In following our examination of the Daoist Triad approach to training, the next aspect after training physicality is to address the energetic body. Our prior training, physicality, stretching the soft tissues, strengthening the muscles, increasing skill and agility, and caring for all aspects of our physical lives lays the groundwork for training the energetic body.
The energetic body consists of our nervous system, meridians, chakras, and various energetic receptacles and gateways. We address this primarily through intention and movement. The most common ways to train the energetic body are with Qigong, Taiji, Yoga, Gongfu, and meditation.
First of all, these practices do not create Qi, or energy. This is not magic. The first law of thermodynamics applies. However, we can work with the energy that is available to increase our understanding of it, and to nurture and direct it effectively as we become accustomed to the practice. On the other hand, humans are not isolated entities in an environment. We are connected and interrelated with all things. In essence, there is only one energy, albeit manifesting in apparent individual aspects. We are each individual manifestations of the same energy. And when we die that energy leaves our physical bodies. However, as dictated by the First Law of Thermodynamics, it doesn't dissolve, it doesn't disappear. It continues in some fashion. As we live we are able to experience and work with our individualized internal energy and experience and be affected by the energy of other manifestations, or basically all manifestations. For example, practicing Qigong on a mountain or by the ocean are experiences that are rich and informed by the environment, yet different from each other and even more different from Qigong in the dojo with ten other practitioners, or in your living room alone. We are training our energetic bodies but a major aspect of that is in interacting with the energy around us, whether that is other people, animals, or trees and water.
Without writing a treatise on Qigong, I want to summarize the practice of training our energetic bodies. The best simple explanation is that we relax and intentionally move, or allow the movement of our internal energy. Various energy practices will affect our energetic bodies in different ways. While they are all good for you, there is a lot of difference in the hard style Qigong of Shaolin, soft Qigong, Pranayama, the various schools of Taijiquan, Hatha Yoga, Dao-Yin, and the various schools of Gongfu. The best place for one to start is to find a practice that resonates and go with it. In time, the practice begins to inform the practitioner. If we follow the practice we will find our path.
Qigong practice utilizes relaxed body movements with mind intention. There are specific Qigong practices that address specific conditions. There are simple Qigong practices such as walking Qigong that is helpful with preventing and treating cancer and dealing with chemo therapy. There are Qigong practices that help us connect with nature and the Universe. There is choreographed Qigong, such as Taiji and Gongfu forms that train strength, agility, and the storage and release of energy to be used in martial applications. And there is static Qigong, standing, sitting, and lying meditations that not only train awareness but internal energy as well. As far as that goes, awareness and internal energy are so interrelated they could be considered the same thing. And while intention is important, the mind sets a certain intention for practice and then leaves it alone. There is not a lot of effort in effective Qigong. It tends to care for itself.
In the end, it's all Qigong. Practiced with the right intention, sitting, lying, walking, running, swimming, even sleeping can be Qigong. Unlike most physical disciplines, the key is not in how one moves but in the intention of movement. The overall majority of Qigong practices are really quite simple. Yet, for all its simplicity, Qigong is still a deep and mysterious practice. There really are no gauges for Qigong practice. Yes, it gets deeper and more mysterious the longer we practice, but it is impossible to measure and even harder to articulate. The best way to practice is to just do it till you become it. Let it be. The best indication of effective practice is improved health and spiritual awareness. Which leads seamlessly to the next section in the Triad of Training: The Spiritual Body (next blog post).
Following up on my last blog post, I will address the physical side of the Daoist Triad approach to training. Since my primary practice is Taijiquan/Qigong, it follows that I am coming at this from that perspective, but I think it carries over to many other disciplines, and to Human Optimization in general.
In this context, physicality is interpreted as how we tend to our embodied existence. This means our bodies, how we condition them, how we nurture them, how we feed them, and how we house them. In a nutshell, if we want full and meaningful lives, we must tend to the basics of our existence first. We need to exercise and nurture our physical bodies and we should aim for stress-free days and comfortable accommodations.
