both hands and twist the tissue in and out with just a few pounds of pressure for about ten minutes. This will pattern the nerves and get them accustomed to the unusual movement. Toward the end of the session start using you leg muscles a little, maybe 20% as your hands do the other 80%.

The advanced version we call Spiraling, which means twisting in two or more ways at the same time. What? Yes it can be done, in a few different ways. For example imagine that the top of your thigh turns inward while the bottom turns outward and vice versa. You could easily pattern this action with two sets of hands.

Why Spiral? Primarily because it amplifies the strengthening effect of twisting. Practically, it’s useful for addressing injuries and misalignments. Say you have a knee injury and you’ve discovered that it feels better when you twist out just above it and in just below it. This could make all the difference for you. In the medium/long term spiraling imitates the effects of Tui Na Massage by wringing out the tissues, which promotes the evacuation of waste which in turn makes room for the absorption of nutrients.

I estimate that Twisting/Spiraling adds 3% and that taken together with Extension/Expansion it is power in particular that is increased, which makes them appropriate for slower activities like uphill cycling and weight training. Or the power can be converted into speed.

4. Breathing. This is probably the most accessible but still requires practice. The way to avoid getting winded is to breathe more slowly and fully. Most people take a breath every four seconds or so and use only a fraction of their lung capacity. With time you can learn to lengthen your breaths to 30 seconds and more. Taoist breathing also teaches you to increase your lung capacity and to use it to compress and massage your organs which enhances their functioning. I find it doesn’t add much power or speed but does increase stamina.

A longer discussion of Taoist Longevity Breathing can be found here. http://qigongtaichimassagesfbay.com/breathing/

So that’s it, a bit oversimplified:  Relax for speed, Inflate and Twist for power, Breathe for stamina.  There are other practices that could be incorporated into common sports to further refine performance.  This is just a short list that I’ve found to be the easiest to implement for the greatest enhancement. The best way to learn each of them is to first practice without any movement at all and slowly add movement, integrating smoothly and surely.


The Joy of Dissolution

Dissolution is the core practice of Taoist Qigong.

What can this possibly mean?

Actually the preferred term is Dissolving but we also use melting, softening, evaporation, dissipation, disintegration, unraveling, disentangling, etc. Probably the most communicative terms for us in the West are deep relaxation or letting go, but these still don’t convey the complete sense.  I will give just a short description here because much has been said about it elsewhere, e.g.   http://qigongtaichimassagesfbay.com/standing/  

The practice involves scanning through your body and feeling for any sense of tension, contraction, excess strength, etc. and doing whatever you can to soften and let go.  It’s a deceptively simple yet immensely profound exercise, one which is never fully completed and which continues into even the most advanced practices.  The general theory is that constrictions of all kinds, starting with the body,  block the flow of energy and vitality at all levels and the most efficient solution is to dissolve them into neutrality.

We could say there are two general ways to have better health and well being, the one is to minimize the negatives and the other is to accentuate the positives.  Dissolution of negatives is the main though not the only Taoist way.

Students of the Water Methods where Dissolving is the quintessential practice are taught to stand and dissolve for extended periods, say 30 minutes for starters.  But if you don’t quite get it just right this can be dreary and tiring.   Ideally it’s as effortless as ice melting yet the mental focus should be constant. Too much effort creates more tension and too little spaces you out.  The mind is quite active but the practice is passive. It is the ultimate Yin coupled with lots of Yang.  “Striving toward non-action” is confusing and difficult.  

After maybe a decade of dithering with these dilemmas it dawned on me that I was missing a powerful motivator:   It feels really good!  Pleasure, of course, why didn’t that come up before?  Usually we are taught to move toward neutrality, an absence of pleasure or pain.   As feelings and emotions arise, pleasant or not, we unravel them.  I can think of only one of my colleagues who’s ever said  “I LOVE dissolving,”   and I love him for saying it.

The best analogy is a hot shower, which I think is one of the better inventions of our modern society.  When you really need to let go of some dirt, getting clean feels especially good.  The warmth makes you soft and melty.  The water is gentle and cleansing.  The downward flow carries it all away without effort.   Because it conveys the feeling so well I would do all my water/dissolving practice in a delicious hot shower, but alas there is the need to conserve water and who needs to dissolve more guilt?

Consider how physically good it feels to recover from an illness when the grip of the ailment finally lets you go.  There’s a mental relief when you realize you don’t actually have to learn an upgrade because the old version still works just fine.  We often feel emotional relief, even ecstasy when an apparent tragedy such as death or divorce brings an end to a difficult struggle.

There is a great sense of freedom and liberation when we let go of anything that holds us back, that impedes our flow of life.  One of the joys of aging is, if we’re lucky, maturity which we could also call the casting off of immaturity.   Who would not be happy to be free of the emotional and mental baggage of their earlier years?  What we thought we had to do, what we felt we had to express, who we thought we really were, how we had to present ourselves, what we wanted the world to be, so much that seemed important, can all be rendered dissolute.   Much of what we once considered positive we later see as negative or no longer useful.

