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A Collaborative Approach to Chi Cultivation

The Tao gives birth to One. One gives birth to Two. Two gives birth to Three. Three gives birth to all things.” — Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching

Universal Operating System

In these famous words from the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tsu outlines the Daoist cosmology, which could also be called the Universal Operating System. In this verse the Unknowable Mystery (Wuji) is giving birth to the One (Tai Chi/Taiji–Supreme Ultimate).

The chi in Tai Chi is best understood as the Subtle Breath of Nature. It is the living and intelligent Life Force rather than a mechanistic, inanimate force subject to control by particular beings. It is the foundation of all creation and is constantly manifesting change and balance.

The Tai Chi symbol (at least on a flat surface) is a circle that contains two black and white teardrop shapes. These black and white shapes symbolize the negative and positive aspects of creation, the polar opposites of yin and yang. Within the black shape (yin) is a white dot, indicating that yin also includes the seed of yang. Similarly, within the white shape (yang) is a black dot, indicating that yang contains the seed of yin.

It is important to note that yin and yang are not separate forces, but rather polar opposites along the same continuum. As we shift along the continuum to maximum yang, the seed of yin takes us back towards yin. Similarly, as we shift towards maximum yin, the seed of yang takes us back towards yin.

This design of Tai Chi illustrates the balanced, dynamic nature of creation. Things in the universe are in constant flux between the polar opposites of yin and yang, which brings an inherent balance to life. To be in balance, one can be neither too active nor too passive, but is naturally shifting between them. As a result, there is a balanced flow, an energetic dance which creates a natural state of harmony.

What isn’t commonly understood about Tai Chi is that in addition to the positive and negative aspects of yang and yin, there is also a neutral aspect called yuan (often conceptualized as the invisible line between yin and yang). Yuan plays a role in the balance between yin and yang and especially in the coupling processes in higher Daoist Internal Alchemy formulas.

After the Dao gives birth to the One and this Primordial Egg of Tai Chi cracks open, yin and yang (and yuan) are released and begin forming the universe. From the polar opposites of yin and yang (and the neutral yuan) come the Five Phases (also symbolized in the I’Ching as the Bagua) which “gives birth to all things.” In other words, the positive and negative aspects of the Life Force start to manifest through Five Phases of Chi, which are also called the Five Elements.

The Five Elements

The Five Elements are Metal, Water, Wood, Fire and Earth. They are phases of the one Life Force or chi that moves through a natural cycle (called the Creation Cycle). We can think about these Five Phases in the following way: metal sinks to become water, water nourishes wood, wood rises up to become fire, fire turns to ashes and sinks down to earth, and earth births metal to renew the cycle again. We can also think about the Five Phases in terms of seasons: autumn (metal element) becomes winter (water element), which becomes spring (wood element), which becomes summer (fire element), which then becomes late summer (earth element).

We can think about each of the Five Elements in terms of a particular bandwidth of Life Force that has certain characteristics that move it through the Creation Cycle to support the next element (phase): the metal element (condensing chi) becomes the water element (storing chi), which becomes the wood element (rising chi), which becomes the fire element (expanding chi), which then becomes the earth element (consolidating chi).

The Five Elements are connected with the internal organs: the metal element with the lungs, the water element with kidneys, the wood element with the liver, the fire element with the heart, and the earth element with the stomach/spleen. The health of our internal organs and our entire bodies are dependent on the flow of chi. When blockages to chi flow occur, this creates an imbalance in the Five Phases that leads to chi stagnation and sets the stage for the manifestation of disease.

In Chinese medicine, acupuncture, herbs, and other remedies are used to help establish the harmonious flow of chi through the Five Phases. The 12 acupuncture meridians are directly connected to the internal organs and health practitioners help to re-establish harmonious chi flow in meridians and organs that have either an excess or deficiency of yin or yang. This preventative approach to health can often be helpful in preventing the manifestation of disease since patients will often go to a Chinese medicine health practitioner for pulse diagnosis as soon as they feel “off” rather than waiting until outward symptoms manifest. As a result, corrective actions can then be taken to help steer the patient towards optimum health.

The Emotions and Chi Flow

In Daoist Internal Alchemy, it is understood that the emotions play a vital role in the flow of chi. For example, kindness can motivate us to want to give or share with others. This emotion is a manifestation of the wood element, rising chi that begins to take action, and is connected with the liver. Wood chi from the liver naturally rises up to the heart to become fire chi, which is connected with love and unconditional acceptance. In this case, the wood chi from the liver supports the fire chi of the heart. The chi is moving harmoniously in the Creation Cycle. 