In the Taiji world there is an idea floating around some traditions that practitioners should not engage in strength training as it will hinder Qi flow. I absolutely do not buy into this, and in fact don't think it is a credible theory at all. First of all, Qi is not some magical force that only belongs to a few dedicated practitioners, and is not something that can be hindered or lost. To paraphrase my teacher, Qi is the intermediary energy between our physical essence and our higher, or spiritual essence. It is a vibration that exists in every living thing. Second, a look back at the history of Taiji practice totally destroys this idea. The people who invented these arts were not monks and magicians living in mountain monasteries watching birds and snakes fight. They were simple villagers who had to engage in hard labor on farms, roads, and village construction. They worked their asses off and no doubt were more physically fit than the many keyboard philosophers who are floating these empty theories of avoiding physical fitness so as to maintain their soft Qi bellies.
In my training, we emphasize strength training as one aspect of a complete curriculum. This doesn't mean being a muscle head or a cross-fit enthusiast, but it doesn't rule those out either. I short, Taiji requires lots of movement. The advanced training in Push Hands, San Shou, Pao Cui, and Sabre are demanding on the body. Strength training helps to condition the body and to prevent injury. But beyond that, it's good for you.
An adjunct to strength is stretching and agility training. Many schools of Taiji/Qigong have stretching routines. Further, the practice of Hatha Yoga integrates seamlessly with Taiji training. Basically, one wants to prepare the field; to open the joints and many pathways in the body to allow for energy flow, both good energy in and bad energy out. A brisk practice of Yoga or Gongfu that will both stretch and heat-up the body is a good way to flush out toxins through sweating and internal fire (Agni).
An important factor to all of life is getting the proper amount of sleep. This is of course especially the case if we live an active life. We need to allow the body the time to rest and heal. Seven or more hours a night, every night is crucial. Sleep deprivation is a major source of stress and illness. If one doesn't have the time to get enough sleep, major life changes are in order. I could write a lot more about sleep and stress management. I will do another blog entry on this subject after this series.
Finally, we need to look at our day-to-day lives. For many this unfortunately means a certain amount of stress. Stress is not something that exists in our world, it is an inner reaction to the outer reality of our world. While it takes time and focus, and for many major changes, stress is totally avoidable. It does not have to be a part of our lives.
In general the world we live in is the world we create. By living skillfully and intentionally we can have the lives we want. There are of course things we can't control and situations that are outside our design, but we can learn to navigate life in a much more orderly manner, and in turn live into the ideal situations we envision. This also is a very big topic that can only be touched upon here, but one that is nonetheless important to our physical existence; it is our physical existence. And it manifests from our internal lives outward, not the other way around.
In short, the best way to approach the physicality of life is through skillful living. Good Dharma equals Good Karma*. It's really that simple
*In this context, Dharma is defined as: the proper order of things and the kind of conduct that maintains it. Karma is defined as: action that causes an effect. Together they interact for a wholesome life.
I utilize the basic Daoist paradigm in my own personal training and in how I teach and work with students, clients, and friends. For simplification, this system divides our approach into three sections: Physical; Energetic; and Spiritual. Following the Daoist system, we first tend to our physical bodies which prepares them for developing our energetic bodies, which quite naturally leads to spiritual awareness. The "practice" is a system of working within these three domains, while at the same time transcending any concept of division or idea of separation. In effect, there is no real difference between physicality, energy, and spirituality. The only difference is in how we emphasize any particular aspect of practice. For instance there is a noticeable difference between lifting weights and sitting meditation, as a practice. However, in reality we can be internally silent and still, while still moving and challenging our bodies, and we can be physically still in sitting meditation while focused and aware of our bodies and posture. Indeed, the yogic and Shaolin traditions consider physicality a preparation for the stillness of meditation and the demands of sitting (or standing).