Indeed if that’s true of the past isn’t it equally true of the present?  There is a Taoist principle that says once you’ve got it all figured out you’ve begun to solidify, to become inflexible, to put yourself in bondage, to bring on the miseries of getting old and stuck in your ways.  The key to youth and vitality is unraveling all that, or being willing to unravel what doesn’t serve you, making way for flexibility, spontaneity and happiness.

No one who’s tried can claim that letting go is all that easy (although what else could it be?)  but  when a little letting go makes us a little happier it certainly helps.  And it helps that there is a subtle, unseen, cleansing, yin force always descending from the heavens which the Taoists call the “gentle rain.”  In Christendom this is ever-present, benevolent Grace.


Finding the Sweet Spot

How do you know when enough is enough? Enough food, exercise, work, rest, diversion, money, anything. When is it too little? Or too much? How do you know when it’s just right? How do you find the sweet spot? We usually agree that it’s way too subjective, that each situation is different for each person, that we only know by tuning in at the moment.

This is quite true, but the Taoists actually came up with a number: If we define 100% capacity as just short of a breaking point, an injury, an overflow, a failure of some kInd, just right is somewhere around 70%.  In the West we are taught that to accomplish almost anything we need to give 100% almost all the time, so 70% makes no sense. Conversely in the East, to work so close to the edge is way too risky and makes no sense. Some of this cultural difference can be explained in terms of short vs. long term sustainability. It is not possible to sustain anything close to 100% for any great length of time, but at 70 you can go on dang near forever. In China you brag about your old age because it shows that you’ve been able to sustain your vitality for a long time. In the West old age means your vibrancy is gone and you’re nearly finished. 

Let’s take walking as an example of sustainability. Suppose you’d like to walk a mile for exercise. Say your top speed is 15 minutes which will make you tired, sweaty and winded. A lazy pace might take you 25 minutes but you might feel like you haven’t properly exercised. 70% of your top speed is about 20 minutes which should leave you feeling exercised and refreshed, and even ready to go another mile.

Finding this sweet spot is one of the keys of Taoist longevity practices. Part of the idea is not wasting energy unnecessarily but always keeping a significant amount in reserve. This is expressed metaphorically (perhaps) in the maxim that in our lives we are given a finite number of heartbeats, breaths, orgasms, etc. and we can use them up either sooner or later.

But more critical are their observations that as we go beyond 70  toward 100, the body senses increasing danger and prepares itself by holding back and tightening up. The law of diminishing returns kicks in. The closer we get to 100 the less our efficiency. Furthermore the nervous system becomes increasingly tensed up and strained. In all their research the Taoists found no way to override these side effects. 

The most common protest I hear is “But how can you ever increase your 100% if you never even approach it?” Contrary to our conditioned western intuition, the Taoists found that working consistently around 70% is in fact the quickest and safest way to increase your capacity; it happens naturally almost without you realizing it, like an unintended, beneficial side effect.

This idea is immensely difficult for humans in general and westerners in particular to understand and put into practice. When we want to do something well we almost always translate that as applying more effort. Personally, I spent way too many years practicing my Qigong around 85%, and I’m not even Type A. This came partly from being lazy with practice time and then trying hard to make up for it. Eventually I realized that this was impossible. The better strategy would have been more time and less effort, like I was always told.

70 is not an exact figure. Sometimes 80 is okay. Sometimes you have to scale back to 60. If you’re ill or injured you may need to go much lower. For example, years back I had a very important lesson when I had a persistent knot in my back which did not respond to any of the many sophisticated tricks I knew, nor to the treatments of chiropractic, massage, and osteopathy. Months into it I was able to ask my main teacher what to do. All he said was ” scale back everything to 20%” , adding ” which will be very hard for you.” Of course that’s what I did and to my surprise the knot disappeared and I was fine immediately. 

At another time a colleague at a retreat was in such pain she was instructed to not even practice Dissolving, the most benign of all the practices, which meant reducing everything to 0. At the other end of the scale, if you’re in a situation of competition or an emergency, the most appropriate level is probably 100.

The extremes are reserved for special situations. 70 refers to your daily living and practice schedule. And, generally you’re better off erring on the side of caution, or dare I say conservatism. It’s also important to notice that our capacities change from day to day, which means so does our sweet 70.

The whole process is an art. After playing with all the numbers my favorite criterion comes down to “when am I doing the thing well and still feeling perfectly relaxed, at ease and comfortable?” 

How we find the the sweet spots, the golden means, the Goldilocks points, is by a lot of experience and experiment.  Without that it’s just academic exercise, which by itself isn’t all that sweet.