If a particular reactive emotion manifests, however, it can impede the flow of chi in the Creation Cycle. For example, the emotion of anger is also connected with the wood element and the liver, but it has a very different quality than kindness does. Anger doesn’t flow naturally to the heart to become unconditional acceptance and love. The feeling tends to get stuck and consumes a lot of chi in the area of the liver.

Conversely, impaired chi flow in the internal organs is also associated with particular emotions. For example, stagnant chi in the lungs is associated with sadness, grief, or depression; stagnant chi in the kidneys with fear; stagnant chi in the liver with anger; stagnant chi in the heart with impatience and hatred; and stagnant chi in the stomach/spleen with nervousness.

Normally, reactive emotions such as anger subside and the chi begins to flow again through the Creation Cycle again. However, if a reactive emotion is chronic there may be a stagnation of chi in a particular organ that can eventually manifest as disease. Daoist Internal Alchemy practices aim to remedy this situation and re-establish balanced chi flow.

Daoist Psychology and the Wu Shen

In Daoist Internal Alchemy, not only do the five internal organs (i.e., lungs, kidneys, liver, heart, stomach/spleen) play a role in the flow of chi through the Creation Cycle, they are considered to have their own intelligences and innate characteristics (or virtues) and are referred to as the Wu Shen (i.e., the Five Organ Spirits). They function as gatekeepers for the flow of chi in the Creation Cycle and 12 meridians and are considered to be the basis of our personalities.

When the chi is flowing harmoniously through the Creation Cycle, the innate virtues of the Wu Shen manifests in the personality. The metal element of the lungs manifests as strength, courage, or integrity. The water element of the kidneys manifests as embodied wisdom. The wood element of the liver manifests as compassion or kindness. The fire element of the heart manifests as unconditional acceptance or love. The earth element of the stomach/spleen manifests as trust.

Many of the innate virtues of the Wu Shen are present in the personalities of young children, but change as they are exposed to different influences throughout their lives. On top of the natural flow of chi in the Creation Cycle, as we age, we start to impose patterns on chi flow to help us cope with particular circumstances. Since the Wu Shen are the gatekeepers of chi in the Five Phases, they assist us to shape the chi patterns that define who and what we are. 

Part of these imposed chi flow patterns is the repression of certain emotions. Rather than venting the chi flow associated with a particular emotion, we may repress it and push that chi down below the level of the conscious mind. The result is often the stratification of layers of unprocessed, repressed emotions–stagnant chi that influences how we feel and act, but which we have no control over because it has become hidden and inaccessible.

Our personalities are the result of patterns of chi flow that continually manifest us each and every moment. When we think about a particular personality, for example Joe, we’re really thinking about the characteristics of what Joe is like. What Joe is like is entirely dependent on the patterns that shape the chi flow of the being called Joe. If you change the patterns of chi flow, you change the manifestation of Joe. That is why when you run into someone you haven’t seen for a long time, they can be totally different from what you remember, whereas other people can be totally the same. The difference is in the patterns of chi flow that are manifesting in the present moment (which usually take considerable time to establish).

Normally, as we age, our personalities begin to ossify, we become rigid and resistant to change, and maladaptive to new circumstances. Because of our fixed view of the world (resulting from the ossification of chi flow patterns), some people may avoid us because they innately sense the dwindling Life Force within us and our propensity to absorb their chi to artificially support a dwindling energetic system. Others who have similar fixed viewpoints may be drawn to us to validate their perspectives and to leach from us what dwindling chi we still have. All of this can be avoided when we learn to re-establish a relationship with the Life Force and the Wu Shen. 

A Collaborative Approach to Chi Cultivation

As mentioned above, the Daoist approach to working with the Life Force is not to treat it as an object to be manipulated, but rather to establish a relationship with this living and intelligent Chi Field and to collaborate with it through the process of Internal Alchemy. This approach extends to the Wu Shen, which are manifestations of the Life Force at the level of the Five Elements. The Internal Alchemy practitioner re-establishes their connection with the Wu Shen and works with them to reboot the harmonious flow of chi through the Five Phases.

Daoist Internal Alchemy is a flexible, adaptive system for communicating with the Life Force. Through movement, breath, visualization, interoception, and other practices, the adept engages in an intimate dance with the Subtle Breath of Nature that manifests change, harmony, reconciliation, integration, healing, empowerment, and total transformation.

The principle of opening up your inner space is foundational to working with the Life Force. It is the beginning of saying yes to life and inviting it to flow through you. We can begin this process when we learn to connect with the Ming Men (Gate of Life) which is the portal to the Primordial Chi. 