I will be writing separate entries to address each of these aspects of training and how they interact and blend into each other. As far as basic definitions, working with the physical body includes strength training, yoga-asana, Gongfu and Taiji form practice, Qigong practice, and walking (or running if one is so inclined, which I'm not). Working with the energetic body also includes Qigong, Gongfu, Taiji, and yoga-asana but also includes Neigong and the more esoteric practices of yoga such as pranayama, Kriyas, Kundalini yoga, and various approaches to sitting meditation.
As noted above, these practices lead to spiritual awareness, but talking and/or writing about that is tricky and always incomplete. For me, spirituality is the deep, holistic, integral life of the individual which includes the higher functioning of consciousness (awareness) and all aspects of personal and social being; in effect, all of our existence, including physical and mental health, social adjustability, and our relationship with our past and future, to the extent they actually affect and/or inform us. Actual spiritual "practice" is really nonexistent. There is no practice for who we really are. We are spiritual beings, always have been, and in fact can't be anything else. However, even for those of us who know this, words can't properly convey it. It is inevitably an ambiguous Truth. People are interested in spirituality because so many don't recognize their true nature as their attention is focused externally. To that end, there are practices that may help us redirect our attention. This is what most people refer to as "spiritual practice". I'm not really comfortable with this definition, but agree to use it provisionally if it helps people to find their version of Truth.
I will address each category in more depth over the next few weeks and then note how categories are in the end, misleading. Stay tuned.
As of the date of this writing, the Winter Solstice is less than a week away. Many internal and spiritual practices acknowledge this day. We like to recognize it as a time to pause and acknowledge the perennial change of existence, even in the midst of the apparent frozen stillness of Winter. The Winter Solstice is a good time to practice deep Qigong and/or extended meditation; to take the time and feel the energy flowing within the stillness of Wuji; to experience Yang energy rising from the frozen Earth, and Yin settling from Heaven, our bodies connecting the two, meditating Nature's process.
I hesitate anymore to recommend specific practices for specific days of the calendar, as everyone is on a different path and it's all Qigong anyway. The Solstice and Equinox days are good times for practices that emphasize the Five Elements and/or Heaven and Earth. It is beneficial to feel the different energies within the body and in the surrounding environment. The rationale and purpose behind it is the same with all Qigong practices, to connect with the Dao; to acknowledge the Taiji of the Universe and the Wuji that underlies it all.
In the final analysis it's all made up anyway: time, Qigong, meditation, all of it. But we exist within this flux of energy that has discernible patterns and similar repeating experiences. So we recognize it, name it, play with it, use it to direct our attention back to that which is before flux, beyond form and pattern. In the end that is the Human experience anyway. We might as well experience it at as high a level as possible.
"This aliveness I have learned to call "me" is a mystery without final answers, so following others who offer such answers can lead only to a deepening of the hypnotic trance of transcendence--the fantasy of gaining and obtaining. There is no transcendence. This is it. And THIS is melting away like the morning dew."
"More and more, I come to see that enlightenment is an illusion. Part of the same matrix that keeps us believing in separation. Upheld by millennia of religion and spiritual tradition. Upheld by the self that wants to escape the existential agony of having incarnated as form. As if there is another world that cradles us in endless bliss … if only we attained enlightenment.
More and more, I come to know that there are openings, unfoldments and awakenings. And that we can wake up once and for all out of the dream of separation. But none of this makes us any more perfect, nor does it make our lives perfect. There’s no reward. We still have to meet the bittersweet human experience. We still have to meet the ever-changing landscape of our lives. We still have to learn and grow, find ways to survive and thrive in a world hell-bent on dividing us. We still have to meet loss and pain and the unanswerable question of why the world seems so crazy.
We wake up and see clearly the mechanism of reactivity, the sticky pull of “poor me”, the torment of thoughts amidst the storm, the addictive seeking of something more to resolve this discomfort. We wake up and are given the power to stop giving our allegiance to all this. Instead we rest right here, where we are. It’s not special or elevated, but simply intimate. It’s not denying the world of form as an illusion. Nor clinging to the world of formlessness as the only truth. It’s the truth of seeing clearly, just this. This most intimate experience with what is. No frills, no acrobatics. Just this.