The Ming Men is located just below the navel and inside between the two kidneys. It is normally fully open in children, which is why they have so much energy. As we age, and begin repressing our emotions, we often end up inadvertently partially closing the door of the Ming Men. As a result, there is less chi flowing through our systems and whatever chi is available is siphoned into chi flow patterns we have already set that support our personality and emotional baggage.

When we learn to open up the Ming Men and begin to feel the chi flowing through us, we begin to notice a shift. By actively collaborating with the Life Force and the Wu Shen through practices such as the Inner Smile, Ocean Breathing, the Six Healing Sounds, and the Microcosmic Orbit, those rigid patterns of chi flow are reset. By further engaging in more advanced techniques such as Fusion of the Five Elements (Emotional Alchemy), Kan and Li (Water and Fire), and other practices, we can process the sediment of repressed emotions and ancestral chi flow patterns and refine this chi so that it can be used as an elixir for deeper transformation.

A very interesting result of this alchemical process is that your personality as you know it transforms. There is more inner space, more chi flowing freely through you, less emotional baggage, and consequently more options for dynamic expression of the Life Force at any particular moment. But this is only a byproduct. You become engaged in the internal transformational process and start to see how all of nature is transforming from the inside out in every moment and how you are part of this dynamic and collaborative alchemical process.

What is Whole Body Enlightenment?

Enlightenment is usually defined as transcending the physical realm and going somewhere higher and otherworldly and perhaps occasionally look down on poor mortals and provide some salve direction to illuminate their dark path so that they, too, can be saved. In Buddhism, this is talked about in terms of Nirvana, the “blowing out” or releasing of oneself from the incessant cycle of births and deaths. In Sanatana Dharma (“Eternal Truth” also known as Hinduism), this is the conceptualized as the cessation of the delusion that we are mortal beings subject to karmic enslavement until we realize our true nature as one with God.

The commonality in these perspectives is that some higher form of awareness is dependent on transcendence of our bodies and the physical realm. According to these perspectives, the realm of suffering needs to be left behind in order to embrace the real self, which is not part of our daily existence.

If we are informed about enlightenment in this way, a key part of our daily experience will be the denial of our bodies and emotions. We may believe that the world is merely an illusion and that our bodies are, to quote the famous Indian guru Swami Sri Yukteswar, “at best a nest of troubles.”

When we deny our bodies, we create a split in our sense of self. This split can be exacerbated with certain spiritual practices that activate the energy systems of our bodies and amplify the split.

Among trauma survivors, this split sense of self creates a phenomenon which is referred to by psychologists as dissociation. These survivors may feel that they are operating outside their bodies or looking down on their bodies when their trauma is triggered. A key part of their healing, therefore is learning to get back into their bodies so that the healing can take place. 

Noting the dysfunctional nature of dissociation among trauma survivors, how is dissociation functional in spiritual practices?

The answer to this question has to do with assumptions about what enlightenment actually is. For example, dissociation may be interpreted as an indicator of spiritual realization and a step on the rung of the ladder to enlightenment. One may feel that one has reached such a high state that one is no longer attached to the body, mind or emotions. We see  some extreme cases (for example, self-immolation), where one cares neither whether one lives nor dies. But this doesn’t actually mean one is close to enlightenment. It merely means one is dissociated from the body and emotions.

The reason that dissociation is not a viable spiritual approach to enlightenment is that it denies the work that must be done at the physical, emotional, mental, and other levels in order for enlightenment to actually unfold. At the most basic level, this is the unconditional acceptance of our bodies, emotions, mind, and so on.

An integrated spiritual practice that we can use to begin this process of acceptance is the Inner Smile (derived from Daoist Internal Alchemy). The Inner Smile allows us to unconditionally accept ourselves at all levels and to start laying the groundwork for the unfoldment of harmony and unity within. Instead of denying and dissociating, we are accepting and empowering all aspects of ourselves.

The result of this integrated approach to spiritual practice is the process of Whole Body Enlightenment, which is less about being enlightened than it is about the emergence of the light from within resulting from inner transformation. In fact, one could never really be enlightened as a worker could never really be the work, although through the work, the worker can benefit from the fruits of their labours. Similarly, taking a whole body approach to enlightenment is a process of inner transformation (the work) which never ends, as when one finishes a particular task of transformation, the universe has much more work for us to do.

I urge you to think critically about your particular spiritual perspective. Are you denying parts of yourself in order to take a short cut to higher states? If so, this spiritual bypass is only temporary as you likely still have much work to do at the bodily, emotional, and other levels if you are ever to reach your goal of enlightenment or self-realization.