Lifetimes of seeking can now come to an end. Millennia of lies can come tumbling down. You step out of the matrix. And see that everything your mind believes is a veil that clouds true freedom. And even freedom is a myth. There is no freedom from existence. You are here. Until you are not."
Our next public workshop will be on Dec. 1st, 2018 and will focus on Neigong practice. Neigong is an often overlooked aspect of internal training. In many systems, there is sometimes a focus on basic Qigong--if any--and a lot of Taiji form. Other systems may have a much greater focus on Qigong, but never get into the deeper aspect of Neigong. And then there are the systems that actually do teach Neigong but call it Qigong. Of course, I'm not judging any system here, just offering a chance to look at a deeper practice. I don't personally think Neigong is or should be a requirement for anything. I just find it to be a good practice, and in my lineage a nice precursor to understanding the depths of all practice (Taiji, Qigong, Yoga).
A primary requirement for Neigong is physical conditioning. The body needs to be open, flexible, loose, and strong in order to process and develop awareness of energy flow at higher levels. A strong and flexible body doesn't only help with Neigong, but with all internal (and external for that matter) practices. It's just good policy. We want to condition the body and keep it that way. Then we want to move on to nurturing the energetic body. Ultimately, this means understanding the meridian system and the Wu Xing, or five elements. But at a basic level, it means to have an awareness of the three dantien, a few key accu-points, and a sense of how breath connects it all together. Once we have developed an awareness of and have learned to nurture our energetic body, we will find that meditation and the accompanying stillness/silence comes much easier and naturally, thus living into our spiritual body.
In my opinion, Neigong is more something that happens than it is something that is teachable. We can find some literature and some teaching on it, but ultimately it requires a state of mind and intention along with dedicated practice. To that end, I have a few recommended books to accompany this workshop. My foundation is in Hunyuan Neigong. Unfortunately finding solid material on Hunyuan Neigong that is easy for the Western mind is difficult.
For workshop attendees who want a deeper understanding of Hunyuan Qigong/Neigong, I recommend the following books by Wang Fengming: "The Essence of Taoism Qigong" and "Special Taoist Taiji Stick and Ruler Qigong". They can be purchased from his website here: www.worldtaiji.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6&Itemid=12 Understand, most available writing on Hunyuan is typically esoteric and obscure. The reader has to be patient, but the information is there. The only other book I can recommend at this time is Damo Mitchell's "Daoist Nei Gong". This is a good book and is very informing. This is not a Hunyuan text, so there are some differences in approach that may be noticeable to workshop attendees. However, in the long run these are minor and this book can serve as an excellent foundation for Western minds. Again, we need the basics, something to work with. But from there it is less a system of following and more a system of discovery. Just let it happen.
Back to push hands, the subject of recent past posts. Perhaps the best practice of push hands is when we are not practicing push hands. My teacher says the best solo preparation for push hands practice is Zhang Zhuan, standing Qigong. He also says that out of the totality of all our practice hours, only 10% (+/-) should be dedicated to partner practices. That leaves 90% of our time that can be focused on solo practices. We can obviously share our form, Qigong, meditation, etc... practices with our students and friends, but we don't have to. If practice partners are not available, we can always practice alone
Granted, my previous posts on push hands were very specific and certain concerning my thoughts and preferences about this aspect of practice. But even given that, I still follow my teacher's advice in that the overall majority of my practice is solo practice. In my case, at the time of this writing, the majority of my solo practice is indeed solo due to work, travel, living arrangements, etc... at this time of my life. I practice with others and teach when I get the chance, but the overall day-to-day training is with my shadow. And even this advice should be taken with a grain. If you get the chance for partner practice, take it. It's important. But value the solo practices overall. That is where the difference is made.
The wonder of this practice is the depth found in unexpected places. We learn to do by practicing to be; learn stillness through movement; learn to move by being still; find ourselves by working with others; we discover the Universe by inquiring within our own small, yet infinite, interior; we find the way by not following any way at all.
Rodney J Owen